2019 Reviews
January 1, 2019

The Night VisitorLucy Atkins
The Night Visitor (Quercus 2018, UK 2017) is the story of Olivia Sweetman, a history professor in London who has entered the world of television to augment the family income. Married with three children, Olivia isn’t comfortable with the onscreen work that is eroding her academic credibility, and is in search of a book topic that would appeal to a wider readership. Olivia owns a farmhouse in Sussex, a gift from her father on the day of her birth. A renowned scientist who studied beetles, Olivia’s father named a fossilized dung beetle he discovered after his daughter. While visiting the farmhouse with her children, a leaflet on her doorstep entices her to the local museum to view a Victorian diary on loan by Lady Catherine Burley of Ileford Manor. Vivian Tester shows her the diary, which contains only eight entries written in 1898 by Lady Annabel Burley, the young second wife of alcoholic Lord Charles Burley. Vivian, who looks after Ileford Manor for Lady Burley, now in a care home with a terminal illness, explains that one of the entries is a murder confession. Olivia is fascinated by the diary and offers to have the diary authenticated at the British Museum. Learning that Annabel went on to become a surgeon after her husband’s death, Olivia is determined to write a biography. Vivian refuses to let Olivia disturb Lady Burley’s last days, and Olivia reluctantly asks the prickly Vivian to serve as her research assistant, sensing that’s the only way she will be given access to the diary. Vivian proves to be an excellent researcher, though often demanding and always difficult. Chapters from Olivia’s present perspective are interwoven with Vivian’s journal entries filling in the past, revealing a complicated relationship that festers and grows toxic in this creepy psychological thriller.

Seances Are for SuckersTamara Berry
Séances Are for Suckers (Kensington 2018) introduces Eleanor Wilde, a pseudo psychic who uses her talent for reading people to rid her clients of resident ghosts and other phantasmagoric plagues. A skeptic herself, Ellie has learned to impress her clients with sudden gusts of wind and sounds, and her ability to tell time by the sun, direction by the stars, and make painkillers out of tree bark. Nicholas Hartford III offers far more than the usual rate she charges for Eleanor’s Cleansing Service to travel to England and purge the ancestral Hartford estate of a ghost named Xavier. Nick is sure someone is taking advantage of his elderly mother Vivian, but can’t identify the culprit himself. Arriving at the eerie and very cold gothic castle, Ellie finds herself lodged in the yellow bedroom, the spot where Xavier manifests most frequently. Also in residence are Nick’s glamorous sister Fern, her crass American boyfriend Cal Whitkin, and Fern’s teenage daughter Rachel. Ellie expects a sumptuous dinner of several courses, but instead the family dines on a watery soup. Thomas, the only servant, explains that Vivian does all the cooking, cultivating eccentricity to compensate for a diminished family fortune and an estate that has been deteriorating for years. Ellie searches every crack and crevice in her yellow bedchamber, but can’t find any evidence of ghost-fakery, not even a secret passage into another room. In the middle of the night she is awakened by thumping and then a bright flash of light, but can’t find any trace of trickery. The next day Ellie installs mini camcorders and other spy gear throughout the castle and then heads to town to research Xavier in the local museum. Xavier himself appears in Ellie’s bedroom that night, but unfortunately all her spy gear has disappeared, leaving her with no clue who is responsible for the ghost. The appearance and disappearance of a dead body raise the stakes in this funny debut mystery and series opener.

