CHRISTOPHER NICOLE – Angel Rising. Anna Fehrbach #6. Severn House, hardcover, 2008.

   …Anna Fehrbach, alias the Countess von Widerstand, alias the Honourable Mrs Ballantine Bordman, alias Anna Fitzjohn. Her ebullient confidence had carried her, when hardly more than a girl, through the horrors of the Second World War, not to mention the traumas of trying to survive afterwards, which for her had been greater than for most, as she had remained for too long the most wanted woman in the world.

   A fair summation from the prologue of the sixth entry in a series of the heroine of this sexy playful historical series by Christopher Nicole, a British writer of big sexy historical thrillers in the Wilbur Smith/James Leasor vein, best known here for his popular spy novels as Andrew York about professional assassin Jonas Wilde (*) and later CID operator Tallant in the Cockpit country of Jamaica.

    When I say sexy, I should point out I mean in the James Bond sense and not the Lady from L.U.S.T. or Man from O.R.G.Y. vein. While these may not stop at the edge of the bed neither do they overly dwell on activities between the sheets, the object being tease more than fulfillment. In fact the best I can describe this series is a cross between Ilsa She Wolf of the SS, Geoffrey Bocca’s soft core Commander Amanda titles about a sort of female Candide serving in the SOE during WWII, Modesty Blaise, and Flashman with far more ties to the latter two in style and mood.

   At eighteen in 1938 Austro-Irish Anna Fehrbach and her family are arrested during the Hitler putsch in Austria. Forced by the SS, who hold her family hostage, Anna becomes the top agent of the SD, their number one assassin and mistress of Reyhard Heydrich, at one point even pursuing an attempt on Joseph Stalin, but eventually Anna is recruited by MI6 and her future husband Clive Bartley and becomes a double agent, even planning the execution of Heydrich in Czechoslovakia and plotting the failed coup against Hitler.

   In and out of bed whether with Heydrich, Stalin, or Hitler Anna is a busy girl.

   That is all back story as this one begins at the end of the war when the Soviets under Stalin’s orders and MVD (predecessor to the KGB) head Beria’s directions decide along with the Americans and Anna’s ex-American lover, Joe Andrews, formerly OSS and now the fledgling CIA, agree Anna is too dangerous to live, and join forces to find and kill her leaving her with no where to hide, pursued and betrayed by the deadliest killers in the world not to mention vengeful Nazis.

   The chase takes her from the highlands of Scotland to Brazil, Germany and Switzerland, a confrontation with her SS trained and loyal Nazi sister, Katherine, and a reckoning with former lover Joe Andrews until Anna wins a brief respite and relieves the Soviets of a considerable sum of money along the way.

   ‘I gave up trusting people, most people, long ago. But I have grown to understand a little of human motivation; there are only three that matter: love, fear and greed.’

   ‘You wouldn’t include hate?’

   ‘Hate is merely an aspect of fear. We only hate the things we fear.’

   ‘And thus you hate no one.’

   ‘Not right now. Which is not to say that there are a few people I believe the world would be a better place without.’

   Anna is described as amoral, but instead is something of an original moralist along the lines of Frank McCauliffe’s Augustus Mandrel, Mark Gattiss’s Lucifer Box, and Kyril Bonfigioli’s Mortdecai. She is all the more fun for it eschewing the tiresomely earnest purity of too many of contemporary fiction’s cold-blooded killers.

   This history is of the playful behind-the-scenes type, both accurate and imaginative, the plot fast moving, and the pleasure in watching the beautiful and brilliant Anna (she has an IQ of 173) outwit everyone and anyone trying to use her or kill her, and often both. It is a lighter variation of the kind of thing both Ian Fleming and William F. Buckley did, offering a playful peek at the inner workings of the great and powerful with their hair down and make-up off.

   Yes, it is nonsense, but not without some actual models in the case of Anna, albeit in a less superhuman mold. I don’t want to oversell this; it is fluff, but it is good fluff of the kind not seen as often as it should be these days, not bloated or self important, and Anna’s cheerful blend of amoral survival, healthy (and not so healthy) sexuality, and crisp action and violence is exactly the kind of beach read that used to be a summer staple before the advent of the hernia-inducing beach book.

