(Revised and Updated) Dead Wrong by Noelle Holten: A Detective Struggles to Prove She Made the Right Arrest with Lives on the Line

Updated: I was dead tired last night when I finished this, and ended up not saying everything I meant to. I still haven’t, but it’s getting too long. But still, I missed a couple of points yesterday, and have got them covered now.

Be sure to come back in an hour or so for A Few Quick Questions with the Author, Noelle Holten! Also, this book releases tomorrow–be sure to grab it (still time to pre-order). While you’re at it, get the first in the series, too!


Dead Wrong

Dead Wrong

by Noelle Holten
Series: DC Maggie Jamieson, #2

eARC, 432 pg.
One More Chapter, 2020

Read: March 8-12, 2020


Last year, Noelle Holten blew my socks off with her debut, Dead Inside. It was the first of the Maggie Jamieson novels—although, I mentioned at the time “you’d be excused if you didn’t pick that up until the last chapter,” because it focused so much on a side character. This time out, the focus is almost exclusively on Maggie—her professional side as well as her personal life.

Before Dead Inside, Maggie had been part of a Homicide investigation team but had been reassigned to help her decompress after a stressful investigation that resulted in Bill Raven, a confessed serial killer, getting a life sentence. It ended with Maggie getting a voice mail from her old boss:

‘Your secondment is over at the DAHU. Raven has appealed his sentence, claimed he’s innocent. Timely I’d say as there has been another murder. Either a copycat or the real killer picking up where they left off. Get your arse in here.’

It turns out that it’s a bit more than “another murder.” It’s actually the murder of the woman Raven claimed was his first victim. Which doesn’t seem like a big deal, everyone knew she was dead. The twist comes when the report comes in that she’s been dead two days.

Say what you will, being locked up already for someone’s murder is a pretty good alibi for their actual murder. Many people—including fellow police officers and detectives–and the Press are outraged. Maggie’s previous work is being scrutinized, she’s having to defend her actions in the past while investigating the new murder (okay, it soon becomes murders—including more women that Raven claimed to have killed). She’s also doing everything she can to keep Raven behind bars—but that’s an unofficial goal. Officially, she’s supposed to stay away from revisiting the original investigation.

Now, the idea of a detective having to deal with an old investigation being re-opened because the convicted killer is making a case for their release isn’t new—Bosch had to deal with it in Two Kinds of Truth, Poe dealt with it in Black Summer, even the great Capt. Raymond Holt had to endure this kind of thing. But none of them had to explain how some of the victims turned out to have been recently alive. There’s more to differentiate Maggie’s challenge than that, but it’s a good start. Whoever is behind these killings is clearly some sort of monster, and sussing out the motive and means may prove as difficult as finding whoever’s responsible.

While the brass are inclined to believe Raven’s claims that he was delusional from drugs and a psychiatric condition when he confessed, Maggie only has a couple of sympathetic colleagues—an old friend who is now her DS and a psychologist she befriended on her temporary assignment, Kate Moloney.

Kate ends up consulting for the investigation for the new murders, helping the team think of their evidence in new ways, and helping Maggie better understand Raven and who he may have been working with while incarcerated to do the killing.

We see both women at work and at home—their home situations are almost as troublesome and stress-inducing as the hunt for the “real killer.” But, relying on each other, and their respective strengths, they’re able to muddle through—and even have a little fun. It’s an early Tony Hill/Carol Jordan-type relationship (I want to stress the “type,” because they’re all very different people and Holten isn’t trying for a clone in any sense).

I should add quickly that we do get to see Lucy, who is still working through the issues revealed in Dead Inside, but seems to be doing really well (all things considered). We don’t spend much time with her, but the way it’s done leaves the possibility for her to return to the books.

What about Bill Raven, our potentially falsely-convicted killer? It’s pretty late in the book when the reader gets a firm answer about his guilt. But we learn a few things about him right away. He’s arrogant, confident, enjoys playing with Maggie (and other detectives), and there’s just something about him that’s “off” (for lack of a better description). Whether or not he’s ultimately found to have committed the crimes he enjoys the attention and is hopeful for what the new murders mean for his release. The source of his derangement, and exactly why he’s doing what he’s doing is hinted at—and I think he alters his approach during the novel (or maybe I just don’t understand him enough).

