Monday, September 30, 2013

A Taut New Thriller from Simon Wood

Englishman Terry Sheffield and American Sarah Morton conduct a trans-Atlantic relationship after meeting on a vacation in Costa Rica. While Terry is visiting in the U.S., they get married in Vegas, but then Terry has to return to the U.K. to complete the paperwork that will allow him to live and work in the U.S.

Six months after Terry and Sarah last saw each other on their honeymoon, the paperwork is completed, Terry has left his old life and his job in England and has landed a new job at a biotech firm in California. He lands in San Francisco and hurries off the plane, anxious to be reunited with Sarah and to begin their new life together.

Except that Sarah doesn't show up at the airport.

Terry calls her cell phone several times, but gets no response. Finally, he reluctantly takes a shuttle to their new home, but Sarah isn't there either. Terry reports her missing, but the local sheriff is skeptical and wonders if Sarah is simply a bride who's already decided she made a mistake and run off. In the alternative, is it possible that Sarah, an investigative reporter, is working on a story that has taken her away from home?

None of those explanations make any sense to Terry, especially since Sarah has not even returned his phone calls. Obviously, he is thinking the worst. While waiting for something to break, Terry has no choice but to report to work at Genavax, his new employer. But after being heavily courted by the company, he gets a distinctly cool reception. He'd asked Sarah to check out the firm before accepting their job offer and he soon learns that in the process, Sarah had antagonized some of the company honchos. At the moment, they are not very happy with Terry or his wife.

To make matters worse, in sifting through the papers Sarah left at home, Terry discovers that she was investigating the murders of several women who apparently died at the hands of the same serial killer. Is it possible that Sarah fallen into the hands of the killer as well?

This is a very taut, well-told tale with any number of unexpected twists and turns. Even people who read a lot of thrillers are certain to be surprised on several occasions. Terry Sheffield is a very sympathetic character and the reader inevitably gets caught up in his struggle to find his missing wife while at the same time he tries to adapt to a new job and to life in a new country. Simon Wood should attract a lot of new fans with this book.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Blue Deer Thaw--But Will It Come In Time?

Winter is the cruelest season in the tiny town of Blue Deer, Montana. The weather is awful; Seasonal Affective Disorder is crushing the spirits of more than a few of the town's citizens; people are freezing to death in the snow or in the icy rivers; vehicular accidents are up; suicides are spiking, and everyone can hardly wait for spring to arrive.

Jules Clement, the sheriff of Absaroka County, is as anxious as anyone for the winter to be over, because he is the one who has to deal with all above-mentioned problems. But at least he has found a diversion: He's spending some of his off-duty hours cataloging the art collection belonging to the eccentric, millionaire owner of the Sacajawea Hotel. This gives him a chance to utilize his skills as an archaeologist, which was his profession before he returned home to Blue Deer to run for sheriff.

The hotel renovation is proceeding slowly and not so surely, which is a major concern for Jules' best friends, Alice and Peter, who are finally getting married after living together for the last ten years. They are planning to hold a party, the likes of which Blue Deer has never seen, but it all depends on the hotel being finished and ready to go. That's an iffy proposition and a lot of people are on edge as a result.

In the middle of all of this, a woman dies, drunk, during a major snowstorm only a few yards from her home. It may be an accident, but Jules is suspicious of the woman's husband who's a major pain in the ass and who seems not to care at all about the fact that his wife has died. Then, two bodies are pulled from local rivers, suicides or maybe not.

In addition, there's all the usual crap that goes down in a small town where everyone knows everyone else, and Jules is sick and tired of dealing with it all. He's also developing feelings for his beautiful deputy, Caroline, which would be inappropriate given their professional relationship. But, this is Blue Deer after all, not some large city where the department might have a pain-in-the-ass HR director, and so who knows what might happen?

Jules is threatening to hang up his spurs and walk away from it all, but in the meantime he has to deal with these various crises, not the least of which is the question of whether the upcoming marriage between Peter and Alice will actually come off. As was the case in the previous three books in this series, it's great fun watching Jules deal with all of this and following the adventures of the town's other eccentric characters.

Each time I review one of these books, I feel compelled to point out that these are not cozy mysteries, even though on the surface they may sound like it. These are books that will entertain large numbers of readers across the crime fiction spectrum, and a reader closing in on the end of this one can only hope that Jules Clement will not make good on his threat to ride off into the sunset.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Another Great Thriller from John Rector

John Rector has a gift for creating noir stories in which ordinary people find themselves in difficult circumstances and are tempted into making one bad choice which then inevitably backfires, leaving them spiraling down inexorably into catastrophe.

In this case, a former Marine named Matt Caine has survived a tour in Afghanistan only to return to a civilian life that seems to assault him at almost every turn. The economy sucks and he can't find a decent job that will enable him to support his wife and daughter with any sort of dignity. Then his wife is killed in a tragic accident and his daughter is badly injured and now needs special care.

