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

EX – Will probably make my top 10 of the year
VG – I probably started and finished the same day.
Good  – Enjoyed very much (Good Plus) or with reservations (Good Minus). 
OK – Had some problems with it.  May read more, but this is probably not an author
I’ll collect.
NR – Didn’t work for me.  May not read more by this author.

GERRY BOYLE - Home Body (Berkely; hardcover, 2004; Jack McMorrow: Amateur Sleuth/Reporter; 8th in series.)

     When reporter Jack McMorrow rescues Rocky, a young runaway boy, from been beaten by a gang of street kids, he has no idea it will lead to rescuing the boy many times, being suspected of being a pedophile, becoming involved in the secret’s of the boy’s family, and both Jack and his wife Roxanne having their lives at risk.
***  Boyle does a wonderful job with the setting, providing a real picture of the cities and towns of Maine, including the solitude which exists immediately outside them and the cold of winter.  You also feel Jack’s reluctance to become involved with Rocky yet his inability to walk away.  There is a strong element of pathos to this story, but it’s still suspenseful and a page-turner.     VG

MARK DE CASTRIQUE - Grave Undertaking (Poisoned Pen Press; hardcover, 2004; Barry Clayton: Amateur Sleuth/Former Policeman; 2nd in series.)

     Former policeman Barry Clayton now manages the family funeral parlor in a small North Carolina town now that his father has Alzheimer’s.  But when he oversees the moving of a grave and finds an extra body with a bullet hole in its head, a gun by its feet and the photograph of Barry’s girlfriend in its pocket, he employees the skills of his former career to find out why.
***  This is a very good series.  Barry is a fully dimensional character with strong family ties and good friends.  The sense of place is wonderfully done and dialogue is very true.  He provides an interesting look into the human side of the funeral business, which I very much enjoyed.  And, it’s still a tight mystery with very good suspense.  If you’ve not discovered this series, I definitely recommend giving it a try.     VG

JANET EVANOVICH - Ten Big Ones (St. Martin’s Press; hardcover, 2004; Stephanie Plum: Bounty Hunter/Humor; 10th in series.)

     When Stephanie witnesses a store robbery, having yet another car blown up, and can identify the perpetrator, she finds herself the target for a local gang who place a contract on her life.
***  The plot is pretty thin and it’s not the best of the series, but the delightful characters and laugh-out-loud humor are what keep me coming back.  It’s astounding that Stephanie gets away with what she does, but I think her cohort Ranger says best the reason I enjoy these books so:  “This is a high-stress business, and you’re comedy relief…”  These are stressful times in which we live and I, for one, can certainly use comedy relief.  Go, Stephanie!         Good Plus

RON FAUST -  Dead Men Rise Up Never (Dell paperback original, 2004; Dan Shaw: Unlicensed Investigator; 1st in series.)

     Former CID investigator and current law student Dan Shaw agrees to find the currently missing heir to a very large fortune.  Instead, he finds a cabin cruiser containing a dead goat, and underwater, seven anatomically correct inflatable mannequins and a female corpse.
*** The plot was suspenseful – man against man, man against nature – and had excellent dialogue and lots of disreputable characters.  The only likable character was the protagonist, and it just seemed off balance to me.  The only part of the story in which I really became engrossed were the hurricane scenes.  The rest I found myself skimming through.  Those who like macho good guy stories, although without any likable or interesting side kicks, might enjoy this, but for me, it was strictly an acceptable read.      OK.

ASHLEY GARDNER - A Regimental Murder (Berkley; paperback original, 2004; Captain Gabriel Lacey: Regency-Period Mystery; 2nd in series.)

     Retired cavalry officer Captain Lacey rescues a beautiful woman from the seeming intention of suicide.  In turn, Lydia Weston, widow of Colonel Weston of the 43rd Light Dragoons, who had confessed to killing a fellow officer and had “accidentally” died before his trial, asks Lacey to find the murderers of her husband.
*** Gardner has written a wonderful story with excellent characters.  She has revealed a period of seeming elegance to have very little grace at all.  The character Lacey is intriguing and fully dimensional.  The story is full of twists and revelations, but intriguingly, not irritatingly, so.  I shall definitely follow this series and highly recommend it for those who love historical mysteries.     VG

CHARLIE HUSTON - Caught Stealing (Ballantine Books; hardcover, 2004; Hank Thompson: Amateur Sleuth; 1st book.)

