Pray For Silence

Pray For Silence_LindaCastillo_8517754

SELF-HATE IS A KILLER

4 STARS

It has been ten months since Painters Mill Chief of Police Kate Burkeholder and BCI Agent John Tomasetti solved the Slaughterhouse Killer murders. Professionally, those ten months have been relatively smooth for both of them. Personally speaking, not so much.

Kate has been choosing vodka more and more as her pacifier of choice as the resolution of the serial murders did not exactly resolve the problems the murderer resurrected in Kate’s psyche. Meanwhile, although John has significantly decreased his alcohol and pill usage, he has developed paralyzing anxiety attacks.

And their complex, on-again off-again, love affair has been, due to Kate’s issues, in the off-again phase for about two months. Coincidentally – or not – this latest off-again situation seems to correspond to the onset of John’s panic attacks.

On the exact same day, Kate’s and John’s professional lives hit critical mass. For Kate, it is the discovery of 7 bodies, the entire Plank family, murdered on their farm. Two appear to have been executed; two appear to have been shot while fleeing. Two have been strung up in the barn, like so much meat, tortured and mutilated. And the father of the family lies dead in the house, powder burns on his mouth, his brains on the wall, and a gun in his hand.

However, as former Amish, Kate knows the average Amish family does not usually possess, or need, a semi-automatic handgun. A rifle for slaughtering cattle or pigs, yes. A shotgun for dispensing with destructive critters, yes. A Glock or a Beretta, no. But it is not until she sees the bruising circling the man’s unbound wrists that she is certain the scene has been staged to look like a murder-suicide. Someone out there needed this entire family dead.

Kate is determined to get justice for the family, but the autopsy results on the youngest female change that determination dramatically. Forced to confront a series of stunning parallels between this dead girl and herself at the same age, the need for justice transforms into a need for revenge. Not a good place for a cop’s mind to be – just ask Tomasetti.

For Tomasetti, his professional crisis revolves around being forced to take administrative leave for failing a drug test, a test he had actually failed nearly a year ago. At the time of the test, Tomasetti had been on desk duty for psych issues following the torture, rape and immolation of his wife and daughters by a drug lord. He was also on desk duty because the brass considered him a corrupt cop and a rogue after he beat a grand jury investigation into the later torture and immolation death of that same drug lord.

The BCI had wanted Tomasetti gone for some time and the only legal way they could find to dismiss him under ADA was to set him up to fail. So they put Tomasetti back into the field as back-up for Kate in the Slaughterhouse Killer case. They figured he would simply disintegrate under the pressure of the high-profile case and give them ample grounds for dismissal.

The bureaucrats were wrong. Not only did Tomasetti not disintegrate, he earned a commendation for his work. And didn’t that just frost his boss’ cake! Now, after all the backslapping has subsided and in spite of exemplary work since, the boss pulls out the drug charge. Tomasetti is put on leave, required to pass a drug test weekly and see a company shrink until such point as that psychiatrist deems Tomasetti “fit” for duty.

It is clear Tomasetti’s boss feels that he will go down in short order. But little does that boss know that Tomasetti has already quit the painkillers. And he needs his job, from a psychological standpoint, so badly that he makes his first appointment with the shrink for that very afternoon. And then, in the middle of the psych session, Kate calls, asking for his help with the Plank family murders.

Castillo does a fine job of manufacturing a murder mystery with twist after turn after twist, most of which you do not see coming, and neither does Kate. Just when you think you have the identity of the killer figured out, you don’t. Or you just think you don’t and go off on another path that Castillo so adeptly places before you.

And Castillo also does a fine job of manufacturing a devolvement in Kate’s character that makes you just want to slap Kate senseless. No, that’s not exactly right. Kate’s already senseless and so self-involved, so full of guilt and anger, so selfish that you just want Castillo to write in some intervention, some promising light at the end of Kate’s oh-woe-is-me tunnel. You want and you wait for the misery to end, or just let up. Unfortunately, on the very last page, you will still be wanting and waiting.

Castillo has Kate sinking farther into the role of a functional alcoholic while she is writing Tomasetti as a man who is climbing, even if only by centimeters, out of his pit of despair. However, this reader can only take a whining protagonist with a victim complex for just so long. And when that protagonist is a police chief who has started drinking on the job and who places her officers at unnecessary risk just to pacify her own personal demons, sympathy for that character can wither in moments.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Tomasetti is still a broken soul, but Castillo has his breaks ever so slowly knitting together. She has him gain ground and then lose some, particularly in the scenes where he has a panic attack, scenes which, by the way, are incredibly well written. Just like Kate, he doesn’t want to feel the way he does, but he now accepts that he must deal with what is, rather than pine for what was. He no longer wants to eat his gun, while Kate is plowing headlong into suicide by cop, with her own self being the “cop.”

