The Curator by M. W. Craven: I do not have enough superlatives in my repertoire to do justice to this novel

The Curator

The Curator

by M. W. Craven
Series: Washington Poe, #2

Hardcover, 372 pg.
Constable, 2020

Read: June 30-July 2, 2020

‘Sean Carroll’s a kite enthusiast,’ Bradshaw said after Nightingale had ended the call. ‘He’s not a dork.’

Poe grunted. He had a problem with ‘enthusiasts’. As far as he was concerned, on the ladder of weird interests that eventually escalated to criminal behaviour, enthusiasts were only a rung below Obsessives, and he’d seen first-hand what obsessed people were capable of…

Yup, this case is strange enough that Poe is driven to consult a kite dork—sorry, enthusiast—that’s just how desperate he is for a clue. Not only has Poe seen first-hand what obsessed people can do, he’s frequently the obsessed person in question–he can make Harry Bosh look laid-back.

What’s The Curator about?

It all starts around Christmas—two severed fingers are found in a public location with no indication how they got there. Tests show that one finger was removed from the victim while they were alive, the other after they were dead. Two more sets of fingers show up in equally public, yet hard to access places. Clearly, there is a creative, disturbed and clever killer at work. The local police waste no time in calling in Washington Poe—this is up his alley, near his home, and the replacement for Detective Superintendent Gamble knows they need his assistance. With Poe comes his DI, a very pregnant Stephanie Flynn, and Tilly, everyone’s favorite analyst.

Racing against the clock—the last thing anyone wants is another pair of fingers showing up—Poe and Tilly do all they can to figure out what the victims have in common, or what would make them a target. And what “#BSC6” could mean—it was left at each scene, and even Tilly is stumped by it.

They catch a break or two, and Poe makes the most of it. Before long, they’re able to make an arrest, Tilly is able to do things with that evidence that even Poe didn’t know she could do—solidifying the case they have against their suspect—who begins confessing to crimes no one knew about. But he won’t confess to the killing.

And then there’s a phone call from a crusading FBI Agent to Poe. And suddenly, everything that Poe thought they’d established about the killer is thrown out the window.

From that point on, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. It was surprise after surprise after surprise. The twists didn’t stop coming—I’m pretty much at a loss for words. Is there a word that means “more than intricate”? If so, I need to learn it so I can describe this novel. Craven doesn’t cheat when it comes to his twists and reveals—it’s all there in the book for you to find. But you probably won’t, because Craven’s smarter than almost all of his readers.

What about the characters?

The real draw to these books are Poe and Tilly. Everything readers liked about the before is back. Their camaraderie is as strong as ever and the reader can feel it radiating off the page, who needs a friendship of your own if you can live vicariously through theirs?

In The Puppet Show, Poe was trying to find his footing again after being reactivated. In Black Summer, he’s fighting to protect his reputation and career. Here? Poe’s just a man on a mission, with no distractions or hindrances in his way. Poe unleashed is a great thing to behold.

As much as Poe’s a local legend among Law Enforcement, it won’t be long until Tilly’s as much of a star (if not more). Watching her win over a bunch of jaded, cynical cops by being her brilliant, socially awkward self was so much fun. (her interaction with a representative from the Ministry of Defense might have been more entertaining, but not by much)

I don’t want to take away anything from DI Flynn—her role in this is pivotal, but her role in the investigation isn’t as large as it has been before, making her more of a supportive character than usual. Her condition, and Poe’s protective instincts (despite Flynn’s objections), won’t allow for anything else.

Detective Superintendent Nightengale is a no-nonsense woman. She’s clearly a good officer, a good manager. She wants to do things by the book, but she’s clever enough to give Poe and Tilly all the latitude she can for them to do a more effective job than the by-the-book route, just in case. I’m sure that eventually,, she’ll run out of the patience required to deal with this team—but that’s a plot complication for another day (and one I look forward to).

Estelle Doyle, the pathologist we met in Black Summer is back and just as wonderful. I know it’d be pushing things to have her play a larger role in these books than she does, but the few scenes we have with her are just not enough to satisfy.

Neither space or time permit me to discuss the other standout characters—on both sides of the law. I would like to talk a bit about the eponymous Curator, because the Curator is the kind of character that you want to sit around discussing for a couple of hours. Obviously, I can’t do that here.

So what did I think about The Curator?

