Review: Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

Review: Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna RaybournKillers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 368
Published by Berkley Books on September 6, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Older women often feel invisible, but sometimes that's their secret weapon.
They've spent their lives as the deadliest assassins in a clandestine international organization, but now that they're sixty years old, four women friends can't just retire - it's kill or be killed in this action-packed thriller.
Billie, Mary Alice, Helen, and Natalie have worked for the Museum, an elite network of assassins, for forty years. Now their talents are considered old-school and no one appreciates what they have to offer in an age that relies more on technology than people skills.
When the foursome is sent on an all-expenses paid vacation to mark their retirement, they are targeted by one of their own. Only the Board, the top-level members of the Museum, can order the termination of field agents, and the women realize they've been marked for death.
Now to get out alive they have to turn against their own organization, relying on experience and each other to get the job done, knowing that working together is the secret to their survival. They're about to teach the Board what it really means to be a woman--and a killer--of a certain age.

My Review:

Women of a “certain age” are expected to fade into the background – and if they don’t fade voluntarily society is more than willing to keep shoving them into the shadows until they finally get the hint.

So it’s not a surprise to 60-somethings Billie, Mary Alice, Helen and Natalie that after 40+ years as an elite assassination team working for the mysterious “Museum” they’ve been retired and put out to pasture. They miss the adrenaline of the work, but they’re not totally miserable at the idea of retirement at least on some levels. Living on the knife edge of danger always did get the blood pumping, but the recovery times are a LOT longer than they used to be.

But the offer of an all-expenses paid elite cruise on a luxury yacht is the least the Museum owes them in addition to the generous pensions they’ve all more than earned.

What they have not earned, do not deserve, but discover they have to deal with anyway, is a member of the Museum’s “operations” staff posing as a member of the ship’s crew. As they have not been contacted about a job, or even just given a heads-up about his presence, they realize that they ARE the job. Their former employers are literally out to get them – and they are very, very good at getting the people they set out to get.

But Billie, Mary Alice, Helen and Natalie were an elite team. The best of the best, trained by the best and tested time and time again in the field. Not many people in their profession live to retire and they plan to enjoy theirs for a long, long time.

In order to do that, they’ll just have to eliminate anyone – and everyone – who is out to get them. It’s a difficult job, but it’s one they’ve been doing for over 40 years. And they’re not done yet.

Escape Rating A-: Readers of a certain age, or even something vaguely approaching it, will probably think the outline of Killers of a Certain Age sounds a bit familiar – only because it is. If you remember the 2010 movie Red, about a group of retired CIA agents who are forced out of retirement because someone at their former agency is trying to kill them, it’s hard to miss the resemblance. Just put Helen Mirren’s character in charge as Billie, change her team to an all-female team and substitute the Museum for the CIA (who knows, the Museum might have been a cover for the CIA anyway) and there you go.

Which does not take a damn thing away from either the book or the movie, because they are both a hell of a good time.

As strange as this may sound, Killers is kind of a slow-burn thriller. A lot of prep work and planning goes into this caper, and we see it. This team doesn’t barge in with guns blazing – not because they’re old, but because that was never the way they worked. Their mission was always to get away undetected – and they were damn good at it.

The mission now is to take down all the people – and for people read men – at the Museum who set them up and plan to take them out in order to cover up their own corruption.

So a big part of this story is seeing them do the work of putting a plan together and getting the job done. That the job is to kill people and the plan is all about getting away with it doesn’t trouble them and doesn’t trouble the reader either. Whether this is justice or revenge, the dish is still going to be served ice cold. And the dessert is very, very just.

But the author called this a book about anger – and that feels like a pretty accurate description. Because in between the meticulous planning and sometimes nearly disastrous carrying out of those plans, the story slips back from Billie’s perspective on the rather fraught present to her recollections of the team’s past training and missions.

And every single one of the missions Billie recalls is an occasion where the very same men who ordered their executions underestimated them on a mission – only to get saved by this team of women that they still insisted weren’t up for the job. A nearly fatal mistake for each man then, and an absolutely fatal one now.

Isn’t it all too telling that the women got put out to pasture while the men who weren’t nearly as good got promoted to the top echelons of the organization?

Because the story in the present is told from Billie’s first-person perspective, and the sections in the past follow her even though we’re not in her head, the reader doesn’t get quite as clear a picture of Mary Alice, Helen and Natalie as we do Billie. Which is possibly the book’s only flaw. Their lives have taken such different turns in spite of their shared work so it would be fascinating to get more of their individual perspectives. But with what we do know, we see that their bond is as strong as the day it was formed. They love each other, sometimes they want to kill each other, often they want to tear each other’s hair out – but each would lay down their lives for the others and their sisterhood is both palpable and powerful.

I loved Killers of a Certain Age and sincerely hope that it turns out to be the first book in a series. The ending certainly hints at that possibility and I’d be thrilled to see it fulfilled. In the meantime, if you find yourself enjoying it as much as I did, there are several titles that might hit the same deadly sweet spot.

In addition to watching or re-watching the movie Red, the following books have at least elements of Killers of a Certain Age: The Thursday Murder Club series by Richard Osman, especially the second book, The Man Who Died Twice, the Slough House series by Mick Herron, Woman on Fire by Lisa Barr, and last but certainly not the least or the least deadly, An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten.

Review: Desperation in Death by J.D. Robb

Review: Desperation in Death by J.D. RobbDesperation in Death (In Death, #55) 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 #55
Pages: 368
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 6, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The #1 New York Times bestselling author presents a gripping new thriller that pits homicide detective Eve Dallas against a conspiracy of exploitation and evil…
New York, 2061: The place called the Pleasure Academy is a living nightmare where abducted girls are trapped, trained for a life of abject service while their souls are slowly but surely destroyed. Dorian, a thirteen-year-old runaway who’d been imprisoned there, might never have made it out if not for her fellow inmate Mina, who’d hatched the escape plan. Mina was the more daring of the two—but they’d been equally desperate.
Unfortunately, they didn’t get away fast enough. Now Dorian is injured, terrified, and wandering the streets of New York, and Mina lies dead near the waterfront while Lt. Eve Dallas looks over the scene.
Mina’s expensive, elegant clothes and beauty products convince Dallas that she was being groomed, literally and figuratively, for sex trafficking—and that whoever is investing in this high-overhead operation expects windfall profits. Her billionaire husband, Roarke, may be able to help, considering his ties to the city’s ultra-rich. But Roarke is also worried about the effect this case is having on Dallas, as it brings a rage to the surface she can barely control. No matter what, she must keep her head clear--because above all, she is desperate for justice and to take down those who prey on and torment the innocent.

My Review:

The desperation that leads to the death that brings Eve Dallas and her ever-expanding crew onto this case is one that Eve is entirely too familiar with. It’s the desperation of a girl who has been trapped into a life where she is merely an object for other people’s abuse and other people’s pleasure.

In Eve’s case, the “person” who kept her trapped and bound was her father Richard Troy. He’s dead. He’s dead because Eve’s desperation led to her killing the bastard at a point when she just couldn’t take it anymore. She was eight years old.

Mina and Dorian were kidnapped as preteens and whisked away to the Pleasure Academy, where they are being groomed and indoctrinated to become sex slaves for wealthy, influential and disgusting people, mostly men, who will take pleasure in raping them, beating them, and quite possibly even killing them if it strikes their or their so-called friends’ fancies.

