The Bitterest Pill by Reed Farrel Coleman: Paradise, MA comes face to face with the Opioid Epidemic

The Bitterest PillRobert B. Parker’s The Bitterest Pill

by Reed Farrel Coleman
Series: Jesse Stone, #18
eARC, 368 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019

Read: July 31 – August 3, 2019

Well, it’s pretty clear that Don Winslow has left his mark on Reed Farrel Coleman—there’s a quotation from Winslow on the so-called War on Drugs as the epigraph to this novel. Jesse cites it and alludes to it later in the novel. It’s a good line—catchy and insightful (and, not that it matters, I agree 100% with it)—don’t misunderstand me, but I’m used to Robert B. Parker characters citing Shakespeare, (Edmund) Spenser, Shelley, and songs from the late 60s/70s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one quote someone contemporary. The latest focus of most of our country in that War is the Opioid Crisis, in The Bitterest Pill, that epidemic shows up in Paradise, Massachusettes—partially fulfilling Vinnie Morris’ prediction to Jesse that Boston crime was on its way to Paradise.

A student at Paradise High—the daughter of a city councilman—dies of an overdose and the city is rocked. It can’t be the first drug-related death in its history, but this was a different kind of thing. She’s not an obvious user, cheerleader, from a well-to-do family, and so on. Not the kind of person that Paradise is ready to believe would be an addict or that would die of an O.D.

What’s obvious to Jesse and his team is that if they don’t shut down the supply chain that fed this girl her drugs, she won’t be the only death, she’ll just be the first. This sets Jesse on a Hunt through Paradise High School and Boston’s underbelly. There’s a moment that made me think of Connelly’s Two Kinds of Truth (which just means that Connelly and Coleman have both done their research into the ways prescription drug rings work, not that Coleman’s copying anything)—but there’s a difference. Bosch is trying to deal with a situation, he’s involved in busting a ring as a means to an end. Jesse? He’s trying to protect his town it’s personal—and the ways that this particular ring is trying to invade Paradise are more diverse than what Bosch dealt with.

Skip this next paragraph if you’re worried about Colorblind spoilers.
I avoided talking about the new character Cole last time out, because, how could I? I’m on the fence with him, honestly. I don’t see where he was necessary—Jesse has Suit to father (although, at this stage, Luther doesn’t need much), he’s got the weight of the city on his shoulders, what’s added to the character by this relation? On the other hand, scenes with him are done so well, and Jesse’s different with him. I really enjoy him—he’s not the Paradise equivalent of Paul Giacomin, thankfully (nothing against Paul, we just don’t need another one), he’s a different kind of character (as Jesse was compared to Spenser and Sunny).

Speaking of Suitcase, I think I’ve loved everything Coleman’s done with him (every major thing, anyway, there might have been a scene or two that I forgot about), other than not using him as often as he could. But there’s a scene with Suit and Cole in this book that is so well done that it’s one of those passages I could read from time to time just to smile at. He’s come a long way. Molly seemed a little under-used, but she was good whenever she showed up and did get to shine a bit. I think Coleman overplayed the difficulty of Molly doing her job because of the way this case impacted Paradise’s children a bit (really not much), and, as always, he’s too dependent on bringing up the incident with Crow in relation to Molly. But on the whole, Suit, Molly and the rest of Paradise PD came off pretty well.

For awhile under Coleman and Ace Atkins, Vinnie Morris seemed more dangerous, more of a wild card—less “tamed.” But both the way that Atkins has used him the last time or two and here he seems to be tacking back to a friendly criminal who’s too willing to help out the non-criminal element. Frankly, I prefer the less-tame version, but as someone who’s enjoyed Vinnie since he worked for Joe Broz ages ago, I don’t care, I just like seeing him on the page.

After the very effective use of the mayor recently, I was surprised at her absence in this novel—not that there was room for anything like that.

There’s really one more supporting character that we should talk about—Alcohol. Jesse’s greatest foe (although, you could argue he’s the enemy and alcohol is the tool he uses to attack himself, but…eh, let’s make this easy and say alcohol). He may be clean and sober, but he’s still an addict, and his drug of choice is still a near-constant presence in his life. I love, respect and admire the way that Jesse (and Coleman) have dealt with this subject, particularly since Jesse stopped drinking. It’s so much more believable (and healthy) than Jesse’s attempts to manage his drinking before. I liked the approach in Colorblind, and continuing it in The Bitterest Pill made it stronger.

So, we’ve got Jesse battling personal demons (but with a clearer head), adjusting to a new personal reality, and dealing with a potentially crushing crime wave that’s leaving a trail of destruction through the youth of Paradise. Throw in the instability of a new romantic relationship? Jesse’s in a pretty healthy place, but given the pressures (and a couple I didn’t list)—it’s gotta be weighing on him, and Coleman does a pretty good job of balancing the health and precarious nature of Jesse’s state of mind.

As Coleman’s writing, it seemed frequently that he was trying too hard to make this something the level of Colorblind or Debt to Pay, and didn’t quite make it. Maybe because he was trying so hard? The topic he’s dealing with is important, so it’s understandable he’s taking big swings to hit this out of the park. But there are a few sentences that no one but Reed Farrel Coleman could have written. They were gorgeous and practically sang. I don’t want to sound like one of those anti-genre literary snobs, but Coleman comes close to transcending the genre and its easy to see the impact his poetry frequently has on his prose.

At the same time, he’s an effective mystery writer—there are red herrings all over the place for readers to get distracted with. As far as the main conduit for drugs into the school goes, I had a candidate I was sure of and a back-up, and another one, too. I couldn’t have been more wrong and had dismissed the actual perpetrator without much thought at all. While ratcheting up the tension, keeping me locked into the story, he pulls the wool over my eyes and manages a few lines that are practically lyrical. There are few in the genre who can match that.

The ending of this novel came as a little bit of a gut punch. Granted, there was a sense in which the last couple of pages couldn’t have gone any other way—I’ll leave the specifics out of it, but the last few paragraphs were hard to read. But they were so, so good. They might be the most effective few paragraphs in the book. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that just when you think the story’s done, it’s not.

Rumor has it that this is Coleman’s last Jesse Stone book—I hope it’s not true, but it’d make sense as he’s switching publishers. As I said when his first entry in this series came out, his was the best Jesse Stone since Parker’s early days with the series. Yes, he didn’t do things the way Parker would have (especially later), but what he did was honest and genuine to the spirit of the characters and series that Parker left. Stone has a complexity that Spenser lost in the mid-80s, and Coleman recaptured that. The Bitterest Pill might not have been Coleman’s Stone at his best, but I think that’s largely because he was trying too hard to say something about the societal impact of the drugs (whereas in Colorblind it seemed effortless). And, while it wasn’t as good as it wanted to be, it was very, very good, and will go down as one of the higher points of the series.

The Bitterest Pill would be a good place to meet Jesse Stone and the rest of the Paradise Police Department, and it’s a great way for long-time fans/readers to touch base with them. I strongly recommend this.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Putnam Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post—I thank both groups for this.

