Strangers In Death

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Thomas Anders is dead in his bed. The wrists and ankles of his naked body are tied to the bedposts with velvet rope. His neck is wrapped in a fifth velvet rope that is lashed to the other four. The cord itself didn’t kill him; the angle of the tie-off choked him to death over a protracted period of time. At first glance, it appears a kinky night has gone awry.

But, as the saying goes, appearances can be deceiving. For Eve Dallas, three things are wrong with this scenario. First, there are too many toys scattered about the room, some new, most unused. Secondly, there are too many things missing from the scene, such as the man’s clothes, the home’s security discs for the last 24 hours, any evidence that the man ever tried to struggle against the choking, and any evidence that another party was actually involved with him sexually. Of course, somebody else had to be there, though. Anders could not have possibly tied his second wrist or his neck by himself.

The third wrong thing is the victim’s wife. Ava Anders is a thousand miles away on vacation with some female friends when she learns of her husband’s demise from their housekeeper. Several hours later, when she strides across the threshold, she is stylishly dressed, perfectly coiffed, immaculately made up, no sign of tears now or ever, and screaming at Dallas about the circus that is now her home and yard.

As soon as the word “homicide” is mentioned along with the idea of sexual infidelity, the widow shifts gears. You practically see her put the back of her hand to her forehead, roll her eyes upward and go into an “Oh, woe is me” routine.

What Eve doesn’t see is any genuine grief. There are a lot of sniffs, remonstrations and demands to see the body, but not any real grief. What Eve doesn’t hear are any questions about the details of the death. And what she does hear is a lot of “I.”

Based on the title of the book, the opening scenes with the body and the unassailability of the wife’s alibi, I felt that J. D. Robb was writing a futuristic adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train.” (No, Hitchcock directed the movie, Highsmith wrote the book.) From this point on, if I was right, it was a matter of identifying the other murder, be it one from the past or one yet to come. Once identified, that murder would lead directly to the identity of Anders’ murderer.

But the whole point of “Strangers on a Train” is that the murderers would have no connection to each other beyond one chance meeting. No connection, no identifiable motive, thus no arrest. But when one of the conspirators chickens out, the other re-establishes contact and the “perfect crime” starts to fall apart.

So, for 300 pages, Robb has us on the hunt for the person with whom Ava Anders made the pact and with whom she was forced to re-connect. We, along with Dallas, push to find that one connection that will foil and undermine the alibis and the smoke screens that Ava Anders has so carefully built. For Ava has told one story about her husband’s character, and not another soul that knew the man will agree with those allegations.

In this entry, Robb forgoes the typical psychotic or serial killer format that usually ends with a serious physical confrontation between Eve and the killer. This time, the battle between the two is truly one of wits, instead. And the denouement is a thrilling, play-within-a-play. However, the best part of the story is the way Robb builds the case, through Eve, step by logical step, against the normal odds, always with an eye on the difference between justice and the law, and always with a focus on the idea of partnership, be it between Eve and Roarke or Eve and her detectives.

But, never fear, Eve does get to take down a couple of non-murderous perps physically as the book progresses. Quite frankly, it just wouldn’t be an In Death entry without a dream or a black eye.

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Blood Rites

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In the previous book in this series (Death Masks), Jim Butcher lays out four revelations regarding Harry Dresden that promise to be possible pivot points in the ongoing storyline. Using the character of Nicodemus, a demon collaborator with the Fallen, as his conduit, Butcher first provides both the reader and Harry an additional piece of evidence that his mother had been a practitioner of black magic. Secondly, Nicodemus tells Harry that he is not an only child but his mother’s youngest child.

Thirdly, Nicodemus informs Harry that he is not totally human and could border on being immortal. Harry actually misses that part, by the way, due to the pain and agony caused by Nicodemus torturing him at the time.

And finally, in the last pages, Nicodemus tricks Harry into picking up a coin bearing the sigil of one of the Fallen that he has thrown right at the feet of Michael Carpenter’s baby. Quite frankly, it never dawns on Harry to just grab the baby up. Instead, without a holy cloth barrier, Harry slams his hand down on the coin. When he does, a force shoots up his arm; he feels a soul stretching into wakefulness and then hears soft, indistinct whisperings. Oh, yeah – cliffhanger and pivot point all in one package!

