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

✔ Read a book you chose based on the cover.

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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

BOOK SPOTLIGHT: Video Killed the Radio Star by Duncan MacMaster

Today I’m very happy welcome the Book Tour for Video Killed the Radio Star by Duncan MacMaster — I’ve been looking forward to this one for months because this is the follow-up to one of my very favorite reads of this year, A Mint-Conditioned Corpse. Along with this spotlight post, I’ll be giving my take on the novel here in a bit.

Book Details:

Book Title: Video Killed the Radio Star by Duncan MacMaster
Publisher: Fahrenheit Press
Release date: July 26, 2018
Format: Paperback/ebook
Length: 261 pages

Book Blurb:

Money in the bank and his dream girl on his arm – life was looking pretty sweet for Kirby Baxter.

Of course it couldn’t last. Where would the fun be in that? This is a sequel after all.

After solving the murder of a movie starlet the previous year, Kirby is doing his best to live down his burgeoning reputation as part-time Interpol agent and amateur sleuth.

Then reality TV comes knocking next door.

Million Dollar Madhouse is a reality TV show where a bunch of washed up celebrities are thrown together in a dilapidated mansion while their attempts to renovate the building are broadcast 24/7 for the viewers delight.

Kirby’s quiet town is thrown into chaos by the arrival of camera crews, remote control video drones and a cast of characters including disgraced actress Victoria Gorham, political shock-jock Bert Wayne and reality TV royalty Kassandra Kassabian.

When one of the cast members turns up dead the local police turn to the only celebrity detective in town for help and draft an unwilling Kirby into their investigation.

The first body is only the beginning of another rip-roaring adventure for Kirby Baxter and with Gustav his loyal driver/valet/bodyguard/gardener/chef/ass-kicker at his side, our hero plunges into the fray with his usual stunning displays of deductive reasoning and sheer bloody luck.

About Duncan MacMaster:

Duncan MacMaster
Duncan MacMaster is a writer, pop-culture blogger, and film school survivor from the untamed wilds of Eastern Canada.

When he’s not concocting plots for Kirby Baxter to unravel he’s posting rants and rages about the business behind pop-culture on his blog.

Duncan MacMaster’s Social Media:

Twitter

Purchase Links for Video Killed the Radio Star:

Fahrenheit Press (this is really where you should buy the books, help FP out!) ~
Amazon UK ~
Amazon US


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

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


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.

—–

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

BOOK SPOTLIGHT: Burning Secrets by Ruth Sutton

Today I welcome the Book Tour for the tense and taut Burning Secrets by Ruth Sutton. Along with this spotlight post, I’ll be giving my take on the novel here in a bit.

Book Details:

Book Title: Burning Secrets by Ruth Sutton
Publisher: Fahrenheit Press
Release date: July 19, 2018
Format: Paperback/ebook
Length: 246 pages

Book Blurb:

It’s the spring of 2001 and Foot & Mouth disease is raging across Cumbria.

Twelve-year-old Helen Heslop is forced to leave her family farm and move in with relatives in a nearby town because the strict quarantine means she can’t travel back and forth to school in case she inadvertently helps spread the disease.

As the authorities and the local farming communities try desperately to contain the outbreak, tensions run high and everyone’s emotions are close to the surface.

And then Helen disappears.

The police search expands all over the northwest coast where farms are barricaded and farming families have been plunged into chaos – not least the Heslop family, where potentially explosive fault lines are exposed.

Under the strain tensions build inside the police team too, where local DC Maureen Pritchard is caught between old school DI Bell and new broom DS Anna Penrose.

Will Helen survive? And can life for the Heslop family ever be the same, once burning secrets are discovered and old scores settled?

About Ruth Sutton:

Ruth SuttonRuth is a very independent person, which – like many things – is good up to a point, but can get tricky sometimes. She lives in a very beautiful place, but it’s a long way to a cinema, or a big supermarket, and if the time comes when she can’t or doesn’t want to drive, she’ll have to move as there’s no public transport. She qualifies for a bus pass, but there aren’t any buses. Her daughter and her family live quite close by, and she loves to see her two grandchildren. After decades on her own, she has a partner whom she loves. They each have their own house, 40 minutes apart, and this life style suits them both. Ruth wrote her first novel after she was 60.

In addition, Ruth has self-published a trilogy entitled Between the Mountains and the Sea; A Good Liar tells the story of Jessie who risks career and independence with a love affair, whilst her secret past draws ever closer. Forgiven is set among the coal mines and fells of the Cumberland coast. Jessie’s struggle for happiness continues. Fallout features the nuclear disaster at Windscale, which brings a compelling stranger into Jessie’s world.

