Once again I am happy to feature several book reviews by author, photographer, and all around good guy Carl Brookins. Carl reviews an oldie but goodie with Claudia Bishop's Puree of Poison. The other three reviews are of more recent titles. Hope you enjoy reading Carl's take on these fabulous books.
A Puree of Poison
By Claudia Bishop
Publisher, Berkley Prime Crime
December, 2003, 260 pgs.
This small-town cozy comes with two squabbling sisters, one a gourmand cook, the other an established painter. They collide in a little upstate New York town called Hemlock Falls. Aptly named. Together the sisters Sarah, called Quill, and Meg, own and operate an inn on a perfect plot of property overlooking the namesake falls. The novel comes with a list of the huge number of characters at the front and an unremarkable recipe at the back.
The 133rd anniversary of a minor Civil War skirmish is approaching and the town is planning big doings. Things get rapidly complicated. Re-enactors are arriving to stage the battle, a poisonous couple of independent film-makers appear, and Quill, who cannot manage a business to save her soul, is trying out various practices on the Inn’s employees she is picking up from a business course at Cornell. Cornell ought to sue.
Then people start dying. They are old and not exactly in the best of health, but they weren’t at death’s door, either. The one thing they had in common was the Inn. All three victims had had meals at the Inn on the same day. The town doctor, who’s in love with Meg, the aforementioned sister, is mightily distressed. He asks Meg’s sister, Quill, to investigate. This of course adds to the number of subjects over which the two sisters can disagree. As one might imagine, there’s a great amount of shouting, stomping about and door slamming.
Quill, of course, agrees to look into the deaths, if only to protect the reputation of the Inn and her sister. It isn’t like she hasn’t enough to occupy her. She has to deal with a twit of a receptionist who’s trying to finish a PhD and her own inept efforts to force worrisome new business practices on her employees without any preparation.
All of this is handled with a light touch and there are several clever scenes, helped by some imaginative and interesting characters, but it all never quite comes off. The sisters’ constant squabbling, the irritating front office receptionist who should have been fired for insubordination, and half a dozen other offenses, overshadow some strong writing and clever plotting.
Tomb With A View
By Casey Daniels
2010 mass market release
from Berkley Prime Crime
Pair one of our less interesting presidents, James A. Garfield, with a cute slender, sexually aware private detective, cum medium, and what do you get? You get this delightful cozy mystery, one of several in Casey Daniel’s series of Pepper Martin adventures.
But be warned. If you don’t like a bad pun or two, several tongue-in-cheek jokes and a huge riff on one of the presidents of these United States, this delightful novel isn’t your cup of tea.
On the other hand, if your humor runs to the mildly risqué, you don’t mind a self-aware sexy cemetery tour guide(!) who happens to be reluctantly channeling the dead President, and you enjoy fast-paced well-conceived criminally artful plots, this latest adventure of Pepper Martin is definitely a winner.
Around every prominent figure in history there swirls scandal and scandal attracts the greedy. If this author is to be believed, an incredibly audacious land swap plan was under way when anarchist Charles Guiteau fired the bullet that cut short what might have been a sterling presidential career.
That’s all in the past. What’s here and now, is a well-managed funny, and twisty story peopled with interesting characters, not the least of whom is one well-named, Pepper Martin.
The Cruel Ever After
by Ellen Hart
A Minotar (St. Martin’s Press)
2010 release. Hard cover, 320 pgs.
This, Hart’s nineteenth Jane Lawless mystery, is probably the darkest and most shocking of the series. Difficult to read it is chock full of, painful, difficult relationships and actions. The extensive cast of characters, many of whom fans will have met before, are almost all revealed to have seriously dangerous dark sides. And even when those troublesome and even illegal dimensions of their characters are revealed and confronted by other individuals in the book, they persist in their ways, ways that sometimes tread close to the abyss.
The shocks begin very early when Lawless’s former husband, a man she hasn’t seen for twenty years, appears in Minneapolis. Not only are we more than a little surprised to discover that Jane was married many years ago, she is upset by his appearance, supposedly ‘simply for old times sake.’ It becomes quickly apparent that Chester Garrity, one of the most facile liars and con men you’ll ever meet, has a specific personal agenda. Garrity is a user of anybody and everybody within reach. That he is such, should, it seems to this reader, to be more apparent to Jane than appears to be the case.
That Garrity is also fairly incompetent also becomes obvious. Part of the tragedy is that his incompetence visits appalling harm on the people around him. Almost immediately plans go awry and spiral out of control. Murder results. Garrity demonstrates such a high level of impotence in the face of disaster that it is hard to believe he has managed to stay alive and out of prison for this long.
At roughly the same time that Garrity begins his ill-managed plan to sell antiquities of questionable provenance, a lethal cabal of shadowy vigilantes makes its presence known by murdering a popular gallery owner.
Is there a link here? Of course there is, but readers will require almost infinite patience to figure out the links and resolve the tangle of threads and relationships. Patience is particularly important in the first half of the book. After that, with the background and setup in place, the action and the pace pick up. Logic takes firm hold and as the complications and resolutions of the many plot lines become clearer, the author’s grip on her story becomes firmer. The second half of the novel as revelation bangs in on top of revelation and explanation explodes, is all vintage Hart, an excellent writer who is almost always in full command of her work.
There were times however, when I wanted to scream at Jane Lawless, and wondered who was really managing that usually incisive and clever mind.
Too Many Clients
By David Walker
Published by Severn House,
2010, 214 pgs.
Another sparkling crime novel in the Wild Onion series. It’s always a pleasure to open a book knowing you are in the hands of an experienced storyteller. Author David Walker has been around the block a few times and he has the accolades to show for it. His latest does not disappoint. Here we have a pair of wise and witty practitioners who are married to each other. In less sure hands, the marriage of two characters often lets a lot of steam out of a relationship and sends readers searching for other divertissements.
Not this time.
Private investigator Kirsten, married to uber-relaxed lawyer Dugan, takes on her husband as a client, after a bad cop is found murdered. Dugan, never a careful person, has blundered into the thing in such a way he becomes a suspect. And while Dugan can act odd at times, almost the antithesis of the hard-driving lawyer of many crime fiction novels, he is far from the only character. There’s Larry. Larry Candle is a partner in Dugan’s office. He just doesn’t come off as someone whom you’d want to represent you in court for anything more serious than a mistaken parking ticket. Yet Larry manages to get the job done all the while irritating nearly everyone around him.
As the days pass, Dugan and Kirsten continue to collect new clients who somehow all want them to locate the killer of this bad cop. To Kirsten and Dugan’s collective thinking these new clients don’t seem to be entirely above suspicion, either. Meanwhile the cops continue to zero in on Dugan. Gradually, as Kirsten digs deeper into the people who knew or knew about the dead cop, the story takes on wider and wider implications, tangling mob figures with international activities, a prominent churchman and….well, you get the idea. Twists on top of fascinating complications.
The novel is well-paced, complicated, and a truly fun read. I look for more cheeky stories in Walker’s wild Onion series.
Case of the Great Train Robbery, Devils Island, Bloody Halls, Reunion, Red Sky
more at Kindle, Smashwords & OmniLit!