Now, in this very next book, those four pivots morph into a fulcrum on which is mounted a catapult loaded with the fiery orbs of truth about Harry’s birth, his childhood and his apprenticeship as wizard of the White Council. And the unraveling of that truth starts out so innocently.

Thomas Raith, a vampire in the ruling House of the White Court, hires Harry to identify and stop the entity that is trying to kill Arturo Genoso, a movie producer who is trying to break away from a big studio on the West Coast and start his own production company in Chicago. From Thomas’ description of the two attempts that have killed women around Genoso, but not Genoso himself, Harry figures an entropy curse is in play. That type of curse is something Harry likes to steer well clear of, but Thomas plays the “I’ve-saved-your-hide-several-times-now-it’s-your-turn” card. So Harry signs on.

The remainder of the novel takes place in a little over 48 hours. But, in that short time, Jim Butcher doesn’t just throw Dresden and the reader the one bone of an entropy curse to gnaw on and digest. He hits us with the whole hog – an entropy curse seeking to kill Harry, flaming purple demon monkeys trying to burn Harry alive, Black Court vampires trying to tear Harry to pieces, other Black Court vampires trying to burn Harry alive, Kincaid and McCoy at each other’s throats in front of Harry, and White Court vampires trying to sacrifice – literally and ritually – both Thomas and Harry.

Then, in the middle of these life-threatening scenarios, Butcher decides to up the ante and releases that catapult, one pivotal orb at a time. Massive deceptions and lies of omission are revealed, one after another, even as Harry battles the vampires and the maker of the entropy curse, trying to keep Thomas, Murphy and himself alive. By the time the final sling of the catapult flies, over three decades of Harry’s life have figuratively gone up in flames. And the literal flames have not been so good to Harry either.

Even by the midpoint of the book, the savvy reader knows that the ramifications of the truths revealed to that point are not such that Harry is going to be able to just take them in stride, say “so be it,” and move on. And by the end of the book, the final slings of the catapult stand to shatter the very backbone of Harry’s existence and sever from it the tenets on which he was raised by his father and McCoy.

Butcher makes you feel the hurt, the betrayal, the rage, the need to replace helplessness with power, and the desire to kill that is now throbbing through Harry’s veins and brain. As you approach the final pages you cannot help but feel that the next book or two will be heavy and dark. And you wonder whether Butcher will, in that time, choose to lose the wise-cracking private investigator who champions human rights or will bring out, instead, a practitioner of the magic that is as black as the glove Harry now wears on his left hand.

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Forged By Desire

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Garrett Reed, Acting Master of the Nighthawks, has a secret, a dangerous and lethal secret. Only weeks ago, an Echelon lord, in a chemically induced blood frenzy, shattered Garrett’s chest and literally dragged his heart halfway out before he was subdued. In order to heal such an extensive injury, the virus that makes him the blue-blooded vampire-like creature that he is had to go into overdrive.

Now, Garrett’s craving virus percentage has nearly doubled and is still rising in small increments daily. At this current rate, in just mere weeks he will be unable to control his need for blood and will become a danger to anyone around him. And because he is leader of the Nighthawks, he will not simply be incarcerated and forced to die of starvation, he will be summarily beheaded.

However, that’s not the only secret he has to keep. He has been partners in the Nighthawks with Perry Lowell for nine years. And during a recent sting operation, Garrett discovered that Perry is a woman. Now, he’s always known that Perry is female, the only one in the Nighthawks, in fact, and one of the few female blue-bloods in existence. But she has always worn the men’s leather uniform and armor, has a man’s haircut, and fights with all the deadliness and strength of a male blue-blood. She is his best tracker and his best friend.

However, when she dons a formal flowing gown for the sting operation and he observes her ability to function socially and flirtatiously in Echelon society, Garrett sees the “woman.” And he is lost, wanting more than friendship but afraid his virus levels will cause him to kill her. So he pushes her away onto a new partner, determined to keep all his secrets and keep her safe.

Well, Perry Lowell has some secrets, too. Nine years of them, in fact. The first is that she has loved Garrett all of those nine years. Knowing, however, that he only saw her as a partner and friend, she has kept her feelings hidden. Then, after he acknowledges her desirability during the sting operation, but summarily shoves her away before she can reciprocate, Perry decides that her feelings will just have to stay a secret after all.

