Lullaby Town

Lullaby Town_RobertCrais_425090

WHEN KEEPING ONE’S WORD MEANS KEEPING ONE’S LIFE

4 STARS

Peter Alan Nelson wants to find his ex-wife and his child. As he explains to Elvis Cole, when they divorced, she asked for nothing. She just left and he hasn’t seen or heard from her in ten years. However, as he brags to Cole, his ex-wife surely must have heard about him and seen him in the media since he is currently the third largest grossing film director in Hollywood and dubbed worldwide as the King of adventure films.

According to Peter, Karen Shipley Nelson was barely twenty when she and Peter divorced. According to her agency photos, she was an attractive girl. According to the outtakes of an audition tape Cole viewed, she was a giggling simpleton with the acting skills of a cardboard box. And according to every source Cole has, Karen Nelson is nowhere near LA.

Three days after being hired, Cole locates her 3000 miles away in Connecticut. But Karen Nelson is no longer the stereotypical Valley Girl. She is poised, confident, well-dressed, has a college degree and a real estate license, and is a vice president and manager of the town bank. She is also Karen Lloyd.

Cole quietly and steadfastly confronts Karen with a picture and facts relating to her actual identity and past. Karen quietly and steadfastly denies being that person. However, her body language clearly tells an opposing tale. Regardless of her denials, Cole has done his job; he has found Karen Nelson. All that is left to do is to fly back to LA in the morning and give Peter Alan Nelson the facts of her whereabouts.

Later that evening, as Cole approaches his motel room, two thugs with heavy Bronx-style accents accost him from a stairwell. With an iron pipe and beefy fists to back them up, the thugs attempt to persuade Cole to leave town permanently. Elvis quickly takes the two down, but before he can get answers to questions about Karen Lloyd, he is struck hard behind his ear. Oops, third thug!

Pulling himself up out of the gravel, groaning from the kicks and the beating he received, Cole knows that he is not flying back to LA in the morning. Karen Lloyd has made this personal. Game on!

Of course, as Cole patiently sniffs out, Karen Lloyd is not really the problem. Charlie DeLuca, son of the high-ranking, NYC mafia capo, Sal DeLuca, is the problem. Eight years ago, Charlie and Sal happened upon a waitress struggling to raise her toddler son and going to college part time. Several weeks later, Sal told Karen about a job opening at a bank. She got the job as a teller and got her life back on track.

Then Karen was asked to pay back the favor. Sal wanted her to open an account for him, deposit his funds and then transfer those funds to an offshore account, all without alerting the Feds. Naïve to the nth degree and grateful for what Sal had done to help her, Karen agreed. But it didn’t take too many of these “favors” for Karen to wise up to the fact that she was laundering funds, that Sal was Mafia, and that she was in his pocket.

In the meantime, Karen totally re-invented herself compared to those days as a teenager married to Nelson. Once she figured out Sal’s true intentions, she refused all payment from him for her deeds. She has given the initial funds he paid her all those years ago to charity and has kept records of every transaction she has done for the DeLucas since she figured out their illegality. Upon learning these facts, Cole decides to help Karen escape the mob’s grasp and calls in Joe Pike as backup.

Unfortunately for Cole, Pike and Karen, the egocentric and narcissistic Nelson is used to people rushing to fulfill his every whim. Thus, he doesn’t understand why Cole isn’t rushing to do what he wants done the way he wants it done. So Nelson hires a second detective to follow Cole. Elvis makes the tail, but the other PI has already seen Cole and Karen together and sent Karen’s location back to Nelson. Cole is just barely able to intercept a furious and self-centered Nelson before he can blindside Karen, turn his child’s world inside out and run into DeLuca.

At this point, the plot that Crais has been methodically building shifts from a story about finding a person who doesn’t want to be found into a terror-filled tale of survival. First, Karen tells Charlie DeLuca that she is finished without consulting with Cole first about the soundness of that idea. Secondly, Nelson is stupid enough and egotistical enough to think that his reputation and his demands that Karen be released mean a wit to DeLuca. And these actions leave nothing between them and death but Cole and Pike.

Crais has written a story that builds slowly and then suddenly bursts into a page-turner. Cole’s smart-alecky speech fades away, replaced by cold, intense verbal logistics. Pike’s mercenary skills come full forward against a certifiably insane enemy and his soldiers. And Peter Alan Nelson, the acclaimed King of Adventure Films, learns just exactly what it means to be Indiana Jones in a pit full of snakes.

