Category Archives: Fiction

‘Suspicion,’ by Joseph Finder

Suspicion

Some time back a commenter on this blog recommended that I read Suspicion, by Joseph Finder. The suggestion fell through the cracks (in my head), but I’ve read it now. It is indeed a powerful, compelling thriller. Maybe too compelling for my delicate nerves.

The set-up is a classic Hitchcockian dilemma, in which a regular, decent guy gets caught up in criminal matters way beyond his experience. Danny Goodman, the hero, is a writer, not outstandingly successful. He’s missed a book deadline, but for good reason. His ex-wife died and left him with the care of his teenage daughter, Abby. Abby loves the private school she’s been attending, but it’s way beyond Danny’s means. He dreads taking her out of it, after the trauma of losing her mother.

And then he gets thrown a life preserver. Abby’s best friend is the daughter of a fabulously wealthy money manager, Tom Galvin. Tom considers Abby a much-needed good influence, so he offers Danny a large loan. After struggling with his pride, Danny accepts. It helps that he genuinely likes Galvin as a friend.

And then the hammer falls. Danny gets pulled in by a couple DEA agents. They tell him Galvin is working for a drug cartel, and Danny’s acceptance of his money makes him a co-conspirator under the law. He has a choice – work with them to build a case against Galvin, or go to prison himself.

Danny now has to be a spy and an informer, balancing his love for his daughter against his conscience and his friendship with Galvin. Gradually he will learn that there are wheels within wheels, and that the situation is more complicated – and dangerous – than he had suspected in his greatest fears. He will also learn that he’s capable of things he never dreamed of.

Suspicion is a well-written thriller, one that pulls you in like a shirt wrapped around a washing machine agitator. I found the perils and dangers genuinely distressing, and I empathized deeply with Danny Goodman. In fact, I’m not sure I’ll read another from this very accomplished author, just because I’m not sure I can handle the tension.

But if you’re looking for a really compelling thriller, Suspicion delivers big time. The usual cautions for adult themes apply.

‘Flotsam and Jetsam,’ by Keith Moray

Flotsam & Jetsam

It’s nearly pointless to do a review of yet another Torquil McKinnon mystery by Keith Moray. Torquil, as you may recall, is police inspector on the fictional Hebridean island of West Uist. He is a motorcycle enthusiast and a bagpiper, and the nephew of the local priest. He is supported by some likeable constables, and the local newspaper man (off and on).

Flotsam & Jetsam is a rather complicated story, involving the drowning of a young woman, the murder of a famous entomologist, abused cats and dogs, professional sports gambling, a popular television show along the lines of “Antiques Roadshow,” drug smuggling, burglaries, and several other themes. Also a couple members of the cast of characters fall in love above their leagues, and enjoy success – because these are essentially happy stories.

Oh yes – Torquil acquires a pet. You can’t get more cozy than that.

Good fun; nothing much to caution you about. Recommended for light reading.

‘Killer Lies,’ by Chris Collett

Killer Lies

This mystery is part of a series of police procedurals by Chris Collett, starring Inspector Thomas Mariner, who operates in Birmingham, England. Mariner, the hero of Killer Lies, is a divorcee, involved in a new relationship with a remarkably patient woman. She needs to be. It’s not that he’s a bad man, but he has issues. He was raised by a single mother back before single mothers were cool, and his personal list of deflective habits makes it hard for him to sustain a relationship, especially under the kinds of pressure this adventure ushers in.

The story begins with the murder of Sir Geoffrey Ryland, a prominent government official who worked to uncover old police misbehavior and reverse miscarriages of justice. He and his wife are shot in their car one night, but the police believe the real target was their chauffeur, a man once convicted of drug dealing, but whom Ryland had gotten released. Mariner gets involved in the investigation when he learns, through a friend, that there was a puzzling connection to himself.

Then Mariner experiences a devastating event that leaves him shaken and a friend injured. He has never entirely worked through the challenges of his childhood and the death of his mother. Now he’s suffering from full-blown PTSD and refusing all offers of help. If he can’t get some answers and fill in some blanks in his own history, his relationship and his career may be ruined.

