Characters


MARION BRAMHALL – Murder Is Contagious. Kit Acton #5. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1949. Unicorn Mystery Book Club, hardcover, 4-in-1 edition. No paperback edition.

   Life on the college campus was different after World War II both as it was before the war and as it is now. Veterans were coming home and going to school. They were often older, married, and they had kids. They also lived in makeshift housing. Quonset huts.

   And if one kid got the measles, there was an epidemic. What Kit Acton and her professor husband Dick also face is a pair of murders, born of love and hatred and the cramped housing conditions. Reading this book 40 years later, you know what this reflects, more than anything else, is an era of the past that will never appear in any high school history class.

   According to Hubin, this was the last of five mysteries written by Marion Branhall, all starring Kit (Marsden) Acton. He doesn’t mention husband Dick. I assume that Marsden was her maiden name, and that they met and got married sometime earlier in the series.

   Dick is the detective in the family, however. Issuing a small PLOT WARNING notice at this point, he discovers who the killer is long before Kit, but he doesn’t tell her (or the reader) until after the climactic finale, during which Kit has interestingly made the clues fit another suspect altogether.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #23,, July 1990. (shortened and slightly revised).


[UPDATE.]   At the end of this review, I made some comments about the author, now deleted, not knowing much about her, I wondered if she might possibly be male, thinking that the name Marion is often masculine. On the other hand, “it’s Kit who tells the story, and it sure doesn’t sound like a man who’s putting words in her mouth.”

   I can now report that, as Al Hubin says in the latest CFIV, that Marion Bramhall (1904-1983) was indeed female, and in fact was the daughter of a minister and lived in Massachusetts.

      The Kit (Marsden) Acton series —

Murder Solves a Problem. Doubleday, 1944
Button, Button. Doubleday, 1944
Tragedy in Blue. Doubleday, 1945
Murder Is an Evil Business. Doubleday, 1948
Murder Is Contagious. Doubleday, 1949

Note:   A Kirkus review of Tragedy in Blue suggests the correct order of the first two books, both published in 1944, is as above. There is no mention of husband Dick in the review. Kit Acton’s partner in solving this third case is instead Lt. Gifford, apparently a Massachusetts state trooper In fact, the review calls it “[a]nother Kit Acton-Lieutenant Gifford story…”

IT IS PURELY MY OPINION
Reviews by L. J. Roberts


C. J. BOX – Paradise Valley. Cassie Dewell #3. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, July 2017.

First Sentence: “The trap is set and he’s on his way,” Cassie Dewell said to Sheriff Jon Kirkbride.

   Inspector Cassie Dewell has been hunting the Lizard King, a serial killer of truck-stop prostitutes, runaways, and of her former boss. Now, she hopes she has set up the perfect lure to get him to come to her. She is also concerned about the disappearance of Kyle Westergaard, a young man with mild fetal-alcohol syndrome, and his friend Raheem.

   Box does a very good job of explaining the details of things; lot lizards, the way in which independent truckers work, etc. At the same time, he does it without disrupting the flow or making one feel as though he has dumbed-down the information.

   The characters are very well drawn and developed. The rest of the cast are people one would like to know, one has been unfortunate enough to know, and those one hopes never to know. Cassie and Wyatt, in particular, are wonderful characters.

   There are villains, and then there are villains! From the very first book in which the Lizard King appeared, The Highway, it was clear Box had created one of the most frightening villains there is, partly because the type of crimes he commits are actually happening across our interstate highways. That said, one needn’t have read the first three books, as Box also does a good job of catch-up for new readers.

   Box is always such a pleasure to read. He is a wonderful wordsmith with a very visual style who creates excellent analogies: “…driving an 18-wheeler was liking piloting a ship on the ocean. The captain of that ship had an entire blue-water sea in front of him and he could go anywhere on it.”

   In spite of this being his 24th book, plus some short stories, there’s no sign of them being formulaic or getting stale. Each is informative and very exciting. So much so that I often forget to make notes while reading

    Paradise Valley is filled with excellent suspense, yet comes to a complete and satisfying ending.

      The Cassie Dewell series —

1. The Highway (2013)
2. Badlands (2015)
3. Paradise Valley (2017)

    Preceding these three books, as part of Box’s “Highway Quartet,” was Back of Beyond (2011).

— For more of LJ’s reviews, check out her blog at : https://booksaremagic.blogspot.com/.

