Sunday, December 17, 2017

Best Mystery and Crime Novels of 2017

The last year saw the release of a variety of great Mystery and Crime reads, including double entries by some popular authors. These are the best novels of the year that were reviewed by this blog:

Rather Be the Devil by Ian Rankin - The irascible John Rebus returns, when the retired former Edinburg, Scotland police inspector is called in as a civilian consultant on a new assault case. But Rebus soon finds himself digging into an old serial murder case he could never solve earlier.

Vicious Circle by C.J. Box - Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett is back to renew his violent feud with the roughneck Cates clan, who terrorized Joe and his family once before and aren't finished yet.

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins - Suspense puzzle of memory and deceit set in a rural English village, where a local pool has claimed the lives of a series of women over the years.

Golden Prey by John Sandford - A new Lucas Davenport crime thriller. Lucas has recently joined the U.S. Marshals and he's on the track of a cold blooded robbery crew in a wild chase across Texas.

Cold Earth by Ann Cleeves - Latest book in the mystery series set in the Shetland Islands off the east coast of Scotland. Heavy rains and a landslide expose a woman's dead body inside a wrecked house.

The Late Show by Michael Connelly - Gripping police procedural that introduces a new main character, LAPD detective Renee Ballard, who works the overnight shift, dubbed the "late show."
Ballard works two violent cases she was supposed to let go of, one of which leads her toward her own imminent death.

Deep Freeze by John Sandford - Quirky crime escapade featuring Minnesota State Police detective Virgil Flowers. It's the middle of a Minnesota winter and there's a murder in a small town, where the victim had just left a high school reunion meeting before she was clubbed to death by someone.

Paradise Valley by C.J. Box - In this Western-set crime thriller, sheriff's detective Cassie Dewell renews her hunt for an elusive serial killer called the Lizard King, a long haul trucker who abducts and murders his female victims across the country. He got away from Cassie once before and she's been obsessed with getting him ever since.

Monday, December 4, 2017

TWO KINDS OF TRUTH a new Harry Bosch Case from Michael Connelly

Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly is new police procedural in the series that features former LAPD detective Harry Bosch. After being run out of the LAPD, Harry now works for the small city police force of San Fernando. He's a valuable addition with his long years of police experience.

Bosch is called into a new double homicide case, where a father and son team of pharmacists are coldly shot to death inside their store. It's soon apparent that the execution-style murders are about more than a random robbery. The investigation leads toward a prescription drug fraud operation with a ruthless and violent reach.

At the same time, an old LAPD case comes back to entangle Bosch. A murderer he once put in prison petitions for a new trial, based on newly discovered evidence that will show he is innocent, and that Bosch planted material to frame him. This new charge puts Harry's whole police record into question.

Bosch must find a way to show this accusation against him is baseless and the supposed new evidence is a fraud. Meanwhile, the pharmacy homicide case leads him to go undercover, where things go wrong in a deadly way.

Two Kinds of Truth is slowed at times by a complicated plot and stretches of background material and over-explanation. But it's still a solid read for fans of Michael Connelly and his obsessive, hard nosed detective, Harry Bosch.

Monday, November 20, 2017

WIND RIVER a Powerful Western Crime Drama

Wind River is a gripping crime movie that is newly released on DVD. Set in the rugged, winter mountain terrain of Wyoming, the movie follows a storyline as harsh and unforgiving as the backdrop of its spectacular landscape.

The body of a young Indian woman is found frozen in the middle of a snowy wilderness. She is barefoot, her feet blackened by frostbite, as if she had been running from something for miles until her lungs burst from the below zero air and she dropped dead.

Because the death happened on Indian reservation land, an FBI agent is sent in to investigate. She is out of her depth in that country and she quickly asks for the aid of a local state game warden tracker. As they follow leads, a second body is found deep in the icy backwoods. This new body is a white male who worked at a nearby oil drilling site.

Things move from there toward events that are shocking in their unforeseen, suddenly explosive violence. Wind River is a powerful drama whose spare, tersely written screenplay reflects the hard realities of reservation life and Western self-reliance to survive.

This movie deserves to be on Best Picture lists this year.

Monday, October 30, 2017

DEEP FREEZE a Quirky New John Sandford Crime Novel

Deep Freeze by John Sandford is a new crime novel in the series featuring Virgil Flowers, an investigator for the Minnesota State Police. The Flowers novels are an entertaining blend of offbeat crimes, quirky violence, and sardonic humor.

It's the middle of a Minnesota winter and there's a murder in the small town of Trippton, where everybody knows everybody else's business. The victim had attended a high school reunion committee meeting, just before she was later clobbered in her home with a heavy wine bottle. But when Flowers arrives at the crime scene, the body of the presumed murder victim is now missing.