Only the third in a series that currently contains over 15 novels featuring either Cole or Pike as the main protagonist, this book has one feature different from the first two – it has a hook that could lead to a future novel. It is possible that we have not seen the last of the DeLucas.

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The Simple Truth

The Simple Truth_DavidBaldacci_830791

BROTHERLY LOVE

4 STARS

Michael Fiske is the current senior law clerk for Associate Justice Murphy of the U.S. Supreme Court. One day, in the mailroom, poring over new appeal submissions for his boss, he picks up a package that weighs far too little for an appeal and has no return address.

Opening it, he finds only two sheets of paper, a badly scrawled letter from a military prisoner by the name of Rufus Harms and a second sheet that is neatly typed, but unsigned. Glancing at the pages, he notices several names that are prominent in his professional arena and they are now being accused of being accessories to murder.

Regardless of its incompleteness, Michael knows the pages will be entered into the Court’s database, complete with those names. Once entered, everyone in the building – and Washington, D.C. – will know about the accusations. So Michael takes the pages from the mailroom without logging them in and starts his own investigation into the charges.

Rufus Harms has claimed in his filing that, 25 years ago, four military personnel entered his stockade cell with batons and guns. All four had brutally beaten him on multiple occasions previously, and on this occasion, one had put a gun to his head and ordered him to kneel.

Rufus claims that he saw a glint of metal to his other side, felt a prick in his arm and remembered nothing else until he regained consciousness with his hands around the throat of a nine-year-old girl. Never able to remember how he got out of the stockade, let alone remember why he attacked the child, Rufus is convicted of murder and sent to a series of maximum-security military prisons over the years.

An unexpected event in Rufus’ current confines triggers his memory of the needle prick and the entire event comes flooding back from where the chemical has stashed it in his subconscious. Now Rufus wants his case to be reconsidered.

Michael is a brilliant analyst, but he has spent his entire legal career in the rarefied, intellectual air of the Supreme Court, He has absolutely no practical experience with prisoners or prisons. So, when he visits Rufus in the military prison, he brings the appeal with him, not knowing that his briefcase will be searched or the visit monitored. After the meeting, which does not go well at all, Michael is allowed to leave the prison but barely makes it one mile past the gates before he takes a bullet point blank to his right temple.

Enter John Fiske, Michael’s older brother. John does have practical experience with both prisoners and prisons. He was a cop until he took two bullets to the gut, sustaining internal injuries so severe that his expected lifespan has been reduced drastically. John is now a lawyer, a criminal defense attorney rather than a prosecutor, and is struggling to survive.

Since his brother’s birth, John has had to live in the shadow of his brother’s brilliance and his parents’ constant bragging about Michael. Steady, reliable and dependable, John has always been the rock for his parents, physically and financially, while Michael has prowled Harvard and the Supreme Court.

However, John has always loved Michael. It was his parents and the neighbors and the teachers who always made him feel second-rate, not Michael. But when their mother developed Alzheimer’s and Michael left John to bear the burden without him, John pushed Michael out of his life. They have neither seen each other nor spoken to each other since.

Now, for the first time in two years, John and Michael are back together in the same room. Unfortunately, that room is the morgue. John has just identified his brother’s body and their estrangement is now permanent. John may not have liked his brother lately, but he never stopped loving him. And he is determined to use his cop skills and his lawyer skills to assist the police in finding Michael’s killer.

Unfortunately, as far as John is concerned, the FBI agent assigned to the case has another agenda entirely. From Agent Warren McKenna’s viewpoint, John has no alibi for the time of his brother’s death; he was estranged from his brother for several years; and he is the sole beneficiary of his brother’s sizeable life insurance policy. To add to it all, the bullet that killed Michael was a 9mm, and John’s 9mm has disappeared. For McKenna, John is now the prime suspect in the murder and McKenna is after his head.

Shortly after Michael Fiske’s death, we are introduced, sans name, to the mastermind of his murder and the entire 25-year cover-up. This mastermind is clearly high up and well protected, based on the fact that he is the only member of the cabal not listed in Harm’s document. And, if you have read several Baldacci novels previously, you know that the major cast has been set at this point and that this person has probably been introduced to you in some other form already.