In addition to the plot and characters, there’s real pathos, real tension, real heart—and even some real laughs. I’m not sure I breathed enough in the last seventy-five pages, it’s probably good that I wasn’t hooked up to an oximeter, the alarms that it would have sounded would’ve been really distracting. As usual, this is given to us via Craven’s crisp and compelling prose. Combine those characteristics with a top-notch mystery? And you’ve got a book that deserves all the accolades the first two books in this series has received, and then some. As good as The Puppet Show and Black Summer were (two of the best books I’ve read in the last two years), The Curator is better.

It was two days after I finished this before I could start another book—three before I could start another novel. That is rare for me. But I needed some time to recover/come down from this one. Pick an element—plot, atmosphere, character, pacing, complexity, twists—Craven nails it all. This is an exceptional work. It’s pointless for me to say anything else, why try to gild the lily?

5 Stars

20 Books of Summer

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


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


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.

Black Summer by M. W. Craven: A Good Detective Faces Off with a Brilliant Criminal for the Second Time

I’m very pleased to finally get to post about this book—I had more trouble than I’m used to getting a copy on this side of the pond, so I’m a little late to the party. If my copy of the next installment in this series is as delayed, I’ll probably start looking into emigrating.

Black SummerBlack Summer

by M. W. Craven
Series: Washington Poe, #2

Paperback, 388 pg.
Constable, 2019

Read: August 19 – 20, 2019

The door behind her opened and the huge frame of Edward van Zyl, Director of Intelligence, National Crime Agency, filled the space next to Flynn. His expression was as grim as a cancer diagnosis.

‘We have a problem, Poe,’ he said.

Why am I not surprised? he thought. It’s the soundtrack to my life. . .

What a horrible couple of weeks for D.S. Washington Poe. Six years ago, he began investigating a missing persons case that he changed into a homicide investigation and ended up arresting the woman’s father for murder. He was convicted and received a life sentence. But now, a young woman has come forward claiming to be the not-at-all-murdered woman with a tale of being held captive for years by a rapist she just escaped from. DNA appears to back her claim.

The question now is, why did Poe’s investigation go so wrong? Was it because of a grudge against the father? Was he lazy, or just incompetent? Poe has to wrestle with self-doubt, but he knows he did everything right with this case. Worse than not understanding what happened to get the investigation on the wrong track is the idea that if Elizabeth Keaton is actually alive, then her father, celebrity chef, Jared Keaton, will be released from prison. That thought chills Poe.

How on earth did you describe Jared Keaton to someone who didn’t know him?

Charming. Charismatic. Highly intelligent. A genius chef. No conscience whatsoever. The most dangerous man Poe had ever met. He’d taken an instant dislike to him. He was too superficial, too well groomed, too polished. He’d reminded Poe of a fake Irish pub. Pretty, but of no real substance.

Poe goes on to explain to a detective looking into the claims of the woman claiming to be Elizabeth that Jared Keaton was warm and outgoing in public/on TV, but in reality, was cold and sadistic. Not anyone he wants walking free—especially as he’ll be carrying a grudge.

Poe has mere days to prove this woman isn’t who she says she is and keep Keaton in prison (and save his career, or at least his reputation). A few days later, when Elizabeth goes missing and the evidence points to Poe doing something to her, he realizes it’s worse than all that. He’s in a fight for his freedom. He’s going to need some help, so he calls in his new friend Tilly.

She’d already appeared via videoconference, but Tilly showing up makes all the difference. I was already hooked—riveted, really—by the story, don’t get me wrong, but within half a scene or so of her showing up at Poe’s, I was enjoying the book. It’s a fine distinction, but it was something I registered at the time. Poe’s a strong character, Tilly’s delightful—but there’s something about the combination of the two of them that just really ticks all of my boxes.

Bradshaw had spent most of her working life, and a large part of her childhood, in academia undertaking research in mathematics. As brilliant as she was, until she’d joined the National Crime Agency there’d never been any need to learn the social skills that everyone else took for granted, the skills everyone began learning in the schoolyard.

And, as maths was a binary science with little room for selective interpretation, she had never grasped how to express an argument. Maths didn’t have subtlety. It didn’t need discretion and it didn’t need empathy. It was either right or wrong. Maths told the truth and therefore so did she. It would never occur to her to do anything else.

I’m not sure that Tilly’s contributions are as valuable to this case as they were in the previous novel—not that she doesn’t make many, nor that they’re not important—but the clinchers here come from putting the pieces together as Poe does. This is a Poe vs. Keaton showdown, and the big moments have to come from him.

