Dead Boogie

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The first sentence of the first chapter just sucked me right in: “The eagle ate well that day.” Now, despite all the patriotic hoopla surrounding our national bird, an eagle is nothing but a buzzard with a Wall Street hairstyle and an Armani suit. So that one sentence told me that Victoria Houston was getting right down to the business of murder in this 7th entry in her Loon Lake series.

By the end of the first chapter, we have our body. Actually, we have three bodies, all trapped in a baby blue convertible overturned in a ditch on a back road. A Forest Service ranger, hurrying home to start his summer vacation, makes the grisly discovery and phones it in between bouts of nausea.

Chief of Police Lew Ferris is swamped with the problems associated with the area’s annual Country Music Fest and asks Doc Osborne to check out the accident and make tentative ID, if possible. When Doc arrives, he sees the patiently waiting eagle and a patiently waiting, but green-around-the-gills forest ranger. And he sees a car he recognizes immediately. The next thing he registers is that the damage caused by the carrion-eating eagle has only continued what a bullet to each of three brains started.

The driver of the distinctive convertible was Peg Garmin, a long-time Loon Lake resident living on a multi-million dollar piece of lakefront property. Most people in town snidely think they know where that money came from. Peg’s husband had been a corrupt cop in Chicago and a mob bagman who had been paid well to keep his mouth shut and serve a felony conviction. Until his early and unexpected death five years ago, they had owned and operated a highly successful bar-restaurant-resort in Loon Lake. With his death, Peg was forced to sell the resort, presumably going back to her previous occupation, earning her current money on her back.

But Peg was more than just a pliant body to several people in town, including Ray Pradt. Very sensitive to other’s problems and surprisingly un-jaded, Peg had been Ray’s mother’s best friend and had helped Ray to understand the cause of his mother’s alcoholism. Called to the scene to take evidence photos, Ray is devastated when he learns that one of the victims is Peg. After learning from Doc that the three women were probably dead before the car wrecked, an angry and determined Ray, using his prodigious tracking skills, soon finds the actual murder site in a clearing not far away. And now the hunt is on.

Victoria Houston writes cozies in which “who-done-it” is usually easy for the reader to figure out early on. But, by writing the story from Doc’s viewpoint only, she makes it much more difficult for the reader to figure out the “why-done-it.” Crafting a capable and professional investigation, Houston leads the reader systemically to the “why” and a final confrontation with the “who” that does not require a suspension of disbelief to resolve.

There is no cliffhanger and there are actually no hooks leading toward a next novel. But, as usual, Houston can’t keep her demographic facts straight from one chapter to the next. At least Houston is consistent in that regard – all her books are that way. I have just learned to roll my eyes at the obvious inconsistencies and focus on the expressiveness of her language, the comprehension she has of human emotion and her characterizations of a very effective investigative team. Those aspects of the writing far outweigh whether Doc’s outboard is a 9.9 Merc on one page and a 10 hp Merc on another, even if, to a boater and to an engine manufacturer, that is an important and noticeable difference.

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Hex Appeal

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Jazz Tremaine is having nightmares, terrible nightmares. These are the kind of night terrors where you wake up sweaty and scared, remembering every detail and still able to feel every touch, every blow, hours after the fact. Her first one is so real, so physical, with the only other person in the dream being her boyfriend, that she accuses Nick Gregory of actually attacking her. Mistake #1!

Never mind the fact that as she roars awake, Nick is solidly asleep beside her. It takes hours for Jazz to convince herself that the attack was not real and she makes the appropriate apologies to Nick. However, she doesn’t give him the details behind her initial accusation. Mistake #2!

Trying to chalk the nightmare up to spicy food and graphic videos just before bed, Jazz attempts to get on about her daily routine. Unfortunately, this is not meant to be as Jazz’s wards are accused of the disappearance and apparent murder of a local carnival worker. She secrets the wards away but does not start her investigation into the charges immediately. Mistake #3!