   Anna threw herself sideways, rolling across the floor but at the same time dragging her dress to her waist to reach the Walther. The two men turned back again, and died before they realized what was going on. Anna kept on firing.

   The writing is crisp and professional, the nonsense factor the tongue-in-cheek sort of the better Bond and Modesty Blaise imitators (which Nicole was), and as I said, the history accurate if playfully tweaked as only the better thrillers manage. Think Dennis Wheatley’s Gregory Sallust without the clunky info dumps.

   Best of all it never overstays its welcome unlike too many thrillers today.

   By the time Anna has earned her rest you will likely feel she fully deserves it and be wanting to join her on other adventures, done in a high style that seems to be lost to many of today’s more heavy-handed thriller writers and their earnest Boy Scout heroes. Pink champagne and caviar with a Vodka chaser taken in proper amounts makes a nice change up from the lite-beer and potato chip boys of too many modern thriller series.

   There is something to be said for style above all else in entertainment which is the only serious intent here.

   ‘And you mean you and Clive didn’t manage to sneak off and live happily ever after, spending your loot?’

   ‘Not right then. We had our moments. But I was about to find out just how cold the Cold War could get.’

   ‘So tell me, did you ever come face to face with Beria?’

   Anna Fehrbach smiled.

    To be, as they say, continued.


   (*) Jonas Wilde debuted in The Eliminator and went on to a long and successful career, most of the books published here in paperback by Berkeley and even resulting in a solid little film, Danger Route, starring Richard Johnson as Wilde, which Quentin Tarantino champions as a model of its kind and has often said the wanted to remake.

   As Nicole the author also penned a juvenile spy series about young agent Jonathan Anders (published here by Dell). He is a popular historical novelist in England with numerous series. The Anna Fehrbach series is up to the ninth entry in that series, and I warn you Nicole is nothing if not prolific…

      The Anna Fehrbach series —

1. Angel from Hell (2006)
2. Angel in Red (2006)
3. Angel of Vengeance (2007)
4. Angel in Jeopardy (2007)
5. Angel of Doom (2008)
6. Angel Rising (2008)
7. Angel of Destruction (2009)
8. Angel of Darkness (2009)
9. Angel in Peril (2013)


FRANCINE MATHEWS – Death in the Off-Season. Merry Folger #1. William Morrow, hardcover, 1994. Avon, paperback, 1995. Soho Crime, trade paperback, 2016.

   There are two facts worthy of immediate note here, before reading a word of the text: that this is yet another first novel trumpeting on the dust wrapper that it is “An Ima New Character Book” (as though anyone gave a damn yet if ever), and Morrow has it priced at $23. Twenty-three dollars. For an unknown. I simply don’t understand. Someone help me, please.

   Merry Folger us a detective on the Nantucket Police Department, and the daughter of the Chief. She catches her first murder case when the brother of a local farmer turns up unexpectedly at the farm after a ten year absence — murdered at the gate,

   Nobody knows why he returned; not the brother, not the lawyer and family friend, not Merry’s ex-love and the brother;s current employee. Nobody. But then somebody takes a shot at the brother, and Merry has to decide whose life to dig in.

   This is all too typical of a type of “mystery” that has become ubiquitous. It’s all about Relationships. Merry with her father. Merry with her ex-love. Merry with the brother. The brother with everybody. And on and on. As a crime novel, it’s silly, and the “investigation” bears about as much relationship[ to real police work as it does to … whatever. It’s told in third person from a number of viewpoints, primarily Merry’s and the brother’s, and the prose is adequate, no more. $23, my ass. Pass this up and read a romance.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #15, September 1994.

       The Merry Folger series —

1. Death in the Off Season (1994)
2. Death in Rough Water (1995)
3. Death in a Mood Indigo (1997)
4. Death in a Cold Hard Light (1998)
5. Death on Nantucket (2017)

ELIZABETH PETERS – Borrower of the Night. Vicky Bliss #1. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1972. Paperback reprints include: Dell, 1974. Tor, 1990. Avon, 2000.