If unrequited love were Perry’s only secret, life would be a cinch for her. Nine years ago, she faked her death to escape the sadistic attentions of the Duke of Moncrieff, with whom she had been forced by her father to make a blood and flesh rights thrall contract. Perry had discovered that Moncrieff sponsored a psychopathic doctor in his experiments to develop mechanical body parts. When Perry protested the experiments on live and unwilling subjects, she became one of the “experiments.”

Forcibly infected with the craving virus, Perry was repeatedly sliced and diced so that the doctor could document the healing effect of the virus. But the doctor didn’t count on the increased strength caused by the virus, a defective restraint buckle or Perry’s skills with a blade, and Perry escaped, thinking that she had killed the doctor. Moncrieff was suspected of murder when she disappeared and was sentenced to exile in Scotland for 10 years.

Now, Moncrieff is back, not only pardoned by the Prince Consort but appointed to the ruling Council. And Perry, while investigating the deaths of two Echelon debutantes, falls through a trap door in a factory floor, horrified to find herself in an exact duplicate of the laboratory where Moncrieff’s doctor had tortured her so long ago.

Bec McMaster writes a compelling and pulse-pounding tale about the effects that keeping secrets have, not only on the person who has the secrets but on the people from whom those secrets are kept. She delves intimately into the motivations, both selfless and self-serving, for keeping those secrets, even in the face of emotional or physical death.

The author is masterful in her timing and in the phrasing of each secret’s reveal. The frustration and the tension she builds as you witness the effects of the lies of omission, as you wait for each secret to be divulged and acted upon, makes this a page-turner.

While the story may be set in an alternate history, or steampunk, version of 1800’s England, the bulk of the story is pointed more toward the emotional realm than the science fiction one. The scientific and medical technology in use is a parallel, though crude, version of today’s devices, from tape recorders and ear bud communicators to artificial hearts and blood dialysis. Thus, little suspension of disbelief is required, beyond a belief in the supernatural itself, to feel at home with the storyline.

This book is the 4th full-length novel in McMaster’s London Steampunk series, and it is definitely not a standalone book. In fact, this story arc is highly dependent upon the reader’s memory of the events that transpired in the 3rd novel, “My Lady Quicksilver.” Without that background, you will not sufficiently understand the Nighthawks or the dynamics between Garrett and Lynch, Garrett’s former and long-time commander, that fuel a lot of this story. And without that point of reference, it may be lost on you why certain characters believe it absolutely necessary to sacrifice blood, breath and soul in order to continue another’s survival.

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Long Lost

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Kate Burkholder and John Tomasetti are taking a weekend off from their various policing duties, intending to spend the two days together at an old country inn several hours from Painters Mill. They have spent nights together as lovers and they have spent days together as co-investigators on multiple high-profile murder cases. However, this is the first time they have tried to spend both nights and days together strictly as lovers. This is a big move for each of their scarred souls and for their relationship.

When John checks them in to the old Victorian-style B&B, he happens to mention their resident ghost he had read about on a travel website. And then he wishes he had kept his mouth shut.

It seems that the ghost is not a centuries-old Victorian specter. She is a young girl who disappeared from the inn only 22 years prior, leaving nothing behind but a stack of bloody clothes on the riverbank by the inn.

So much for an idyllic, romantic getaway. Justice, no statute of limitations on murder, memorial gravestones on the riverbank – such things just can’t be ignored, it seems. Besides, the weather has turned cold and rainy and who wants to hike the river trails in those conditions anyway!

The story is short, about 75% of the Kindle file downloaded, and concise. Through finely developed observational skills as well as an incident of happenstance (as opposed to coincidence), Kate and John solve the mystery within a day. And in the end, it is not that Kate and John are better than the detectives who investigated so long ago. Neither incompetence nor shoddy work ethics were the cause of the police department’s failure at that time or since. They were simply barking up the wrong branch of the right tree.

 Even though Linda Castillo achieved a nearly perfect blend of mystery and romance with a believable conclusion to both in such a short story, I still feel the need to drop the rating on the entry. And that choice has everything to do with backstory and editing.

Castillo only puts out a novel in this series once a year. The four entries prior to this short story have been well-executed in terms of story arc and consistent from novel to novel with respect to backstory and passage of time. They are clearly professionally edited with respect to consistency and continuity and with respect to typesetting and formatting.