Hopefully, Castillo has some positive movement scheduled for Kate Burkeholder in her next novel. While flawed characters make realistic and even likeable protagonists, flawed characters who have started digging their personal holes to Hell with a backhoe instead of a shovel are not so tolerable. I’ll stick for another book, maybe two, but I don’t pay money for very long to read about a first-person-POV character who has lost not only a significant amount of socially redeeming value but also my respect.

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The Pain Scale

The Pain Scale_TylerDilts_18799777

ON A SCALE FROM ZERO TO TEN…

4 STARS

Thirteen months ago, Long Beach Homicide Detective Danny Beckett had his left hand all but severed at the wrist when a murderer wielding a wicked machete-type combat knife attacked him. Multiple operations later, Beckett still has his hand and about 90% of its function. But he also has chronic pain, not just a continual ache or a low-pulsing throb, but a shooting fire that consumes his left arm, at its worst, from the scar on his wrist to the cords of his neck.

Beckett has only been back at work for three weeks when his first major case hits. The daughter-in-law of the area Representative to the U.S. Congress has been brutally murdered along with her two young children. In addition, the floor safe has been ripped out of the master bedroom’s closet and is nowhere to be found.

The children were shot multiple times but were not brutalized like their mother. Therefore, Beckett and his partner, Jennifer Tanaka, first consider robbery with an opportunity for a side of sadistic rape topped off by collateral damage to be the initial scenario. The husband has a 3000-mile alibi and is now, presumably, a basket case and held at arm’s length from police interrogation by his attorney. And then, within hours of the Congressman being notified of the deaths, the FBI shows up.

Surprisingly, the two-man FBI team is cooperative and, out of stereotype, does not want control of the investigation. All they ask is to be copied in on all reports and findings. But when DNA results on the trace found under the mother’s fingernails come back within 3 days instead of 3 months, Beckett and Tanaka know that someone, probably the Congressman with the help of the FBI team, is pulling a lot of strings. At this point the team decides to be extra careful concerning what goes in their reports.

The DNA evidence leads to a low-level Ukrainian mobster who soon gives up his partner in the crime. Knowing whom these men work for, Beckett now surmises that the death of the woman is a murder-for-hire with the contents of the safe being the reason for both the murder and the sadistic rape. The question now is who contracted with their boss for the hit.

However, when the stakeout on the Ukrainian’s partner coincides with a sniper hit on that same person the moment he steps into view, Beckett and Tanaka have another question to answer. It seems they have a leak – or, worse yet – they have someone using the Patriot Act to monitor their computers and their phones.

At this point, the team goes to burner phones, shutting their personal phones off in the field to foil remote GPS surveillance. Then they shift their computer work to the private, camouflaged digs of the detective who specializes in electronics research for the team. But they are not experienced enough in the field of special ops to evade those who are. Soon, more hurt, pain and death are upon them, not only to several persons of interest but also to a member of their own team. Finding the puppet master has now become personal as well as professional.

Tyler Dilts has used Beckett’s chronic, fiery pain as the structure, the virtual backbone, upon which this second book of the series is built. Everything, from the sectional headings to the chapter titles to Beckett’s every motivation relates to the pain scale. His realizations, his rationalizations, even his relationship with his partner, Tanaka, revolve first and foremost around his ever-present, ever-fluctuating level of pain. Even his nightmares are focused on the pain in his arm and the only way he knows to end that pain forever.

Dilts writes the character of Beckett as a man who is often quite self-aware and who takes responsibility for his opinions and his behaviors. He is not perfect, saintly or a martyr; he simply will not lie to himself. And while he rarely wallows in self-pity, he will wallow in Vicodin and vodka if it will dull the pain in his arm and give him just the briefest respite of sleep.

The theme of chronic pain is not restricted to Beckett in the storyline. The author also weaves that theme from the emotional paralysis of the bereft husband through the dying friendship and professional partnership between Beckett and Tanaka. Then it travels on to the mental and physical ravages of cancer that has beset the retired detective who has befriended Beckett during his convalescence.

But don’t think for a moment that this story is filled with whining and crying and oh-woe-is-me. In the end, it is a story about how one horrible event serves as the catalyst that pushes Beckett to stop focusing on the pain, be it from his wife’s death or from his arm. And it is a story of how he must use the pain and move with it in order to get past it, so that he can not only survive, but live.