Unlike most of the British Police Procedurals I’ve read the last few months, Dead Wrong primarily uses three characters for the Points-of-View (Maggie, Raven and Kate)—making it really easy to keep track of everyone. We do see a little from Maggie’s DI, and a couple of the victims in their last moments, too.

Speaking of the victims, and I mention this because I know the tastes of a lot of my readers. I should spend a minute talking about what befalls these women (and they are primarily women). However, and isn’t this a pleasant change, there’s nothing sexual about what happens to them. There’s not a hint, suggestion or implication of any rape or similar abuse. They are held captive—and what happens to them is truly horrifying, make no mistake, but it’s not your typical fictional serial killer thing. There’s no torture, either. At least not as you normally think about it. (what happens has to be tortuous, I assure you) we get a couple of pages’ worth of the female victims point-of-view, but even it isn’t as fear-filled as typically portrayed. There is soul-crushing despair, but done in a way I rarely, if ever, see.

I have an idea or three about where Holten is going with this, and if I’m even close to being in the right ballpark, let me say that I’m not a fan. Not that I don’t think it’ll be gripping reading, I’d just like things to go a little better for Maggie than I think they’re going to.

There are a couple of things I’m not crazy about. Once or twice, Maggie’s reaction to something feels a little over-dramatic/melodramatic. And there are a few things that I would have preferred given to us with greater detail (for example, someone is arrested for their role related to the investigations—and we’re only told that and have to make ill-informed guesses about what their actions have done to alter the police’s work).

That said, I really enjoyed this book—it’s a real slow boil of a book, things start bubbling pretty soon, but you have to wait and wait and wait for that to become a full-fledged rolling boil. Holten’s great at making sure you know there’s tension and malfeasance afoot, even if she doesn’t allow it to take over the novel. It’s well-plotted and well-executed, allowing the momentum to build so the reader is fully hooked before the plot really gets moving. Dead Inside concluded with a sentence or two past that voicemail. Dead Wrong ends on a similar note, propelling the reader on to the next book.

Dead Wrong didn’t wow me as much as its predecessor did—for one thing, I now know what Holten is capable of, and expect it—also, the nature of the story was is a bit more traditional than the last one was. While my theories while reading were wrong more often than right with Dead Wrong, I still had a pretty solid idea where the plot was going all along (until the very end, that is)—so it took a little of the luster off. Not much though, I’m still sure this is going to go down as one of the best things I read in 2020. I’ll wager the same is true for you.


4 1/2 Stars
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from HarperCollins UK, One More Chapter via NetGalley in exchange for this post and my honest opinion—thanks to both for this.

My Favorite Crime/Mystery/Detective/Thriller Fiction of 2019

Once I settled on dividing this chunk of my reading out for its own list, I knew instantly half of the books that’d make it before I even looked at my reading log. After my first cut (which was pretty hard), I had 20+ candidates for the other 5 spots. Whittling those down was difficult, but I’m pretty comfortable with this list. That doesn’t mean the other 90 or so books I read in this family of genres were bad—most were really good and worth the time (sure, a handful should be missed, but let’s forget about them). But these are the crème de la crème.

Not all of these were published in 2019—but my first exposure to them was. As always, I don’t count re-reads, or almost no one could stand up to Stout, early Parker, etc. and my year-end lists would get old fast.

I should say that I was a little worn out by the time I composed a lot of this and ended up borrowing heavily from my original posts. Hope you don’t mind reruns.
(in alphabetical order by author)

Deep Dirty TruthDeep Dirty Truth

by Steph Broadribb

My original post
Lori is kidnapped by the same Mob that wants her dead, giving her basically two choices—do a job for them or else they’re coming for JT and Dakota. Nothing about this book went the way I expected (beginning with the premise), it was all better than that. I had a hard time writing anything about this book that I hadn’t said about the first two in the series. Broadribb’s series about this tough, gritty bounty hunter (who is not close to perfect, but she’s persistent, which is easier to believe) started off strong and remains so.

