Frozen Assets

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“FREE SPEECH IS THERE FOR THOSE WILLING TO PAY FOR IT”

4 STARS

DISCLAIMER: For ease of typing and transferring content on specialized web pages, I have chosen not to use the accents that normally accompany the Icelandic names in this story. I do not mean any disrespect.

 

It is late August of 2008 in the small southwestern town of Hvalvik, Iceland. The body of a young man has been found floating near the docks, in the early dawn, by a commercial fisherman on his way out to sea. Called to the scene is Sergeant Gunna Gisladottir, the ranking member of Hvalvik’s two-person provincial police force and the main protagonist of our story.

Once a member of the police force in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, Gunna is in her mid-thirties, a widow of eight years with two teenage children. While the criminal action in Hvalvik is pretty tame compared to that of Reykjavik, Gunna is in a good place emotionally, her children are happy and she is well liked and well respected as both a person and a police officer.

Finding the body without any ID and knowing that he is definitely not a local, Gunna calls for forensic assistance. When the body is identified as that of an employee of Spearpoint, a prominent Reykjavik firm, Gunna’s investigative senses begin to twitch. It seems Spearpoint is the project development and PR firm for the InterAlu smelting plant being built in Hvalvik.

When the autopsy reveals that the victim was intoxicated to the point of being severely incapacitated, Gunna’s senses are perked up even more. But when routine investigation reveals that the victim didn’t like to drink and that he had been seen 100 km away only a few hours before his body was found, Gunna knows that she has something far worse that a death by misadventure. She is looking at a murder. The only way he could have gotten under her docks was for someone to drive him there and push him in.

Now murder in Iceland is not as commonplace as it is in America. Therefore, such an investigation is noticeable. Before Gunna can get any real traction on the case, her Chief Inspector orders her to cease, that higher-ups have declared it an accidental drowning. And he offers her an immediate promotion to Inspector in a regional force completely on the other side of the country.

But Gunna is not that easily taken in. She knows that when she questioned the lad’s boss and his co-workers that a few political toes felt stepped on. The employer is the wife of Iceland’s Minister of Environmental Affairs and her company is connected at the hip to the political, environmental and economic powder keg that is the InterAlu plant. Gunna has also discovered that the lad’s best friend, a political lobbyist for Clean Iceland, was run down and killed several months prior.

Even though the case is officially closed, pertinent information keeps surfacing. A villager remembers a non-local car he saw at the docks that night. A bridge inspection in a neighboring town yields an SUV that matches the hit-and-run vehicle from the friend’s death. And then a CCTV source requested earlier actually leads her to a tentative ID of the murderer.

Finally, there is Skandalblogger, a rogue website hosted out of country. This blog is set up strictly to criticize members of Iceland’s political and financial powerbase – and their wives, girlfriends, side pieces and paid companions. The information published on the web is not just someone’s rants and personal opinions. Apparently, Skandalblogger is someone strategically positioned in government and simply has access to the salacious details faster than the press or the cops.

And it is Skandalblogger that gets the murder investigation reinstated when it posts details of what is being covered up. Suddenly the National Commissioner’s deputy overrules the Chief Inspector and Gunna is placed in charge of a task force to locate the suspected murderer, Gunnar Harde.

Quentin Bates has crafted a police procedural around an actual true event, the global financial collapse of 2008. Using the main characters of Gunna, Harde and Skandalblogger, along with the major secondary characters of Snorri, Skuli and Signorjona, Bates weaves a tale of political and financial corruption that erupts into the lives of the average and ordinary populace with a vengeance. Murder, extortion, coercion, insider trading, protest marches, environmental destruction and corruption within the justice system are all part and parcel of this package.

Bates also creates two remarkable major characters to carry the storyline. First, Gunna is a more than competent police officer. She is an excellent investigator, knows how to lead a team without bullying and has the town’s respect. She has her demons, particularly several that are related to her husband’s death, but those demons no longer affect either her job or her role as a parent. She is definitely a character worth pursuing into future novels.

Bates’ portrayal of the hired muscle, Harde, is also notable. He is the typical military-trained assassin. He intimidates and kills as part of the job, not because it is something for which he lives and breathes. He is a villain with a defined moral compass more solidly aligned than the situational ethics of his employer. He is a sociopath, rather than a flaming psychopath, and while he is intelligent and crafty, he has no illusions of being invincible.

