Fahrenbruary Repost: The TV Detective by Simon Hall: A Murder. A Reporter. A Police Detective. Maybe the beginning of a beautiful friendship

Meet Dan Groves, a good reporter with a good dog. Which is enough reason to read the book, but there are others, too, as I was happy to discover.

The TV DetectiveThe TV Detective

by Simon Hall
Series: The TV Detective, #1
Kindle Edition, 290 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: May 16 – 17, 2018

The first interview with a witness.

Or, as Breen had put it, ‘Initially a witness, anyway.’

‘Meaning?’ Dan asked, as they walked down the stairs from the MIR.

‘It’s remarkable how quickly a witness can become a suspect in this business.’

All it needed was a musical sting to emphasise the drama of the detective’s words. Dan was beginning to suspect his new colleague was a frustrated actor. He certainly enjoyed a little theatre.

Dan deposited the thought safely in his mental bank. It might just be useful.

Carter Ross, I. M. Fletcher, Annie Seymour, and Jack McEvoy are my favorite reporters who happen to find themselves in the middle of criminal investigations (“find themselves” is typically code for throw themselves into, slip past the all the blockades surrounding, etc.) — I think Dan Groves has added himself to the list. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Dan Groves is a TV Reporter for Wessex Tonight, covering environmental news. With the Christmas holiday rapidly approaching, he’s forced to help cover the latest in a string of attacks on prostitutes. He and his cameraman/friend Nigel are found taking a less-than by-the-book approach to getting a colleague of the latest victim on camera (really, Nigel didn’t do anything — but he didn’t stop Dan, either). The story they aired was good, but their tactics were reported — between his editor’s need, his skill, and his editor’s fresh material for leverage — Dan’s taken off the Environment beat and made the program’s new crime reporter.

The problem is, he knows nothing about reporting on Crimes. And demonstrates it with a facepalm-worthy performance at his first crime scene (a murder, of course) after getting this assignment. So he pitches this idea to his editor, who in turn runs it by the local police. The police haven’t been looking good to the (and in the) press lately, Dan needs a crash course in detective work — so why doesn’t he shadow the investigation, giving the police some good coverage and PR while he learns on the job from the best around. DCI Breen — and (the underused) DS Suzanne Stewart — aren’t crazy about this idea, but they aren’t really in a position to argue with the brass, so they bring him on. Tolerating his presence largely at the beginning, but gradually finding ways to use him.

This is one of those cases that the police would probably be okay with not solving — at least most of the police. Edward Bray was in Real Estate — he owned many buildings, treated his tenants horribly and evicted them when he could find a way to make more money off of the land/building. He was heartless, notorious, and had an enemies list worthy of a, well, an unscrupulous land-owner. Yet, he also gave generously to a local hospice — so generously that many people had a reflexive notion to commend him while they suffered cognitive dissonance between his perceived nature as a shark, and his obvious and selfless good work with the hospice center. The list of suspects is long — former tenants, an employee, competitors he profited from and ruined, his own father — and the head of the hospice center who chafed under his authoritative hand.

So there’s the setup — a pretty good hook, I have to say. It’s an interesting pairing — Castle-ish, but not as goofy. I could totally buy this without suspending a whole lot of disbelief. The reactions of the other police officers help ground this. So who are the investigators?

First is Dan Groves — he seems to be a decent reporter, we’re told repeatedly that he has a history of looking out for the little guy in his news stories. He’s into the outdoors, hiking and whatnot. He’s very single and has been for some time — there’s a hint of something significant in his past that put him there, but we don’t get into that in this book. I’ve never read about a reporter not wanting the crime beat — it’s the most interesting, right? I just didn’t get his rationale for quite a while. But by the time we’ve heard about a few of his past stories, I guess I could see it (and have to admit that Environmental News sounds pretty dull, but wouldn’t have to be in the right hands). Lastly, Dan has a German Shepherd named Rutherford, who seems like a great dog. This speaks volumes for him.

DCI Adam Breen is your typical driven detective — stern, unbending (at first, anyway), not that crazy about the unusual staffing on his inquiry. He has a flair for the dramatic (as noted above — but it’s worse), seems to spend more time and money on clothing than most (somewhere, Jerry Edgar is fist pumping the idea that he’s not alone). We eventually get to know a little about him outside the job — and it seems to go well with the character we’ve met. He seems like the kind of detective most police departments could use more of. Breen will warm to Groves (and vice versa) and will find ways to use his strengths, as Groves finds ways to flex them.