VALERIE WOLZIEN – Murder at the PTA Luncheon. Susan Henshaw #1. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1988. Fawcett Gold Medal, paperback, 1st printing, July 1990. TV movie: CBS, 4 December 1990, as Menu for Murder (with Julia Duffy as Susan Henshaw).

   From the title you probably already know if there is a chance in the world you’ll read this one or not, but just in case, I’m here to tell you that the title really is all that you need to know. (The person who wrote the cover blurbs, front and rear, apparently never did read the book.)

   To solve the case, two Connecticut state police troopers (one male, one female) engage the assistance of a local housewife to help them dig into the seamier side of suburbia. The emphasis is on personalities and motivation; the mechanics of the murder are all but ignored.

   To add to this, while it’s not entirely unexpected, Wolzien does have a sitcom sense of humor about life in the country club set. So much so that if you’re not ready for it, the confusion it also produces can be awfully distracting. The third or fourth time our lead protagonist Susan Henshaw knocks over a glass of wine of a cup of coffee in the presence of the handsome young policeman from Hartford — and she’s supposed to be happily married — I was ready to heave a brick at the screen. Figuratively, of course. (Picture Susan St. James in the role.)

   It does pick up from there, however.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #23,, July 1990. (slightly revised).

      The Susan Henshaw series —

1. Murder at a PTA Luncheon (1988)
2. The Fortieth Birthday Body (1989)
3. We Wish You a Merry Murder (1991)
4. All Hallows’ Evil (1992)
5. An Old Faithful Murder (1992)
6. A Star-Spangled Murder (1993)
7. A Good Year For a Corpse (1994)
8. ‘Tis the Season to Be Murdered (1994)
9. Remodeled to Death (1995)
10. Elected For Death (1996)
11. Weddings Are Murder (1998)
12. The Student Body (1999)
13. Death at a Discount (2000)
14. An Anniversary to Die for (2002)
15. Death in a Beach Chair (2004)
16. Death in Duplicate (2005)

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


ROBERT L. FISH – The Wager. Kek Huuygens #4. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 1974. Detective Book Club, hardcover, 3-in-1 edition. No paperback edition. Expanded from the short story “The Wager” appearing in Playboy, July 1973.

   Though he is best remembered today for writing the book that the Steve McQueen movie Bullitt was based on under his Robert Pike pseudonym, Robert L. Fish in his day was one of the genre’s great success stories, author of the popular Captain Jose de Silva mysteries, the outrageous Schlock Homes parodies, and bestselling suspense novels such as Pursuit and The Gold of Troy.

   For my money, though his best work were his tales of smuggler par excellence Dutchman Kek Huuygens (K Hi-gins is my best guess on pronunciation), a handsome and charming gentleman adventurer in the vein of Arsene Lupin. Huuygens stars in a collection of short stories and several novels, having made his debut in the latter form in The Hochman Miniatures.

   The Wager opens with Kek living well in New York with his latest beautiful mistress Anita, involved in a low stakes game of Blackjack with a fellow member of the exclusive Quinleven Club in Manhattan. Watching the game on the side is one Victor Girard, a former dictator of the French-speaking Caribbean island of Ill Rocheaux, and only recently allowed in the country after being deposed and escaping narrowly.

   The unpleasant Girard accompanied by his ever present gunmen bodyguards has a proposal for Kek, the wager of the title: He will bet fifty thousand dollars against Kek’s five thousand that Kek cannot smuggle a valuable Chinese artifact, “the Village Dance,” into the United States and deliver it to him.

   Girard has already laid on a thief to steal the object from the museum in Ill Rocheaux, who will deliver the object to Kek for the next step in the operation. It seems almost simple, and Kek can resist anything but a challenge and an almost certain profit.

   It isn’t simple, of course. There is an American named Ralph Jamison aboard Kek’s ship, and he is almost certainly a policeman of some sort, and the thief turns out to be Kek’s old friend André Martins, who has not succeeded in stealing the object and is in desperate trouble. Kek has no choice now but to steal the object himself.

   To a book, the Kek Huuygens books are slender, fast-paced and intelligent reads with a charming protagonist who is a clever updating of the gentleman crook of yore. The writing is smart, the dialogue clever, and Huuygens one of the more attractive protagonists of his era. Better still there is no bad place to start in the series and they are all available in e-book form from Mysterious Press.

Fish makes it all look so easy, you may have to stop along the way just to recognize how effortlessly all the elements have been juggled into the perfect mix, the literary equivalent of one of those summer umbrella drinks served on a cruise.