     Bartender Hank Thompson agrees to look after his neighbor’s cat, Bud, for a few days and as a result, is beaten so badly he loses a kidney.  He is chased, beaten, and tortured by a pair of Russians, a red-headed Asian, two brothers, and a dirty cop, and friends are murdered, all because of a key found in the bottom of Bud’s carrier.  
*** Many have likened this book to a Tarantino movie and I can see why.  The profanity, violence and pace are unrelenting.  But Hank loves his parents and does everything he can to protect Bud, and it’s those bits of humanity that balance the rest.  I am not a Tarantino fan, or I’m certain I’d have rated it higher, but found I couldn’t put this book down.    Good Plus

CAROLINE LLEWELLYN - False Light (Scribner; hardcover, 1996; Suspense/Standalone.)

     Victorian spiritualist Marianna Hobhouse is the subject of research by Dana Morrow.  While at an auction where Dana meets Daniel Finn, son of Quentin Finn, both photographers who now live in the house, Kerreck Du, once owned by Marianna and her husband Henry, also a famous photographer.  Dana receives an invitation to the house to further her research, not knowing of the women who’ve died at the cliffs there.
*** The history of photography was fascinating, the light romance was pleasant, the description of the setting was well done, but the level of suspense just wasn’t present as much as I’d have liked.       Good Minus

HENNING MANKELL - Faceless Killers (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, English translation; trade paperback, 2003; hardcover: New Press, 1997; Kurt Wallander: Swedish Police Procedural; 7th in series.)

     Police Inspector Kurt Wallander is called to the scene of a particularly violent attack of an elderly couple on a small farm.  The husband is dead but the wife, found with a noose around her neck, utters the work “foreign” before dying.  Wallander becomes obsessed with solving the case before feelings against Sweden’s immigrants becomes violent.
*** Although the translation into English made the dialogue a bit awkward at times, it did not take away from my enjoyment of the story.  Wallander is fully dimensional, very fallible yet determined, and surrounded by strong supporting characters.  Although told in third person, in the way you know what’s going on inside Wallander’s thoughts, the writing has a first person feel to it.  There’s plenty of action and suspense, and even a red herring that leaves you feeling Wallander’s frustration as he tries to solve the case.  It also introduced me to the problems in a country about which I hadn’t previously known.  I recommend the book and know I’ll be looking for others by the author.       Good Plus

ROBERT B. PARKER - Bad Business (G. P. Putnam’s Sons; hardcover, 2004; Spenser: Private Investigator; 31st in series.)

     Spenser is hired by Marlene Crowley to find out whether her husband, an executive with Kinergy, is cheating on her.  But when he finds Marlene is being watched by a fellow PI hired by her husband, and that the woman with whom Marlene’s husband is having an affair is being watched by a third investigator, Spenser decides to find out what is really going on.  When Marlene’s husband is murdered, followed by the head of security for Kinergy, it’s clearly more than a case of wife swapping.
*** This was an interesting Spenser as there was must less violence and much more investigation.  All the gang is there, but in more realistic roles, although the descriptions of watching Susan eat drives me crazy.  The strength is definitely the pacing, characters and excellent dialogue.  You are always assured of a few, highly-enjoyable hours with one of Parker’s books.       Good Plus

BILL PRONZINI - Shackles (St. Martin’s Press; hardcover, 1988; paperback: Dell, 1990; “Nameless”: Private Investigator; 17th in series.)

    Imagine leaving your girlfriend’s apartment a few days before Christmas, being forced into a car, handcuffed, chloroformed and awake shackled with a leg iron attached to a wall in an isolated mountain cabin with 13 weeks worth of provisions and told you are being left to die there.  This is the situation in which Pronzini’s ‘Nameless’ finds himself.
*** There are not many books I reread, but this is absolutely one of them.  The plot is tight, the dialogue crisp and the sense of place makes you reach for a blanket.  The story is written in first person, allowing you to experience the thoughts and emotions of ‘Nameless.’  Although out of print and somewhat difficult to find – I recommend using – it is worth every effort.   It is truly haunting and well deserving of the ranking of Excellent.           EX

DAVID ROSENFELT - Open and Shut (Mysterious Press; hardcover, 2002; paperback: Warner, 2003; Andy Carpenter: Legal Thriller; 1st book, 1st in series.)