In desperation, these two girls band together and attempt to escape from their well-appointed prison. Only one of them makes it. But the discovery of the other girl’s body opens up the kind of far-reaching case that will bring closure to bunch of families, freedom to a bunch of trafficked women, and visit justice upon a bunch of scumbags, one way or another, while letting Eve exorcize one or two of her own ghosts.

If she can just get one runaway girl to trust her with the truth. No matter how dangerous for the girl, and no matter how many nightmares it will give Eve along the way.

Escape Rating B+: Desperation in Death is a solid and compelling entry in the long-running In Death series – even if it is a trip to Eve and Roarke’s personal angst-factories by proxy. Or maybe because of that fact, as we get to see them work through a few more of their demons without the case reaching directly into either of their traumatizing childhoods.

Not that what Dorian Gregg and all the other girls the Pleasure Academy trafficked have experienced isn’t more than traumatic enough to give pretty much everyone on the team a few nightmares. But the lack of a specific personal connection to either Eve or Roarke makes the story a bit easier – just a tiny bit considering the subject – for the reader to get caught up in. But we’re caught the way the rest of the team is caught – wanting to catch the really, really disgustingly awful villains rather than caught up in the unspooling of yet more of either Eve or Roarke’s personal demons.

I follow this series, all 55 books and counting! because I love the found family that surrounds Eve and Roarke – including just how endlessly surprised Eve is that she has gathered a family of any kind around herself. So one of the things that made this entry in the series so much fun to read was the way that the gang really pulled together to nab the villains.

It also helped that in this case the villains were not just truly, despicably villainous, but that their villainy had nothing to do with any mental illness or trauma. They’re just awful people who need to get their just desserts. And if those just desserts get served in hell, so much the better.

This is in contrast with the previous book in the series, Abandoned in Death, which dealt with some similar crimes but came at them from an angle where everyone was traumatized including the perpetrator. I found that one hard-going because the villain’s head was one I didn’t want to be in at all and couldn’t read the parts from their perspective.

The villains in this case are so cold and dispassionate about the whole thing, and their points of view are both few and equally icy that the only peeks we needed into their heads were superficial.

In a way, this story was at one remove from both its villains and its heroes, and that made it easier to follow the action without diving too deeply into the motivations.

All of that is a way to loop back around and say this is a solid and solidly entertaining entry in the series for long-time fans. If you love Dallas and Roarke you’ll enjoy this season’s peek into their lives as much as I did.

And I’m already looking forward to the next book in the series, Encore in Death, coming out in February. A little murder among the rich and famous should be just the ticket to warm up a winter night or two!

Review: Back to the Garden by Laurie R. King

Review: Back to the Garden by Laurie R. KingBack to the Garden by Laurie R. King
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, thriller
Pages: 336
Published by Bantam on September 6, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A fifty-year-old cold case involving California royalty comes back to life--with potentially fatal consequences--in this gripping standalone novel from the New York Times bestselling author of the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series.
A magnificent house, vast formal gardens, a golden family that shaped California, and a colorful past filled with now-famous artists: the Gardener Estate was a twentieth-century Eden.
And now, just as the Estate is preparing to move into a new future, restoration work on some of its art digs up a grim relic of the home's past: a human skull, hidden away for decades.
Inspector Raquel Laing has her work cut out for her. Fifty years ago, the Estate's young heir, Rob Gardener, turned his palatial home into a counterculture commune of peace, love, and equality. But that was also a time when serial killers preyed on innocents--monsters like The Highwayman, whose case has just surged back into the public eye.
Could the skull belong to one of his victims?
To Raquel--a woman who knows all about colorful pasts--the bones clearly seem linked to The Highwayman. But as she dives into the Estate's archives to look for signs of his presence, what she unearths begins to take on a dark reality all of its own.
Everything she finds keeps bringing her back to Rob Gardener himself. While he might be a gray-haired recluse now, back then he was a troubled young Vietnam vet whose girlfriend vanished after a midsummer festival at the Estate.
But a lot of people seem to have disappeared from the Gardener Estate that summer when the commune mysteriously fell apart: a young woman, her child, and Rob's brother, Fort.
The pressure is on, and Raquel needs to solve this case--before The Highwayman slips away, or another Gardener vanishes.

My Review:

“We are stardust, we are golden” begins the chorus of Joni Mitchell’s song, Woodstock, from which the title of this book is taken. If you’ve been hearing the words in your head, as I have, the earworm is probably from the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young cover of the song, which has become a Classic Rock staple in the intervening, OMG 52(!) years.

At the time, the 70s did seem golden, but as SFPD Inspector Raquel Laing is forced to look back at the summer of 1979 – before she was even born – what she sees is a whole lot of naivete through a haze of pot smoke. By 1979 the counterculture movement was already in the rearview mirror.

But during that summer of 1979, so long ago and in many ways so far away, someone placed a dead body in a hole that was about to be filled with concrete, and there it has sat for over 40 years.

Waiting to be uncovered.

The Gardener Estate was once one of the palaces of California’s rich and famous. Then it was turned into an almost equally famous commune by a disaffected heir. So many years later, it’s a tourist attraction, known for its eclectic history, its beautiful gardens, and its collection of feminist artworks by a once-and-future famous artist.

It’s one of those artworks, a statue built from found objects showing the three faces of Eve, that has been hiding the grave. As the statue starts toppling, conservators rush in to save it – and to prevent it from falling on any of those tourists who keep the place afloat.

And that’s where Inspector Laing comes in. She’s working on a cold case that has just become much too hot for several police departments in Northern California. A serial killer operating in the 1970s, who was not only never caught but was never even recognized as anything more than an urban legend.

But “The Highwayman” as Michael Johnson was called was more than real enough for cancer to have caught up with him, and for his need for care to have uncovered his secrets. Now he’s dying, time is running out fast, and Laing has a burning need to get the details of all his victims so that closure can be provided to the families who have been waiting for so many long years.

The body under the Eves might be one of the Highwayman’s victims. It might help close this biggest of cold cases. But it might just open Pandora’s box on a brand new fresh one. It’s up to Laing to find out which. Before the clock runs out. Or before new bodies start piling up.

Escape Rating B+: I pickled this because I adore the author’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. While I certainly knew going in that this book was not a continuation of any of her other series I also knew that I’d get a taut and compelling mystery under the investigative eye of a complex but hyper-competent detective that would weave its way around a fascinating cast of characters.

And so it certainly proved. I’ll also confess that the earworm drove me absolutely bananas for the longest time, as the recognizable line from the song that forms the title of the book is obviously not the song’s title. Without a bit of google-fu I’d have gone completely batty by now.

The story is told in two timelines. The 1970s past and the 2020s present. I was in high school, college and graduate school in the 1970s, so old enough to remember but not quite old enough – or at least not brave enough – to be part of the counterculture movement. Still, the 1970s part of this mystery rings very true.

In the here and now, Laing’s career is hanging by a thread. She’s on probation, working the cold case files with her mentor, while the powers-that-be decide what to do with her and her tendency to bullheadedly follow a case out past the bounds of not just propriety but even straight out into questions of illegality.