In that vein, two passages within the story symbolize the play within the play, so to speak, that Dilts has crafted to compare the unbidden pain inflicted by another person versus unbidden pain inflicted by one’s own body.

The first comes from the scene where Harlan, the retired detective, has just received test results from his doctor, while the second comes from the scene after Harlan survives surgery:

Beckett: “What if I don’t want to play the banjo [as physical therapy]?”

Harlan: “What if I don’t want stomach cancer?”

Beckett: “I thought you couldn’t play [the banjo] anymore. Because of the pain [from arthritis]. It doesn’t hurt?”

Harlan: “It does. But the pain’s different now.”

***DEFINITE SPOILER FOLLOWS***

My only complaint with Dilts’ crafting of the story line, and I dropped one star from the rating for it, is one sentence, spoken by Beckett, early in the work: “When my wife, Megan, died, she was pregnant and hoping for a girl.” You wouldn’t think that 13 words could contain so much damage that it could lower a book’s rating, but in those 13 words, Dilts radically changes the backstory of Beckett’s deceased wife.

In the previous entry in this series, in very specific and detailed scenes, we are told that when Megan burned to death in the accident, she was on her way to visit her mother, the ONLY person she had told about her pregnancy. And she was not hoping for a girl, she was seriously considering an abortion. The only way Beckett even finds out about the pregnancy is through the autopsy results.

It is the grief and the guilt of losing a wife whom he didn’t even know was leaving him and the grief over losing a child he didn’t even know existed that formed the backbone of Beckett’s character in that first book. Therefore, those 13 words in this entry are a complete contradiction and that contradiction stands out as bright as a neon sign on the Vegas Strip.

An author simply cannot deviate from the biographical and demographic data he establishes for a character in the baseline novel of a series. He can add to it, but he cannot delete something as if it never existed. Nor can he change one thing into something else entirely – not a birth date, not a physical condition, not one word of previously published dialogue.

To do so, to be even superficially careless in this regard, will cost the trust of the dedicated mystery reader. That reader is already looking for the lies and obfuscations of the characters, and he does not need, or even wish, to navigate a minefield of author-based errata. It might be an old and oft-used statement, but that does not make the words “the devil is in the details” any less the truth.

Cover Art From Goodreads

Key West Connection

Key West Connection_RandyWayneWhite_88374

“FIVE DAYS, SEVEN HOURS AND THIRTY-SOME MINUTES LATER”

4 STARS

Dusky MacMorgan is a happy man, at least as happy as a recent Vietnam vet who worked Special Ops as a Navy SEAL can be. He has a beautiful wife and twin sons who love him dearly. He has his best friend from Nam working as a fishing guide on the same island. He has a commercial fishing boat that suits him perfectly. He has exactly what makes him happy – until he doesn’t have anything left but his boat.

Dusky’s first step into Hell occurs when his best friend is murdered at sea by drug runners intent on hijacking his boat. Another guide happens to see the hijacking through binoculars, pulls the body from the ocean and radios Dusky, who is only a few miles away. Dusky runs them down and kills the two hijackers that the fellow guide said were on the boat. Unfortunately, the guide didn’t see the third man. Dusky manages to overpower the man and is about to fatally dispatch him when a Coast Guard helicopter arrives overhead.

The Coast Guard arrests that third hijacker, but before the sun goes down, Benjamin Ellsworth is essentially a free man. It seems Ellsworth is on the payroll of a U.S. Senator and a team of Federal agents quickly appear, make the charges disappear and have Ellsworth on his way by the day of Dusky’s friend’s funeral. And this is not good for Dusky.

On the hijacked boat, Dusky had recognized Ellsworth as a narcissistic, egotistical and cowardly SEAL officer who had commanded his unit at one point in Nam. And before the Coast Guard arrested him, Ellsworth had told Dusky that he would get him for what he had done and that he would pay.

Five days, seven hours and thirty-some minutes later, Dusky paid. After the funeral of his friend, Dusky sent his wife and children home while he quietly walked the streets and docks of Key West, grieving both his friend’s death and the fact that his killer had gone free.

Heading back to his house about sunset, he felt it before he heard it. Moments later he saw it – his car in pieces and the bodies of his wife and children scattered about his yard in much smaller pieces.

It was supposed to be Dusky in that car. Most evenings, about sunset, it was his habit to drive back to the docks to check his boat’s moorings and security. But he was on foot that night and, apparently, his wife decided to check the boat for him. At this point, everyone who meant anything to Dusky is dead. And now, the guilty must pay.

This is Randy Wayne White’s debut novel, written when he used the pseudonym of Randy Striker. Originally published in 1981, the version I had access to was printed in 2006 and included an Introduction that explained how the book – and its characters – came into existence. According to White, this first of what would eventually be seven Dusky MacMorgan adventures was written in nine days on a manual typewriter with very little use of Wite-Out or re-typed pages.

