Review: Woman on Fire by Lisa Barr

Review: Woman on Fire by Lisa BarrWoman on Fire by Lisa Barr
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, mystery, thriller, World War II
Pages: 416
Published by Harper Paperbacks on March 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From the author of the award-winning Fugitive Colors and The Unbreakables, a gripping tale of a young, ambitious journalist embroiled in an international art art scandal centered around a Nazi-looted masterpiece--forcing the ultimate showdown between passion and possession, lovers and liars, history and truth. NOW A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! Actress Sharon Stone set to produce and star in the film adaptation of WOMAN ON FIRE.
After talking her way into a job with Dan Mansfield, the leading investigative reporter in Chicago, rising young journalist Jules Roth is given an unusual--and very secret--assignment. Dan needs her to locate a painting stolen by the Nazis more than 75 years earlier: legendary Expressionist artist Ernst Engel's most famous work, Woman on Fire. World-renowned shoe designer Ellis Baum wants this portrait of a beautiful, mysterious woman for deeply personal reasons, and has enlisted Dan's help to find it. But Jules doesn't have much time; the famous designer is dying.
Meanwhile, in Europe, provocative and powerful Margaux de Laurent also searches for the painting. Heir to her art collector family's millions, Margaux is a cunning gallerist who gets everything she wants. The only thing standing in her way is Jules. Yet the passionate and determined Jules has unexpected resources of her own, including Adam Baum, Ellis's grandson. A recovering addict and brilliant artist in his own right, Adam was once in Margaux's clutches. He knows how ruthless she is, and he'll do anything to help Jules locate the painting before Margaux gets to it first.
A thrilling tale of secrets, love, and sacrifice that illuminates the destructive cruelty of war and greed and the triumphant power of beauty and love, Woman on Fire tells the story of a remarkable woman and an exquisite work of art that burns bright, moving through hands, hearts, and history.

My Review:

Every single woman in this story is surrounded by flame, from Anika Baum, the model for the iconic painting, to Jules Roth, the woman charged with tracking her down and bringing her home. While along the way, Margaux de Laurent is determined to possess the painting at any and all costs, no matter how many people she has to burn along the way.

Including herself.

If the women are fire, the men are ash – the ash left in the wake of those flames. Ellis Baum, Anika’s son, still haunted by his mother’s death; Dan Mansfield, determined to do his old friend one final favor, and Adam Chase, Ellis’ grandson, an artist burned in the web between Margaux and Jules.

Like all the best heist and caper stories – because that’s a big part of what Woman on Fire is, after all – this story starts at what seems like the end. An end where it looks like everything has gone totally pear-shaped.

And then we rewind back to the beginning. The beginning of the caper, at least. It takes a bit of recap to learn how the players of this high stakes game ended up in the positions they were in before we are able to understand why we need to go all the way back to Nazi Germany and the creation of this avant-garde masterpiece, Woman on Fire.

Ellis Baum, the premier shoe designer in the world, is dying. Before he dies, he wants to see his mother one last time. A task that should be impossible and might still be. But Baum has nothing left to lose. His last sight of his mother was of the Nazis humiliating her and then taking her away. Her crimes were falling in love with a Jewish man and bearing his child and serving as a model for the avant-garde painter Ernst Engel. Both crimes were punishable by death.

Somehow, among all the art the Nazis looted, the painting that she posed for, Woman on Fire, survived the decades. Ellis asks his friend, newspaper editor and investigative reporter Dan Mansfield, to help him get it back.

Margaux de Laurent has an equally personal desire to possess the painting. It was one of her beloved grandfather’s favorite paintings. Gallery owner Charles de Laurent owned the painting briefly in the early years of the war, before the Nazis confiscated it from him. Margaux wants it back in his memory, with the hope of finding enough other looted art to save her family’s art gallery from bankruptcy.

Margaux and Ellis may have equally personal motives for acquiring the painting, but Margaux is considerably more ruthless and considerably less ethical. While both bring all the resources that they and their associates can muster to the task of bringing the painting out of the shadows, Margaux doesn’t care who she has to ruin or kill to get what she believes is rightfully hers.

She’s done it before. It’s easy to stay one step ahead of people who believe they are one step ahead of you. If you’re willing to kill every single one of them to get your way.

Escape Rating A: This is a story that started twisting me up from the very first page. I wanted so badly for them to succeed, even with just a few pages of getting into the action. And it was such a horrible let-down of a cliffie when it almost instantly looked like they failed. I knew that couldn’t be the end, but I was pretty desperate to figure out how they got there and how they got out.

Not that all of them do – but more than enough to make this a VERY satisfying read with just the right touch of bittersweet melancholy and righteous resolution.

I also have to admit that although the painting and the artist are not historical figures, I was so riveted and involved in the story that I had to look them up to be certain. It’s that good and it felt that real.

Going into this, I was expecting the early history about the Nazis systematic looting of the great art museums and private collections of Europe, but that initial theft – and theft – and re-theft was horrible and sad but not exactly unknown. What kept me turning pages were the twin searches for the painting, the painstaking research to find its trail from Ernst Engel’s studio through the de Laurent Gallery to its final resting place – and the manipulation and espionage of both parties to find the painting first and freeze out the other side. Each thinks they’re cheating the other and both are determined to win. Each thinks they know the truth about the other, but neither truly does.

And that race to a finish that they each see completely differently is what keeps the reader – or at least kept this reader – frantically turning pages to the very satisfying end.

Review: The Wrong Victim by Allison Brennan

Review: The Wrong Victim by Allison BrennanThe Wrong Victim (Quinn & Costa, #3) by Allison Brennan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, romantic suspense, suspense, thriller
Series: Quinn & Costa #3
Pages: 464
Published by Mira Books on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A bomb explodes on a sunset charter cruise out of Friday Harbor at the height of tourist season and kills everyone on board. Now this fishing and boating community is in shock and asking who would commit such a heinous crime—the largest act of mass murder in the history of the San Juan Islands.
Forensic profilers know there are two types of domestic terrorists: those who use violence to instill fear for political purposes but stop at murder because it detracts from the cause, and those who crave attention and are willing to maim and murder for their own agenda.
Accused of putting profits before people after leaking fuel that caused a massive fish kill, the West End Charter company may itself have been the target. But as special agent Matt Costa, detective Kara Quinn and the rest of the FBI team begin their investigation, they discover that plenty of people might have wanted someone dead on that yacht. Now they must track down who is responsible and stop them before they strike again.

My Review:

If this book went looking for a subtitle, let me suggest ‘Game of Queens’ as an alternative. Because that’s what this one is, the contention among three women who are used to taking control of whatever sphere in which they find themselves – no matter who or what stands in their way.