        The Kek Huuygens series —

The Hochmann Miniatures. NAL, 1967

Whirligig. World, 1970
The Tricks of the Trade, Putnam 1972
The Wager. Putnam, 1974
Kek Huuygens, Smuggler. Mysterious Press, 1976 (collection)
    — Merry-Go-Round. Argosy, Nov 1964
    — Counter Intelligence. Argosy, Sep 1965
    — The Hochmann Miniatures, Argosy Mar 1966
    — A Matter of Honor. MD, Win 1969
    — The Wager. Playboy, Jul 1973
    — A Collector.
    — Sweet Music.

IT IS PURELY MY OPINION
Reviews by L. J. Roberts


JEFF ABBOTT – Adrenaline. Sam Capra #1. Grand Central, hardcover, July 2011; paperback, 2012. First published in the UK: Sphere, trade paperback, 2010.

First Sentence:   Once my wife asked me: if you knew this was our final day together, what would you say to me?

   CIA agent Sam Capra is deeply in love with his pregnant wife. However, his life turns into a nightmare when his office is blown up, killing everyone but him, thanks to a call from Lucy telling him to leave the building, and she then disappears. The CIA accuses Sam of treason and murder, yet he remains determined to prove both his, and Lucy’s innocence. But first he needs to finds her and their child.

   It is sometimes hard to start a book with a rather sad opening. It requires the author to have a strong voice and the making of an interesting character. Abbott has both.

   To have a protagonist who does Parkour, aka extreme running, is not something we’ve seen before. What is even better is that the author truly gives one a sense of it, of the movement. But then, Abbott is a very visceral writer. He doesn’t just make one see, he makes on feel. While this is a very good trait, it can also be painful for the reader. The descriptions of the interrogation are real, uncomfortable, and disturbing as you know they are utilized.

   The information on nanotechnology — the study of the control of matter on an atoms at the molecular level—is fascinating and frightening. The inclusion of Patty Hearst and the techniques of the Symbionese Liberation Army brings one back to a terrible period in time.

   Abbott has a very good voice and uses humor in a subtle, wry manner to offset the darkness of the plot:

      — “Then he flicked open a switchblade. A switchblade? The eighties want their weapon back.”

      — And shades of the television show Sherlock Holmes: “She’s not a traitor.” “I should get you a T-shirt with that on it,” Mila said. “And then my Christmas Shopping is done.”

      — The sense of place is always apparent: “The Grijs Gander wasn’t just a dump bar. It was a karaoke bar. That made it about a thousand times more evil.”

   Sam Capra is an interesting character whose background is very neatly provided as he finds himself in various situations. He is neither an amateur, nor a professional at dealing with his situation. Although he has some actual experience in what he must do, he is not a fully-trained field agent. This heightens the suspense.

  &nbusp;The plot is definitely one of high action and suspense. However, it is unfortunately that there needs be the stereotypical bad guy. The story is filled with very effective plot twists, yet it is still fairly predictable. Even so, Abbott statement about mankind is true and quite pitiable

      — “God or nature of biological accident gives us these awesome brains and this is what we do with them. We think of better ways to kill. Ways that make murder as easy as taking a breath.”

   Adrenaline is an exciting, sometimes painful, read with an ending that’s a perfect set up for the next book, and the series.

Rating:   Good.

      The Sam Capra series —

1. Adrenaline (2010)
2. Last Minute (2011)
2.5. Sam Capra’s Last Chance (novella, 2012)
3. Downfall (2013)
4. The Inside Man (2014)
5. The First Order (2016)

Editorial Comment:   This is LJ’s first review to be posted on this blog in quite a while. There will be more to come. You can also read many more of her reviews on her own blog: https://booksaremagic.blogspot.com/. Do check it out!

  LAWRENCE BLOCK – Death Pulls a Doublecross. Ed London #1. Gold Medal s1162, paperback original, 1961. Reprinted as Coward’s Kiss by Countryman Press, 1987; Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1996.

   The private eye in this case is a fellow by the name of Ed London, and while this is the only full length novel he appeared in, he did show up again later in three novelettes from the men’s magazines in the 1960s, stories that have since been collected as The Lost Cases of Ed London (Crippen & Landru, hardcover, 2001).

   Based in Manhattan, Ed London was a relatively high-scale operative in the true Playboy sort of image: a pipe smoker, fond of both Courvoisier cognac and Mozart, with fine books and Bokhara rugs in his apartment. He’s hired in this case by his sister’s husband to dump the body of his dead mistress in Central Park, a task that I don’t believe had ever come up before in the annals of PI fiction, or since. He found her shot to death in the apartment he kept for her, and he has no idea who might have done it.