   The first adventure of Vicky Bliss, and what a woman she is! Tall, intelligent — a doctorate in history — and beautiful! — she claims to have measurements straight out of Playboy magazine, although she demurely declines to be specific. (Too good to be true?)

   At stake, a treasure hidden somewhere in an old German castle, complete with ghosts in creaking armor, old tombs and secret passageways. The whole can be less than the sum of its parts, however, and on page 169 [of the Tor edition] the characters themselves admit the story is getting corny.

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Mystery*File #21, April 1990.

The Vicky Bliss series —

1. Borrower of the Night (1973)
2. Street of the Five Moons (1978)
3. Silhouette in Scarlet (1983)
4. Trojan Gold (1987)
5. Night Train to Memphis (1994)
6. Laughter of Dead Kings (2008)


MICHAEL RALEIGH – The Maxwell Street Blues. Paul Whelan #3. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1994. iUniverse, paperback, 2000.

   Paul Whelan, a PI who specializes in finding people who don’t want to be found, has his usual not much of anything going when a black lawyer comes to him with a case. The lawyer has a client, he says, who wants a missing relative, an aging black man, found.

   He can’t tell Whelan much about the man, but that’s all right — Whelan’s used to that. He takes the case but doesn’t find the man, because the police find him first. Murdered. The cops quickly arrest two young black men, but a friend of the dead man doesn’t think they did it, and talks Whelan into doing some discreet poking around.

   It has better be discreet, because it’s an open murder case and the investigating detective is an old enemy of Whelan’s. Once more into the breach we go, down Chicago’s own particular brand of mean streets.

   I don’t know why, but I seem to like Chicago books better than New York books, whether they’re cop, PI, or whatever. Raleigh does Uptown Chicago about as well as it can be done. The city is as much of a character as most of the people, too.

   I like Paul Whelan a lot. He’s a man who has come to terms with his life and who he is and what he does, and all this without a lot of breast-beating and philosophical posturing. Raleigh tells his tale in the third person through Whelan’s eyes, with a lot of easy, realistic dialogue, and with smooth, clean prose.

   It’s a low key story, about people rather than society or Big Issues, and I think it’s a good one, told by a very good writer.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #15, September 1994.

The Paul Whelan series —

1. Death in Uptown (1991)
2. A Body in Belmont Harbor (1993)
3. The Maxwell Street Blues (1994)
4. Killer on Argyle Street (1995)
5. The Riverview Murders (1997)

Reviews by L. J. Roberts

JOHN LESCROART – Poison. Dismas Hardy #17. Atria Books, hardcover, February 2018.

First Sentence:   If opening day wasn’t the happiest landmark in Dismas Hardy’s year, he didn’t know what was.

   San Francsico attorney Dismas Hardy is recovering from two gunshot wounds and thinking about retirement. The murder of Grant Wagner, the owner of a successful family business, changes his plans. Abby Jarvis was a former client of Hardy’s and is the prime suspect. She was Wagner’s bookkeeper and was receiving substantial sums of cash off the books, but she claims she is innocent. The further Dismas digs into the family relationships, the more precarious his own life becomes.

   If you’ve not read Lescroart in a while, or ever, this is a good time to change that. He is a true storyteller. He engages the reader from the beginning with his style and humor— “Part of it, of course, was AT&T Park, which to his mind was essentially the platonic ideal of a ballpark. (Although, of course, how could Plato have known?)”

   There is a fair number of characters in the story, but Lescroart is adept at introducing them all and making them distinct enough not to become confused. Having the perspective of the victim’s family is an interesting approach.

   In addition to a good recounting of the past case which caused Hardy to be shot, there is an excellent explanation of the steps and process of the law. Rather than its being dry reading, it involves one as if they are the defendant. Early on, it is revealed that poison was the cause of Wagner’s death, and interesting information on wolfsbane is provided. The link made from the first murder to the second is nicely done as it then becomes personally dangerous to Dismas.

   The mention of food and family— “Hardy made them both an enormous omelet in his black cast-iron pan… They discussed the irony that he’d spiked the eggs with a cheese from Cowgirl Creamery named Mt. Tam, and that Frannie was going out to climb the very same Mount Tamalpais with her women’s hiking group in the next half hour or so.” —local landmarks, and all the San Francisco references, add realism to the story. Another such touch is the mention of a fellow author— “…C.J. Box novel, stopping on a high note when he laughed aloud after coming across the line ‘Nothing spells trouble like two drunk cowboys with a rocket launcher.’”

