Marah Chase and the Conqueror’s Tomb by Jay Stringer: An Archaeologist and a Spy Walk Into a Bar . . .

Marah Chase and the Conqueror's TombMarah Chase and the Conqueror’s Tomb

by Jay Stringer
Series: Marah Chase, #1

eARC, 320 pg.
Pegasus Books, 2019

Read: June 26 – 29, 2019

Right after I finished Stringer’s How to Kill Friends and Implicate People, I jumped onto NetGalley to request this — despite being woefully behind on everything else (including NetGalley books!), curiosity prevailed. I had to know how Stringer would approach this particular premise and character.

What a fun, strange, ride! This is pure escapist entertainment. There’s no message, there’s no pondering foibles of contemporary society, there’s no commentary on social ills (or celebration of social triumphs), just a wild and crazy story about a “renegade archeologist” and a spy battling a cult, a plot to take over the government, and historic artifacts that could easily change the course of civilization. (there is some pretty well-done character growth and development — which grounds the lunacy a bit)

It’s difficult — at best — to not mention the Pop Culture Icon that Marah Chase will remind readers of, and I’ve decided that I’m not up for difficult right now (after trying a few times). Marah Chase is essentially a contemporary, female Indiana Jones — without the legitimate day job. Circumstances forced (well, forcefully encouraged) her to abandon the more scholarly, accepted archeology and to become a “relic runner” or “gold dog.” Someone who finds historic, hard to find, artifacts and sells them to private collectors. It’s hard to say just how successful she is at it — enough to be a known figure throughout the Middle East (to people on both sides of the law), but not enough to get overly-choosy about what jobs she takes.

She’s on the run from a group that pretends to be an arm of ISIS to cover up their criminal activities after scooping a treasure from their grasp when a British spy recruits her to go on the hunt for an artifact rumored to be a powerful weapon. I’ll leave the details to Joanna Mason as she briefs Marah, but what’s driving her to get Marah on the hunt is that she’s convinced a powerful church has decided that a. the weapon is real and b. they are close to finding it. Marah’s always been fascinated by the researcher they’re basing their search on and she’s in probably the best position to stop them before it’s too late.

All she has to do is find the tomb of Alexander the Great — a location that has stumped archeologists, treasure seekers, and zealots for centuries — in the next few days. All she has to do is deal with white supremacist soldiers, faux-ISIS goons, a wealthy and powerful church, an ancient secret society, and worst of all, the granddaughter of the one man in history who may have found (and then covered-up) Alexander’s tomb — her ex.

Marah may be the star of the book — and her name’s in the title — but don’t think that Mason doesn’t play as nearly vital a role in these events. While Marah’s on the hunt for the tomb, Mason’s trying to prevent a bloodless coup from within her own government, one that’ll pave the way for the church to take over.

Both of these women seem to be the embodiment of an amped-up Murphy’s Law — If anything can go stunningly, horribly, mindbogglingly wrong, it will — and usually will involve mortal danger, and then leave you in a worse (and more dangerous) predicament. I quickly stopped thinking that anything would work for either of them and just held my breath until things went from precarious to worse. It’s a tribute to Stringer’s imagination that he was able to keep that up for as long as he did.

Both Marah and Mason are surrounded by a great cast of characters — enemies and allies alike. Honestly, either story line would’ve been enough to keep a novel going and be a lot of fun. You stick both of them together and you’ve got gold on your hands. I’m not sure this is the kind of story that invites in-depth analysis — it’s the kind of story that invites cheers, fist pumps, and would work best with a bowl of popcorn at your side.

For those looking for the Jay Stringer of the Sam Ireland books, they’re going to be disappointed. For those looking for a Jay Stringer using his skills to create a new world, new voice with the same quality, they’re in for a treat. His sense of humor is still evident, it just shows itself in different ways — just as delightful, however. The banter between Marah and her smuggler friend is like catnip to me — I could read it all day long. The action scenes, in particular, are outstanding — there’s one fight on board a plane that will . . . well, no, I’d better not.

Fast-paced, adrenaline-fueled, adventure with a couple of the most marvelous female protagonists you’ll find this year — Marah Chase and the Conqueror’s Tomb is a guilt-free pleasure and a fantastic introduction to what had better be a long-running series.