Fortunately for the two wards, Jazz and Nick are not your typical couple. Jazz is a powerful witch, over 700 years old, and Nick is centuries older than that and a vampire. Because of her heritage and her potential, Jazz has suffered innumerable indignities and tragedies even at the hands of her own kind. And Nick has been an Enforcer with the vampire Protectorate for longer than Jazz has been alive. Self-employed, Jazz uses her skills to eliminate curses and spells put upon others and Nick has his own PI business, supposedly retired from Protectorate service.

And currently, someone wants Jazz, and probably Nick, dishonored, disenfranchised, destroyed mentally and physically, and ashes-to-ashes dead. Jazz and Nick don’t know it yet, but we, as readers, are informed early on that that is the case. We just don’t know who or why. Thus, as we read, every scene involving the dreams, the feeling Jazz has of a malevolent presence close enough to touch but not see, and even the framing of the wards is colored by our omniscience. Needless to say, we are faced with hundreds of pages of ever-ratcheting tension.

 This is not a standalone novel. In this 2nd entry in the series, Linda Wisdom makes repeated references to incidents that occurred in the 1st novel, without any synopsis or adequate background. Therefore, I strongly suggest that you read that entry first, or if it has been awhile since you read it, go back and quickly review the action. There is a definite correlation between what was and what now is.

Another tack that Linda Wisdom has taken with this book is to make our main protagonist, Jazz, an obnoxious “witch.” And I mean that both literally and figuratively. In the first novel, as we obtain her backstory, we can somewhat understand her emotional state. But in this novel, Wisdom has taken her character over the top, past snark and quick-wittedness, to an in-your-fact offensiveness that grates like fingernails scraping across a board.

Jazz’s anger is always at the tip of her tongue and at the tips of her fingers, ready to unleash her acid words or her witchflame at the slightest provocation. It is no wonder so many supernatural creatures despise her and that she has so few friends. And those same characteristics that make the others think her troubles couldn’t happen to a better witch – her belligerence, her sarcasm, her aggressiveness, and her self-absorption – make it difficult for the reader to empathize with her, also. Even Nick loses his patience and compares her to a five-year-old. After 700 years, you would think that Jazz would have learned the difference between honey and vinegar and the decided advantage of think first, speak and act later. But that is not how Wisdom chooses to write the character and I found myself skimming past the snit fits.

So even as annoying as Linda Wisdom paints Jazz, even as inscrutable as she writes Nick, even as you scream for the characters to “just communicate already,” the mysteries involved are well worth the reading time. Childishness aside, you just can’t help but want to know who is trying to take down Jazz Tremaine this time. And while there is no cliffhanger, there are a lot of little hooks, details not cleaned up in this entry, which just might provide fodder for future novels.

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Top Secret Twenty-One

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Either Janet Evanovich has been listening, at least in part, to her readers or, for this entry, she used an unnamed co-writer who has been listening. For the first time in nine Stephanie Plum novels, I found myself laughing spontaneously every few pages. The usual inane vaudevillian scenarios are absent from the plot line. Lula and Grandma Mazur are real, believable people rather than slapstick caricatures. And Stephanie is not portrayed as a bumbling, insecure, inept idiot.

The writing is crisp, with a cadence unlike any Evanovich book I’ve ever read. The sentences are short and declarative. The fragments of sentences are clear and clean. And a staccato style gives maturity to the volume itself and to Stephanie, in particular. Evanovich may have prepared the story’s outline, but it truly feels like someone else did the writing.

However, regardless of the book’s provenance, some things have not changed. As usual, Stephanie’s car gets destroyed. As usual, Stephanie’s apartment gets bombed and burned. As usual, Ranger’s Porsche is decimated. As usual, the word “Babe” comes out of Ranger’s mouth every third sentence he speaks. And – as usual – nothing changes in the love triangle.

As far as the storyline goes, three subplots are woven together like a braid. First, Jimmy Poletti has missed a court date on a human trafficking charge and Stephanie must bring him back in. Secondly, someone is trying to kill Randy Briggs, a character who has been in several previous series entries. Briggs just so happens to be Poletti’s accountant and he runs to Stephanie for help. Thirdly, Poletti’s weekly backroom poker buddies are coming up missing or dead with an alarming frequency and Stephanie seems to be finding the bodies at the same alarming frequency.