   Task completed, with his brother-in-law in the clear, the case takes on unexpected added complexities when several interested parties call on London, each wanting a briefcase that should have been in the girl’s apartment. London doesn’t have it, but he can’t make anyone believe it. He has to play offense, he decides, rather than getting beat up again, and by professionals.

   Although not similar in most other ways, including the lack of comic overtones, the voice of Ed London, telling his own story, is remarkably the same as that of Bernie Rhodenbarr, Lawrence Block’s hero of all his later “Burglar” books. It’s a complicated tale, but the long explanation of how London knew what he knew and when he knew it seems to hang together.

   It’s too bad there was the only one novel with Ed London in it, but with all of Block’s other books and series, most of which I have yet to open, I don’t imagine there’s really any reason to complain.

      The Ed London short stories —

“The Naked and the Deadly” (1962, Man’s Magazine)
“Twin Call Girls”(1962, Man’s Magazine)
“Stag Party Girl” (February 1965, Man’s Magazine?)

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


JANET EVANOVICH & LEE GOLDBERG – The Chase. Fox & O’Hare #2. Bantam, hardcover, February 2014; paperback, November 2014.

   The second outing in this series by bestselling Stephanie Plum creator Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg, who penned the Monk television series novels, features con artist Nicholas Fox and FBI agent Kate O’Hare out to take down one Carter Grove, a former White House Chief of Staff, now owner of a ruthless private security organization, who is suspected of stealing a rare artifact from the Smithsonian.

   The artifact must be found and returned before the Chinese government finds out it is missing to avert an international scandal, and who better to achieve just that than Fox and O’Hare (Fox and Hare for anyone not paying attention), if they can learn to trust each other, and in his case, that is no easy matter.

   The action opens with a big car chase staged to round up an adventure already in motion (the pre-credits sequence), and then we are off from New York to Shanghai and Montreal on a chase aided by Fox’s criminal associates and by a group of AARP card carrying mercenaries led by Kate’s father.

   So, yes, this is the kind of movie of the week, tired old episodic television business we have seen a thousand times, Moonlighting and Remington Steele country, with the hero and heroine panting heavily and not quite resolving the central question of when the big romance will get to be too much for them, and who will betray whom at what point.

   It just so happens it is very well done, by writers in complete control of the material, it comes in at just about the ideal length for this sort of business — enough to resolve the plot and not enough for overstuffed seams to show — and at the end, which is where the reader of any mystery or crime entertainment is headed, it is satisfying enough you want more. It may not be a very dry vodka martini in the Ian Fleming sense, but it is more than a flat beer and a bag of stale chips.

   If you are in the mood for a palette cleanser or a light dessert these books are ideal, and that is what they aspire to be, mystery, action, romance, served crisp and cool for a summer distraction,

       The Fox and O’Hare series —

1. The Heist (2013)     Reviewed here.
2. The Chase (2014)
3, The Job (2014)
4. The Scam (2015)
5. The Pursuit (2016)

IVOR DRUMMOND – The Necklace of Skulls. Jennifer Norrington, Alessandro di Ganzarello, Coleridge Tucker III #7. St. Martin’s Press, US, hardcover, 1977. Dell, US, paperback, 1980 (shown). First published in the UK by Michael Joseph, hardcover, 1977.

   Even today India is large enough and mysterious enough to be the scene of a revived cult of religious fanatics called Thugs, whose sole mission of Earth is to kill other men on behalf of their goddess Kali. The three intrepid adventurers, Colly, Sandro and Jenny, stumble into the worst of what’s going on, and it takes many close calls before they manage their escape, but not before thousands of people in India die, nearly unnoticed in an impoverished land strangled by overpopulation.

   Although the last true pulp magazines expired twenty or so years ago. the kind of breathless romantic adventure fiction that monopolized their now discolored and musty pages can obviously still be found. Modernized, of course, and told by authors with more skill and more time for polishing their work, but it can always be recognized whenever a story is told for the pure fun of it.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 1, No. 6, November 1977 (slightly revised).