Her sister has fingers in some very murky corners of questionably sourced information on the dark web. Using her sister to get information relevant to her cases is a good way to get the case tainted beyond the ability to prosecute. But sometimes she can’t resist because there are crimes that are just so dirty that the ends do seem to justify those means.

Laing is afraid that the Highwayman’s buried victims may be one of those cases, and much of Laing’s part of this investigation is wrapped in her questioning of herself about just how far she should go.

But what makes this story so compelling are the questions about the past. She may not know who was buried under that statue but she does know when it happened. The Eves were raised at the end of the summer of 1979, after a commercially successful folk-rock festival that literally tore the community apart. Thousands visited the community that one event-filled day. In the aftermath, several members of the community left.

As she interviews the remaining community members, a picture begins to emerge of those final, fraught, frantic days. A picture that brings 1979 back to life in all of its rainbow-tinted, drug-hazed glory. And tragedy.

While I came to this for the mystery investigation, what kept me turning pages was the nostalgic recreation of an era that was already gone even at the time it happened. (If this part of the story appeals to you as well, take a look at Lady Sunshine by Amy Mason Doan.) The reader is right there with them, seeing the dream, knowing just how soon it’s going to die. It’s not a surprise that the commune failed. It’s a surprise that it lasted as long as it did. It’s also telling that a big chunk of the reason it lasted was the money that came from the Estate. That they all thought the Estate was a tainted capitalist enterprise that they shouldn’t be benefiting from showed how shaky the foundation really was.

And yet it is clear from the survivor’s recollections that the brief period was the high point of their lives, and that they look back with teary-eyed nostalgia.

But the hand pulling back that curtain of nostalgia isn’t as clear as those memories. Laing is interesting, but it doesn’t feel like we got enough of her to really know her. In contrast, one of the things that makes Mary Russell so compelling is that her character is sharp and distinct from the very first page of her very first adventure in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.

Laing is a very insular character, as is Holmes. But she doesn’t have enough of a foil, at least not yet, to allow us to see her in fullness through another’s eyes. So far, at least, she reads more as a vehicle than a character. Howsomever, the way that Back to the Garden ends does leave the door wide open for a sequel. If this turns out to be the start of a series, we’ll get to see where Laing’s penchant for obsessing over her cases leads to next.

One final note, as this story’s title teased me with its call back to Joni Mitchell’s song, the story itself evoked pieces of other books as well. I mention Lady Sunshine by Amy Mason Doan as both books have that same sense of looking back at the 1970s through golden-tinted lenses of nostalgia. The state of the Gardener Estate, its checkered history and the perilous state of its finances along with the mystery surrounding its past reminded me of Museum of Forgotten Memories by Anstey Harris. And Laing’s career as a serial killer profiler made me think of the Quinn & Costa series by Allison Brennan.

Depending on which parts of Back to the Garden have the most appeal to you, you should hopefully find something else fascinating to tide you over until the book comes out next week!

Review: Dirt Creek by Hayley Scrivenor

Review: Dirt Creek by Hayley ScrivenorDirt Creek by Hayley Scrivenor
Narrator: Sophie Loughran
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 336
Length: 10 hours and 29 minutes
Published by Flatiron Books, Macmillan Audio on August 2, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

When twelve-year-old Esther disappears on the way home from school in a small town in rural Australia, the community is thrown into a maelstrom of suspicion and grief. As Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels arrives in town during the hottest spring in decades and begins her investigation, Esther’s tenacious best friend, Ronnie, is determined to find Esther and bring her home.
When schoolfriend Lewis tells Ronnie that he saw Esther with a strange man at the creek the afternoon she went missing, Ronnie feels she is one step closer to finding her. But why is Lewis refusing to speak to the police? And who else is lying about how much they know about what has happened to Esther?
Punctuated by a Greek chorus, which gives voice to the remaining children of the small, dying town, this novel explores the ties that bind, what we try and leave behind us, and what we can never outrun, while never losing sight of the question of what happened to Esther, and what her loss does to a whole town.
In Hayley Scrivenor's Dirt Creek, a small-town debut mystery described as The Dry meets Everything I Never Told You, a girl goes missing and a community falls apart and comes together.

My Review:

Dirt Creek is a “For Want of a Nail” story in the guise of a mystery/thriller plot. “For Want of a Nail” is a proverb that starts out with losing a horseshoe because the protagonist needs a nail to keep the horseshoe on the horse. And it results in the loss of a kingdom because of the chain of events that follows.

Dirt Creek is that kind of book. It begins with a then-unknown person discovering the corpse of a young girl buried in a shallow grave on a remote property outside of the tiny, dying town of Durton not too far outside of Sydney, Australia.

Most of the residents of Durton call it “Dirt Town”, and the creek that runs near town is “Dirt Creek”. (Dirt Town seems to have been the title of the original Australian edition of the book.)

While the book kicks off with the finding of that body, witnessed by a couple of unnamed – at least at that point – children, that event is actually the final nail in the killer’s coffin. The story, the story of how so many things fell apart in Durton, begins the Friday before, when 12-year-old Esther Bianchi doesn’t come home from school. On time. Or at all.

The story, over a long, hot weekend and part of the next week, follows the unfolding events from multiple perspectives. The police detectives who come out from Sydney to investigate Esther’s disappearance, Esther’s mother, Constance. Constance’s best friend Shelly. Esther’s best friend Veronica – who everyone calls Ronnie. And Esther and Veronica’s mutual friend, Lewis, an 11-year-old boy who is being bullied at school and beaten at home.

Everyone in Durton knows everyone else, their friends, their families, their secrets – and their lies. Sooner or later, all the truths are going to bubble to the surface. Nothing ever stays buried for long – not even poor Esther Bianchi.

But by the time Esther’s body is found, the weight of the secrets, both big and small, that are being hidden from both the police and the entire community, have already broken at least one marriage, rescued at least one mother and her children, caused one child to be savagely attacked – and torn an entire town apart.

Because at the very beginning of Esther’s story, two children saw something very suspicious. Something they were much too afraid to tell. And because they didn’t, for want of that telling at a time when it would have done the most good, one event led to another – until all the pieces came together at the quietly chilling end.

Escape Rating B-: This is going to be one of those “mixed-feelings” kinds of reviews. You have been warned.

Before I start on the things that drove me bananas, one thing that most definitely did not was the narrator, Sophie Loughran. I listened to about half the book and read the rest because I was pressed for time. I wish I could have continued with the audio because the reader was excellent and did a terrific job with the Australian and English accents. She made each of the characters sound distinctive, which would have been particularly challenging because all of them, with the exception of 11-year-old Lewis whose voice hasn’t dropped yet, were female. And yet, I always knew who was speaking by accent, by intonation, by vocal patterns. She also did an excellent job of keeping to the slow, deliberate pace of the story, particularly when voicing Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels who both spoke and thought in a thoughtful, deliberate manner.

Howsomever, Detective Sergeant Michaels’ thoughtful deliberation pointed out an issue that I had with the story. For a thriller, it moves quite slowly. It takes half the book to set itself up – and to set Michaels and her detective partner up in Durton. As a thriller, this needed to move a bit faster. The descriptions of everything and everyone were meticulous to a point close to monotony.

There’s also a lot of foreshadowing. Not necessarily the obvious foreshadowing – because the reader is pretty sure that little Esther is not going to be found alive at the end of this story. The story, and the town it is set in, are both so bleak that there’s just no way to eke a happy ending out of this one.