   Lescroart not only shows what happens on the defense side of a case, but also with the homicide team and, somewhat, with the prosecution team. The crisis within the Hardy household is realistically portrayed. Lescroart has a very good way of subtly increasing the suspense.

   Poison is an extremely well-done legal thriller filled with details which can seem overwhelming yet are interesting and, most of all, important. The well-done plot twists keep one involved and the end makes one think.

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

      The Dismas Hardy series —

1. Dead Irish (1989)
2. The Vig (1990)
3. Hard Evidence (1993)
4. The 13th Juror (1994)
5. The Mercy Rule (1998)
6. Nothing But the Truth (1999)
7. The Hearing (2000)
8. The Oath (2002)
9. The First Law (2003)
10. The Second Chair (2004)
11. The Motive (2004)
12. Betrayal (2008)
13. A Plague of Secrets (2009)
14. The Ophelia Cut (2013)
15. The Keeper (2014)
16. The Fall (2015)
17. Poison (2018)
18. The Rule of Law (2019)


STEFANIE MATTESON – Murder on High. Charlotte Graham #6. Berkley, hardcover, 1994; paperback; 1995. eBook: Mysterious Press/Open Road, June 2016.

   Though it’s the seventh [sic] Charlotte Graham book, it’s the first hardcover, and Berkley is going to do an East Coast author tour. Mattheson was a journalist at one time, winning several awards for her reporting in science and medicine.

   Charlotte Graham is a well-known seventy-ish actress, not retired but taking a break in Maine while she finishes her autobiography. Her procrastinations in that regard are interrupted when an old friend now a Lieutenant in the State Police takes her to view the home of a woman recently killed in a fall from a mountain and now suspected to have been murdered.

   The woman proves to have been the screenwriter for many of Charlotte’s most successful pictures, a woman blacklisted in the Communist witch hunts of the 50s. What has she been doing that’s gotten her killed, and who to?

   There’s a cozy convention that I can ever get past, one that causes me persistent discomfort — that of a police officer using a civilian as an “assistant.” Yes, yes, I know that all genres have their conventions, but some of them I can stomach and some I don’t. This one I can’t, at least to the degree that its use severely limits my enjoyment of the book.

   Matteson is a smooth writer, Graham is an engaging character, I liked the Maine setting, the other characters were interesting, and I would have enjoyed the book, but — the idea of a Lieutenant in the State Police dragging a 70 year old woman around with him, introducing his to everyone as his “assistant,” and giving her critical police work to do just doesn’t cut it.

   If I want fairy tales, I’ll re-read Grimm. Or maybe Robert Parker.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #15, September 1994.

The Charlotte Graham series —

1. Murder at the Spa (1990)
2. Murder at Teatime (1991)
3. Murder on the Cliff (1991)
4. Murder on the Silk Road (1992)
5. Murder at the Falls (1993)
6. Murder on High (1994)
7. Murder Among the Angels (1996)
8. Murder Under the Palms (1997)

Reviews by L. J. Roberts

ANN PARKER – A Dying Note. Inez Stannert #6. Poisoned Pen Press, softcover, April 2018. Setting: San Francisco CA, 1881.

First Sentence:  Not my hands!

   Inez Stannert and her ward Antonia have moved to San Francisco from Leadville, Colorado, where they live above a music store owned by a renowned local violinist. Inez works in the shop and teaches piano, including to a young musician whose badly beaten body has been found on the banks of the Mission Creek canal. Inez, her life, and the secrets she’s keeping, may fall apart when a friend from her previous home of Leadville shows up with Wolter Roeland de Bruijn, a man who knew Antonia’s late mother, and a man looking for his son. When the link between the two young men is made, can Inez discover his killer without her reputation being destroyed?

   The opening is violent and difficult to read. It is clear there is an important link, but one wonders whether the first chapter truly adds to the story or could have been omitted.