Ruth Sutton’s Social Media:

Twitter ~ Website ~ Amazon Author Page

Purchase Links for Burning Secrets:

Fahrenheit Press ~ Amazon UK ~ Amazon US ~ Waterstones ~ Goodreads


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

Stoned Love by Ian Patrick: No Sophomore Slump in Sight with this Thriller.

Stoned LoveStoned Love

by Ian Patrick
Series: Sam Batford, #2

Kindle Edition, 246 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: September 14 – 15, 2018

I need to blend in where I shouldn’t belong. The best undercover officers have no air of ego or the appearance of a police mannequin. After all, one sniff of pig and your ass is bacon. I’ve no intention of being served up at any criminal’s barbecue.

How do you follow up 2017’s Rubicon, the twisty, morally ambiguous (at best) tale of an undercover cop? Well, if you’re Ian Patrick, you do it by bringing that shady cop back and putting him in a tighter spot with threats (physical, legal and career) on all sides.

Sam Batford has had a little time off to recuperate and get his head on straight after Rubicon — hopefully giving the heat on him a little time to cool down, and maybe give Big H time to move on from the setback Batford dealt him.

The Met has a new assignment for him — working with the same DCI as he did last time, DCI Klara Winter. During the last assignment, she wasn’t sure she could trust Batford — now she’s convinced that she can’t. In fact, while she wouldn’t mind taking down the criminals that Batford infiltrates, her main objective is to arrest Batford and his Superintendent Mike Hall, a pair she’s convinced are dirty. She’s right, of course, but that’s beside the point.

Ostensibly, Batford’s assignment is to infiltrate a group that’s supposedly planning a major armed robbery and will need a driver of some sorts. But the clock is ticking so he doesn’t have time to do this carefully. Winter has someone already embedded with the crew giving her information, and their primary purpose is to get dirt on Batford and Hall. Which sounds good, but when you get a couple of guys as cagey and wily as this pair, that’s no easy task.

At the same time, Hall’s told Batford that between family and work stresses, this is his last hurrah. Now, he’d like to start his retirement with a sizeable bankroll, and trusts that Batford will find a way to make the both of them some money from just whatever it is that this crew is up to. The crew’s leader, who goes by the cuddly moniker of Razor, is a long-time “unauthorized informant” of Hall’s. And now, he’s sending Batford in to get him arrested. Which seems odd, but it does give Hall enough of an inside track to help Batford.

So, essentially, Batford needs to find a way to get rich off these criminals, hopefully get enough evidence for some arrests, stop them from pulling off whatever they’re trying to — and avoid getting arrested himself (not that he knows he’s being targeted for that). Oh, yeah, and Big H hasn’t moved on, forgotten or forgiven him — in fact, he has an active contract out for Batford’s life, and there are people trying to collect on that. Sounds like a pretty rough time for him.

In Rubicon, there was a question (at least for me) throughout — just how bent is Batford? Will he actually do law enforcement, or is he just out for himself? What are the limits for him? Will he have any success in either his criminal or police activities? In Stoned Love, the questions are different — we know he’s bent pretty far. So it’s just will Batford survive? Will Winter arrest him? Will Hall use him to save his own skin? Will Razor do something to him? Will Big H’s killers eliminate him?

This changed the dynamic of the book for me, and made it a lot easier for me to enjoy this novel and cheer on Batford. There’s no moral or legal gray area any more. Like Michael Corleone or Hannibal Lechter, Sam Batford is a despicable character that the reader wants to find success. Thankfully, he’s nervy enough and clever enough, that there’s a pretty good chance that he will. At least for a while.

Winter is manipulative, deceptive and devoted more to her career than anything else. But she’s, technically, the good guy here. Everyone else is the kind of criminal that the police are supposed to stop, not become. But because we’re in Batford’s head,and Winter’s primarily seen as an obstacle for him to overcome, the reader roots for him and against her — knowing the whole time that it should be the other way around.

There’s frequent and repeated commentary on the effects of Brexit, budget cuts, personnel cuts and other moves by the British government that are impacting the police services throughout the novel. Patrick is a former police officer and if these aren’t his actual views coming forth through Batford, he’s a better author than I think. If Batford’s diagnosis of what’s going on with the police in Britain is accurate, it sounds pretty frightening.

It’s a minor thing — I only noticed this as I started to write this post, and I’ve recently had a bad experience with reading a novel that couldn’t pick a verb tense, so I was primed — but Patrick’s use of the present tense for these books is a subtle, and incredibly effective way of cranking up the tension, propelling the action forward, and pushing the reader to keep up with the pace of the book. I should’ve picked up on it with Rubicon, and am a little annoyed with myself for taking this long to notice.

