Rules of Prey

Rules Of Prey_JohnSandford_9134890

THAT’S SIX!

5 STARS

Three characters control the outcome of this story. One is a cop, one is a lawyer and one is a television reporter. Each one is ruthless, manipulative, vicious, highly intelligent, a player and a killer of either body or soul.

Lucas Davenport is the cop. He is also a highly successful creator of fantasy/combat computer games. His ability to strategize on the fly, to think multiple steps ahead of the current action and to utilize violence with little remorse makes it difficult for him to play nicely in the sandbox with others not of like mind. Even though his ability to lead a squad of officers is virtually non-existent, he is still one of the most successful vice and homicide detectives in Minneapolis PD’s history.

Now a lieutenant, he is a division of one, a specialist in gathering intel from a vast street network, forwarding the tips and whisperings on to the appropriate squads for follow-up. Keeping his own hours and reporting only to the Chief of Police, he often works a parallel path with the official investigation teams. As a result, to date and still in his early thirties, he has killed five men in the line of duty.

Lucas Davenport is a predator, whether the hunted is a suspected criminal or the next intelligent and attractive woman on his dance card. He despises the first and he respects the other. But the quest for either is still a hunt that has well-established rules of prey.

The lawyer is maddog, one word and spelled in lower-case, but his real name is Louis Vullion. He appears to be that sub-genre of psychopath who is broken from birth. And with parents who were as remote and isolated as the Texas ranch on which he was raised, there appears to have been no chance for repair. He has always known he was “wrong,” and he has willingly chosen to play that hand rather than seek psychological help.

Like Lucas, maddog is adept at gamesmanship. Like Lucas, his strategies are focused on the guilty and the women, even if, to maddog, they are one and the same. Like Lucas, his kill count is at five. And like Lucas, as he demonstrates with each raped and knifed body, he has very distinctive and formulated rules of prey.

Jennifer Carey is the TV reporter, and she has been one of Lucas Davenport’s bed partners for about three years now. At her core, Jennifer is a sociopath. She is one of those media people that adds to the callous reputation of the breed. She uses every tool at her disposal – lies, threats, bribes, blackmail, tears, her gender, even her biological clock – to get what she wants personally or professionally.

And she does so without a single care for the consequences or collateral damage to the people she targets in her stories or in her life. She is every bit as adept at gamesmanship as Lucas and maddog. However, with little sense of ethics, she has few rules to limit her actions, and definitely no defining rules of prey.

In this first entry of the Prey series, which is still in production after nearly 25 years, John Sandford creates, in Lucas Davenport, a character that is atypical within the normal detective genre of its time. As far as timelines go, Davenport is a contemporary of Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole and Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. However, he is a cop rather than a PI, and he works out of the Twin Cities rather than LA. He isn’t witty like Cole or Spenser, and he does not have a lethal sidekick.

Davenport writes computer code and bad poetry and he doesn’t flaunt his wealth. He pays as much attention to his mental health as to his physical one. He accepts full responsibility for his actions and their consequences, personally and professionally. Yet, in the end he is a stone cold killer with a badge, a vigilante when justice cannot or will not prevail.

The action in the story – mental, physical and emotional – is well crafted, realistic and logical. Because we know the identity of the killer from the first page, there are no mysteries for the reader to solve, no red herrings to wade through. There are, however, more than enough bumps, grinds and mistakes on everyone’s part to make the story one that builds tension steadily to the point where sleep becomes highly over-rated.

The attacks and murders are vicious and graphically described. Also graphically detailed are maddog’s internal monologues between killings. The man is not an egotistical maniac with delusions of grandeur or superiority. He is an intelligent but broken little man with a psychological compulsion to kill that has besieged him since he was a toddler. Quite frankly, Sandford’s portrayal of maddog makes you feel sorry for the man. Not sorry enough to want him to survive, but sorry for him, nevertheless.

As you reach the final pages of the book, Sandford closes down the story arc without a cliffhanger ending or a police-related hook for the next novel. He does leave a personal hook involving Lucas, however.

Unfortunately, what Sandford does not do is dispatch Jennifer Carey – literally or figuratively. One can only hope that that particular circumstance will come soon. Believe me, she is one character that possesses a kind of evil that every female reader recognizes and has well and good reason to fear.

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Strangers In Death

Strangers In Death_JDRobb_2494207

SKIN GAME

5 STARS

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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Long Lost

Long Lost_LindaCastillo_18401059

GOOD MYSTERY, BAD CONTINUITY WITH PREVIOUS NOVELS

3 STARS

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.