      The Colly, Sandro and Jenny series —

1. The Man With The Tiny Head (1969)
2. The Priests Of The Abomination (1970)
3. The Frog In The Moonflower (1972)
4. The Jaws Of The Watchdog (1973)
5. The Power Of The Bug (1974)
6. Tank Of Sacred Eels (1976)
7. The Necklace Of Skulls (1977)
8. A Stench Of Poppies (1978)
9. The Diamonds Of Loretta (1980)

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


KATE WILHELM – The Best Defense. Barbara Holloway #2, St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1994. Fawcett, paperback, 1995.

   Kate Wilhelm is equally well known as a science-fiction and crime writer — not enough in either field — and has written many books in both genres dating back to 1963. She’s written five books about a husband-and-wife private eye team set in Oregon, but this isn’t one of them. She is, I think, under-appreciated.

   Barbara Holloway isn’t looking to take on any new cases, but when the sister of an accused baby killer comes to her and says that the woman’s public defender isn’t doing his job, she agrees to at least look into it. She finds it to be true, and also finds that a concentrated smear campaign is being waged by a local right-wing newspaper publisher — one that is quickly broadened to include her when she takes a hand. She is convinced of the woman’s innocence, which means that there is a real killer loose. As she begins to build her case, she finds tangible evidence of this.

   1994 is shaping up to be my year for courtroom dramas. First William Harrington’s Town on Trial, and now this, both better than any I’ve read in years. I think this is Edgar material. Wilhelm has created an appealing and believable character in Barbara Holloway, and the rest of the characters are equally well done. The courtroom scenes are excellent, and narrative tension is maintained throughout the story.

   Let me revise my opening statement and say that Wilhelm is very under-appreciated. The book, by the way, has much to say about battered women and the more conservative element of the pro-life group, and says it cogently and well. The story is brought to a successful conclusion, it should be noted, without the orgy of violence which has become so prevalent in the field.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #11, January 1994.


       The Barbara Holloway series —

1. Death Qualified (1991)
2. The Best Defense (1994)
3. Malice Prepense (1995), reprinted as For the Defense (1997)
4. Defense for the Devil (1999)
5. No Defense (2000)
6. Desperate Measures (2001)
7. The Clear and Convincing Proof (2003)
8. The Unbidden Truth (2004)
9. Sleight Of Hand (2006)
10. A Wrongful Death (2007)
11. Cold Case (2008)
12. Heaven Is High (2011)
13. By Stone By Blade By Fire (2012)
14. Mirror, Mirror (2017)

   There are also 12 books in Kate Wilhelm’s Constance and Charlie series, the husband-and-wife PI team that Barry mentioned in passing. Not a bad resume for an author who is or will be 89 this year and is still probably better known as a SF writer. (See the comments for a correction on the number of Constance and Charlie books.)

JOSEPH FINDER – Guilty Minds. Nick Heller #3. Dutton, hardcover, 2016; paperback, 2017.

   Nick Heller is, according to the back cover of the softcover edition of this book, “a private spy — an intelligence operative based in Boston who prides himself on uncovering the truth.” His assignment in this case: to find out who’s responsible for a scurrilous story about a Supreme Court justice that’s about to appear in one of those scandal sheet websites that are so widely read around the world today, but most particularly in the DC area.

   The justice is accused of having an ongoing liaison with a call girl in a downtown DC hotel, an accusation that Heller quickly proves to be false. When the call girl is found dead, obviously a suicide, Heller decides to follow up on his own — he doesn’t believe the official verdict — and to find out who’s really behind this ever evolving conspiracy, and why.

   This is PI work in the modern age, no doubt about it. Heller has a staff fully conversant with all kinds of illicit computer spying and other high tech surveillance capability, as well as contacts of all kinds whenever his own staff needs assistance. It does make things a whole easier in one sense, compared with the resources a Philip Marlowe had, or didn’t have — but on the other hand, the villains of the take have equal abilities, and they’re not hesitant about using them.

   I don’t usually tackle books as long as this one — almost 450 pages of small print — but Finder has a very smooth writing technique that allows the reader to gulp in whole paragraphs at a time. Truthfully, though, it’s more of a thriller novel than it is a PI novel, with a lot of firepower bringing the story to a grand slam conclusion in the final few chapters.

   There’s nothing in this one that I’m sure I haven’t read before, but even if so, I didn’t mind at all reading it again.

      The Nick Heller series —

1. Vanished (2009)
2. Buried Secrets (2011)
2.5. Plan B (novells, 2011)
3. Guilty Minds (2016)

   Also of note: “Good and Valuable Consideration: Jack Reacher vs. Nick Heller,” a short story by Lee Child & Joseph Finder included in the ITW (International Thriller Writers) anthology FaceOff (2015).

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