Characters


SANDRA WEST PROWELL – By Evil Means. Walker, hardcover, 1993. Bantam, paperback, April 1995.

   This is the first of three recorded adventures for perhaps the only fictional PI working out of Billings, Montana, a former FBI agent named Phoebe Siegel. The case seems simple enough, that of a woman who is afraid that there is something wrong at Whispering Pines, the psychiatric clinic on the outskirts of town where her daughter had recently sought help.

   Phoebe is about to turn her down, since (for many reasons) she always takes the month of March off. One of the reasons is that March is the month that her brother Ben, a cop in the local police force, committed suicide. She changes her mind, though, when the mother tells her there may have been an involvement between the girl and her brother Ben, even to the extent of a police complaint just before he died.

   Thus begins a long (over 350 pages) investigation into all kinds of secrets in her home town that Phoebe had never had an inkling of, many of them involving her family and friends, and she has many in both categories. The book is slow to start. It is not until page 130 or so, when Phoebe goes sneaks into Whispering Pines and convinces herself at last that Dr. Stroud is indeed up to no good, that the tale really starts to get into high gear.

   In some ways, this book reminded me of several of Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone stories, in which the friends and family seem to be a secondary but essential sidebar to the mystery. But in Phoebe Siegel’s case, the role they both take on simply grows and grows, insidiously so. The ending is as harrowing as any that I’ve read in a PI novel in quite a long time.

   I wasn’t so sure for a while, but this one’s a keeper.

      The Phoebe Siegel series –

By Evil Means (1993)
The Killing of Monday Brown (1994)

When Wallflowers Die (1996)
An Accepted Sorrow (unpublished)

   According to the Thrilling Detective website, By Evil Means was nominated for the Hammett Prize, and both that novel and The Killing of Monday Brown were nominated for a Shamus.

JUDY FITZWATER – Dying to Remember. Fawcett, paperback original, August 2000.

   I’ve been winnowing out my collection of paperbacks over the past few weeks. Some are now up for sale, others are going to the local library or in other ways new homes are being found for them. This was going to be one of the latter until I saw that Jennifer Marsh, the detective in this, the fourth of now seven books in the series, the last after a gap of 12 years and available only on Kindle — whew, sorry — is a writer of mystery stories.

   An occupation for a fictional detective that I’ve always found interesting, so I retrieved it from the Pass Along pile, thinking it deserved a trial reading before I did so. Turns out, however, that while Jennifer, a young 30-something, has written nine mysteries, none of them have ever been published. False advertising by the back cover blurb writer right there, wouldn’t you say?

   But while this firmly places this book in the “cozy” category, reinforced by the presence of a wanna-be authors support group she’s a member of, there is an edge to this light-weight murder mystery that managed to keep me reading all the way to the end.

   Most of the opening portion of the book takes place at a high school reunion, with Jennifer reluctantly agrees to attend, and sure enough an old flame is there, bringing back memories of a prom night some 12 years ago. Along with many other members of the same class, most of whom Jennifer would just as soon forget, or she already has.

   But when the old flame is found dead in the parking lot outside the event, the verdict being an unfortunate suicide, Jennifer does not agree and takes it upon herself to do a little amateur sleuthing.

   High school is tough on a lot of people, but for others, it is the highlight of their life. The difference is where the edge comes in. Unfortunately it seems to me that what happens 12 years ago should have been checked into back then, not now, and the ending is one of these in which the heroine decides to tackle the killer head on, with no police in sight.

   So what did I decide? Is this one a keeper after all? No, but Jennifer Marsh is a character that I got to know rather well. She has spunk, and if the other books she’s in come along while I’m winnowing, I may check into her life again.

       The Jennifer Marsh series

1. Dying to Get Published (1995)

2. Dying to Get Even (1999)
3. Dying for a Clue (1999)
4. Dying to Remember (2000)
5. Dying to Be Murdered (2001)

6. Dying to Get Her Man (2002)
7. Dying Before ‘I Do’ (2014)

SALLY WRIGHT – Publish and Perish. Multnomah, softcover, 1997. Ballantine, mass market paperback, February 1999.

   If you like mysteries taking place in the world of academia, this is one of the better ones. This first in a series of six Ben Reese novels takes place in a small college town somewhere in Ohio, where the first death is that of his best friend, Professor Richard West, chair of the English Department.