 …SPOILERS FOLLOW…

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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Santa’s Little Heist

Santa's Little Heist_PDLake_EvePaludan_23791003

BAD PREMISE, BAD EDITING

2 STARS

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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Gone Missing

Gone Missing_LindaCastillo_18868714

FORESTS AND TREES

5 STARS

Agent John Tomasetti, with Ohio’s BCI state investigative force, has been assigned to delve into the disappearances of three female Amish teens. The disappearances have all occurred in the area surrounding Buck Creek, but the time span ranges from just a few days missing to almost a year.

Tomasetti calls Kate Burkeholder, the Painter’s Mill police chief, and asks her to consult with the task force on this investigation, his request being both professionally and personally motivated. From a professional standpoint, not only is Kate a cop, she is former Amish and has an insider’s view on the culture which has prevented law enforcement outsiders from gleaning enough information to search for the girls properly. She also speaks Pennsylvania Dutch, the language the area Amish often use to keep the Englischers at arm’s length.

On the personal side, Tomasetti and Kate have been involved in an exclusive, long-distance relationship for over a year. Tomasetti’s office is nearly a hundred miles from Painter’s Mill and that distance, plus their various cases, keeps them more apart than together. However, they trust each other implicitly, both personally and professionally, and they work well together. So, for Tomasetti and Kate, this consulting gig is good for everyone involved.

It doesn’t take Kate too long to begin ferreting out clues from the Amish parents of the missing girls. It takes even less time for the body of the latest missing teen to surface. And then another Amish girl, the niece of Kate’s brother-in-law back in Painter’s Mill, disappears.

Everything that Kate has gathered from the parents and friends of the missing girls, as well as what she personally knows about her own family’s Sadie, boils down to cultural dissention. All the victims were rebelling against the restrictions of the Amish faith. They had been argumentative and secretive with their parents and had been illicitly consorting with Englischers. And each one had professed a desire to leave the Amish faith permanently.

So the question for Kate and Tomasetti is whether the girls have chosen to leave the area voluntarily by way of the local “Underground Railroad,” whether their rebellion has made them prey to an Englischer sexual deviant, or whether someone wants to punish them for being unfaithful to their Church law. And a list of suspects who could fit into any or all of these categories abounds.

The majority of this book takes place within a 72-hour period. Thus, both the clues and the red herrings come fast and thick. Linda Castillo, as in the previous entries of the series, writes this book in Kate Burkeholder’s first-person, present moment POV, which makes the case unfold in real time. Thus, Castillo creates an edgy tenseness that comes from the reader having no fly-on-the-wall perspective or little warning as to what is upcoming.

Castillo also changes the personal focus of Kate and Tomasetti in this novel. In the previous entries, the author has focused the story arcs around situations that would emphasize Kate’s rape as a teenager or the rape/murders of Tomasetti’s wife and children. In this issue, Castillo focuses Kate and Tomasetti on the way parents treat their children and how parents often delude themselves as to the reality of their children’s lives. Tomasetti, in particular, is forced by the circumstances of the disappearances and murders, to acknowledge his culpability in these areas with respect to his young daughters prior to their rapes and murders.

Psychologically, this can be a tough book to read. Castillo pulls no punches here about emotional, physical or sexual abuse within a family. And the chapters that reveal and interact with the murderer are absolute mental torture, since they are told in real-time, rather than in third person.

Lastly, a word to the wise reader here – Don’t skim the Prologue too quickly just to get into the meat of the novel faster. Pay attention to EVERY character mentioned in that Prologue, not just to Becca and what you know is coming by the time you have read the first few sentences. Prologues aren’t always a scene-setter or a quick blip back to the past. Sometimes a Prologue is the forewarning to the Epilogue.

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The Dead Detective

The Dead Detective_JRRain_23453869

GOOD COP, BAD COP, DEAD COP

4 STARS

In this first entry in their Dead Detective series, J.R. Rain and Ron Kierkegaard, Jr., provided me with my first literary venture into the idea of zombies. Not being much for horror movies, I have studiously avoided books that stereotyped zombies and ghouls as brain-eating, flesh-devouring mindless killers with body parts and flesh falling off at regular intervals.

Then along comes an email from J.R. Rain promoting this new collaboration called “The Dead Detective.” The promotional blurb casually mentions that the novel’s heroine has been murdered and then reanimated as a zombie assassin. However, having read and enjoyed many of Rain’s paranormal works, I figured that this “zombie” situation was probably not going to fit that typical stereotype. So I took the plunge, bought the book and found out that I was right.

As the story opens, Robbery-Homicide Detective Richelle Dadd regains consciousness in an abandoned warehouse with a chalk outline drawn around her body. The whole crew is there, from the detectives to the crime scene techs to the coroner’s assistants. She has no idea how she got there, but the scene smacks to her of an elaborate joke – her fellow officers punking her, maybe as a prank prior to her impending promotion to Sergeant.