And it’s a contest that is only partly resolved when The Wrong Victim wraps up the case of its final – and ultimately correct in the end – victim.

The beginning of this one is literally explosive. A charter yacht explodes in the waters around San Juan Island leaving 9 people dead and a whole lot of unanswered questions. Big questions, like whodunnit, along with why and how. And the biggie – which of the 9 people on the boat was the real target?

San Juan Island is just barely part of the U.S., one of over 400 islands in an archipelago that sits between Bellingham Washington and Victoria, British Columbia. The island has a population of 7,000, most of whom live in the town of Friday Harbor. The small police department knows everyone in town, and everyone knows them. Most issues are property crimes or tourists getting rowdy. They are neither prepared for nor objective enough to deal with a crime of this magnitude.

The FBI sends Mathias Costa and his Mobile Response Team, including LAPD Detective Kara Quinn, seconded to the MRT at the end of the second book in the series, Tell No Lies. Not that that was the first time Costa and Quinn met – that would be the case of the ‘Triple Killer’ in The Third to Die (which I have yet to read and really, really WANT to. I didn’t need to in order to have gotten into Tell No Lies, but that was great and so is this and now I want to very much indeed.)

Kara isn’t sure exactly where she fits in Costa’s team. Being a cop is her core identity, and the mess in LA that has forced her to leave her city to outrun the people – and contracts – that are after her. Her tenuous situation has made her question a lot about herself and how well she’s doing her job. Along with what happens next depending on how everything works out.

In Tell No Lies, the one thing that Kara was sure about was that Matt Costa trusted her judgment and was in her corner, that he respected her skills and opinions as an experienced cop and undercover detective. But all of that confidence is shaken with the return of FBI profiler Catherine Jones, who has profiled Kara and believes that she is a loose cannon who is insubordinate, takes unnecessary risks, makes snap judgments and is sure to endanger both the case and the team.

Catherine and Matt are old and dear friends, he’s even the godfather of her daughter. Kara and Matt, at least in their off-duty hours, have become friends with benefits, although Matt wants more. The conflict between the two women, who are both important to his life but in totally different ways, is messing with his head and his heart, making him a less than effective leader of a team that must produce results and solve the explosion before anyone else gets killed.

Which leads back to the question of who the real target among the 9 victims was. There are plenty of possibilities. With environmentalists making trouble for the charter company, the bomb might not have been meant for anyone in particular, but to make trouble for the ship’s owners.

Too many victims, too many possible motives, and too many ways for Kara and Catherine to butt heads. But as much as Catherine believes that Kara’s lack of formal education makes her less capable and her skills less trustworthy, it’s Kara’s instinct for people’s behavior, rather than Catherine’s careful analysis, that ultimately leads to whodunnit.

And it’s Catherine’s lack of trust in Kara that nearly gets both of them killed.

Escape Rating A+: I made a terrible mistake with this book. I started reading it when I went to bed, and absolutely could not put it down until I finished at 3:30 in the morning. I cursed my alarm when it woke me in the morning, but it was SO worth it. I needed a book to suck me into its pages, and The Wrong Victim did a fantastic job of taking me to the San Juan Islands and spinning me all around this compelling story.

This book, and this series, seem to sit at the crossroads between mystery, thriller and romantic suspense. Although again, there’s more suspense than romance – and that’s probably a good thing. The relationship between Quinn and Costa is not really healthy for either of them or their careers – a fact that profiler Catherine weaponizes during this entry in the series. They can’t be openly together as long as Kara is part of Matt’s team, no matter how temporary that might be. And yet they can’t manage to stay away from each other no matter how much of a mess it might make in the long term. I expect the horns of this particular dilemma are going to be sharp and pointy for much of the series. We’ll see.

But what makes this story so compelling is the combination of the sheer number of possible motives and the determined way that the team works through them. Out of the 9 people on the boat, there’s a wealthy man whose much younger wife left the boat just before it left the dock, a retired FBI agent still investigating a cold case he can’t let go of, a man dating one of the owners of the charter company, a slimy businessman and his equally slimy wife and four tech geniuses. All that’s needed is a partridge in a pear tree to make a very bad song.

And it could have been none of them. It could be a strike against the charter company. It could even have been an accident, the result of negligence, or even pilot error, but those possibilities get nixed very early on. As does terrorism.

So it’s murder. The FBI team are outsiders that no one trusts, but the local P.D. are much too close to every single possible suspect to be remotely objective.

For this reader, it was the investigation that fascinated. Not just looking into each of the victims, but also the town, the environmentalists, the charter company, and then the intricate work of fitting all the puzzle pieces together.

Also that the story breaks one of the unwritten rules of mystery, in that this is a rare occasion where there is more than one perpetrator, and more than one set of linkages to the crimes committed.

The team hasn’t quite gelled yet, although the process is ongoing. The way that the team is working – and occasionally not – reminded me a lot of Andrea Kane’s Forensic Instincts series, which gets involved in the same types of crimes and had the same feel of being competence porn conducted as a high-wire act.

So in addition to throwing that first book in the Quinn & Costa series, The Third to Die, onto the upper and more accessible reaches of the towering TBR pile, I need to go pick up where I left off with Forensic Instincts. So many books, so little time.

In spite of just how tall that towering TBR pile is, I’ll be looking for the next Quinn & Costa book whenever it appears – hopefully this time next year if not sooner.

Review: Two Storm Wood by Philip Gray

Review: Two Storm Wood by Philip GrayTwo Storm Wood by Philip Gray
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, thriller
Pages: 352
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on March 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In this thriller set on the battlefields of the Somme after the end of World War I, a woman investigates the disappearance of her fiancé.
The Great War has ended, but for Amy Vanneck there is no peace. Her fiancé, Edward Haslam, a lieutenant in the 7th Manchesters, is missing, presumed dead. Amy travels to the desolate battlefields of northern France to learn his fate and recover his body.
She’s warned that this open-air morgue is no place for a civilian, much less a woman, but Amy is willing to brave the barbed wire, the putrid water, and the rat-infested tunnels that dot the landscape. Her search is upended when she discovers the scene of a gruesome mass murder. What does it signify? Soon Amy begins to have suspicions that Edward might not really be dead. Disquieting and yet compulsively readable, Two Storm Wood builds to an ending that is both thrilling and emotionally riveting.

My Review:

“The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” Honestly, Shakespeare pretty much said everything best. This particular quote is from Julius Caesar, but it’s relevant to Two Storm Wood because the mystery in this historical thriller revolves around an attempt to attach the evil that one man did to another man’s bones – even if the man’s actual bones can never be found.

The story begins with a mystery. Two soldiers in a convalescent hospital for men with facial disfigurements back home in England after the Armistice that ended World War I. One kills the other, after stealing the victim’s uniform and identity papers. The reader knows nothing about them, not their names, not their real identities. Only that they are officers and that one is impersonating the other – whoever either or both might be.