And someone wants Ranger dead. In fact, this person wants Ranger dead so badly that he attempts to infuse the Rangeman facilities with a radiation-based aerosol poison. He does not succeed in infecting Ranger but there is collateral damage.

The different plots blend, separate and re-converge several times throughout the book as Stephanie, Morelli and Ranger find themselves up to their proverbial eyeballs in sharp knives, shoulder-launched rockets and tell-tale hearts. Frankly, this 21st entry in the series comes off more like a cozy than anything else. Some elements are a bit comedic, but nothing is really outlandish or begging for a suspension of disbelief. And there is definitely not a lot of whining, graphic sex, gory corpses or emotional baggage displayed.

Even though there seems to be some noticeable improvement with this entry, I will still continue to get Evanovich books through my library system. Simply put, Evanovich will have to demonstrate considerable advancement in character growth, book-to-book chronology and the romantic element before I will ever put my reading dollars directly into her coffers again.

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Dead Frenzy

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Doc Osborne does not, in the first chapter, find a body while fishing, as he usually does. What he finds in that first chapter is his daughter, Erin, on his doorstep, distraught over the fact that her husband, Mark, has left her and their three children. What he also finds is that Mark’s actions have triggered a recurrence of an old nightmare that took years of therapy for Erin to subdue.

This nightmare – bloody arms covered in decaying flesh reaching upward in a grasping pose – has a very real source. Those bloody arms were attached to the body of one of Erin’s schoolmates, a body Erin found stuffed in a burlap sack in the woods across the street from their house. The suspected murderer, Jack Schultz, committed suicide before being charged and the police summarily closed the case without further investigation. Doc has always thought that Schultz was railroaded and that the real murderer is still out there.

Doc finds two other items in short order. First is a warm, fresh-baked peach pie left on his deck with no indication of its provenance. Second is the body, albeit alive, of Catherine Plyer Steadman. Catherine is a former receptionist Doc employed years ago when he was first starting his dental practice.

Doc had fired the young woman when he and a telephone company investigator caught her in the act of making obscene phone calls from his office phone. Only seventeen years old at the time, she avoided prosecution, only to get pregnant by and marry one of the richer lads in town. Long since divorced from Parker Steadman, Doc feels that Catherine’s re-appearance in Loon Lake after several decades cannot bode well. Particularly since her ex-husband is sponsoring the million-dollar purse bass fishing tournament to be held in town during the coming weekend.

Other circumstances don’t bode well for Doc or for Chief of Police Lew Ferris either. Parker Steadman’s long-time girl friend has been receiving threatening phone calls and has requested additional security during the tournament (enter Ray Pradt). And Parker’s administrative assistant is none other than Edith Schultz, the oldest daughter of Jack Schultz. It seems Erin’s nightmare is about to become a daymare. Add to all this a motorcycle rally being staged simultaneously with the fishing tournament and a planned DEA sting operation on an Ecstasy mill right up the street. As it has often been said, the plot thickens.

So early into the book, we have a cold case, a high-purse fishing tournament drawing large crowds into a small town, a bike rally drawing even more visitors into that same small town, a drug ring in their back yard, a telephone stalker and a pie-baking, roll-baking, chicken pot pie-making stalker. We have a domestic crisis and a known sociopath returning to the scene of her earlier deviousness. And we have three well fleshed-out main characters, two of which are blessedly middle-aged.

What we don’t have is an author with a good memory or a good beta reading team. And we don’t have an author who does consistent research. And for the first time in four books, we don’t have a quality plot execution.


First are a couple of examples of Houston’s poor memory. For four novels now, the author has stated that Doc is 63 years old. The first novel began the previous summer and it is now July again. In this novel, she states that Doc’s birthday is in June, so that means he just had a birthday, making him 64, not 63. Also, at one point Houston talks about a three-day motorcycle class for Doc, then, several pages later, it is a two-day class.