What gets foreshadowed is the “For Want of a Nail” nature of the story. Every time someone fails to inform someone, anyone, else about an important clue, it gets foreshadowed that this lack of information might have changed things before all of the other terrible things that happened were too far along to prevent.

Those omissions do all turn out to be important, because they send the police on wild goose chases that waste time and personnel – both of which are in short supply. But it’s also a truth that everybody lies, so there’s nothing unexpected or exceptional about people lying to the police. It’s just humans being human.

As many red herrings and half-baked clues and misdirections there were in this story, there was plenty going on and oodles of directions for the case and the reader to follow. There were two elements of the various internal monologue that felt like one-too-many. One was that Detective Sergeant Michaels is keeping a secret from the reader and in some ways from herself about the reasons behind the breakup of her recent relationship. The other was that the children of the town who were not directly involved in the plot had chapters as a kind of Greek chorus. Either element might have been fine, but together they distracted from the progress of the mystery without adding enough to offset the time and attention they took.

So very much a mixed bag. I loved the narration. I liked that the small-town mystery was set in a small town somewhere VERY far away. I thought the mystery plot and the way that the police were stuck chasing their own tails a lot of the time was as fascinating as it was frustrating. I did not figure out whodunnit as far as the child’s death was concerned, while the various villains who were exposed during the course of the investigation did receive their just desserts – which is always the best part of a mystery.

But Durton turned out to be a seriously bleak place, and in the end this was an equally bleak story. I seriously needed to visit my happy place when I left there. I’m probably not the only reader who did.

Review: The Courier by Ernest Dempsey

Review: The Courier by Ernest DempseyThe Courier: A Dak Harper Thriller: 1 (The Relic Runner) by Ernest Dempsey
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, thriller
Series: Relic Runner #1
Pages: 286
Published by 138 Publishing on March 24, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Former Special Forces operator Dak Harper needs a job.
Out of work and on the run after a shocking betrayal by his brothers-in-arms, the ex-Special Forces commando hasn’t stopped moving for months.
He can’t. Some of the same soldiers who left him for dead in the Middle East still want his head. And they’re getting closer.
So far, he’s been lucky. But Dak is low on money and nearly out of time.All he needs is an easy gig. A place to lie low, bank some cash, and quietly figure out his next move.
That’s not exactly what he finds.
Some rich kid with more money than he knows what to do with wants to open his own museum. But first, he’s got to fill it, and that’s where Dak comes in.
Not sure if his gift for hunting bad guys will translate to finding priceless artifacts, Dak’s willing to give it a shot. He needs this job. The kid will pay him a lot of money and ask no questions.
Before he knows it, Dak’s on the first flight to South America, chasing his big payday. But Dak’s about to trade one set of problems for something even worse: the deadliest mission of his life.

My Review:

The Courier is the first book in an action adventure thriller series featuring former Delta operator Dak Harper. A man on the run, but not from a crime he committed. Dak is running from a crime he didn’t commit – or rather from the man who actually did commit that crime and is pissed as hell to have it pinned on him. Particularly after all the trouble he went to in his failed attempt to put Dak in that frame.

(That origin story is told in a 6-part novella series, descriptively titled The Relic Runner Origin Story. The reader does get enough hints of those events to slip into this book fairly easily, but I’ll probably read those when I get a round tuit because I always like more background.)

So Dak is open to a job that will take him out of the country, and temporarily out of the reach of the man who wants him dead. Even if it’s a job that might add more than a few names to that list of people who are out to kill him.

But the job he picks up at the beginning of this story is nothing like he ever expected. It’s also where that passing reference to Indiana Jones comes in. Twelve-year-old Boston McClaren has parlayed his knack for video gaming into an extremely lucrative career. And he plans to use some of his legally gotten gains to do something of dubious legality – or, at least, to pay someone, hopefully Dak, to do something of dubious legality on his behalf.

The young entrepreneur hires the disgraced Delta operator to go to Lima, Peru and re-appropriate, by whatever means necessary, a priceless relic purchased on the dark web by the cartel kingpin who runs everything shady in the city of Lima.

Considering that everyone in Lima from the Mayor on down is at least partially on that kingpin’s payroll, Dak is going to have to go through a lot of people – one way or another – to “find” the relic that he’s looking for.

The kingpin needs to go down, the city needs to get out from under his thumb, and that relic needs to get into the hands of a museum where many, many more people will be able to appreciate it and its history.

Dak Harper is looking forward to taking out the trash. Unless he ends up in it.

Escape Rating B: I picked this up on a whim because a writer whose work I really like recommended this author and the series. The comparisons in that recommendation were to Indiana Jones, Dirt Pitt And Doc Savage. While I’m more familiar with Indy than the other two, I’ve certainly heard of all of them. I have to say that I was a combination of intrigued and confused, but decided it was worth a try, if only because I enjoy the work of the author providing the recommendation so damn much.

Having finished The Courier, I think all of those comparisons are dead wrong, although the book made for a terrific, edge-of-the-seat read. But the cinematic character that Dak Harper resembles more than any other isn’t Indiana Jones – it’s Nathan Drake. And not so much from the movie as from the game series, also titled Uncharted.

And that includes the level of violence. You mow down a LOT of bad guys while you’re pretending to be Nathan Drake, including a whole slew of drug dealers, gun runners and kingpins of cartels dealing one, or the other – or both. Dak’s origins are actually a bit less shady than Nathan’s, but neither of their hands are exactly clean.

Howsomever, at least in this first outing, the Relic Runner as a series does bear a sharp resemblance to that video game. There is a story, but the story is in service of watching Dak Harper outsmart all of his opponents and essentially mow them down in one way or another. The conditions he observes in Lima are heartbreaking and even horrific, and the reader does reach the point of wanting to see all those bastards go down and go down as hard as possible while Harper does his best to avoid as much collateral damage as he can.

If you see it resembling a certain type of action-adventure video game – like the Uncharted series or even Tomb Raider – it’s easy to get caught up in the rhythm of the dropping of the bodies and just go with the action. But if you’re looking for a story with any kind of depth, you’ll probably be disappointed.

I wasn’t. I was looking for a bit of mindless adventure being led by a character who was superlative at his job and I got exactly what I wanted. We’ll see if that’s true in the next book in the series, Two Nights in Mumbai, the next time I’m in this kind of mood.

Which, admittedly, is the kind of mood where I either want to vicariously kill things by playing a video game – or read about someone else doing it in a story that – you guessed it – resembles a video game.

Review: The It Girl by Ruth Ware

Review: The It Girl by Ruth WareThe It Girl by Ruth Ware
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 432
Published by Gallery/Scout Press on July 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The #1 New York Times bestselling author of One by One returns with an unputdownable mystery following a woman on the search for answers a decade after her friend’s murder.
April Clarke-Cliveden was the first person Hannah Jones met at Oxford.
Vivacious, bright, occasionally vicious, and the ultimate It girl, she quickly pulled Hannah into her dazzling orbit. Together, they developed a group of devoted and inseparable friends—Will, Hugh, Ryan, and Emily—during their first term. By the end of the second, April was dead.
Now, a decade later, Hannah and Will are expecting their first child, and the man convicted of killing April, former Oxford porter John Neville, has died in prison. Relieved to have finally put the past behind her, Hannah’s world is rocked when a young journalist comes knocking and presents new evidence that Neville may have been innocent. As Hannah reconnects with old friends and delves deeper into the mystery of April’s death, she realizes that the friends she thought she knew all have something to hide…including a murder.