Then the focus shifts to Amy Vanneck, whose name we definitely DO know, as she escapes from the smothering confines of her status conscious, social climbing, upper middle class family to sneak away to France with a friend. The war may be over for many, but not for Amy or the tens of thousands of others whose loved ones were listed as “missing, presumed dead.”

So Amy heads for France, to the former battlefields of the Great War, now turned into vast, disturbed – and disturbing – fields of unmarked graves, filled with bodies that may never be identified. She’s certain that her fiancée is one of those bodies, and that the responsibility for his fate can be laid at her door – whether she knew it or not.

She’s also promised him she’d find him after the war, and bring him home. Even if all she has to bring back is a corpse. But the more she digs into his fate, the less certain she is – not just about what happened to him, but about who the man she loved really was.

Or who he became in that hellscape of war.

Her search takes her from one mass grave to another, from one putrid processing station for the dead to the few and frequently shell-shocked men who served with Lieutenant Edward Haslam, teacher, choirmaster, officer, and as she discovers along her hellish journey, assassin.

There are two things she does not find. She does not find his body. And she does not find the truth – a truth which seems to be drifting further out of reach the longer and further she searches.

Along with evidence that someone is dogging her trail, determined to stop her from finding anything or anyone at all.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up expecting it to remind me of Charles Todd’s historical mysteries. With its focus on Amy Vanneck as the protagonist, I thought I’d be catching glimpses of nurse Bess Crawford, but as the story progressed I got just as many hints of Todd’s other investigator, Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard.

Little did I know that I had just swallowed a red herring.

More than either of those series, the book that Two Storm Wood resembled the most strongly was The Poppy Wife by Caroline Scott, which also focuses on the search for closure after World War I for so many whose loved ones were declared missing during the war. In some ways, Two Storm Wood is even more haunting that The Poppy Wife, as Amy’s search takes place much closer to the Armistice, when the situation was in even more flux as the ground was still literally settling over the shallowly buried dead.

Amy goes to France expecting to find closure. She honestly hopes to find and identify her fiancée’s corpse. Instead, she finds a place where no one expects her – or any other “gently bred” woman to be as she travels alone through a world that belongs more to the dead than to the living. She’s in way over her head with no idea how impossible the task she has set herself truly is.

But she is also free, free from social expectations, free from her mother’s social climbing snobbery, and free to learn just how strong a person she can be when she has no one to rely on but herself. She doesn’t thrive, because no one in these circumstances is even in the same country as “thriving”, but she does persevere.

Even as two men who both claim to be working for the Graves Commission try to dissuade her or redirect her from her self-appointed course. Yet both their involvement and Amy’s own investigations lead her inexorably to Two Storm Wood, and to a crime so heinous that the Army has already begun covering it up.

Whatever and however many other books Two Storm Wood reminded me of, at its center it felt like three stories. One is the story of Amy’s journey through the haunted battlefields, mass graveyards and half-ruined towns and villages that haven’t even begun to recover from the war. It’s not just that war is hell, but that its aftermath is every bit as hellish as the actual fighting – if not worse because it’s supposed to be over but it really isn’t.

The second story was Amy’s search for who Edward Haslam really was, and who he became in that no man’s land of trenches and raids and death on every side. We see the beginning of their relationship through Amy’s memories, and their wartime separation through the letters that Edward sent. The most chilling bit of this part of the story is the way that the more she learns, the less she feels she knows – as though everything she thought was true is slipping away from her.

The third part of the story was the mystery of what really happened at Two Storm Wood. In the end, the actions themselves become clear, but the motives behind them didn’t feel like they were as interwoven with the rest of the story as they should have been for a reveal that turned out to be so fundamental. That bit felt kind of tacked on to a story that had been both chilling and affecting as it followed Amy’s journey. They did tie together at the end, but that tie didn’t feel as tight as it should have been.

But Amy’s journey is a compelling and heartrending read about the way that the horrors of war are inflicted not just on those who fight but on those who are left behind. And that the scars war leaves behind are just as deep on all sides.

One final note, the Graves Commission whose work Amy follows in this story is not yet done. It’s successor organization, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is still finding and identifying the dead of the First World War at the rate of one per week more than a century after the Armistice.

Review: The Sacred Bridge by Anne Hillerman

Review: The Sacred Bridge by Anne HillermanThe Sacred Bridge (Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito #25) by Anne Hillerman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Series: Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito #25
Pages: 320
Published by Harper on April 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

"A fine legacy series . . . in the spirit of her late father, Tony."--Booklist
An ancient mystery resurfaces with ramifications for the present day in this gripping chapter in the Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito series from New York Times bestselling author Anne Hillerman.
Sergeant Jim Chee's vacation to beautiful Antelope Canyon and Lake Powell has a deeper purpose. He's on a quest to unravel a sacred mystery his mentor, the Legendary Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, stumbled across decades earlier.
Chee's journey takes a deadly turn when, after a prayerful visit to the sacred Rainbow Bridge, he spots a body floating in the lake. The dead man, a Navajo with a passion for the canyon's ancient rock art, lived a life filled with many secrets. Discovering why he died and who was responsible involves Chee in an investigation that puts his own life at risk.
Back in Shiprock, Officer Bernadette Manuelito is driving home when she witnesses an expensive sedan purposely kill a hitchhiker. The search to find the killer leads her to uncover a dangerous chain of interconnected revelations involving a Navajo Nation cannabis enterprise.
But the evil that is unleashed jeopardizes her mother and sister Darleen, and puts Bernie in the deadliest situation of her law enforcement career.

My Review:

Underneath the mysteries that propel the action in (and around) The Sacred Bridge is the story of a solid relationship between two people who have both reached a crossroads in their careers. Which makes it entirely fitting that one half of the story is set at Lake Powell, a man-made lake near Rainbow Bridge that was created by damming the Colorado and San Juan Rivers in 1963.

When the author picked up her late father’s long-running mystery series with Spider Woman’s Daughter in 2013, she brought back the characters of the Legendary Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, his proteges Sergeant Jim Chee and Officer Bernadette (Bernie) Manuelito. Leaphorn has retired, Chee has finally grown up, and Bernie has turned into an excellent cop ready to stretch her wings.

But Chee and Bernie are married, and happily so. Except for the times when Chee gets stuck as the officer in charge at the Shiprock office of the Navajo Police and is temporarily acting as his wife’s boss.

Bernie’s considering becoming a detective, while Chee’s been a cop more than long enough to be getting a bit worn down by the job. He’s at the point where his options are to get promoted into management – which is too much like politics for his taste, keep doing what he’s doing – even though that’s already getting old and sour, or find something new.