I enjoyed Rubicon, but I appreciated what Patrick was doing and how he was doing it more. With Stoned Love, I still admired and appreciated his skill and aims, but I enjoyed the story more — I resented things like work and family for preventing me from finishing this as quickly as I wanted to, and absolutely relished an airline flight that meant I had uninterrupted reading time*. I think Stoned Love is an all-around better effort (which is saying something) and makes me very excited to see what comes from Ian Patrick next.

Not everyone enjoys reading books where the police are just as dirty as those they’re supposed to be stopping — and I understand that — but if you’re someone who can embrace a tarnished knight, someone who seems to be law enforcement malgré lui, you don’t want to waste any more time, get your hands on Rubicon and Stoned Love and prepare to be impressed.


* I also really appreciated having this to focus on rather than the fact that I was in a giant metal tube that has no business being that far off the ground, but that’s another story.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

The Tainted Vintage by Clare Blanchard: A Promising Introduction to a series about crime fighting in the Czech Republic


The Tainted VintageThe Tainted Vintage

by Clare Blanchard
Series: Dvorska & Dambersky, #1

Kindle Edition, 159 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: September 11, 2018

In the first chapter, we’re treated to a better synopsis than I could cook up, so let me just borrow it. One night in the little town of Vinice, in the Czech Republic, the mayor dies during his birthday party:

Dvorska was sure that she and Ivan had been sent there for the sake of appearances, because a dead mayor was by definition high profile, and of course because no-one else wanted to touch it. She wondered why they had been called out at all, so soon. The fat feminist and the misogynist – what a team. And of course Dambo, as the senior of the two, would call the shots, so her hands would be tied. Perfect. The sudden death of a rich and powerful local figure was hardly a magnet for rising-star detectives.

Dvorska picks up a clue or two that convinces her — and then Dambersky — that this death was not due to natural causes. The Powers That Be don’t want to hear such a thing, and rule otherwise. So this very unlikely duo has to embark on an unauthorized investigation — not just unauthorized, but prohibited — into the murder.

Finding the murderer of a man who died of natural causes isn’t the easiest thing to accomplish, obviously — it’s hard to ask too many questions without a “Hey, he wasn’t murdered, why are you asking?” coming up. So the partners have to be wily — not just with their superior officer, but with witnesses, possible suspects, and everyone else they encounter.

The investigation takes them to various cities, a variety of social classes, and even ends up giving them a few history lessons. The mayor’s home has ties to significant (at least to Vinice) historical movements, going back to World War II, the Communist takeover, and then once the Republic took over. This really helps the reader — particularly the reader who knows almost nothing about the Czech Republic — find themselves, not only in the geography but the history (cultural and otherwise). obviously, I’m no expert on the Czech Republic,, but I can understand a little more than I used to. Just the first couple of usages of “Perv” to indicate an illegal drug threw me — but between the narrator finally calling it Pervityn and a search engine, I got a little lesson in drugs during WWII.

It doesn’t take long for the book to try to get the reader on the side of these two characters — maybe there’s more to them than the “fat feminist and the misogynist.” I really found myself enjoying them as people, not just as detectives. We spend — for reasons that will become clear when you read this — more time with Dvorska than her partner, and she is a charming, dedicated detective, fully aware of her limitations and sure how to overcome them.

The writing was good but I thought it could be sharper — there’s an odd word choice or two (early on, the detectives start talking about the mayor’s death being an execution, not a murder); there’s a lot of recapping/rehashing something that was just done/considered/decided a page or two earlier — the kind of thing that makes sense for serialized novels, but this doesn’t appear to be on. Still, the voice is engaging, as is the story — and you get caught up enough in it that you can easily ignore a few things that’d normally bug you.

I was caught totally off-guard by the ending. I didn’t expect that to happen at all — my notes toward the end feature short words like “what” and”why?” But primarily my notes consist of question marks, exclamation points, and combinations thereof. This is a great sign for mystery and thriller novels. Blanchard did a great job setting things up so that there’s a dramatic reveal and one that isn’t seen chapters away. I do think some more ground work could have been laid early on so that it didn’t seem quite so out of nowhere. But it was effective enough, that I really don’t want to complain about it.

This is a pleasant read — it’s close enough to being a cozy that I could recommend it to friends who predominately read those, and twisted enough that those with more grizzled tastes can sink their teeth into it, too. The characters are winning, charming and the kind that you want to spend time with. It’s a good introduction to a series exotic enough for most English readers to feel “alien” and yet full of enough things so you don’t feel cut off from what you know. There are obviously future cases for these two in the works, and I plan on getting my hands on them when I can.

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3 Stars