—–

4 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Bullet Points about Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin: Another winner from one of the best in the biz

Even Dogs in the WildEven Dogs in the Wild

by Ian Rankin
Series: John Rebus, #20

Hardcover, 347 pg.
Little, Brown and Company, 2016

Read: June 10 – 12, 2019

This post is overdue, and I can’t seem to find time to do it right. So, I won’t. Here’s a quick and dirty way to get it taken care of. I wish I had it in me to do a better job, but I don’t. Here’s the blurb taken from Rankin’s site:

           Retirement doesn’t suit John Rebus. He wasn’t made for hobbies, holidays or home improvements. Being a cop is in his blood.

So when DI Siobhan Clarke asks for his help on a case, Rebus doesn’t need long to consider his options.

Clarke’s been investigating the death of a senior lawyer whose body was found along with a threatening note. On the other side of Edinburgh, Big Ger Cafferty – Rebus’s long-time nemesis – has received an identical note and a bullet through his window.

Now it’s up to Clarke and Rebus to connect the dots and stop a killer.

Meanwhile, DI Malcolm Fox joins forces with a covert team from Glasgow who are tailing a notorious crime family. There’s something they want, and they’ll stop at nothing to get it.

It’s a game of dog eat dog – in the city, as in the wild.

Even Dogs in the Wild brings back Ian Rankin’s greatest characters in a story exploring the darkest corners of our instincts and desires.

If I had the time to do this properly, here are the things I’d be talking about.

  • Rebus as consultant/PI — this is really the perfect role for him, he’s not that great at procedure anyway. Calling his own shots, following his instincts, going about things, he’s a better fit for this kind of thing than a certain retired LAPD Detective.
  • This proves to be the kind of case made for Rebus — the solution lays in the past, but the ramifications are in the present.
  • Cafferty isn’t the suspect here (he’s not innocent, he never is), but he’s the victim — and maybe a concerned citizen?
  • There’s little in Crime Fiction better than Rebus and Cafferty on the same page — that’s as true here as ever.
  • Clarke’s role seemed diminished in favor of Fox and Rebus (particularly the former), but maybe that’s just me — what she does, however, allows Rebus to do what he does best
  • The Clarke/Fox friendship is an interesting one — and different from the Clarke/Rebus friendship. I’ll enjoy watching this develop.
  • I’m already really enjoying the Fox/Rebus friendship/mentorship. That’s not something anyone would’ve seen coming the first time we met Fox, or the first time we saw the two of them cross paths. The fact that they’ve got a strange friendship/mentorship going on is just wonderful.
  • There’s more going on in Fox’s personal life than we’ve really ever seen with Rebus or Clarke on an extended basis.
  • Fox’s share of the story is really strong and displays the character we’ve come to know over the past few novels, but evolving to take on some of Rebus’ better traits, but none of his . . . well, worse.
  • For a period of time, through no fault of his own, Rebus takes guardianship over a small dog. This was just fantastic and one of my favorite things to happen to him in years.

Combine all of the above with Rankin’s consummate skill and you’ve got another winner — the twentieth Rebus book and the character, the writing, and the perspective is a strong and fresh as it ever was. A sure-fire win for old fans that would probably convert a newbie, too.

—–

4 Stars

2019 Library Love Challenge 2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Paper Son by S.J. Rozan: Lydia and Bill in their most foreign setting yet — Mississippi

Paper SonPaper Son

by S. J. Rozan
Series: Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #12eARC, 352 pg.
Pegasus Books, 2019

Read: June 12 – 17, 2019

One thing I’ve said (possibly too often) as I talk about this series is how much I enjoy the conversations between Lydia and Bill — but I think one of the conversations between Lydia and her mother tops anything the partners have to say (until the last conversation, anyway), and the rest weren’t far behind. We start off with Mrs. Chin telling Lydia that she has to go to Mississippi — and take Bill along — to investigate a murder. Long-time readers of this series will be forgiven the need to re-read that sentence, I assure you that it’s correct. One of Lydia’s cousins (yes, she has cousins in the Mississippi Delta — she’s as shocked as you are) is accused of murdering his father. Her mother wants Lydia to go down and prove his innocence. That he’s innocent isn’t ever in doubt for a moment — he’s related to Lydia’s father, ergo, he’s innocent. Lydia doesn’t accept her mother’s logic, but feels obligated to try to help this cousin she’s never heard of before now, so she and Bill set off for the Delta. It’s simply a dynamite first chapter, and the hook was set immediately.

Upon their arrival, Lydia and Bill find themselves neck deep in a tangled web of history, race, meth, gambling (both your more traditional varieties and purely 21st Century versions), politics and a even more race (it is Mississippi). Lydia’s cousin Jefferson is in his mid-20’s, a computer whiz of some sort with questionable ethics. He’s called to come to his father’s grocery store for some reason — they argue, and Jefferson leaves to cool off. When he returns, he finds his father bleeding out from a knife wound. Naturally, that’s when the police arrive, taking him into custody immediately. He’s bloody, standing over the victim and weapon — and sure, his fingerprints are all over the knife. Seems like an open and shut case, right?

Jefferson’s uncle, Captain Pete, is at the front of the line of those who doubt this — which is why he called his cousin’s widow to get her PI daughter down to help. Pete’s a professional gambler — precisely the kind of person Mrs. Chin wouldn’t like to acknowledge, but is friendly, hospitable and charming. Lydia and Bill warm to him quickly and he becomes a source of comfort as well as a source of information for the duo as they dive in to the investigation. Soon after arriving in Mississippi, they also meet another of Lydia’s cousins — a nephew to Pete, who is running in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Lydia can’t believe she’s related to a candidate for governor and she’s never heard of him. What else has her mother been keeping from her? Just from her conversations with Pete and Raymond Tam (the candidate), Lydia’s overwhelmed with family history that she didn’t expect to exist, much less be able to understand it all. It doesn’t derail the work that she and Bill are doing at all, but it threatens to distract her more than once. Adding the candidate into the mix guarantees that the water will get a lot muddier before it starts to become clear.

Lydia’s voice is as strong, engaging and entertaining as ever — possibly better than ever. I want to compare it to vintage Spenser, but that seems wrong (I’m not sure why I want to compare it to Parker at his best or why I shouldn’t — but that’s where I am). She’s funny, she’s smart, she’s insightful, she’s in a very alien place and is doing her best to acclimate. Bill seemed under utilized a little bit this time around — but (as he himself would point out), this was Lydia’s family, her case — he was just around for support. And he did come to her aid at pivotal moments — laying his native Southern accent on a little thick to help pave the way with some of the locals and to diffuse tense situations. Captain Pete is a great character, and I wish he wasn’t designed to be a one-and-done kind of guy, but I can’t see him coming up to Chinatown anytime soon to have tea with Mrs. Chin. Actually, I could easily read another novel or two with this cast — from the Public Defender staff to the people that hang out at the grocery store and all points in between. I’m not sure how Rozan could orchestrate those novels without feeling a bit contrived, but I’d be in for them.(*)

(*) Sure, I’d be in for Lydia and Bill Go Grocery Shopping or Bill and Lydia’s Day at the Recycling Center, but that’s beside the point..

I enjoy tea, but I’m no expert on it — I’m no where near the tea aficionado that Lydia is (even keeping Bill’s cupboards better stocked than he understands), but I loved her reaction to Sweet Tea (not just because I think she’s right). Using food is a great shortcut to revealing character traits, and Rozan does a great job throughout this book, but particularly on this point, of using that peculiar Southern version of tea to show us sides of Lydia.