Or go back to something old. When we first met Chee back in People of Darkness, he was training with his uncle to become a hatááłii or medicine man, a practitioner of the Navajo sacred healing ceremonies. But Chee’s uncle died years ago, if he truly wants to pick up that training, he will need to find a practitioner willing to teach him.

So as the story opens, Chee and Bernie are miles apart. She has returned home to go back to work, and to check on her elderly mother and her sometimes wayward younger sister. And almost immediately finds herself neck deep – possibly literally – in a case that will test her decision to become a detective – and test whether or not everything that goes along with that job is what she really wants.

She’s in way over her head – and will need skill, courage AND luck to break the surface.

The Rainbow Bridge and surrounding canyon seen from the Navajo Mountain side

Meanwhile, Chee is at Rainbow Bridge, the Sacred Bridge of the title, letting the peace of the place help him see into his own heart. But, like so many cops on vacation – at least in fiction – he finds himself back on the job when he looks down into Lake Powell and discovers the body of someone who will never break the surface again.

Bernie’s case is wrapped up in 21st century problems – drugs and the money they bring, along with all of the ills that follow in their wake. In the case of the K’e Hemp Farm, those ills include human trafficking, forced labor, paying workers in illegally-grown marijuana instead of cash – and the murders necessary to cover it all up.

The case that Chee has fallen into – or that the dead man he found has fallen out of – is rooted in older and deeper motives. In the resentments that still swirl around the lake and all the sacred places that were drowned to create it, but also the motive for the oldest crime in the book – the jealousy that drove Cain to kill Abel.

So Chee is trying to unravel a knot of emotions, while Bernie is trying to protect herself from being tied up in a net of drugs, money and murder. Neither case is easy, and both have the potential to provide their personal dilemmas with an all too permanent solution.

Escape Rating B: I love this series. I loved the original, and I love the way that the author has picked up her father’s torch and brought these characters into the present. So this entry in the series, as always, was a visit with some old and dear friends.

But I was hoping that this book would break the grade “B” reading week I’ve been having, and it just didn’t. It could be me, it could be that everything I’m picking up is turning into “B for Blah” whether it really is or not. But this entry in the series fell just a bit flat for me.

Some of that may be due to Leaphorn being absent entirely. Even though he’s more-or-less retired, his perspectives and insights always add some depth to the story. So I missed his presence.

Also, this revival of the series has been centered on Chee and Bernie and they usually spend at least some of each story in the same place working on the same or parallel cases. While it makes sense that they need some time on their own to think about their respective careers, they are miles apart and all-too-frequently completely out of contact with each other.

And on my third hand, Bernie’s part of the story didn’t quite gel for me. She goes undercover into the middle of a very dangerous drug operation, but she’s not remotely trained for it, she doesn’t have any reliable backup, and she’s in over her head to the point where she nearly drowns in it. It all veered very close to “heroine in jeopardy” in ways that felt cliched – but possibly entirely too real. One of the villains definitely bordered on “bwahaha” territory.

But if the point, at least from the perspective of her police superiors along with all the alphabet agencies tagging along on this case, was to throw her into the deep end to see if she sank or swam, well, mission accomplished. Howsomever, something about the combination of how extremely important the case was vs. just how underprepared she was didn’t quite match up.

Chee’s case made more sense – and/or it felt more like the cases that make up the backbone of the entire series. It was a mix of the traditional, the historic, and the contemporary with a thoughtful exploration of the characters involved. Although I did figure out whodunnit long before the reveal, I still enjoyed that part of the journey quite a bit.

In short, I liked parts of this one, but not as much overall as I usually do. But it’s always good to see how these characters are doing, and I’m curious about whether Leaphorn is going to come back from his unexpected trip to Hawaii married to his longtime companion. And I really want to find out what decisions Bernie and Chee make about their careers, their life together, and whether or not they plan to plunge ahead and have children – which will also have impacts on those careers and that life.

So sign me up for the next book in this series whenever it comes along – hopefully around this time next year.

Review: Under Lock and Skeleton Key by Gigi Pandian

Review: Under Lock and Skeleton Key by Gigi PandianUnder Lock & Skeleton Key (Secret Staircase Mystery, #1) by Gigi Pandian
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Secret Staircase #1
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on March 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Under Lock & Skeleton Key layers architecture with mouthwatering food in an ode to classic locked-room mysteries.
An impossible crime. A family legacy. The intrigue of hidden rooms and secret staircases.
After a disastrous accident derails Tempest Raj’s career, and life, she heads back to her childhood home in California to comfort herself with her grandfather’s Indian home-cooked meals. Though she resists, every day brings her closer to the inevitable: working for her father’s company. Secret Staircase Construction specializes in bringing the magic of childhood to all by transforming clients’ homes with sliding bookcases, intricate locks, backyard treehouses, and hidden reading nooks.
When Tempest visits her dad’s latest renovation project, her former stage double is discovered dead inside a wall that’s supposedly been sealed for more than a century. Fearing she was the intended victim, it’s up to Tempest to solve this seemingly impossible crime. But as she delves further into the mystery, Tempest can’t help but wonder if the Raj family curse that’s plagued her family for generations—something she used to swear didn’t exist—has finally come for her.

My Review:

Under Lock and Skeleton Key is the first book in the author’s Secret Staircase Mystery series. With that series title, it sounds like this should be a case for Nancy Drew – and it sorta/kinda is.

A grown-up Nancy Drew who grew up sharing her love of puzzle solving and misdirection with her BFF. A BFF she ghosted ten years back. A hurt they’ll both have to get over in order to get this mystery-solving partnership back together.

It’s also the story of Tempest Raj and her family’s very special construction company, Secret Staircase Construction. Because that’s what her family builds – homes and offices with hidden doors, concealed nooks and yes – secret staircases.

Tempest Raj is back home in California in her family’s eclectic, multi-ethnic and multi-family, nearly vertical piece of almost-paradise. She’s back licking her still-smarting wounds after the literal explosion of her career as a famous – and now infamous – Las Vegas stage magician. EVERYONE in the industry and on social media blames Tempest for the trick that went catastrophically wrong in both water AND fire, but Tempest is certain that the costly disaster was the result of her body-double assistant attempting to paint Tempest as a risk too dangerous to back or insure, in the hopes that said assistant could finally become the main event.

Instead the show shut down, putting everyone out of work – including said duplicitous assistant – while Tempest has been forced to retreat back home after losing her Las Vegas house along with her reputation. She’s waiting for the other shoe to drop, or should that be shoes, as it seems like everyone involved has threatened to sue her.

But her successful show wasn’t just her success, the money she earned allowed her to keep her family’s business, Secret Staircase Construction, afloat. Now that money is gone and she’s back home hoping that she won’t have to resort to taking a job that doesn’t exist as part of her dad’s somewhat misfit crew. A crew he can barely afford as it is.