The novel is full of clichéd dialogue, just like the average person really speaks. The dialects of the Southern island characters are spot on. The product placement and the physics of operating the size boat he commands are accurate and visually clear.

The action sequences feel, at first, a bit over the top. But then, when you read their details a second time, remembering the physical characteristics and backstory of Dusky MacMorgan, they feel more plausible. And White does not make anything easy for Dusky in his quest for revenge. In fact, more things go wrong than right, not because of poor planning or poor judgment, but because Dusky cannot possibly predict everyone’s every choice.

White writes Dusky as an intelligent and capable man, with the capacity to both access and evaluate his emotions. You feel that you are right there seeing, thinking, and feeling exactly as he does. It is a clear ride through his mind even when he explores the reasons he considers committing suicide and the reasons why he doesn’t.

Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford series is far more sophisticated than that written about Dusky MacMorgan. However, this first entry in that first series is nothing to complain about. The character of Dusky may be more extroverted than that of Doc Ford and the action may come a bit faster and more in-your-face, but White’s ability to get to the heart of the matter and the heart of the man is clearly evident in both.

Cover Art From Goodreads

Innocent In Death

Innocent In Death_JDRobb_74033

“You LOOKED At Her”

5 STARS

Craig Foster, a history teacher at a posh private school in NYC, is at his desk eating his home-prepared lunch and constructing a pop quiz for his next class. He’s young, dedicated and enthusiastic about his job. He is a newlywed, happy in his marriage to a woman who is lovely in both face and personality.

And Craig Foster is now dead at his desk. Actually, he only started dying at his desk. His actual last few minutes alive were spent trying to crawl, against agonizing abdominal pain, to the door of his classroom. And as Lieutenant Eve Dallas looks down on his body, she knows from the color of his vomit that he has been murdered.

Eve also knows that Morris, the accomplished ME who always gravitates to her cases, will soon tell her what chemical did the deed and how it was administered. So, for now, she can concentrate on who and why. Thus, Eve and Peabody shut down the school and the interviews begin.

By the time Eve finished those initial interviews, I was 95% certain as to the identity of the doer. J. D. Robb was not that obvious in her writing; I simply spent 30 years in a high school classroom. Granted, that classroom was in an urban public school rather than in the private sector, but it was still rife with intra-faculty politics, raging puberty-related hormones and more than the occasional fit of pique. Thus, as I was reading the account of one particular interview, my inner voice of teaching experience spoke up and I settled in to see if the clues Eve discovered along the way would support my hypothesis.

As J. D. Robb leads Eve down the logical but myriad paths toward the murderer, she also leads Eve – and the reader – along a personal path that is far more intense and terrifying than some of the shoot-outs in previous novels of the series. With this new homicide on her plate, Eve arrives late at a very upscale restaurant for a corporate dinner with Roarke and some clients. She is still in her “day job” clothes and is only partly certain that those clothes are free of the victim’s bodily fluids. She is definitely certain that she has on no make-up and that her hair is probably a mess from the nasty, snowy February weather.

Just as Roarke is making introductions all around, Eve hears a woman behind her call out Roarke’s name. As he looks up and past Eve’s shoulder, she sees an expression cross Roarke’s face ever so briefly, but it is a look that she has never seen Roarke give to any woman but her. And then she sees the beautiful blond, trim and shapely in a gorgeous red dress, oozing sophistication and charm. When the woman embraces Roarke in a decidedly intimate manner, breathing “lover” into the air, Eve’s emotional world cracks wide open at the seams.

Magdelana Percell has arrived. Dismissing Eve with a flick of her fingers, as both a person and as Roarke’s wife, she proceeds to fawn over Roarke for several minutes. Then, she leaves with her escort, a business associate of Roarke’s, for their own table, a table right in Roarke’s direct line of vision.

After dinner, Eve learns that Magdelana was not just a brief fling of Roarke’s. He explains that he and Maggie were both partners and lovers for about a year, some twelve years prior, while he was still stealing and smuggling art – and long before he met Eve. She also learns that he did not end the relationship; Maggie did. And she did it by running off with the mark targeted by their long con and by leaving a trap in place intended to get Roarke arrested.

Eve may not understand all the nuances of friendship or feminine wiles, but she does understand the markings of a sociopath. And she doesn’t know how to explain to Roarke what she saw in his face. Regardless, she does understand that there is an open and unresolved connection between the two, a connection that Maggie plans to exploit. Eve knows that Maggie intends to get Roarke back.

