Category Archives: Fiction

‘Close Out,’ by Jeff Shelby

Tonight’s review will be even shorter than last night’s. I’ve got a big translation project (at last), and deadlines loom. Posting may be sparse for the rest of the week. We’ll see how it goes.

Fortunately, this is another Noah Braddock book, Jeff Shelby’s series about a lonely surfer/private eye in San Diego. When Close Out begins, Noah and his giant friend Carter have been reduced to doing bouncer work at a local night club. Business has been slack. But one night a woman lawyer, Cynthia Guzman, comes in to talk to Noah. She has clients she’d like him to meet. But they can’t just get together. They need to meet in a secret place.

Cautiously, Noah agrees. He is introduced to two illegal immigrants, a middle-aged man and woman. They’ve been paying a mysterious “benefactor” who promised to clear up their legal problems and get them legalized. But he’s long on promises – and demands for payments – and short on results. They now realize they’ve been cheated. Can Noah help them recover their money?

It doesn’t look like a high-paying job, but Noah is interested. He agrees to look into it on a preliminary basis. The trail will lead to unexpected quarters, and to risk for himself and his clients.

Like the other books in the series, Close Out is a fairly low key, enjoyable read. The author is on his immigration crusade again – again there are no non-admirable “undocumented immigrants” in sight – but the politics aren’t too heavy-handed, and Noah and Carter are fun to hang out with.

Recommended with minor cautions for language.

‘Wipe Out,’ by Jeff Shelby

This will be a short review, but I’m giving you two posts today, and the other one is awesome.

I’m continuing reading Jeff Shelby’s Noah Braddock mystery series. This one is Wipe Out (cue background music – you’ll understand if you’re old enough). Noah, you’ll recall, is a California surfer/private eye, who’s spent many years overcoming his exceedingly dysfunctional upbringing to become a responsible and decent man. He’s still recovering from a personal tragedy that made him a fugitive for a while.

Mitch Henderson was the proprietor of a beach motel in San Diego, and served as a badly needed father figure for Noah in his youth. So when Mitch dies suspiciously, another friend, Anne Sullivan, who worked at the motel, asks Noah to investigate. Curiosity becomes something like desperation when Anne – instead of Mitch’s widow – is left the motel in Mitch’s will, and she becomes the target of threats and malicious vandalism.

This story looked at first like kind of a standard “surprised and threatened heir” story, a staple in the genre. But it worked out in surprising ways, and was resolved in a pretty satisfying manner.

I enjoyed Wipe Out, and recommend it, with mild cautions for language.

‘Impact Zone,’ by Jeff Shelby

Having finished Jeff Shelby’s “Thread” books, I moved on to his Noah Braddock series, which I’ve also enjoyed. Noah Braddock is an implausible private eye – a surfer who investigates in his spare time. But author Shelby does some interesting character development with him. Noah is the product of an especially dysfunctional background, fumbling his way to maturity. A few books ago he suffered a personal tragedy and had to flee his California home for a while. As Impact Zone begins, he’s back in San Diego, trying to rebuild his life.

A girl he once dated asks him to travel up to rural northeast San Diego County to talk to her father, who is a big avocado farmer. He’s installed closed circuit TV in various locations in his orchards, and one of the cameras took a picture that bothers him. It’s a young blonde girl who’s running, and looking scared. Can Noah see if he can find out who she is, and if she’s all right?

Noah feels intensely out of his element on a big farm, far from the ocean. But he hasn’t gotten far in his investigation when one of the farm workers disappears. There’s a ransom demand. Noah and his friend Carter find themselves facing a conspiracy involving surprising people, some of whom are playing for keeps.

The subject of illegal immigration is prominent in Impact Zone. Author Shelby obviously has strong opinions on the issue, because another book in the series, which I’m reading now, also deals with it. His is a pretty rose-colored view, in my opinion. In his world, there are no criminal “undocumented immigrants.” No drug cartel members, no gangsters, no human traffickers. Only hard-working, incredibly decent people, an example to us all. I think it hurts his storytelling a little, because we know from the beginning that certain possible scenarios just aren’t going to happen. If you have strong feelings about immigration, you may have trouble with these books.