The dialogue throughout the story is individualized to the characters and the settings. Gunna, her team and the townspeople use their colloquialisms while the higher-ups are more formal. The characters don’t always speak in complete sentences or with perfect grammar, and thus, their conversations feel realistic.

Another device Bates uses to give the reader a feeling of connectivity to the story is the way he titles his chapters. Each chapter represents one calendar day. And within each chapter, Bates uses spacing and markings to indicate clearly when he is switching from one situation to either a parallel-in-time scenario or a subsequent scene with another set of characters.

The resolutions for the main storyline and its subplots are not perfect in that not everyone gets what the average mystery reader might feel they deserve. But those resolutions are realistic when a government framework is factored in. Thankfully, there is no cliffhanger to fret over. However, a scenario is presented that could support a future book.

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Deadly Heat

Deadly Heat_RichardCastle_18484069

FRIENDS CLOSE, ENEMIES CLOSER…BUT WHICH IS WHICH?

4 STARS

Nikki Heat is distracted as she walks up to the pizza restaurant. She is so distracted that she actually forgets her decade-long ritual of giving a minute of silence to the soul of the person whose body she is about to view for the first time.

The cause of her distraction is two-fold, though both reasons are closely related. It has been three weeks since Nikki narrowly missed being assassinated by the rogue CIA agent who murdered her mother ten years prior. Although that murderer is now dead, poisoned in his jail cell, his handler faked his own death and escaped. So now, Nikki is still a potential target because the person who ordered both her mother’s death and her own is still out there.

The second distraction is the highly publicized debut of a magazine website that is using an article by Jameson Rook, Nikki’s significant other, as its lead story. That article is the story of Nikki’s mother’s life as a spy, her death and the capture of her murderer. The intimacy of the story itself is bad enough, but the real worry for Nikki is that the publicity will be used to taint her cases and that jealous colleagues will stonewall her investigations.

So, forgetting her ritual, Heat views the dead body, stuffed in a pizza oven and well baked. Also in the oven are the man’s unbaked ID as a Health Department restaurant inspector, an unbaked but dead rat, and an unbaked coil of red string. The man had been chloroformed and shot to death before being baked, but those are only more clues, not consolation.

Before Heat and her team can get a good start on this murder, a second body turns up. The consumer advocate for one of the major NYC TV stations has been found chloroformed and then strangled with a TV coaxial cable. Close by is a yellow string – attached to a red string. Clearly, the murderer wants Heat to know that the murder victims are connected.

Then the notoriety brought on by Rook’s web page article sets in motion a cause-and-effect scenario. The article causes the escaped CIA handler to order Nikki’s death – again. The effect occurs when a reader of the article recognizes Nikki in a coffee shop and asks her to autograph his cup. This simple but embarrassing request causes Nikki to delay picking up her own latte from the counter. But it doesn’t stop the gruesome and immediate death of a homeless man who schlepped her cup and found it laced with the same poison as in the jailhouse murder.

Not only have these rogue espionage agents declared open season on Nikki Heat, so has the serial killer with the string signature. He calls Heat at the precinct and lays down the gauntlet. He declares her his best challenge to date but tells her that she will lose both the case and her life.

With Rook at her side, as well as Roach, Feller and Rhymer from her team, Heat juggles both cases. More bodies surface, more connected strings for not only the serial killer case but for the rogue agent/terrorist case. And at every turn, she has to fight interference from the lead agents of the DHS and the CIA assigned to the rogue agent/terrorist situation. And she must constantly maneuver around her inept, clueless media hound of a precinct captain and the equally inept female detective, with whom he is having an affair, that he has assigned to Nikki’s team.

Now, all this set-up takes place in the first few chapters. The remainder of the story becomes increasingly intense and convoluted as the two cases tumble over each other and actually merge into each other. But it is a story that is well told and is quite the page-turner.

And this is definitely a novel where the reader has to keep close watch on the clues and an even closer watch on who says what to whom and when. Then, just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, the author twists the arc and you have to start over.