Not so with this short story. All these aspects – execution of story arc, backstory, and formatting – come up short.

First, there are multiple formatting errors. Most of these consist of missing words, repeated words and spaces deleted between successive words. And these increase in frequency as the story nears completion.

Secondly, the backstory has a glaring inconsistency. Early in the entry, Kate states that she and John have known each other for 3 years. But she also states that it has been only 3 years since John’s family was murdered. However, if the last four books are to be believed, she has only known John for about 2 years at this point and she didn’t meet him until more than a year had passed since his family’s deaths. And there are multiple references to the Mast case, the subject of the previous book, in this short. Since Kate had only know John for a year and a half at that point and only a few months have passed since the case’s conclusion, all those “3’s” look like mistakes that weren’t caught, just like the formatting errors.


However, the real issue that affected my rating was the manner in which Castillo handled a portion of the romantic subplot. As part of that scenario, John talks to Kate about the possibility of them living together. The way Castillo phrases Kate’s response seems to indicate that this is new to Kate and the first time that the idea has been broached. NOT SO! The question of them living together came up in the previous novel and it was a big, big factor in that entry. So big, in fact, that it was almost a deal-breaker in their relationship. Thus, to treat it as if it were a new situation in this short story is a slap in the reader’s face.

The bottom line here is that a short story teaser put out only six weeks prior to a major release should be as professionally sound as the author’s full-length publications. Castillo’s works are expensive, both in printed and electronic formats. Thus, if a reader believes that the author’s quality has slipped, that reader may not purchase the next book, opting for their local library instead, if at all.

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Death Masks

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To read the promotional blurb on the back of the book, you’d think this was an entry very similar to the previous four. That blurb lists five different scenarios that will envelop Harry Dresden simultaneously, which is actually one or two more than normal.

For instance, the first 35 pages of the book encompass 2 hours of time in Harry’s life. In those 2 hours, Harry is blackmailed into a duel to the death with a warrior of the Red Court, a team of Johnny Marcone’s mafia goons ambush him in a parking garage, a Vatican emissary hires him to find the stolen Shroud of Turin and Susan Rodriguez reappears on Harry’s doorstep, after more than a year’s absence, and saves him from a vampire ambush. Add 2 more hours and 15 more pages and Harry has, in the morgue, a headless, handless, flayed corpse presenting multiple plagues to identify for Chicago PD’s Karin Murphy.

Yep, it seems like business as usual for a Harry Dresden book. However, four of the five episodes actually boil down to only two situations: the Vampire Red Court’s war against the Wizard’s White Council and the theft of the Shroud.

Susan’s returning is the wild card here, not only for Harry emotionally but for Harry’s mortality. The question is whether she is there extraneously to the other events or whether she is part of the War. Since the former leader of the Red Court was originally responsible for Susan’s current half-vampire, half-undead state, we don’t truly know if she is there to help Harry or to betray him.

This entry of the series appears to be pivotal to the ongoing story arc. All of the major players seem to make quantum, but believable, leaps in character growth and progression – Harry, Susan, Murphy, even Marcone. In addition, Harry is openly challenged by more than one major secondary character to examine his motivations and determine just why he chooses to protect mortals at the expense of his own health, wealth and standing in the supernatural community.


Then we are introduced to a major secondary character who seems to know more about Harry than Harry does. Nicodemus, a collaborator with the Fallen who has been alive for millennia, claims to have known Harry’s deceased mother well and tells Harry that he has siblings. This is the second time that Harry has heard talk about his mother from a demon but it is the first time he has heard that he is not an only child.

But, most importantly, Nicodemus indicates that Harry is immortal. Not that he would be if he succumbed to the demon’s demands, but that he already is.

However, due to the fact that he is being tortured by Nicodemus at the time, Harry does not appear to comprehend the statement in its entirety. But I have a feeling that statement is laying the groundwork for much more to come. Since, as I write this review in 2014, there are currently 10 more novels in the series, I expect I’ll know soon enough if I understood that scene correctly.

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‘Twas The Night Before Vampires’ Christmas

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Every year at least one parody on Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” commonly called “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” comes to light. This year, the first one to catch my attention is written by Mike Cecconi.