Fogland PointDoug Burgess
Fogland Point (Poisoned Pen Press 2018) is set in Little Compton, a tiny isolated spit as far east as you can go in Rhode Island. David Hazzard, just fired from his job as an adjunct history professor at Xavier College after a health screening outs him as transgender, gets a frantic voicemail from his grandmother Maggie about a dead body with blood everywhere. Maggie is in the early stages of dementia, but this is outside the normal range of calls about lost glasses and confusion about what year it is. David tries to reach his grandmother’s best friends: Aunts Emma, Constance, and Irene, but no one picks up so he sets out for Little Compton. His grandmother is fine, though confused about who he is, but Emma is dead on her kitchen floor next door, felled by a cast iron frying pan among the detritus of a collapsed shelf. David isn’t happy with moving back to the town he last visited six years earlier for a disastrous Thanksgiving coming out to his father, but it’s clear his grandmother is no longer capable of living by herself. Over the past year phone scammers have talked her out of over $500,000 of funds belonging to the New England Wrecking and Salvage Company she owns with fellow widows Constance and Irene. Chief of Police Billy Dyer, an old friend of David’s from high school, is convinced Emma’s death was murder, but the state cops decide on a verdict of accidental death. Billy watches the attendees at the funeral carefully, especially Marcus and Alicia Reingold, the extremely wealthy young couple who have just bought the old Armstrong mansion on Fogland Point. At the reading of the will everyone is surprised that Emma leaves her fortune no one knew she had to a daughter no one knew about, along with money for a private detective to track her down. Billy hasn’t forgiven David for not trusting him with the truth about his sexuality when they dated in high school, but enlists his help trying to uncover the truth about Emma’s death. To distract David from his worry about losing his job, the aunts give him a tape recorder to preserve their stories, and Maggie’s erratic memory is stimulated by the telling, producing strange tales mixing past and present and David can’t separate truth from the confusion of dementia. This outstanding debut novel surrounds a compelling mystery with unique and memorable characters.

The FoxFrederick Forsyth
The Fox (G.P. Putnam’s Sons 2018) begins when Sir Adrian Weston, the retired chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service gets a call from the Prime Minister: the Pentagon, NSA, and CIA have been hacked by “The Fox,” whose location has been traced to a small English town. Special Forces invade the home in the middle of the night, finding only a family of four: parents Harold and Sue and their two teenage sons. The attic contains a low-end computer that has been extensively modified, the lair of The Fox, a hacker who invades, does no damage, and retreats without a trace. Luke (18) is severely autistic, and goes into shock, speaking only with his mother’s support. Luke’s parents are horrified to hear of their son’s hacking crimes, and Sue insists that subjecting Luke to a trial will be his death sentence. He is only truly comfortable in his attic lair where nothing ever changes. Luke only speaks to ask for his computer back, and then blurts out that the American systems were flawed and he was trying to help by identifying their weaknesses. When the situation is explained, the Americans reluctantly agree not to press charges in exchange for the British proposal: Luke will sign the Official Secrets Act and be kept in a sealed environment, and the Americans will share any intel he gathers under strict supervision. Luke’s attic is recreated down to the smallest detail in a secret location, and Dr. Jeremy Hendricks of the British National Cyber Security Centre becomes part of the family, working with Luke on “projects” created by Sir Adrian: online attacks on the Russians, Iranians, and North Koreans. The targets soon realize that the British are sheltering a human secret weapon, and do everything in their power to take him out. This upbeat spy thriller seamlessly weaves real world events into a believable fiction.

Sweet Little LiesCaz Frear
Sweet Little Lies (Harper 2018) introduces Cat Kinsella, a 26-year-old detective constable with the Metropolitan Police Force in London. Cat has a fragmented relationship with her sister, and almost no contact with her charismatic but unreliable father, who runs a pub and skates the edges of legality. A few weeks earlier Cat rescued a toddler who had been trapped with her murdered mother for days, dissolving into tears at the scene at the sight of the little girl brushing her mother’s hair and singing. Released by the police psychologist to return to work, Cat and her partner are called to Leamington Square gardens the week before Christmas, where the body of housewife Alice Lapaine has been discovered. Cat is uneasy at the scene since it is close to her father’s pub in the neighborhood where she grew up. Cat hasn’t trusted her father since a visit to her grandmother in Mulderrin, Ireland, 18 years earlier, when teenage Maryanne Doyle went missing, and Cat’s father lied about knowing her. Alice’s husband explains that his wife left home two weeks earlier, a not-uncommon getaway to be on her own for a bit when a round of In Vitro Fertilization was unsuccessful. Cat doesn’t believe the husband’s story of a happy marriage and begins the drudgery of trying to trace Alice’s movements until a phone call from Ireland changes everything: the missing person photograph has been identified as Maryanne Doyle. Cat knows she should remove herself from the investigation, but can’t make herself tell the truth about her family’s involvement. Her suspicion that her father may have killed Maryanne years earlier has been proven false, but what if he had something to do with her murder now? Another witness says Alice/Maryanne visited a small coffee shop several times, and was seen ringing the bell at the gated road to Keeper’s Close, an exclusive group of nine extravagant mansions. No one recognizes the picture, and Cat assumes it was a misidentification until they track Alice to an apartment she was sharing with another woman owned by one of the Keeper’s Close families. This intense debut police procedural is the first in a series featuring the psychologically damaged and empathetic young detective.