In the end, the plot of this fifth entry in the series clearly hinges on the old adage that advises, “Keep your friends close and your enemies even closer.” And before it is over, both Nikki and the reader will be wondering just who is friend and who is enemy. And we will definitely worry about the author’s definition of “closer.”

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The Dirty Duck

The Dirty Duck_MarthaGrimes_1649051

WHEN TODAY IS ALL ABOUT YESTERDAY

4 STARS

I don’t know what was up with Martha Grimes back in 1984 when she wrote this book. But whatever it was, it surely tripped her tongue-in-cheek bone and her sarcastic impulses, because, for 240 pages of relatively small font, we are taken for one heck of a verbal ride.

Just like the previous three entries in this series, Richard Jury, from Scotland Yard, and Melrose Plant, from Ardry End, find themselves in the same place at the same time as a murder. This time the action takes place in touristy Stratford, the burial place of Shakespeare. And the victim is a member of a tour group from America, a very rich female member of the group.

This murder takes place in the first chapter. The victim-to-be is at a pub, The Dirty Duck, after attending a performance of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” She has a companion with her, who is surreptitiously getting her drunk. Grimes lets us into the woman’s thoughts and we discover that she is a plain Jane spinster, living with her Dowager Empress of a mother back in Sarasota, Florida. She’s socially inept, sexually repressed and looking to break free of both ills.

So when her companion asks to escort her back to her B&B by way of a stroll by the river, Gwen gladly accepts. And she is both ecstatic and hopeful when her companion pauses them in the shadows along the pathway.

Oh, yeah! We know that set-up. We know exactly what’s coming. Martha Grimes has led us seriously and straightforwardly right to the cusp of the action. And then she writes:

“…felt hands on her shoulders, felt breath on her neck…it was to her credit that instead of fighting off this affront to her person, she said to herself, ‘The hell with it, Mama! I’m about to be ravished.’ And when she felt that funny tickling sensation somewhere around her breast, she almost giggled, thinking, ‘The silly fool’s got a feather…’  The silly fool had a razor.”

And then I nearly fell out of my chair. My jaw dropped to the floor and the words “Oh. My. God.” came out of my mouth. The simplicity of that last sentence just sucked me in. And this type of writing, a droll, succinct, eye-rolling understatement of fact, follows us all the way through to the end.

Grimes in not making fun of the victims – and Gwen is just the first – with this tone of voice. In fact, the plays on words and the punctuated metaphors just drive the viciousness of the situation farther into the reader’s consciousness. And to use this tactic with the internal monologues of Jury and Plant is just short of brilliant. Their internal sarcasm just further highlights the inanity, the stupidity, the selfishness and the callowness of many of the people they have to question.

We may be chuckling and smiling as we read but we are also desperately trying to follow the clues along with Jury. Very quickly, there is another victim, a nine-year-old boy who has disappeared from his adoptive family, which is also on the same tour as the first victim. He is an intelligent and independent lad and has disappeared before. No one but his ugly duckling of a big sister – and Jury – seems to be truly worried. But we know for a fact that he hasn’t just gone off exploring like those last times; he has been kidnapped.

More victims fall prey to the razor and the boy remains unfound. The action moves from Stratford to London. And then, at the denouement, the story falls apart.

As Jury and Plant subdue the suspect, we get an explanation of why the murders and the kidnapping occurred. We even learn, somewhat, how they came to piece the clues together. But the explanation is missing several very important details. You feel it go sideways and ultimately it requires too much suspension of disbelief for a person in 2014 to accept easily.

In a word, there are just too many coincidences. There are too many things that happened that, by all that’s holy with Murphy’s Law, shouldn’t have happened. And the explanation for that: the murderer had a long time to plan out the details.

Granted, back in 1984, instant media communication was not yet in place – no cell phones, let alone smart phones, and no satellite television. Without those instant photos, videos and voice recordings to contradict the national media, it was much easier for the general populace, and thus the fiction readership, of that time to believe in “coincidence.” It simply took more time then than it does now for things that seem disassociated to reveal their connectedness.