My Review:

Elinor Glyn, inventor of the “It Girl”

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen. That marvelous book is a fictionalized biography of the English couturier Lucy Duff-Gordon. It shouldn’t link to this book at all, but it does. Lucy’s sister, the novelist Elinor Glyn, created the concept of the “It Girl” embodied, at least on the surface, by April Clarke-Cliveden, whose murder lies at the center of this book I’m honestly struggling with here today.

It was a hit with my reading group, which is what made me pick it up. But just like last week’s Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen, in spite of that recommendation, it just didn’t work for me. As this book – like that one – has already been reviewed and summarized by oodles of readers, I’m just going to get into why I think it did not work for this reader in particular and let you be the judge of whether those reasons will apply to your reading or not.

Because this is a thriller, it starts in a place where the tension is supposed to already be ratcheted up. But, and again because it’s a thriller, the way in which that tension is created cuts it as well.

In the past, which we see in flashbacks, Hannah Jones was a student at a prestigious college at Oxford. Her suite-mate and “best” friend was the “It Girl” of the title, April Clarke-Cliveden. April was murdered, Hannah discovered her body, and its Hannah’s testimony that put the nails in the killer’s coffin during the police investigation and at his trial.

But it’s ten years later when the reader enters the story, and April’s killer has just died in prison, still insisting that he’s innocent of the crime. Whether he was or not, his death certainly brings all the vultures of the press out again, trying to ambush Hannah for a sound bite.

Including one reporter who is absolutely convinced that the police – and by extension Hannah – pinned the blame on the wrong man.

And that’s where the tension started draining out of the story for me. If the police had the right man in jail, there wouldn’t be a story. Therefore, they must have had the wrong man, meaning Hannah made a terrible mistake that is about to unravel.

Leaving me certain that sooner or later it would all be revealed and just waiting for the story to get on with it.

It didn’t help that Hannah is not and was not a strong enough personality to carry this story that she is irrevocably pinned to like a moth displayed on a card. Because Hannah was the pale moth, while April was the butterfly.

And both are shallow but at least April is vivid where Hannah is anything but.

The story twists backwards and forwards in time, so we get to witness the barely post-adolescent posturing of April, her hangers on and Hannah, leading up to that fateful moment when April is killed and Hannah is left to pick up the pieces of her shattered world.

And to pick up the not-so-shattered pieces of April’s ex-boyfriend, who Hannah later marries. When this story opens, Hannah and her husband Will should be celebrating that they have a baby on the way, but Hannah gets herself involved in re-opening the case of the man she helped convict of April’s murder, leaving her angsting over the past and her terrible mistake.

I didn’t find myself captured by any of the characters. Hannah seems to still be stuck in passivity. April may have been the victim of the murder, but she had so many victims herself along her way that it ends up not being all that much of question why she was murdered, only a question of which of her victims finally got up the courage to do the deed if it wasn’t the man who was convicted for it.

Something I found extremely problematic along that way was just how that wrong person got convicted and the way that false conviction is treated by Hannah once she realizes the truth – or at least her first version of that truth.

John Neville, however wrongful his conviction for April’s murder, was not innocent. He was the one of the porters at Hannah’s and April’s college and did use his position and his access to the grounds to stalk and harass many of the female students, including both Hannah and April. He wasn’t just awkward and a poor communicator. He set out to harass young women and he did so with impunity, as he was adept at making them feel creeped on – because they were – while never quite doing anything that was unequivocally obvious. He used the way that girls are socialized to be polite and not cause trouble to his advantage. He was not harmless in the least – he just wasn’t a murderer.

The defense that “he’s just awkward” has often been used in geek spaces to defend men who may be awkward but are trading on that awkwardness to ignore boundaries and refuse to take “no” for an answer with the claim that the “no” wasn’t clear or emphatic enough. It seemed cheap to use that as a way to defend a sexual predator who may not have been a killer but was never innocent, diminishing something that is a very real problem.

Everything about the conviction does make the reader wonder what the police were doing as all this was going on. It was not April’s responsibility to conduct the entire investigation and it’s not her fault if the police weren’t thorough enough doing their jobs.

(Once upon a time, Oxford’s Thames Valley Police Department was the province of the brilliant Detective Chief Inspector Endeavor Morse in the series of mysteries by Colin Dexter. Morse would be ashamed of their handling of this case.)

Many readers found the twists and turns in this case compelling. I didn’t like Hannah enough to get caught up in her angst – and I didn’t care for April nearly enough to be that invested in discovering who killed her. The police don’t seem to have done their jobs in the beginning, and the reporter who re-opens the case doesn’t seem to have ever learned the difference between assumptions and red herrings. It’s not that he was wrong in the end, it’s that the reasons for his compulsions in that regard don’t hold up to any examination. Then again, even a stopped clock is right twice a day – I’m just not all that interested in watching it.

Especially as the way that the story opens begged the central question. If the right man was convicted, there would be no story. Since there’s a story, they got it wrong. (It is possible to get around this conundrum – The Jigsaw Man by Nadine Matheson does extremely well – but it was obvious early on that just wasn’t the case here.) That Hannah takes the blame for that wrong all onto herself – and then proceeds to keep getting it even more wrong – just did not a compelling mystery make.

At least not for me. Your reading mileage may vary, as it certainly has for others. Escape Rating D

Review: The Binding Room by Nadine Matheson

Review: The Binding Room by Nadine MathesonThe Binding Room (Inspector Anjelica Henley, #2) by Nadine Matheson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Inspector Anjelica Henley #2
Pages: 512
Published by Hanover Square Press on July 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Detective Anjelica Henley confronts a series of ritualistic murders in this heart-pounding thriller about race, power and the corrupt institutions that threaten us
When Detective Anjelica Henley is called to investigate the murder of a popular preacher in his own church, she discovers a second victim, tortured and tied to a bed in an upstairs room. He is alive, but barely, and his body shows signs of a dark religious ritual.
With a revolving list of suspects and the media spotlight firmly on her, Henley is left with more questions than answers as she attempts to untangle both crimes. But when another body appears, the case takes on a new urgency. Unless she can apprehend the killer, the next victim may just be Henley herself.
Drawing on her experiences as a criminal attorney, Nadine Matheson deftly explores issues of race, class and justice through an action-packed story that will hold you captive until the last terrifying page.

My Review:

This case is gruesome, Henley and her team are flailing around in the pitch dark, and someone might seriously be eaten by an actual grue before it’s finally wrapped up. There are plenty of other disgusting, creepy, crawly things eating plenty of the bodies, so a grue isn’t all that far outside the realms of terrible possibility this time around.

And it’s utterly riveting. So as much as the reader is creeped out and chilled to the bone, it’s impossible to turn one’s eyes away. No matter how much the stomach turns.

We first met DI Anjelica Henley in The Jigsaw Man, another heart-stopping, gruesome thriller where Henley and her team were both the investigators in a serial killer case AND potential victims.

