The Big Kahuna by Janet Evanovich, Peter Evanovich: Jinkies, that was a bad book

The Big KahunaThe Big Kahuna

by Janet Evanovich, Peter Evanovich
Series: Fox and O’Hare, #6

Hardcover, 301 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019

Read: June 5 – 6, 2019

♪ ♫ ♬ Where have you gone, Lee Goldberg
Readers turn their lonely eyes to you
Wu wu wu
What’s that you say, Ms. Evanovich
Lee Goldberg has left and gone away
Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey ♬ ♪ ♫

(with apologies to Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Lee Goldberg, Janet Evanovich, Mrs. Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, my parents, teachers, Vogon poets… but dang, I spent a day and a half singing that to myself)

I’ve (purchased and) read all the previous novels at least once, read most of the short stories/novellas, and listened to all of the audiobooks of the series up to this point. I was a fan, maybe not the biggest fan — I expressed issues and reservations from time to time, but I knew I could expect a fun adventure, some fun banter, a little ridiculousness, and a clever crime story when I picked up a Fox and O’Hare novel. But when the inimitable Lee Goldberg departed, I got nervous — Evanovich has slipped in recent years (as I’ve discussed), and I don’t think she cares or notices. Still, I wasn’t sure how much of the success of these books were up to Goldberg and how much was Evanovich finding a spark in new characters that wasn’t there anymore in her Plum franchise/cash cow. Well, I think I’ve solved that mystery to my satisfaction — it was Goldberg.

I’m so, so relieved that I didn’t buy this thing. I’m sorry the local library did, too, although I’m glad I was able to take advantage of this.

First off, there wasn’t much of a con. It’s an adventure story — there was a little bit of a con at the end, but on the whole, there’s no reason for Nick Fox to be around for the whole book. As such, we don’t get most of the team showing up. Only Kate’s father, Jake, comes along.

Which is fitting, really — he belongs in adventure story. His basic approach of this retired guy who can pull off the occasional save with military equipment/connections while not liking to talk about that kind of thing has been exchanged for an older super-soldier that gives no evidence of being reticent about anything or all that old.

A new member of the team is introduced — he’s supposed to be the voice of reason keeping the destruction of private property to a minimum, and to do all the paperwork that Kate seems to ignore. First I think they did this already, and it didn’t work too well (the character was alright, but a dufus — I can’t remember if it was the same guy or not). Secondly, Kate — not their boss — told him about the super-secret arrangement with Nick Fox while in Fox’s presence and in a very casual manner. It just felt sloppy. Lastly, the character is the least-realistic character I think this series has ever produced — there’s no universe in which he makes it as an FBi agent for a month — much less be expected to be an agent that can keep things going well for this partnership.

There are a bunch of non-criminal types that really don’t need to be around but keep showing up anyway — they aren’t amusing, they aren’t well-conceived characters, they’re around to complicate plots and to be funny. They rarely succeed at the latter.

The primary villain (who I won’t name because he’s not revealed for quite a while) wasn’t actually that bad, and if they’d used him better, I wouldn’t be complaining about it at all. He just didn’t get the chance to be anything but briefly intimidating and then a pawn for Nick and Kate (making you wonder if he really wasn’t that intimidating after all). His primary accomplice was the person who did most of the work. She seemed half-baked (maybe three-quarters), and wasn’t all that convincing — her scheme (for lack of a better term) didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Her henchmen were pathetic and uninteresting.

Nick Fox . . . was a shell of the character. He’d traded in his usual between-assignment shenanigans for some dumb scheme about social media coaching, using a pseudonym that showed none of the panache characteristic of Fox. There was little reason for him to be around for most of the book, other than to make bad advances toward Kate.

Kate, meanwhile, seemed less competent than usual. A bit more clueless about criminal activity and Nick Fox, and fairly dependent on her father for the more action-hero-y stuff. Which didn’t seem right, either. She said “jinkies” so much I wondered if she’d been Velma in a previous life — a trait I don’t remember belonging to her. Of all the characters, she seemed more herself than the others — still, she seemed off.