In addition, there is a subplot to this story that also rings false in its details. In that subplot, Grimes revisits Jury’s relationship with not only Vivian Arrington, but with Lady Kennington. Both these relationships occurred in previous books as part of murder investigations that Jury was involved with. And both of these “relationships” ended without any real beginning and were essentially dismissed. But here they are again, resurrected and alive, as if only days had passed instead of years.

Again, “coincidence” rules the outcome for each situation. And in several scenes, particularly the ones revolving around Lady Kennington, Grimes’ writing seems geared to providing an emotional internal drama for Jury, without regard to the common sense of the reader. It also seems geared to a new direction in her story arc.

Grimes has crafted in Jury a character who is highly intelligent, innately deductive, well educated, well contained, and who approaches his suspects and persons of interest calmly and obliquely. Plant is fast becoming a useful Watson to Jury’s Holmes. Frankly, neither Jury nor Plant needs “coincidences” or contrivances manufactured by an author to help their characters as currently established. They weren’t in use in the first three novels, but then, Grimes didn’t have to write herself out of a box in those novels, either.

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Vampire Sun

Vampire Sun_JRRain_17617768

THE DIAMOND MEDALLION

4 STARS

As our story opens, Samantha Moon has two major problems, one professional and one personal. The professional problem ensues from being hired by a distraught husband whose wife disappeared three weeks prior. Now, spousal disappearances are relatively common compared to other potential tragedies, but this woman disappeared from a Starbucks. She went in, she ordered, she headed toward the bathroom and then was never seen again. The surveillance tape clearly shows her entering the store but it never shows her leaving, not by any entrance or window. The woman has fine and truly disappeared, as in “Beam me up, Scotty” disappeared.

The personal problem is far nastier, however. The demon inside Sam, the entity that makes her a vampire, is getting stronger every day. The demon’s thoughts are coming through more often and it is getting harder for Sam to distinguish between her own ideas and those of the demon. Sam is beginning to enjoy the taste of the animal blood she used to despise. She finds herself evaluating people as potential straight-from-the-vein sources of nutrition. And she no longer abhors the sight of death. In fact, she’s beginning to think that violent death is normal.

Sam knows that she has to retrieve the Diamond Medallion soon. She knows that she is only one slip-up, one crack in the armor, from losing her soul completely to the demon. Activating the medallion will force the demon from her body, will negate the need for drinking blood, and yet will allow Sam to retain all her other vampire skills and her immortality. And Sam has learned that Fang is the only person who knows where the medallion is located. Oh, joy!

J. R. Rain stated earlier this year that “Vampire Sun” would be the final entry in the Samantha Moon series. He has since rescinded that decision, with several more entries now in the works. However, had this actually been the final book, it would have been a fine last hurrah. This novella brings together all the major themes from previous times – her work, her resident demon, the four medallions, her guardian angel, the Librarian, Fang, and Talos (the bat creature). Her children are still struggling with their grief over the recent murder of their father. Her son’s super-human strength is still growing. And then there’s Kingsley.

Each of these plot lines is resolved satisfactorily, if not perfectly, by the end of the story. As stated previously, Rain intended it to be the last. But apparently, those imperfections provided Rain with a jumping-off point for yet another story arc. And, of course, as long as there is life, there is always another tale to tell.

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Dark Side of the Moon

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THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING

4 STARS

It has been a little over a month since the conclusion of “Moon River.” Samantha finds herself alone, truly alone. Her kids are away at camp. Sam’s sister is still recovering psychologically from her kidnapping and doesn’t want Sam around too much at this time. Danny is dead and Fang is both physically and emotionally distant, no longer sharing a mind link with Sam.

So Sam decides to summon the bat creature and go for a night flight – to the moon. And for the first time, she is able to communicate with the creature. Then again, it’s the first time she’s tried. As they fly higher, together in mind and body, Sam questions the creature about his life, his plane of existence and his relationship to her.

In a little over 30 pages, J.R. Rain uses Sam and Talos to explore the concept of a soul, its creation and its life force. He also uses their communication to explore the difference between true limitations and perceived limitations. And for Sam, with the power of positive thinking, “Fly Me to the Moon” becomes more than the title of an old song.

