Reviews by L. J. Roberts

  ANN CLEEVES – The Seagull. Inspector Vera Stanhope #8. Minotaur Books, US, hardcover, September 2017. First published by Macmillan, UK, hardcover, 2017.

First Sentence:   The woman could see the full sweep of the bay despite the dark and the absence of street lights where she stood.

   An old enemy of Insp. Vera Stanhope, John Bruce asks that she visit him in prison where she helped put him. He wants to cut a deal: information on the whereabouts of the body of Robbie Marshall, a long-missing hustler in exchange to Vera looking out for his daughter and grandchildren. There is a very personal element to this case for Vera as Bruce, Marshall, and a man known only as “the Prof,” were close friends of her father, Hector Stanhope, bringing back memories Vera would prefer remain buried.

   Cleeves creates such a strong sense of emotion— “Sometimes it felt as if her whole life had been spent in the half-light; in her dreams, she was moonlit, neon-lit, or she floated through the first gleam of dawn,” —and place— “The funfair at Spanish City was closed for the day, and quiet. She could see the silhouettes of the rides, marked by string of coloured bulbs, gaudy in full sunlight, entrancing now.”

   Those who follow the BBC television series Vera and may be disappointed by the departure of some characters, it’s nice to see that her assistants Holly and Joe are still here in the books. The description of Vera’s team is done in terms of their relationships to Vera. What is lovely is her understanding of what drives them, each member’s strength and what motivates them. Vera and Joe’s visit to the mother of a missing man is a sad reminder of the pain through which families go without the closure of knowing what happened.

   There is honest police work here. The investigation is conducted by legwork as well as technology; getting out and talking with people. The case is worked step-by-step, without flash.

   Vera’s self-awareness is admirable— “then she thought she was making a drama of the situation. She always did.” Yet, to her— “…the law matters. All those little people you despise so much have to abide by it, and so do you. So do I.”

   The Seagull is such a good book. Beyond the excellent plot, what one really cares about is Vera and her team.

Rating:   Excellent.

— For more of LJ’s reviews, check out her blog at :

The Vera Stanhope series —

1. The Crow Trap (1999)

2. Telling Tales (2005)
3. Hidden Depths (2007)
4. Silent Voices (2011)
5. The Glass Room (2012)

6. Harbour Street (2014)
7. The Moth Catcher (2015)
8. The Seagull (2017)

  HUGH PENTECOST – The 24th Horse. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1940. Popular Library #82, paperback, no date stated [1946]. CreateSpace/Bold Venture Press, softcover, May 2016.

   This is the second of five recorded mysteries solved by Inspector Luke Bradley of New York City’s Homicide Division. He’s called in when the young boy friend of a girl finds the girl’s sister’s body stuffed in the rumble seat of the car belonging to his girl friend. Complicating matters is the fact that his girl friend’s sister used to be his girl friend, but after he broke up with her a few days earlier, she had mysteriously disappeared.

   It turns out that the dead girl, while quite beautiful and popular with the men in her life, also had an unpleasant streak to her personality. Bradley soon suspects that she was not averse to a little blackmail. A letter left to be sent to the police after her death turns out to be blank. It then becomes a matter of not only who had a motive but who had access to the desk when the letter was kept.

   The background for this vintage detective novel is that of indoor steeplechase racing, with the title referring to the stages of 24 horses that people learning to jump must master, with increasing degrees of difficulty. There are, in the end, also 24 clues that Bradley gives to a friend, that when interpreted correctly, will add up the killer.

   Pentecost, aka Judson Philips, was a long time pulp writer, so it’s no surprise that when he turned his hand to writing book-length fiction, such as this one, the results were smoothly written, with solidly constructed characters.

   That it’s no classic that fans of fair play detective fiction will remember, is probably due to the fact that — in spite of the clues — does it not quite establish what Bradley knew and when he knew it. The killer is quite obvious, too, if you take the time to think about it.