The relationship between the Kate and Nick really doesn’t make sense. Some of what’s said between the two of them makes me think that this volume takes place between Books 3 & 4 rather than after Book 5. Although that makes the whole explanation for Cosmo even worse, because I think it was Book 3 that got Kate shackled with the paperwork partner last time. The last chapter of The Big Kahuna takes the nice relationship that was developing between the two protagonists during the Evanovich/Goldberg run and ruins it — and ruins the timeline, too. If this takes place after Book 5, it’s meaningless (as is a lot of what happened before). If it takes place after book 3 (which makes the most sense), it ruins the arc of 4 and 5. Then again, it’s not like the Plum books have a real timeline, it looks like the Evanovich2 run will follow that. It’s not about development anymore, it’s not about growth of character or relationship — it’s about churning out books that’ll sell.

The whole thing felt like a Stephanie Plum book that Stephanie, Joe and Ranger forgot to show up for — but reasonable facsimiles thereof did. One of the great things about the previous novels is that they didn’t feel like Evanovich, or completely like a Goldberg. That’s out the window. And the book, en toto, suffered for it.

I’ve spent far more time and space on this post than I intended to (and still haven’t touched all my notes), so let me wrap this up. A year or two back after I spent time critiquing a book that I gave two stars to, one of my readers asked if I gave that novel 2, what would it take to get a 1? I said a book would have to make me mad, not just disappoint. Probably, on merit, I should give this two stars — there were some good moments, I have to admit (although while writing this, I seem to have forgotten them). But as I was thinking about that, I remembered that conversation, and well…this book as made me mad. It took a solid and reliably entertaining series, with good characters and ruined them. Just ruined them. I might give it one more try, just to see if they learned anything from this disaster (my guess is that sales won’t suffer much and they’ll learn nothing). But, without a different co-author, I can’t imagine why anyone would read these books again.

—–

1 Star

2019 Library Love Challenge 2019 Cloak & Dagger ChallengeHumor Reading Challenge 2019

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Don’t Panic by Neil Gaiman, David K. Dickson and MJ Simpson: An Indispensable Guide to Douglas Adams and his Work

I’d intended to get this up and ready for Towel Day last week — but, obviously, I failed. Schemes once again, Gang aft a-gley. It’s pretty fitting, really that this is late.

Don't PanicDon’t Panic: Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Third Edition)

by Neil Gaiman; Additional Material by David K. Dickson & MJ Simpson
Series: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy (related)

Hardcover, 207 pg.
Titan Books, 2003
Read: May 22 – 23, 2019

          
The idea in question bubbled into Douglas Adams’s mind quite spontaneously, in a field in Innsbruck. He later denied any personal memory of it having happened. But it’s the story he told, and, if there can be such a thing, it’s the beginning. If you have to take a flag reading THE STORY STARTS HERE and stick it into the story, then there is no other place to put it.

It was 1971, and the eighteen year-old Douglas Adams was hitch-hiking his way across Europe with a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europethat he had stolen (he hadn’t bothered ‘borrowing’ a copy of Europe on $5 a Day, he didn’t have that kind of money).

He was drunk. He was poverty-stricken. He was too poor to afford a room at a youth hostel (the entire story is told at length in his introduction to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Four Parts in England, and The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy in the US) and he wound up, at the end of a harrowing day, flat on his back in a field in Innsbruck, staring up at the stars. “Somebody,” he thought, “somebody really ought to write a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

He forgot about the idea shortly thereafter.

Five years later, while he was struggling to think of a legitimate reason for an alien to visit Earth, the phrase returned to him. The rest is history, and will be told in this book.

I distinctly remember purchasing the first edition of Don’t Panic from BookPeople of Moscow in the fall of 1991 — I remember being blown away by the idea that someone would write a book about Douglas Adams’ work. I had no idea who this Neil Gaiman fellow was, but I enjoyed his writing and loved the book he wrote — and read it several times. It was a long time (over 2 decades) before I thought of him as anything but “that guy who wrote the Hitchhiker’s book.” The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy had been a favorite of mine for years by that point, and getting to look behind the scenes of it was like catnip.