DS Suzanne Stewart, on the other hand, is little more than a name and a presence. Hall needs to find a way to use her character in the future or drop her. This character is the biggest problem with the book. Not an insurmountable one, or one that greatly detracts from the book, but still. I get that Hall’s priority was establishing the relationship between Groves and Breen — and he nailed that. But he could’ve given us more of Stewart along the way. We could also use a little more development with Nigel and Dan’s editor, Lizzie — but I honestly didn’t notice how underused they were. Stewart stuck out to me.

Hall does a really good job of balancing the murder inquiry and dealing with the characters outside of the case — Breen off-duty, Dan’s blossoming personal life, another story or two that Dan works on. The suspects are well-developed and interesting — and there are times that you could totally buy all of them (well, maybe all but one) as the actual perpetrator. That’s really hard to pull off, many writers will start off with a long list of suspects and really only have one or two that you can believe being the killer after one conversation. They all have similar but individualized reasons to want Bray dead. Most of them also have strong alibis, because you don’t want this to be easy. The solution to the case is clever — and better yet, the way that Groves and Breen have to work together to get the solution proven is well executed.

Hall’s writing is confident and well-paced. He knows how to use characters and plot to strengthen each other. There are occasional turns of phrase that will really make the day of readers. I have a lot of “oh, that’s nice” notes throughout the book. This is a solid start to a series — the kind that makes me want to read more. I’m looking forward to finding out a little more about Dan’s history as well as seeing the relationship between he and DCI Breen grow and change (and be challenged, I assume). Good stuff.

—–

4 Stars

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Broken Dreams by Nick Quantrill: Meet Joe Geraghty, PI

Broken DreamsBroken Dreams

by Nick Quantrill
Series: Joe Geraghty, #1

Kindle Edition, 236 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: February 20 – 21, 2018

Wow. This is how you introduce a P.I. Joe Geraghty starts this book with the police looking at him for the murder of woman. There wasn’t a lot of reason for him to be suspected — I mean, sure, he’d spent a lot of time hanging out around her house lately and he has only the flimsiest of alibis for the time she was killed in her home. His defense is that his firm was investigating her on behalf of her employer, and that he was being mugged by some teenagers when she was killed. Although they hadn’t been looking into her for very long, Joe and his partner had already found enough to want to dig into her further — and now Joe’s even more interested in the case, if only to make sure he doesn’t get put in the frame if the police get desperate for an arrest.

Step one is completing their investigation of the woman and the situation at her employers. Step two is figuring out the husband’s involvement. And then there’s a dive into other possibilities. It’s not long before Joe is beat up, repeatedly. There’s some back and forth with the police — and a lot of the other mainstays of PI fiction. I’m not suggesting the book is unoriginal at all — Quantrill hits all the right notes, and the murder investigation goes just like it should. There are plenty of turns and revelations for Joe to deal with — all of which end up painting a picture that looks far different from anything expected by the reader or any character at the beginning of the novel.

At the same time, they are visited by a woman dying of cancer. Her daughter had vanished 10 years earlier and she wants to find her and try to patch things up while there’s still time. She doesn’t have a lot of money to spend, but it seems like the kind of case that could make the detectives feel better about things than their typical fare — so they take the case. There’s not a lot of danger or suspense involved with this one — it’s mostly interviewing people, catching a break or two and a lot of hope that they’re not looking for a corpse. The missing woman — and her family — hadn’t had a very nice or easy life, and Joe uncovers a lot of ugliness along the way. But there’s some hope, too.

Joe was an athlete who had a brush with success before being sidelined by an injury and having to start over without any real tools or options. His business partner/mentor pulled him away from that life and helped train and establish him as a PI — if only to take over the business. Don hovers in the background of the novel, coming out to give advice (not always taken) and help connect Joe with sources of information. Hopefully we see more of him in action in future novels. Recently, Don’s daughter, Sarah, has come on board mostly as office support — but has moved into some investigative roles, as well. She’s a single mom, and much more practical than Joe — she’s primarily involved in the search for the missing woman, and Joe and Don work both cases, with Joe doing the majority of the legwork (and receiving all the beatings and threatenings).