When her dad calls her to report to a job site, she’s sure that fate has just come upon her. Instead, her dad needs her to look at the house they’re currently working on because they’ve found something that is more in her professional line than his. They’ve spotted a dead body in an enclosed space that no one has opened in a century – and none of them can figure out how it got there.

That kind of trap door illusion is just the sort of thing that Tempest specialized in, so she’s intrigued by the puzzle – at least until she’s chilled by the discovery that the dead body isn’t merely too recent to have been walled up for a century. When the wall is opened, Tempest recognizes the corpse just a bit too well. Her duplicitous assistant, Tempest’s near-duplicate, is dead – and the woman didn’t wrap her own corpse in a sack and put itself in a locked room.

The woman is dead. The biggest question in Tempest’s mind is whether she was killed for herself – or in place of the woman she resembled so strongly. It’s up to Tempest and her friends to figure out both whodunnit and who was intended to be done before the killer catches up with her!

Escape Rating A-: This cozy mystery thriller – as much of a contradiction in terms as that feels – is a mystery wrapped in an enigma enclosed in a puzzle in a way that is shot through with both magic and suspense. But the magic in Tempest’s life and in her family’s Anglo-Indian history is mostly of the stage magic variety.

This is also a mystery that manages to pay homage to the classics of the genre – from Agatha Christie and John Dickinson Carr to Scooby-Doo, without ever falling into the trap of slavish imitation – no matter how many hidden switches and actual trap doors the story has built into it.

But this is not a fair play mystery, unlike so many of those classics. It’s a mystery of misdirection, both for Tempest AND for the reader. It’s also the story of how Tempest gets her own “Scooby gang” together to help her solve the mystery.

A mystery that manages to contain so many red herrings that it’s a surprise that her grandfather – an excellent cook whose lovingly described dishes are guaranteed to make the reader’s mouth water – doesn’t take the opportunity to cook them up into something delicious. (His recipes at the end of the book all sound scrumptious!)

The initial crime seems impossible – a locked room mystery that would tax Holmes’ famous logic and Poirot’s little grey cells at the same time. But the rules about locked room mysteries point the way to possibilities that make the impossible not quite so impossible. Tempest just needs to color-code those red herrings.

But the story is also hedged around with family fears and family secrets. Everyone seems to be protecting Tempest – and themselves – from a truth that no one wants to talk about. There might be a curse on their family going all the way back to their roots in India under the Raj.

And it all might be just another one of those tasty red herrings.

It’s only once Tempest is able to pull a tiny thread of one of the many tangled threads in this case – in the Locked Room Library no less! – that she is finally able to tease out a solution. Not just to this convoluted case – but to the question that has been plaguing her since the day she came home. The question about what’s next for Tempest. And in working towards a resolution to the mystery, she finally finds her answer.

Tempest’s answer means that this is the beginning of what looks like it will be a fun and fascinating series – one that I am very much looking forward to exploring. In the meantime, I’ll just have to go back to some of this author’s other cozily magical mystery series. I’ve already read a bit of her Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt series (The Ninja’s Illusion) and now I have the perfect excuse to go back!

Review: The Lying Club by Annie Ward

Review: The Lying Club by Annie WardThe Lying Club by Annie Ward
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 432
Published by Park Row on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

"If you loved Big Little Lies and Little Fires Everywhere, allow me to introduce you to your next obsession. Kim Liggett, New York Times bestselling author of The Grace Year
A tangled web of lies draws together three women in this explosive thriller of revenge, murder and shocking secrets

At an elite private school nestled in the Colorado mountains, Natalie, an office assistant, dreams of having a life like the school moms she deals with every day. Women like Brooke—a gorgeous heiress, ferociously loving mother and serial cheater—and Asha, an overprotective mom who suspects her husband of having an affair. Their fates are bound by the handsome assistant athletic director Nicholas, whom Natalie loves, Brooke wants and Asha needs.
But when two bodies are carried out of the school one morning, it seems the tension between mothers and daughters, rival lovers, and the haves and have-nots has shattered the surface of this isolated, affluent town—where people stop at nothing to get what they want.
Don't miss Annie Ward's other twisty and utterly original thriller, Beautiful Bad!  

My Review:

Everybody lies, particularly when their ex has just been murdered and they can’t remember whether or not they did it. In fact, Natalie Bellman goes into her interview with the police deciding that she’s going to be the best liar on Earth to cover up the missing bits of her memory.

And that’s where this story begins, with Natalie waking up – or coming to – in the school parking lot in the middle of a snowy night, trying to remember what she did and didn’t do. Because she had plenty of motive to push the man over a balcony.

At first, the case seems cut and dried, a case of hell having no fury like a woman scorned. Nick was respected and popular, while Natalie’s history is checkered at best.

But, as Natalie’s police interview proceeds, the reader gets a look back at Natalie’s memories of the past several months and just how things reached this particular bloody end. Initially, she still looks guilty, between her out-of-control jealousy and her alcohol and pill-induced blackouts.

The thing is, she’s not the only one lying, and hers are not the only shady goings on in town. What Natalie remembers are a lot of wealthy people who are not used to taking no for an answer and completely unacquainted with having to deal with the consequences of their actions. Along with their over-scheduled, over-indulged and spoiled children.

So for quite a bit of the story, this seems like a “rich people acting badly” story and the reader starts hoping that they are all going to get their just desserts. And there’s more than a bit of anticipated schadenfreude in that reading.

As Natalie’s memories wind their way towards the present, towards her sitting with those two cops being questioned and lying her ass off, the story shifts from Natalie’s perspectives and Natalie’s memories, to that final day that she doesn’t remember – but others certainly do.

They’re all lying, but in the middle of all those lies a truth emerges and the darkness and rot at the heart of this supposedly idyllic community is exposed for all to see.

Escape Rating B: The final third of this book certainly brings on the thrills and chills as all the lies start creeping out of the shadows and getting even creepier as they go. Because what fascinates about this case wasn’t so much whodunnit as why it was done in the first place – also in the second, third and fourth places as it turns out.

The setup took a bit too long to get itself up. The portrait of the wealthy community and the rich people in it, their overindulgences and petty rivalries, went on just a bit too long, to the point where it seemed like that WAS the story and poor Natalie just went off the rails.

Which she did, over the rails, over the top and overdone. Her observations of the bad behavior all around her were way more interesting than her reflection on a relationship where she was so obviously being used in ways that seemed more typical than interesting.

Little did we, or she, know as it turned out in the end.

But that’s where the story finally went into high gear. Not just the way that Natalie, who was victimized before, ended up being victimized again, but in the way that this group, this lying club, got together even though they planned nothing together, or separately or even at all.