While these glitches are noticeable, they are relatively small in the grand scheme of things and should have been caught by a good beta reader. However, several of the research errors are glaring. The first occurs when Doc is recounting the story of Erin finding the body in the burlap sack. Erin is 30 years old in this book and the incident occurred 17 years ago, per Houston’s writing. Simple arithmetic, then, makes Erin 13 years old when she finds the body. According to the anecdote, and mentioned several times, Erin is wearing a Brownie Scout uniform. Not at 13 years old she’s not! Brownies graduate to the next level of scouting before they reach 9 years old, always have. I haven’t been in scouting for 50 years and I knew that immediately. Apparently, Google is not on the author’s go-to list for fact checking.

Now, to be fair, Houston did a fine job on her research about Harleys and the riders’ organizations, bike accessories and clothing. And it is clear that she has stepped foot on an RV sales lot or in someone’s coach at least once in her life. But, apparently, she has not seen a 40-foot coach in actual operation or she would not have tried to place the one in her novel on a narrow back road in a wooded clearing near a creek. Turn radius, swing room, coach height and boon-docking appear to be subjects Houston knows little about and did not research. Since I have lived in, full-time, and have been driving a 40-foot bus-style coach for the last eleven years, I have an in-your-face familiarity with the situation. All I could do when Houston started describing the coach and its environs was to put my head in my hands and groan.

But the poor plot execution was the biggest disappointment for me. Unlike the way she crafted the first three books in the series, this novel feels unfocused and out of sync. She seems to have boxed her convoluted plotline and sub-plots into a corner and then didn’t have either the time prior to deadline, or the incentive, to re-write the resolution. So, it appears that she wrote the last chapter as a type of epilogue to tie together the rough edges. Nevertheless, I have read the last scene of the book at least three times and the last two lines of the book still don’t make any sense. It makes me wonder what was cut out to deal with word count.

To be specific on the issue, as the main conflict rages, the main protagonists find themselves caged in a cold storage shed, locked from the outside – again, twice in two consecutive books. Secondly, as the final crisis plays out, Lew’s gun action from the dock is accurate but the physics involved with the boats is not.

And the part about Erin’s husband, Mark, withdrawing $20K from savings to buy a motorcycle is, on the surface, realistic to the going price of a Harley at the time, a price that was clearly stated in the novel. However, he didn’t withdraw the money until after he had made a deal to purchase the bike from another source for only $5K, so there would be no need to withdraw the extra. Not only that, Mark’s character is that of a former DA; he is not a stupid man. And even if he is going through a mid-life crisis, he would know, from his previous occupation, that such a deal springs from an illegal source. Also, he would never have withdrawn savings; he would have taken a personal loan with the savings account as collateral. It appears this hodgepodge was written to be part of the dramatic family crisis Doc was caught up in, but it rings false.

The coup de grace in poor plot execution, however, was the intimate scene that took place between Doc and Lew. Now, Houston has been building up the romantic tension through three previous books. And what we get for all that buildup is – Wait for it! – two paragraphs containing an out-of-the-blue offer from Lew while they are out fishing. I realize that this is a cozy, not a romantic suspense and that a sexual encounter would be more implied than described. But we don’t get any hand-holding; we don’t get any sweet nothings spoken; we don’t get any soft expressions or heated glances. We don’t even get a first kiss! Oh. Come. On!

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Origin In Death

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In the prologue of this 21st entry in Robb’s In Death series, we witness an unnamed doctor administer a lethal injection to a five-year old girl. Watching, in silence, is the doctor’s teenage son. As we listen to the final thoughts of the child, we realize that she is being terminated, not to ease the final ravages of a fatal disease, but because she has failed some crucial test. She is simply not good enough, not close enough to perfection for the man she calls “father.”

By the end of the first chapter, a Nobel Prize-winning reconstructive surgeon, with an extremely lucrative sideline in cosmetic surgery, is dead. Wilfred B. Icove, Sr. is found in his office, stabbed in the aorta with a scalpel. The killer appears to be a beautiful woman who entered the office 30 minutes before TOD and left 5 minutes after. The name in the appointment book is an alias, easily debunked, and she has made no effort to avoid being seen, face or body, on the security discs. Clearly calm and focused in every security shot, from the moment she enters the building to the time she exits, the killer appears to have executed a perfect professional hit.