Because individuals in both cases are from the same part of town, there’s some overlap in the investigations — but this isn’t one of those books where seemingly unrelated cases are really tied together. The two do inform each other a little bit, however, and Quantrill weaves them together well. It’s not a fast-paced novel, but the writing is so smooth that it might as well be, it’s very easy to find that multiple chapters have gone by without you noticing the passage of time, and once this story gets its claws into you, it won’t let go. The murder case is complex without getting complicated, and the motives behind everyone’s actions make a whole lot of sense.

There’s a very Lincoln Perry/Joe Pritchard feel to the relationship between Joe and Don, for those that remember Michael Koryta’s debut series. It’s not the same series, but there’s a very similar feel to the dynamic between the veteran with all the connections and the younger, less experienced detective with a troubled and oft-misspent youth. Throwing Don’s daughter (and granddaughter) into the mix changes the dynamic, too. Watching these three interact is almost enough, if the cases they were working were uneventful, I’d probably stick around.

There’s something going on with Don that I’m a little uneasy about, and am very curious about seeing what Quantrill gives us in the next few books. As well as a looming romantic entanglement for JOe — that could be a very sweet story, or a giant disaster (possibly a combination of the two — I might be holding out hope for option 3). But mostly, I’m looking forward to seeing how the events of this novel affect Joe moving forward — I don’t see how they can’t.

While writing this, it occurred to me that most of the mystery novels I’ve read lately have featured at least one law enforcement officer, which is a pretty big change for me. A few years ago, I’d have to think long and hard to come up with a law enforcement protagonists. So getting into a new PI is a very pleasant change of pace. The fact that it’s a good PI novel is just icing on the cake. This was a great ride, and I can assure you that you’ll be seeing me talk about the next two novels in the series pretty soon, I really want to spend more time with these characters and I bet you will, too.

—–

4 Stars

Dead is Beautiful by Jo Perry: Another Winner for this Supernatural Duo

Dead is BeautifulDead is Beautiful

by Jo Perry

Series: Charlie & Rose Investigate, #3

Kindle Edition, 268 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2019
Read: February 15 – 18, 2019

I can’t explain how death works––I can’t explain cruelty or love––and I don’t know anything for certain except that I failed at life.

Well, I refuse to fuck up my death any more than I already have––

And whatever it means or requires––I won’t fail Rose.

And failing Rose actually seems to be something that can happen here — we’ve seen Charlie and Rose interact with other ghosts before, but not for long — somehow, this time there’s a ghost that they have prolonged — and repeated — interaction with. This other ghost has threatened Rose — despite seemingly being unable to do anything to her, the intent and tone of voice used, scares Rose. And the one thing that’s definitely changed about Charlie post-death is his commitment to this dog, his ability to care for her.

But before we meet this ghost — and see the gruesome, horrific way they become one — we see another killing. The killing of a protected tree. What’s worse, this tree is home to an Spotted Owl and her owlet. While the tree is being (illegally) removed from a plot of land, the owlet falls out and is injured. It was these events that brought Rose, and therefore Charlie, to this area. Coming to the defense of the tree and the owls is a very naked and tattooed woman. She brings in the authorities, and sets off a chain of events that I won’t try to summarize, because you wouldn’t believe me and Perry does a better job than I would in a sentence or two.

This woman, it turns out is named Eleanor Starfeather (really). She’s a doula (birth and death, which is a thing that I just learned exists) and a house sitter — among other things. The house she’s currently sitting belongs to Charlie’s brother and his wife. Charlie’s brother, we already know, is not anyone you want to know. Greedy, superficial, arrogant, vain and uncaring — and his wife is worse. The bulk of the book’s action revolves around these three as they deal with the fall-out from the removal of this tree, the removal of the owlet and the mother owl’s reaction to both being gone. But it also involved a development company — which is developing the land next to Charlie’s brother and a property where Charlie used to live — not that you can tell that anymore.