4 Stars

ThirteenThirteen

by Steve Cavanagh

My original post
One of the best serial killer antagonists I can remember reading. A breakneck pace. An intricately plotted novel. An already beloved protagonist. Genuine surprises, shocking twists, and a couple of outstanding reveals make this fourth Eddie Flynn novel a must-read (even if you haven’t read any previous installments).

5 Stars

Black SummerBlack Summer

by M. W. Craven

My original post
It’s hard to avoid hyperbole in a Best-Of post like this, it’s harder still when talking about this book. But I just did some math, and Black Summer is in the top 1% of everything I read last year—the writing, the plot, the pacing, the tension, the protagonists, the villain(s), the supporting characters are as close to perfect as you’re going to find. The first note I made about this book was, I’m “glad Craven gave us all of zero pages to get comfy before getting all morbid and creepifying.” It’s pretty relentless from there—right up until the last interview, which might elicit a chuckle or two from a reader enjoying watching a brilliant criminal get outsmarted. It’s dark, it’s twisted, and it’s so much fun to read.

5 Stars

An Accidental DeathAn Accidental Death

by Peter Grainger, Gildart Jackson (Narrator)

My original post
Grainger’s DC Smith couldn’t be more different than Craven’s DS Poe if he tried, and these two books feel so different that it seems strange to talk about them at the same time. What’s the same? How easily they get the reader invested in their protagonists. How easily they get you plunged into their world and caring about what they care about. Grainger has a nice, subtle style (with even subtler humor) that made this novel sheer pleasure to read (well, listen to, in this case).

4 Stars

Dead InsideDead Inside

by Noelle Holten

My original post
When I was about halfway through this novel, I wrote, “While I’m loving every second of this book, I’m having a hard time shaking the bleak outlook on life and humanity that seems to be part and parcel of this novel…Seriously, read a few pages of this book and see if you’re not willing to replace humanity as the apex predator with something careful and considerate—like rabid pit bulls or crack-smoking hyenas.” This is not an easy read thanks to the characters and circumstances, later I wrote, “This isn’t the cops dealing with a larger-than-life genius serial killer—rather, it’s the everyday reality for too many. Just this time tinged with a spree killer making a grim circumstance worse for some. It’s a gripping read, a clever whodunit, with characters that might be those you meet every day. As an experience, it’s at once satisfying and disturbing—a great combination for a reader. You won’t read much this year that stacks up against Dead Inside and you’ll join me in eagerly awaiting what’s coming next from Holten.” I can’t put it better than that.

5 Stars

Deception CoveDeception Cove

by Owen Laukkanen

My original post
I heard someone describe this as Laukkanen writing fan-fic about his dog Lucy. Which is funny, and pretty much true. From the setup to the execution and all points in between, Deception Cove delivers the goods. Anyone who read just one of his Stevens and Windermere books knows that Laukkanen can write a compelling thriller with great characters. In these pages, he shows that in spades—you take a couple of characters that could easily be cardboard cutouts and instead makes them three-dimensional people with depth, flaws, and a relatability—and throw them into a great thriller. What more could anyone want? A wonderful dog. Guess what? He’s got one of those, too. Leaving the reader wanting little more than a sequel.

4 Stars

HackedHacked

by Duncan MacMaster

My original post
Duncan MacMaster is a new (for me) go-to author if I need someone to break me out of a gloomy mood because of books like this. Clever, well-plotted, and filled with more laughs than some “Humor” books I read this year. It also features what’s probably the best secondary character from 2019. Take out the humor (for the sake of argument here, don’t you dare do that really) and this is still a smartly-plotted and well-executed mystery novel. Adding in the humor makes this a must-read.