Rozan’s at her strongest when in addition to the mystery, she’s using the circumstances around it to have Lydia and/or Bill explore another culture/sub-culture. She’s displayed this strength when helping her readers understand the Jewish refugees in the 1930’s who fled to Shanghai (The Shanghai Moon), Hong Kong (in Reflecting the Sky), Small Town High School Football (Winter and Night), the Contemporary Chinese Art scene (Ghost Hero), and so on. Here we get a Yankee perspective on Mississippi black/white relations (and a glance or two at how it differs from neighboring states), as well as a fascinating look at the Chinese in the Mississippi Delta in the late Nineteenth Century (which left me almost as shocked as Lydia). You give us that kind of history and commentary while delivering a solid mystery? It’s hard to ask for more.

As interesting as that is, the heart of the novel is in the idea of family. It’s a strong theme throughout the series, actually — whether it be Lydia’s strong sense of family, or the found family in the partnership of Bill and Lydia — or the many damaged families they encounter in their work. In Paper Son family shapes the warp and woof of the narrative — it’s Mrs. Chin’s confidence in the innocence of her husband’s relations, and Captain Pete’s call for help that brings the duo to the Delta. Lydia fights the impulse to believe Jefferson and Pete (and others) just because they’re family, yet wants thing to be the way her mother believes they are (even when — particularly when — the facts don’t seem to support it). Bill even encounters a fellow Smith, and while no one believes for a second they share anything beyond the name in common, there’s a connection. At it’s core, Paper Son is a story about the sacrifice, support, trust, and dysfunction that comes along from strong family (blood relation or found family) — not to mention all of the unintended consequences of that sacrifice, support, trust and dysfunction. I’m tempted to keep going, but I’d end up revealing too much.

The mystery itself is up to Rozan’s high standards — you may guess the identity of the killer fairly early on (and you may not), but you will not see the motivation coming until it’s past the point of inevitability. The ending feels a little rushed, but I can’t think of a way to improve upon it — and any rush was actually probably just me trying to discover how things would play out. The first half of the denouement with Lydia’s family is heartwarming — and, sure, borderline cheesy, but Rozan earned it. The second half is less cheesy and will fill even jaded readers with hope and joy. It’s just a great way to close the book.

If Paper Son isn’t S. J. Rozan and the series at their best, it’s hard to tell. For book 12 in a series to be this good almost defies the odds, the years that separated this book from it’s predecessor didn’t slow her down a bit (I honestly was afraid we’d be looking at something like Lehane’s return to Kenzie and Genarro in Moonlight Mile after 11 years). Long-time fans will be delighted in the return of this pair. I don’t know that this is the best introduction to the series, but it’d work just fine — you learn everything you need to know here. Fans of PI fiction starring smart, capable (and yes, mouthy) women will find a lot to reward them in these pages.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from W. W. Norton & Company via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Killer Thriller by Lee Goldberg: The Best-Selling Author/Hapless Hero Ian Ludlow Returns to Save the Day Again

I wrote about half of a post about this book to go up yesterday. But I realized I’d spent a lot of time talking about things I really didn’t care about, and hadn’t spent any time talking about the bits I did care about. But I couldn’t turn the ship around (much to my annoyance). So, I let one more day go without a post — a truly annoying trend for the week/month. This isn’t quite what I wanted it to be. But it’s done. So that’s a start.

Killer ThrillerKiller Thriller

by Lee Goldberg
Series: Ian Ludlow Thrillers, #2

Kindle Edition, 277 pg.
Thomas & Mercer, 2019

Read: May 21 – 22, 2019

           “…I want Ludlow under constant and total visual, audio, digital, and personal surveillance,” Yat added. If anybody in Beijing asked about it, he’d explain that it was part of his ongoing investigation into Wang Kang’s activities, which wasn’t far from the truth. Those were always the most effective lies. “Mobilize every resource that we have.”

“Including the assassins?”

“Especially the assassins,” Yat said.

In True Fiction, Lee Goldberg introduced us to Ian Ludlow — former TV writer, now thriller writer extraordinaire — who discovered (the hard way) that terrorists were using his fiction as a playbook. Then he had to go on the run for his life from these people who didn’t appreciate the fact that he’d be able to identify what they were doing. Running alongside him (frequently behind, more frequently ahead of him) was the poor girl who was supposed to schlep him from bookstore event to bookstore event in Seattle. Margo didn’t like Ludlow, but finding their fates bound together, she threw herself into surviving — and is very likely the reason he did survive.

Not only did they survive, they uncovered and defeated a group within US Intelligence that were actively plotting against the US. It’s a highly improbable story that didn’t feel that improbable — yet was told in a way that played up the tension, the suspense and the fun. It was one of the funniest and most enjoyable books I read last year.

Now it’s time for the inevitable sequel — Killer Thriller — and Lee Goldberg has somehow done what almost every good sequel strives to do (and few succeed) — he tells pretty much the same story with just a couple of differences, yet does so in a way that feels completely fresh and original — in most ways, superior to the original. I don’t think it’d be hard to take a semi-thorough outline of both novels to compare against each other and find that they’re freakishly similar. But I only thought about that when I sat back to think about the book and its predecessor. While reading, I didn’t care about True Fiction or any similarities the current book had to it. I just had too much fun while reading the sequel I couldn’t be bothered to compare it.

Which is a pretty neat trick, really. It’s like when Chandler Bing said, ” Oh–I think this is the episode of “Three’s Company” where there’s some kind of misunderstanding.” Just because every episode of Three’s Company featured a few misunderstandings — it didn’t keep things (usually) from not being funny. The same kind of thing here — just because Ludlow and Margo are once again thrown in to the middle of things they’re not ready for, it doesn’t keep the action scenes from being riveting and the funny bits from being funny.

So, if you haven’t read the first book, let me tell you a little bit about Ian Ludlow. He’s overweight, doesn’t take care of himself in anyway, shape or form. He doesn’t seem to be attractive (and bounces between knowing it and forgetting it). His ego is pretty big, but he’s also realistic about himself. He’s lazy about everything but his writing — and he could likely be more disciplined about it. Okay, based on what we’re told about his greatest creation, Clint Straker — imagine the combination of Bond and Reacher — he’s pretty lazy. Still, he comes up with incredible plots (don’t take my word for it, take the word of people who based terror campaigns on his work). Deep down (Margo would argue very, very deep) he’s a decent guy. Especially for the 15-25 minutes a day he’s not hitting on some unwilling woman, or thinking about hitting on her.

Margo, meanwhile, is a would-be singer/songwriter, a former dog walker, and is really vocationally lost. She’s smart, she’s tough, and adaptable — even if she’s still trying to figure out how to adapt after the events of True Fiction. She’s picked up some self-defense skills along the way, which will prove to be handy.

Ludlow brings Margo with him to Hong Kong to act as his research assistant and hopefully relax a little from the stress that’s eating at her from her recent harrowing experiences (almost being killed counts as harrowing, right?). He’s going to Hong Kong to do a little promotion for the studio that’s turning his first Straker book into a movie. While there, he wants Margo to scope out some places and things he can use in his upcoming novel. In this novel, the Chinese government is waging a secret campaign to take over the US through political manipulation and selling us cheap products they can use to spy on us. Straker’s going to fight against them in Hong Kong, so he needs some local color.