With that in mind, the reader can run back through the cast of characters so far in play and identify the names of only two people who are high enough in stature and politics to be that mastermind. But lest we get complacent and lazily read to see if our conjectures are accurate, Baldacci twists and turns the events until we are rapidly turning the pages, losing sleep and reassessing our ideas as to just how many bad guys there really are.

Throughout, Baldacci uses plenty of space and words to discuss the priorities, practices and politics of the Supreme Court system. Whether these words are an expression of Baldacci’s own personal beliefs woven into a fictional novel or whether these words are written specifically to help weave the puzzle pieces together, I do not know. But, in either case, they are definitely bold and thought provoking.

For over 500 pages of small type and closely spaced sentences in the paperback version, we are taken on a stomach-clenching roller coaster ride. That the killers will be eventually identified is a sure thing in a Baldacci novel. Whether they will be punished is an entirely different concept altogether. And it is never a sure thing in a Baldacci novel that all the good guys will survive to the last page. But what Baldacci does make certain, using the characters of both John and Rufus, is that this is a story about brotherly love and that brotherly love will survive to the last page.

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Prince Of Hearts

Prince of Hearts_MargaretFoxe_18515966

DENIAL, THE WORD “NO” AND MORE DENIAL

3 STARS

The year is 1896 and the place is London. But this is not the Victorian England that we have studied in our history classes. This London, actually the entire world, is based on an alternative theory of history where the advent of the Steam Age created immediate, adverse and lethal environmental effects. As a result, the world’s population needs mechanical implants or other devices in order to survive. The most basic of these is the Iron Necklace, a device welded to the throat in order to protect the lungs from the contaminated air.

With circumstance being the mother of invention, scientists began experimenting with mechanical replacements for other body parts, such as arms, legs, eyes and hands. Even mechanically welded plates for breast enhancement and facelifts became available. The only device that has not been perfected for mechanized, welded replacement is the heart. Or so the world’s population thinks.

About 400 years previous, according to our author’s take on alternate history, Leonardo Da Vinci created 13 mechanical hearts and developed the technique for replacing a biological heart with a metal one. As a result, the owners of the new hearts became immortal. Before the 13th heart could be transplanted into the body of the chosen recipient, it was stolen by Ivan the Terrible and placed in his dying son’s chest.

The back alley surgery did not go quite as planned, leaving the son in a semi-coma for over a year and with a scar that wouldn’t quite heal. When the son regained his full consciousness, and, with it, his memories, he was not particularly pleased that his father had saved his life. Since dear old Dad had been the one who had tried to kill him in the first place, after murdering the son’s pregnant wife first, the son was a bit upset. The son bided his time, got his strength back, assassinated his father and fled Russia.

That son is one of our two main protagonists, Sasha Romanov. He has spent the last 300 years training first to be a doctor and then a psychiatrist. And now as a forensic criminologist, he spends his time hunting down psychopathic monsters like his father, monsters who maim, rape and kill just for the power and thrill of it. And for these same 300 years, spaced about 100 years apart, someone has been murdering innocents, ripping out their hearts and placing items near the bodies that would implicate Sasha in the deaths. So far, the frame-ups have not worked to get Sasha charged, however.

Now, the murders have begun again, only this time the killer has upped the stakes. The victims all have the same physical characteristics as Sasha’s secretary, Aline Finch, who is our tale’s other main protagonist.

Finch is in her early thirties, wears glasses and ugly, ill fitting, high-necked muddy brown dresses. She isn’t plain but she isn’t porcelain-doll beautiful either. She is an excellent personal assistant but she has had it with Sasha’s high-handed, demanding ways. She wants to be married, have the cottage with the picket fence, have the average 2.2 children and the dog, instead of traipsing all over the country picking up after his lordship. And now, an archeologist with whom she has been keeping company for several years has proposed marriage and a honeymoon-slash-bone dig in Egypt.

Finch accepted Charlie’s proposal almost a month ago, but she cannot seem to find what she thinks is the right time to tell Sasha that she is resigning. When she does tell him, it is in anger and he is so focused on leaving to investigate the first of the new murders that he doesn’t hear her. When he returns to London after a very bad time and narrow escape in Italy, he finds Finch gone.