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Point of Origin

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ASHES TO ASHES

3 STARS

Carrie Grethen is back – as in on the very first page, back. She has sent Kay Scarpetta a letter, scrawled in red, full of disjointed phrasing. But as Benton Wesley studies the letter, he realizes that those disjointed ramblings are really challenges, threats and promises. At this point, Carrie has been in a facility for the criminally insane in New York City for the last five years, and her trial on multiple murder charges is but a month away.

Before Kay and Benton can fully absorb either the message or its ramifications, Kay is called by the ATF to the property of media mogul Kenneth Sparkes. There his home and outbuildings have been destroyed by fire, a virtual inferno. His stables, along with over 20 high-dollar horses, have been consumed also. And Kenneth Sparkes is missing.

Then four events occur within hours of each other. First, Kay discovers the badly burned body of a female in what appears to be the point of origin of the fire at the Sparkes home. Secondly, Carrie Grethen manages to escape that maximum security mental facility in NYC.

Next, Carrie sends a well-written and detailed letter to all the major newspapers on the East Coast. In that letter, she slanders Kay and Benton, accusing them of framing her for the murders. She exposes their affair and she exposes Lucy’s sexual orientation, accusing her of seduction for criminal purposes. Then she begs the masses to see that she is freed and that Kay, Benton and Lucy are made to pay.

And, finally, the FBI summons Benton to New York. He was the lead profiler on Carrie’s case all those years ago but he is now retired and no longer with the Bureau.

And when the dust settles from these events and their consequences, when Carrie Grethen deals her ultimate blow, everything the major characters – and the readers – have come to count on will be gone.

At the very end of Cornwell’s previous novel in the Scarpetta series, “Unnatural Exposure,” one particular scene with Kay and Benton stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. The subject matter of the scene came out of nowhere and seemingly had no real connection to the novel’s storyline. That scene felt very wrong and then punched my memory back to an earlier scene with Benton that had puzzled me also.

Then it hit me. Cornwell was telegraphing a major curve in her arc for the series. And, if my intuition was correct, she was either going to end the series with the next book or she was going to restructure the line-up of major characters. Well, she didn’t end the series!

With that final scene in mind, I began this book. By the end of the first chapter, I knew how it was going to happen and had confirmed, in my mind, who it was going to happen to. The only thing for it now was to turn the pages one by one, verifying the clues, waiting for the final blow and just wanting Cornwell to get it over with.

In trying to wrench her story arc in that different direction, Cornwell really makes a mess of it. First, it’s difficult to tell exactly how much time has passed since the conclusion of the previous novel. Secondly, Benton has retired from the FBI and we don’t know why. And Lucy has been drummed out of the FBI and we don’t know why that happened either. We just know that Benton is still relatively young, with his own consulting business, and that Lucy is now with the ATF.

And, as we read, the red herrings that Cornwell tosses into the soup become increasingly obvious. We know that Kay Scarpetta will not be spared all the blows, but she will remain. She is, after all, the “I” in the first person POV. But those herrings are heavily and repeatedly directed toward only two of the three remaining main characters.

Then, at the beginning of the dreaded scene that we have been moving inexorably toward, Cornwell writes every character but Kay totally out of character. The dialogue and action Cornwell writes for all but Kay comes off like something you’d see and hear in a third rate daytime drama. However, that cheesy, juvenile dialogue made me realize one thing. There had been three people “missing in action,” so to speak, that day, not just one.

The Scarpetta series is, and has always been, dark and gritty and never with a happy ending. The murder is always solved, but the killers are not always caught and justice is not always served. Like revenge, the entries in this series are best served cold, spacing them a month or so apart and interspersing them with lighter fare or something from a different genre.

This book started with ashes and it ended with ashes. And if my suspicions are correct about the import of that unusual scene in “Unnatural Exposure,” we’re not done here. The truth will out; it always does. And a Phoenix will rise from these ashes.

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Supreme Justice

Supreme Justice_MaxAllanCollins_22348740

CONSTITUTIONAL ARMAGEDDON

4 STARS

Our story opens around the year 2030 and a lot of things have changed. Now the author does not come right out and tell us the year, so, at first, these “changes” that the characters are operating under feel confusing and foreign. However, over the first few chapters, Max Allan Collins provides us with enough clues that a bit of simple arithmetic will lead us to the year 2030.