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


4 Stars

How to Kill Friends and Implicate People by Jay Stringer: Girl Meets Boy on a Crime Spree

Two days in a row where I use denouement in a post. Odd streak. Pretty sure I can guarantee I won’t go for three, though. Sorry for the babbling that’s about to ensue.

No, I’m not really, it’s what happens when I get excited.

How To Kill Friends And Implicate PeopleHow To Kill Friends And Implicate People

by Jay Stringer
Series: Sam Ireland Mysteries, #2
Kindle Edition, 404 pg.
Thomas & Mercer, 2016
Read: May 30 – 31, 2019

I can’t pretend that everybody I’ve killed has been a bad egg. I can’t even say they all had it coming. But you want the real truth? We could all be said to have it coming. Write down the worst things you’ve ever done. Just the top ten. The silent little moments of guilt sitting at the back of your eyes in the bathroom mirror.

Did you break someone’s heart? Were you a bad husband or wife? Lousy mother or father? Was there a time you stole some money from the till at work? Maybe you just cheated on a test. We’ve all done things. One day, these things might come to the attention of the wrong person, and you get me knocking on your door.

Morals have to be flexible when you’re self-employed. Sometimes I can turn jobs down if I think they’re shady, but I’ve still got bills to pay.

This is coming a couple of weeks later than I intended to write it — mostly because I was trying to get my thoughts in order (yeah, also busy, tired, etc., etc. — but largely the getting my head wrapped around it bit). I didn’t know how it could live up to it’s predecessor and then knowing it, I had a hard time knowing how to compare the two; I couldn’t decide what was safe to talk about; I’m not sure what I can say about the ending; one of the events of this novel shocked me in ways authors almost never succeed at, and I’m still recovering (this is a good thing — but I still kind of hate Stringer for it). Frankly, I’m not sure I’ve decided any of these things, but I don’t want to not talk about this anymore.

One of the best parts of Ways to Die in Glasgow was the three first-person narrator structure, and I wondered how Stringer was going to approach this one, given that two of those narrators were unavailable. I was happy to see that he simply replaced them with another two — and relieved that it was as successful, if not more so, in these pages.

I couldn’t help thinking of the opening to Fletch (one of my favorite first chapters ever) as I got into this one. In Fletch, Alan Stanwyk hires Fletch to kill him — supposedly to prevent him from dying a painful death from a rare form of cancer. This job offer sends Fletch off on a great investigation that results in an ending Stanwyk couldn’t have predicted. Here, a businessman who makes Stanwyk look ethical, named Alex Pennan hires hitman Fergus Fletcher* to pretend to kill him. He’s done some very bad things, and some very, very bad people are going to want to do very, very, very bad things to him — the only escape is to die (but not really). Fergus knows this is a bad idea — but it’s such a bad idea that he’s interested.

* A connection I just now made — wow, I’m dense sometimes

Fergus is at something of a crossroads — he’s not sure that being a hitman is the right thing for him anymore. It’s not like he’s received “a swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever” or anything — but it’s similar. He’s lost the taste for it, he’s making sloppy mistakes. Maybe, just maybe, not killing someone would be a great way to get out of the business.

Alex and Fergus are our two new narrators — and they have very different takes on their deal, and how things unfold. This alone would be worth reading — but it gets better, because I haven’t talked about Sam Ireland — part-time PI, part-time bicycle messenger, and all around great character — our other narrator yet. Alex’s wife knows he’s up to something sketchy, and hires Sam to prove that he’s having an affair. Also, Sam and Fergus have recently met on a dating app (neither is incredibly up front about their careers for their own reasons). So you see — things are getting even more interesting.

Now, add in the very, very bad people that Alex wants to fool, the people that employed Fergus while he made some sloppy mistakes, some crooked cops, one very not-crooked cop, Alex’s wife, Fergus’ family, a footballer, a couple of shady politicians, a best-selling crime novel that keeps showing up everywhere, and a few other folks — and you’ve got yourself a Grade-A Kerfuffle of Epic Proportions. I really can’t say more than that — but I want to, it’s a great roller-coaster of a ride that you’ll enjoy while you hang on for dear life.