Once in the hotel (and on the hotel’s wi-fi), a group of Chinese espionage agents tap into Ludlow’s laptop and make an unsettling discovery. The plot laid out in Ludlows “novel” is ridiculously close to the plan this same group has spent years devising and implementing to take over the US government through manipulation, cash, and fear. Clearly this man’s novels are just a cover story, he has to be the most wily of secret agents — using this preposterous writer character as a cover for his actual abilities and mission to stop this Chinese plot.

So the Chinese begin their dangerous game of cat and mouse with the “spy” Ian Ludlow. It’s more of a cat-and-clueless-yet-incredibly-lucky-mouse game. But you get the point. But hey, it works. Think Inspector Gadget and Penny — without the robotic arms and sentient dog.

Like Ludlow, Goldberg spent a lot of time as a writer/producer of television. And in both books he does a great job of lampooning the men and women writing, directing and starring in TV and movies. You can’t help but feel Goldberg exorcising some personal demons as he does so — particularly in the table read scene and everything that Damon Matthews (the actor playing Straker) says and does. Incidentally, I’m sure any parallels people might draw between Matthews/Straker and Cruise/Reacher are completely unintentional on Goldberg’s part. For my money, if doing this sort of thing helps Goldberg deal with the frustrations that seem to plague most TV writers/screenwriters, I hope he keeps pouring out his frustrations on the page — I love ’em.

Goldberg seems to have learned a lot from the Fox and O’Hare books he co-wrote with Janet Evanovich — there are huge chunks of this book that feel like they were originally planned for one of them. Whether Goldberg repurposed the scenes or was just influenced by his time with that series really doesn’t matter — the sensibility that made that series work so well is making this one work very well, too.

From the big things — like fight scenes or car chases — to the way he describes a Washington D. C. restaurant, to little touches like the way that someone smuggles information out of China, Goldberg is at the top of his game — which is an accomplishment. I think I’ve read almost 30 of his books and there are maybe one or two that are more satisfying than Killer Thriller. Thrills and laughs together — and maybe maybe a little surprising character depth and development (just a bit, we don’t want Ludlow to stop being a cad and a loser), this is a whole lotta fun. You can come into this one fresh, you won’t appreciate the changes in character (particularly Margo), but you’ll have just about as much fun as the rest of us.

—–

4 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge Humor Reading Challenge 2019

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin: Rebus’ Past Comes Back to Haunt Him

Saints of the Shadow BibleSaints of the Shadow Bible

by Ian Rankin
Series: John Rebus, #19

Hardcover, 389 pg.
Little, Brown and Company, 2013
Read: April 15 – 17, 2019

           Rebus said quietly. “It made sense that we stuck up for one another back then–might not be so true now.”. . .

“. . . secrets and lies and all the other crap we’ve dealt out and been dealt. I didn’t see you owning up in there to singing your name to statements that weren’t yours. But we both know it happened a lot happened back then, and one crack in the dam might be all that’s needed . . .” Patterson paused, looking Rebus up and down. “So make sure you know whose side you’re on John.”

Rebus is officially un-retired, and very happy (at least by his standards). To be reinstated, he had to agree to be a Detective Constable again, instead of an Inspector. But he was willing (and usually still is) to take the rank cut so that he keep working. For anyone who’s read a Rebus book or two, this makes perfect sense. Buying books he doesn’t read, listening to his music collection, and police work — that’s all he has in his life. Well, okay, smoking and drinking, too. But those two can only occupy so much time.

Serving as a DC, he investigates a car that went off the road for no good reason on a straight stretch with DI Siobhan Clarke. It doesn’t take the two long at all to determine that what happened at the scene is as obvious as everyone else thinks (everyone but readers, because we all know that Rebus and Clarke together at a scene = more than meets the eye). They were called in because someone with influence exerted that influence at got detectives to investigate a seemingly routine auto accident that injured a young woman. Within days, there’s a more serious crime related to their investigation, and the two are plunged into a veritable minefield of money, politics, and family secrets.

Meanwhile, Malcom Fox is working his last Complaints case before being reorganized into detective work. He asks Clarke for help in approaching Rebus for some information related to the case. He’s looking into a murder case related to the group where Rebus served his first assignment as a rookie detective. Rebus is initially resistant to help Fox nab one of his old friends, but soon begins to think that Fox is onto something and works the case with him.

Watching the rapprochement between Rebus and Fox is great — at times it feels like things used to when Rebus was working with Clarke (in the latter stages, when they were more like equals). Fox and Clarke’s burgeoning friendship is a lot of fun to read, too. Basically, Fox’s addition to this world in general is something to be praised. I’m not 100% sold on Clarke’s rise, she almost seems more like Gill Templar than herself at times. Now, at one point, Clarke might have taken that as a partial compliment, but I don’t think so. She retains her sense of humor and instincts, but her commitment to the job might be more powerful than those instincts.

Over the last couple of books, one of the most interesting things is the rise of Darryl Christie in the Edinburgh crime world. He’s back in these pages. Not as Rebus’ target, but a presence — like Cafferty so often was. Time moves on and the young move up on both sides of the law. But as Rebus can’t let go, I can’t believe that Big Ger will roll over and let Christie take over the entire city without at least some resistance (something tells me that it’ll be very effective resistance).

I can’t think of another way to talk about Rankin’s skill. Here we are in the nineteenth Rebus book and things feel as fresh as ever — yet this is a world that the reader knows and feels comfort in. These characters and situations are old friends and Rankin’s Edinburgh is as real to me as Parker’s Boston, Connelly’s L.A. or Johnson’s Wyoming — I’ve never set foot in Scotland, but that city feels like a place I’ve frequented.

As you can’t help but expect, this is a completely satisfying mystery novel full of fantastic characters, tangled webs of lies and motives — and an excellent look at the ways policing used to be carried out and the changes it’s gone through. But more than that, it’s a little more time with one of the greats of Crime Fiction as he continues to try to stay active, an old dog learning a couple of new tricks (despite his best efforts) and not forgetting any of the old tricks.

—–

4 Stars

2019 Library Love Challenge 2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

A Few (more) Quick Questions With…Duncan MacMaster

So, a couple of days ago, I re-ran the first batch of answers that MacMaster was kind enough to give. He f̶o̶o̶l̶i̶s̶h̶l̶y̶ generously agreed to answer some more questions for Fahrenbruary, which enabled me to focus more on the Kirby Baxter books. Hope you enjoy his answers as much as I did. There is gold below, folks (maybe a little dross, too, but mostly gold)

Tell us about your background and road to publication.
Small town 80s kid, film school survivor, who spent an awfully long time doing crappy jobs and collecting rejection letter horror stories. I had written A Mint-Conditioned Corpse quite some time before it was published. Quite a few years in fact, and it was rejected by dozens of agents and publishers over those years. One publisher had said they liked it, but another book set at a comic convention hadn’t done well, so they were rejecting mine, even though it was a different genre.

For a long time it gathered digital dust in my computer’s files. Then I encountered Chris McVeigh and Fahrenheit Press on twitter. They started following me before I submitted to them, and then they participated in an open call on twitter for book pitches. I pitched them Mint, they and another publisher expressed interest. I sent a copy to both, and about a week later Chris emailed me, telling me that he was halfway through, and asked if I had any plans for a sequel. I said yes, and a day or so later he finished reading Mint and invited me to join the Fahrenheit family. Since then I’ve published two Kirby Baxter mysteries, Mint, and Video Killed the Radio Star, and a stand-alone thriller called Hack, all with Fahrenheit.