     His father, a retired district attorney, asks without an explanation New Jersey attorney Andy Carpenter to take on the appeals case of death row inmate Willie Miller, whom he had prosecuted.  Andy’s father dies a few days later, leaving an inheritance of over $22 million, about which Andy had never known.  When he discovers an old photo in his father’s possessions that seems to have a connection to the current case, and threats are made against Andy, it becomes clear that the three elements are tied together.
*** I found the beginning of the story rather slow and Andy’s humor somewhat annoying.  But as the investigation picked up, so did the story.  There were some definite holes in the plot and one major coincidence, but the courtroom scenes were interesting, making it a very enjoyable book overall.  I shall probably read another by this author.      Good

KIRK RUSSELL - Shell Games (Chronicle Books; hardcover, 2003; John Marques: Wildlife Investigator; 1st book; possibly 1st in a series.)

     Lt. John Marques is head of a special operations unit with the California Department of Fish and Game.  He is after Kline, a former drug runner who is now into the more lucrative smuggling of abalone, and a long-time enemy.
***  With the story set in my own San Francisco Bay Area, I very much enjoyed the locations and appreciated the  manner in which he presented the problems of the Dept. of Fish and Game.  I would never have guessed abalone smuggling could be more profitable than drugs.  However, even with all the bodies and the climatic encounter with Kline, I never felt the suspense of this book or a real involvement with the characters.  All the bits were there – plot, dialogue, setting – but somehow I just did not have a visceral connection to the story.        OK

CHARLES TODD - The Murder Stone (Bantam; hardcover, 2003; paperback: August, 2004; Gothic Suspense/Standalone.)

     Their grandfather, Francis Hatton, raised Francesca Hatton and her four male cousins, all orphaned at an early age.  Each of the cousins has been killed in the Great War, and now Francesca is alone to grieve the death of her beloved grandfather, whom she thought she knew.  But at the reading of his will she inherits two properties about which she never knew, people turn up at the funeral demanding items about which she did not know, she receives a letter cursing him and his heirs, and Richard Leighton appears on her doorstep blaming Francis for the disappearance of his mother.
*** If you’re expecting a book in the same style as Todd’s Inspector Ian
Rutledge series, you will be disappointed.  However, if you love Gothics, as do I, having started with Victoria Holt and the early books of Mary Stewart, you will be delighted. There is that underlying air of tension from the first page, and twists aplenty along the way to a dramatic conclusion and classic epilogue.  I am always looking for a new, good suspenseful Gothic.  And this is it.       VG

P. J. TRACY - Live Bait (G. P. Putnam’s Sons; hardcover, 2004; Magozzi & Rolseth: Police Procedural; 2nd in series.)

     When elderly, well-loved Morey Gilbert is murdered, Milwaukee police detectives Leo Magozzi and Gino Rolseth are called to investigate a sad, but basic murder.  However, when other elderly people in the same neighborhood and with a common history are also murdered, it’s clear there more going on than first seemed.
*** The Tracy’s (a mother-daughter writing team) have a wonderful voice with interesting characters.  Grace MacBride and her computer gang from the first book, Monkeewrench also appear, so you might want to read it first.  But it’s the detectives who are the major players here, and we certainly benefit from them.  There is an excellent sense of place, wonderful dialogue, humor, suspense, and a couple of very well done twists along the way.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book        VG

JACQUELINE WINSPEAR - Maisie Dobbs (Penguin Books; trade paperback, 2004; hardcover: Soho Press, 2003 Maisie Dobbs: Historical Novel/Mystery; 1st book, 1st in series.)

     Set in England between 1910 and 1929, this is the story of Maisie who goes from being the daughter of a fruit-and-vegetable man, to the in-between maid of wealthy aristocrats where she receives special tutoring, on to college and then serving as a nurse in France during WWI and, finally, setting up an investigative service where she is asked to investigate “The Retreat,” a home for young men severely injured during the War.
*** This is primarily a background novel about Maisie who is, by the way, precognitive.  She is also very taken with herself and, to me, cruel to one she says she loves.  The far more interesting character is Billy, who plays a secondary role.  The story of the men who fought in WWI is, by far, the strongest and most poignant part of the story.  The actual mystery is almost incidental to the story and relies on information you are unaware she obtained, Billy’s willingness to be the legman, and Maisie’s intuitive powers.  Although there were part of the book by which I was moved, I was disappointed overall.  I’ve ordered the next book, but it will need to be significantly stronger for me to continue with this series.    OK


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          These reviews previously appeared in Mystery*File 45, August 2004.   Copyright © 2004 by Steve Lewis.  All rights reserved to contributors.                                                                                                                                                                                   
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