The two jump into their investigation, reworking the original to the best of their ability, while also examining the evidence and circumstances around Elizabeth’s return and disappearance. How could Keaton be orchestrating all this? How could he be succeeding at it? What’s his end game? Yes, it has to be Poe’s working hypothesis that Keaton’s behind it all. If he starts with a position of self-doubt he’ll never get anywhere—or if he does, it’ll be too late to do any good.

Soon, Poe begins to realize that he’s asking the wrong questions as he’s looking at the pile of evidence. But what are the right questions? Once he starts asking those, we’re off to the races for a great finish. Most good mysteries—especially in the police procedural realm—have this kind of moment, but it’s rarely so self-consciously done. It’s generally the result of the ever-so-convenient new witness coming forward, a forensic test finishing at a convenient time, a piece of evidence the detective should’ve picked up on 150 pages earlier dropping out of thin air or something like that. Here, it’s Poe realizing that he’s not getting anywhere and taking steps to fix that. It’s a minor thing, but it’s this kind of minor thing that when combined all the other minor and major things going on that takes a good mystery novel and turns it into a great one.

There are some great supporting characters—D.I. Flynn isn’t in this book as much as she was The Puppet Show, but she’s still as vital to the plot. Ditto for her boss. Detective Superintendent Gamble returns, as well—as a major supporter of Poe. But the best characters (that aren’t Poe or Tilly) are a couple of new ones. The first we meet is DC Andrew Rigg, who’s the one to initially interview Poe about the original case and prosecution, the returned Elizabeth, and everything else. He’s convinced that Poe botched the initial investigation and is disgusted with him and full of righteous anger (Poe understands and assumes he’d act the same way in Rigg’s shoes), but he’s not a simple two-dimensional antagonist, he’s a good cop and that governs his actions and reactions. The second is Estelle Doyle, a forensic pathology lecturer and a pathologist extraordinaire. She’s brilliant, no mistake—but she’s got one of the darkest and strangest senses of humor, an extreme type of gallows humor. She sets Poe on edge (“incredibly sexy and utterly terrifying”), but there’s a mutual trust and affection, too.

I have to talk briefly about Poe’s springer spaniel, Edgar. I mentioned Edgar in my Favorite 2018 Fictional Dogs post, and he’s back again, bringing a little joy into this pretty dark book. The few paragraphs we get devoted to him when Poe goes to pick him up from his neighbor who was watching him might send a few readers to a breeder or a shelter before they finish the book. But Edgar does more than just bring happiness to the book—there’s a huge chunk of story that works only because of Edgar. I can’t get into it, just take my word for it. Which is just one more of the nice moves that Craven executed in the design of this novel.

You’ve got yourself a very clever mystery—or more, actually, most of it depends on how you want to count them. A fantastically creepy murderer (or is he?), some great supporting characters, and a couple of dynamite central protagonists—what more do you need? How’s about a breakneck pace and tension that doesn’t really let up? 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.

But beyond the plot and character, Black Summer features some dynamite writing. A lot of book bloggers, myself included, focus on plot and character—or theme—and we frequently overlook the actual writing—the prose, the execution of the book, that sort of thing. I frequently get hung up on voice, style, and tone and don’t get beyond that when considering the writing. But there was something about the quality of this novel that made me pay attention. This is one of the best-written books I’ve read in 2019. A little sample (I’m restricting myself to one example, and I’m not including as much of this as I want to), from Poe and Tilly going to interview a person connected to Elizabeth’s past in a nasty, “grubby pub called the Coyote” (better known as the Dog):

Poe pushed open the door and stepped inside. His nose went into shock. The Dog smelled worse than a toilet. He didn’t want to know what the actual toilets smelled like. The air was hot and smoky and perfumed with the cloying scent of cannabis. The windows and ceiling were stained yellow with nicotine. Fat bluebottles feasted on something wet and organic on the worn, frayed carpet. Poe’s money was on blood. Probably from the bare-chested man using his own T-shirt to stem the flow coming from what looked like a recent head wound. Despite his injury, he continued to drink and chat with the man sitting next to him.

It was that kind of place.

By the time Craven’s really done describing the place (a little less than a page later), you feel like you’re in the room with them and want to hurry home to take a long shower to get the grime off and to wash your clothes to get the stench out. The first three pages are enough to elicit a visceral reaction and may make you consider a vegan diet (for at least a few days). Can I tell you exactly what it was that Craven did that others don’t? No. Maybe if I’d gotten around to getting that post-graduate degree I’d have the tools, but I don’t. Still, as Justice Stewart said, “I know it when I see it.” I see it here.