As Virgil tries to unravel that mystery, he runs afoul of another town secret and winds up getting seriously bloodied in a surprise assault by unknown attackers. Things get worse when another murder takes place that seems to connect to the first death, and it's clear there's a mystery killer on the loose in the town.

Deep Freeze is a fast reading crime escapade full of wild plot twists and turns, and livened with Virgil Flowers' country boy charm. Once again, popular author John Sandford does not disappoint.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Cold War Betrayal in A LEGACY OF SPIES

A Legacy of Spies by John LeCarre revisits the uneasy days of the Cold War when British Intelligence mounted an operation in East Germany that went cruelly wrong.

In LeCarre's fictional world, the British spy agency is called the Circus. The novel follows a newly opened investigation by present day authorities into an early 1960s Circus operation with the code name Windfall. The events of Windfall were famously portrayed in the author's early novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

In this retrospective look back at what really happened in Windfall, old buried secrets are exposed. The novel is narrated by retired former spy Peter Guillam, who is called back to London to answer tough questions. Files about Windfall are missing. Things have been covered up. Lives were lost during the execution of Windfall. How much does Guillam know?

The novel moves between flashback events of the past spy operation and the current interrogation of Guillam. What is revealed are the cold blooded decisions that were made to sacrifice lesser British agents in order to protect a more highly placed undercover spy within East German intelligence. This is the author's sour commentary on the amoral compromises and personal betrayals that are always at the heart of any intelligence work.

A Legacy of Spies is a slow, thoughtful read, not a spy thriller. The novel will be appreciated most by long time John LeCarre readers, especially for the reappearance of familiar characters like spymaster George Smiley and Peter Guillam.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

TWIN PEAKS Finale: What Does it All Mean?

The Twin Peaks revival series has ended, fittingly with a final scream of horror from Laura Palmer, just as the original series began with another scream.

The new series was uneven, with striking moments at times, and other scenes that seemed to add little and go nowhere. The series was overlong at eighteen episodes, where a tighter run of ten episodes could have been more compelling. Most enjoyable was the chance to return again to the town of Twin Peaks itself and reconnect with familiar characters, much older now, from the original series.

Key to understanding the storyline are some basic themes from director David Lynch:

1. The fluidity of time between past and future.

2. The link between conscious reality and dream world reality.

3. The existence of a transcendent evil force beneath the surface of the normal world.

4. The idea that individual selves may exist in multiple different time streams.

Twin Peaks is a surrealist narrative, driven by psychological/emotional meaning, not literal, conventional plot structure. This has the effect of floating through a disjointed, fragmented nightmare with no logical anchor.

The series ends with FBI Agent Dale Cooper returning to one happy time stream self as Douglass Jones with his family in Las Vegas. In another variation, Cooper finds Laura Palmer living as a different self in another time stream life and he tries to undo the events of her murder in Twin Peaks. The result is Laura's terrifying vision back to her murder that began the original TV series.

That final brilliant sequence was a fitting jolt back to the sinister mystery coiled beneath the placid, quirky surface of Twin Peaks.

Monday, August 14, 2017

PARADISE VALLEY a Chilling Western Crime Thriller

Paradise Valley by C.J. Box is the author's third Western-set crime novel to feature sheriff's investigator Cassie Dewell, who appeared previously in The Highway and Badlands. Cassie is mid-thirties, not very tall, and somewhat overweight. But she's a sharp investigator and a good shot when she has to be. This combination makes her character both realistic and appealing.

Cassie began her police career in Montana, where she first got onto the track of an elusive serial killer called the Lizard King, a long haul trucker who abducts and murders his female victims across the country. She moved to a new sheriff's department in North Dakota, but has stayed alert for any new traces of the Lizard King. When her new lead on the killer leads to a disastrous police operation, it costs Cassie her job.

She doesn't give up and returns to Montana to continue her obsessive hunt on her own. Paradise Valley is a chilling cat-and-mouse contest between a determined investigator and a cunning predator set against a landscape of rugged mountain terrain. It's another great read from C.J. Box, who's one of the best writers in the regional crime thriller genre.

Monday, July 24, 2017

THE LATE SHOW a New Police Thriller from Michael Connelly

The Late Show is a gripping police procedural that introduces a new main character from author Michael Connelly. Renee Ballard is an LAPD detective who works the overnight shift, dubbed the "late show." She and her partner respond to crime scenes that occur during the night hours. Ballard is stuck on the night shift because of a past clash with a supervisor who still holds a grudge against her.