Eve Dallas and Peabody are already at Icove’s Center investigating another death when Icove’s body is discovered. They are there to question a well-known celebrity who has just undergone reconstructive surgery by Icove’s son. Attacked by her ex-lover, the celebrity had been beaten to a pulp and facially mutilated, but she didn’t go down without a fight and the ex-lover is now dead. Suitably convinced that the killing was in self-defense, Eve and Peabody are on their way out of the Center when Icove Senior’s body is discovered.

As she studies the crime scene and views the security discs, Eve recognizes a personal element behind the professional aspects of the hit. Her suspicions are validated when a routine search of Icove Senior’s home turns up a set of 50-plus treatment summaries, pass-worded and encoded, pertaining to females no older than their early twenties. These summaries contain no names, only identifying numbers, as if the patients are part of some clinical trial. But the treatments go far beyond reconstruction or cosmetic enhancements into far-reaching tests of intelligence, physical ability and psychological bearing. As Eve reads these summaries, she finds that each ends with one of two phrases: “placement successful” or “terminated.”

While running Icove Senior’s financials, Roarke discovers a primary interest in an exclusive, up-scale boarding school for girls. Adding this information to the treatment summaries, Eve suspects that Icove Senior had a sideline to his surgery practice – a designer human trafficking operation. When Icove Junior stonewalls her investigation into this area, Eve is forced to seek additional search warrants. But due to the deceased’s reputation, social standing and Nobel Prize, the DA is reluctant to brook public wrath and is slow to issue the warrants.

By the time Eve can get the warrants approved and served, Icove Junior has been dead for an hour, stabbed in the aorta with a scalpel. The phrase “like father, like son” now has three interpretations: both were doctors in the same specialty, both were murdered in identical fashion and it seems the son was not only aware of his father’s little hobby but was an active participant in it.

At this point, Robb gives the story line a hard left twist. In her investigation of the human trafficking angle, Eve discovers that Icove’s partner in the school is also his partner in a world-famous research lab and is a celebrated Nobel Prize winner in his own right. A renowned geneticist, the partner won his Prize for genome re-sequencing to prevent birth defects.

Connecting the dots, Eve realizes that reconstructive surgery added to cosmetic enhancements added to genome re-sequencing added to private exclusive schooling equals designer babies plus designer adults. Unfortunately, Eve misses one dot in the genome picture. And she doesn’t discover that dot, or its ramifications, until she is faced with the very real evidence that one person can be conclusively proven to be in two different places at the same time – face, fingerprints and DNA all identical.

For the first time, Robb puts Eve in the position of deciding which victim to stand for – the one who is murdered or the one who felt that murder was their only choice. Robb has Eve face the shades of gray that always seem to surface around questions of social, medical and moral issues that clash with current legal boundaries. And even though she has Eve facing these issues in the year 2059, Robb is clearly referencing these issues back to the concepts brought out by Darwin, Hitler and the KKK more than a century in the past. But the worst part, as you read, is that the plan hatched by the doctors is logically and chillingly realistic and legally attainable – in our present.

However rough the morality of the storyline, Robb still intersperses the tension and the psychological trauma with humor. The verbal interactions between Eve and Peabody are snappy and first-rate. And since the story begins about a week before Thanksgiving, the whole concept of family and friends is taken to a new level when Roarke invites his newly found Irish relatives to New York for the holiday. Eve’s reactions to the children who descend upon her the day before Thanksgiving are absolutely hilarious.

There are also the usual scenes with Mavis, Trina and Dr. Louise. But time is passing and Eve is maturing, which make these interludes actually more entertaining. What is not usual in this entry is that Dr. Mira makes a series of professional mistakes when she allows personal opinions to affect her profile. It is almost jaw-dropping to watch Mira come apart professionally to the point that Eve has to throw her out of a crime scene.

Roarke’s role in the investigation is more intermittent than usual, at least until the critical scenes at the end. But his actions are no less important in this entry as Robb puts his focus on the blood relatives who were completely unknown to him only a few months ago. And his verbal interactions with Eve are priceless.

Robb uses this entry to explore age-old legal and moral dilemmas associated with the origin and creation of life and family. However, she also uses those concepts to advance the discussions that Eve and Roarke have in each novel concerning choice, responsibility and nature vs. nurture. For Eve, the shades of gray between the law and justice are becoming more chromatically distinct with every case. And the nightmares are changing.