I’ve made no secret that I’ve become a giant Kirby Baxter fan — it took a whole 8% of the first book to make me one — where did Kirby come from?
Thanks for enjoying Baxter and his gang. As for his origins, it was mostly from frustration. I have a notebook in a box somewhere that contains a very rough outline for what was then called “Drawn To Death,” and it is a wildly different story. That version was more of a broad farce. In this version my lead character was a “comic book guy” stereotype. An overweight, obnoxious, socially awkward, all-together unpleasant character.

I looked it over, and it annoyed me. Because it was all just lame exaggerated situations and jokes built around that negative “comic book guy” stereotype. I didn’t want to build a book around negatives like that.

I then decided to start all over again from scratch. (Something I do quite often with projects) I decided to show that there’s more positives to geek culture than that guy you see on The Simpsons.

So I created Kirby Baxter.

I named Kirby Baxter in honour of Jack Kirby, and the Baxter Building from the Fantastic Four. I made him thin, geeky, charming, but in a slightly awkward way. Then I decided that he would need complete freedom of travel, so I made him accidentally rich. Then I realized that he needed some brawn to accompany his brain, as well as allies he could talk to, so I created Gustav, Molly, and then his pal Mitch. I also realized that it’s not easy for an amateur to butt in on a criminal investigation, so I made up Baxter’s status as a part-time “special consultant” for Interpol, which gives him some privileges, as well as many responsibilities.

The only thing I kept from that original outline was the setting of a comic convention, and “Dick Wilco” as the name of a reclusive comics legend who mentored Baxter.

Mitch is a very fun character (and I hope to see him again soon, hint, hint) — but I can easily see where he’d become “too much” and step over the line from “amusing comic relief” to “annoying secondary character” — how do you approach that kind of character? How do you keep him from becoming annoying?
Mitch acts as the Id to Baxter who is a very rational and sober character. Mitch blurts out the things Baxter will never say, make the mistakes Baxter would never make, and it’s a serious risk for someone like Mitch to go from being comic relief to a real pain in the butt.

One way to avoid that is to limit his appearances. Mitch is mentioned, but does not appear in Video Killed the Radio Star, but his role as the id of the story is taken up by a new character named Shelley Flugen. She’s a celebrity gossip blogger, and latches herself onto Baxter’s team in hopes of landing a big scoop.

While Shelley played a similar role to Mitch in her relationship with Baxter, she’s a very different person from Mitch. Where Mitch sees himself as a trickster, Shelley sees herself as a journalist and an investigator in her own right. Which leads to different situations and a totally different kind of comic relief.

Mitch will return, but it’s best to keep him in controlled doses.

I’ve often heard that writers, or artists in general, will forget hundreds of positive reviews but always remember the negative — what’s the worst thing that someone’s said about one of your books, and has it altered your approach to future books?
I’m not trying to brag, but I don’t really get many bad reviews. The worst thing that was said, was that someone described my book as “wordy.” Which is odd, because I tend to be pretty ruthless when it comes to cutting out needless words.

I try to avoid that sort of trollish negativity, because it’s just not worth it to let them run your life. If they don’t like you, or your work, they’re not your audience.

Last time, you said something about “a more experimental project examining male archetypes in crime fiction and the concept of the unreliable narrator.” Can you update us on that? Is there anything else your readers should be watching for?
My project about male archetypes and unreliable narrators is on the back burner right now, because when you write what I call a “puzzle box” story with multiple narrators, all contradicting each other, either by ignorance, or design, it can overwhelm you, and in this case another project jumped out and tackled me with incredible immediacy.

Right now I’m putting together a potential third Baxter novel that was inspired by recent documentaries that caused a lot of buzz on social media. This material is so ripe for satire, and for homicide. It was just too perfect for Baxter to pass up, and I have to act fast to capture that immediacy, that freshness. Strike while the iron is hot, so to speak.

As this Q&A is inspired by Fahrenbruary, I figure I should give you another opportunity to say something nice about your publisher and the culture around it. Or heck, go full punk and say something horrible about them.
The most horrible thing I could say about Fahrenheit is that not enough people buy Fahrenheit books. Seriously, they are a publisher who has something for everyone, the sort of diversity and variety you just won’t find with most of the big publishers.

Get out there and buy Fahrenheit books. Not just mine, but they’re a good way to start, but check out the whole catalogue. You will find something to love.

Was that punk enough for you?

Thanks for your time, Mr. MacMaster — and thanks for the great reads, I can’t wait to see what you have in store.

Fahrenbruary Repost: Video Killed the Radio Star by Duncan MacMaster: A Murder Mystery as Fun as The Buggles’ Song

(or the cover by The Presidents of the United States of America, either will work)

Video Killed the Radio StarVideo Killed the Radio Star

by Duncan MacMaster
Series: Kirby Baxter, #2

Kindle Edition, 261 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: October 15 – 16, 2018

“I fear we will never be mistaken for the Algonquin Round Table.”

“We’ll have to work on our witty repartee,” said Molly. “I plan on taking a course on banter, ripostes, badinage, and persiflage.”

“Even persiflage?”

“Especially persiflage,” said Molly. “There is nothing worse than sub-par persiflage.”

“You might need to get a sub-par persiflage lanced.”

“We’ve hit the nonsense phase of the night earlier than usual.”

“I like nonsense,” said Kirby, “it distracts me.”

Kirby Baxter just wants to live a quiet life out of the spotlight: hanging out with his girlfriend, Molly, when he can; restoring a car with his valet/bodyguard/etc.; and drawing his comics. And now that the excitement about the murder he solved at Omnicon dying down, he’s on the verge of doing that. But the mayor of his hometown knows Kirby, and has no shame in extorting his cooperation with a small problem that he’s having.

You see, one of the town’s major landmarks — an old, abandoned mansion — is in dire need of upkeep and remodeling. And a reality show full of C-List celebrities (maybe D- or E-list) have recently set up shop to do that work. But the city’s having second thoughts and they want Kirby and his über-perception skills to find a reason to shut down production and send them packing to disrupt another locale.

Kirby visits the production, talks to the cast and producers, looks around and comes up with a lot of observations and conclusions — and could cause a lot of inconvenience and embarrassment for everyone involved from those observations — but he can’t find what the mayor wants. That accomplished, he gets back to pursuing his best life now — which lasts just a few hours. Because before he can start to collect from the mayor for the work, one of the celebrities is found dead.

So, it’s back to the mansion for Kirby, this time to act as a consultant ot the local police as they investigate this suspicious death. Which is soon followed by another. And an attack on another cast member. And . . . well, you get the idea.

It’s nice that MacMaster didn’t repeat the whole “Kirby has to win over a skeptical and antagonistic police officer” thing — this time, thanks to most of the force having grown up with him, they all accept his talents and skills — an expect him to deliver.

The cast of the reality show, “Million Dollar Madhouse,” is filled with the typical collection of has-beens, almost-weres, and celebs trying to stage a comeback. Initially, I rolled my eyes at each of them, but the more time I spent with them, the more I appreciated and enjoyed them. In particular, the Kardashian-esque character totally won me over. Like in the previous book, there’s a large cast of characters that MacMaster juggles expertly — there are so many suspects to the murders, as well as witnesses for Kirby and the police to wade through.