Charlie and Rose witness a murder near that second property and are pushed into trying to figure out who was behind that murder. Our ghostly pair are hovering around the areas of overlap between the Venn diagram describing these people, company and properties. And slowly, a full picture emerges allowing them to figure out who was behind the murder. Along the way, we (via Charlie and Rose) get to watch the fall-out — involving city politics, real estate development, lawyers, a vengeance-seeking bird, a séance, a mini-Cooper driving Scotsman, and a natural disaster — oh, yeah, and Charlie’s brother having several of the worst days of his life in a row.

This all primarily takes place, where else could it, in Beverly Hills. A place that Charlie clearly has strong opinions about:

Leave it to the City of Beverly Fucking Hills to have “Beverly Hills” engraved twice on its police badges just to emphasize that their black necktied, highly trained, buff, and attractive Beverly Fucking Hills peace officers protect and serve the plastic surgery-altered, chemically peeled, hairlines suture-tightened, Botox-injected, Viagra-aroused, personally trained, lifestyle-coached, professionally organized, blow-dried, sixteen-thousand-dollar blinged-out handbag cultists and their Orc boyfriends and husbands here in this omphalos of malignant narcissism, this authentic-human-emotion-sucking manicured vortex with its fluffy cashmere clouds scudding across the Tiffany-blue vacancy that hangs above the abomination known the world over as Beverly Fucking Hills.

Which adds a different feel to the book than we’ve had in the series. We’ve bounced around from place to place in this series, but I don’t knows that I’ve had such a strong sense location before (I’m not suggesting the earlier books were missing anything, but this has added something). We do spend some time in Charlie’s old neighborhood, but not that much.

It’s possible that Charlie refers to the city with the two words that most people use, but I think it’s always his special elongated form. Ditto for his older sibling, or as he seemingly always refers to him, “my shit brother.” Maybe one reason that Charlie and Rose are still hanging around is that Charlie still holds such determined thoughts and passionate feelings about things like his brother and this city.

In Dead is Good, we got to witness Charlie realize how much someone meant to him, in ways hadn’t really seen in life. In Dead is Beautiful, we get to witness Charlie smitten with a woman — of course, it’ll be unrequited (and would’ve likely been if he was flesh and blood, too), but he is fixated on Eleanor. It’s a side of him that’s nice to see. It’s also helpful for there to be people he actually likes involved with everything he’s witnessing, so he can be positive about some of what happens. By the end of the novel, Charlie does realize a few things about his brother and the way he thinks about him — I’m not sure there’s growth there, but there’s self-awareness, which is almost as good.

We also get a few more clues about the nature of the afterlife and how things work for the souls of the deceased (man or beast…at least dog), but no real answers. I’m okay with that, I don’t think I want answers, I like not getting this afterlife, as long as Charlie and Rose are figuring out what the living are up to.

Last week, when I reposted what I’d written about the first three books, I felt awkward about my frequent references to “funny.” When I think back on these books, I don’t think about funny — I think about the crimes, the victims, the reflections on society and death that these books focus on. But I felt vindicated reading this, because it’s a very funny book. There’s slapstick all over the place — even when the events depicted aren’t that funny, they’re told in a way that clearly tells the reader to smile and chuckle. Just that description of Beverly Hills above demonstrates the oft-comedic voice.

But it’s not all funny — there’s a reverence toward death, toward life, toward the relationship between people and dogs. The fate and well-being of the tree and owls are treated seriously and with care. The comedy comes in Charlie’s observations of and reactions to the events he witnesses. His first exposure to Alexa, for example, made me laugh out loud.

As Charlie (ever so gradually) evolves (Charlie of the first two books doesn’t treat the other ghost the way this Charlie does), as we spend more time in this world, Perry keeps improving — this is one of those series that improves as it goes on. These unique protagonists get us to look at life and events in a different kind of way, while reading very different kind of mysteries. I hope I get to keep spending time with them for a long time to come — and I strongly encourage you to join in the fun.

—–

4 Stars

Fahrenbruary Repost: Hack by Duncan MacMaster

We’re focusing on Duncan MacMaster for the next few days of Fahrenbruary. Which means that things are going to be a lot of fun.

This feels a bit rushed to me — and more than a little vague. I guess it should, it was a little rushed, I liked this book enough that I pounded it out a couple of hours after finishing it, I didn’t want to sit on it for a while. And if the post is vague, it’s because this is the kind of mystery difficult to talk about without cracking open all the secrets, and because a lot of what I really liked about this is in the little details MacMaster gave. You need to experience it yourself to get what I’m saying.