Alex is a great character — he’s thoroughly convinced that he’s smarter than he is — which doesn’t mean he’s not going to get away with his plan. He’s got big dreams and will do anything — anything — to achieve them. But, wow, he’s such a lousy person — you find yourself spending a lot of time hoping that Fergus messes up and actually kills him. Fergus, meanwhile, is objectively a reprehensible person — he’s a very successful hitman, after all — you should want him dead or rotting away in prison. But you won’t — you’ll be cheering him on, hoping he gets the chance to figure out his next career steps.

And Sam? If you’ve read, Ways to Die in Glasgow, you know all you know everything you need to about Sam.

I want to devote a post or two to Sam’s brother and his cockamamie thoughts and observations on comic books. But to do that, I’d end up ruining the reading experience, so I’ll keep my powder dry. But Phil made me rethink Jor-El’s efforts to save Kal-El and Krypton, and made me laugh audibly while doing so. His ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to his newsletter.

While I’d never pretend to be able to predict everything that happens in various books — to an extent, you kind of can after awhile. Right? Even when we say to each other “I never saw X coming” — in retrospect, you usually can see where X came from. The number of stunning, out of left field, I cannot believe Author Y did that moments are few and far between — maybe a dozen in the past five years. I know the only one that comes to mind in recent memory is John Mars’ Her Last Move which left me a reeling for days last November. Stringer did that to me here, I so strongly disbelieved what I’d read that I re-read a particular passage four times before moving on — only to come back a couple of pages later to try it a couple of more times. Surely it had to be what a pretty unreliable narrator perceived to have happened, not what really happened.

For those of you keeping score — this is the book that got me in a hopeful and cheery mood moments before Noelle Holten shattered it. But don’t infer from that an ending that doesn’t exist — this is one of the most complex denouements I can remember — following shortly after one of the more exciting climaxes I’ve read this year. I remember walking into another room to read the last 15 percent or so, because I could not — would not — tolerate any distractions. Not that my kids and dog were being more distracting than usual, but it was that kind of ending (and really, my dog’s half-pug, so simply breathing is frequently a distracting behavior…). It’s that kind of a read — you will laugh; you may find yourself rooting for the boy in his crime spree to get the girl; you will find your jaw hanging open (even is — especially if — you’re not the type of person to do that); you will (at the very least want to) cancel/rearrange plans to make time to read; you will wish your reading speed was a little faster so you can find out what happens when Sam tries to (ahem, well); you will find yourself writing/speaking in italics more than you’re accustomed to when discussing the novel. It’s just that kind of read.

I know Stringer has a non-Sam Ireland book coming out soon, but I sincerely hope that he’s not done with her. I’m not ready to be.


4 1/2 Stars

✔ Read a book with “how to” in the title.

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Ways to Die in Glasgow by Jay Stringer: Three distinct and entertaining voices take you on a tour of Glasgow’s underbelly

Ways to Die in GlasgowWays to Die in Glasgow

by Jay Stringer
Series: Sam Ireland Mysteries, #1

Kindle Edition, 289
Thomas & Mercer, 2015
Read: July 21 – 22, 2018

Inside the front door of the building, I checked the directory, looking to see which floor the firm was on, only to find that they used all of it. The recession hadn’t reached this far up the street. The reception area was decorated in muted shades of black and tan. Anything that didn’t share that colour scheme was made of glass. A woman who was far too young and far too skinny greeted me. She took my name and waved me into a large waiting area.

She didn’t whisper that she was a child slave or beg for help.

She didn’t ask if I could sneak her a cheeseburger.

So we are just dropped into the action here, no background, no setup, no idea who this guy narrating things is — the very definition of in media res, and, come to think of it — we are also dropped into the very definition of coitus interruptus. In this particular case the interruptus takes the form of a couple of guys trying to kill our narrator. Somehow, Mackie (the narrator) escapes — though injured — and seeks shelter at his Uncle’s place — which turns out to have been recently tossed by persons unknown (the people that came after Mackie?), and his Uncle Rab is nowhere to be found. Mackie gets patched up by his therapist and the two head out to search for Rab.