Almost every serious suspect has the same defense — they didn’t want the initial victim dead. They wanted him to make a fool out of himself on national TV, possibly seriously injuring himself with a power tool. Some would follow that up with some other form of revenge — but if he’s dead, no one could get the revenge they wanted. It’s not ideal, but it’s an honest defense.

Gustave was slightly less super-human this time out — but he’s still in the Ranger/Hawk/Joe Pike nigh-impossible stratosphere. As much as I like everyone else in this series, it’s arguable that Gustave is MacMaster’s best creation — not just the character, but how MacMaster uses him.

I did miss Mitch. But was glad to see Molly and Kirby talk about him — and even make a joke he wasn’t around to make himself. It’s probably good that he wasn’t around — it’ll mean when we see him again, it’ll be easy to appreciate him without worrying about over exposure.

In the place of Mitch, we have Molly’s assertive and cunning cousin — she runs a gossip-website and wheedles her way into the investigation in order to land a story big enough to put her and her site on the map. Kirby clearly vacillates between finding uses for her and finding her distracting.

Molly and Kirby are cuter together than they were previously, and I could watch the two of them banter any day. It seemed harder to incorporate Molly into the story this time, and hopefully it’s easier for MacMaster in Kirby #3, but as difficult as it was, it was absolutely worth it.

I’m not sure exactly what it is about MacMaster’s writing that works so well for me, but it does. Just before I started writing this, I started to draw some parallels between these Kirby Baxter books and Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game and The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). I didn’t have time to fully flesh this idea out, but Raskin’s work definitely was formative for me and if the comparison hold up, that could explain a lot. The mix of humor, real emotions and complex mystery is the sweet spot for me and MacMaster consistently hits it. It’s not easy, there are precious few who try — and fewer that succeed. This is the third novel I’ve read by him and it seals the deal, I’ll buy everything he writes as soon as I can without really looking at what the book is about.

I was a little worried that this book wouldn’t live up to A Mint-Conditioned Corpse, and I don’t think it did — but I don’t know what could have for me. I’d enjoyed the other so much that it’s almost impossible to live up to — and the reality show setting didn’t do anything for me — they just leave me cold. The fact I’m rating Video Killed the Radio Star as high as I am is all about how effortlessly charming and entertaining this seems. Effortless always, always, always equals blood, sweat and tears — or at least a lot of work. This must’ve taken a great deal of labor, and it was absolutely worth it. A clever mystery, clever dialogue, and very clever characters in a funny, twisty story. The Kirby Baxter books are must reads, no doubt about it. Give this one a shot — I don’t see how you can’t enjoy it.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

Fahrenbruary Repost: A Mint-Conditioned Corpse by Duncan MacMaster: I run out of superlatives and can’t stop talking about this Mystery that filled me with joy.

Kirby Baxter is possibly my favorite new-to-me character from 2018, you can probably tell that from these next two reposts…And, yes, I’m sticking with the classic cover, although the paperback I bought myself last year has a niftier cover.

This is one of those times that I liked something so much that I just blathered on for a bit, and I’m not sure how much sense it made. The first and last paragraphs are coherent, I’m not really sure the rest is…

A Mint Condition CorpseA Mint Condition Corpse

by Duncan MacMaster
Series: Kirby Baxter, #1
Kindle Edition, 275 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2016
Read: July 27, 2018

Is this the best-writing I’ve encountered in a Detective Novel this year? Nope. Is this the most compelling, the tensest thrill-ride of a Mystery novel this year? Nope. Is this full of the darkest noir, the grittiest realism, the starkest exposure of humanity’s depths? Good gravy, no! This is, however, a joy to read; full of characters you’ll want to spend days with, that you’ll want to have over for Thanksgiving dinner just to lighten things up and distract you from Aunt Martha’s overcooked yams and dry turkey; a completely fun time that’s very likely most I’ve enjoyed a book in 2018. It is escapist. It is silly. It is clever.

Think Monk at it’s best. Psych at its least annoying. Castle at it’s most charming. Moonlighting season 1 — I’m going to stop now.

So Kirby Baxter is a comic book writer/artist who breathed new life into a stagnant character which led to the revitalizing of an entire comic book company (not quite as old as DC, nowhere near as successful as Marvel — and somehow hadn’t been bought out by either). He was unceremoniously fired just before he became incredibly well-off (and investments only improved that). Following his new wealth, a thing or two happened in Europe and he gained some notoriety there helping the police in a few countries. Now, he’s coming back to North America to attend OmniCon — a giant comic con in Toronto — returning to see a mentor rumored to attend and maybe stick his toe back in the industry that he loves.

While there we meet his colorist and friend, Mitch — a diminutive fellow, convinced he’s God’s gift to the ladies (most of whom hope he comes with a gift receipt), and just a riot to read about. Molly, a fan, former coworker and friend of Kirby’s who wears her heart on her sleeve (it’s not her fault if people don’t notice it). That needs to be better. Erica is many a dream-come-true — an impossibly good-looking model and would-be actress who is sincere and sweet. Her assistant Bruce is a pretty good guy, too. Her best friend and former mentor, Andi is almost as too-good-to-be-true, and married to a renowned DJ who is providing some of the entertainment at OmniCon. There’s comic dealers, a film director, a crazy actress, Kirby’s former boss, and so many other colorful characters that my notes include a joke about a cast the size of Game of Thrones.

And then there’s Gustav. Words I don’t know how to describe Gustav. Imagine having Batman as your Jeeves. He’s a valet/driver/bodyguard that Kirby picked up in Europe, combining the cool and lethal factor of Spenser’s Hawk, Plum’s Ranger and Elvis’ Pike (except he makes Pike seem chatty). I’d include Wolfe’s Saul Panzer, but Saul isn’t the lethal type that the rest are — but Gustav has the effortless magic about him that makes Saul a winner. If the rest of the book was “meh” and Gustav was still in it? I’d tell you to read the book.

At some point, a corpse shows up — and like the comic book world’s answer to Jessica Fletcher, Kirby identifies the death as a murder — not the accident it appears to be to many. For various and sundry reasons — starting with him being correct, and continuing on to the incidents in Europe — Kirby is roped into helping the police with the investigation. Also, like Fletcher, he’s uniquely gifted to help the police in these circumstances. He’s smart, he has a eidetic memory, can catch a tell or a microexpression like nobody’s business. You throw him into a consulting role with the police, with his friends along for the ride and I’m telling you, you’ve got the most entertaining mystery novel I’ve read this year.

This book’s look at comic conventions reminded me of A Hundred Thousand Worlds by Bob Proehl. But where this one is played for laughs, Proehl was serious — but both show an appreciation for, an affection for the culture that surrounds the cons and the people involved. After reading this, I was ready to buy tickets for the OmniCon.

It’s a funny, fast, romp — a very contemporary take on a Golden Age-mystery. Lots of twists and turns, more crimes than you think are happening and more villains than you can shake a stick at. I thought (and still do) that Duncan MacMaster’s Hack showed that he was an author to keep an eye on — this is better.