This is the third edition, and as is noted by Gaiman in the Forward, it “has been updated and expanded twice.” The completist in me would like to find a second edition to read the original 3 chapters added by David K. Dickson in 1993, but the important change was in 2002, when “MJ Simpson wrote chapters 27-30, and overhauled the entire text.” If you ask me, Gaiman’s name should be in the smaller print and Simpson’s should be the tall letters on the cover — but no publisher is that stupid, if you get the chance to claim that Neil Gaiman wrote a book, you run with it. Overhauled is a kind way of putting it — there’s little of the original book that I recognize (I’m going by memory only, not a side by side comparison). This is not a complaint, because Simpson’s version of the book is just as good as the original, it’s just not the original.

This is a little more than the story of The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy, but it’s certainly not a biography of Adams — maybe you could call it a professional biography. Or a biography of Adams the creator, which only touches upon the rest of his life as needed. Yes there are brief looks at his childhood, schooling, etc. But it primarily focuses on his writing, acting, producing and whatnot as the things that led to that revolutionary BBC Radio series and what happened afterward. Maybe you could think of it as the story of a man’s lifelong battle to meet a deadline and the lengths those around him would go to help him not miss it too much.

Once we get to the Radio series, it follows the The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy through each incarnation and expansion — talking about the problems getting it produced (in whatever medium we’re talking about — books, TV show, movie, stage show) and the content. Then the book discusses other Adams projects — Dirk Gently books, The Last Chance to See, his computer work, and other things like that.

It’s told with a lot of cheek, humor, and snark — some of the best footnotes and appendices ever. It’s not the work of a slavish fanboy (or team of them) — there are critical moments talking about problems with some of the books (some of the critiques are valid, others might be valid, but I demur). But it’s never not told with affection for the man or his work.

Don’t Panic is a must for die-hard fans — and can be read for a lot of pleasure by casual fans of the author or his work. I can almost promise that whatever your level of devotion to or appreciation of Adams/his work, it’ll increase after reading this. Any edition of this book should do — but this third edition is an achievement all to itself. Imagine someone being able to say, “I improved on Gaiman’s final draft.”

I loved it, I will return to this to read as well as to consult for future things I write about Adams, and recommend it without hesitation.

—–

5 Stars

Humor Reading Challenge 2019

Towel Day ’19: Some of my favorite Adams lines . . .

(updated 5/25/19)
There’s a great temptation here for me to go crazy. I’ll refrain from that and just list some of his best lines . . .

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

  • Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”
  • This must be Thursday. . . I never could get the hang of Thursdays.”
  • “You’d better be prepared for the jump into hyperspace. It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.”
    “What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”
    “You ask a glass of water.”
    (I’m not sure why, but this has always made me chuckle, if not actually laugh out loud. It’s just never not funny)
  • He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.
  • In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centuari. And all dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before . . .
  • “Look,” said Arthur, “would it save you a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now?”
  • The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

  • It is a curious fact, and one to which no one knows quite how much importance to attach, that something like 85 percent of all known worlds in the Galaxy, be they primitive or highly advanced, have invented a drink called jynnan tonnyx, or gee-N-N-T’Nix, or jinond-o-nicks, or any one of a thousand or more variations on the same phonetic theme. The drinks themselves are not the same, and vary between the Sivolvian “chinanto/mnigs” which is ordinary water served at slightly above room temperature, and the Gagrakackan “tzjin-anthony-ks” which kills cows at a hundred paces; and in fact the one common factor between all of them, beyond the fact that the names sound the same, is that they were all invented and named before the worlds concerned made contact with any other worlds.

Life, the Universe, and Everything

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has this to say on the subject of flying.There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying.The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.

(It goes on for quite a while after this — and I love every bit of it.)