I was fascinated by Killer Lies. The plot was complex, and Thomas Mariner was a compelling character. It’s always kind of frustrating when you read a story where a large part of the challenge comes from the main character simply refusing to do some “simple” thing. Mariner might have been very annoying, but author Collett manages to convey his essential vulnerability and fear. At least for me, it made the story a grabber.

Recommended, with the usual adult cautions. Mariner is portrayed as an agnostic, but there’s a decent Catholic priest in the book. The first novel in the series is Deadly Lies, and I’ll be reading that.

How Alice Changed the World

Anyone would have to grant that, if nothing else, Carroll’s books have come to exercise an influence on the English language rivaled only by Shakespeare’s. Not only does Alice echo on in a host of common expressions—Cheshire cat smile, down the rabbit-hole, through the looking-glass, “Curiouser and curiouser,” “Off with her head!” and so on—but even many of Carroll’s nonsense words have become redoubtable fixtures of the lexicon. “Jabberwocky” alone gave us such indispensable locutions as “galumph,” “frabjous,” “chortle,” “mimsy,” “slithy,” “vorpal blade,” “tulgey,” “uffish,” “Bandersnatch,” “Jubjub bird,” “Tumtum tree,” “Calooh! Callay!”—why, the OED even includes “outgrabe” and “brillig”—while Humpty Dumpty’s magisterial exegesis of that mighty poem gave us the concept of the “portmanteau” word. That scarcely touches the surface of the matter, however. In a very real sense, the Alice books, along with all of Carroll’s nonsense verse, constitute a kind of revolutionary manifesto of a uniquely English style of genius: that special capacity for elaborate whimsy, precise nonsense, absurdity burnished to an exquisitely delicate sheen—which the French admire but cannot imitate, the Germans dread but cannot resist, the Italians love but cannot understand. . . . If, for instance, The Faerie Queene or Paradise Lost is the great English epic in the simple sense of being the most distinguished long narrative poem in the language, The Hunting of the Snark is the great English epic in the sense of being a work no other people could have produced. Other examples of the art abound, obviously: Lear’s nonsense verse, Gilbert’s Bab Ballads, Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, and so on. But none achieves quite the purity, tireless wit, and ingenious invention of Carroll’s works.

One point from David Bentley Hart’s 2016 essay on the value and importance of Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Did you know there are Wonderland-themed chess sets?  I know themed chess sets abound, but I hadn’t heard of this before.

‘Murder Solstice,’ by Keith Moray

Murder Solstice

We’ve come to volume three in Keith Moray’s Torquil McKinnon semi-cozy police procedural series, set on the fictional island of West Uist in the Hebrides. I find the books unchallenging, but entertaining. Inspector McKinnon, motorcycle rider and champion piper, has had tragedies in his life, but overall he’s cheerful and optimistic, as are his colleagues. That makes a nice change in the mystery genre.

In Murder Solstice, the laird’s manor on West Uist, which has gone through three hands in as many books, is now home to a New Age cult group. The group anticipates some form of spiritual enlightenment in connection with being present at the Hoolish Stones, a local henge, during the spring solstice. They’ve attracted the attention of national television, but also of a local historian who is livid at their leader’s theories about the stones. Also suspicion is rising that some local farmers are running a dog-fighting operation.

Meanwhile, the police force has been lumbered with a new officer, sent by a resentful and devious chief superintendant on the mainland. But she’s young and attractive, and Torquil possesses certain skills that may help win her over to his side.

Murder Solstice won’t change your life, but it’s an interesting and engaging mystery novel. I enjoyed it. Cautions for mild sexual content and mature themes.

‘The Sandman,’ by Lars Kepler

The Sandman

I took a chance on another Scandinavian Noir novel which looked to be a little different from the usual run. The Sandman, by Lars Kepler, is certainly different.