The editing falls down occasionally, and at one point a firearm starts as a rifle and then somehow transforms into a shotgun.

But I like Noah Braddock, and I enjoyed the book anyway. Mild cautions for language.

‘Thread of Truth,’ by Jeff Shelby

I’ve been going through Jeff Shelby’s “Thread Novels,” starring former cop and current lost kid locater, Joe Tyler. This is the last book published to date, as far as I can tell, so tomorrow I’ll have a review from a different Jeff Shelby series. His books aren’t without their flaws, but I like the writing and the damaged main characters.

In many ways, Thread of Truth is a riff on the same theme as the book I reviewed last night. Again a young man has disappeared, and Joe Tyler is asked to try to find him. Again the lost kid is a recovering drug user, who has been clean for a while, but may have been involved in something else dangerous.

Joe Tyler has given up teaching now, a career he never really liked much. So when Desmond Locker’s parents ask him to find their missing son, he takes the job. The boy’s girlfriend has just given birth to his baby, and he had lots of plans for the future. He had not gone back to drugs, everyone insists. He’d been working hard and saving his money.

But his boss says he hasn’t given him the overtime he’s been talking about. So where did his money come from?

There will be no easy answers, and little good news. Many people are hiding secrets.

These books are pretty low key for their genre, but I like that just fine. I enjoyed Thread of Truth as I have the rest of the series. Recommended, with minor cautions for language.

‘Thread of Doubt,’ by Jeff Shelby

Plowing through Jeff Shelby’s interesting “Thread” series of mystery/thrillers. The hero, Joe Tyler, as you know if you’ve been following these reviews, is a former cop in Coronado, California. His life changed when his little daughter was kidnapped, and he spent years single-mindedly chasing her down. In the end he did locate her, now a teenager, and brought her home. At the beginning of Thread of Doubt she’s just back from college for Christmas break. She wants to talk to Joe about something, but he has trouble making time. He’s been teaching high school, and is behind on his class work. On top of that, he’s got a new investigation to look at in his free time.

He hadn’t intended to look for another kid, but the request came from an old cop friend, Mike Lorenzo. Mike’s nephew, for whom he was a sort of father figure, has disappeared. The young man has a history with drugs, but had seemed to have cleaned up his act. He was a musician, and his band looked to be on the brink of a commercial breakthrough.

Joe talks to the young man’s friends and girlfriend. What he learns brings him to a grim discovery, and grim solution to the mystery.

Thread of Doubt was a fairly by-the-numbers effort, and the end surprisingly low-key. But I like the characters and have had a good time following Joe’s odyssey. I enjoyed Thread of Doubt, and recommend it, with only minor cautions.

‘Thread of Revenge,’ by Jeff Shelby

Somehow I’d gotten the idea that Jeff Shelby’s “Thread” series of mystery/thrillers had come to an end. I was even more surprised to find that I’d missed one. By which I mean that I’d missed the book before the last book I reviewed here, Thread of Danger. I have a vague idea that I noticed at the time that something big had changed. Turned out I’d skipped an episode.

Anyway, Thread of Revenge is the book I skipped, which I’ve now read. I almost think I might have bypassed it purposely, because some awful things happen and I enjoyed this one least of them all.

It’s always necessary to give you deep background, especially with this series. It started out with the hero, Joe Tyler, searching for his daughter Elizabeth, who was snatched from his front yard just before Christmas one year. After years of searching, he did locate her (with an unaware adoptive family in Minnesota), and now the family is almost back together. He and his wife Lauren, now divorced, have been reconciling.

But in his quest to find Elizabeth, Joe desperately asked a favor of a very bad man in Minnesota. The bad man asked him for a favor in return. Joe did not keep his part of the bargain, and lied to him about it.

Now the bad man knows. And he’s kidnapped Lauren. Jack must do the awful thing he promised to do, or Lauren will die.

That’s a pretty horrifying scenario. Joe has to do his best in a lose/lose situation, and things will get very nasty indeed.