***SPOILERS FOLLOW***

However, as astute at business as he is, Roarke truly doesn’t see either the forest or the trees. He angrily dismisses Eve’s concerns as unwarranted jealousy and an unwarranted lack of trust. And when Somerset also questions Roarke’s actions and tries to warn him of Maggie’s intentions, Roarke coldly dismisses those concerns, too. So, for the next 200 pages, in trying to prove himself right and Eve wrong, he unwittingly plays right into Maggie’s plans.

Eve knows that Roarke would never physically betray her. But she is afraid that he will betray her in his mind, that he will regret what he lost and what he now has instead. Then, several days into the murder investigation, an investigation that is going around in circles and is being hampered by Eve’s emotional distraction, a news video comes on screen while she and Roarke are having breakfast. The video shows Roarke and Maggie in an intimate embrace on the street outside his office building, while the newscaster openly questions the future of Roarke’s marriage to NYC’s top homicide cop.

Devastated to her very core, Eve can barely breathe, let alone speak. As Roarke opens his mouth to explain, she shuts him out and flees the house. The detectives’ bullpen goes pin-drop silent, with all eyes on the floor, when she arrives at her office. Commander Whitney delicately questions her ability to continue with the Craig Foster case. But continue that investigation is what she does, minute by minute, all day long, diverting all the demands and threats from the still clueless idiot that is Roarke, to her voicemail.

At the end of the day, when Eve must decide whether she will go home or not, she finds herself on the doorstep of her oldest friend, Mavis Freestone. In the end, it is Mavis’ extensive experience with the making of videos that allows her to show Eve, frame by frame, the truth. Armed with that truth and knowing the words she needs to say to Roarke, Eve heads home to end the war over Magdelana Percell.

Back in 2007, when this entry was published, readers didn’t have the twenty-plus additional stories that we have as I write this review. A reader today knows that Eve and Roarke are still together, still a team. But I can just imagine back then the tension readers felt over this situation. I know I felt it even now, all these years later, even knowing how much is still to come. So I can also imagine the deep breaths of, first, fear and then relief, which are exhaled as this scene transpires.

However, every woman knows that a fight over a man does not end when that man and his significant other reach a loving understanding. That fight is never over until the Wicked Witch is nothing but a set of feet poking out of the rubble. And J. D. Robb writes that scene with a style and a content that will have the reader – female readers, anyway – pumping their fist in the air and yelling, “Yes!”

Now, with that major distraction out of the way, Eve can concentrate fully on her investigation. And it doesn’t take her even a day to reach the same conclusion that I reached in the first 30 pages of the book. However, that conclusion is so terrible to contemplate that Eve must now fight a new battle – with the Commander, with Mira, even with Peabody and Roarke – to be allowed to pursue that avenue of investigation.

And in that vein, Robb keeps the action going to the end. Most of it is tactical and emotional rather than the breaking of doors and the throwing of fists and kicks. And the scene where Eve gets the killer to confess is a masterpiece of verbal manipulation.

Though not one single entry at this point can be construed as a standalone, the In Death series just keeps getting better and better. Robb continues to build storylines apropos to anyone’s cognizance. And she has built enduring and endearing characters, whose experiences can touch a chord in anyone, regardless of wealth, social standing or career choice.

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Dead Tease

Dead Tease_VictoriaHouston_15718119

DON’T EVEN BOTHER WITH THIS ONE

1 STAR

Victoria Houston, since the beginning of her second novel in this series, has been known to play fast and loose with the laws of physics, re-invent the details of her main characters’ backstories and completely warp the time-space continuum. But she has always crafted a fine, realistic, logical, cozy mystery with well-formed main characters in Doc Osborne, Lew Ferris and Ray Pradt.

However, in this 12th entry in the Loon Lake series, she failed miserably in both the construct of the mystery and with her characterizations of Lew and Ray. And Houston dipped even farther into Never-Never-Land in her handling of the backstories.

First, this book came in at 171 pages on the Nook app of my iPad, basically half the size of the author’s previous works. To set up and execute a murder, then to investigate and solve it requires almost double that space – if you want a mystery that doesn’t read like a cross between Cliff Notes and a newspaper article. And the Cliff Notes version is what we get, which is a shame because the first several chapters are so promising. In those chapters, Houston gives us an illicit office romance that abruptly ends with a murder-for-hire execution and that set-up turns out to be the only decent writing in the book.