A Mint-Conditioned Corpse hit the sweet spot for me — a convergence of so many of my likes told with just the right tone (another one of my likes), while maintaining a pretty decent whodunit at the core. I probably smiled for the entire time I spent reading it — well, at least the last 90% once I started to get a feel for things — at 8% I made a note about Kirby “I’m really going to like him,” and a few paragraphs later, I wrote “I already really like him” about Mitch. And I was right about Kirby, and kept liking Mitch — the rest of the characters are about as good as them, and the story is as good as the people in it are. Is everyone going to enjoy this one as much as me? Nope. But I can’t imagine someone not having a ball reading this. Probably the 5-Star-est 5-Stars I’ve given this year.

—–

5 Stars

Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin: Back in the saddle again, Out where Cafferty is a friend?

Standing in Another Man's GraveStanding in Another Man’s Grave

by Ian Rankin

Series: John Rebus, #18

Paperback, 432 pg.
Back Bay Books, 2013
Read: February 1 – 4, 2019

           Rebus had lost count of the number of cases he’d worked, cases often as complex as this one, requiring interview after interview, statement after statement. He thought of the material in the boxes, now being pared over by those around him–paperwork generated in order to show effort rather than with any great hope of achieving a result. Yes, he’d been on cases like that, and others where he’d despaired of all the doors knocked on, the blank faces of the questioned. But sometimes a due or a lead emerged, or two people came forward to furnish the same name. Suspects were whittled down. Alibis and stories unraveling after the third or fourth retelling. Pressure was sustained, enough evidence garnered to present to the Procurator Fiscal.

And then there were the lucky breaks–the things that just happened. Nothing to do with dogged perseverance or shrewd deduction: just sheer bloody happenstance. Was the end result any less of a victory? Yes, always. It was possible that there was something he had missed in the files, some connection or thread. Watching the team at work, he couldn’t decide if he would want them to find it or not. It would make him look stupid, lazy, out of touch. On the other hand, they needed a break, even at the expense of his vanity.

The book opens with Rebus at the funeral for another retired cop — it’s a strong reminder that there’s not much else in his future. A few more drinks, another handful of cigarettes, a few more unfinished books and then death. He’s got to find away to keep himself going. Having taken to retirement like a duck to the Sahara, Rebus has found work as a civilian in a cold-case unit. It doesn’t seem to be the most effective or active unit, but it’s something. True to form, he spends a lot of time butting heads with the head of the unit — who is actually a serving detective, unlike the rest of the civilians. There’s a chance when the book opens that Rebus could get re-hired as a detective, and he’s looking for anything to help that. When someone comes to visit the man who started this unit — who is now very retired and unavailable — Rebus sees his chance. He meets with this woman who claims that the recent disappearance of a young woman matches the circumstances of her daughter over a decade ago. Not just her daughter’s disappearance, but some others in the intervening years. If Rebus can demonstrate there’s a tie to these disappearances — and find out what’s happened to them and who’s responsible (preferably while the latest victim is still alive), that would go a long way to ensuring him a way back from retirement.

It doesn’t hurt that before coming to him, this distraught mother spoke to someone about the new missing person — DI Siobhan Clarke. Now, Clarke (and her boss) aren’t instantly convinced that Rebus has anything other than the desperate rantings of this woman, but she’s willing to give him enough rope to get started. Which is all Rebus needs to throw himself into things.

The latest woman to go missing has some tenuous connections to organized crime figures in Edinburgh, which may have made her a target — and also may give Rebus resources to find her that other victims’ families can’t give. He’s not shy about exploiting either option there. He also starts diving into the files and lives of the other missing women. What he finds isn’t encouraging, but it’s enough to keep investigation going. Rebus being Rebus, it’s not long before he starts finding enough strings to pull to get at least a few things unraveling. And once that starts, the rest of the case is vintage Rebus — asking questions, annoying the right (and the wrong) people, and finally putting everything together. The mystery is solved in a satisfactory way, but a lot of things were uncovered along the way that some would’ve preferred not being uncovered, relationships damaged, people hurt and lives changed. Even the positive outcomes were largely muddied, and the grays probably outnumbered the blacks and the whites.

Naturally, there’s a lot going on in this book beside the case(s). In this book, this primarily focused on three people in Rebus’ life (whether he wants them there or not).

One thing that’s new in Rebus’ retirement is that he’s picked up a new drinking buddy. Big Ger Cafferty has decided that he owes his life to Rebus (something that Rebus isn’t incredibly comfortable with). So Cafferty will take Rebus out for drinks on a regular basis. Rebus’ impression of Big Ger hasn’t changed at all, but free drinks are free drinks. so he lets Cafferty buy. The two of them being seen in public regularly together is proof to his detractors that all the rumors were true, however. This isn’t really making his case for him.

Having Rebus around is a challenge for his old friend and former mentee, Siobhan Clarke. She knows that Rebus is capable of pulling more than his fair share of rabbits from hats, and with a case/cases as messy as this, she’ll take his brand of results over nothing. But, he undercuts her leadership, he distracts her people from their tasks, and frankly, makes her look bad in front of her bosses. If she can’t control this civilian interloper, maybe she’s not the leader they thought she was. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think Siobhan of Exit Music and before wants to think she’d turn into the kind of DI she has, either. And Rebus makes her take stock of how much she may have “sold out” just by being around. Not that she’s become 100% by the book and in blind lockstep with the chain of command, but she’s a lot closer to it than she had been.

And, of course, we don’t say goodbye to our new friend, Malcolm Fox. We just get to see him in a new light. He’s now cast as an antagonist to Rebus. He’s not a villain, don’t get me wrong — but he’s working against Rebus, and definitely making his life harder. Of course, the way things were headed for much of this book, Siobhan might soon find herself as an antagonist to Rebus, too. It’s difficult seeing Fox in these terms, but thankfully we know we can like and trust him from his own two books, because there’s very little in these pages to commend him. But we know that Fox is a straight-shooter and he’s only got Rebus in his sights because he thinks he deserves it. Well, and maybe he got his nose bent out of shape by the man when he was in CID with him. But primarily it’s Rebus’ lifestyle — the smoking, the drinking, the going off on his own to investigate — Fox sees Rebus as a relic, the old model of detective that the service is trying to get away from. The kind of bad influence that could tank Clarke’s promising career. And then there’s his public drinking with Cafferty (not to mention all the rumors about the two of them). We know Fox is wrong — about the serious stuff anyway. But we also know he’s not totally wrong about Rebus. The only question is, will Rebus be able to win Fox over, or will he be able to work around him?

I like the Fox-Rebus dynamic, in the short-term. But I think it could get really old, really fast.

It looks like the next book will have Rebus back in CID, which is a shame. In a sense. Now, let me explain myself before Paul (and maybe others) fills my inbox/comments with objections. I’m not opposed to Rebus becoming a detective again. But I like Rebus doing cold case work. When he’s worked cold cases before — whether out of curiosity or because they’ve been reopened — he’s done really well, and the resulting books were really good. Fox did pretty good with a cold case, too, let’s not forget. In other words, Ian Rankin can write a very effective novel with his protagonists working cold cases, and I’d like to see Rebus doing nothing else for a while (especially as a civilian). Then again, we got a handful of Bosch novels doing that, why get greedy?

I enjoyed the Fox books, but this felt like coming home. It was only a few lines into the book before I think I “felt” the difference, we were back where we were supposed to be. I’m not sure how accurate that was then, but the book as a whole felt different than the Fox books did. Rankin kept a lot of plates spinning, balls in the air, or whatever cliché you want to use, here — he brought back Rebus, shook up his life a bit more, showed that Clarke was doing fine on her own, brought Fox in, showed what post-Big Ger Edinburgh was like, set up the next stage of Rebus’ career, and managed to tell a heckuva twisty murder/missing persons story. He probably accomplished a few other things, too, but that list is enough. Standing in Another Man’s Grave is just another bit of proof that Rankin is among the genre’s crème de la crème.