I was blown away by The Puppet Show last year, and Black Summer shows that it wasn’t a fluke. I’m already losing patience for the 2020 arrival of The Curator, and am only mollified by the repackaging/republishing of Craven’s earlier series this winter. If you’re at all inclined to Crime Fiction, you need to track down M. W. Craven’s work in general and Black Summer in particular.


5 Stars
2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

(in alphabetical order by author)

The Puppet ShowThe Puppet Show

by M. W. Craven

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

5 Stars

Needle SongNeedle Song

by Russell Day

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

5 Stars

She Rides ShotgunShe Rides Shotgun

by Jordan Harper

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

4 Stars


by Joe Ide

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

5 Stars

A Mint Condition CorpseA Mint Condition Corpse

by Duncan MacMaster

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

5 Stars

My Little EyeMy Little Eye

by Stephanie Marland

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

4 1/2 Stars

Her Last MoveHer Last Move

by John Marrs

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

5 Stars

Stoned LoveStoned Love

by Ian Patrick

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

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

Exit MusicExit Music

by Ian Rankin

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

5 Stars

Trouble is a Friend of MineTrouble is a Friend of Mine

by Stephanie Tromly, Kathleen McInerney (Narrator)

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

4 Stars

My Favorite 2018 (Fictional) Dogs

In one of the lightest moments of Robert B. Parker’s Valediction (just before one of the darker), Spenser describes his reservation about the first two Star Wars movies: “No horses . . . I don’t like a movie without horses.” After watching Return of the Jedi, he comments that it was a silly movie, but “Horses would have saved it.” Which makes me wonder what he’d have thought about The Last Jedi. Horses aren’t my thing, it’s dogs. I’m not quite as bad as Spenser is about them — I like books without dogs. But occasionally a good dog would save a book for me — or make a good book even better. I got to thinking about this a few weeks back when I realized just how many books I’d read last year that featured great dogs — and then I counted those books and couldn’t believe it. I tried to stick to 10 (because that’s de rigueur), but I failed. I also tried to leave it with books that I read for the first time in 2018 — but I couldn’t cut two of my re-reads.

So, here are my favorite dogs from 2018 — they added something to their novels that made me like them more, usually they played big roles in the books (but not always).

(in alphabetical order by author)