  • “One of the interesting things about space,” Arthur heard Slartibartfast saying . . . “is how dull it is?””Dull?” . . .”Yes,” said Slartibartfast, “staggeringly dull. Bewilderingly so. You see, there’s so much of it and so little in it.”

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

  • Of course, one never has the slightest notion what size or shape different species are going to turn out to be, but if you were to take the findings of the latest Mid-Galactic Census report as any kind of accurate guide to statistical averages you would probably guess that the craft would hold about six people, and you would be right.You’d probably guessed that anyway. The Census report, like most such surveys, had cost an awful lot of money and told nobody anything they didn’t already know — except that every single person in the Galaxy had 2.4 legs and owned a hyena. Since this was clearly not true the whole thing eventually had to be scrapped.
  • Here was something that Ford felt he could speak about with authority.”Life,” he said, “is like a grapefruit.””Er, how so?”

    Well, it’s sort of orangy-yellow and dimpled on the outside, wet and squidgy the middle. It’s got pips inside, too. Oh, and some people have half a one for breakfast.”

    “Is there anyone else out there I can talk to?”

  • Arthur had a swordfish steak and said it made him angry. He grabbed a passing waitress by the arm and berated her.”Why’s this fish so bloody good?” he demanded, angrily.”Please excuse my friend,” said Fenchurch to the startled waitress. “I think he’s having a nice day at last.”

Mostly Harmless

  • A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

  • If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our hands.
  • Let’s think the unthinkable, let’s do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.

(I’ve often been tempted to get a tattoo of this)

The Last Chance to See

  • “So what do we do if we get bitten by something deadly?” I asked.He looked at me as if I were stupid.”You die, of course. That’s what deadly means.”
  • I’ve never understood all this fuss people make about the dawn. I’ve seen a few and they’re never as good as the photographs, which have the additional advantage of being things you can look at when you’re in the right frame of mind, which is usually around lunchtime.
  • I have the instinctive reaction of a Western man when confronted with sublimely incomprehensible. I grab my camera and start to photograph it.
  • Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.

And a couple of lines I’ve seen in assorted places, articles, books and whatnot

  • I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.
  • A learning experience is one of those things that says, “You know that thing you just did? Don’t do that.”
  • The fact is, I don’t know where my ideas come from. Nor does any writer. The only real answer is to drink way too much coffee and buy yourself a desk that doesn’t collapse when you beat your head against it.

Towel Day ’19: Do You Know Where Your Towel Is?

(actually updated and slightly revised this 5/25/19!)

           The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a few things to say on the subject of towels.

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost”. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.” (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)

One of my long-delayed goals is to write up a good all-purpose Tribute to Douglas Adams post, and another Towel Day has come without me doing so. Belgium.

Next year . . . or later. (he says for at least the 4th straight year, a work ethic I like to believe Adams would recognize)

Last year, I did a re-read of all of Adams’ (completed) fiction. For reasons beyond my ken (or recollection), I didn’t get around to blogging about the Dirk Gently books, but I did do the Hitchhiker’s Trilogy:


Adams is one of those handful of authors that I can’t imagine I’d be the same without having encountered/read/re-read/re-re-re-re-read, and so I do my best to pay a little tribute to him each year, even if it’s just carrying around a towel. Although, I do have the planet logo from the series tattooed on my forearm — so I do carry around a tribute to him constantly. I’ve only been able to get one of my sons into Adams, he’s the taller, thinner one in the picture from a couple of years ago below.

TowelDay.org is the best collection of resources on the day, recently posted this pretty cool video, shot on the ISS by astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.

Even better — Here’s an appearance by Douglas Adams himself from the old Letterman show — so glad someone preserved this:

Love the anecdote (Also, I want this tie.)

Storm Cursed by Patricia Briggs: Goblin Royalty, Coyote, the Strangest Zombies you’ve Run Across Combine and an excess of “Next”s

Storm CursedStorm Cursed

by Patricia Briggs
Series: Mercy Thompson, #11

Hardcover, 355 pg.
Ace, 2019
Read: May 8 -10, 2019

Adam grinned at me, “That which doesn’t destroy us . . .”