   What follows is the true introduction of the protagonist, Inez, and many of the supporting characters. One thing that makes Inez particularly interesting and admirable is her determination and her business acumen. She has found a way to help other women support themselves with small women-owned businesses, while building security for herself and Antonia. There is information on Antonia’s past included in the story that explains her behavior and tendency toward self-reliance. Inez knows what it is to be an outsider and recognizes it in others. There is also a scene of great tenderness.

   There are a number of other wonderful characters who enrich the plot. Antonia’s friend Mick Lynch is a member of a large Irish family and son of the cop. John Hue is a Chinese purveyor of curiosities and repairer of stringed instruments and woodwinds. Patrick May, the young black man, loves music and just wants to play the piano. Elizabeth O’Connell, is a female Pinkerton agent. These, among others, give flavor and dimension to the story.

   One is given a good look at life in this time, but it is life of ordinary people. Yes, there are scenes at the still-fabulous Palace Hotel, but the bulk of of the story involves the working class which is a rather refreshing change. Parker also addresses the issues of attitudes toward the blacks and Chinese immigrants, and the events surrounding the attempts at unionizing musicians.

   Even so, there is a nod to today— “Mark me,” he continued, “there will come a time when the oppression by the moneyed powers of this country will be so great it will no longer be endured.” There is so much wonderful historical information included that adds veracity to the story. When reading historical mysteries, the Author’s Notes are always important and informative. It’s fun to learn which things are real and which were invented or changed for the purpose of the story.

    A Dying Note includes very good plot twists, a surprising ending, and a promise of continuing associations in the future.

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

      The Inez Stannert series —

1. Silver Lies (2003)     Spur Award and Bruce Alexander Historical Award finalists
2. Iron Ties (2006)
3. Leaden Skies (2009)
4. Mercury’s Rise (2011)     Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award winner and Agatha Award Best Historical Novel nominee
5. What Gold Buys (2016)     Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award and Macavity/Sue Feder Historical Novel Award finalists
6. A Dying Note (2018)

ROBERT CAMPBELL – Thinning the Turkey Herd. Jimmy Flannery #4. New American Library, hardcover, 1988. Signet, paperback, August 1989.

   Jimmy Flannery is not a private eye, but when it comes to doing favors for people, he may as well be. Basically he works for the Sewer Department for the city of Chicago, but in reality he spends far more of his time as the Democratic party precinct captain for the neighborhood in which he and and his wife Mary live. And as I say, doing favors for people.

   The title comes from a bit of black humor. The turkey herd refers refers to the horde of young girls who come to the Windy City every year hoping to become models. And three so far have been killed. The police have no suspects, and the local alderman, Janet Canarias, a Puerto Rican and a lesbian, asks Jimmy to look into in.

   And the next time she comes knocking on his door, her distress is personal. The girl who was going to move in with her has disappeared, her suitcase in Janet’s apartment, but with no sign of her. It us too soon for the police to investigate. Canarias once asks Flannery again for assistance.

   And with a caveat or two, Flannery’s low-keyed look into matters is a pleasure to read. As the author, Campbell seems to have known Chicago politics from the ground up — almost all the way up, as certain political figures try to maneuver their friends (or even themselves) out of the way of Flannery’s investigation.

   Caveats. Campbell is far better at describing life in Chicago as it is (was) lived at the neighborhood level than writing a detective story. Flannery should have put two and two together much faster than he did, and when he does, it is almost like pulling a rabbit out of a hat with only a chapter or two to go. Flannery spends far more time with Willy Dink, a independent one-man pest control man in the dead girl’s building, complete with dog, chicken, snake, and an armadillo, than he does in finding the her killer.

   Here’s a book, in other words, that was fun to read, but in the end, not nearly as solid as it could have been.

       The Jimmy Flannery series —

1. The Junkyard Dog (1986)
2. The 600 Pound Gorilla (1987)
3. Hip-Deep in Alligators (1987)
4. Thinning the Turkey Herd (1988)
5. The Cat’s Meow (1988)
6. Nibbled to Death by Ducks (1989)
7. The Gift Horse’s Mouth (1990)
8. In a Pig’s Eye (1992)
9. Sauce for the Goose (1994)
10. The Lion’s Share (1996)
11. Pigeon Pie (1998)


TONY DUNBAR – Crooked Man. [Tubby Dubonnet #1.] G.P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 1994. Berkley, paperback, 1996.

