The Lions Of Lucerne

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Scot Harvath is a former SEAL turned Secret Service agent assigned to the Presidential protection detail. His previous experience includes both SEAL Team Two and an assignment with the SEAL think tank group. Prior to his military service, he was an accomplished, competitive downhill and cross-country skier. And that is virtually all we know about Scot Harvath. We have almost no information whatsoever about his family, his education or his past experiences. Other than his physical appearance, we have virtually no backstory for this man, not even his age.

And that means three things. First, without a past to compare with, there can be no observable character growth. Essentially this means that there is little way to emotionally connect with the character. Secondly, without that emotional connection, there is no appreciable hook to get the reader invested in the character’s situation. This is a point that is incredibly important if an author wishes the reader to continue purchasing books in a series that uses the same protagonist in each entry.

And finally, without a backstory, it is easy for an author to make errors in chronology. Between Scot’s educational years, his military years, his Secret Service years and the skiing, it is very hard to believe that Scot is still in his twenties as Thor intimates repeatedly.

Chronology and backstory problems aside, our novel opens with Scot leading the advance team for the President’s ski vacation with his daughter in Utah. Concurrently, two Senators are plotting with a wealthy oil magnate to kidnap the President during that ski vacation. The plan may be financed by the oilman but it is to be executed by a highly skilled Swiss-based team that specializes in extraction and assassination. And the plan is executed almost to perfection. The Secret Service is blindsided, literally as well as figuratively, and the President is truly kidnapped off the slopes. The imperfect part is that, while nearly thirty agents are executed in the attack, one agent survives – Scot Harvath.

Within two days, his survival and his determination to investigate have caused one too many problems for the triad who plotted the kidnapping. Scot finds himself framed as an accomplice in the kidnapping, as the murderer in a double homicide and as the source of a leak of classified info to the media. Concussed and badly bruised from the attack, Scot is on his own and on the run. His career is over, his freedom is in question, and he is being hunted not only by the government, but also by an assassination team hired by the triad and by the Swiss Lions of Lucerne who executed the kidnapping.

Scot stays barely a half step ahead of the assassins for hundreds of pages. The author writes in close call after close call, a rappelling accident, a fall into a freezing river, hundreds of bullets flying about, knives, fists, and kicks galore. The action sequences are well researched and more than plentiful in number. But they are clearly survivable only by an extraordinary person with the ability to pull off extraordinary acts.

For some readers these “close calls” will require that they engage their system of disbelief early on. For other readers, these incidents are survived only by what they perceive as the repeated and varied use of the deus ex machina literary device. But it appears that Brad Thor, through his choice of words, clearly wishes us to believe that these close escapes are the result of good training, physical prowess and a high dosage of good luck.

In the end, my decision was based on the intricate detail and the thoroughness of the kidnappers’ plans as well as on Harvath’s characterization. Frankly, I feel that, from the very first page, through action sequence or dialogue, by good guy or villain, Thor’s sub-theme for this novel emulates one of Louis Pasteur’s more memorable phrases: Chance favors the prepared mind.

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I Take Thee To Deceive

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From the very beginning of the first chapter, everything about this book rang false. By the end of the third chapter, my disbelief could no longer remain suspended. I scanned the middle and final chapters for any signs of improvement. Finding none, I raised the white flag of surrender and shelved the book.

The novel has a catchy title, sharp cover art and a great promotional blurb. Unfortunately, the author’s execution of her plot line falls apart within the first few pages. There are too many problems to recount them all, so I will justify my rating using the Rule of Three.

First is the main story line, Sophia Taylor’s widowhood. As the promotional blurb states, Sophia’s husband of three months died in a traffic accident several months ago. As the story opens, she is told by one of her friends, Suzanne, that “Martin” is not dead but is an undercover CIA agent along with herself. She is also told that “Martin” married her to get close to her friend, Eliza, and Eliza’s fiancé, Roberto, who are suspects in a drug operation. Coincidentally, Eliza and Roberto disappeared three weeks prior to Martin’s staged death, and Suzanne states that she has known where they are all this time.

This sounds good except for at least six things. For instance, Sophie was never allowed to see the body. Wrong! Then, Suzanne announces that she and Martin are CIA agents while in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Really! Next, even in a joint task force, the CIA would not take point in a domestic drug investigation. That honor would fall to the DEA or DHS. Also, no government agency has either the time or the money to care about the mental health of thousands of people who are considered informants on any given day, regardless of what Sophie is told by Sam/Nate.