      The Inspector Luke Bradley series —

Cancelled in Red (n.) Dodd 1939
The 24th Horse (n.) Dodd 1940
I’ll Sing at Your Funeral (n.) Dodd 1942
The Brass Chills (n.) Dodd 1943
Secret Corridors (na) Century 1945 [also with Dr. John Smith]


MICHELLE SPRING – Every Breath You Take. Laura Principal #1. Pocket, US, hardcover, 1994; paperback, 1995. Ballantine, US, paperback, 1999. First published by Orion, UK, hardcover, 1994.

   Spring is a Professor of Sociology at a British university and has published several non-fiction works. This is her first novel in a series featuring Private Investigator Laura Principal.

   Laura and her male partner-in-all-senses operate a private detective agency in London. She and her best ladyfriend co-own a cottage on the Norfolk coast, and for financial reasons decide to share the cottage with a third lady. She is an artist and Cambridge art instructor who occasionally seems to be nervous and fearful without apparent reason.

   That there were reasons becomes apparent when she is discovered brutally murdered in her flat. Laura is consumed by guilt because she didn’t pay attention to the dead woman’s fears, and begins probing her past to find answers. She finds she may not have known the woman at all.

   I didn’t dislike this, but I didn’t like it as much as I wanted to. I think my primary problem was with the prose. While the characters had the potential to be likable, the first-person narration seemed to lack immediacy and involvement, and to be almost didactic. There was a bit too much HIBK.

   A more concrete flaw was the depiction of the police, and Principal’s relations with them; it’s obvious that Spring didn’t concern herself overly with realism in this regard. The plot was eventually resolved by a device all too common, but nonetheless annoying and unsatisfying.

   After detailing all the things wrong with the book, I’m not really sure why I liked it even as much as I did while I was reading it. I guess because of the characters — but I wish she had done more with them.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #13, June 1994.

      The Laura Principal series —

1. Every Breath You Take (1994)
2. Running For Shelter (1995)
3. Standing in the Shadows (1998)
4. Nights in White Satin (1999)
5. In the Midnight Hour (2001)

Reviews by L. J. Roberts

JAMES R. BENN – The Devouring. Lt. Billy Boyle #12. Soho Crime, hardcover, September 2017. Setting: France/Switzerland, World War II.

First Sentence:   Light is faster than sound.

   Captain Billy Boyle and Lt. Piotr “Kaz” Kazimierz are headed to Switzerland but crash-land in France, meeting up with Anton Lasho, a Sinti (Gypsy) determined to kill every German he meets. The three do make it across the border and connect with members of the OSS. Their task? Investigate Swiss banks that are laundering looted Nazi gold.

   Benn throws one into high drama and action from the very start and it’s great. One feels the anxiety of the characters as we are immediately introduced to Billy, “Kaz” and Anton Lasko, who is new to us but who proves to be such a good character, one wouldn’t mind seeing him in the future. Billy and Kaz are truly wonderful characters. One can very much appreciate the way in which Benn sprinkles information on their backgrounds throughout the story. It is through the trio that Benn creates such painful, yet honest scenes that they touch one’s emotions. That’s the mark of a truly fine writer.

   Benn has an excellent voice. He includes the vernacular of the 1940’s— “You’re all packing, I assume” … “Can you get us shoulder holsters?” I asked. “It’s clumsy carrying these six-shooters around in a coat pocket.” —without overdoing it. He includes just the right touch of wry humor— “All we had to do was avoid imprisonment and long-range rifle fire. All in a day’s work.”

   This may be Benn’s most complex book so far. It is filled with historical information. One may find it makes them quite angry. Not toward the author, but because of the information which one may not have previously known, yet is important to learn. And that’s what makes this a particularly good book.

   The Devouring is a really well-done tale of duplicity, stolen gold, and a not-so-neutral country.

— For more of LJ’s reviews, check out her blog at :

      The Billy Boyle World War II series

1. Billy Boyle (2006)

2. The First Wave (2007)
3. Blood Alone (2008)
4. Evil for Evil (2009)
5. Rag and Bone (2010)

6. A Mortal Terror (2011)
7. Death’s Door (2012)
8. A Blind Goddess (2013)
9. The Rest is Silence (2014)
10. The White Ghost (2015)
11. Blue Madonna (2016)
12. The Devouring (2017)

MAXINE O’CALLAGHAN – Hit and Run. Delilah West #3. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1989; paperback, January 1991. Brash Books, trade paperback, February 2015.