So this is a slow burn thriller that’s on simmer for 2/3rds of the story as the pieces are slowly and painstakingly edged together. Then the heat is turned up high and the right person gets roasted at the end.

Review: Abandoned in Death by J.D. Robb

Review: Abandoned in Death by J.D. RobbAbandoned in Death (In Death, #54) by J.D. Robb
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: futuristic, mystery, romantic suspense, thriller
Series: In Death #54
Pages: 368
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Homicide detective Eve Dallas must untangle a twisted family history while a hostage’s life hangs in the balance—in the new In Death novel by #1 New York Times bestselling J. D. Robb.
The woman’s body was found on a bench in a New York City playground. She was clean, her hair neatly arranged, her makeup carefully applied. But other things were very wrong—like the tattoo and piercings, clearly new. The clothes, decades out of date. The fatal wound hidden beneath a ribbon around her neck. And the note: Bad Mommy, written in crayon as if by a child.
It seems clear the killer’s childhood was traumatic—a situation Eve is all too familiar with herself. Yet the clues point to a perpetrator who’d be around sixty, and there are no records of old crimes with a similar MO. What was the trigger that apparently reopened such an old wound and sent someone over the edge? When Eve learns that other young women have recently vanished, the case grows even more urgent—and to solve it she’ll need to find her way into a hidden place of dim light and concrete, into the distant past, and into the depths of a shattered mind.

My Review:

This series is a strange sort of comfort read for me, so I usually say that each entry in the series is at least a chance to visit with old friends. Sometimes it’s more, but it’s always at least that.

Abandoned in Death is one of the instances where it was also at most that. I loved seeing how Dallas, Roarke and the gang are doing, but the way this one began – and the entire case – really, seriously creeped me out.

I felt creeped enough the whole way through that I didn’t enjoy this entry in the series as much as I usually do. And I’m a bit sad about that because I was seriously looking forward to this one.

Once upon a time in Eve Dallas’ world, which is actually now in ours, a desperate and despairing young woman left her child on a church doorstep in the middle of the night. Then she drove straight into a lake and prepared to drown.

But she didn’t. Instead, she dragged herself out of the car and the water and passed out along the side of the road not too far away. She was rescued by a good Samaritan who happened to be a doctor, who took her home, treated her injuries, fell in love with her and married her.

Between the trauma of her injuries – along with the effects of her depression and her drug addiction – her life before her rescue was a complete blank. She didn’t remember the child, the drugs or the attempted suicide. She lived her life from that point forward in the here and the now and it was a good life.

In Eve Dallas’ here and now, someone dumped the corpse of a young woman in a children’s playground. The playground is just around the corner from the house that Eve’s friend Mavis is moving into, with her family. It hits MUCH too close to home, putting Eve in a bit more angst than any trip to the “angst factory” of her own.

Not that this case doesn’t have a bit of that as well.

The investigation of the case is interesting. Weird, but interesting. Weird because the body was dressed and made up to fit a certain image – that of a blonde woman in her mid-20s with a tramp stamp, a belly piercing, cheap party clothes and overdone makeup.

She’s made up to be a woman in her mid-20s in the early 2000s. All the brands, the style, the look, the colors all fit that era. Which means that if someone is getting vicarious revenge on their mother, that person is now in their 60s.

And the first thing that Dallas and company discover about the crime is that their victim isn’t the only woman taken who could be made up to fit the image. She’s just the first to die.

Escape Rating B-: So, the opening of this one weirded me out and the parts of the story that were told either from the killer’s perspective or from the mother’s distant past just didn’t work for me. I didn’t want to be inside the murderer’s head AT ALL and found myself skimming through those sections and the past bits.

Some of that may have been that the originating events were already in the past of the real world – kind of like that double-take you do when confronted with the fact that 1980 is as far away from 2020 as 1940 is from 1980. That time passes way more quickly than we like to think about.

However, whether it was because of skimming those bits quickly or because the murderer was simply very good at hiding in plain sight I had absolutely no idea who was doing it before Dallas gets there herself. I recognized that the wild goose she chased at one point was a red herring, but hadn’t figured out who the real culprit was until the investigators got there.

That there’s a clock ticking more obviously in this case from the usual made some of the normal cop shop gallows humor fall a bit flat – at least for me. No one has much of a sense of humor in this one.

At the same time the rather humorous blossoming of young love between Feeney’s intern and Nadine Furst’s intern (and their respective mentors reaction to same) was a nice little bright stop that did fit well into the story. It also points out just how huge the team ended up being on this one as Dallas needed people to investigate not just the murders happening now, not just whodunnit, but also who in the past it was being done to in proxy.

They were solving an equation for multiple unknowns, and that level of research and search and cooperation and puzzle solving was, as always, fascinating. Whatever team Dallas puts together for a case always gives a master class in competence and this time was no exception.

In spite of the mess that’s uncovered at the end.

All of this adds up to Abandoned in Death being an interesting entry in this marvelous long-running series that wasn’t quite as satisfying for me as they usually are. That’s happened before, as is expected in a series that is 54 books and counting and shows absolutely no sign of stopping. Next up is Desperation in Death, coming this fall and I’m already looking forward to it!

Review: The Overnight Guest by Heather Gudenkauf

Review: The Overnight Guest by Heather GudenkaufThe Overnight Guest by Heather Gudenkauf
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 352
Published by Park Row on January 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A woman receives an unexpected visitor during a deadly snowstorm in this chilling thriller from New York Times bestselling author Heather Gudenkauf
She thought she was alone
True crime writer Wylie Lark doesn’t mind being snowed in at the isolated farmhouse where she’s retreated to write her new book. A cozy fire, complete silence. It would be perfect, if not for the fact that decades earlier, at this very house, two people were murdered in cold blood and a girl disappeared without a trace.
As the storm worsens, Wylie finds herself trapped inside the house, haunted by the secrets contained within its walls—haunted by secrets of her own. Then she discovers a small child in the snow just outside. After bringing the child inside for warmth and safety, she begins to search for answers. But soon it becomes clear that the farmhouse isn’t as isolated as she thought, and someone is willing to do anything to find them.

My Review:

This is a book to be read with all the lights on under a pile of warm blankets, because this is a story that will make you shiver with chills – both from cold and from the creeps. Because the terrors in this book are all too real – and because you can feel the winter storm howling around the story.

At the start, there are three stories braided through this book. The first story, the one that seems to be the most obvious – at least on the surface – is Wylie Lark’s story. Wylie is a true crime writer, and she’s in tiny, remote Burden, Iowa to research and write her latest true crime thriller. She’s come to Burden – or rather to a somewhat dilapidated farmhouse outside Burden – because that house was the scene of the horrific crime she’s researching.