Joona Linna is a police detective in Stockholm (his exotic name is Finnish). 13 years ago, he faked the deaths of his wife and daughter, and sent them away so that he would have no knowledge of them again. He did this to save them from Jurek Walter, a serial killer who scares him to death, even though he’s confined to the mental ward of a high security prison.

Joona was the one who arrested Walter, when he found him exhuming a living woman from a grave where he’d been keeping her prisoner, with just a minimum of air and water. That is Walter’s modus operandi – to kidnap the loved ones of people who have offended him, and bury them alive. Walter promised to do the same to Joona’s family – and Joona believes him, in spite of his being locked up.

Now another of Walter’s victims, the son of a famous novelist, is found stumbling, disoriented, over a railroad bridge on a winter night. He is malnourished, freezing, and sick. Joona and his team are given the opportunity to investigate, and Joona jumps in. If he can figure out Walter’s crimes and locate his victims, maybe he can settle things and contact his family again.

But is Jurek Walter just a flesh-and-blood psychopath? Or does he possess supernatural powers? How is it that people have seen him looking in their windows at night, even though he’s in prison? Why are his guards warned never to speak to him, for fear that he’ll gain power over them just through a conversation?

The Sandman reminded me of nothing so much as The Silence of the Lambs. It had the same creepy fascination, the same quality of depicting a villain so freakishly intelligent that everyone else is always two or three moves behind him. The book kept me fascinated, and it sucked me in. If I don’t read any more books in the series, it’s just because I don’t care much for horror.

Recommended, if this is your kind of story. Cautions for language, sex, and violence.

By the way, “Lars Kepler” is the pseudonym of a husband-wife writing team, Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril.

‘Jack Frost,’ by Christopher Greyson

Jack Frost

I’ve been following Christopher Greyson’s Jack Stratton mystery series with great pleasure. The latest entry, Jack Frost, is exciting and entertaining.

Private eye Jack Stratton and his fiancée/business partner Alice are hired by an insurance company to investigate the death of a sound man on a popular reality show. The show’s premise is that the contestants have to compete in survival games on a treacherous mountain. But there have been accidents, the worst of which killed a sound man. The insurance company won’t underwrite another season without someone undercover to keep an eye out. That will be Jack, who has climbing experience. Alice will have to stay home with their dog – which she hates. But there’s work for her to do too, mainly background research on the contestants. On top of that, she just learned that her childhood trauma, the death of her parents in an auto accident, may not have been accidental after all.

Meanwhile on the mountain, Jack endures the indignities of his cover job – gopher to the technical crew – as one after another “accident “ occurs. Before long people start dying, followed by a monster blizzard, which puts him and the cast and crew in a genuine Agatha Christie “and then there were none” situation.

The Jack Stratton books aren’t the best written novels out there, but they’re well above average, especially for books where the heroes pray without embarrassment. Author Greyson builds interesting characters and puts them in exciting peril. I enjoyed Jack Frost very much, and recommend it.

‘Record of Wrongs,’ by Andy Straka

Record of Wrongs

In another stand-alone novel, departing once again from his Frank Pavlicek detective/falconer books, Andy Straka has produced Record of Wrongs, and it’s quite good.

Quentin Price is a black man, convicted of raping and murdering a young white woman. After ten years, DNA evidence sets him free. The day he leaves prison, he’s surprised to find someone waiting to give him a ride home – it’s the mother of his supposed victim.

She’s an alcoholic and her life is generally in disorder, but she has the idea that Quentin might want the same thing that’s holding her together – to identify the real killer, and set all the questions to rest.

At first Quentin doesn’t want to get involved. He just wants to rebuild his life. But the girl’s father, who was a cop and is now a private investigator, does not believe in Quentin’s exoneration. He’s determined to prove Quentin guilty, and he’s willing to go outside the law to do it. Quentin will have to look for answers just to save his own life and freedom. Maybe the special investigator sent by the state attorney general can help too – if he believes in Quentin’s innocence.

And there’s one other thing. Quentin has a secret. He hasn’t told anyone what really happened the night the girl died.