“Leaves us scratching our heads and saying, ‘What’s next?'” I said.

There’s always plenty of things that can answer that “What’s next?” question in the land of Mercy Thompson — but Storm Cursed seems to have extra nexts in it. Briggs is such an excellent series writer — there’s always a great mix of classic favorites (Zee, Uncle Mike, Mary Jo and Ben) and the new (Goblin King, the events of Silence Fallen, the baddies of this book) — like a favorite band touring in support of their new album that no one’s heard yet, she sprinkles in enough of the familiar with the new that you can enjoy the songs you can sing along with and appreciate the new for what they bring to the table.

We start off with the typical mini-adventure featuring Mary Jo, Ben and Mercy — with a little bit of Larry mixed in. There’s a goblin on the run from law enforcement after causing some mayhem in California who thought the Tri-Cities would be a safe place to lay low. Boy, was he wrong. This goblin accomplishes a lot of other things, though. He brings Mercy and the pack into a new part of the area and the law enforcement there, for starters.

This sets things up perfectly for Mercy and Mary Jo to come to the aid of said law enforcement when it comes to a very strange supernatural outbreak. Miniature zombie goats. ’nuff said.

Zombie goats — no matter their size (as important as it is to Mercy and Stefan) don’t just show up one day. They’re the product of witchcraft, and with Elizaveta still in Europe following Silence Fallen the Ti-Cities is ripe for new witches to move in and usurp her. I’m not going to tell you if they’re successful or not, but they sure make things interesting for the defenders of the area like Mercy and Adam. This also gives Sherwood Post, the mysterious wolf sent by the Marrock to be a part of this pack after something happened that he can’t talk about/remember involving witches. He apparently picked up a thing or two, and gets the chance to demonstrate that.

I’ve liked Sherwood since he showed up the first time, and now I’m super-intrigued by him.

There’s a big, summit-like meeting between representatives of the U.S. and the Fae leadership in the making — and the Pack has a lot to do with making sure it happens without a hitch. Naturally, for reasons that are unclear (at first), the new witches in town are working to disrupt it for their own ends. Because there’s not enough going on without that — an excess of nexts, really.

Speaking of excess — Coyote is lurking in the background of many of these events and he’s determined to keep Mercy in the middle of things, for his own reasons. If he’d just been up front with her, I think she’d have been on-board without hesitation (and certainly seems glad to have helped once she figures out his play). Instead, he manipulates her into doing what he wants — which is bad for the character, good for the reader, because he’s so much fun to read, especially when it comes at Mercy’s expense.

No matter what happens in a Mercy Thompson book — they’re filled with fun, and it’s easy to fool yourself into only remembering the fun parts and pushing the darkness and trauma aside in your memory until the next book comes along and reminds you just how messed up things can get for Mercy and the rest. This book is no exception — but in may ways the evil they confront this time is a special kind of Evil that requires at least one capital when you talk about it. What happens throughout this book, what’s uncovered here — especially the last few chapters — is probably the most inherently disturbing that Briggs has given us yet. I wondered at more than one point, if even Atticus O’Sullivan could hate witches as much as Mercy does (for good reason!). I decided the two would probably end up in a tie, but that Mercy has more recent evidence for her prejudice.

There’s something that happens in the climactic battle scene that I want to talk about more than I want to talk about anything else in this book — because in the long run it’s going to be bigger and more important than anything else that happens or I’ll eat my hat. It’s so small, so quick that it’d be easy to miss — 2 sentences on one page, then twelve pages later 2 more sentences. And Briggs has at least one novel’s worth of plot seeded right there. I love when I see an author do something like that and make it look effortless. And I think I’m underselling it. But I’ll have to leave it there — maybe in book 12 (or 15) when it happens, I’ll remember to say, “Remember that thing I didn’t talk about in Storm Cursed? This is it.”