Secondly, upon the discovery of the body, Houston devolves the character of Chief of Police Lew Ferris. Houston has Lew looking at the people she interviews with sympathy, admiration or confusion rather than with her normal dispassionate objectivity. The author has Lew missing items she did not ever miss in previous works. But, worst of all, Houston has Lew saying repeatedly that she would be greatly surprised if such-and-such a person had anything to do with the murder, which is incredibly uncharacteristic of Lew Ferris.

Now, I believe I know why Houston uses this particular literary device. At the time Lew starts her investigation, we already know who the murderer is and we know who hired that murderer. Therefore, every time Lew says “I’d be greatly surprised if,” we know she’s wrong and that she is definitely going to be “surprised.”

It would be a great use of the device if Lew were just a regular citizen rather than a well-trained investigator. But she’s not a regular citizen, and she is not a character who usually shuts people down when they try to bring her information. Nor is she a character – or a police chief – who has ever gone by a “Do as I say, not as I do” philosophy. Yet, out of the blue, Houston has her doing all of these things, without provocation, without reason and without explanation.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Thirdly, included in Houston’s destruction of a good premise is a more-than usual re-fabrication of her characters’ backstories. For instance, on one page, Houston has Doc reference the death of Lew’s son. Barely two pages later, Doc states that Lew’s son and daughter are grown up and are successful in their lives. Yet, for the last eleven books, it has been drilled into us that Lew’s son died some years ago from a knife wound in a bar fight at the age of 15. So unless Lew has a third child we have never heard about, that son did not grow up at all, let alone become a successful adult.

Next, Houston devolves Ray Pradt in a major area. Throughout the series, he has been shown to be an extremely talented tracker and guide with intimate knowledge of the area. Now, for the apparent sake of drama, Houston has Ray state that he has never been on a particular local river, and that he had no idea there were major rapids for them to capsize in. Yet, two sentences later, he tells Doc and Lew that one of his friends lives just around the next bend in the river. Now how could he know that if he had never been on that stretch of water before? And – the wording of that scene with the unexpected rapids was lifted almost verbatim from a previous novel.

Finally, the time line of the series gets jarringly re-written. First, Doc is said to have met Lew while she was a patrol officer, not chief. However, the details of their first meeting was a major part of the first novel and has been recapped in great detail in each of the following nine books. And since, in that first novel, she deputized him to work with her force only days after meeting him, she couldn’t have been a patrol officer as stated in this book.

Secondly, Houston lists three more conflicting points of chronology: Doc has worked with Lew as a deputy coroner for 3 years; Doc has been retired from his dental practice for 3 years; and Ray is 32 years old. While the first fact seems true based on series progression, the second and third cannot possibly be true unless everything Houston established in the first book of the series is a hallucination.

For instance, as we begin the first book in the series, Doc has already been retired for 3 years, his wife dead for two of those years, before he even meets Lew on that river for his first fly-fishing lesson. So, simple math makes Doc a retiree for 6 years, not 3. And, according to the first book, Ray is 32 years old when Doc meets Lew. Yet Ray is still 32 years old, after Doc has been working with Lew for 3 years. Nope, don’t think so.

These time-space jumps are obvious, incredibly annoying, and disrupt the flow of the story. Quite frankly, Houston needs to develop a consistent narrative for her characters’ backstories and quit changing major points from book to book and within the same book.

Up to this point I have been reading the series for two reasons, despite Houston’s foibles with backstory and time line. First, the series was a gift to me by someone dear and I would never dishonor the gift or the giver by not reading the books. Secondly, the mysteries have always been well-crafted and the characterizations such that Doc, Lew and Ray come across as competent investigators and feel like friends.

However, I have only one book remaining in the gift. And if Houston continues to maul those characterizations and short change the quality of the investigations, then that book will likely be the last Houston novel in my library. Even if that entry does return to Houston’s previous level of mystery writing, based on past experience, I will probably, for any future novels, choose a public library copy over personal funds potentially wasted.

Cover Art From Goodreads

Sworn To Silence

Sworn To Silence_LindaCastillo_6115138

“YOU SMILED AT HIM”

4 STARS

Twelve years ago, Kate Burkeholder fled Painters Mill, Ohio, and her Amish upbringing for the big city, non-Amish lifestyle of Columbus, with “fled” being the operative word here. Four years earlier, when Kate was only 14, she had been beaten and raped at knifepoint by an 18-year-old Amish man. When her parents and siblings returned from town, they found Kate and their kitchen floor covered in blood. They also found the body of Daniel Lapp, his torso shredded by a shotgun blast at the hands of Kate.

Following Amish law, Kate’s father took control of the situation, sending Kate for a bath and her mother and sister to scrub the kitchen. Not following Amish law, Kate’s father refused to call the police and, along with Kate’s brother, disposed of the body in an abandoned grain silo over in the next county. Then, back to Amish law, he forbade every member of the family to ever, ever speak of the incident again.