Ballard's job is to do initial crime reports, then turn cases over to the regular day shift detectives to follow up. She's not supposed to be involved in the cases after that. But she responds to two crime scenes during one shift that she can't let go of. One is the vicious beating of a transgender hooker by an unknown assailant. The other case is a multiple homicide shooting inside a sketchy nightclub, where a young waitress is killed.

Ballard begins to run her own investigation of these crimes without her supervisor's knowledge. She has to cut corners and hide her actions within the LAPD, even from her partner. But as she gets closer to a suspect in the beating case, and the full truth behind the nightclub shooting, Ballard's lone wolf act leads her into imminent personal danger.

The Late Show is another superb police procedural by Michael Connelly, with an interesting new character in Renee Ballard, who shares the same rogue cop traits with another Connelly character, Harry Bosch.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

COLD EARTH Continues Shetland Mystery Series

Cold Earth by Ann Cleeves is the latest book in the mystery series set in the Shetland Islands off the east coast of Scotland. The novels, which were adapted into a popular PBS TV series, feature Inspector Jimmy Perez, head of the small island police force.

Cold Earth opens with a sudden natural disaster. Heavy winter rains on Shetland cause the land to give way on a saturated hillside. The resulting landslide sweeps downward, crushing an isolated house in its path. When the mud-filled wreckage is searched later, a woman's dead body is found inside.

The victim is unidentified. No one seems to know who was staying in the rental house. As Jimmy Perez tries to identify her, an unexpected new issue arises. An autopsy reveals the woman was murdered, strangled before the landslide ever destroyed the house.

The woman's name is eventually learned. She appears to have been having an affair with someone local, but who? Perez has a list of possible male suspects, one of whom is a killer. The answer comes in a chilling climax that gives prophetic meaning to the novel's title. For fans of the Shetland series, Cold Earth is a worthy new entry.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

John Grisham Hits the Beach in CAMINO ISLAND

Summer is beach reading time and John Grisham offers some entertaining vacation fare with his new novel Camino Island. The story is set on an island off the Florida Atlantic coast, a popular tourist destination.

The novel opens with a daring heist of rare original F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts from a vault at Princeton University. The manuscripts could be worth millions on the black market, if they can be secretly handled and sold. After the theft, the manuscripts have disappeared, hidden somewhere for the time being.

The insurer of the Fitzgerald works is on the hook for a gigantic payout if the stolen property isn't recovered. But they have a potential suspect in sight --- Bruce Cable, a local bookstore owner on Camino Island, who deals in rare book sales. What the insurer needs is someone undercover who can get close to Cable and look for info on the stolen manuscripts.

The insurer recruits Mercer Mann, a struggling novelist with a childhood connection to Camino Island. As Mercer returns to live again on the island, she joins the local literary circle and begins her tricky effort to learn the truth about suspected criminal dealer Bruce Cable. Is he really in possession of the stolen Fitzgerald works or not?

Camino Island is not a thriller, but instead a leisurely, rambling crime tale with a scenic locale, colorful characters, and amusing insight into the business world of book sellers and writers. John Grisham fans should enjoy their vacation reading with this one.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

THE THIRST by Jo Nesbo a Hunt For Vampirist Killer

The Thirst by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo is the latest crime novel in the series that features Oslo police detective Harry Hole (pronounced Hoo-leh). Harry is a police legend for his past hunting down of fiendish serial killers, portrayed in previous Nesbo novels such as The Snowman and The Leopard.

Harry Hole is now a lecturer at the police college, no longer an active detective. But he is brought back onto an elite team trying to stop a new serial killer called the Vampirist. This sadistic killer has stalked and killed several female victims using a diabolical weapon --- a set of metal dentures which he uses to bite the victims, causing massive blood loss.

Harry obsessively pursues the killer, facing his own darkest inner demons as he does so. A suspect is identified, but the case takes unexpected twists as it appears that the Vampirist is not acting alone in his murder spree.

  The Thirst is a heavy read at 450 pages that sometimes bogs down in too much discussion of criminal psychology and motivation. The murder scenes are grisly and unpleasant. The plot is overly complicated and finally reaches a climax that seems somewhat contrived. That said, Jo Nesbo fans will enjoy seeing iconic character Harry Hole on the case again.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

TWIN PEAKS Return Doesn't Disappoint

It is happening again.

David Lynch's surrealist mystery Twin Peaks is back again after 25 years, on Showtime cable network, and it remains as eerie and disturbing as ever.

The narrative resumes where the original series left off. Familiar local characters return, much older now --- Deputy Hawk, Lucy Brennan, the Log lady. New characters are introduced in other locations. Beneath the surface, the transcendent evil that inhabited the woods around Twin Peaks has now spread through a portal to infect the wider world.