Finch doesn’t know who or what Sasha is. In fact, no one in the general populace knows about the 12 Elders with the immortal hearts, the 13th immortal that is Sasha, the Blood Bond companions that the Elders can create, or the metallically fanged vampires that the Bonded companions can create. Actually, the Elders don’t know about the vampires either. And even knowing that someone is using her for bait to get to him, Sasha refuses to enlighten Finch to his circumstances.

Quite frankly, this book is full of thoughts, opinions and facts that Sasha and Finch do not “enlighten” each other with or even admit to themselves. Sasha is ashamed of who he came from and is scared senseless that he is or will become the same vicious monster that was his father. He has stuffed his emotions so far down for so many years, in an attempt to control what he feels is his hereditary bent, that he cannot see the proverbial forest for the trees when it comes to his attachment to Finch. It comes as an absolute shock to his buttoned up self that he loves her and has since she first came to work for him years ago.

But Finch is absolutely a pain to endure for the majority of the novel. Margaret Foxe has created in Finch a heroine who is obnoxious rather than strong. She assumes that she knows exactly what everyone, particularly Sasha, thinks or feels and why. She bases her thoughts and actions on what society says she ought to believe and do, rather than heed her good sense, intuition and reality.

Even reminding myself that the story is set in Victorian England, even if it is an alternative version of the age, did not help my opinion of Finch. Her self-righteousness is her worst enemy, just barely edging out for that position her constant use of the word “No.” And even though Sasha uses the word “No” quite often also, it is much easier, considering the circumstances of his immortality, to understand and sympathize with his need for secrecy and even for his need to martyr himself, physically and emotionally, in order to save Finch.

I could even understand Finch initially, considering the time period. But after about the umpteenth time her high-toned denials and presumptions sabotaged both herself and Sasha, I lost all regard for the character at all. Of course, Margaret Foxe writes the defining moment when Finch sees all her mistakes and understands that she has loved Sasha all along. Foxe has Finch finally recognize her own cowardice and culpability in the physical and emotional debacle that is their lives and act on that recognition in a positive manner. Unfortunately, the eye-opening realization comes about 150 pages too late to rescue my opinion of the heroine.

Foxe has created a structured and understandable alternate reality for her steampunk genre series opener. Unfortunately, I hesitate to purchase the next book new for fear I will get a repeat of the “egocentric, whining heroine” formula. Perhaps a library copy would be a better choice.

But on a positive note, if this book could be judged by its cover, it would rate 5 stars. I rarely let a cover sway me, but this one is fantastic, one of the few lately that have stood out in design, coloration, focus and meaningfulness to a storyline.

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Jerusalem Inn

Jerusalem Inn_MarthaGrimes_25174

 

FAMILY LIES AND FAMILY SECRETS

4 STARS

It is five days before Christmas and Scotland Yard Superintendent Richard Jury is taking a short, much-needed vacation. On his way to the Newcastle area, he plans to spend a bit of holiday time with what little family he has remaining. Stopping in the village of Washington Old Town to stretch his legs, he spots an intriguing figure in the cemetery, jotting down information from a gravestone.

As he moves closer, Jury sees that the figure is a woman, beautiful, about his age, and physically ill. This illness is clearly not the average winter flu or even similar to his sergeant’s prodigious hypochondria. What Jury observes is bone deep and Helen Minton confesses to a heart condition.

Jury and Helen, immediately attracted to each other, spend the afternoon engaged in light conversation and having a bit of tea. Making a dinner date with Helen for the next evening, Jury travels on to his cousin’s place. The next day, following festivities with the family, Jury heads back to the Washington Old Hall where Helen volunteers as a docent and where he is to meet her for their date.

When he arrives to find police swarming about the place, Jury learns that Helen has been found dead in an upstairs bedroom, apparently the victim of a heart attack. But when the physical evidence doesn’t quite fit death by natural causes, murder may well be on the table.

The local constabulary reluctantly agrees to give Jury access to their findings. They don’t really want Scotland Yard anywhere near their patch, but, since Jury knew the victim, they realize that even a slight bit of cooperation is better that having the case hijacked completely. A quick call to the Yard confirms Jury’s homicide/CID status and also confirms his reputation as a hound that will quietly worry a bone until the last drop of marrow gives up its hold.

And quietly worry that bone he does. Playing on the oft times need of isolated villagers to know everything about everyone, Jury ferrets out Helen’s movements and contacts for the last few months. A trip to her primary residence in London reveals salient facts about her family history and her schooling. All those facts lead Jury back to that graveyard, to a local orphanage and to a backwoods pub known as the Jerusalem Inn.