Plus, no government agency is going to spend the money necessary to “kill” an agent, neither in funeral expenses nor in the plastic surgery necessary to keep that agent operative in the US. Frankly, he would have “disappeared” to Sand Land or the Tundra for several years and the agency would have filed for divorce for him.

And finally, through embarrassingly personal experience, I know that a field agent’s handler would never allow an engagement to proceed, let alone wedding preparations and an actual ceremony. Pillow talk may be useful but marriage is a liability to an undercover agent, both to his career and to his life expectancy. There is simply no way, regardless of what the author intimated, that the handler did not know what was happening.

Second in the Rule of Three is the main subplot, Eliza’s disappearance. In the first few pages of the book, Suzanne tells Sophie that the CIA incarcerated Eliza four months ago as part of their investigation into the drug issue. Again, the author is choosing the wrong agency to do the wrong thing. Incarceration without charges or trial is a Patriot Act/DHS purview. And the chances that a suspected low-level foot soldier or dealer would be held in that manner for that long are quite low. That scenario is simply too expensive for what little reward might be generated.

And third is the writing itself. It was stilted and juvenile. The story is written in Sophie’s first person POV and there are an incredible number of “I” sentences. Sophie’s self-pitying, isolationist act comes off as annoying and her internal monologues sound like those of a flighty teenager rather that those of a person of her age and professional standing. And Sam/Nate’s dialog is actually more reminiscent of a female in one of those bodice-ripper novels so prevalent in the mid-twentieth century than it is of current speech.

There are certain costs to doing business as an author. One is the cost of a professional copy editor to clear out typos, misspellings and poor wording. Another is the cost of a content editor, a person who is not related by blood or friendship, who will critique the copy for flow, feasibility and feeling. And thirdly, there is the cost of conducting research, whether it is time spent on the Internet, time spent with a reference book, or time spent listening to a subject-area specialist. Ms. Lassiter might want to consider increasing her payments in these cost areas.

I received this book through the Goodreads First Reads Giveaway Program. That fact did not, in any way, influence my opinion of the book.

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Classified As Murder

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James Delacourt is a very wealthy octogenarian. He is a fastidious man with impeccable manners, a thirst for knowledge, a talent for business and a spine of steel. A closeted homosexual, Delacourt has sublimated his physical passions into an intellectual passion for collecting rare books. Computer illiterate by choice, he has relied on our protagonist, Charlie Harris, to help him with his research ever since Charlie returned to Athena nearly four years ago.

As an archival and research librarian in the rare books division of the local college, Charlie is well qualified to assist Delacourt. However, he is completely taken aback when Delacourt wishes to hire him to inventory his multi-thousands of books. It seems that Delacourt has reason to believe that some of the books have disappeared. However, lacking a computerized tagging system, he has been unable to determine what is missing.

Charlie is even more taken aback when he meets the people whom Delacourt suspects as being involved in the theft – his own family. Delacourt’s sister, her son and his wife, a great nephew and a great-niece all live with Delacourt and his butler in Delacourt’s opulent mansion. To describe them as an eccentric bunch is being both polite and understated. One is a hypochondriac while another is truly certifiable. A third is an ice princess while another is a master of sarcastic deflection. The fifth is an egotistical boor with an over-developed sense of entitlement.

And apparently, at least one of them has a penchant for homicide. When Charlie returns from lunch on his first day working with Delacourt and the collection, he finds Delacourt at his desk, murdered.

If you are looking for a solid, sophisticated mystery without shock and awe, gratuitous violence and instantaneous sexual gratification, this second entry in Miranda James’ Cat in the Stacks series will definitely fill the bill. However, this entry is not a standalone. While the murder investigation chronicled in the first book is mentioned several times, it is not summarized. Also, Charlie’s backstory is not re-capped in any significant manner. Thus, the relationship between Charlie and Diesel as well as his relationships with other characters from the first book are assumed in evidence as the reader begins this book. Knowing that backstory and how those relationships came into being is important to the flow of this story, and ultimately to the resolution of the current murder mystery.

The book is a page-turner, a cannot-put-it-down-even-if-I-lose-sleep type of mystery. Covering one week in chronological time, three plot lines work simultaneously. Of course, one is the investigation into the murder and the associated missing rare books. But just as important is the subplot that has Charlie’s lawyer son, Sean, suddenly showing up in Athena after quitting his law firm in Houston. Along with these issues is the developing quasi-professional relationship between Charlie and local lead homicide detective.