Record of Wrongs is a well-conceived and executed mystery. It’s not in the top rank, but Andy Straka is learning his craft. Christian readers will be disappointed to note that the Christian elements he usually includes are soft-pedaled (though not entirely left out) in this story, and that Straka has decided to include a little profanity for verisimilitude (something he hasn’t done before).

Recommended. I’ll keep watching Straka. He seems to be a writer with a future.

‘The Blue Hallelujah,’ by Andy Straka

The Blue Hallelujah

Another by Andy Straka, but this one is a stand-alone.

The hero of The Blue Hallelujah is Jerry Strickland, an old cop with a bad heart, pretty much just waiting to die. The heart – and the faith – have gone out of him since the death of his wife Rebecca, who died in prison, having killed a serial killer/rapist.

But he has a few miles left in him, as he discovers when he gets word that his granddaughter has been kidnapped. His status as a retired detective buys him some slack from the police investigators to stick his nose in. And soon he becomes convinced that this abduction is no random crime. It directly relates to the crimes of the man Rebecca killed. And the key to the mystery lies in his own set of old police files.

This is my favorite of all the Andy Straka novels I’ve read, though I thought it had a couple weaknesses. Actually one weakness, because I think the second is only a possible misunderstanding.

The first problem is with strong language – or rather, its absence. When a character who’s not identified as a practicing religious believer says “What in the world’s going on here?” instead of something stronger, that’s morally good. But it weakens the story. It pulls the reader out of the narrative, making him ask, “Why did he put it that way? That doesn’t sound like him.” It’s a problem we’ve discussed often on this blog, and there’s no entirely satisfactory answer, in my view.

The second problem is a likely misperception of genre. This story starts out looking like a regular mystery story. But it develops into a Christian spiritual thriller, complete with visions and minor miracles. I have no objection to that (in fact I welcome it), but some readers may feel as if they’ve been blindsided.

For all that, the story reeled me in and held on to me, and I was in tears at the end. Wise, beautiful, and touching, The Blue Hallelujah gets my highest recommendation.

2 more Frank Pavlicek novels

Flightfall The K Street Hunting Society

Continuing forging my way through Andy Straka’s Frank Pavlicek detective/falconry mysteries.

Flightfall is a novella in which Frank and his daughter/partner Nicole get a call from their mysterious friend Jake Toronto. One of his falcons has been shot to death, and Jake believes it may have been an act of revenge. I think on consideration that my criticism of the previous book, which I reviewed last night, may actually have properly belonged to this one – it’s kind of over before it really gets started. But it’s nice to get to know Jake better, because he’s an interesting character.

The K Street Hunting Society is a far better developed story. It also takes place in Washington DC, and there’s not a lot of falconry involved. Frankly, that’s OK with me. I have nothing against falconry, and I admire the tradition of the thing, but I don’t find it a terribly compelling plot device.

This time out, Jake Toronto has hired Frank and Nicole to help him in a routine bodyguarding job in downtown Washington. But they come under attack by an assassin with an automatic weapon, and lose a client – and nearly lose one of their own. You just don’t do that to Frank, and you certainly don’t do it to Jake. They’re going to find the killer and even the score, whether the local police and the FBI want their help or not. I thought this was the strongest book in the series to date.

As I’ve said before, the language is clean, the violence isn’t overdone, and the morality is generally good. Author Straka takes the opportunity to say a good word for the Christian faith now and then. I don’t care for Frank’s penchant for relying on hunches rather than deduction, but that’s personal taste. Enjoyable reading, highly recommended.

‘A Night Falcon,’ by Andy Straka

A Night Falcon

As you’ve probably noticed, when I find a book series I like, I’m likely to read my way through it chronologically. And that’s what I’m doing with Andy Straka’s enjoyable Frank Pavlicek series. A Night Falconer is installment number four.