—–

4 Stars
2019 Library Love Challenge

My Favorite Crime/Mystery/Detective/Thriller Fiction of 2018

Once I settled on dividing this chunk of my reading out for its own list, I knew instantly half of the books that’d make it before I looked at just what I’d read in 2018. After going through that list, I had 15 more candidates for the other 5 spots. Whittling those down was hard, but I’m pretty comfortable with this list. That doesn’t mean the other 90 or so books I read in this family of genres were bad — most were great (I can think of maybe 5 I could’ve missed). But these are the crème de la crème.

Man, I wanted to write the crème de la crime there. But I’m better than that.

Not all of these were published in 2018 — but my first exposure to them was. As always, I don’t count re-reads, or almost no one could stand up to Stout, early Parker, etc. and my year-end lists would get old fast.

Now that I’m done with this, I can focus on 2019.

(in alphabetical order by author)

The Puppet ShowThe Puppet Show

by M. W. Craven

My original post
A book with some of the darkest moments I came across last year — and some of the brightest, too. The mystery was great, the character moments (not just between the protagonists) were better — great rounded, human, characters. Even after I saw where Craven was going with things, I refused to believe it — and only gave up when I had no other choice. Two (at least) fantastic reveals in this book, very compelling writing and fantastic characters. What more do you want? Washington Poe and Tilly Bradshaw are two of my favorite new characters and I can’t wait to see where they go next.

5 Stars

Needle SongNeedle Song

by Russell Day

My original post
I could pretty much copy and paste that above paragraph for this one. It never gets as dark as The Puppet Show, but the depravity displayed is bad enough to unsettle any reader. What makes this story compelling isn’t really the crime, it’s the way the crime impacts the people near it — those who lost a family member (I don’t want to say loved one) and those who are close to the suspects. Yakky and Doc Slidesmith are characters I hope to see again soon, and I want to bask in Day’s prose even more.

5 Stars

She Rides ShotgunShe Rides Shotgun

by Jordan Harper

My original post
The story of a little girl being surrounded by death and destruction, with both looming and threatening her all the time, and her discovering how to be brave. The story of a man trying to be a good father — or just a father. The story of survival. A story of revenge. A story about all kinds of violence. Wonderfully told.

4 Stars

WreckedWrecked

by Joe Ide

My original post
Not as entertaining as IQ, but it works as a novel in ways the previous two didn’t. I don’t know if I could put my finger on it, but it’s there. Wrecked is a clear step in evolution for Isaiah, Dodson, and probably Ide. It definitely demonstrates that the three are here to stay as long as Ide wants, and that these characters aren’t satisfied with being inner-city Sherlock/Watson, but they’re going places beyond that. Some good laughs, some good scares, some real “I can’t believe Ide ‘let’ them do that to Isaiah” moments — a great read.

5 Stars

A Mint Condition CorpseA Mint Condition Corpse

by Duncan MacMaster

My original post
I put off reading this for reasons I really don’t understand and haven’t forgiven myself for yet. But the important thing is that I read it — it took me a chapter or two to really get into it, but once I did, I was in hook, like and sinker. In my original post I said this is “a joy to read; full of characters you’ll want to spend days with, that you’ll want to have over for Thanksgiving dinner just to lighten things up and distract you from Aunt Martha’s overcooked yams and dry turkey; a completely fun time that’s very likely most I’ve enjoyed a book in 2018. It is escapist. It is silly. It is clever.” I also said, “Probably the 5-Star-est 5-Stars I’ve given this year.” There are a couple of books that could compete for that line, but I’m not sure they’d win.

5 Stars

My Little EyeMy Little Eye

by Stephanie Marland

My original post
Fantastic, fantastic premise. Great hook. Another great pair of protagonists (although most of their work is independent of each other). A True Crime blogger and a DI racing to uncover a serial killer, while battling dark secrets, dark pasts, and outside pressures that threaten to derail them at every turn. Marland surprised me more often and in more ways than just about any author this year. I was floored by some of them, too. A great puzzle, a great mish-mash of amateur detective and police procedural.

4 1/2 Stars

Her Last MoveHer Last Move

by John Marrs

My original post
I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into when I said yes to this Book Tour request. I’m not sure I could have — no offense to Mr. Marrs, but I don’t think I’d heard of him before. He’s definitely on my radar now. This was brutal, devastating, shocking, and just about every other adjective reviewers (professional and otherwise) overuse when describing a thriller. Marrs did so many things I didn’t think he would do. He didn’t do a lot that I thought he would (and seemed to mock the idea that he’d so some of what I wanted him to do). I spent a lot of time while reading this book not liking him very much, but so grateful I was getting to read the book. I’m still upset by some of it, but in awe of the experience.

5 Stars

Stoned LoveStoned Love

by Ian Patrick

My original post
Sam Batford, undercover cop, is back in a sequel that shows real growth from a very impressive debut. Batford is in incredibly murky ethical and legal waters — and that’s not counting what his undercover op is. Any misstep could ruin his career, end his life, land him in prison — or all three. Actually, those options hold true even if he doesn’t make any missteps. There are so many balls in the air with this one that it’d be easy to lose track of one or more. But Patrick doesn’t seem to struggle with that at all — and he writes in such a way that a reader doesn’t either. That’s a gift not to be overlooked. I liked the overall story more than it’s predecessor and think that Patrick’s writing was better here. This is a series — and a character — that you really need to get to know.

4 1/2 Stars (I remember liking it more than that…I’m sure I had a reason at the time)

Exit MusicExit Music

by Ian Rankin

My original post
I’ve spent enough time with John Rebus over the last couple of years that I knew one of the books had to end p here, I just wasn’t sure which one. Exit Music ended up on the Top 10 not so much for the main mysteries (although they put the book in contention), but for all rest of the things that the novel was about — Rebus’ moving on (not knowing how to or to where), Siobhan moving on (and not sure she wants to), and the dozen or so little things surrounding the two of them and their work. Even Big Ger was kind of moving on here — and that’s just strange to read about. Exit Music would’ve been a great way to say farewell to John Rebus, I’m just glad it wasn’t that.

5 Stars

Trouble is a Friend of MineTrouble is a Friend of Mine

by Stephanie Tromly, Kathleen McInerney (Narrator)

My original post
If not for Kirby Baxter (above), I could say this was the most fun I had with a Mystery novel this year (not to take anything away from the sequels on that front). This is just the right mix of high school hijinks, teen drama, quirky characters and writing with panache. Zoe and Digby are a great combo of smarts, recklessness and responsibility as they work their way through puzzles surrounding missing kids, drug dealing doctors, and some strange cult-like group. You can feel the chemistry between them — like Remington Steele and Laura Holt, David Addison and Maddy Hays, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and Freeman’s Watson. Throw in their friends and frenemies and you’ve got a recipe for fun and suspense. I listened to this on audiobook (and bought the paperback for my daughter before I got to the end, I should add) and McInerney’s narration was perfect — she captured the spirit of the book and made the characters come alive.

4 Stars