The latest in traditional detective novels, police procedurals, and steampunk mysteries—and everything in between
Detective Bex Wynter Files, Book 3 • Elleby Harper • ★★★ ½
Courting Death is the third novel about an NYPD detective who transfers to London to get away from the pain of her husband's death. Detective Bex Wynter is a strong, complex character, and she's one of the best things about this book.
The setup seems destined for an open-and-shut case: a teenager has confessed to killing his parents. But lawyer Isla Standing and DCI Bex Wynter begin to suspect that all is not as it seems.
The mystery is a good one. The reveals—not just of the killer, but of all the important clues—are well-placed, and quite satisfying. With solid twists, the investigation is compelling. It's easy to root for the heroes—and the victims.
Harper has a good read on most of his characters, too. Although Isla's husband, Quinn—coincidentally, a detective working for Bex—is mostly a jackass, he's allowed some room to breathe in the second half of the book. Bex, too, is saved from being what could easily be a two-dimensional typical brooding detective by a few well-placed scenes that show the depths of her well-hidden despair.
I haven't read the first two books in the series, and while I'm intrigued enough to want to know the details of what's alluded to, I never felt lost or confused with the characters or the action. Many series don't allow their sequels to work on their own, but the Courting Death is great to read as a standalone.
However, the book gets docked some points because many of Bex's actions feel false, more in the interest in serving the plot than serving the character herself. Isla, too, is often in danger of being a little too perfect both in her tolerance of her intolerant husband and in the working relationship she has with Bex.
The ending is mostly satisfying, as well, but three characters have their arcs wrapped up much too neatly—and with a turn of events that strained my credulity too much. Without giving too much away, I'd just say that not only do I not believe that Bex would ever suggest the life-changing course of action these characters take, but the characters would never agree to it as quickly as they do.
Still, there's a lot to like about Courting Death—and readers seem to agree, considering the high number of five-star reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads. This is a series—and a character—that I'd be interested in reading more about.
—Paul Austin Ardoin
A Fatal Flaw
Ryder & Loveday Mysteries, Book 3 • By Faith Martin • ★★★★
Most people have found the Ryder & Loveday mysteries by way of Faith Martin's DI Hillary Greene series, and I was no exception. Faith Martin wrote seventeen mostly-excellent police procedural murder mysteries featuring an outstanding heroine in DI Greene, and I looked forward to this new mystery series.
This series has a bit of a different flavor. Like the DI Greene series, they're set around Oxford, but unlike that series, Ryder & Loveday are set in 1960. Both of our heroes—sexagenarian coroner Dr. Clement Ryder, hiding a medical secret, and probationary WPC Trudy Loveday, whose all-male station house co-workers continually underestimate her—are excellent, well-rounded characters; easy to root for without making either of them goody-two-shoes. The differences in the culture are pronounced as well, especially in terms of gender dynamics, but in the first two books of the series, it never overpowered the story.
In A Fatal Flaw, the third book of this series, gender dynamics are at the foré, as the murders take place around a beauty pageant. The book gets awfully close to Making A Point in a few spots, but while it gets close to the line, it never crosses it.
The murder investigation itself, of one of the pageant contestants, is a masterful piece of misdirection that never quite feels like misdirection. The red herrings are well done, never leaving me feeling like I just wasted my time, and when the reveal comes, it's much different than in the first two books—and while I had suspected who the murderer was, the way the plot unfolds near the end is satisfying. Martin is a talented writer indeed: even though what I suspected would happen actually came to pass, I was still on the edge of my seat.
However, I have to dock the book a star because of narrative tricks in the constantly shifting point of view. We see the perspective of the unnamed (and even ungendered) murderer, going inside their head—and not just with the opening chapter, but throughout the book. We also, at various times, hopscotch into the heads of the different pageant contestants and judges. The vast majority of the other books are told in third person, usually from the point of view of either Ryder or Loveday; there are occasional chapters where the reader sees something neither main character does, but it's usually very consistent. But jumping heads in this book doesn't seem to add much to the narrative, nor to the buildup of suspense. Being in the murderer's head in Chapter One means that we know the death of the pageant contestant is a murder, not an accident, from the get-go.
In addition, we see the murderer's thoughts—but what Martin shows isn't believable; it's an obfuscated version of what would actually be going through their head. After the reveal, we know exactly what (and who) the murderer would thinking about when planning the murders, but that isn't shown to the reader when we're in their head. It's obvious that it's a narrative trick, and I found myself more frustrated than intrigued—and after the reveal, it definitely feels like those sections were inauthentic.
Still, the ending is so good—and the characters of Ryder & Loveday so compelling—that one star is all that gets docked, and I look forward anxiously to the release of the next book.
—Paul Austin Ardoin
By Belinda Bauer • ★★★★★
Wow. What a complex, crazy, fascinating, jaw-dropping novel.
Rubbernecker is not only a well-written book, but it's a fantastic achievement. The narrative contortions that Bauer goes through with this book are labyrinthine. Quite often, writers' tricks like this just come off as "show-offy" at best, and convoluted and painful at worst. But not with Rubbernecker; the unusual structure but not only works, but serves to build the suspense as the story unfolds.