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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.

The Serious Crime unit in Reykjavik, Iceland, has been handed the case of a man found bludgeoned to death in a vacant warehouse. Normally, this kind of case would not come to Gunna Gisladottir and her team, but it is not what was done but to whom it was done that prompts the assignment. About five years ago, Borgar Jonsson, a generally despised businessman with multiple enterprises, was convicted of vehicular manslaughter in the DUI death of a child riding a bicycle. Both the family of the boy and the public in general were outraged when Borgar received only eight years as a sentence. As a child killer, he had a less than stellar experience in prison; so, hoping to avoid a death on their hands, the prison authorities paroled Borgar after only four years. Now, two months later, Borgar is dead anyway.

With the victim the lead story in the news all over Iceland, Gunna and Helgi have their hands full sifting through the horde of suspects. To a man, they all declare that Borgar deserved what he got. They also declare that they did not give him what they feel he deserved. The most likely suspects, the boy’s parents and Borgar’s former business partner, have iron-clad, irrefutable alibis. But that doesn’t mean that one of them didn’t have someone do it for them.

At this point, Bates twists the storyline away from Gunna, our main series protagonist, to Helgi, when circumstances suggest that the killer resides in his old hometown. Helgi left there years ago for a reason and his return as a special investigator does not bode well.

It was good to experience more from Helgi’s POV than usual. Bates has now given him an emotional depth to go along with the professional persona we have experienced previously. Like Gunna, Helgi was chosen for this special team because he possesses a unique skill set in terms of investigative technique. But he is not without flaws, and his trip back to his hometown is not without missteps. And these mistakes provide potential fodder for sub-plots in future entries to the series. Since Bates has already published two more books since this short story, I look forward to seeing if any of the hooks have caught their prey there.

Even though the majority of this 60-page short story revolves around Helgi’s part of the investigation, Gunna has significant presence also, particularly as the de facto head of the team. Her respectful but straight-from-the-hip style of dealing with her team and with other cops as well as with suspects and witnesses is impressive and produces results.

To that end, Bates employs two scenes that are well worth watching for as you read. One takes place in the chapter titled, “Monday,” when the executive director of the halfway house where Borgar lived ignores Gunna completely, assuming Helgi is the officer in charge simply because he’s a man. Rather than taking public offense and correcting the man up front, Gunna and Helgi use the presumption to their advantage and manage, quite satisfactorily, to put the cretin back under his rock.

The other scene takes place in the same chapter. This scene involves Gunna and Saevaldur, the egotistical and shortsighted Chief Inspector who has been lobbying to become head of Gunna’s unit. Forced by office politics to take an elevator with Saevaldur, Gunna knows that some kind of devious verbal parlay is coming. Having learned the ramifications of criticizing this man in front of witnesses, she waits for the digs to commence, stops the elevator mid-flight and goes succinctly into “put-up-or-shut-up” mode. By the end of the short scene, you see how a year in her new position has matured her and you almost feel sorry for Saevaldur – almost, but not quite. And you will have a new expression for your verbal repertoire, particularly if you’re a Yank: “There’s no need to throw all your toys out of the pram!”

Bates has crafted a smartly paced bridging short story that is well worth the price being asked in spite of its small size. It is a concise tale that is more concerned with “who” than with “why.” According to every suspect, every interested party – and the killer – we already know why: He deserved it.

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Dead Water

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For once, our main protagonist does not discover the body in this third entry of the Loon Lake series. However, he is just around the bend in the creek when he hears the screams of the woman who has discovered the body. As a part-time deputy for the Loon Lake police department, Paul Osborne secures the scene then rows his kayak back to phone it in.

The situation he relates to Lew Ferris is a grisly one: a young woman is half-nude and tangled upside down in a hedge, having apparently been tossed off an old railroad trestle into the creek. A small bullet hole is in the back of her head, but her face has been blown away as a result of the bullet’s exit. Then there are the bite marks on her shoulders, four sets of marks by four distinctly different sets of teeth. Paul also notices that the way her blood has pooled in her body is counter to the position of her body, indicating that she has been killed elsewhere and dumped here.