The parody is available as a standalone purchase, but I happened upon it at the end of P.D. Lake’s “Santa’s Little Heist.” It seems to be a bit longer than the version it parodies and it does not always match the original cadence, but the story it tells works nevertheless.

And, as I was quietly smiling and enjoying Cecconi’s take on Santa vs. the Vampires, I suddenly found myself laughing aloud, tears streaming down my cheeks, at the visual from one stanza near the end. And I quote:

“With Rudolph’s nose set to ‘simulate sunlight,’

Thousands went up like fireworks into the night;

Included in the vampires’ incidental losses

Were the deaths from Christmas displays involving crosses.”

For those of us who truly believe, whether it be in vampires or in Santa, this parody hits the mark.

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Santa’s Little Heist

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Cute Christmas holiday romance. Reasonably complicated murder case. Unbelievable premise on which to base both.

First, the romance. Chief Inspector Darcy Carrington and Inspector Ethan Hunter are pulling a 72-hour shift that begins on Christmas Day. They do not normally partner together, but they are the only homicide detectives in their precinct without a spouse or children with which to spend the holidays. So Carrington has volunteered for the duty and has assigned Hunter to assist.

Carrington is a beautiful woman and Hunter is well aware of that fact. But he is just as, if not more, appreciative of the fact that she is an intelligent, insightful and capable detective. Unknown to Hunter, Carrington is just as impressed with his skills. When the 72-hour shift becomes a 7-day marathon due to an outbreak of food poisoning amongst the other detectives, their constant togetherness eventually brings their personal lives into the mix.

But this romance is not a case of lust fueled by opportunity. It is a tale of two people who see each other as beautiful inside as well as out – professionally and personally.

Next, the murder. On Christmas morning, the body of a middle-aged man is found lying in a non-public hallway of the local mall, battered beyond recognition. Although his wallet is beside him, all his identification has been removed, even his wedding ring and his watch. His fingerprints are not in the system and the detectives have only two clues – an anonymous 999 call telling where to find the victim and scads of surveillance video from the mall’s many cameras.

For Hunter and Carrington, their first break in the case is a missing person’s report filed that afternoon that matches the victim. And what seems to be a brutal crime of passion takes on a new twist when the dead man is identified as the manager of Dylan’s Diamonds, a high-end jewelry store in the mall. And that store has been robbed overnight.

Now, the poor premise on which both the romance and the murder investigation depend. At the very beginning of the story, we are told that Hunter and Carrington are the only homicide detectives scheduled to work that 72-hour period beginning Christmas Day. This is predicated on the “fact” that for an untold number of years, that precinct has had virtually no murders between Christmas Day and New Year’s.

No murders? None? No unattended deaths at all? Oh. Come. On.

This is London, not some village of a hundred people out in the boonies. And it is Christmas, a time that seems to produce the most suicides and the most violent domestic disturbances of all regardless of geographical region. Any reader who takes the books of Deborah Crombie, Elizabeth George and Martha Grimes for a ride on a regular basis knows that this premise requires a suspension of disbelief that is beyond the pale.

But the killer for this book (no pun intended) is the poor editing. First, we have co-authors and perhaps the left hand did not read what the right hand had already written. For instance, we are first told that Hunter started out as a beat patrolman. Then, later on, we are told he started out as a crime scene photographer. Only one of these scenarios can be the truth; they are not compatible assignments. So the question is whether one author wrote the first scenario and the other didn’t read that part before continuing with the next section.

But the editing errors go way beyond incompatible facts related to backstory. We also have typographical errors – and there are a lot of them. Some of these errors involve changes of tense and of possession within a single sentence. There are also sentences with missing words and sentences with words that shouldn’t be there. Some sentences contain phrases and clauses that just make no sense when referenced back to the subject of the sentence. And these confusing sentences cannot be chalked up to the differences between British and American speech. These situations would be just plain poor sentence construction in any language or culture.

And this leads me to my major disappointment. P.D. Lake, as previously mentioned, has a co-writer for this book, a person who is a well-published author in her own right, an author whom I have read many times. And this co-author is also a professional editor and proofreader! Perhaps this book just slipped through the cracks in an attempt to get it published in time for readers intent on Christmas-themed entries. No matter – left-hand or right-hand, a professional editor should not have let that happen.

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