Once that’s underway, we jump back a couple of hours in time to meet our second narrator, Sam Ireland. Sam’s a newish Private Investigator who made a little splash in the news recently and is working enough to keep going, but not enough to pay rent on the office. So the office is now her apartment. It’s her father’s firm, but he’s in a retirement home and Sam’s trying to keep it alive — with a little help from her brother. Sam’s got an appointment with a potential new client, who insists on very strange meeting times (e.g., 11:23) — it’s the law office described in the quotation above. They’d read about her in the papers and wanted to hire her for some things, but first they want a test run — they’d like her to deliver some legal papers to a local celebrity author. As Sam says “…a Glasgow celebrity. . . is one way of saying dangerous.” He’s writing true crime memoirs now, and there’s a problem with his latest book so they need to serve him with papers — but can’t find him, can Sam? For the price they’re willing to pay, yes, yes she can. The celebrity’s name? Rab Anderson.You begin to see the fun here.

It turns out that our third narrator, DI Lambert, also has a vested interest in finding Rab. But there’s the tiny little thing called a job that is interfering. There’s a suspicious death that he really wants to write off as a suicide, but the guys from the Lab won’t let him. He also has connections to our other narrators. He’s a friend of Sam’s and will occasionally bend a rule or two to help her with some information. He’d also arrested Mackie some years back on a pretty serious charge.

The novel is told bouncing back and forth through each of these narrators (sometimes the same scene is retold from a different perspective) — there’s a little bit of shifting back and forth through time to keep everyone at about the same point, but it’s easy to follow. Each of these narrators has a great and distinctive voice — you really don’t need the chapters to tell you who is “speaking” you get it within a sentence (not that I mind the help). I could easily read an entire novel from one of their perspectives — Lambert’s wouldn’t be as entertaining as either Mackie’s or Sam’s, but it’d still hold up. Bringing these three voices — from radically different backgrounds, education, age, experience, vocation — but all representing Glasgow. Mackie’s a great, great character — he’s the first we get to know in this book, and in many ways, he’s the heart. But Sam’s the star — she’s stubborn, reckless, clever, and resourceful. That doesn’t quite make up for the fact that she’s a small woman with little ability to defend herself — but she frequently has her large brother along to offset that.

One of my favorite parts of John Wick was how we’re dropped into this extensive underground world with relationships, rules, alliances and whatnot — as the film goes on we grow to understand them. Something very similar is at work in this novel — we don’t have a point of entry character, really (Sam’s close), we have nothing really to get us oriented in this reality other than what happens when the characters interact and what we learn from that. This is a rich world full of many colorful, dangerous people. It’s not long before we move beyond the hunt for Rab and dive deep into the murky waters surrounding him, Mackie and Lambert — and hope that at least someone is able to survive before Sam gets drug under as well.

That metaphor may have gotten away from me. But oh well . . .

This is a violent book — make no mistake. It’s a visceral blood bath at times — and its disturbing. But honestly? The hard scene to get through had no blood, no guns, knives or anything. It was a chapter where a father thinks about the trouble his daughter is in and what he can do to help her — it’s a couple of pages long, helps build the tension, it deepens the mystery, and just breaks your heart. Give me a dozen bloody corpses any day over that.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Kate McCall and Sam Ireland, it’s that daughters should not take over their father’s PI business unless they’re ready to learn a lot about their father that they didn’t want to know. It’s possible that’s true for daughters taking over any business of their father’s — I’m not sure, I should probably read more about them, but I don’t recall a lot of novels being written about daughter’s taking over for their father’s CPA firm or pizza parlor or dry cleaning business. There’s a pretty big difference between these two ladies (there are plenty of similarities, now that I think about it, too). Kate is surrounded by oddballs, eccentrics, and actors up for anything who are generally good-natured and willing to help her. Sam is surrounded by people she can’t trust, people she shouldn’t trust, a brother who has to be harassed into helping her out, a maverick cop, and a whole lot of shady characters — all of whom (except the brother and probably the cop) would be just as likely to drop her in a grave as they would be to lend her a helping hand.*

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and am definitely coming back for more from Stringer. It’s twisty, it’s violent, it’s got a lot of heart, it’ll put a smile on your face and get you to come back for more. Check out this unique look into Glasgow.

* This isn’t to knock McCall & Co. — I actually rather enjoyed the book, and plan on reading the rest of the series soon. It was just a parallel I thought of when reading this.


4 Stars