  • Edgar from The Puppet Show by M. W. Craven (my post about the book) — Edgar has a pretty small role in the book, really. But there’s something about him that made me like Washington Poe a little more — and he made Tilly Bradshaw pretty happy, and that makes Edgar a winner in my book.
  • Kenji from Smoke Eaters by Sean Grigsby (my post about the book) — The moment that Grigsby introduced Kenji to the novel, it locked in my appreciation for it. I’m not sure I can explain it, but the added detail of robot dogs — at once a trivial notion, and yet it says so much about the culture Cole Brannigan lives in. Also, he was a pretty fun dog.
  • Rutherford from The TV Detective by Simon Hall (my post about the book) — Dan Groves’ German Shepherd is a great character. He provides Dan with companionship, a sounding board, a reason to leave the house — a way to bond with the ladies. Dan just felt more like a real person with Rutherford in his life. Yeah, he’s never integral to the plot (at least in the first two books of the series), but the books wouldn’t work quite as well without him.
  • Oberon from Scourged by Kevin Hearne (my post about the book) — Everyone’s favorite Irish Wolfhound doesn’t get to do much in this book, because Atticus is so focused on keeping him safe (as he should be). But when he’s “on screen,” he makes it count. He brings almost all of the laughs and has one of the best ideas in the novel.
  • Mouse from Brief Cases by Jim Butcher (my post about the book) — From the moment we read, “My name is Mouse and I am a Good Dog. Everyone says so,” a good novella becomes a great one. As the series has progressed, Mouse consistently (and increasingly) steals scenes from his friend, Harry Dresden, and anyone else who might be around. But here where we get a story (in part) from his perspective, Mouse takes the scene stealing to a whole new level. He’s brave, he’s wise, he’s scary, he’s loyal — he’s a very good dog.
  • Ruffin from Wrecked by Joe Ide (my post about the book) — Without Isaiah Quintabe’s dog opening up conversation between IQ and Grace, most of this book wouldn’t have happened — so it’s good for Grace’s sake that Ruffin was around. And that case is made even more from the way that Ruffin is a support for Grace. He also is a fantastic guard dog and saves lives. His presence is a great addition to this book.
  • Dog from An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson (my post about the book) — I might have been able to talk myself into ignoring re-reads if I hadn’t listened to this audiobook (or any of the series, come to think of it) last year — or if Dog had been around in last year’s novel. Dog’s a looming presence, sometimes comic relief (or at least a mood-lightener), sometimes a force of nature. Dog probably gets to do more for Walt in this book — he helps Walt capture some, he attacks others, just being around acts as a deterrent for many who’d want to make things rough on Walt. Walt couldn’t ask for a better partner.
  • Trogdor from The Frame-Up by Meghan Scott Molin (my post about the book) — Honestly, Trogdor probably has the least impact on the book than any of the dogs on this list. But, come on, a Corgi names Trodgor? The idea is cute enough to justify inclusion here. He’s a good pet, a fitting companion for MG — not unlike Dan’s Rutherford. He just adds a little something to the mix that helps ground and flesh-out his human companion.
  • Mingus from The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie (my post about the book) — Like Trogdor, a great name. Like Mouse and Dog, a great weapon. He’s really a combination of the two of them (just lacking Mouse’s magical nature). He’s vital in many different ways to the plot and the safety of those we readers care about. Petrie made a good move when he added this beast of a dog to the novel.
  • Chet from Dog On It by Spencer Quinn (my posts about Chet) — If I couldn’t cut Dog, I couldn’t cut Chet. Listening to this audiobook (my 4th or 5th time through the novel, I believe) reminded me how much I love and miss Chet — and how eager I am for his return this year. This Police Academy reject is almost as good a detective as his partner, Bernie, is. Chet will make you laugh, he’ll warm your heart, he’ll make you want a dog of your own (actually, all of these dogs will)
  • Zoey from Deck the Hounds by David Rosenfelt (my post about the book) — how do I not invoke Tara when discussing an Andy Carpenter book? Good question. It’s Zoey that brings Andy into the story, it’s Zoey that helps Don to cope with his own issues, it’s Zoey that defends Don and saves him (in many ways). Sure, Tara’s the best dog in New Jersey, but Zoey comes close to challenging her status in this book.
  • Lopside from Voyage of the Dogs by Greg van Eekhout (my post about the book) — It almost feels like cheating to bring in a dog from a novel about dogs — conversely, it’s hard to limit it to just one dog from this book. But Lopside the Barkonaut would demand a place here if he was the only dog among a bunch of humans — or if he was surrounded by more dogs. He’s brave, he’s self-sacrificing, he’s a hero. He’ll charm you and get you to rooting for these abandoned canines in record time.

The Puppet Show by M. W. Craven: The debut of one of the best pair of characters I can think of in a truly compelling novel.

The Puppet ShowThe Puppet Show

by M. W. Craven
Series: Washington Poe, #1

Paperback, 352 pg.
Constable, 2018
Read: July 23, 2018

‘First impressions?’ Flynn asked.

He studied the slash marks again. Not including the messy number five, he counted forty-two. Forty-two wounds to spell out ‘Washington Poe’. Forty-two individual expressions of agony. ‘Other than the victim wishing I’d been called Bob, nothing.’

‘I need you to come back to work,’ she said. She looked around at the desolate fells he now called home. ‘I need you to re-join the human race.’

He stood up, all previous thoughts of resigning dismissed. There was only one thing that mattered: the Immolation Man was out there somewhere, selecting victim number four.

Washington Poe was a Detective Inspector who either made a very, very, very horrible mistake or is a DI or did a very, very, very bad thing — it depends who you ask. Either way, he’s on suspension until he either quits or the internal investigation is complete. He doesn’t quit, but he doesn’t expect to be brought back to work anytime soon.

Until his former DS, now his replacement, shows up — there’s a serial killer afoot, burning people alive — after some torture, it seems. What led to him being brought back (aside from being the kind of investigator who will be able to track this guy down) is that the last victim had Poe’s name cut into him before he was burned. This is a message to him — and possibly a threat. So, potential bad cop or not — for his own protection, he needs to get reactivated. Sure, it’ll be a little awkward, he’ll be acting as a subordinate to his former DS — but he frankly knows he was better at that anyway, so he’ll get used to it.

