Monday, October 24, 2011

Books, Books, Books!

I have two new book reviews for you today, the first one written by yours truly and the second one written by Carl Brookins. Before I get to them, though, I have some good news to share. DARK THINGS II: CAT CRIMES will be released later this year in time for holiday gift giving. Published in both print and eBook format, this anthology features short stories in which cats play a major role in some pretty unusual crimes. I'm thrilled to report that my short story, "Diamonds Aren't Forever", will be included in the anthology. I don't want to give away the plot of my story yet, but stayed tuned because I'll be putting more information about the book and the charity it will benefit in my November blogs.

And now...on to the reviews!

Dear Priscilla
Mark Schweizer
Faintinggoat Press, 2011
ISBN 9780984484614
316 pages, $23.95

Mark Schweizer is best known for his nine Liturgical Mysteries, humorous tales of murder and mayhem set in the fictional town of St. Germaine, North Carolina (The Tenor Wore Tapshoes, The Alto Wore Tweed, etc.). With Dear Priscilla, Mr. Schweizer begins a new series set in 1943 Chicago that features Detective Merl Cahill, former Chicago Bears lineman turned policeman, and his bookie cop partner, Fish Biederman.

As the book's jacket so succinctly puts it, "Chicago in 1943 is a very lucrative place to be" if you're a cop. Crooks like Larry the Dip visit Cahill's Maxwell Street police station every Monday to deposit the squad's share of their weekly take. Guys like the Nowak brothers are just as helpful. Little Eddie is Fish's muscle man, brilliant at convincing people to pay up when they've lost a bet. Big Eddie is...well, 'really big!' says it all. And Just Plain Eddie, while neither big nor little, is the meanest of the three brothers. Just Plain Eddie is the man to go to when a cop needs a drop gun that can never be traced back to him. Last but not least, there are the merchants of Maxwell Street, a mile-long outdoor market where anything can be bought or sold. They're happy to service the police with everything from cut-rate overcoats to whispered-in-the-ear information.

All these sources come in handy when Merl and Fish investigate the murder of a young woman found beheaded in an Army duffle bag behind a Maxwell Street grocery store. Lacking the modern conveniences of today's police force, the two must trust their brains to decipher the few clues left at the scene of the crime. Their big break comes when The Chicago Times receives a letter from the killer addressed to "Dear Priscilla", the newspaper's lonely hearts columnist. When the woman who writes as Priscilla quits because she thinks the killer is targeting her, Merl is persuaded to take on the column as a side job. His rationale is simple: not only does The Times pay him more than the police department, but the job also allows him to keep in touch with the killer. This latter fact becomes even more important when the man strikes again.

Schweizer has a sure-fire winner in Dear Priscilla. Not only is the plot strong, but the characters are also some of the most entertaining to come along recently. Merl is more or less an easy going sort of guy, an ex-football player who left the game due to an injury and is now living on a limited income. He believes he might be engaged to a young woman he only sees on occasion (he didn't really propose, but he thinks she thinks they're engaged), but he's attracted to the first female cop ever promoted to the detective division. Merl is definitely not up to speed in the romance department, but it's fun watching the fireworks fly between him and the lady cop.

And then there's Fish, a complicated character if you ever met one. Addicted to yellow silk jackets, Fish sings tenor on Fridays at his synagogue and Danny Boy on other days at police funerals. His voice is outstanding, but his knowledge of the street and how to profit from it surpasses even his singing. He'll take a bet from anyone on anything; he pays off gracefully when he loses (which isn't often), and collects ruthlessly when he wins. Fish never falls for a hard luck story, but he's generous with his friends, especially Merl.

The other characters in this mystery are equally well drawn, and the dialogue fits both them and the era in which the story takes place. You don't have to be a Chicagoan to enjoy Schweizer's knowledge of the city and it's past. Schweizer describes places in Chicago with such accuracy that readers will almost smell the hogs in the Union Stockyard and taste the hotdogs once sold from carts at the now gone Maxwell Street market.

I've appreciated Schweizer's abilities as a writer ever since being introduced to his clever Liturgical Mysteries. His move to historical mysteries surprised me, but not as much as the ending of this book did. A bit of a shocker, it left me eagerly looking forward to the next offering in the Merl and Fish series.

by John Desjarlais
2011 trade paper release
from Sophia Institute Press
238 pages.

Set in rural Illinois, the novel follows disgraced DEA agent Selena De La Cruz as she tries to re-order her life into some semblance of normality after a drug raid gone bad results in a tragic aftermath. Leaving that life turns out to be more than just difficult. It is impossible. And so Selena leaves her insurance company and re-enters the dangerous world of undercover drug enforcement among a Latino population that is turbulent, ever-changing, and marked with friends who become enemies and family members short on understanding.

The author cleverly establishes Selena as an independent, capable woman beset on all sides by the chauvinism of her bosses and the cultural disapproval of her family. Good Latina women do not carry guns and arrest drug dealers. There is an invasive Latin Catholic presence throughout the book. The basic theme of the story is a list of names entered into a church’s Book of the Dead, requesting prayers for their souls. The problem is that the people represented are still alive as the book opens. But one by one they are murdered. Since Selena’s name is last on the list, she has more than usual reason to be concerned. Her interaction with law enforcement and Church officials becomes more and more intense as the list is shortened, one by one.

The novel is smoothly written, logical and mostly gripping. There are several sections of Aztec and other religious history and legends used by the author to explain some of the ritual Selena encounters which, while interesting in themselves, have a tendency to slow the narrative. Nevertheless, Viper is a worthwhile read, blending religious mystery with brutal modern crime.

Carl Brookins
Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky


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