However, Richelle is hard pressed to explain the neat hole right through her heart, no blood pressure, no pulse and a bullet rattling around inside her ribcage. As best she can tell, after she calms down, someone somehow lured her to the warehouse, put a bullet into her specifically to damage the heart and the heart only, and then reanimated her in some as yet unexplained manner. The “what” is terrifying enough to Richelle, but it’s the “why” that confounds her and drives the remainder of the story.

So Richelle is now a member of the undead. She is weakened by sunlight yet can eat and drink normally with no unusual cravings. However, she can also see and talk to ghosts and she can see another worldly dimension superimposed over the “normal” one.

But for Richelle, these are just another set of problems to deal with. Undead or not, she has a cheating husband to divorce, a mortgage to pay, a cat to retain custody of, her murderer to find and the motive behind her transformation to determine. And, of course, she still has her regular caseload in the Robbery-Homicide Division to deal with.

As this is the first entry in the series, Rain and Kierkegaard do a lot of world building in the first half of the novel. But it does not come in the form of traditional third-person info dumps. This story is written from Richelle’s first-person POV; therefore the reader does not get the information any faster than she does. So, as she treats her condition symptomatically and works to solve her murder, her new world makes its appearance in fits and bursts.

At first, this method of introducing a supernatural/paranormal existence feels very jerky and confusing. But when Richelle is able to tie her murder to an old case involving Romani gypsies, teams up with a ghostly cop who was killed in the line of duty decades past, and learns from her mother the truth about her own gypsy heritage, the world that Rain/Kierkegaard has been alluding to cleanly snaps into place.

From this point on, it is all about Richelle finding and stopping the perpetrators before they create more zombie cops and solving a series of connected crimes. It is also about the rigors of surviving physically intact in a world where she can be horrifically and permanently damaged but never killed.

The worlds of the living, the undead and the truly dead are so entwined and built up, using gypsy legend and Jewish/Middle Eastern history, that they feel plausible, with very little suspension of disbelief required. Of course, in the case of this novel, it doesn’t hurt if you truly have an open mind about the plausibility and possibility of curses, hypnotic suggestions, telepathic control, ghosts, and transmigration of souls. But then, who would willingly embark upon a read about vampires, shifters, ghosts, witches or zombies if they didn’t!

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Eternity In Death

Eternity In Death_JDRobb_10543779

WOODEN STAKES AND SILVER CROSSES

4 STARS

Tiara Kent is one of those megarich kids whom the media adore. Her money comes from the hard work of someone three generations before her and she has never had to nor even been expected to do anything that remotely resembles work. Thus, her only goals in life are to buy clothes and shoes, to find the next chemical high, and to find the next thrilling adventure.

When Tiara’s father announces his engagement to a woman even younger than Tiara’s 23 years, she becomes obsessed with the horrors of growing old and thus obsessed with the necessity to remain beautiful. She fills her days with body sculpting, breast implants, face-lifts and acres of mirrors in her penthouse in which to admire the results.

And she fills the remaining two weeks of her nights with the Dark Prince, as she calls him, who has promised to give her eternal life – and eternal beauty. When Eve Dallas and Peabody see her the morning following her “ritual of immortality,” they find the requisite puncture marks on her neck. They find a smattering of blood on her sheets. They find the rest of her blood missing. They find her jewelry missing as well. And they find her as dead as the proverbial doornail.

This being only a 108-page novella, it does not take Eve long to locate the alleged “Dark Prince.” He is Dorian Vadim, owner and manager of the underground club BloodBath, a club geared to the wanna-be vampire crowd and those just out for a taste (pun intended) of the supernatural side.

Vadim is tall, dark and handsome, charismatic to the nth degree and sex walking. He is also arrogant enough to try to seduce Eve with Roarke standing right beside her. But it is the soulless black eyes, the same eyes her father had, that unnerve Eve and jolt her stride.

So, armed with incident reports from both Europe and the states, tox and DNA reports from Morris, a profile from Mira and her own stun gun, Eve goes on the hunt to bring Vadim down. With attitudes of “better safe than sorry,” thrust upon her is an open-minded New Ager’s approach from Peabody, garlic cloves from her detective squad, a wooden stake from Baxter and a silver cross from Roarke.

This is not the first entry in which JD Robb has introduced some form of paranormal entity into a murder. Previously, there have been ghosts as well as psychics and sensitives with documented successes. Now, the focus is on vampires, both the ones of legend and the ones who metaphorically suck another person’s soul dry.

Cloves of garlic aside, this entry is no spoof, even if it was written at the height of Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight Saga.” The murders are real, the characters’ beliefs or disbeliefs in the supernatural are real, and the wooden stake and cross turn out to be not such bad ideas either.

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