One of the first things he does is meet an analyst working with the police — she’s the one who developed the model to make sense of the wounds and found his name on the corpse. Tilly is a fascinating character — she’s a mathematical genius, a whiz with computers, and socially awkward. That actually is an understatement — clearly from a young age, Tilly’s mom sheltered her from the worst of society so that her genius could flourish. Now an adult, she decides to work with the police so her mathematics could see some immediate benefit to society — but she still is an outsider (and mom is determined to keep her that way).

Almost immediately upon meeting her, Poe shakes up her life. He defends her from some teasing/bullying by some police officers and then he insists that she’s coming to the field with him. Tilly’s never done anything like that before, but jumps at the chance. The two of them build a strange partnership — and a strong friendship — as they work this case, along with DI Flynn and an old friend of Poe’s, Kylian Reid) who is one of the few police officers in the country who aren’t suspicious of him.

Poe is a great character — there’s no two ways about it — you put him in a novel by himself (or with Flynn or Reid) and I’m reading it. He’s in the Bosch/Rebus kind of vein — he’s going to get the job done, and will annoy/offend whoever in the chain of command, city government, press, etc. to get the job done. This quotation describes it best:

He knew some people thought his reputation for following the evidence wherever it took him was because he felt he held some sort of moral high ground. That he had a calling to a purer version of the truth that was unattainable to other, lesser, cops. The truth was simpler — if he thought he was right, the self-destructive element to his personality took over. It frequently allowed the devil on his shoulder to shout down his better angel. And at the minute, the angel couldn’t get a word in edgeways . . .

His face turned to granite. If he didn’t do it, who would? Sometimes someone had to step up. Do the unpalatable so others didn’t have to.

That’s the kind of character I can read any time.

But what makes this book (on the character front, anyway) a must read is Tilly Bradshaw. Actually, no. It’s the combination of Tilly and Poe. Yeah, Poe largely uses her the way he’d use anyone to get the job done (see Rebus/Bosch) — but there’s some genuine affection for her at work, too. He truly seems to like her and wants to protect her — and maybe push her a little to fend for herself. Tilly clearly adores him — I should stress that this is a platonic thing for both — he protects her, treats her like an adult (something her mother doesn’t allow anyone to do), and relies on her brain (which most people do). Tilly is a character worth one’s time, no doubt about it — and I can’t imagine anyone who reads this book to not like her a lot. But the two of them together are as good a pair as you can imagine.

Now, that’s all well and good — but what about the plot? What about the killer? The plot is as intricate as you can hope for in a serial killer novel. As the police start to compile a theory of the case, a profile of the killer, it quickly becomes clear that there’s a dark root, a strong motivating factor behind the killings. At one point, I put in my notes “Okay, I’d be absolutely fine not learning anything else about the killer’s backstory. Can we just get to his arrest now, leaving the rest of the uncovering to the prosecutor’s work after the novel is over?”

Naturally, the answer to that was a resounding no. You learn more about what drove this man to kill — and frankly, it’s hard not to wonder if he’s justified. Not justified in how he goes about the killing, because that’s just horrible. But you might wonder if it’d be okay for him to get away with it. To get to that point — and to find out if Poe and Bradshaw are able to stop the killing — there’s some great twists and turns to the case, and some very compelling reveals to get through. The reader will be hooked throughout.

Not only can Craven create great characters, and tell a good story — but his writing is compelling, too (yes, there is a difference between those last two). The first description given of one of the corpses The Immolation Man left was horrific, it really made me ill. Another description that stood out was an older suspect — and her home — without giving anything else away, Craven’s description of the two together was so well done that I felt I could see them as clearly as I could see the room I was in at the time. I loved the voice, the style, his use of words — really just about everything.

Oh, yeah and when — I can’t believe I almost forgot this — when you figure out why Craven used this title, you’re going to need some help picking your jaw off the ground. There’s at least one other reveal that may require that as well, come to think of it. Any good Crime Fiction is going to have some good reveals embedded in the story — the skilled writer revealing them properly is what makes a good Crime Novel into a great one. Craven delivered the latter.

Craven’s writing, the compelling story, the fantastic characters — you put these elements together and you have an unbeatable combination and the makings of one of the best crime novels — novels, period — that I’ve read this year. I’m not really sure I read it — it was more of a semi-controlled devouring. There are few sequels I’m looking forward to as much as the next Washington Poe book. While I’m waiting for it, you should go grab The Puppet Show so you can join me in anticipating its arrival.


5 Stars