HackHack

by Duncan MacMaster

Uncorrected Proof
Fahrenheit Press, 2017

Read: February 28 – March 1, 2016

Little victories, since they’re all I can hope for, they’re what I live for.

Jake Mooney used to be a pretty good reporter — good reputation, good results — but he got out of that game and got into a more lucrative field, even if it was more distasteful. Events transpired,  and that goes away — I’ll let you read it for yourself, but it involves lawyers and an ex-wife. Nowadays, he gets by being a ghost-writer for established authors who don’t have the time or ability to write their own material. Out of the blue, he gets an offer to help a former TV star, Rick Rendell, write his autobiography. He’ll even get credited for it. Credit — and a nice cash bonus. How can he say no?

Before you can say “Jessica Fletcher,” someone tries to kill Jake and then Rick is shot in front of a handful of witnesses, including Jake. Between his affection for (some of) the people in Rick’s life, worry over his own safety, curiosity, and his own sense of justice, Jake dives in and investigates the murder himself.

Jake finds himself knee-deep in a morass involving unscrupulous agents (I’m not sure there’s another kind in fiction), wives (current and ex-), Hollywood politics, an IRS investigation, a Drug Cartel, former co-stars, hedge fund managers, hit men, and a decades-old mysterious death. And a few more fresh deaths. . The notes he’s already taken for the book gives Jake fodder for his investigation — but the combination of notes and his continuing work provides the killer a constant target (and threat). As long as Jake’s working on the mystery/mysteries — and doing better than the police at uncovering crimes and suspects — the killer can’t just escape, Jake has to be stopped.

The voice was great, the mystery had plenty of twists and turns, Jake’s ineptitude with firearms was a great touch and served to keep him from being a super-hero. I really can’t think of anything that didn’t work. There’s not a character in the book that you don’t enjoy reading about. I had three strong theories about what led to Rick’s death and who was responsible — the one I feared the most wasn’t it (thankfully — it was a little too trite). My favorite theory was ultimately right about the who, but was absolutely wrong about everything else. I take that as a win — I felt good about my guess and better about the very clever plotting and writing that outsmarted me.

That’s more about me than I intended it to be, so let me try this again — MacMaster has set up a great classic mystery — a la Rex Stout or Agatha Christie. A dogged investigator with a personal stake in the case, supporting characters that you can’t help but like (or dislike, as appropriate), a number of suspects with reasons to kill the victim (with a decent amount of overlap between those two groups), and a satisfying conclusion that few readers will see coming. Hack is funny, but not in a overly-comedic way, it’s just because Jake and some of the others he’s with have good senses of humor. I chuckled a few times, grinned a few more.

I bought MacMaster’s previous book, A Mint Condition Corpse, when it came out last year — sadly, it’s languishing in a dark corner of my Kindle with a handful of other books from Fahrenheit Press (I’m a great customer, lousy reader, of that Press).  Hack wasn’t just an entertaining read, it was a great motivator to move his other book higher on my TBR list. Get your hands on this one folks, you’ll have a great time.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this from the publisher, nevertheless, the opinions expressed are my own.

—–

4 Stars

Pub Day Repost: Immoral Code by Lillian Clark: A Heist Novel where the Heist is maybe the Dullest Part

Immoral CodeImmoral Code

by Lillian Clark

eARC, 272 pg.
Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019

Read: January 22 – 23, 2019

It’s their senior year, their lives are stretching out before them, this incredibly close group of five friends are preparing for graduation, college, etc. — even (not that they’ll confront this quite yet) living without each other. They all excel in one or two ways — one’s a hacker/activist, one’s an artist, one’s got a real shot at the Olympics — etc. One is a physics genius (or close enough to a genius to count) who was admitted early to MIT. But there’s a catch. She can’t afford it. Her mom works two jobs to help the two of them barely make it and her dad hasn’t been in her life since he was a poor student and impregnated her mom. Since then he’s gone on to become one of the richest of the rich. The kind of rich that people really can’t believe exists. So when MIT looks at her financial aid, they roll their eyes and move on to the next student.