That crime is the second story. We’re reading her manuscript as she does her final edits. And the story she’s telling is pretty damn awful. Back in the summer of 2000, the family that lived in the house that Wylie is renting was murdered – while one girl survived and one went missing, presumed dead.

But then, there’s a third story that at first we’re not sure is fixed in either time or place, about a woman and her daughter being held in perpetual hostage by a man who regularly rapes the mother and beats and abuses them both mentally and emotionally as well as physically. It’s a story that should be over the top, but as we know all too well is not. Which just adds to the chills of horror and dread.

As those three stories weave together, a winter storm howls through Burden, piling up snow and ice, cutting off communication and power. Wylie is all alone in her rented house with her creepy story – until she goes out to bring the dog back in and discovers a young boy nearly frozen to death in the yard.

She brings him in and warms him up, even though he’s scared out of his wits – or at least out of his voice – by something or someone that Wylie doesn’t yet understand.

As the snow piles up and the power shuts down, Wylie and the child learn that they are not alone in their little oasis of safety – and that it’s not safe at all. And that’s where all the stories come together – and finally come to an end.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up because I got all wrapped in This Is How I Lied and hoped for more of the same. Did I ever get exactly that!

I’m not a big thriller reader, but when I’m in the mood for it I’m hooked, perched on the edge of my seat and turning pages frantically to see how all the tense situations of the story manage to work themselves into a catharsis – if not exactly a happy ending. The Overnight Guest was no exception.

But I was also turning pages frantically trying to figure out how the three stories fit together and where they were placed in time. It seemed like Wylie’s narrative was in a present, maybe not exactly 2022 and possibly just before COVID times but at least recent. The story told in her book was dated August 2000 so that was the only fixed point. For the longest time I wasn’t sure where the part of the story about the woman, her daughter and the abusive bastard keeping them prisoner fit into things. In the end all three narratives come together in a single point, but I was lost there for a bit.

Especially as the story of the woman being held prisoner was such a hard read because it was both terrible and terribly plausible, as the real life stories of Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard (among others) attest.

The way that the three stories came together was both suspenseful and moving at the same time. It’s only as Wylie reveals the cliffhanger ending of the original crime that we begin to see how her present just might possibly connect with the horrific crime in the past.

As the story unfolds the reader gets caught up in trauma and/or danger on every side. Wylie fled to Burden to get away from her teenage son who has decided he’d rather live with his father than Wylie. (Personally, this was the least interesting part of the story because we don’t get enough of that situation to be truly invested.)

The crime that Wylie is investigating is both sensational and bloody. Her manuscript, relating the details puts all that old trauma and heartbreak on display for a hopefully eager audience of Wylie’s readers. It’s a story that is all the more brutal because it is rooted in just how awful human beings are.

Then there’s the storm. We feel it blow, we shiver in the wind, our toes curl up in the rising piles of snow. Wylie’s alone, the power is out, the house is cold and then her nerve-wracked solitude is invaded by ill-equipped, desperate people fleeing something or someone that they refuse to name. Whatever it is, they’ll run right over Wylie to escape it – no matter how much she tries to help them.

And that’s when the crisis finally breaks, and we put together all the pieces that have previously refused to fit. Pieces that have to break anew in order to finally heal – and we’re there for it all.

Review: Under Color of Law by Aaron Philip Clark

Review: Under Color of Law by Aaron Philip ClarkUnder Color of Law by Aaron Philip Clark
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Trevor Finnegan #1
Pages: 304
Published by Thomas & Mercer on October 1, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

The murder of a police recruit pins a black LAPD detective in a deadly web where race, corruption, violence, and cover-ups intersect in this relevant, razor-sharp novel of suspense.

Black rookie cop Trevor “Finn” Finnegan aspires to become a top-ranking officer in the Los Angeles Police Department and fix a broken department. A fast-track promotion to detective in the coveted Robbery-Homicide Division puts him closer to achieving his goal.

Four years later, calls for police accountability rule the headlines. The city is teeming with protests for racial justice. When the body of a murdered black academy recruit is found in the Angeles National Forest, Finn is tasked to investigate.

As pressure mounts to solve the crime and avoid a PR nightmare, Finn scours the underbelly of a volatile city where power, violence, and race intersect. But it’s Finn’s past experience as a beat cop that may hold the key to solving the recruit’s murder. The price? The end of Finn’s career…or his life.

My Review:

Depending on how you look at it, Under Color of Law is either a mystery thriller about a young LAPD officer who finds himself a witness to a terrible act of police brutality and decides to go along with the coverup in trade for being fast tracked from uniform to detective. Only for karma to come back and bite him in the ass in a way that may be nothing less than he deserves, but endangers not just his career but his life.

Alternatively, this story is a searing indictment of the “thin blue line” and the culture that not merely allows but actually encourages bad cops to stay bad and get worse – because they know that their brothers and sisters in uniform – and even the brass that gives the orders – are more interested in covering up misconduct than investigating it. Because investigations lead to exposure, and exposure leads to questions, and questions cause the people that pay the taxes and support the police to lose even more faith and confidence in the ones who are supposed to serve and protect them than they already have.

It’s about controlling public perception much more than it is about the public good. And if both of the above interpretations don’t sound familiar, you haven’t read much crime fiction – and you haven’t been paying much attention to the news, how it’s delivered, and who nearly always ends up getting the short end of the stick.

Escape Rating A+: Under Cover of Law is compelling as hell. That’s it in a nutshell. This is an absolute breakneck page-turner of a book. I could not put it down and I could not stop reading until the bittersweet, heartbreaking but surprisingly hopeful end.

Although I have to admit that I can’t quite figure out how this could be a series starter. On the other hand, I don’t care. This was beautifully and thrillingly complete in and of itself. If there are more, I’d be thrilled. If there are not, this was marvelously enough.

(The second book in the series has been announced with the title Blue Like Me and will be published in November. I can’t wait to see how this story continues, because it felt like it ended and ended well. We’ll see.)

The, I want to call it the frame but that isn’t quite right, let’s say the opening mystery and its aftermath in the life of Detective Trevor Finnegan is one that has been used plenty of times in police-based mysteries. The story of the young cop who gets caught up in something beyond his control and chooses to go along to get along instead of risking the career he’s just begun has been used before. Sometimes the young cop goes bad. Sometimes he or she tries to blot out the memory and things go wrong that way. Sometimes they just hide it and karma comes around to be her bitchy self by the end.

The most recent series I’ve read that uses this plot device is TA Moore’s Night Shift series that starts with Shift Work. Even in that series’ paranormal setting, the plot device still works. And I’m sure there are others that just aren’t coming to the top of my mind at the moment.