   This came out back in January [of 1994], and I missed it completely. I don’t believe I ever even saw a copy. Dunbar us a New Orleans lawyer, and has written four non-fiction books; this is his first novel.

   Tubby Dubonnet is a successful though not overly affluent New Orleans lawyer who has an ex-wife, three daughters, and a varied and odd group of clients. Among them are a doctor who refers his own malpractice patient to Tubby, a flamboyant wrecker operator who has problems with insurance, a buxom blonde who doesn’t pay bills, and a club owner who deals in a few drugs.

   The latter is the one who, as you might suspect, is destined to cause him major problems. Before it’s over Tubby has run afoul of crooked cops and rich drug bankrollers, and seen more dead bodies than he wanted to.

   I enjoyed this. Dunbar knows New Orleans, and while he doesn’t overpower you with atmosphere, the city definitely comes alive. The prose is low key and straightforward, and the characters are interesting. Dunbar tells the story effectively through shifting third-person viewpoints, though Tubby is the predominant focus.

   It isn’t and doesn’t attempt to be a Big Novel, but it is a well told story about some engaging and mostly amiable characters. I liked them, and I wouldn’t mind seeing some more of Tubby and the Big Easy.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #15, September 1994.

       The Tubby Dubonnet series —

1. Crooked Man (1994)
2. City of Beads (1996)
3. Trick Question (1997)
4. Shelter from the Storm (1997)
5. The Crime Czar (1998)
6. Lucky Man (1999)
7. Tubby Meets Katrina (2005)
8. Night Watchman (2015)
9. Fat Man Blues (2016)
10. Flag Boy (2017)

Reviews by L. J. Roberts

CHRIS KNOPF – Tango Down. PI Sam Acquillo #8. The Permanent Press, hardcover, December 2017. Setting: Long island NY (The Hamptons).

First Sentence:   I was trying to maneuver my way across the muddy construction site when Frank Entwhistle ran up to my old Jeep Cherokee and slapped on the windshield.

   Sam Acquillo has been building cabinets for the new home of wealthy New Yorker Victor Bollings. When Bollings’ body is found on the job site, Colombian illegal Ernesto Mazzoti, a finish carpenter and Sam’s friend, is arrested as the obvious suspect. The murder weapon contains Ernesto’s fingerprints, but Sam isn’t buying it. With the help of Jackie Swaitkowski, a defense attorney who, courtesy of billionaire Burton Lewis, takes the cases of those who can’t afford to pay, Sam works to prove Ernesto innocent.

   It is nice when an author starts straight in with the crime. Sam is a great character with a fascinating background and unexpected skills. Just when his machismo starts becoming a bit strong, it is tempered by his caring for others. His lover, Amada, and dog, Eddie Van Halen, round out the character nicely. It is also nice that Knopf’s writing is wonderfully intelligent and that he provides a good sense of Eastern Long Island with its marked contrast between the extremely wealthy, primarily summer people, and the working-class people who live there year-round.

   A well-done metaphor is always a pleasure to read— “Then I used a few other traditional calibrating tools to reset the table saw. … The result was perfect and true, like the heart of a young lover before disappointment upends her soul.”

   The story line of undocumented workers couldn’t be more timely or accurate. That the investigation involves multiple agencies, and a jaunt to the Virgin Islands adds dimensions to the story. So too is that of the issue with which Amanda is dealing which is emotional and adds yet another layer to the plot as well as the characters.

   Tango Down is intelligent, complex, multi-layered, and has a realistic ending. It is also really, really good; it is always surprising that Knopf is not more widely known and read.

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

The Sam Acquillo series —

1. The Last Refuge (2005)

2. Two Time (2005)
3. Head Wounds (2008)
4. Hardstop (2009)

5. Black Swan (2011)
6. Cop Job (2015)
7. Back Lash (2016)
8. Tango Down (2017)

Note:   Attorney Jackie Swaitkowski has her own series of books (so far) as does another of Knopf’s series characters, Arthur Cathcart, “market researcher and occasional finder of missing persons”

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