Not content to shake their heads sadly at injustice, her friends come up with a plan to hack into her dad’s company and skim a little bit of money. Not enough that he’d ever notice — just enough to pay tuition for a year. Their hacker friend is good, but not good enough to break in remotely — she has to be physically in touch with the network — for just a few seconds. Like the tagline on the cover says, “Payback is a glitch.” So over Spring Break they take a little road trip — bigger than their families know — to get access to the network. It’s going to take a lot of nerve, some real disregard for the law, and their combined talents to pull this off.

The question they don’t really consider until it’s too late isn’t what will happen if they fail (although, they all could think of that more), it’s what happens if they succeed?

On the whole, I haven’t seen many people classifying this as a Crime Novel, despite the Heist story at the core. It’s definitely not a thriller. Because the Heist story is just an excuse to talk about friendship, figuring your life out, the pressure on teens to know what they want the next few decades to be about (not the same as the previous item on the list), the complicated relationship that exists between parents and their teens on the cusp of adulthood, and the hugeness of the moment where you leave home/family/friends to start the next phase of your life. Oh, also, morality. Somehow Clark does all that while telling a fast-moving, funny, and heart-felt story.

Which is not to say that the Heist story isn’t important, or well executed. And you can read the book just for the Heist. But you’ll miss out on a lot — and you’ll probably wonder why I rated this so highly. As fun as the Heist/prep for the Heist is, the heart of the book is the rest.

Each chapter jumps between first-person narration from each kid, keeping things moving nicely. There’s plenty to like/identify with in each character. You learn a lot about them as individuals, them as friends, and generally them as children (not that much about them as students, oddly). They’re so well-drawn, I’m sure what I respond to in one character or another will not be the same as what another reader responds to. There is one character who serves as the group’s Jiminy Cricket — their vocal and ever-present conscience. Like Jiminy, the character is ignored a lot and fought against. But I appreciated them — the voice of moral reason, the one trying to save the others from themselves, the only one who demonstrated a sense of right and wrong, not just about what feels right.

The writing is breezy, engaging — no matter whose POV you’re reading. Clark did a fantastic job differentiating the characters, giving them all a unique voice so that you don’t even have to pay attention to the indicator at the beginning of the chapter to know whose voice is telling that particular chapter. Now, as each chapter is told from the Point of View of a teenager, and fairly realistically done, that means you have to check your inner grammarian at the door — so much of this book can drive you around the bend if you don’t.

The novel is engaging, it’s beyond that really — it’s infectious.There were several points during reading that I asked myself why I was enjoying it as much as I was. Not that I thought I should dislike it, but I liked it a lot more than I should have. I don’t mind that I did, I’m just not sure I understand why. I’m just going to chalk it up to Lillian Clark being a very good author — someone you should check out, starting with her debut, Immoral Code.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Random House Children’s Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

4 Stars

Fahrenbruary Repost: Know Me from Smoke by Matt Phillips: A heart-wrenching noir love story.

Know Me from SmokeKnow Me from Smoke

by Matt Phillips

Kindle Edition, 193 pg.
Fahrenheit 13, 2018
Read: November 15 – 16, 2018

If you’re looking for an example of noir — in the classic sense — look no farther than Matt Phillips’ Know Me from Smoke. You can tell that’s going to be the case from the opening paragraphs. The first chapter builds on those first three or four paragraphs and sets the atmosphere, the mood, the tone for the rest of the book — and pretty much casts a spell on the reader, too. The second chapter — where we meet our second protagonist firms that up, and from there Phillips builds on this foundation to deliver a book that will stay with you long after you’re done with it.

But let’s step back from that for a minute — we begin by meeting Stella Radney. She’s in her mid-40’s, a lounge singer, and a widow still grieving her murdered husband twenty years after his death. During the robbery that left Virgil dead, Stella was shot as well and the bullet’s still in her hip — a constant reminder that her loss and pain are physical as well as emotional. Both pains seem a bit fresher in the beginning of the book because Stella’s been informed that new DNA technology (unavailable 20 years ago), has led the DA’s office to reopen the case and they hope to have an arrest soon. Stella’s feeling a little raw, hanging on only by more alcohol than is probably good for her and losing her self regularly in the music she performs.