   The count above of Delilah West’s does not include the short story “A Change of Clients,” which appeared in the November 1974 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, The date is worth pointing out because what it means that as a modern day female PI, Delilah West came along several years before all of the more famous ones, who showed up later: Sharon McCone (1977), Kinsey Millhone (1982), or V. I. Warshawsky (also 1982).

   In spite of the lack of fame for Mrs. West, the good news is, according to the Thrilling Detective website, “in July 1999, at the Eyecon, held in St. Louis, the Private Eye Writers of America righted that wrong, and very deservedly bestowed The Eye, its Lifetime Achievement Award.”

   Hit and Run was published in paperback by St. Martin’s as part of their “Mean Streets” line of books they were promoting at the time, but I think that’s only because Delilah was a private detective in general, not because she traveled down streets any meaner than any of those the mostly sunny town of Santa Ana in southern California.

   The case begins with her living in her office, business being so bad, and being nearly run down by a young half-Hispanic kid who leaves another man dead in street before speeding off. Thanks to Delilah’s ID of the car he was driving, he is soon arrested for the man’s death.

   Surprisingly enough, hiring Delilah to prove the boy’s innocence is his mother. Demurring greatly, she agrees to investigate and soon begins to suspect that the mean was already dead before he was left in the street to become the responsibility of the next car that drove over him.

   The book is pleasant read for PI fans, and maybe even cozy fans who like just a little more grit in the mysteries they read, but that’s all there is, just a little more grit. The ending is more of the thriller variety than it is a gather-the-suspects-around-the-room sort of detective novel, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

   All in all, a fairly ordinary case for Delilah, and except perhaps for the killer’s identity, not a particularly memorable one. It nonetheless proved to be a most satisfactory way to spend a couple of hours while flying cross country a week or so ago.

      The Delilah West series —


Death Is Forever (1981)

Run From the Nightmare (1982)
Hit and Run (1989)
Set-Up (1991)

Trade-Off (1996)
Down For the Count (1997) .


A Change of Clients and Death Is Forever (1999)
   == Short story “A Change of Clients” [+} novel above.

Bad News and Trouble: The Delilah West Stories (2014)
   == Possibly including the following short stories:
“A Change of Clients”
“Bad News”
“Deal with the Devil”
“Diamonds Are For Never”
“Somewhere South of Melrose”
“Going to the Dogs”
“Belling the Cat”


CAMILLA T. CRESPI – The Trouble with Thin Ice. Simona Griffo #4. HarperCollins, hardcover, 1993; paperback, 1994. iUniverse, trade paperback, July 2003.

   This is the fourth in this series, but it’s my first, and it almost wasn’t that. When I read the description of Griffo is “an ad exec … who loves to cook and solve murders” I nearly wimped out right there. Then I thought, well, maybe it’s the copywriter here who’s an idiot and not the writer. Let’s see.

   Simona and her New York Detective lover (and his 14 year old son) are spending Christmas in Connecticut, where a black friend of theirs is marrying a white man, and the couple is buying one of the town’s old mansions. The lady selling it to them is a member of the tows ruling class, and her announcement of the sale at dinner is greeted with something less than pleasure and acceptance.

   The same night she is drowned in an icy pond, and the bride-to-be is arrested for the murder. Simona’s lover is called away by a family injury, and she and the son are left to soldier one.

   It should be noted that there’s at least one facet of the book of which I heartily approve: a Cast of Characters at the beginning which should be de rigueur for any story with over five characters.

   Praise ends here. The blurb was right — Simona really does love to (*gag*) cook and solve murders. This is a better written version of the nonsense that people like Mary Daheim and Valerie Wolzien perpetrate, and while I recognize that there are those who like such, their rationale remains incomprehensible to me.

   I like my fiction to either be amusing or about people and premises that I can at least temporarily believe in, and neither of these attributes is in the slightest evidence here.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #13, June 1994.