Poppy Harmon InvestigatesLee Hollis
Poppy Harmon Investigates (Kensington 2018) begins when 62-year-old Poppy receives the news that her recently deceased husband Chester has left her only debts and a heavily mortgaged house. The sudden fall from comfortable retirement to penniless widow stuns Poppy, and she is at her wits end trying to figure out how she will support herself. Poppy dabbled in acting years earlier — her biggest role the part of secretary to a private eye in a series that lasted three seasons. When her best friends Violet and Iris suggest she market that experience, Poppy misinterprets their advice that she get a secretarial job and decides to become a licensed private investigator. She circumvents the requirement for paid practical experience by convincing Sam Emerson, the private eye who produced the TV show based on his real cases, to sign off on her time helping him plot the show as paid investigative work. With Violet and Iris’s help, Poppy opens the Desert Flowers Detective Agency and eagerly awaits her first case. Unfortunately the prospective client is not impressed with three elderly women and refuses to hire them. Watching her daughter Heather’s boyfriend Matt play the role of a detective gives Poppy a brilliant idea: Matt can play the part of Detective Flowers while Poppy investigates the cases. The next client interview is a success, and Poppy is soon making inquiries about the theft of valuable jewelry from Shirley Fox, an aging actress living at the Palm Leaf Retirement Village. A murder ramps up the suspense in this funny series launch.

Death of a RainmakerLaurie Loewenstein
Death of a Rainmaker (Kaylie Jones Books 2018) is set in 1935 Vermillion, Oklahoma, after a 240-day drought has ruined the crops and driven the town to desperate measures, including hiring itinerant rainmaker Roland Coombs to fire TNT into the sky. The next morning the town is disappointed by another dry day. Sheriff Temple Jennings sets off for the distasteful job of keeping the peace at a foreclosure of a farm while Chester Benton opens the Jewel Movie House, hoping to sell enough movie tickets to pay the rent. Unfortunately a dust storm hits right after the newsreel at the midday matinee, taking out the power and trapping everyone inside for a few hours. Digging out the mounds of dust behind the fire door, Chester finds a body, identified as the rainmaker. Sheriff Temple Jennings and his new deputy Ed McCance, fresh out of the Civilian Conservation Core (CCC), try to track Roland’s final hours, but the dust storm has removed all traces in the alley and the streets are deserted. Temple’s wife Etha, still mourning the death of their young son years earlier, takes a home-cooked meal to the hobo camp outside town, full of pity for the starving men and boys. She is especially taken by Carmine DiNapoli, a teenage CCC worker on his way back to Camp Brisco, who reminds her of her son. Jennings identifies the murder weapon as the handle of an army entrenching tool used by the CCC. The town is only too happy to pin the murder on Carmine, and Vince Doll, owner of the county’s grain elevator, running against Jennings for sheriff, spreads rumors of incompetence and pushes for a quick arrest and conviction. But Etha is convinced Carmine is innocent, and sets out to prove it. The compassion Etha and Jennings feel for their neighbors and for the young vagrants pushed out by families unable to feed them permeates this excellent series opener.