   At first West is assumed to have died of a heart attack, but since he had just finished a mysterious trans-Atlantic phone call with Reese soon before he died, the latter returns home immediately, looking for answers to questions the police have not thought of asking yet.

   By trade, Ben Reese is an archivist for the school, making him a natural for adding detective to his résumé, but his background in commando-style pre-invasion work for the Army in World War II holds him in good stead as well. The story takes place in 1960, by the way, just as things were about to change drastically in the world of higher education. There are no panty raids in this book, but they were still around at the time, with in loco parentis still the philosophy of the day.

   Speaking for myself, I’d like to have known the dead man quite a bit more before he disappears from the book. He was a dedicated scholar, tough on his students, dogged in academic arguments, which were many, and a staunch believer in honesty, a fact which is what gets him killed. It is only as Reese works through West’s life that we get to know him better.

   As the author of this tale, Sally Wright also knows the ins and out of college-based squabbles, jealousies and other political maneuverings, so as I say, I enjoyed this one. Future books in the series move away from the academic scene, however. Reese’s occupation as an archivist will lead him all over the world, and I am curious to learn if the change is for the better.

       The Ben Reese series

1. Publish and Perish (1997)
2. Pride and Predator (1997)

3. Pursuit and Persuasion (2000)
4. Out of the Ruins (2003)

5. Watches of the Night (2008)
6. Code of Silence (2008)

 RONALD TIERNEY – The Concrete Pillow. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1995. Worldwide Library, paperback, March 1997.

   I purchased but never read the first four of the Indianapolis PI Deets Shanahan series when they came out in paperback, but there was a gap of nine years before the next one appeared, and I missed picking up any of those. It was not, in fact, until reading Kevin Burton Smith’s recent article in Mystery Scene about the series that I realized that Tierney had starting writing the books again, and that they have been coming out quite regularly.

   Save for the last one, Killing Frost, which has appeared after a time lapse of five years, and which I am told will definitely mean the end of the line for the series. I don’t know exactly what that means, but part of the ongoing focus of the Shanahan books is his age. In The Concrete Pillow, published some 20 years ago, he is 70. I don’t think he’s aged at the same rate as the rest of us, but he must at least be thinking of retirement.

   In Pillow, book number four, and the first one I was able to find in my collection when I went looking, Shanahan is already feeling his age, not so much physically, but mentally, worrying about forgetting things in particular.

   The case itself has to do with a dysfunctional family of some fame in Indiana, as the four Lindstrom brothers (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were quadruplets and well-known stars of their high school basketball team. Since then, however, things have not gone well for them. One is dead, the other permanently disabled, and Deets (short for Dietrich) is hired by the third, strung out on drugs but convinced that someone is going to kill him.

   Deets has a 40-something live-in girl friend named Maureen, a former massage therapist, and a family crisis of his own to deal with. A son he has not seen in 30 years is coming for a visit, along with a grandson whom he has of course never seen before at all. He does not know how he will handle this but this aspect of the story becomes as important as solving the care he is hired to solve. Two families in turmoil, one unhappily, the other, well maybe there’s hope there.

   Unfortunately the mystery end of things winds up with Deets setting himself up for bait, waiting for the killer, still unknown, to make a move against him. The ploy works, but if you are looking for more detective work than this, you may not be satisfied. I think, though, that if you like Bill Pronzini’s Nameless PI series, where character as well the case solving comes into play, you might want to give this one a try.

      The Deets Shanahan series –

1. The Stone Veil (1990)
2. The Steel Web (1991)
3. The Iron Glove (1992)

4. The Concrete Pillow (1995)
5. Nickel-Plated Soul (2004)

6. Platinum Canary (2005)
7. Glass Chameleon (2006)
8. Asphalt Moon (2007)
9. Bloody Palms (2008)
10. Bullet Beach (2010)

11. Killing Frost (2015)

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


TAYLOR McCAFFERTY – Ruffled Feathers. Haskell Blevins #2. Pocket, paperback original, 1992.

   This is a silly book. Silly. Haskell Blevins is an ex-Louisville cop (if it’s explained why he left I missed it) who now is the only private detective in his tiny (pop. 1511) home town of Pigeon Fork, Kentucky. How he makes a living there is mercifully unexplained.

   He’s hired by the town’s millionaire, a poultry raiser (shades of East Texas’ own Bo Pilgrim), to protect his daughter, for whom he has received a ransom note, but who hasn’t been kidnapped. The chicken magnate, an irascible and thoroughly repulsive sort, is killed, and we’re off.