The year, however, is not nearly as important as the societal changes. First, there is no First, as in First Amendment. Free speech, whether verbal or written, is no longer protected and to criticize the government risks unemployment and arrest. Secondly, the Fourth Amendment is gone too. Law enforcement can now enter a residence or a business at any time, in any way and for any reason without a warrant. And thirdly, Roe vs. Wade has been repealed. And with that, God is back in full force in the public arena. Prayer is back in the public schools and Creationism is practically a mandatory course.

Every citizen is aligned along one of two paths – Democrat or Republican. And within those paths, a person is either a Liberal or a Conservative, although a Centrist position is minimally tolerated. And the populace is fanatic in their orientations, with jobs and personal relationships hinging on a person’s choice.

And how did it all get this way? The Patriot Act of 2001 is the baseline culprit here. The need of the American population not to feel fear started the whole slide down the Constitutional slippery slope.

And as this slope descends, Armageddon occurs. The Heavens do not open with angels pouring out nor do plagues infest the land. What happens is two masked robbers kill a Supreme Court Justice in an exclusive restaurant while he is having dinner with his law clerk. And this Justice is an ultra-conservative, part of the reason for the repeal of Roe vs. Wade.

While the murder of the Justice appears to be collateral damage in a robbery gone wrong, Joe Reeder doesn’t think so. Reeder is a former Secret Service agent who took a bullet for the previous President. Relegated to a desk by his injuries, Reeder became increasingly angry at being lauded as a hero when he had saved a man whose conservative beliefs he intensely despised.

Resigning on disability, Reeder mistakenly tells his superior the real reason for his leaving. Like wildfire, his traitorous remarks spread through the ranks of all the D.C law enforcement agencies and he becomes a pariah. He winds up with a broken marriage and an estranged daughter. But he also winds up owning a very successful security business, since many people really do believe he’s a hero.

And it is in his capacity as CEO of that security company that Reeder enters our story. His company’s surveillance system is the one used by the restaurant where the Justice was killed. When one of his few remaining cop friends, a D.C. homicide detective, asks him to personally review the security video, it’s not just because they’re friends. Reeder has always had, even before his Secret Service training honed it, an exceptional grasp of kinesics, the ability to read a person’s body language for intent.

And the intent he sees on the video is two-pronged. First, the Justice, when he rises up to the shooter, isn’t trying to protect his clerk, who has a Glock in his face. He is trying to run. And secondly, the shooter goes into a deliberate and slow execution stance as he turns the gun on the Justice and pulls the trigger.

When the detective friend is called in the next day to be part of a multi-agency task force, he relates Reeder’s theory to the task force chief. This chief is Gabe Sloan, another of Reeder’s few remaining cop friends, his daughter’s godfather and a high-ranking FBI agent. Gabe then recruits Reeder to the task force and assigns him to partner with Patti Rogers, Sloan’s own partner for the last five years.

The next day, a second conservative Justice is murdered in his back yard. Now, with two vacancies on the Supreme Court and a Liberal President in office, Reeder speculates that there is a conspiracy afoot to stack the court with Liberals and get the country’s rights back.

In the end, this is the story of one week in a dystopian America, a dystopia that was not caused by nuclear holocaust or a biological pandemic. It was not caused by a megalomaniac here or a sadistic dictator there. It was caused by the American populace itself, a populace that became afraid to be afraid. So, now, instead of being afraid to die, they have enacted laws that make them afraid of the consequences of living.

In actuality, this tale feels more like the screenplay version of a mystery novel than like an actual novel itself. There is no character development, only background into who the people were before the first death. No one changes with the events or by the nature of the events. And there is no romantic involvement amongst the major characters, even though all are divorced or single. There is not even a glimmer of attraction written into the tale. But the tale is a page-turner, nevertheless. And the quotes by deceased Presidents and deceased Supreme Court Justices that precede each chapter are chillingly apropos to the ensuing chapter.

Unfortunately, I was able to deduce the identity of the main killer/conspirator fairly quickly. Even though the author in no way had the internal monologues of that character reveal the truth, he telegraphed the truth through one action. From that point on, it was just a matter of listening to everything this person says and watching everything this person does until Reeder figures it out.

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