I found this story unpleasant, and somewhat unsatisfying. Also, a major plot element didn’t make sense to me – though author Shelby is likely setting up a return visit to the situation in a future book.

But the writing’s good, and I like the characters. I’m continuing to read the series, as you’ll learn with tomorrow’s review.

But Thread of Revenge was a bit of a downer. Cautions for the usual stuff.

‘A Cotswolds Murder,’ by Roy Lewis

When I bought Roy Lewis’s A Cotswolds Murder, I’d forgotten that I’d bought another volume in the Inspector Crow series (first published in the 1970s) and reviewed it some time back. I wasn’t terribly impressed with that one. I liked this one quite a lot better. I might even become a fan.

Chuck Lindop was a man on the margins of civil society. A con man, a charmer, a would-be burglar, he held down a respectable job as manager of a “caravan site” (what Americans would call a trailer park). But he dreamed of the big score that would make him rich – and he wasn’t above resorting to violence when charm wouldn’t do the job.

So it’s no great surprise when his body is found in front of his caravan, his skull bashed in by a crowbar. And there’s no shortage of suspects with motives to kill him – spurned lovers, jealous husbands, victims of his cons, and angry former associates. But the police have a hard time working out who had opportunity to kill him, based on the comings and goings at the site that night.

So they call in Inspector John Crow of Scotland Yard. (By the way, I read some time back that this never actually happens. Scotland Yard is a metropolitan police service, and does not provide consultation for departments in the provinces. But the visiting inspector is a hoary trope of English mysteries, so what are we to do?) Inspector Crow is tall and skeletally thin, with a bald head. He looks like a vulture, but he’s an empathetic man. His great advantage as an investigator is his sympathetic understanding of human nature.

Author Lewis does an excellent job of fooling the reader with red herrings in this story, and tops it all with a surprising – but dramatically satisfactory – final surprise.

I enjoyed A Cotswolds Murder quite a lot. I recommend it, and no cautions are necessary.

‘Murder On the Run,’ by Bruce Beckham

I’ve been a fan of Bruce Beckham’s Inspector Skelgill series for some time, but I think I may have been underestimating it. These are entertaining traditional mysteries set in remote English Cumberland. Inspector Dan Skelgill is a skilled investigator, curmudgeonly before his time. He amuses himself by being thoughtless with his subordinates, even DS Jones, an attractive woman who is openly interested in him, but whom he considers too young for him. He has been burned in love in the past, and so sublimates his feelings through his work and his hobbies – fishing, motorcycling, and fell (mountain) running.

It’s while he’s out on a run at the beginning of Murder On the Run that he discovers a fresh talent – Jess, a young woman with the makings of a record-breaker (he himself holds the current record). When he discovers that she’s part of his far-flung extended family, he takes her under his wing and becomes her coach. This despite the hostility of her negligent mother, who seems to be a prostitute and a drug addict.

Meanwhile DS Jones has been temporarily transferred to a task force investigating drug smuggling in the area, and a seductive female officer has been sent to replace her, causing much amusement. Skelgill mistrusts the officer running the operation, and fears for DS Jones’ safety – with good reason. His own family connections are at the edges of the criminal action, and Jess may be in mortal danger if Skelgill can’t run interference for her.

Tolkien was told by his friends that hobbits are only amusing when in “un-hobbit-like situations.” I like Skelgill best when he’s acting in an un-Skelgill-like manner. In Murder On the Run he breaks out of his alienation to show genuine care and concern for another human being, and that element made this book my favorite of the series to date. I also noted some very good prose, while foul language is pretty completely avoided.

Author Beckham does misuse the word “myriad,” but I guess everyone does that nowadays. Recommended.

‘Only to sleep,’ by Lawrence Osborne

The Raymond Chandler estate has asked three authors (Robert B. Parker, Benjamin Black, and now Lawrence Osborne) in recent years to write continuation novels about classic private eye Philip Marlowe. Only to Sleep is the third and most recent, written by Osborne.