Royal Atkins is a free man, a man with a second chance — a convicted killer released on a technicality and determined to make the best of his second chance. Sadly, a couple of men at his halfway house decide that the best thing for Royal would be to join them and pull a few stickups — and a few other forms of robbery as well. Royal resists — but it’s as clear to him as it is to the reader that this won’t last.

Stella and Royal meet and the chemistry is instantaneous. The chapter where they meet for the first time is possibly the best chapter I’ve read this year — just magic. For obvious reasons, Royal edits the personal history he tells Stella, and his associates from the halfway house use this to blackmail him into going along with them. He’s trying to build a new life, she’s trying to rebuild her life, and neither of them want to be alone in the process.

So we get to watch the growing love story of Stella and Royal, Royal’s history being used against him, the crime spree, and the certainty that this is going to all going to come to a messy end. A little before the halfway point, I put in my notes, “if I stop, some broken people get to live a decent life. If I read another chapter or two, everything will fall apart and lives will be ruined. So tempted to walk away from it.” I really was — I liked these two so much, I wanted to let them have this chance.

But there was no way I was going to stop, Phillips’ prose was too good to abandoned, and I had to see what actually happened to these characters (no matter how inevitable the end seemed). Seriously, I’d have kept reading just so Stella could think about her relationship to music and songs some more — those sections of the book are practically poetry.

There’s conversation between a couple of characters about Pulp Fiction — and Tarantino’s work feels appropriate to this book. But not that movie. Jackie Brown is the movie that this feels like. Maybe the novel, too, but I haven’t read Rum Punch. They’re both from the same species of sweet, second-chance at love story in the middle of a story of crime, criminals and ex-cons.

This is going to go for my entry for “Read a book you chose based on the cover” in the While You Were Reading challenge — it’s not entirely true, but the cover is fantastic and got me to read the blurb a few times, so it’s close enough.

I love that title, too.

There’s just so many things that are right about this book, and so little that’s wrong. This is a winner — it’ll grab you by the heartstrings, will pull you along through the highs and lows of this story, and only let you go some time after you finish (I’m not sure how long that effect will last, but it’s been almost a week and it really hasn’t let go yet).

—–

4 Stars

Fahrenbruary Repost: Burning Secrets by Ruth Sutton: A Child Abduction Sets Off a Disturbing Chain of Events

I originally posted about this for a blog tour — one of those that I ended up being very glad I participated in, this atmospheric mystery is one to check out.

Burning SecretsBurning Secrets

by Ruth Sutton

Kindle Edition, 264 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018

Read: October 2 – 3, 2018

For a book that clocks in at 264 pages, Sutton packed in a lot of story. I’m having difficulty deciding what to focus on, I’ve got to say. If only all authors could present a guy with such problems . . .

This book starts off with a child abduction — a child, Helen Helsop, that we get to know a little bit before she’s abducted. Immediately I groaned, because the last thing I wanted to deal with is a book about a little girl getting snatched and then dealing with whatever abuse is looming. Without spoiling much, let me assure you — nothing like that happens. This is not that kind of kidnapped child story. This doesn’t mean that she’s been taken for benign or even beneficial reasons, however.

Helen hasn’t been living at home — she’s been staying with family in town so she can attend school. Because theirs is a farming community — predominately, or at least heavily, a dairy and cattle area, and this is 2001 — the height of the Foot and Mouth crisis. I’ll be honest, as an American in a pre-social media age, I didn’t have a strong grasp on the effect this had on smaller farmers — I just never was exposed to it. I got what it meant on the national/industry front, but didn’t think much more about it. If I had, it would’ve been obvious just how much this would decimate a community, an individual family, and why this was such a horrible crisis. Anyway, back to Helen — she hasn’t had a good time of it in this temporary home and is easily persuaded to leave. It’s hours (of course) before anyone notices that she’s missing, and even then, most of her family doesn’t believe she’s actually missing.

Before that, thankfully, the police are called in — we focus on DC Maureen Pritchard — a well-known fixture in the community (not as well-known as her father, however) and the newly-arrived DS Anna Penrose. There’s a little professional jealousy between the two — Pritchard envies another woman in a position she was denied and Penrose would love the acceptance and respect her fellow officers seem to have for Pritchard. But largely, they can put that aside to focus on Helen. It’s obvious from the start that the foster family and Helen’s actual family are both holding back from the police, but it’s hard to tell if it’s germane to the case, or if it’s just things that no one wants to share with outsiders.