At the Inn, Jury finds a retarded youth with the same unusual last name as that on the gravestone. And he finds Melrose Plant chaperoning a teenage pool shark back in the snooker room of the pub. It seems Melrose and his entourage are spending Christmas just down the road at Spinneyton Abbey.

Jury arranges to join Plant back at the Abbey, but by the time he arrives, Melrose has found another body. Jury also finds that the lady of the manor exhibits identical physical symptoms to those Helen displayed. And, for the final discovery of the evening, he finds Helen’s cousin, her only known remaining relative, to be a visitor at the abbey also. With too many coincidences on his hands, Jury, with Plant’s assistance, begins worrying the bone even harder.

Martha Grimes presents us, in this 5th book of her Jury series, a literary mystery rather than an action adventure or strict police procedural. We get detailed and intimate looks into both Jury and Plant before the murders are discovered as well as during the investigative stages. We learn more about the source of Jury’s chronic depression, a source that actually resonates with the circumstances surrounding Helen Minton’s murder. We get to smile and snicker and practically guffaw as we read Melrose Plant’s internal monologues. His snark, his sarcasm and his repartee are natural and rooted in pragmatism rather than meanness. But it is his uncanny observational skills that feed the repartee and the internal thoughts and thus feed Jury some quite important clues.

The vocabulary and sentence structure of Grimes’ novels are definitely upper echelon. There are a multitude of literary and artistic references to Greek and Roman mythology and to classic texts of the 1800’s and prior. These references come with very little explanatory background, so the reader has to make the choice of pushing past them or spending a bit of time with a dictionary and Google.

The first choice leaves the reader with a fuzzy feeling as the clues to the murder are often wrapped inside the literary references. The second choice slows down the reading experience and breaks the train of thought. However, since Grimes definitely writes in a style where attention to detail is a must, the decision to re-read scenes and pull up the reference sites is probably the better choice.

And, as with most literary mysteries, the reader will not find in this book casual romances or explicit sexual situations. The fact that neither Jury nor Plant have ever married, that neither are currently in a relationship and that both are despairing of ever finding that kind of love is a strong part of this storyline. And the fact that it is Christmas makes their respective situations worse.

So if you are a reader who needs a Christmas mystery to be full of spritely angels, sparkly decorations, fresh snow, good cheer, heart-warming relationships and a rosy happy ending, don’t read this one. All you will get is the snow.

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Dead Renegade

Dead Renegade_VictoriaHouston_12423253

A TREATISE ON BULLYING

2 STARS

For some ten books now in the Loon Lake series, Victoria Houston has crafted murder mysteries that can best be described as “cozies.” The town of Loon Lake and its surrounding water-filled environs are a mecca for fishing enthusiasts as well as for wealthy seasonal residents seeking refuge from their big-city lives. Therefore, great opportunity always exists for robberies, fraud and assorted mayhem to be sorted out by Doc Osborne and his girlfriend, Chief of Police Lew Ferris.

The book starts out in a very promising manner. First Doc finds a skeleton wrapped in an old rug tucked away in the basement of an antique store. The body had been dismembered before being rolled up, and the skull, complete with gold fillings that Doc recognizes, rolls right over to him. Concurrent with the discovery of the skeleton, Houston provides us with a very good idea of who’s going to die next. She even provides a better than usual clue to the identity of the future killer.

And then the shorter-than-her-normal novel begins to fall apart. First, Houston creates a demanding subplot for every character. For instance, Lew has refused to ask Doc to her high school reunion, choosing instead to meet with her old high school boyfriend who is now a divorced millionaire. So Doc has that angst to deal with for most of the book. Then Erin, Doc’s daughter, is working two Legal Aid cases, one of which involves the antique store where the skeleton is found while the other involves finance company fraud allegedly perpetrated by the person we figure is slated to die next.

Add to all this a problem where Mason, Doc’s granddaughter, is being bullied by an older boy, a story which dominates the entry for at least half the book. Ray’s “adopted son,” Nick, has a scenario going, as does the wife of the finance company CEO. Throw in multiple scenes tracing the family situation of the person we are clued into as the next killer and there is not a lot of space in this novel for actually investigating any of the crimes.