Caine can't afford the treatment his daughter needs; he can't make his mortgage payments and he's in danger of losing his house, sad as it is. Desperate, he borrows money from loan sharks and can't pay that back either. And if all of that weren't bad enough, his in-laws believe that they would do a better job of raising Caine's daughter and are threatening legal action to take her away from him.

With his back up against the wall on almost every front, Caine is approached by an old friend, recently released from prison, who has a guaranteed, can't-miss scheme that will make them both rich and solve all of Matt's problems. Matt knows it's a stupid idea and initially rejects it. But in the end, seeing no alternative, he agrees to go along.

Naturally, the can't-miss scheme almost certainly will be a disaster, and the repercussions are more severe than Matt could have possibly imagined, leaving him literally in a fight for his life. To say anymore would be to say too much, but this is a taut, spare thriller that will keep you awake well into the night. Rector creates believable, sympathetic characters and he paces the story brilliantly, keeping the reader on edge virtually from the first page to the last.

John Rector just keeps getting better and better, and this book will appeal to large numbers of readers who like their crime fiction dark and nasty.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Another Engrossing Novel from Jim Fusilli

This is another very entertaining novel from Jim Fusilli, the rock and pop music critic of the Wall Street Journal. As the book opens, we meet a nameless man, or really a man of many names, who is on the road, drifting across the country and through the remnants of his shattered life. His wife has been brutally murdered; his daughter refuses to speak to him. His needs are simple and he only wants to be left alone. But in the tiny mining town of Jerome, Arizona, he buys a drink for an attractive woman and is soon entangled in a web of murder and intrigue.

Leaving Arizona, the drifter makes his way to Memphis, trailed by the jealous boyfriend of the woman he bedded in Jerome. Once in Memphis, he falls for the charms of another attractive woman and soon finds himself framed for murder.

The only way for the drifter to clear his name is to track down the killer himself, but as he attempts to do so, he is being tracked himself by a Wall Street power broker who is manipulating events from a distance. The mogul has plans of his own for the drifter and is not above toying with the life of the drifter's estranged daughter in order to achieve his objective.

This is a taut, well-written story with a number of memorable characters. The drifter, who uses several different names through the course of the book, is an especially appealing protagonist. It takes a few chapters for the various threads of the novel to converge, but Fusilli weaves them together into a very engrossing story. Readers who have enjoyed his earlier work will certainly want to find this one.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Another Very Entertaining Novel from Jamie Harrison

This is the third of Jamie Harrison's novels set in the small town of Blue Deer, Montana, and featuring archeologist-turned county sheriff, Jules Clement. In the first two books, The Edge Of The Crazies and Going Local, a prominent theme was the interaction between the long-time residents of Absaroka County and the usually wealthy newcomers who were moving into the county, attracted by its beauty and recreational opportunities.

In this case, however, Harrison sets that conflict aside to examine the relationships that exist and the way that crime can affect those relationships, in a tiny community where everyone knows virtually everyone else and in which they are often related to each other by blood or marriage.

By now, Harrison has firmly established the basic cast of characters that inhabit Blue Deer and orbit around Jules, the principal character. The relationships among them are tested when a fisherman discovers a portion of a skeleton on an island in a nearby river. Much of the upper torso, including the head, is missing. But some hair has been preserved as has the man's ornate belt buckle. In addition, there's the two bullets that Jules discovers on the ground under the man's abdomen.

It seems clear that the body was buried on the island years earlier and only exposed now as the river gradually eroded away a portion of the island. Jules, who was an archeologist before returning to Blue Deer, is thrilled at the prospect of using his scientific skills to investigate the man's death.

Jules ultimately determines that the man was somewhere in his twenties at the time of his death and that he was killed sometime in the late 1930s, and he sets the elderly ladies of the town's historical society on the task of identifying someone who went missing about that time and who was never heard from again. In doing so, though, he inadvertently opens a can of worms that a lot of people, including members of his own family might wish had been left unexamined.

In the meantime, of course, Jules has to deal with the usual run of crimes that occur in a small town like his, including drunken driving, domestic abuse and juvenile delinquency. There's also a rapist attacking women who live alone and who seems to be increasing the frequency of his attacks.

A lot of eccentric characters populate this book and it's as much fun watching Jules navigate the complexities of the relationships among them as it is to watch him at work attempting to solve all these crimes. But the reader should not expect this to be a nice cozy mystery. It isn't, and Jules is no Miss Marple. Underneath the humor, there's a hard edge to these books.

The cast of characters is large, and sometimes it feels like you might need a flow chart to keep straight them and the relationships involved. A reader needs to pay attention, but the attention is well-rewarded by a solid, entertaining read. This is a book that would appeal to a large number of readers, but as is often the case, someone new to the series might well want to start with the first book rather than the third.