The book is set in 1988, and the investigator is now 72 years old, rusticating in a hotel in Baha, California. When two insurance company representatives show up and ask him to go to Mexico and make some inquiries for them, he finds himself interested. He’s bored, and doesn’t really care much if the job gets dangerous (which they assure him it will not).

He sets out on the trail of Donald Zinn, an American businessman who was found murdered on a beach – and very quickly cremated. The company paid out his wife’s insurance claim, but they’re suspicious. The hunt leads to that wife, a young and beautiful woman who fascinates Marlowe. He soon becomes certain that the man she’s traveling with is in fact Zinn, who faked his death. But Marlowe’s actions after finding them are… ambivalent.

I wasn’t greatly impressed by Only to Die. There’s some good writing here, but the story – like its hero – has weak legs. Raymond Chandler’s famous advice on plotting was, “When in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.” That policy doesn’t work very well when your hero is in his seventies, though. If tough guys with guns show up too often, the show will pretty much be over. So other ways have to be found to pass the time. And although Marlowe’s meditations on life are one of the pleasures of a Chandler novel, they can’t carry a whole book – especially in the hard-boiled genre.

On top of that, a major plot point involves Marlowe doing something that strongly violates his private eye code (as I understand it). He mitigates that choice through later actions, but the whole business diminished him for me.

So I don’t highly recommend Only to Sleep. I finished it, so it didn’t insult my intelligence, but it wasn’t what I hoped for. Cautions for language and adult themes.

‘Neon Prey, by John Sandford

Another year, another John Sandford Prey novel (this one’s number 29). In Neon Prey, hero Lucas Davenport, still living in St. Paul and now operating as a US Marshal, gets called to a bizarre crime scene in Louisiana. Cops raided a hit man’s house, and discovered a number of bodies buried in the adjacent swamp – and those bodies show signs of being butchered. This killer is a cannibal. Lucas and his two regular partners, marshals Bob Matees and Rae Givens (double gags there – “Bob and Rae” for old radio fans, plus a hat tip to Elmore Leonard) join the hunt for this guy. They trace him as he hooks up with his brother, a home invasion expert, and members of his gang in Las Vegas. The clues are few and far between, but the cannibal proves no asset to his brothers’ gang, and in the end it will be every person for themselves.

Author Sandford offers the usual pleasures of a Prey book here – the familiar, interesting hero, plus a lot of politically incorrect cop humor. But I have to say that if this had been the first book in the series I’d read, I probably wouldn’t read another. I found the ending highly unsatisfactory.

So, my verdict is this: If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll probably enjoy Neon Prey, at least up to a point. If you’re not, I really don’t recommend it.

Cautions for language, violence, and very disturbing scenes.

Unsolicited endorsement

Pat Patterson dropped a rather nice review of The Elder King over at Goodreads:

Take Major Mythic Story; kick it HARD in the nose; and then…DANCE! (while you can)

On the off-chance that you HAVEN’T read Lars Walker until now, you are in for a treat. When “The Elder King” became available on March 14, I murmured “HOORAY!”The only reason I was that restrained is because of the overwhelming backlog of reviews I owe, of excellent books written by excellent writers. I really did NOT want to disrupt my queue! However, I downloaded the book, and then let my affection and Need to Read take over.

Thanks, Pat. Read it all here.

‘The Body on the Shore,’ by Nick Louth

In a quiet English town, a young architect is shot to death in his office. Shortly after that, far away on the Lincolnshire coast, a man is found murdered on the beach. The police don’t know it yet, but the two crimes are linked. Meanwhile, a wealthy mother is concerned about possible threats to the lives of her adopted children – but the police don’t take her seriously. When the two children are kidnapped from their school, though, Detective Chief Inspector Craig Gillard is forced to investigate – having no idea that the kidnapping is tied to the murders. He will discover the common thread before long – Albanian origins. And he will see things that shock him to his core when he follows the trail to the wilds of Albania itself.

I discovered when I bought The Body On the Shore, second in a series, that I had bought the first book already. I must have set it aside for some reason. I persisted with this one, and was rewarded with a pretty good read. Though not a world-beater, in my view.