The focus on bullying is the next problem with the book. Not that the societal issue of bullying isn’t important, but we actually find ourselves reading a primer on how both parents and the victimized child can deal with the issue psychologically, physically and legally. The advice Houston presents on the topic is excellent, but it uses up so many pages. And it only relates to the mystery portion of the story because Mason is rescued at one point by, coincidentally, the wife of the finance company CEO, who is, coincidentally, moving in just down the street.

The final downturn to the story is Houston’s refusal to believe that “the devil is in the details.” Book after book, she seems to have an insatiable and driving need to bend the fabric of time and space in a setting that is neither paranormal nor sci-fi in genre.

Ten books ago, at the start of the series, Doc had already been retired for over two years. Since then, Nick has finished his last two years of high school and a year of college. Erin has started and finished law school, attending only part time for several years, has passed the bar and has started working for Legal Aid. The books have spanned several winters, several summers and several birthdays since the series started.

But somehow, since the last book, Ray Pradt and Cody, Doc’s grandson, have lost at least two years on their ages. And Doc is back to being retired for barely two years, which doesn’t account for the death of his wife or his time in alcohol rehab, all of which happened before the start of the first book but are referenced in this text. I swear, sometimes a Houston book is worse than a trip in Dr. Who’s Tardis!

Overall, this “cozy” is really more dull and boring than cozy. The second murder and its aftereffects are different from any that Houston has created before. However, the majority of its solution just drops into Doc’s and Lew’s laps. All they have to do, essentially, is pick up the body parts and file a report.

Yes, there is an action scene or two with gunplay and a speedboat attack, but, for the most part, this book is just an essay on the effects of bullying. One bully is just learning the skill and the second is a sociopath with many years of successful manipulation under his belt. And the third is a full-fledged psychopath, honed in his craft by one parent who was physically and psychologically abusive and by the other parent who tacitly allowed it to happen.

Essentially, Houston tries to put too much into too few pages. The result is a book that jumps all over the place and, thus, never does justice to any of the myriad plot lines. Too bad, because Houston has her characterizations fully fleshed out and she has created people who feel like friends. And for that reason only do I continue to read her books.

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Snowball In Hell

Snowball In Hell_JoshLanyon_10834443

“I’M NOT LEAVING TOWN”

5 STARS

Regardless of what the promotional blurb intimates, this novella is, first and foremost, an historical murder mystery and police procedural. Secondly, the story is an expose of some of the era’s concepts of what constitutes “normal” and “legal,” concepts so entrenched in the societal framework of the time that their very import is enough to drive a soul to the brink of suicide. And finally, as a result of the other two scenarios, this is a story of two men who find the beginning of peace and salvation in each other.

The year is 1943 and the place is Los Angeles. That means America is in the middle of WWII. The war is significant to the story because at least three of our characters, including the two main protagonists, have been seriously wounded in combat. And they have returned home with various scars, physical and mental. On the other end of the spectrum, the murder victim had been removed from the draft, never to see combat, because of the influence his captain-of-industry father had with the local board members.

But the year and the place carry another significance. Despite the closed eyes and turned heads often afforded to the Hollywood community and its LA offshoots, the closet door is firmly and legally shut. Quite frankly, a person of that time could be arrested just on the suspicion of being homosexual, no evidence required. And that same suspicion could end a person’s career in a heartbeat and/or have the person committed to a mental institution.

From these societal issues, Josh Lanyon constructs a full-bodied mystery. As the tale opens, LAPD Homicide Lieutenant Mathew Spain is looking down on a body that has been thrown into the La Brea Tar Pit. But for the winter cold and rain keeping the tar stiff, the body would probably never have been found. But it has been found and there is no ID on the body. Since the victim is rather expensively dressed, Spain looks over to the reporters hovering close by, thinking one of them might have some idea as to who the man is.

Spain recognizes all the reporters save one, a thin, wiry, attractive male. The lead detective for the case tells Spain that the man is Nathan Doyle, a decorated war correspondent who now works for one of the local but highly reputable newspapers after being critically wounded in the war. Spain calls over Doyle as well as the lone female reporter, and shows them the body.

The female reporter recognizes the victim immediately and blurts out the name. But it is Doyle’s reaction that rivets Spain’s attention. Doyle has jerked in surprise, he has paled, and he has tried to cover it all up.