4 1/2 Stars

The ChainThe Chain

by Adrian McKinty

My original post
There was enough hype around this that I can see where some of my blogger acquaintances were let down with the reality. But McKinty’s breakout novel absolutely worked for me. The tension is dialed up to 11, the pacing is relentless, the stakes are high enough that the reader should make sure their blood pressure prescriptions are filled. The Chain is as compelling and engrossing as you could want. It’s a near-perfect thriller that doesn’t let up. Winslow calls it “Jaws for parents.” He’s right—I can’t imagine there’s not a parent alive who can read this without worrying about their kids, and reconsidering how closely to track their movements and activities.

4 1/2 Stars

Black MossBlack Moss

by David Nolan

My original post
This is one of those books that the adjective “atmospheric” was invented for. There’s an atmosphere, a mood, an undercurrent running through this book. Hopelessness surrounds the so many of these characters. Wretched also works to describe the feeling. You really don’t notice the time you spend in this book, it swallows your attention whole and you keep reading, practically impervious to distractions. Yes, you feel the harsh and desolate atmosphere, but not in a way that puts you off the book. The mystery part of this book is just what you want—it’s complex, it’ll keep you guessing and there are enough red herrings to trip up most readers. As far as the final reveal goes, it’s fantastic—I didn’t see the whole thing until just a couple of pages before Nolan gave it to us. But afterward you’re only left with the feeling of, “well, of course—what else could it have been?” And then you read the motivation behind the killing—and I don’t remember reading anything that left me as frozen as this did in years. There’s evil and then there’s this. This is a stark, desolate book (in mood, not quality) that easily could’ve been borrowed (or stolen) straight from the news. Nolan’s first novel delivers everything it promises and more.

5 Stars

The Power of the Dog The CartelThe Power of the Dog / The Cartel

by Don Winslow

My original post about The Power of the Dog, The Cartel should be up soon.
There’s simply no way I can talk about one of these without the other, so I won’t. This is a fantastic story about a DEA Agent’s obsessive drive to take down one of the most powerful, deadly and successful Mexican Drug Cartels around, as well as a devastating indictment of the U.S.’s War on Drugs. Despite the scope and intricacy of the plot, these are not difficult reads. Despite the horrors depicted, they’re not overwhelming. In fact, there are moments of happiness and some pretty clever lines. Which is not to say there’s a light-hand, or that he ever treats this as anything but life-and-death seriousness. They’re not easy, breezy reads— but they’re very approachable. I don’t know if there’s a moment that reads as fiction, either—if this was revealed to be non-fiction, I would believe it without difficulty. I will not say that he transcends his genre to be “Literature,” or that he elevates his work or anything—but I can say that Winslow demonstrates the inanity of pushing Crime Fiction into some shadowy corner as not worthy of the attention of “serious” readers.

5 Stars

Books that almost made the list (links to my original posts): Flight of the Fox by Gray Basnight, Who Killed the Fonz? by James Boice, Killer Thriller by Lee Goldberg, Going Dark/Going Rogue by Niel Lancaster (can’t pick between the two), You Die Next by Stephanie Marland, The Killing State by Judith O’Reilly, Dead is Beautiful by Jo Perry, Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin, Paper Son by S. J. Rozan, and How To Kill Friends And Implicate People by Jay Stringer.

Dead Inside by Noelle Holten: Wherein I babble about a smidgen of the fantastic elements of this book

Dead InsideDead Inside

by Noelle Holten
Series: DC Maggie Jamieson, #1Kindle Edition, 293 pg.
Killer Reads, 2019

Read: June 1 – 3, 2019

I honestly don’t know what to say about this gobsmackingly good mystery. There are so many things I want to say, but I’m quite aware that no one will stick around to read all of them (and, well, I have to go to work, too — I don’t have that much time). I’m very tempted to leave my mid-point check in to stand, I inadvertently hit the essentials that I’d want to talk about now. I’m also thinking of a rant about the really lousy book blurb (no offense to anyone) because you keep waiting for all the events it describes to occur, and it was late in the book for all of it to happen — which I found distracting. But what do I know, might be too hard a sell without it. There’s no way I can do justice to all the characters — we’re talking a cast the size of Abercrombie’s The First Law or Martin’s A Clash of Kings. I could talk about how this could be an extremely preachy, issues book — but Holten so skillfully dodges that, letting the circumstances do the work while she tells a compelling story — and ultimately that’s more effective (and affecting) than the alternative. I could go on and on about the way that Holten constructed the mystery component of this novel — with enough suspects to satisfy Agatha Christie or Rex Stout, cleverly placed clues (and red herrings), and a very satisfying reveal or two. Or I could speculate about why someone who so clearly knows what she’s doing could introduce a series character with a book that doesn’t focus on the series character.