The RuinDervla McTiernan
The Ruin (Penguin 2018) begins in 1993 Kilmore, Ireland, when rookie Garda Cormac Reilly is called to a decaying manor house in response to a domestic disturbance. Maude (15) leads him upstairs to the dead body of her mother Hilaria Blake, stinking of alcohol with a smear of blood in the crook of her elbow. The power is off, Maude and her five-year-old brother Jack look half-starved, and Maude pleads with Cormac to take her brother to the hospital in Castlebar. When Jack is undressed, Cormac is horrified by the bruising on his tiny body. Maude excuses herself to find a bathroom, and vanishes. Twenty years later Cormac has recently transferred to Galway from Dublin, assigned to cold cases while his elite Drug Task Force is assembled, and dealing with the resentment of his local colleagues to an outsider. Jack Blake’s body is found in the river Corrib, ruled a suicide based on a phone call by an anonymous witness. Jack’s girlfriend Aisling Conroy, an ER surgical resident, is too grief stricken to think straight, but Jack’s sister Maude, arriving out of the blue from Australia, pressures the Gardaí to investigate. Jack died on St. Patrick’s Day, and Maude can’t believe no one saw him jump from the bridge crowded with revelers. While Maude and Aisling try to figure out what really happened on Jack’s final day, Cormac is assigned the re-investigation of Hilaria Blake’s death. Since she never left the house, how did she get the heroin that caused the fatal overdose? Cormac becomes consumed by another unanswered question: why were the two neglected and abused children left in the care of an obviously unsuitable mother? This powerful debut thriller is the first in a series.

The Man Who DiedAntti Tuomainen
The Man Who Died (US 2018, Finland 2016) begins when Jaakko Kaunismaa, a 37-year-old entrepreneur in Finland, discovers that he is dying of a fatal poison administered over a period of time. Three years earlier Jaakko, a sales officer, and his wife Taina, an institutional caterer, were made redundant. Looking around for new careers, they settled on moving from Helsinki to the small village of Hamina, starting a business exporting matsutake, pine mushrooms gathered in the forest, to the Japanese willing to pay premium prices. Stunned by the news of his imminent death, Jaakko returns home to find Taina having sex with Petri, a young employee. Reeling from his second shock of the day, Jaakko drives back into town, overwhelmed by the suspicion that his wife and her lover have poisoned him. He impulsively drives to the Hamina Mushroom Company, recently started by three dangerous local lawbreakers determined to negotiate a better rate with the Japanese buyers. No one is there, but Jaakko wanders through the open door to find brand new equipment and machinery, more modern that his own. In the staff room he finds a display of Samurai swords, and carefully pulls one from its mount, admiring the keen edge before replacing it. As he is leaving, the three owners drive in, glaring at him suspiciouturtsly. When the sword and one of the owners go missing, Jaakko is the prime suspect, but he is far more interested in proving to himself that Taina and Petri have killed him. This intense and darkly funny book featuring a man investigating his own murder is highly recommended.

The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn HardcastleStuart Turton
The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (Sourcebooks Landmark 2018) begins when Aiden Bishop wakes up in the woods desperate to save a woman named Anna. Aiden has amnesia, and doesn’t recognize his own hands. Reaching the crumbling mansion of Blackheath, Aiden is greeted as Dr. Sebastian Bell, but the face that looks back at him from the mirror is unfamiliar. Lord Peter and Lady Helena Hardcastle have recreated a party held 19 years earlier, when their youngest son Thomas was murdered. With the pretext of celebrating their daughter Evelyn’s birthday, they have invited the same guest list for a masquerade ball. A mysterious man disguised as a medieval plague doctor in a beaked porcelain mask tells Aiden that Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered at 11:00 PM. Aiden has eight days to identify her murderer, waking up each day in the body of a different guest. Two others are also in search of the killer; the first to solve the crime will be released from Blackheath and the others are willing to commit murder themselves in order to escape the eight day repeating cycle. If no one solves the crime, everyone’s memories will be wiped and the cycle will begin again. Each of Aiden’s hosts has his own talents and challenges: age, intelligence, physical fitness, mobility. As the days pass, Aiden begins to understand events that puzzled him the first few times he lived the day, and plants notes and clues to help his daily host figure out the motives of the different characters before each night brings Evelyn’s death and Aiden’s new day in a new body the next morning. This intense debut literary thriller is a deft mix of time travel within a Golden Age manor house mystery setting.


Disclosure: Some of these books were received free from publishers, some were discovered in Left Coast Crime and Bouchercon Book Bags, and many were checked out from our local public library. Our thanks to all who support our passion for reading!

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