   Off target and off base is what we are. The Blevins books are supposed to lighthearted and amusing. Not. Try dumb. The level of humor is indicated by the fact that the narrator, who nearly always speaks to you in a folksy (it’s to be queasy) but perfectly grammatical manner, four or five times over the course of the book throws in lines (directed to you, the reader) like, “Of course, you’ve got to watch them chickens…” Supposed to reinforce his country image, I guess.

   Stupid mystery, stupid characters, and an insult to the intelligence of all with IQs in triple digits. If you think this is funny, ABC sitcoms were made for you.

– Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #2, July 1992.

      The Haskell Blevins series –

1. Pet Peeves (1990)

2. Ruffled Feathers (1992)
3. Bed Bugs (1993)
4. Thin Skins (1994)
5. Hanky Panky (1995)
6. Funny Money (2000)

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


BILL GRANGER – Drover. Jimmy Drover #1. William Morrow, hardcover, May 1991. Avon, paperback, May 1992.

   Bill Granger is the author of the four book Chicago Police series of quite a few years ago (originally published as by Joe Gash, and underrated in my opinion, though one won an Edgar), and the very successful November Man spy series, which now runs to twelve.

   This book introduces his third series, and is about a well-known sportswriter unfairly banned from sportswriting because of alleged contacts with the underworld. The second in the series, Drover and the Zebras, has already been released.

   Jimmy Drover now lives in Santa Cruz, and makes his living investigating various aspects of the sports world for the owner of a Las Vegas book As the story opens, he goes to the aid of an old flame whose husband has killed himself because of gambling debts. Shortly after, an old gangster acquaintance from Chicago contacts him with a story about someone planning a major fix in the NFL, and offering Drover help with his lady’s problem in return for assistance with his own. The plot thickens, bubbles, and boils over.

   Granger creates interesting characters, and tells their story in his usual highly professional manner. Drover and his friends are reasonably engaging (particularly the ex-fireman, Black Kelly, naturally), and the villains — who include professional gamblers, government agents, and Chicago commodity traders — are truly scuzzy. Good, but not great.

– Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #2, July 1992.


       The Jimmy Drover series –

1. Drover (1991)
2. Drover and the Zebras (1992)

3. Drover and the Designated Hitter (1994)

Note:   There were 13 books in Granger’s “November Man” series, one more than when Barry wrote this review.

SYDNEY HOSIER – Most Baffling, Mrs. Hudson. Avon, paperback original, January 1998.

   This was a nice idea, based on just the one in hand, but one that was only indifferently carried out. Other readers may have thought so too, as the series lasted a total of only four books, of which this is the third.

   Not that Most Baffling is bad, for it isn’t. The concept is that Mrs. Hudson, having had some success in solving mysteries on her own, has become an inquiry agent herself, independent of her boarder upstairs. Holmes himself does not appear, not does Dr. Watson, but one of the former’s discarded suits does play a small role.

   Mrs. Hudson has her own Watson, so the speak, although her friend and live-in companion Mrs. Warner, or Vi, short for Violet, does not tell the story. She’s there primarily for comic relief and of course to have someone on hand to bounce ideas off of, and vice versa.

   In Most Baffling, the two are hired by a lady whose husband was killed at a party under the most unusual of circumstances. In spite of a large number of people being present in the room, no one heard the fatal shot, nor did anyone see who did it.

   In terms of period detail, the setting as described is at least satisfactory, and the dialogue is mostly OK, to my tin ear. In terms of the mystery itself, Mrs. Hudson and her friend Vi do not do a lot of detecting. It is more a matter of serendipitous luck, shall we say. A neighbor down the street who Mrs. Hudson happens to meet and chat with for the first time, for example, connects her with another fellow who just happens to be intimately involved with the murder.

   A gathering of all the suspects in one room at the end gets us on familiar ground, to be true, but the “impossible” nature of the crime needs to be talked about, I think. I will discuss the solution to the case in more detail as part of the first comment, so please be warned in advance before heading there. All in all, enjoyable enough in its fashion, but I’m unlikely to read another.

       The Mrs. Hudson series –

1. Elementary, Mrs. Hudson (1996)

2. Murder, Mrs. Hudson (1997)
3. Most Baffling, Mrs. Hudson (1998)
4. The Game’s Afoot, Mrs. Hudson (1998)

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