See what I mean?

Let me start with this and see where I go from here…yup, that’s right. It’s stream of consciousness time, boys ‘n girls. Outlines are for wimps.

The day this released, I wrapped up reading another book — which had this great ending (that I didn’t expect) — a wistful, romantic, ending to a fun, funny and exciting read. I was in a great mood, and noticed that I had more time before dinner would be ready, so I decided to dip my feet in the water with Dead Inside. I read the prologue — a first-person near-nightmarish description of fearing what her drunk husband would do to her when he got home and pretending to be asleep to delay the inevitable (all for the sake of the little girl on the other side of the wall). So much for that happy mood — this prologue is one of the best bits of writing I’ve had the pleasure to encounter this year — it can compete with some of the best of The Power of the Dog — culminating in two sentences that shattered me. I remember practically dreading returning to the book after that, I wasn’t sure I could handle 400 pages of intensity. Thankfully, I was able to get back to that good mood by remembering the other book (and, sure, spending time with the people in my life that aren’t fictional creations). But that prologue stuck with me until I was able to get back to the book (although, almost a week later, I haven’t totally shaken it).

A quick, but important, aside: I know several of my readers have a pretty strict “No Rape” policy — and I’m not one to convince anyone against that. Rapes happen in this book — but you don’t get a play-by-play. It’s all either in past tense (e.g., “my husband raped me,” “sex was forced”), or an expression of fear that it might happen. It’s all matter of fact, completely un-exploitative, and necessary. If that’s too much, so be it — spare yourself putting this aside and don’t pick it up. But speaking as someone who has DNF’d in the past because of rape scenes, I’m telling you this is the way it should be dealt with in fiction.

Now, following the Prologue, the book drops the first-person narrative, pulling us back to a more detached third person as it introduces us to a large cast of characters (the comparison to Martin was hyperbolic, but it doesn’t feel that way) — domestic abusers, domestic abuse victims, people in denial about being either of those, probation officers, police officers, police consultants, and so on.

The novel largely focuses on two characters — and I will, too — but there are plenty of other candidates. First, we have DC Maggie Jamieson — temporarily reassigned from a Homicide team (for reasons alluded to, but not really made clear — for her good, though) to a new team focusing on domestic abuse. The whole “reassigned to get away from homicide” part doesn’t work out too well for her when the domestic abusers her team is supposed to be working with start being killed. She’s smart, ambitious, haunted — an interesting combination, to be sure. She’s a good cop, and it’s nice to see that when it happens. Maggie happens to be the series protagonist, but you’d be excused if you didn’t pick that up until the last chapter. Our other person of focus is Lucy, a tough, no-nonsense probation officer working with the same population (largely). At home, however, that toughness disappears to be replaced with a timid spirit focused on placating/not angering her husband so he won’t beat her (or worse). The two “versions” of Lucy really couldn’t be more different from each other without an MPD diagnosis (or an origin story by Stan Lee). The Prologue, we quickly learn, was from her Point of View and things haven’t gotten better for her since then.

These two are surrounded by compelling, damaged, a well-fleshed out characters. Not every man is depicted as an abuser/potential abuser — and many of those who are depicted in that way are done so with a little bit of empathy for what made them that, while not flinching from condemning their actions and the pleasure they derive from it. Similarly, not every woman is depicted as an abuse victim or enabler. Some are — and they’re shown with the same kind of empathy. Thankfully, some of the damaged men and women are shown as hard workers, trying to make the world better, despite their own circumstances. It’s good to be reminded those people exist.