       The Simona Griffo series —

As by Trella Crespi:
   The Trouble with a Small Raise. Zebra 1991.
   The Trouble with Moonlighting. Zebra 1991.
   The Trouble with Too Much Sun. Zebra 1992.

As by Camilla T. Crespi:
   The Trouble with Thin Ice. Harper 1993.
   The Trouble with Going Home. Harper 1995.
   The Trouble with a Bad Fit. Harper 1996.
   The Trouble with a Hot Summer. Harper 1997.

Reviews by L. J. Roberts

JAMES W. ZISKIN – Cast the First Stone. Ellie Stone #5. Seventh Street Books, softcover, June 2017.

First Sentence:   Sitting at the head of runway 31R at Idlewild, the jet hummed patiently, its four turbines spinning, almost whining.

   Los Angeles. 1962. Tony Eberle, a boy from upstate New York, is about to appear in his first Hollywood film and small-town reporter, Ellie Stone, has been sent West to do a story on Tony. One problem: Tony is missing, the director is desperate, and the producer has been murdered. Can Ellie solve the murder and find a hopefully innocent Tony?

   Ziskin has truly captured the time and details of the early 1960s. How refreshing to not have cell phones, GPS, the internet, and all the rest of today’s technology. Instead, there are pay phones, telegrams, Thomas Bros. Guide maps, and good old legwork. And twenty-five cent tips; an element that is really is overworked. There are excellent cultural references to the music, actors, and locations of the time, as well as emerging stories of the homosexuality of Rock Hudson, Tony Perkins, and others.

   Ellie is a really well-drawn character; she’s smart, clever, independent, and resourceful. As she is also the author’s narrator, she is also the voice of some great lines— “The same waitress from the day before asked me how my fairy tale had worked out. I shook my head and said it had turned grim.”

    Cast the First Stone has a very good plot with unexpected twists, including the killer one doesn’t predict. What was particularly nice was that there was never an obvious suspect, and the ending was delightful.

— For more of LJ’s reviews, check out her blog at :

       The Ellie Stone series —

1. Styx & Stone (2013)

2. No Stone Unturned (2014)      Nominated for Anthony, Best Paperback Original.
3. Stone Cold Dead (2015)      Nominated for Barry, Best Paperback Original.
4. Heart of Stone (2016)      Nomintated for Anthony & Edgar, Best Paperback Original.

5. Cast the First Stone (2017)
6. A Stone’s Throw (2018)


GEOFFREY NORMAN – Deep End. Morgan Hunt #3. William Morrow, hardcover, 1994. Avon, paperback, April 1995.

   Norman’s tales of the ex-con turned private eye in the Florida Panhandle have gotten some pretty good press. I do wish the publicists would stop the comparisons to John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee, but faint hope of that, I’m afraid.

   Hunt was sent to prison for beating his sister’s husband to death after a long history of her being a battered wife. Released early through intervention of a lawyer for whom he now works occasionally, he obtained a PI’s license with the same lawyer’s help.

   As the story opens, he has nothing in particular going, and is out for a pleasure dive with a casual friend when the friend’s boat is stopped by the Coast Guard for a drug search. The Coast Guard people are arrogant and destructive, and Hunt is barely able to hold his temper in check.

   Though the friend is disposed to let it go, Hunt decides to see if he can cause the Coast Guard some trouble, and find out why a man such as his friend should be targeted. The trail leads to a lawyer that his friend has mortally offended. He resolves the problem to everyone’s satisfaction, but then his friend — who has all sorts of financial problems — takes a quasi-legal job diving for sunken treasure, and then he disappears.

   All right, I’ll admit it — there is a faint flavor of Travis McGee in the way Hunt operates and looks at the world, at least in this book. As I’ve said before, Norman is a very good writer even if he isn’t another John D. He has created appealing charcetrs in Hunt, his Cajun lady Jesse Beaudreaux, and the lawyer Nat Semmes.

   The first-person narrative is excellent, as is the feel for the Florida landscape. The story this time is nothing particularly special, but neither is it offensive. If you like hardboiled fiction, Norman consistently furnishes you with high-quality examples.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #13, June 1994.