All the trademark Lynchian themes are present. The link between reality and dreams. The fluidity of past and future time. The synchronicity of seemingly separate occurrences. It's all a metaphysical jigsaw puzzle overlaid against a criminal investigation mystery.

We wait until FBI agent Dale Cooper can find a way to escape from the limbo place where he remains trapped. When that happens, Cooper can begin to oppose the shape-shifting evil that has been set loose. In Lynch's vision, gateways exist between different levels of reality, doorways often represented by the crackling of electricity.

The dreamy, disorienting spell of Twin Peaks pulls us in once more.

Friday, May 19, 2017

INTO THE WATER a Tangled Psychological Maze

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins is the author's new suspense novel after her previous best seller  Girl on the Train. The new title is a similar puzzle of memory and deceit told through a series of alternating character points of view.

The novel takes place in the insular English village of Beckford, where a sinister pool in the local river has claimed the lives of a succession of women going back centuries. The place is known as the Drowning Pool, where women have died -- some by suicide, some by violence in the era of witchcraft hysteria, some more recently by murder perhaps.

The latest to die is Nel Abbott. Shortly before that was teenager Katie Whitaker. Both deaths at first appear to be suicides. Investigating the case are two detectives, the locally born Inspector Sean Townsend, and Sergeant Erin Morgan.

The mystery winds through the changing internal viewpoints of a half dozen characters. But all of them may be unreliable narrators holding back their own secrets, including one of the detectives. The story is convoluted, jumping into flashbacks at times, requiring close attention by the reader to follow the narrative.

Into the Water is a tangled psychological suspense tale that builds slowly toward a resolution that is itself enigmatic, where we can still not be certain we really have the final truth.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

GOLDEN PREY a Violent Crime Spree Chase Across the South

Golden Prey by John Sandford is the latest title in the crime thriller series that features main character Lucas Davenport. Lucas has been a long time Minnesota state police investigator. But he's got a new job now: as a U.S. Marshal on the hunt for wanted federal fugitives.

A new case takes Lucas south to Tennessee, Florida, and Alabama. A pair of redneck robbers stole millions from a drug cartel house, killing five people in the process. The cartel wants its money back and the rednecks dead. They send a ruthless hit man and a vicious torture queen to get the job done, leaving a bloody trail in their wake.

Lucas Davenport gets caught in the middle of it all, working to hunt down the redneck robbers, aided by a mismatched pair of Marshals named Bob and Rae, while trying to protect new victims from the cartel killers' torture/murder spree.

Golden Prey is a gripping read, racing across a rural Southern landscape through a chain of violent action scenes toward an epic showdown gun battle near the Texas/Mexico border. Once again, John Sandford shows why he belongs at the top of the crime thriller genre.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

THE CIRCLE Portrays Sinister Social Media World

The movie version of The Circle is out staring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson. The original novel by Dave Eggers is a creepy portrayal of both the pervasive influence, and the growing threat, of an all-powerful social media environment.

The Circle is the name of a powerhouse social media network community which seems to be a combination of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon all rolled into one overwhelming entity.

When Mae Holland gets a coveted job at The Circle headquarters, she is awestruck by the perfectly conceived design of the corporate campus and the perfectly aligned functions of the Circle operating model.

At The Circle, community joining and total sharing is the ultimate value above all else. Complete transparency of all individual lives of Circle members is required. Accepted Circle wisdom is:

All that happens must be known.
Secrets are lies.
Privacy is theft.

As Mae Holland gets ever more deeply immersed into her life within the Circle network, it becomes her only self-reality. But there are consequences. Meanwhile, the influence of The Circle over all aspects of human lives continues to grow exponentially. The goal is that every person on the planet must be required to have a Circle account. The Circle plan for absolute watching and knowing is being put into motion, as Mae eventually learns.

The Circle is a timely and chilling dystopian depiction of an insidious social media presence that in many respects is already here.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

VICIOUS CIRCLE a New C.J. Box Western Crime Thriller

Vicious Circle by C.J. Box is the latest crime thriller in the series that features Wyoming Game Warden Joe Pickett. The Pickett novels are noted for fast moving plots, with raw boned action, set against a rugged, beautifully evoked western landscape.

This new entry continues Joe Pickett's violent feud with the Cates family, a roughneck clan that terrorized Joe's family in the earlier novel, Endangered. That conflict left members of the Cates family dead and the younger son, Dallas, in prison. But Dallas is now out of custody, and along with his malevolent, wheelchair-bound mother, is looking for revenge against Joe.