In short, Holten writes humans, not caricatures or types.

Not only is the cast of characters large — so is the suspect list. The only people in the book not worthy of suspicion were the murdered themselves (and at least one of them would’ve were on the list for a bit). Holten did a great job of giving the reader reasons to suspect everyone. There was a pretty significant clue introduced about one character and I put in my notes that it was a goof on her part, or the most scarlet of red herrings you could imagine. My favorite candidate turned out not to be the one — I didn’t figure they would be, I was just relishing the idea of one particular dark horse. The perpetrator/perpetrators (I’m not telling) is/are the only real possibility(ies) at the end of the day, everything clicked for me about the time it clicked for the police — and yes, I’d considered the correct solution, but liked my idea better until I saw what Holten was doing. A very satisfying solution. Better than the solution — the end of the book is so hopeful it comes as a relief (and feels almost foreign to the rest of the book).

Anyone who’s taken an Intro to Psychology class knows the syndrome where you start unconsciously diagnosing everyone you encounter/know with some sort of psychological disorder (those who’ve gone on to take Intro to Abnormal Psychology are probably aware of the more acute version of this — how graduate students get through the program with any kind of social life intact is beyond me). I had a version of this thanks to this book — I kept seeing people I work with, saw in stores, etc. as victims, abusers, enablers, and so on. Hotlen got in my head, no doubt about it. As I said the other day, “While I’m loving every second of this book, I’m having a hard time shaking the bleak outlook on life and humanity that seems to be part and parcel of this novel….Seriously, read a few pages of this book and see if you’re not willing to replace humanity as the apex predator with something careful and considerate — like rabid pit bulls or crack-smoking hyenas.”

Dead Inside is not an easy read — but that’s because of the subject matter, the realism of the characters and circumstances, not a problem with the author. This isn’t the cops dealing with a larger-than-life genius serial killer — rather, it’s the everyday reality for too many. Just this time tinged with a spree killer making a grim circumstance worse for some. It’s a gripping read, a clever whodunit, with characters that might be those you meet every day. As an experience, it’s at once satisfying and disturbing — a great combination for a reader. You won’t read much this year that stacks up against Dead Inside and you’ll join me in eagerly awaiting what’s coming next from Holten.

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5 Stars

LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

In Medias Res: Dead Inside by Noelle Holten

As the title implies, I’m in the middle of this book, so this is not a review, just some thoughts mid-way through.

It’s been so long since I’ve done one of these, I’d forgotten it was a thing I do. Whoops.

—–

Dead Inside
Dead Inside

by Noelle Holten

Book Blurb:

When three domestic abuse offenders are found beaten to death, DC Maggie Jamieson knows she is facing her toughest case yet.

The police suspect that Probation Officer Lucy Sherwood – who is connected to all three victims – is hiding a dark secret. Then a fourth domestic abuser is brutally murdered. And he is Lucy’s husband.

Now the finger of suspicion points at Lucy and the police are running out of time. Can Maggie and her team solve the murders before another person dies? And is Lucy really a cold-blooded killer?

I’m at the 55% mark — and I’m hooked. Holten’s got this way to get into your head. While I’m loving every second of this book, I’m having a hard time shaking the bleak outlook on life and humanity that seems to be part and parcel of this novel.

Seriously, read a few pages of this book and see if you’re not willing to replace humanity as the apex predator with something careful and considerate — like rabid pit bulls or crack-smoking hyenas.

This is a slow build of a book — given the blurb, I figured the bodies would have piled up by now, but they haven’t (much). Slow, but things are happening and the story telling is gripping – pulling you further and further in with each chapter. I don’t have a clue who the killer is, but I think the motive is clear (but, honestly, if it’s something else, I’d be impressed that she did such a great job faking out the reader). I’ve got a list of candidates for the killer, and could make a case for each one — but again, I halfway expect Holten to shock me.

Unless everything falls apart in the next 40% or so, this is probably going to end up as one of the best Mystery/Crime Fiction novels of 2019.