Before Paul and Lew, the Chief of Police, can finish examining the crime scene and get a CSI team in place, a second body is reported. Again, the victim is a young woman. Again, there is the bullet to the back of the head, the blown-out face, the four bite marks and the inconsistent blood pooling. Apparently, Loon Lake has a serial killer in current residence.

Even without complete facial structures, tentative identification of the bodies comes quickly. The first woman Paul identifies by her dental structure as a former patient of his, Sandy Herre. The second body is identified, based on her clothing, by the owner of a B&B near where the body was found. Ashley Olson has been a guest at that B&B for several days, coming in from Kansas City. Sandy had been a struggling entrepreneur, just getting her accounting service started. Ashley had been an established entrepreneur, owning a highly successful marketing firm and worth millions at her death.

Then a third body shows up, but this one is alive and undamaged, at least not physically. Sixteen-year-old Nick (no last name provided) has just found out that his mother is really his aunt. He has learned that his biological mother, a prominent figure who escaped Loon Lake in her teenage years, does not want him in her life until after she has secured her next husband. And he has just been told that Ray Pradt is his father and that he has to live with Ray for the summer. Coincidentally, Ray Pradt didn’t know any of this either.

The final body shows up in the form of Gina Palmer, an investigative reporter from Kansas City and Ashley’s best friend. Like Nick, Gina is also alive and kicking and has been expecting something like this to happen to Ashley for several months. It is her intimate knowledge of Ashley’s background and recent circumstances that enables Paul and Lew to focus the direction of their investigation into both deaths, even though the victims are seemingly unrelated personally or professionally.

And while we’re talking about Gina, you will want to pay attention to her personality, particularly in the scenes where she first encounters Paul and Lew. You might want to pay even closer attention to the way in which she describes her job and the concealed weapon she carries. Because, later in the book, you will witness one of the most realistic transformations I have ever seen an author craft, when Gina’s ego and bravado come face to face with another person holding a gun, a person who not only craves the hunt but who lives for the kill.

Unfortunately, the author telegraphs the identity of the killer before Paul and Lew have even finished their examination of the second murder scene. Any experienced mystery reader, whether their favorite genre is cozy, hardboiled, romantic suspense or detective-based, will be able to spot the tell. It is subtle and not the result of the killer exposing himself or herself through an internal monologue. Since the book is told from Paul’s POV, we only know what Paul sees, hears and thinks. And something he observes provides the reader with the identity. Paul is just too inexperienced as an investigator to understand what he has seen.

Therefore, the reader spends 90% of the book watching and waiting while the team puts the clues together and navigates the red herrings thrown in their path. They are good red herrings, too, so the read goes quickly.

After having read the first three books in the Loon Lake series now, I can say one thing about this author’s style. Victoria Houston really knows how to craft an exciting, tension-filled denouement. You know the main characters survive because there are seven more books currently in the series, but you are certainly on the proverbial pins and needles wondering how they will be able to do it without the author succumbing to an illogical save. But, in the end, she manages the scene realistically and in keeping with the personalities and skills of the characters involved.

My only real complaint with this book (the early knowledge of the killer’s identity could be deliberate on the author’s part) is that Victoria Houston seemed to forget her own biography of Ray Pradt. For two books previously, he has been 6 feet 6 inches tall and about 36 years old. In this book, however, she repeatedly – and I do mean repeatedly – reports his height as one inch shorter and he has lost about three years in age.

It’s bad enough that the author doesn’t remember her own characters or doesn’t refresh her memory by re-reading her previous novel before writing the next. But, quite frankly, her editor and her beta readers should have caught the discrepancies immediately. If they are that obvious to the casual reader, they should practically jump out at a professional. And, by the way, Houston has reinvented the wheel with Lew Ferris also, as the physical description of Lew has significantly changed since the first novel.

But, on a good note, before the novel is over, Houston actually steps up the romance between Paul and Lew. The advance wouldn’t even rate a 0.5 on the Richter Scale, but it is touching and telling nevertheless. And it also sets the hook for the next book.

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