What sets Under Color Of Law apart from other mystery/thrillers that use that same setup to get themselves set up is the way that it uses Finnegan’s experience as a rookie cop and his bargain with the brass to shine a light on the way that entrenched corruption rots even those who start out with the intent of reforming the system from the inside. Then it takes THAT story and contrasts it with a second story that begins with the same intentions, and interweaves it into a contemporary setting where we have all too much knowledge of how bad things really are because we’ve seen it splashed across the news following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner – among entirely too many others – in police custody under suspicious circumstances that would result in murder convictions for anyone not a cop.

We see that story unfold through the experience of Trevor Finnegan, a black police detective in LA, the son of a black police officer, as he is forced to reckon with the crimes that he committed, he allowed to be committed, and their impact on the life he’s dragging himself through instead of living.

And as we read and watch, we can’t turn our eyes away. And we shouldn’t.

Review: The Sorority Murder by Allison Brennan

Review: The Sorority Murder by Allison BrennanThe Sorority Murder by Allison Brennan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 448
Published by Mira Books on December 28, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"The 10 Best New Mystery and Thriller Books of December are Giving Us Literal Chills"--E! Online
"10 Books to Cozy Up With This December"--PopSugar
A popular sorority girl. An unsolved murder. A campus podcast with chilling repercussions.
Lucas Vega is obsessed with the death of Candace Swain, who left a sorority party one night and never came back. Her body was found after two weeks, but the case has grown cold. Three years later while interning at the medical examiner's, Lucas discovers new information, but the police are not interested.
Lucas knows he has several credible pieces of the puzzle. He just isn't sure how they fit together. So he creates a podcast to revisit Candace's last hours. Then he encourages listeners to crowdsource what they remember and invites guest lecturer Regan Merritt, a former US marshal, to come on and share her expertise.
New tips come in that convince Lucas and Regan they are onto something. Then shockingly one of the podcast callers turns up dead. Another hints at Candace's secret life, a much darker picture than Lucas imagined--and one that implicates other sorority sisters. Regan uses her own resources to bolster their theory and learns that Lucas is hiding his own secret. The pressure is on to solve the murder, but first Lucas must come clean about his real motives in pursuing this podcast--before the killer silences him forever.
"Fans of Jeff Abbott and Karin Slaughter will find this crime novel hard to put down." --
Publishers Weekly
on The Third to Die
"Downright spectacular... [A] riveting page turner as prescient as it is purposeful." --Providence Journal on Tell No Lies

My Review:

In order for a book to be a mystery, it has to include a dead body and a detective – or so I was once told.

The Sorority Murder begins as a cold case, with a dead body three years in the grave, and one determined college student raking up the mystery as part of his capstone project for his degree in criminal justice.

By the end, there are two detectives and a whole slew of dead bodies – pun most certainly intended.

For young Lucas Vega, the case is not about the same victim as the podcast. That’s his secret. He’s attempting to get closure on one young woman’s mysterious disappearance by focusing on another’s equally mysterious death.

Not because he has any inkling that the more recent death is linked to the earlier disappearance. Just that they knew each other. And that someone might know something about what happened to both of them.

For former U.S. Marshal Regan Merritt, the case begins as a way of figuring out what to do with herself in the wake of the death of her 11-year-old son. A boy who was killed not for himself, but as a way to punish Regan for helping to put a criminal behind bars. In the aftermath of such a profound personal loss, she couldn’t focus on a job where a lack of focus could easily get someone else killed. That her husband blamed their son’s death on her, and divorced her as fast as humanly possible in the wake of the tragedy, doesn’t register nearly as high on her scale of loss. But lost she is.

She’s back in Flagstaff, living with her father, the retired county sheriff, because she’s hit emotional bottom and has nowhere else she needs to be or wants to go. She’s in a holding pattern when her former mentor at Northern Arizona University puts her in touch with Lucas Vega.

Her experience and his enthusiasm turn out to be a motivating combination for both of them. Because he’s learned just enough about the inconsistencies in the investigation of Candace Swain’s death to intrigue Regan, and she’s more than enough of a professional investigator to get him started asking questions that should have been asked – and just plain weren’t.

But the problem with reopening the proverbial can of worms is that you can never get the worms back in the same size can.

Someone went to a great deal of trouble to make sure that the investigation of Candace Swain’s death went cold and stayed that way. Someone has a lifestyle they want to protect – at all costs. They don’t want anyone to stir this hornet’s nest. But Lucas’ podcast series has that nest well stirred.

Now that the case is no longer cold, someone has to make sure that all the investigative trails lead to dead ends. Threatening to turn Lucas Vega’s capstone into an early grave.

Escape Rating B+: What I loved about The Sorority Murder was the way that the story delved deeply into the painstaking process of the investigation. The case is cold, mistakes were made, and no one wants to dig this mess back up and expose those mistakes to the light of day.

But Lucas can’t let go, for reasons that neither we nor Regan discover until very late in the investigation. His motives are complex but not in the least sinister, and the case he really wants to reopen turns out to be more relevant than even he imagined when he began.

This isn’t a case of miscarriage of justice – rather it’s a case where justice wasn’t done at all. There’s a mystery. At first, the mystery is where Candace Swain spent the week before her death, because she wasn’t held prisoner, she wasn’t ill, she wasn’t on drugs, she wasn’t seen – and she wasn’t found where she was killed.

Something doesn’t add up. The police blamed her death on a missing homeless alcoholic – but they haven’t found him, either.

What’s strange is that Candace’s friends and most especially her sorority sisters, with whom she was reported to be very close, don’t seem to want the case reopened. They don’t have closure and seem to be adamantly opposed to getting it. All of them. Collectively.

In spite of the roadblocks put in his path, Lucas knows he has too much to let go of. Someone must have seen Candace during that week she was missing but not yet dead. Once people start remembering the little details that no one ever asked about, a picture starts to form.

The biggest part of this story, and the most fascinating one for this reader, was the dogged pursuit of the whole of that picture. Even as one person who provides a bit of a clue after another ends up dead either just before or just after their piece is revealed.

I loved the fits and starts of the investigation. Watching them uncover the puzzle pieces bit by bit kept me glued to the book almost right up to the end. The whole picture, once it was uncovered, still took me by surprise.

I have to say that the reveal of the killer felt a bit flat – or the killer was so far over the top that I didn’t quite buy it. Or that we got to see inside the killer’s head at that point and I just didn’t want to be anywhere near there.

So I was at the edge of my seat with this story until the very end. I loved following the investigation even though I found the actual perpetrator to be off in “bwahaha” land a bit. I still felt utterly compelled to reach that end.

I picked this up because I loved the author’s Tell No Lies last year and hoped for more of the same. While this wasn’t quite that, it was still, most definitely a riveting and suspenseful read.