I have read other books by Nick Louth, and one thing I enjoyed about them was their occasional flouting of political correctness. I take it Louth has turned over a new leaf with this more recent series, as the social consciousness lessons are there (though I’ll admit they’re subtle). The excursion to Albania was calculated to shake any reader. I can’t say the events there were exaggerated, but I found the action a little unbelievable. That’s how thrillers tend to be, though. I really prefer mysteries, but the genres are blending these days.

The Body On the Shore is well-written, with an engaging hero. Recommended if you like this kind of thing. Cautions for language and mature situations, including one real shock.

An authorial sin

When I spend substantial time with a book, and then throw it aside in frustration, half-finished, I don’t like to name the work or its author publicly. After all, I haven’t given either of them the full time they asked for. But I sometimes want to tell you about it, anyway, in case it might be of some use – especially if you’re a writer.

So it is with the book I 86’d over the Easter weekend. It shall remain nameless. It shall not go unchastened.

It was promoted as a sort of Wodehousian comedy, and I guess it was. In a way. It was generally lacking in actual funny lines, but the author did a fairly good job of building up ridiculous situations, so that I sometimes chuckled over the altitude of the gag, if I can put it that way.

But he offended me – as a Scarlet Letter puritan – by treating it as a matter of course that a couple will fall into bed the very evening they fall in love. It got worse when I learned that the (admittedly charming) main female character had been married before to a man who adored her and was faithful, but had dumped him because she wanted more excitement in her life.

That ain’t funny, in my world.

And then, about halfway through the book, the hero made a stupid, stupid decision. A decision calculated to bring him trouble and put him on the run from the law. And I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why he’d ever do the stupid thing. It was illogical and imprudent. Worse than that, it was out of character.

In other words, it looked as if the author had forced the decision on him against his will, simply to keep the plot going. If he’d done anything that made sense, the story would have been over. And happily.

My righteous writer’s fury blazed up against this author, and I cast his book into the outer darkness of Kindle limbo.

Go and do thou differently, O writer.

‘The Invisible Man,’ by P. F. Ford

Number 14 in the ongoing Dave Slater mystery series by P. F. Ford is The Invisible Man. Our two heroes, former police detectives Dave Slater and Norman Norman of Tinton, England, are contemplating the collapse of their private detective enterprise. Lack of clients is the problem. Then, just as they’re preparing to shut down, a woman comes to see them. Lizzie Becker says that her 14-year-old daughter Lily died in a car crash two years before. The police say the girl had stolen the car, but Lizzie won’t believe it. In any case, she has just received a text message from her daughter’s phone. The phone has not been seen since the accident. She knows her daughter is dead. But what kind of monster would send her a message like that, to open old wounds?

Dave and Norman take the case. An examination of the accident site leads them to a strange homeless man, one who claims to be a war veteran with PTSD, who claims to have seen the aftermath of the accident. Interrogation of the girl’s other family members, and of the family that owned the stolen car, leads them to questions of business fraud, adulteries, and possible child abuse. There are dark secrets here, and deep hatreds, and a ruthless plan for vengeance.

As I’ve said before, I don’t rate the Dave Slater series extremely high as detective literature. The prose is less than masterful, and the plotting (I think) somewhat weak. I like the characters of Dave and Norman (that’s the main reason I keep coming back), but they seem to spend an awful lot of time just chatting back and forth. And the ending of this story was… kind of a letdown.

But it’s another book in a pleasant series, and it was enjoyable. Minor cautions for fairly mild rough language and disturbing themes.

Raising my profile

I clicked over to the Amazon listing for The Elder King today, and was delighted to see that I already have 6 reader reviews, all glowing.

Thanks to everyone who took the trouble write a review. It does matter, and it is appreciated.

It occurs to me that I could appeal to madness of crowds, and ask for promotional tips.

What methods would you suggest for a writer with not too much money to draw attention to his work?

We all know, of course, that the better the advice, the less likely I am to take it. Because really useful promotional techniques generally involve a degree of chest-puffing, arm-waving, and horn-tooting that’s simply beyond my capacity.

But at least you can say you tried.