       The Morgan Hunt series —

Sweetwater Ranch (1991)
Blue Chipper (1993)
Deep End (1994)
Blue Light (1995)


DAVID HEWSON – The Villa of Mysteries. Nic Costa #2. Delacorte Press, hardcover, January 2005. Dell, paperback, August 2005.

   If you haven’t read David Hewson’s literate and well written thrillers about Rome’s forensic pathologist Teresa Lupo and detective Nic Costa, you are in for a treat.

   The pair debuted in A Season for the Dead, which was filmed with Mira Sorvino, and now they are back in another dark and forbidding outing with echoes of Dan Brown and the Da Vinci code school, true Gothic atmosphere, conspiracy theory, the detective novel, and taut suspense.

   In The Villa of Mysteries the body of a long dead young woman found partially mummified in a bog leads Teresa and Nic into a similar case that has just happened. How the two cases connected and why spins out of control into violence, Italian history, and adds a twist to the serial killer novel with sacrificial murder and the rituals of a secret society involved.

   The finely detailed background, authentic research, a combination of human drama, and a plot that is complex but never static and combined with a taut line of suspense make Hewson one of the best writers to explore this sub-genre of the thriller.

   Even if like me the words serial killer are enough to turn you off most thrillers, this one is truly different, and if you have grown weary of the Da Vinci Code school and the parade of forensic pathologist sleuths, this offers much more than either. The view of police work in Rome, the use of the cities dark corners, and long buried ancient evils is palpable in Hewson’s writing making his books much more than a rehash of what has been done before.

   For superb use of setting and atmosphere, intriguing plots, believable and attractive (and not so attractive) human characters, and fine writing you can’t go wrong with David Hewson or The Villa of Mysteries.

       The Nic Costa series —

1. A Season for the Dead (2003)

2. The Villa of Mysteries (2004)
3. The Sacred Cut (2005)
4. The Lizard’s Bite (2006)
5. The Seventh Sacrament (2007)

6. The Garden of Evil (2008)
7. Dante’s Numbers (2008) aka The Dante Killings
8. The Blue Demon (2010) aka City of Fear
9. The Fallen Angel (2011)


MICHAEL BOWEN – Corruptly Procured. Richard Michaelson #3. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1994. No paperback edition.

   Bowen has another three-book series going about a married couple, plus at least one other book, but the Michaelson books are the only ones I’ve read. None have appeared in paperback, as far as I know, which is a shame.

   Richard Michaelson is a retired Foreign Service man in his early sixties, hoping for an appointment someday to a top policy post at State but so far disappointed. He is approached by a man who once worked for him, now a top DC lawyer, to do some consulting work for which he seems ill-suited, a a price which seems high.

   Puzzled, but not enough so to overcome his lack of interest, he refuses. The offer is made at a gathering at a branch of the Library of Congress, and shortly thereafter a bomb explodes, injuring Richard and masking the theft of a priceless Gutenberg Bible. While he is in the hospital a high-ranking Treasury official urges him to accept the consulting job, for reasons left shadowy.

   A hitherto unremarkable German activist group claims credit for the bombing and theft, and vows more. Can it all be connected? Well, of course it can, silly.

   I like the Michaelson books. If Bowen doesn’t know his way around the Capital and its machinations and flora and fauna, he fakes it well. He tells his story form multiple viewpoints — though Michaelson’s is by far predominant — and keeps it moving in a reltively straight but very complex line.

   This one was perhaps a little more complex than usual, and a trifle more melodramatic, but still enjoyable. Michaelson and his bookstore-ownng lady Miranda [Marjorie?] are amiable characters, and I look forward to seeing them again.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #13, June 1994.

      The Richard Michaelson series —

1. Washington Deceased (1990)

2. Faithfully Executed (1992)
3. Corruptly Procured (1994)
4. Worst Case Scenario (1996)
5. Collateral Damage (1999)

   The husband-and-wife series that Barry referred to in his first paragraph must be the Thomas Curry and Sandrine Cadette Curry books, of which there were three (1989-1993). He also wrote five books about Rep and Melissa Pennyworth between 2001 and 2009, and one book (so far) about Josie Kendall (2016). These plus three apparent standalones constitute quite a substantial mystery writing career.

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