The one subplot still missing is that of any romantic entanglement between Charlie and any other character. A widower for nearly four years now, he has been emotionally unavailable in that area. However, we begin to see a break in that emotional blockade as Charlie comes to grips with his own responsibility in the estrangement between himself and his son. So, we have two subtle hooks to guide us toward future entries in the series: the son is planning to stay in Athena, shifting his focus from corporate law to investigative/family law and Charlie is seriously entertaining the idea of dating.

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Murder Past Due

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Charlie Harris is a part-time archival librarian for Athena College in Athena, Mississippi. In his late forties, the father of two grown children, and a widower for three years, Charlie is the proud human owned by a Maine coon cat named Diesel. Still grieving the loss of his wife, Charlie is not yet interested in dating and keeps himself politely at an emotional distance from everyone except Diesel.

Coming into Charlie’s life about two years ago as a bedraggled kitten wandering the library parking lot, Diesel seems to have two particular affinities. He seems to understand the human language well beyond the sound of his own name or the phrase “Here, kitty kitty.” And he seems to sense and differentiate between human emotions, particularly sadness and anger, even when not verbally expressed. Weighing nearly 35 pounds and not yet fully grown, Diesel proudly sports a harness and leash and goes just about everywhere with Charlie. He openly seeks attention from everyone he meets but he gives back just as much or more after he “determines” the type of attention the human needs at the time.

For all that we know about Diesel, we know very little about Charlie other than what I have already mentioned. The author never physically describes Charlie, not height or hair color, not weight or eye color, not anything. Since every other character is described as he or she enters the storyline, the absence of same for Charlie seems to be deliberate on the part of the author. Thus, each reader can visualize our main protagonist in whatever form fits or feels right at the time.

While Charlie has eschewed emotional attachments since the nearly concurrent deaths of his wife and his favorite aunt, he rents out rooms to college students. As our story opens, one of the boarders, 18-year-old Justin Wardlaw, experiences three traumatic events in one day. First, he meets his previously unknown biological father for the first time. Secondly, the man he thought was his father strikes him in the face when he refuses to quit college and move back home. And, finally, he discovers the body of his biological father murdered in his hotel room.

Godfrey Priest, the murdered man, is a best-selling author of violent thrillers that have a severely misogynistic overtone. A contemporary of Charlie, he grew up in Athena with a well-deserved reputation as a physical and emotional bully. Needless to say, there are many people in town with long memories and hardened hearts as far as Godfrey Priest is concerned, making no dearth of possible suspects.

Miranda James does not portray Charlie as a suspect who must work to clear his own name. Nor does she portray him as one of those meddlesome types who feels he can do better than any police detective in existence. What she does is portray Justin as a good kid who has just been handed a very raw deal and is in dire need of help and adult support. Since Charlie is a well-respected research and archival librarian trained to find answers to oblique questions, he decides to lend those skills to Justin’s cause.

And then there is the police detective, Kanesha Berry. Detective Berry is smart and intuitive but she has the people skills of a rock and the professional personality of the rattlesnake hidden under that rock. She is also the daughter of Charlie’s longtime housekeeper, Azalea. When Azalea asks Charlie to use his skills to help her daughter succeed in spite of herself, Charlie finds himself in the position of unofficial private investigator.

James has written a solid first entry for her Cat in the Stacks series. The search for the murderer twists and turns as past deeds surface and motives multiply. Since the book is written from Charlie’s first-person POV, the reader knows no more than Charlie does at any time. And since the author writes the detective as a recalcitrant soul, fighting for control and against civilian assistance, the reader gets no help whatsoever from that quarter toward interpreting the information that Charlie gleans.

Charlie makes mistakes, both intuitive and legal. Unlike what happens in many cozies, our protagonist immediately accepts responsibility, takes his lumps and makes a concerted effort to correct his behavior. And, unlike the progression in many cozies, he doesn’t figure out the murderer’s identity before the detective does.

This novel has no obvious hook leading to another book. Nor does it end in a cliffhanger. But the murder of Godfrey Priest, and his investigation into it on Justin and Azalea’s behalf, changes Charlie. And on that point lies the premise of another book.

Cover Art from Goodreads

Witches of Bourbon Street

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Jade Calhoun despises magic. Her mother, a powerful witch in an Idaho coven, disappeared during a ritual twelve years ago. A powerful empath herself, Jade has spent the years since her mother’s disappearance running from magic, from witches, from covens, from everything actually. Quite frankly, Jade is the embodiment of “flight,” when one considers the meaning of the term “fight or flight response.”