Facing this threat, Joe has the help of his hard edged friend, Nate Romanowski, an Army special forces veteran. But the Cates gang wants to avenge their family losses by going after Joe's own family, leaving his wife, Marybeth, and three daughters in imminent danger.

Vicious Circle is another outstanding  read from C.J. Box in a regional flavored series that is one of the best in the crime novel genre.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Thriller Novel Classics - The Essential Reading List

Here's a list of classic novels that are essential reads in the Suspense Thriller genre. The list is generally chronological beginning with the modern day thriller advent in the 1960s. The Thriller genre is here defined as page-turner novels with strong action and suspense plot elements.

Fail Safe by Eugene Burdick - Nuclear War thriller envisioned, as a technical system failure brings the US and USSR to the brink of catastrophe.

Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel -  Political crisis thriller as the Joint Chiefs plot a coup to take over the American government.

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming - Best of the James Bond spy thriller series.

Ice Station Zebra by Alistair MacLean

Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth - Assassination thriller plot played out against an international canvas.

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton - Biological contamination crisis at a secret Nevada desert scientific facility.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three by John Godey - the Big Heist thriller set beneath the streets of New York City.

Black Sunday by Thomas Harris - Terrorist plot to hijack a blimp and pilot it into Super Bowl stadium crowd.

Marathon Man by William Goldman - Best ever interrogation scene shudderingly enacted in a dentist's chair.

The Boys From Brazil by Ira Levin -  Nazi Conspiracy thriller with a new, chilling science fiction angle.

Jaws by Peter Benchley - Natural Environment thriller at a seacoast resort town menaced by a Great White shark.

The Towering Inferno by Richard Martin Stern - Disaster thriller scenario as an unstoppable fire rages inside a giant skyscraper.

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum

The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy -  Military thriller plays out as a Soviet nuclear sub crew attempts to defect to U.S.

Firefox by Craig Thomas -  Techno/Military mission as a U.S. agent tries to steal a high tech Soviet fighter plane and fly it out of Russia.

The Firm by John Grisham - Legal thriller sees a young lawyer join a law firm with secret organized crime connections.

True Crime by Andrew Klavan - Race against time thriller as a reporter tries to halt a wrongful execution.

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown - Follows chain of historical puzzle clues to revelation of a sensational religious secret.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson - Swedish government conspiracy thriller with a hacker/punk female lead character.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Scotland Inspector John Rebus is Back on the Case

Rather Be the Devil by Ian Rankin is the latest novel in the popular series that features Inspector John Rebus of the Edinburgh, Scotland police.

Now retired, the irascible Rebus is brought in once again as a civilian consultant on a new investigation. Local gangster Darryl Christie is found beaten unconscious in front of his home. Who is behind this brutal attack? A rival gang boss, or someone unexpected? Rebus is teamed on the case with his former partner, Siobhan Clarke, and an old nemesis, Malcolm Fox, once an Internal Affairs cop who tried to nail John Rebus.

At the same time, Rebus is taking a fresh look into a long ago unsolved murder case that still bothers him years after he worked on the original investigation. Wealthy playgirl Maria Turquand was strangled in an Edinburgh hotel room. Suspects included a rock star and his band who were staying in the same hotel the night of the murder. Rebus digs into old case file records as he looks for clues that were missed earlier. But someone powerful doesn't want the dead case reopened.

As Rebus follows leads on both cases, he is dealing with a serious health issue that he tries to keep hidden from those around him. Rather Be the Devil is another gripping crime mystery for fans of Inspector John Rebus.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR a Tangled Mystery

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena is a tangled domestic mystery filled with continued, surprising plot twists. Nothing is as it first seems, and all of the key characters are hiding secrets which are eventually revealed.

Anne and Marco Conti are parents with a new baby girl. When their babysitter cancels, they decide to attend a dinner part anyway at their next door neighbors' house. They leave their baby, Cora, sleeping alone while checking on her every half-hour. But when Anne goes to check on Cora at one a.m., the baby's crib is empty. Someone has taken her.

The police are called. A search is undertaken. But no sign of who took Cora is found. Anne and Marco are distraught. Detective Rasbach begins to suspect the parents are hiding something. They had both been drinking earlier. Anne has been seeing a psychiatrist for poet-partum depression. Something is off about all of it, but Rasbach can't tell what it is.

More plot twists unfold. Anne's parents arrive to help, with their own agenda. The next door neighbors are questioned, but they may be hiding something as well. A witness may have seen something. But the baby is still missing.

 The Couple Next Door is a compelling, tautly written mystery that moves toward an unexpected answer. The novel makes entertaining winter reading for mystery fans.