Left with no resources with which to work through her emotional pain, her fears and her guilt over taking a life, albeit in self-defense, Kate felt utterly abandoned. As her family began treating her as tainted goods, Kate began acting out and increasingly turned to non-Amish kids for companionship. The only upside to this whole debacle was that the two-year spree of rapes and torture killings of women in the area abruptly stopped after Daniel Lapp “disappeared.”

Now, sixteen years after Kate’s rape and the end of the rape-torture murders, Kate is back in Painter’s Mill. So are the murders – same rape, same torture, same MO as to cause of death. But Kate has been back for two years; the murders have only been back for one day. And Kate is no longer a devastated child or a member of the Amish community. She is Painters Mill’s Chief of Police.

Terrified that Daniel Lapp has somehow survived his wounds, has clawed his way out of the granary’s grave and has returned to seek revenge, Kate’s terror overrides her extensive experience as a big city homicide detective. When she fails to call in additional resources, beyond the sheriff’s office, and when a second tortured body is found, the town council goes behind Kate’s back and brings in Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

Enter BCI agent John Tomasetti, our second protagonist. The extent of John’s psychological damage and self-destruction makes Kate look like the proverbial Pollyanna by comparison. He is on a daily cocktail of pain pills, muscle relaxants and Chivas. And he uses that cocktail, unsuccessfully, to drive away the images literally burned into his brain of the immolated bodies of his wife, his two young daughters and his partner. The four had been tortured and raped – even the children – then doused with gasoline and burned alive by a drug lord who wanted an end to John Tomasetti, then a narcotics agent hot on the trail of the kingpin.

The drug lord did not exactly get what he wished for. Blinded by grief and rage, Tomasetti silently stalked the man, practiced the paraphrased advice of “Do unto others as they have done unto you,” and framed the drug lord’s second-in-command for the like-kind torture and murder. And everyone knows John did it; they just can’t prove it.

So now Tomasetti is a pariah within the BCI, branded as a corrupt, rogue cop and a severe head case. The brass cannot fire him outright because of his disability status, but they truly want him gone. So they assign him to the case in Painters Mill, hoping he will self-destruct from the pressure of being out in the field again. Well, the drug lord didn’t get what he wanted and John has no intention of letting his boss sideline him either.

So, Kate has no idea that John Tomasetti is being placed in her path. And John has been lied to about Kate’s law enforcement experience and personal background. Little do Kate and John know, when they are first forced together, the professional, psychological and personal ramifications that each will experience. And little do they know that the serial killer is standing closer to each of them than they can even imagine. Essentially, the bottom line is that two broken individuals, who cannot even trust their own motivations, let alone each other, must stop a killer more broken than they.

POSSIBLE SPOILERS FOLLOW

And speaking of that serial killer, I was able to determine that person’s identity far too easily. The moment I read Tomasetti’s profile of the killer, I knew exactly who the monster was. At this point, the name was not revealed nor did the character admit to the villainy in an internal monologue. I knew because the profile described, almost verbatim, a character to whom we had just been introduced a few pages earlier. A neon sign, in red letters three feet tall, could not have been any clearer. And because that profile is placed so soon after we meet the character, it feels deliberately forced, a poorly executed literary device rather than part of the logical and systematic evolution of the case.

I wish this were a debut author’s rookie mistake, but it is not. Castillo has published at least 18 novels prior to “Sworn to Silence.” Having never read any of these books, I do not know if this kind of literary device is her norm or if it is a deliberate attempt to engage the reader more completely into the story, worrying if the protagonists will be able to figure it out in time.

Either way, I hope Castillo chooses to reveal the identity of her perpetrator in a different manner in future novels – or quit billing her works as “thrillers.” If you have to guess who the villain is, the work is not a thriller, it’s a mystery. And if the perpetrator’s identity is to be a mystery until the final pages of the novel, as in this work, the author needs to space out the clues and red herrings just a bit farther than back-to-back on successive pages.

Castillo uses another device in her writing that is not commonplace in mystery/thrillers. She writes Kate’s POV in first-person present tense, rather than in the more common and comfortable first person past tense. For example, in Kate’s sections, she might say, “I walk up the steps and knock on the door. I listen for movement.” This is a declarative flow that doesn’t really “flow” at first and takes a bit of getting used to. And just as you begin to feel comfortable with that tense usage, Castillo flips to Tomasetti’s POV and uses the more familiar first- or third person past tense. However, believe me when I say that first person present tense truly accentuates the terror when the denouement slams into the plotline.

