Sunday, February 26, 2012

Julie and Hank: Two fine mystery writers

The fun part of mystery cons is, you have dozens of books to choose from when you hit the bookseller's room. Earlier this month I attended Love Is Murder, Chicago's premier mystery con, and the first thing I did on arriving was hunt down Sue Peterson, LIM's designated bookseller. Sue's a great gal, interesting and fun to visit with. But talk wasn't the main reason I went looking for Sue. The truth is, I wanted to buy the headliners' books before they were gobbled up by the rest of the attendees. And buy I did. Some of the books were intended for family members, and those I gave away without first reading them. (I'll get them back to read eventually -- we pass books around in my family so we can argue later over which one was the best!)

So far I've finished four of the books I bought at LIM. Here are my reviews of two of those four.

AFFAIRS OF STEAK is the fifth "White House Chef Mystery" by Anthony and Barry award winner Julie Hyzy. In this episode, executive chef Olivia "Ollie" Paras has to put personal feelings aside when she's paired up with Peter Everett Sargeant, the unlikeable White House sensitivity director, to help choose a location for Secretary of State Gerald Quinones' White House sponsored birthday party. Ollie and Peter are told to meet the First Lady's personal assistant, Patty Woodruff, at Lexington Place, a glittering banquet hall not far from the White House that might prove to be the most suitable place for the party. Ollie and Peter arrive on time for the meeting, but when Patty is nowhere to be found, the two set off to survey the hall by themselves. While doing so, they stumble across not one, but two bodies. The first victim is Patty Woodruff. The second is the President's chief of staff.

While the media plays on an imagined love affair involving the two, the Secret Service investigates a much more complicated scenario linking their deaths to threats against Secretary of State Quinones and his family. Who kidnapped the Secretary's father-in-law? Is there a conspiracy to kill Quinones? If so, does Sargeant's much despised nephew Milton know who's behind the plot? Why is someone trying to get Sargeant fired? And who is the man who followed Ollie into the subway?

A temperamental chef, a conceited social aide, and an unresolved romance add to Ollie's problems as she strives to keep her head above water in this highly entertaining culinary whodunnit. Hyzy's knowledge of White House protocol and Secret Service SOPs keeps the plot on track and humming down the line to a surprising but satisfying conclusion. The puff pastry recipes at the end of the book only add to the fun. This one is highly recommended for fans of political intrigue, amateur sleuths, and romantic suspense, not to mention lovers of fine food and wine. (And yes, I fully intend to try the recipe for cranberry pecan brie en croute and chocolate sundae vol-au-vents. My mouth was watering just reading those recipes!)

As a member of Boston's NBC affiliate, Hank Phillip Ryan has won dozens of major awards for her investigative reporting. Fortunately for mystery fans, Hank is now also using her journalistic talents to produce tightly scripted killer mysteries featuring a smart, strong, yet highly feminine, female protagonist.

In DRIVE TIME, the fourth book in Ryan's Charlotte McNally series, TV reporter Charlie McNally stumbles upon a deviously dangerous scheme when she and her producer Franklin stop to help the victim of a highway accident. Declan Ross tells her his vehicle is in the repair shop following a manufacturer's recall notice. He's driving a rental car--now badly damaged--and is furious because the air bags didn't deploy during the crash. Instinct tells Charlie there's a story brewing here, and what better time to investigate it than in the few days left leading up to sweeps week.

Working on the potential car scam report cuts into Charlie's personal time just as life is getting really interesting for her. Engaged to be married, Charlie is learning to become a step-mom to Josh's daughter Penny, and that means getting involved at Bexter, the private school where Josh teaches and Penny will be starting junior high. "Getting involved" isn't supposed to equate with "investigating" though, so when Josh tells Charlie something about Bexter in confidence, she's forced to rein in her natural tendency to snoop.

Conflicted by promises she's made and secrets she must keep, Charlie walks a fine line to keep her private life separate from her professional one. But when Josh becomes involved in an unexplained death, Charlie must use her investigative skills to solve a mystery that hits too near to home for comfort.

Hank Phillippi Ryan's bullet-like prose propels this nicely devised story at breakneck speed along a well-plotted course. Her "bang-bang" style of writing makes for a book that's hard to put down; I wanted to turn just one more page, read one more chapter, before closing the book each night. And despite the heightened pace of the story, Ryan displays great skill at characterization and description, painting pictures of people, places, and events with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of reality. All in all, this was a mystery that grabbed my attention from the first page.

later this week I'll be presenting some book reviews by Carl Brookins along with my own reviews of two of David Morrell's books. Hope you'll drop by Cicero's Children again. :)


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