Overall, this is another very solid entry in an incredibly reliable series, and I’m already excited to see what happens in book 12. Still, I get the feeling that Briggs is holding back a lot lately — here more than usual. Maybe it’s to keep the tone light, maybe it’s to keep the page count in check. Maybe it’s just me. But it seems to me that the last few books could’ve easily been deeper, darker, and more exciting, if Briggs would just allow that to happen — like she’s pulling her punches. As much as I love these characters, this world and Briggs’ writing, I just can’t get as excited about them as I want to. This is a great read — please don’t misunderstand me — but it could be better, it feels like it’d be easy for her to make it better. So I’ve got to stick with 4 stars — which feels like I’m pulling my punches, too.

—–

4 Stars

The Liar by Steve Cavanagh: Another Fantastic Ride with the Wiliest Lawyer in Print!

The LiarThe Liar

by Steve Cavanagh
Series: Eddie Flynn, #3

Paperback, 327 pg.
Orion Books, 2017

Read: May 6 – 9, 2019
Eddie’s being sued in a way to attack the legacy — and the finances — of his friend/mentor Judge Harry Ford for a case he had back in his days as a defense attorney. Harry’s client was found guilty — and insane — and died about a decade later in a treatment facility she’d been sentenced to for murder. This is an important case for Eddie and Harry for multiple reasons, but as interesting as this case is, it takes a backseat to the main case in this novel.

Leonard Howell’s a former marine who runs a security company — who specializes in K&R (kidnap and return) — that Eddie knew back when they were both kids. His nineteen year-old daughter was recently kidnapped herself and Howell has a plan to retrieve her. He just needs to get around the FBI to pull it off. Enter his need for his old acquaintance Eddie Flynn — both to help him trick the FBI and to represent him because he’ll no doubt be arrested for carrying his plan out. But he doesn’t care too much about that, as long as his daughter is saved.

Eddie remembers what it feels like to have your daughter kidnapped and signs on — let’s be honest, he probably would have anyway. It’s a good thing he does, because Howell’s plan goes awry in fairly significant ways and he finds himself arrested for a lot more than anyone expected. Which is just the beginning of the book — it gets a lot more tangled, interesting, and exciting after that.

You know, for legal thrillers there’s a lot of action in the Eddie Flynn books. Sure, a good deal happens inside the courtroom — but Eddie’s not Perry Mason. What happens outside the courtroom is frequently more interesting than what happens inside. Which is saying something, because Cavanagh captures what’s most exciting about the cases and trials procedures as well as anyone does. As exciting — and important — as what happens outside the courtroom can be, for me, a legal thriller needs to land the courtroom stuff, or why bother? When Eddie is playing to a jury, interacting with a judge, messing with opposing counsel or questioning a witness? He’s fantastic (not infallible, as he proves here) — I’m not sure Mickey Haller could’ve handled this one any better (and likely not as well).

Just because the title uses a definite article, don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s only one in the book. You’d be better off not trusting anyone, including our beloved protagonist — well, almost anyone (I’ll have to leave that vague so as not to ruin anything).

One thing I want to note, and can’t think of a smooth way to work this in — what Eddie accomplishes in this book have more to do with his being a good lawyer and a smart guy than his past as a con man. He gets opportunities to flex those muscles, yes, but it’s not what defines him as a character here. Eddie the mostly-reformed con-man is a great character, don’t mistake me. But Eddie the scrappy lawyer, appeals to me more.

That said — early on, Eddie does something to help his client using the principles of Three Card Monte — and the wise reader would learn from this, because Cavanagh does the same thing. You will think that Cavanagh is doing one thing — and if you’re the type to try to figure out ahead of time where the mystery is going, whodunit, etc. (like I am), you will think you know where he’s going. And then when a Major Reveal happens which is pretty surprising, but really confirms all your theories — you start to feel smug and confident. Which is when Eddie and his creator probably start smiling — because within thirty pages of that, another Major Reveal comes along and totally blindsides you. I really never recovered from that for the rest of the book, honestly. Most of my theories remained largely intact, but they all had to be interpreted differently, and the motives behind them all changed.