It’s not a surprise that the aftermath of that case left them all with PTSD flashbacks. Nor it is a surprise that nearly all of their personal lives – which weren’t all that stable to begin with – seem to be in even more of a shambles.

Henley’s marriage is hanging by a thread, as is her ability to do her job. There’s too much grief and anger in her not-so-distant past and she can’t seem to let it out or find any closure for it – no matter how many sessions she attends with a therapist who keeps calling her on her bullshit. Of which there is rather a lot.

But it’s the case that draws the reader in, and sticks in both the mind and the queasy belly long after you turn the final page. If it is final – something I’m still wondering about.

It starts with a body. The dead body of a self-ordained preacher in the office of his more than a bit shady megachurch. But the thing that really kicks off this case is that the preacher’s body isn’t the only body in the church. As the cops sweep the building looking for clues, Henley discovers a locked room hidden inside a bland meeting room, and inside that room there’s another body. A body that’s clearly been starved for weeks and tortured before, during and after whatever else happened in that room.

And it’s somehow still alive – in spite of it’s ghastly appearance. But what’s it doing there? And how, by all that is or isn’t holy in that supposed house of worship, did it get into that room and why is it there in the first place?

Caleb Annan – known to his worshipful congregation as Annan the Prophet – is dead. When Henley starts digging into his life, she discovers plenty of reasons why someone might have wanted to kill the bastard, starting with his wife. But nothing explains what that battered young man was doing bound to a bed and locked into that torture cell.

But the closer that Henley gets to the answer, the more bodies that investigation uncovers. And the more pitch dark and gruesome the story gets. Until the scab is finally pulled all the way off and the maggots crawl out.

Escape Rating A: I can’t use words like “enjoy” when talking about the reading of The Binding Room, because this doesn’t feel like the kind of story one enjoys – or at least that I enjoy. It’s the kind of story that has me on the edge of my seat, biting my nails, holding down my gorge and making sure all the lights are on. It’s compelling in the way that does not let the reader turn their eyes away because what it at its heart is a display of the many brutal ways in which human beings seriously suck and are entirely too capable of committing terrible evil in the name of the so-called “greater good”.

There are two cases here. The first, and the one that the powers that be would much prefer be the more prominent case, is the murder of Caleb Annan. That’s partly because he appears to be a pillar of the community and more than a bit because no matter what it seems like he was hiding – and he most definitely was hiding a whole lot – it’s a relatively straightforward case.

And there are the optics of the case, that Caleb was a black man, while the barely alive John Doe who was found hidden in the church is white. It seems like the press would rather follow the case of a missing white man rather than a dead black man – and there are plenty of political hacks willing to ride that angle as far as it will get them.

There’s also the problem that the more Henley discovers about that preacher, the less that any of the cops are able to see him as the victim of a crime. If he weren’t already dead, they’d be prosecuting his ass for everything they could get.

The other thing that hides under that surface is that the case of John Doe is a murky monster concealed under a whole lot of oozing muck. He’s not been reported missing, he has no identification, he was clearly tortured, and no one seems to be looking for him. And while he may have been found alone in that room, the more Henley digs the more she realizes that he was not the only victim of something so vile that no one wants to examine it closely. Or at all.

But she has no choice but to keep turning over rocks to see just how much slime crawls out.

That in the middle of all this her life and her marriage are still falling apart just adds to the ratcheting sense of danger and threat all the way around.

The Binding Room is a story to be read with all the lights on – and possibly a comfort animal or two or ten cuddled around. Because it’s not really about that simple murder. It’s a case about the evil that men and women do and it gets under the reader’s skin and just oozes and you can’t stop wanting to scratch it away.

It’s clear from the way that The Binding Room concludes that this will not be the final case for DI Anjelica Henley and the Serial Crimes Unit. Whenever the next book in the series comes out, I know I’m going to feel compelled to read it – and very possibly in one sitting as I did this one. Because I expect it to be another riveting, edge-of-the-seat, stomach churning read.

Review: The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill

Review: The Woman in the Library by Sulari GentillThe Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill
Narrator: Katherine Littrell
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 288
Length: 8 hours and 58 minutes
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In every person's story, there is something to hide...
The ornate reading room at the Boston Public Library is quiet, until the tranquility is shattered by a woman's terrified scream. Security guards take charge immediately, instructing everyone inside to stay put until the threat is identified and contained. While they wait for the all-clear, four strangers, who'd happened to sit at the same table, pass the time in conversation and friendships are struck. Each has his or her own reasons for being in the reading room that morning—it just happens that one is a murderer.
Award-winning author Sulari Gentill delivers a sharply thrilling read with The Woman in the Library, an unexpectedly twisty literary adventure that examines the complicated nature of friendship and shows us that words can be the most treacherous weapons of all.

My Review:

The mystery in The Woman in the Library is like one of those Russian nesting dolls. It’s a mystery inside a mystery inside yet another mystery.

Mystery writer Winifred (Freddie) Kincaid is sitting at one of the long reading tables in Boston Public Library’s Central Library on Boylston Street staring up at the ceiling for inspiration for her next mystery. When the ceiling fails to inspire, she observes her neighbors at the long table, and begins constructing a story around her three nearest neighbors, who she labels “Freud Girl”, “Heroic Chin” and “Handsome Man”.

Then they all hear a scream from a nearby room. As they wait at their table for security to investigate, they strike up a conversation. The characters on Freddie’s page become real people to her, and the story of who they really are becomes the second story.

But there’s a story wrapped around that, as we see correspondence from a writer named Leo, who seems to be making comments on the story of Freddie and her three new friends, Marigold, Whit and Cain. Now Freddie isn’t the author, Hannah is the author and Freddie and her friends are just a story while “Freud Girl” and her pals are the story within the story.

However, we don’t see the mysterious mystery writer’s responses to Leo’s commentary, so we don’t know if Leo is really writing to a fellow author or if he’s just making it all up.

But we do read the chapters about Freddie and her new friends as they form a surprisingly tight little group. The more they learn about each other, the more we learn about them. Cain McLeod, AKA Handsome Man, is an author like Freddie. Whit Metters AKA Heroic Chin is a law student determined to fail in order to avoid spending the rest of his life under his mother’s thumb as a member of the family law firm, while Marigold AKA Freud Girl is a graduate psychology student who seems to be in love with Whit as well as obsessively intrusive about the entire group.

And then it all goes a bit pear-shaped, as someone starts sending threatening messages to Freddie. The situation escalates when Whit is attacked and Cain’s past as a convicted murderer is brought to light even as Freddie realizes that she’s in love with Cain as much as Marigold is with Whit.

But along the way the comments on the manuscript from the mysterious Leo get creepier and creepier. The reader starts wondering about just how much of everything is either going on in Leo’s head – or is being caused by the increasingly unhinged would-be author.

That’s when all the stories inside the stories all blow up at once and we finally are able to start winding the ball of string that we thought was rolling in a straight line – only to discover that we’ve been wandering through a maze all along.

Escape Rating A: I would have loved to stick with the audio of this, because the narrator was doing an excellent job with the large cast and especially with all the accents. I just ran out of time and switched to the text. But the narrator was very good and I’d be happy to listen to her again. She did a particularly terrific Australian accent – unless she is Australian in which case she did several terrific and different American accents!)