Spain casually questions both reporters, trying not to spook Doyle any further. His experience tells him that Doyle is fudging the truth on just how he knows the victim. His experience also tells him that Doyle’s surprise contained a large element of fear, but not the kind of fear that is evidenced when a perpetrator is trapped. This was the fear of being thought guilty of something else entirely.

Spain’s war injuries may make him a quasi-administrator now, but he has not lost his field shills. It takes him less than half a day and a quiet stakeout to discover that Nathan Doyle is gay. Now Spain knows the source of Doyle’s fear. Just by knowing the victim, he will be investigated, his sexual orientation will probably be exposed and he will go to jail.

At this point, Mathew Spain has two major mysteries to solve. First is the murder of Phil Arlen, the younger son of a prominent and influential oil magnate. It seems that Arlen was a nasty little creature, a ne’er-do-well favorite son, a spousal abuser, a gambler with large debts and no money to repay, and a womanizer.

The girl friend on the side, his refusal to work a regular job and his father’s constant financial underwriting makes Phil’s wife, his brother, his wife’s brother, his brother’s wife, the gambling club’s owners and even his father very viable suspects in the murder. And to top it off, Phil Arlen had supposedly been kidnapped and held for ransom on the very weekend of his murder. And, yes, the large ransom had been paid.

So Doyle, in short order, is pretty far down the suspect list, but he is the object of Spain’s second mystery, the mystery of his own feelings. Spain has always known that he is bisexual, and he has always been protected from his leaning toward male alliances by the love he has for his wife. But with his wife dead, Spain is now ripped to the core by the depth of the attraction he feels toward Nathan Doyle, an innate pull he has had since the first time he laid eyes on the man at the tar pits.

As Josh Lanyon alternates the story between the POV of Spain and that of Doyle, we learn far more about Doyle than about Spain. Doyle is not bisexual and has none of the cultural protections that Spain has enjoyed his entire life. Lanyon brings out very clearly the uncertainty and the depression that rule Doyle’s life. Lanyon also makes it very clear why Doyle feels he must discover enough evidence to turn Spain’s official attention clearly and permanently away from him. The question of wanting Spain’s personal attention is another matter altogether.

The mystery that is Phil Arlen’s death is a well-crafted one. It is very easy to miss the clues that point to the killer’s identity amidst the lies, the screw-ups by the investigators under Spain and the emotional tension between Spain and Doyle. Throw in Christmas and its tendency to prompt suicides among people in the grip of personal trauma and the story just gets more absorbing with every turn of the page.

But as you read through this most excellent tale, always keep in mind, page by page, incident by incident, that the story is taking place in 1943. The idea of gay rights may be past the Spanish Inquisition phase at this point, but the concept is still firmly entrenched in the Salem Witch Trials construct.

Only with a firm and constant grip on the historical time frame can the reader fully understand and appreciate the terror felt by the main protagonists over their circumstances. It is to Josh Lanyon’s credit as a writer that I could understand why a gay man in that era might truly think death was a better choice than life. But the naked emotions expressed by Spain in the final scene, his plea for life, his wish for a future, are perhaps the best words that Lanyon writes in a novella full of excellent expression.

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Grave Peril

Grave Peril_JimButcher_7021986

BECAUSE HE DID WHAT WAS RIGHT

5 STARS

In the first book of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, Harry makes an immortal enemy in Bianca, a well-known and influential madame in Chicago. Bianca is also a vampire of the Red Court, a sect that has no compunction against killing the humans on whom they feed.

In the second novel, Bianca is conspicuous by her absence. Harry has little time to consider this, however, as he is busy subduing a demon under the control of Kravos, a sorcerer with a demented hate for Harry. With the considerable help of Knight Templar, Michael Carpenter, Harry dispatches the demon and Kravos is arrested.

Now, in the third book, Bianca is back, with her plans for revenge against Harry in place (think Kravos). Having been elevated to a position of power on the Vampire Council, Bianca plans a masquerade ball as celebration for her Court, with invitations also being sent to the designated representatives of each supernatural group within the Nevernever. Thus, Harry, as representative for the White Council, is invited, along with a guest of his choosing, to the ball.

Harry has no plans to attend that event. First of all, he really doesn’t want to walk into the lair of a vampire who has sworn to kill him, even if the “rules” of the Nevernever grant him safe passage. And secondly, he and Michael are up to their eyeballs in ghosts who have been slipping through a weakened wall in the Nevernever to wreck havoc, mayhem and death upon those who may, in some way, represent a contribution to their demise.