However, the general POV of the novel, the blending of an ex-Amish female with law enforcement and with the traditional Amish culture is what really sets this novel apart from the standard mystery/thriller. Castillo illustrates, in multiple scenes, that prejudice, bias, and presumption of right-thinking and superiority are traits that are not owned solely by any one particular segment of society.

And, in a book about sexual homicide, Castillo quite dramatically points out that the rock that all brands of cretins, male and female, hide under when rape is involved is still prominently in use and transcends all cultures and religious beliefs. You know what rock I mean – that rock with the words “You deserved it” engraved on it.

So, just be prepared, when you reach the scene between Kate and her brother in the abandoned granary, to set your book or e-reader down gently, take a deep breath and walk off the rage. Because you will never forget, ever, the ultimate import of the words, “You smiled at him.”

Cover Art From Goodreads

A King of Infinite Space

A King of Infinite Space_Tyler Dilts_8644767

“…BOUNDED IN A NUTSHELL…”

5 STARS

Danny Beckett is damaged goods, definitely residing on the “dent” side of the scratch-and-dent aisle. The major crack in his psyche occurred about two years prior when his wife died in a horrendous auto accident. Although Danny was in no way responsible for that accident, knowledge gained after her death has led him to blame himself for her being in her car on that particular road at that particular time. All he has now are nightly, traumatic dreams, his job as a Long Beach, CA, homicide detective, and his Grey Goose with MinuteMaid.

On the evening our story opens, Danny has just put his first Screwdriver to his lips when his pager goes off. A teacher at the high school across the street from his apartment has been found hacked to death in her classroom. And “hacked to death” is not a figure of speech here. She has sustained over 100 blows to her abdomen and genital areas, blows delivered by a machete-like blade. And her left hand is missing, severed when she tried to defend herself from the first blow, a blow that bisected her heart and killed her before she hit the floor.

Danny and his partner, Jennifer Tanaka, have thousands of fingerprints in that classroom but no creditable trace evidence, just blade tracks. As they and their team work to piece together Beth Williams’ life, both recent and past, trying to identify motive and trying to unearth probable suspects, upper echelon politics and the media hamper them at every turn and even derail them on several occasions.

But Danny’s mental state hampers them even more, starting when he learns that the murdered woman was one of his dead wife’s friends. He knows she looks familiar, but then she did work on the same street he travels daily. However, when he finds her name in his wife’s address book while looking for something else, he is startled. Then when he finds her picture in their wedding album, his guilt over his wife’s death is compounded. Here is just one more thing about his wife’s life that she kept from him. And it complicates the case and his involvement in it.

Danny’s emotional stability comes increasingly into question as his compounded guilt and pain make him unable to control his words or rein in his rage with any regularity. He is, quite frankly, emotionally and professionally hanging on by the smallest of threads. But his instincts as an investigator are still working just fine.

Danny twists and turns the puzzle pieces repeatedly, looking for what they’ve missed. Those cop instincts, as well as the evidence, tell him that the alibis of the three persons of interest are sound and that not one of them has the necessary motive for this particular crime. Danny knows there’s another person in play somewhere, somehow, and more rocks just need to be turned over to flush the psycho out.

However, the mayor and the deputy chief, for political reasons, need an arrest yesterday, so to speak. So they force the team into that arrest. And, as you can imagine, the wrong reasons yield seriously wrong results and an ensuing cover-up. Risking dismissal from their jobs, Danny and Jen breach the cover-up and continue their search for the real killer.

Tyler Dilts has penned a well-crafted and riveting mystery. He reveals Danny’s backstory slowly, as it pertains to the incidents at hand rather than as an info dump. In so doing, the events, as they occur, are made more dramatic, more realistic, and more enlightening as to the identity of the murderer. And because the story is told from Danny’s POV, the reader knows no more at any given time than he does, making it a true mystery for the reader to solve.

Now that doesn’t mean that the reader can’t see what’s coming before Danny and Jen do sometimes. And that fact doesn’t mean that the author’s efforts are formulaic and predictable either. They are not. It is simply a matter of Tyler Dilts’ skill at word structure and manipulation that allows the reader just a brief second of terror-filled omniscience before the character takes the blow.

In this debut novel and first in his Long Beach Homicide series, Dilts leads us by logic and reason to a creature ruled by illogic and insanity. He ends the tale with a serious twist but not a cliffhanger. He leaves us with several hooks that can lead to future entries in the series. But it is hard to tell if he leaves Danny in a better place than when he started or a worse one. Methinks it’s a little bit of the first and a whole lot of the second, but that’s what a second book is meant to resolve.

Cover Art From Goodreads