I’ve never had a complaint about Cavanagh’s writing before now, but I didn’t realize he was nearly as clever as he is. I absolutely loved the way he fooled me — without cheating — and kept the tension mounting throughout this book in unexpected way after unexpected way. It’s just a great ride — right up to the point where Eddie demonstrates, again, just how stupid it is for people to make him angry. You’d think word would get around NYC courts about what happens when people challenge Eddie… A good series that gets better every time — do yourself a favor and pick this up. It’s a decent jumping on point to the series, too — you don’t have to know the first books, I shouldn’t forget to note).

—–

4 1/2 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

You Die Next by Stephanie Marland: The latest Starke & Bell thriller is a tale of obsession that may leave the reader feeling a little obsessed, too.

If you have not read Stephanie Marland’s My Little Eye, you shouldn’t read this post, because I don’t know how much I might let slip, and while you probably can enjoy this book without having read it — you won’t appreciate it the way you should. Also, you should reconsider your life choices from the last year or so, because My Little Eye was one of the best things that was published in 2018.

You Die NextYou Die Next

by Stephanie Marland
Series: Starke & Bell, #2

Kindle Edition, 336 pg.
Hachette Book Group, 2019
Read: April 18 – 22, 2019

The tunnel would be pitch-black without the safety lights, but even with them Dom, Parekh and Timber have to tread carefully, using their torch beams to scan the rails for signs of blood. Back on platform five, the CSIs are working their magic. Once Dom’s established the route taken by Thomas Lee, they’ll start work on the tunnel as well. They need to move fast, find leads as to what the hell happened here. This has to be one of the most bizarre crime scenes that Dom’s attended.

Given the crime scenes we know Dom’s seen? That’s saying something.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure how Marland was going to proceed with Starke and Bell. Sure, teaming up the amateur and the Police Detective once is believable, but how do you do it again without it coming across as contrived? It’s not as if DI Bell can call her up, “Say, Clementine…I’ve got this real puzzler of a case that’s got me stumped, you think you and your pals can take a crack at it?” without violating so many rules and regulations that he wouldn’t have a job long enough to arrest anyone. Marland makes the smart choice — she put them in each other’s rearview mirrors.

Starke’s off on her next research project, lamenting the notoriety that she earned (and enjoyed) after the events of My Little Eye, dealing with university politics, deadlines, and continuing to research her father’s death with the True Crime online group. She’s currently studying thrill-seekers and voyeurs, the genesis of their obsession and what feeds it. A fan of her work (for lack of a better term), keeps trying to get her to look into Urban Explorers. She finally gives in, just to get him off her case about it (she hopes), and watches a video he insists she watch. While doing so she sees two things — first, that he’s probably right, they’d make good subjects for her research; and second, she’s pretty sure she sees a murder. Which settles things — Clementine Stark dives into the world of Urban Explorers in general and those on the video in particular.

Bell’s working various cases, trying to decide what to do with his DS post-My Little Eye, and worried about the internal investigation about that case that went so wrong before the last book that still wreaks havoc on almost every relationship in his life. He’s called out to the scene of a car striking and killing a pedestrian — not really his kind of case, if not for the fact that the pedestrian probably would’ve been killed by the stab wounds all over him if the car hadn’t sped his death along. Meanwhile, as I said, the look into Operation Atlantis continues and the strain on his relationship with his sister is such that it’s at the breaking point, and Bell’s ex is pushing him for information on the investigation into the operation. Bell’s close to putting things together, and when he does, this ugly situation is probably only going to look worse for everyone.

It’s on the back-of-the-book blurb, so I feel I can say this without giving away too much — Bell’s pedestrian is one of the Urban Explorers that Starke’s looking into. So again, they’re working the same case, but don’t know it — and are approaching it from very different angles. But Starke also observes some of the people involved in that Operation Atlantis raid that went so horribly wrong, clearly plotting and planning about what to do about Bell — how to exploit him at the very least. Whatever went wrong between them, Starke’s not going to let anything happen to Bell if she can help it. So, again, the two are working the same case from different angles. There’s another thing they will have in common, too — but I’m not going to get into it beyond saying it exists. But let’s just say there are really three mysteries being investigated in this book, and both Starke and Bell have a stake in all three, but aren’t really working together on any of them.