But the events of three months ago have forced Jade back into the world of magic. Two ghosts, one evil and one benign, haunted Jade and one of her friends. Without the aid of the leader of the New Orleans coven, both Jade and Pyper would probably be dead now, their spirits still trapped in the evil ghost’s other-dimensional torture cage. However, in exorcising the evil spirit, the coven leader, Bea, expended too much energy and is deteriorating in spite of energy transfers via Jade.

Bea is convinced that Jade is not only an empath but also a natural-born white witch. For these three months, she has been trying to teach Jade how to access the witch’s spark within her so that earth energy can be transferred rather than emotional energy. Unfortunately for Bea, Jade’s fight or flight response is firmly seated in flight, even if it is passively disguised as “I just can’t do this.”

Then Pyper finds three portraits of old hags in a thrift store that she feels are perfect for decorating the club for the upcoming Halloween party. Jade immediately senses spirits trapped in the portraits, two good and one evil. One of the “good” spirits connects with Jade and claims to have first hand knowledge of Jade’s mother’s situation. Concurrently with this revelation, Jade realizes that she can no longer sense Kane’s emotional signature.

Thus, in relatively short order, Deanna Chase puts the Rule of Three in place and does so in spades. First, there are three major plot lines revolving around Jade – her acceptance of her white witch powers, her mother’s fate and her relationship with Kane. Then there are the three portraits with three spirits and three voodoo dolls with three souls. Thirdly, there are three people compromised by the evil spirit. And, as the book starts, it is three days until the full moon.

For me, Jade Calhoun is a character that is difficult to like. In the first book of the series, her self-pity was practically toxic. In this second book, her fight-or-flight attitude is practically lethal, literally. Every time she encounters a problem, she either runs full-speed away with hurt feelings or she runs full-speed ahead with boiling anger, never considering the effect of her actions on others. There is no middle ground and there are no questions directed to the “offending” party in order to pinpoint or resolve the problem.

Deanna Chase has created a character with incredibly poor communication skills and a pervading aura of negativity and selfishness. However, Chase apparently decides that it is time for the major supporting characters to call Jade on this behavior and take her to task for it. Lives are at stake, souls are in danger of being condemned to Hell and it is time for Jade to wake up and smell the incense.

Had Chase not taken this tact, this would have been my last read in the series. After two books and nearly 700 total pages of angst, self-imposed ignorance and selfishly rash decisions, I had reached the end of my tolerance for Jade. Even though the end of this novel sets a good hook for the next entry and promises a more positive and proactive attitude for Jade, that ending also highlights a major flaw in her connection between her mind and her magic. So it looks like we’re in for another tense ride.

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This first entry in Finder’s Nick Heller series is as impressive in what it is not as in what it is. To begin with, this mystery is not a romantic suspense. There is no female counterpart to our male protagonist, no girlfriend or male partner in the background, not a single sex scene, not even a kiss. Next, while the setting for most of the action is Washington, DC and its Maryland suburbs, the story is about corporate espionage, not political intrigue. And finally, our protagonist has a lot of personal baggage stemming from his childhood, but he is OK with that. He does not allow it to make him morose or brooding and he does not use it as either a crutch or a club. How refreshing and non-formulaic!

Nick Heller is an international private investigator with a background in Special Forces and the DoD intelligence network. He is employed by Stoddard Associates, a DC investigative services firm specializing in “find it and fix it” scenarios. And as the story opens, Nick is in LA investigating the overnight theft of an entire planeload of cargo for a new and sudden client of his firm. Within an hour of arriving at the airfreight terminal, Nick has found the stolen cargo, concealed in a manner that is as intriguing as it is ingenious. Coupling the nature of the heist with the unusual manner in which his boss accepted the job, Nick decides to break open one of the sealed containers to see just what kind of cargo merited such deviousness. And just as he suspects, the cargo is a very special form of contraband.

Simultaneously with Nick’s investigation in LA, Nick’s sister-in-law, Lauren Heller, is coming out of a coma caused by blunt force trauma during an attack the night before. Lauren’s husband, Roger Heller, had forgotten his keys at the restaurant where they had dinner and started back for them, leaving Lauren by their car. He hears a sound, turns back, and sees Lauren in the grips of a large man. The last thing Lauren hears before everything goes black is Roger asking “Why her?” When Lauren awakes in the hospital, Roger has disappeared, presumably kidnapped, his rumpled image and that of a man with a gun captured by a nearby ATM camera. But before Lauren regains consciousness, Gabe, her teenage son by a previous marriage, calls Nick. Putting his suspicions about the LA job temporarily on hold, Nick heads back to DC to help in the hunt for his brother.