That the narrator did such a good job differentiating the characters made it easy for the listener to distinguish who was speaking and or writing as the story twisted and turned. Because this is definitely one of those mysteries that twists and turns and doubles back on itself until the reader doesn’t know which end is up, down or sideways in the story, the story within the story, or even the story within that story. Or even which story is the story and which is supposed to be real life.

We don’t really see Freddie’s story about Freud Girl, Handsome Man and Heroic Chin, and at first it seems like Leo is commenting on the story we’re not seeing. That particular deception doesn’t last long, only for it to be replaced by questions about whether Leo is really communicating with his fellow author Hannah or whether he’s deluding himself and/or us because we never see Hannah’s side of the correspondence.

Once we do, the situation gets even crazier – and possibly so does Leo. At first his comments just seem very meta, literature commenting on literature. Then he seems obsessive and we start wondering whether he’s a true colleague or just a crazed stalker-fan. In other words, was the reference to Stephen King’s Misery a bit of foreshadowing or just a red herring?

But the story of Freddie and her new friends also gets more compelling – in spite of Leo’s increasingly creepy commentary. And even though we know that Freddie is a creation of some author’s imagination, we still become completely invested in her budding romance with a man who might be a serial killer. Or might just be the victim of an elaborate frame.

Freddie likens her own creative process to boarding a bus and watching as the characters drive that bus to a place or places unknown. Freddie’s story careens all over the road. She’s the only character we don’t suspect might be the murderer. There’s enough of a stew of clues and red herrings to make any explanation plausible.

Which is what makes this thing so damn much fun. We know it’s a story, so as much as we are invested in Freddie’s life, we also know it’s not real or serious. Leo, on the other hand, might possibly be both. Whatever conclusions we thought we had come to, in the end the resolution of all the mysteries is cathartic and surprising. It’s like arriving at the end of a roller coaster ride, smiling and laughing because it was fun not in spite of the thrills and near-spills, but because of them, even though our legs are still a bit wobbly as we depart. And because we feel just that tiny bit of astonishment that we survived everything that was thrown our way. Although there’s a ghost of a hint of a possibility that maybe neither story is truly over.

And isn’t that just a chilling way to end a mystery!

Review: Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine Schellman

Review: Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine SchellmanLast Call at the Nightingale (Nightingale Mysteries, #1) by Katharine Schellman
Narrator: Sara Young
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, thriller
Series: Nightingale Mysteries #1
Pages: 320
Length: 9 hours and 14 minutes
Published by Minotaur Books on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

* Duration: 09:14:29 *
First in a captivating Jazz age mystery series from author Katharine Schellman, 'LAST CALL AT THE NIGHTINGALE' beckons listeners into a darkly glamorous speakeasy where music, liquor, and secrets flow.
New York, 1924. Vivian Kelly's days are filled with drudgery, from the tenement lodging she shares with her sister to the dress shop where she sews for hours every day. But at night, she escapes to The Nightingale, an underground dance hall where illegal liquor flows and the band plays the Charleston with reckless excitement.
With a bartender willing to slip her a free glass of champagne and friends who know the owner, Vivian can lose herself in the music. No one asks where she came from or how much money she has. No one bats an eye if she flirts with men or women as long as she can keep up on the dance floor. At The Nightingale, Vivian forgets the dangers of Prohibition-era New York and finds a place that feels like home. But then she discovers a body behind the club, and those dangers come knocking. Caught in a police raid at the Nightingale, Vivian discovers that the dead man wasn't the nameless bootlegger he first appeared.
With too many people assuming she knows more about the crime than she does, Vivian finds herself caught between the dangers of the New York's underground and the world of the city's wealthy and careless, where money can hide any sin and the lives of the poor are considered disposable...including Vivian's own.
©2022 Katharine Schellman (P)2022 Dreamscape Media. LLC

My Review:

Prohibition was a noble concept, the execution of which was considerably less than noble. But as a setting for historical fiction, Prohibition and the Jazz Age that it spawned sparkles every bit as much as the spangled dresses that the “Flappers” of the period wore when they went dancing. At the speakeasies where liquor was bought from illegal bootleggers, ignored by cops on the take, and drunk by everyone who came to forget their troubles for a night of drinking and dancing.

Drinking can be a social lubricant even when it’s legal. Illegal booze drunk in barely hidden illegal establishments didn’t just break down individual’s inhibitions, it broke the social inhibitions between races, classes and identities.

Which is why Vivian Kelly dances at the Nightingale every night that she can, in spite of her older sister’s fear and disapproval. By day, Vivian lives in a constrained world. She’s Irish, she’s an orphan, she’s poor and she has a job that barely buys the necessities and has no prospects whatsoever. She and her sister seem doomed to be spinster seamstresses under the thumb of their overbearing, disapproving, autocratic boss until they step over a line or their eyesight gives out. They’re barely scraping by with little hope for better.

So Vivian dances as much as she can. She may not be able to dance away her problems, but she can certainly set them aside for a while when the drinks are flowing and someone is always looking for a dance partner.

Vivian also comes to the Nightingale because it’s where her best friend, Bea Henry, works as a dancer. Vivian may be white, but she’s also poor Irish. Bea is black, but in the poorer quarters of New York City where they live only a block apart, the Nightingale is a place where no one cares that they’re not supposed to be lifelong friends, just as no one bats an eye that the bartender is Chinese and the club’s owner is a woman who clearly prefers other women.

The Nightingale is a place where anyone can belong and everyone can be themselves – a place where people can put down whatever mask the outside world forces them to wear.

The night that Vivian and Bea find a dead body in an alley behind the club all of that is threatened. The police hush up the murder, but the dead man was high society and someone is determined to make the club and its owner, Honor Huxley, pay dearly for the privilege of staying open and keeping the secret.

All the secrets.

Vivian is in it up to her neck. She can’t get the scene out of her head, and she can’t help but gnaw at the few available threads of the mystery. When the club is raided, and Vivian finds herself owing Honor for her bail money, the only way she can pay the teasing, tantalizing woman back is to do a little bit of snooping. Vivian can’t admit to herself that she wants to please Honor, but she also wants to pay back what she owes and more importantly, she doesn’t know how she’ll live without the Nightingale.

But there’s someone wrapped in this mess who seems determined not to let the Nightingale, or Honor Huxley, or especially Vivian, go on living at all.

Escape Rating B: There has been a veritable spate of recent mysteries or fantasies with mystery elements set in the Jazz Age in recent months, all featuring female amateur detectives who are in over their heads so far that they nearly drown. The time period is fascinating because the illicit nature of the speakeasies encouraged a breakdown of social barriers, allowing all sorts of people to mix and mingle in ways that would have been impossible before.

The cover of Last Call at the Nightingale was so evocative of the era and the ambiance that I was hoping that the story would be up with the other recent trips back to the 1920s such as Dead, Dead Girls, Wild and Wicked Things, Bindle Punk Bruja and my absolute favorite, Comeuppance Served Cold.

This was a story where I flipped between listening and reading. I was in a time crunch and I really did want to find out whodunnit and whether I was right about the things I managed to guess in advance. Some books are much better one way than the other, but this turned out to be one where it didn’t matter. The narrator did a good job with the various accents and characters, but the performance didn’t elevate the material above and beyond what was on the page.