This is all so compellingly told — the layers that Sutton is working on are something to behold. She’s excellent at revealing more and more about Pritchard and Penrose while they’re uncovering more about Helen’s life and whoever took her. You could make the case (I think you’d be wrong, but you can make it) that the mystery in this novel takes a back seat to the drama surrounding the women and their superiors. Initially, probably because we meet her first, I was pulling for Pritchard to solve the case, rescue the girl and save the day to put Penrose in her place. But soon, I just wanted the two of them to knock off the nonsense and just work together — preferably by being open with each other about what’s going on. I won’t say if I was ultimately satisfied in that desire, but I can say that Sutton deals with their relationship in a way that is absolutely believable and realistic — a very satisfactory job.

The greatest impediment to the search for Helen isn’t the fact that the family is hiding something(s), the difficulty in tracking down a person of interest, the cleverness of the kidnapper, finding a particular van in a decent size, getting a straight answer out of scared kids with overbearing/concerned parents interfering (for nefarious reasons or unintentionally), or any of the other absolutely understandable and inevitable roadblocks. Instead, it’s Detective Inspector Stanley Bell — he’s too focused on the budget and on impressing his DCI, not that we can forget his obvious misogyny and blatant racism. It’d have been easy for Sutton to leave him as a buffoon, an obstacle, a foil for Pritchard and Penrose — but she doesn’t, there are times when he seems to be a perfectly capable police officer. But those times are the minority — it is fun to watch his subordinates play him to get their way, Penrose learns from Pritchard’s example quickly on this front.

If I tried to talk about the kidnapper, I’d spoil it — if I tried to talk about Helen’s family, I’d fail. I can’t summarize what Sutton did there (I was reductionistic enough with the police — and I’d still be reductionistic if I’d included everything I wanted to say about them) — I’ve known men like her father and older brother. I could feel their pain, their frustration — with their life in general, even before Helen’s abduction, which just seemed like the next-to-last straw for them. Between Foot and Mouth, general hardships (physical and financial) related to this lifestyle, too much alcohol, and a wife who wants more than all this — it’s just too much for people to take.

The depiction of Helen is really strong, as well — she is a scared twelve year-old doing the best she can in a horrible circumstance. At some point the police don’t understand why she did X in a situation. I wanted to yell at them, “because she’s a scared little kid!” Of course, she’s not going to act like a rational adult. (The other thing I had a hard time buying was that given the emphasis the officers put on local knowledge, was that it was the outsider who understood the importance of getting his cows milked to a dairy farmer)

I’ve gone on too long, and haven’t said nearly enough. So let’s hit the important things as I try to wrap up.As I said at the outset — this is not a typical kidnapping novel. Every assumption you make early on in the book will prove to be mistaken, but it all feels organic, it all seemed natural. This isn’t one of those books where you can see the author moving pieces around to achieve her ends. I have no doubt she did — but I couldn’t see it. There’s some good action, some very clever policework, and a strong psychological-thriller bent to parts of this as well. There’s a strong Perry Mason-esque quality to the strategy the police employed at the end, which I appreciated. Burning Secrets ticks almost every box a mystery-fan will have on their list.

This is a novel about family secrets, family problems — all families, on some level, I’m sure. There are strong threads about options various women take to take care of their families and themselves — what lengths they may go to, what shortcuts they may take, what hard choices they may make — to secure happiness, health, or survival. This is a novel about change — individual and societal — how difficult that is. But none of these themes detract from a heart-stopping and heart-breaking story about a kidnapping and the consequences radiating from it. All in less than 300 pages — not a bad feat.

I have no idea if Sutton intends to write more about these characters (there’s every reason to think she will, given her track record) — but I’d love to spend more time with them. If Penrose and Pritchard can turn their détente into some sort of working understanding, or better, a real partnership, they’d be a fantastic combination (for drama, they’d still be interesting if they don’t form any closer relationship, but it wouldn’t be as fun to read). Sutton does have a pretty hefty backlist, and I should try to dive in — and you should, too. Start with this, though, it’ll whet your appetite for the rest.

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4 Stars
My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials they provided.