Two kidnappings, one of a load of cargo and the other of Nick’s brother, set up one of the better researched and graphically realistic thrillers in my recent reading history. Before this one is finished, the plot will move past being convoluted to the point of making the reader wonder if anyone other than Nick is a good guy. Just as one of your suspicions seems to be confirmed or denied, two more take its place and a previous choice will be found to be wrong. And just when you think you’ve got a handle on why everything is happening, Finder twists you in the wind with a new piece of evidence or a new physical encounter.

In the end, two old saws, trite and overused as they are, were my last thoughts as I finished the last page: “Money is the root of all evil,” and “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”

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Purity In Death

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Louie K. Cogburn was a homicidal maniac when he died. While he lived he was a relatively peaceful guy even if he was a low-level illegals dealer selling to school kids. Then, during a mid-summer heat wave, with the AC broken in his apartment building, the headaches began. And they never stopped; they just got worse until his nose was bleeding and he was screaming in pain. When a neighbor knocked on his door, Louie grabbed a baseball bat and beat the man to death. Then he started on the neighbor’s domestic partner and Officer Troy Truehart, a member of Eve Dallas’ squad. When Truehart defended himself with a low level stun, Louie seized and died.

Tragic as it was, it just seemed like another heat-related act of violence. And then Dallas, responding to Truehart’s call, sees what is emblazoned on Louie’s computer screen: ABSOLUTE PURITY ACHIEVED. Not knowing whether “Purity” is the concept or the name of a new illegal, Dallas ships the computer terminal off to Feeney’s EDD department for analysis. 

But Louie, even in death, has more to say than the computer at this point. The autopsy shows that he died from a massive neurological infection, causing his brain to swell beyond the skull’s capacity. Hence, the excruciating headaches, the bleeding from the nose, ears and eyes, and the homicidal rage he exhibited. However, before Dallas can make much sense of what she has learned, the EDD tech working on Louie’s computer goes berserk. He tasers McNab critically, three other techs superficially, and takes Feeney hostage, stunner held to the pulse in his throat. Even though Dallas is able to save Feeney during a tense standoff, the tech neurologically implodes exactly as Louie did.

Within another day, “absolute purity is achieved” for another soul, a known pedophile. When a group called The Purity Seekers takes responsibility for the deaths, that group issues a manifesto as to their purpose and agenda. This group has declared itself judge, jury and executioner of those individuals who have abused children but have escaped consequences due to legal technicalities. They have appointed themselves guardians of the victims that the justice system has supposedly failed to serve adequately. And they imply that the executions are being conducted remotely through computer technology.

Dallas and her team are now under professional pressure to find the members of the Purity Seekers and stop the vigilante executions. They are also under considerable pressure to control the media explosion over the deaths and the manifesto.

But the professional pressure is nothing compared with the emotional pressure of differentiating justice from law. Using the framework of vigilante justice, J. D. Robb expounds on several core legal and political issues. First, there is the idea of an underground group openly appealing to the disenfranchised and seeking public approval for unlawful actions. Secondly, Robb explores the issue of domestic terrorism and its effect on the social and economic dynamics of a large city. Thirdly is the issue of what constitutes “impurity.” In other words, when will the focus shift from suspected child abusers who slipped through the legal system’s cracks to anyone who had charges dropped or to anyone who was acquitted or to anyone who just happened to offend someone in the group?

But Dallas and Roarke, together and separately, face serious ethical issues themselves. As a couple, they realize that they seem to be on opposite sides of two major issues, that of whether a person deserves to die and that of whether society benefits from the death of an individual. And Dallas must come to grips with the realization that her definition of “right” may be a flawed concept when she must secure immunity for two Purity Seekers – one of whom is another cop – in order to get enough evidence to take down the other 40-plus conspirators. In both situations, Dallas and Roarke must decide what is necessary to concede in order to achieve the greater good, for their marriage, for their sanity and for the public welfare.

In the end, this fifteenth entry to the In Death series is a story about the legal and social services systems and their imperfections. It is about politics – public, professional and personal – and about compromise. It is about perception and spin and the shades and degrees of truth. And it is a story about what is right, what is wrong and what is legal. But most of all it is a story about why Louie K. Cogburn really died – presumption of guilt, based on appearances and hearsay rather than on physical evidence or the lack thereof. 

This book will stay with you long after you’ve read the last page. And it will make you see just how vulnerable each of us is in the face of someone who truly and honestly believes, to the core of his soul, that he is right. And thus, being right, anyone who does not believe the same is wrong and needs to be punished.

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