When one of the ghosts escapes them, Harry and Michael are forced to pursue her into the Nevernever. With his Sight, he discovers that the ghost is under the influence of a torture spell – ice cold barbed wire embedded in her neck and wrapped in coils about her body until it embeds itself again in her ankle. The tortures attached to the wire are for the purpose of causing deep emotional grief, unbearable pain and insanity.

Then, whoever or whatever is causing this spate of ghostly violence turns its attention to Harry. The entity, dubbed the Nightmare, first attacks one of Murphy’s former detectives in his sleep, wrapping the torture spell about him in his dreams. Then the entity attacks Harry while he is dreaming, but no barbed wire spell is included. Instead, within the dream, the entity guts Harry and consumes the organs, thereby removing the majority of Harry’s magic. The entity would have gotten it all save for Harry’s cat and the Bob skull managing to awaken him just before death would have been certain.

Now, virtually incapacitated magically, Harry cannot save Murphy when she is attacked by the torture spell. Continuing the rampage, the entity kidnaps Michael’s pregnant wife, and Harry must, for all practical purposes, sell his soul to save her. At this point, it appears that attendance at Bianca’s ball is going to be necessary if he wishes to find the perpetrator, retrieve his powers and end the carnage.

Just as in the previous books of the series, this one is non-stop mayhem, violence and angst. At least three supernatural entities want Harry destroyed, first mentally and physically tortured and then killed. Another creature wants him alive, but only so that she can possess him entirely in body, mind and soul. And through it all, Harry feels that he alone bears the responsibility for the safety of his friends. Even though these villains freely and purposefully choose their own actions, Harry still feels that he has forced them into their choices.

Sometimes you just want to slap Harry silly. But Jim Butcher has the character of Michael help him to get back on track with one of the most succinct and memorable pronouncements I have ever read:

“What goes round comes around. And sometimes you get what’s coming around. And sometimes you are what’s coming around.”

This urban fantasy series falls into that category where most of the supernatural creatures have an innate predatory and vicious nature. There is no compunction not to kill what they eat or not to cheat whom they bargain with or to ever tell the truth. Suspension of disbelief is simply a requirement from the opening words as far as dealing with the mental and physical stamina and the skills that these magical creatures, both human and not, possess. But in this third entry, Butcher drives home the strength of Harry’s character, his innate goodness and the forthright moral compass of his soul in such a manner that no belief need be suspended to accept.

DEFINITE SPOILERS FOLLOW:

The one major character that I have not yet mentioned is Susan Rodriguez, pulp news journalist and Harry’s girlfriend. From the very beginning of the series, I have disliked this character. Whether Jim Butcher means for the reader to dislike her, I do not know, but she has always come across to me as selfish and egotistical, a user. I have never doubted that she cares for Harry as much as she is able, but she always seems to place her wants and her needs first with no real concern for what Harry might need.

And finally, in this novel, her ego and her career goals do her in. Angry with Harry because he doesn’t want her to go to Bianca’s ball and because he won’t stop in the middle of a major spell to talk to her on the phone, she defies Harry’s warnings and slips into Bianca’s ball without an official invitation. Thus, she is also without official protection against attack. While there, she also bargains with a faerie to get part of Harry’s magic back without listening to Harry’s warnings about the “fine print” of the bargain.

As a direct result of both acts of stupidity, she loses her memory of what Harry means to her and she loses her humanity. As Michael said: “What goes round comes around. And sometimes you get what’s coming around.”

Using much of his little remaining magic, Harry helps Susan get the memories back and gets her away from Bianca’s lair alive. And, upon getting those memories back, how does Susan repay the man she swears that she loves? She leaves him in the hospital, poisoned almost unto death by vampire venom and mushroom toxin. She leaves him without a word and moves away from Chicago without a forwarding address.

When Harry is well enough to track her down, she tells him that she loves him, kisses him to sexual distraction, gets ups and walks away, saying “Don’t call me; I’ll call you.” Bianca may not have been able to kill Harry’s body, but through Susan, she has killed his heart. Harry is now a disheveled and broken man.

I have not researched the series far enough to know if Butcher brings Susan back, but I certainly hope not. With the vampires calling for war unless the White Council hands him over for execution, Harry deserves better than Susan. He deserves someone at his back, not at his throat, literally or figuratively.

Cover Art From Goodreads