That sounds confusing, maybe like a little narrative overkill, too. But it’s not, Marland weaves these six storylines together perfectly — actually, there are more than six, but they can be boiled down to six without losing much, if I tried to diagram it exactly, I’d end up with something looking like one of those cork-boards covered in newspaper clippings, note cards and photos tied together with strings between connections that were so popular on TV a few years ago. (and that Starke has in her apartment, come to think of it). I lost my point there — Marland artfully weaves/juggles the various stories into a cohesive whole in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the reader and keeps the reader engaged with all the various mysteries, plot advances, character moments, etc. It’s a real feat that she pulls off with aplomb.

I’m going to be haunted by the conclusion for a while. It reminds me of something I read in December 2017, and frankly, haven’t shaken yet (I’ll not mention the title, because doing so might tell you more about the conclusion than I want to). It’s the only way this book really could end — and I’m not complaining about it at all — but it’s going to linger longer than most do in the back of my mind.

I want to talk about some of the supporting characters — and Bell’s DS and DC, in particular, really deserve more attention than I’m paying them. But I’m going to skip that this time. I just don’t have enough time to do them justice. While Starke and Bell are fascinating, complex characters that any reader will enjoy digging into, the same is true for the people around them. They’re pretty well fleshed out, and you can easily imagine that Marland has plans for their future use. Any of the secondary or tertiary characters in this series could become very important in future events and should probably be paid attention to by readers (which is easy, because even the one who might as well be named Lecherous Scumbag is a character you can enjoy reading).

I’ve managed to only use the word “obsession” once so far — which is surprising. Not only is it the focus of Starke’s research, obsession can be used in some way to talk about every story, every idea, every character in You Die Next.. The person hunting down Urban Explorers is clearly obsessed with whatever their motivation is. Bell’s obsession over whatever investigation he’s pursuing has damaged romantic relationships, his relationship with his sister, and even his career. Starke’s obsessions with her work, Bell, her father’s death, this possible murder she saw, and . . . well, really — what isn’t she obsessed with? This book is permeated with notions of, examples of, and the repercussions of obsession.

In both concept and execution, Marland tried to accomplish a lot in My Little Eye and succeeded. You Died Next strikes me as more ambitious than its predecessor, making it harder to pull off — the bar was set pretty high and she moved it up. I’m not sure Marland was as successful with this novel as she was with My Little Eye, but I can’t point at any part of this book and say “this could be better here.” I think my hesitancy about this book comes from so much of the conclusion of this novel pointing to the third installment. My Little Eye told a story, with the potential for more. You Die Next told a story, but kept the resolution to much of it dangling. If we didn’t get You Die Next, for whatever reason, My Little Eye could stand on its own. Without Starke & Bell #3, You Die Next is the novel equivalent of “Shave and a Haircut”/Tum-ti-ti-tum-tum without the “Two Bits”/Tum-tum.

And by not as successful, I think I’m saying this is more of a 4.25-4.35 than a clear 4.5.

I may not be the biggest fan of every choice that Marland made for these two in this book, but they were honest choices entirely consistent with the characters — and will lead to a whole lot of exciting narrative possibilities in Starke & Bell #3 (and beyond, if there is a beyond). Either of these characters could anchor a pretty decent series on their own, together they make a special kind of magic. Their continued interaction may not do them a lot of good, but it will prove destructive to more than one criminal in London — and a whole lot of fun for readers. You Die Next brings the two characters together in a way that highlights their strengths (and weaknesses), pitting them against a cold and clever killer and a criminal conspiracy (or two) more widespread and powerful than they yet realize. I haven’t read a whole lot this year that I’d call a must, but this is. Stop wasting your time on my stuff and get this in front of your eyes.

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4 1/2 Stars

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