This time out, Frank finds himself leaving his current natural environment to return temporarily to a former one – Manhattan, where he once was a cop. The residents of a luxury condo are losing their pets, and one of them – an assertive woman doctor – is convinced her cat was killed by a Great Horned Owl. Not only that, but she thinks she saw a falconer carrying the owl, running off in the darkness. Crime mixed with falconry? Who else do you call but Frank Pavlicek, Virginia PI and accomplished falconer? So New York PI Darla Barnes, an old friend of Frank’s from the force, asks him to come up and investigate.

It seems like a strange job, but Darla’s a friend, so Frank drives up to check it out, bringing along his new partner – his daughter Nicole. What they discover is much bigger and even stranger than the idea of someone hunting in Central Park with an owl.

I didn’t consider A Night Falconer the best of the series. The plot seemed to resolve itself unnecessarily rapidly at the end. But it wasn’t bad either. As usual, no foul language, only muted violence, and the sex happens offstage (the Christian morality of these books is generally admirable, though Frank seems to think sex before marriage is OK if the couple is engaged, which I consider debatable).

Still, recommended.

‘A Cold Quarry,’ by Andy Straka

A Cold Quarry

Book 3 in Andy Straka’s Frank Pavlicek series, about a former New York cop who is now a private investigator in Virginia, as well as a falconer.

In A Cold Quarry a friend of Frank’s, a fellow falconer named Chester Carew, is murdered while out with his bird. The police say it’s a hunting accident, but it doesn’t seem right to Frank. Also, what happened to Chester’s hawk, which had recently shown signs of disease or poisoning? He decides to look into it, and his dangerous, mysterious friend Jake Toronto wants to help. He was a friend too.

Clues lead them to a right-wing militia group, and then they’re warned off by the Feds, who tell them they’re planning an operation against the group – stay away. But Frank is convinced something more is going on – someone much smarter, more devious, and more ruthless than a group of rednecks is planning an operation far bigger than officials suspect.

A Cold Quarry was an enjoyable read, which I can pretty much recommend without reservation. Not only is the writing good and the language clean, but the morality is generally good. And author Straka finds several opportunities to make positive references to the Bible and Christianity. It’s not enough to be preachy, but it’s unavoidable too. These books are just the kind of Christian literature a lot of us have been begging for.

‘Murder on the Old Bog Road,’ by David Pearson

Murder on the Old Bog Road

It’s storming along the Old Bog Road in Clifden, Galway, Ireland. A woman has to stop her car before passing over a bridge, because it’s been damaged and there are stones strewn about. As she clears the stones, she sees a woman in a red coat, lying drowned in a ditch. She calls the Garda, who are baffled when they find that the woman has no identification. It’s clearly murder – someone hit her in the head with something hard.

Inspector Mick Hays and Detective Sergeant Maureen Lyons lead the investigation. Gradually they learn that the woman was a Polish “sex worker,” and there are a number of men – some of them influential – who do not wish their relationships with her to be made public.

Murder on the Old Bog Road, by David Pearson, is clearly intended to take advantage of the current popularity of “Celtic” police procedural mysteries. This is a genre I enjoy, when it’s done well. It offers mystery and atmosphere. However, I did not find this book a successful entry in that field.

The writing was pedestrian at best, and sometimes clumsy. The characters seemed shallow to me. The two leads, Hays and Lyons, ease into a sexual relationship in a way that seemed unrealistic – Hays makes inappropriate jokes without Lyons taking any offense, and they are not at all bothered by the professional impropriety of their relationship.

On top of that, author Pearson makes one repeated writing mistake that annoyed me very much (though it could be the editor’s fault). The accepted rule when writing fiction is that if a character gives a long speech, which is broken up by paragraphs, you leave the closing quotation marks off the end of the first paragraph, giving the reader notice that the speech is not finished. If the quotation mark is there at the end, the reader assumes the next paragraph is being spoken by another character.

Pearson breaks this rule all the time, making his dialogue sections extremely hard to follow.

I found Murder on the Old Bog Road unpolished and unsatisfying. Maybe the series will get better, but I won’t be reading the next book for now.

Cautions for mature material.