Whether in audio or text, I would say that this is a story that I liked more than I loved, and I think that’s down to its protagonist Vivian Kelly. In her mid-20s with no family other than her sister, raised in an orphanage, barely making ends meet, Vivian is poor and Irish and would probably be called “white trash” behind her back if not to her face. It would have to have been a “hard-knock life” as the play Annie put it, and she’d have to have more sharp edges and street smarts than she seems to.

She’s in so far over her head that she should be drowning. Or, she should be more cynical about pretty much everything. Not that she shouldn’t have dreams or be trying, in however messy a fashion, to make them true, but that she misses some of the realities of life that should be obvious.

Or it could be that the intervening century between her time and ours has made us much more jaded than she was. As soon as the public story about the situation with the dead man’s widow, her young sister and her bastard of a dead husband was revealed, it was screamingly obvious what the underlying cause of that part of the mess was – and Vivian didn’t even think it. Which felt off and made Vivian a bit more incongruous than I could quite believe.

Which doesn’t mean that the setup of the story wasn’t fascinating, or that the reveal of both whodunnit and why wasn’t completely earned. In the end, this reads like Vivian Kelly’s coming-of-age story, and sets up the possibility of more to come. If that more doesn’t materialize, this one is absolutely complete in and of itself. It’s just that there’s a door in the back of the bar that could lead into another mystery.

One of the things that I very much did like was the way that we explore Vivian’s world, both the good parts and the bad, as she undertakes her undercover adventure for Honor Huxley. Vivian’s journey travels through the dark places and shines a light on them without being preachy but still showing clearly just how much was wrong and how hugely unequal the many, many inequities were. And that the Nightingale was a haven where those things didn’t have to happen.

By the time we leave Vivian, she is only a tiny bit older, but much sadder and maybe a little wiser. She learns that nothing she thought was true at the beginning was, and that the people we look up to are in position to use us and hurt us the most. And that she’s going to have to be a lot smarter and grow a much tougher skin if she’s going to survive in the world she has chosen to inhabit.

If this does turn out to be the first in a series as both the Goodreads and Amazon blurbs seem to indicate, I’ll be very curious to see how well, or even if, she manages either of those things.

Review: Find Me by Alafair Burke

Review: Find Me by Alafair BurkeFind Me by Alafair Burke
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Ellie Hatcher #6
Pages: 293
Published by Harper on January 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The disappearance of a young woman leaves her closest friend reeling and an NYPD homicide detective digging into her own past in this thrilling mystery full of twists from the New York Times bestselling author of The Better Sister and The Wife.
Some pasts won’t stay forgotten . . .
She calls herself Hope Miller, but she has no idea who she actually is. Fifteen years ago, she was found in a small New Jersey town thrown from an overturned vehicle, with no clue to her identity. Doctors assumed her amnesia was a temporary side effect of her injuries, but she never regained her memory. Hope eventually started a new life with a new name in a new town that welcomed her, yet always wondered what she may have left behind—or been running from. Now, fifteen years later, she’s leaving New Jersey to start over once again.
Manhattan defense lawyer Lindsay Kelly, Hope’s best friend and the one who found her after the accident, understands why Hope wants a new beginning. But she worries how her friend will fare in her new East Hampton home, far away from everything familiar. Lindsay’s worst fears are confirmed when she discovers Hope has vanished without a trace—the only lead a drop of blood found where she was last seen. Even more ominously, the blood matches a DNA sample with a connection to a notorious Kansas murderer.
In pursuit of answers, the women search for the truth beneath long-buried secrets. And when their searches converge, what they find will upend everything they’ve ever known. 

My Review:

The title has a chilling double meaning in this wild thrill-ride of a story. On the surface it’s about Lindsay Kelly’s search for her missing best friend, Hope Miller. Under the surface of that desperate search, there’s Hope Miller’s search for herself.

Once upon a time, fifteen years ago, the woman now known as Hope Miller crashed a stolen SUV outside tiny Hopewell New Jersey. Her seriously injured body was found by the police chief’s daughter, Lindsay, on her way home.

When Hope regained consciousness in the hospital, she had no memory of the crash – or of any part of her life before it. She was a blank slate with no knowledge of who she was or what she was doing on that road or in that car. She had to start her life over with nothing to guide her.

But Lindsay saw her rescue of the young woman as a responsibility. She stood by the woman now called Hope every step of the way. The entire town protected her once the police chief and his daughter took her under their wing, always looking out for her. And making sure that no one tried to take advantage of her. They even found work for her, always paying in cash because Hope had no ID and no way to get one without a birth certificate. Legally, Hope existed in limbo.

Emotionally, she was a woman who began to want to stretch her wings – however tentatively. Hopewell was safe for her, but it was also a place where everyone was up in her business all the time. Lindsay’s close friendship was comforting but also confining, so Hope struck out on her own.

She moved to the Hamptons, found a place to rent for cash and an under-the-table job as a realtor’s assistant. Also for cash.

And then she disappeared. After a couple of weeks of no calls and no texts, her frantic best friend went to East Hampton to see Hope for herself. Only to learn that her friend hadn’t been seen or heard from for over a week. And that no one, not even the local police, was willing to start even a cursory search for a missing woman who might have just decided to vanish just as thoroughly as she had appeared all those years ago.

But Lindsay refused to believe that. She refused to let go. And in her unrelenting search for her missing friend she turned over a rock that no one even knew was there – until the snake crawled out.

Escape Rating A+: What makes this thriller so suspenseful and so damn, pardon me, thrilling is the way that it turns itself inside out not just once, but over and over and over again. The story starts out simple – a woman is missing and her friend wants to find her.

Then it grows tentacles.

Hope may have scammed her boss out of some cash before she disappeared. It looks like someone left behind a lot of blood in her last known location – and it’s not her blood. Someone claims she was stalking her boyfriend – and the man’s corpse turns up literally dead in the water – but not a drowning victim. No one shoots themselves in the back of the neck, hiding the wound under the hairline to make it harder to spot.

So Hope, whoever she really is, is wanted for murder.

But those tentacles suck in an NYPD homicide detective who has never given up on finding her father’s murderer. Which should be one hell of a stretch of the long arm of coincidence. Except that Hope has no memory of who she was or where she came from, so it’s just barely possible that she had something to do with either the death of a cop in Wichita Kansas fifteen years ago OR that her true identity had some relationship to the serial killer case that obsessed him.

And it’s equally possible that nothing Lindsay Kelly thought she knew about her best friend was really true. Or that someone that either Hatcher or Kelly has relied upon in this crisis is who they think they are. Or both. Possibly both. Frighteningly both.

This is a page-turning, nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat read as ideas and assumptions knot and unknot at breakneck speed with each move that Lindsay Kelly and Ellie Hatcher take. They are both searching for a truth that neither of them really wants to find. A truth that very nearly finds them first.

And just when the reader thinks the story is done, it twists one last time and muddies all the water all over again.

I had not realized when I picked this up that it was the 6th in a series featuring NYPD homicide detective Ellie Hatcher. I was immersed in it immediately without that background as the story focuses more on the original characters Lindsay Kelly and Hope Maxwell than it does Hatcher. But the story was so compelling that now I’m terribly curious about the earlier books in the series, starting with Dead Connection, so I’ll probably go back and pick them up the next time I’m looking for a compelling police thriller.

Because Find Me had me in its grip from the very first page.