First, the unusual narrative: Rubbernecker is told from three points of view, and in different time frames, and with three different unreliable narrators. Then everything crashes together about two-thirds of the way through, then races toward the climax—I couldn't turn pages fast enough. Quite often, I detest these types of seemingly detached stories coming together, because they're usually done poorly (just find my online reviews for the 1994 Robert Altman movie Short Cuts or the 1999 Paul Thomas Anderson movie Magnolia). But Bauer weaves the threads masterfully.
The main character is Patrick, an eighteen-year-old on the autism spectrum who's fascinated by death. He takes an anatomy class at university, his first time away from his mother, who's too broken to care for him properly.
It's also partially narrated by a man in a coma, and the story additionally follows a mean-spirited but beautiful nurse who works in the facility where the man lies. Revealing any more about the plot would venture into spoiler territory.
I'm not familiar enough with the ins and outs of autism to know how good of a job Bauer did with Patrick's believability, but it did fit in with the little I do know. I believed everything about Patrick—his actions, his interactions with other people, and his motivations.
Ultimately, this is a murder mystery, and Patrick makes a compelling amateur sleuth. I started suspecting the killer about halfway through the book, although the reveals of the murders are both slow burns—this isn't a book where you see the murder being committed in the prologue or first chapter. The solving of the murder isn't the ultimate reveal, either, and while some jaded readers may find the ending a bit on the maudlin side, others will find it quite satisfying. I certainly did.
You're going to want to buy this book and find several hours of uncluttered time—because you won't be able to put it down once you start. It hooked me from the first page.
—Paul Austin Ardoin
The Clockmaker's Secret
Slim Hardy Mysteries, Book 2 • Jack Benton • ★★★★★
A deeply flawed, alcoholic detective, a twenty-year-old cold case, and a satisfyingly odd cast of characters combine to create a great mystery novel.
Some of the reveals are quite shocking, and sometimes it gets a bit emotional to read—though that just shows that Chris Ward (writing as Jack Benton) has done really a fantastic job to get me invested in the characters. Celia, the clockmaker's daughter, in particular, is a tragic figure who didn't deserve the life she got.
I literally did not put this book down after I started reading it. From the time that Slim unearths the clock on the hike in chapter one, it had me hooked.
As for the mystery itself, it kept me guessing until the end. When the reveal came, it made me think, "Oh, I should have seen that!" That's the mark of an excellent mystery, and Benton did a masterful job constructing it. The Clockmaker's Secret is quite well put-together.
The one criticism I have is a minor one: for such a messy mystery, the ending is almost too neatly wrapped up. But it is such a satisfying read, the neat bow at the end doesn't justify docking of a star.
—Paul Austin Ardoin
The Jacq of Spades
Red Dog Conspiracy, Book 1 • Patricia Loofbourrow • ★★★★
Set in a distant post-apocalyptic future, The Jacq of Spades is a steampunk mystery, with the promise of zeppelin travel, different drug-lord families that control city quadrants, and 22-year-old Jacqueline Spadros, raised in a brothel in the slums, but chosen to be the wife of a drug-lord heir. Jacqui's secret life is as a private investigator, which her new family can never know about. Her latest case is a missing child, the younger brother of a boy she grew up with in the slums.
The book spends a bit of time world-building, which was a bit slow (I had read a prequel to this story, which is the leadoff novella in Death and Damages), so I knew much of the world already), but once it started propelling itself forward, it was hard to put the book down.
Jacqui is a rich, complex character who never completely forgets her roots, and her dealings with the other families—and her ability to sneak about successfully—lead to many edge-of-your-seat scenes. Her digging leads her to uncover other dark, sinister secrets of both other families and her own. And while many of the mysteries are unanswered—that's why this book is the first of a series—the central question of the book is resolved in what I think is a satisfying way. That's not always the case for book series, and I was happy to see the resolution.
Many of the characters are well-rounded too, from the husband and heir who Jacqui doesn't really love, to Jacqui's maid, to the twins from another quadrant who befriend Jacqui. Jacqui's father-in-law is a cruel, heartless man, but Loofbourrow shows some interesting sides to him that save him from being the mustache-twirling villain he could be.
—Paul Austin Ardoin
Buy The Jacq of Spades on Amazon.
Murder Out of the Blue
Maliha Anderson Mysteries, Book 1 • Steve Turnbull • ★★★
There's a lot to like about Murder Out of the Blue, the first book in Steve Turnbull's Maliha Anderson steampunk mystery series. The worldbuilding is seamless: I'm relatively new to steampunk, so I wasn't familiar with the concept of the Faraday engines, but the world of steampunk so well-integrated into the story that it took a few chapters before I realized that it was steampunk and not just a historical mystery set in the zeppelin era.
The strongest aspect of the book is the sleuth, Maliha Anderson herself. She's a sharply-drawn, strong, three-dimensional character. Turnbull gives her a unique voice and believable reactions to difficult and racially insensitive situations—and in the process, gives the reader an irresistible taste of an enticing backstory.
However, the mystery itself leaves a lot to be desired. The murder isn't uncovered until more than halfway through the book, which perhaps might have met the expectations of a steampunk-era reading audience. But it breaks my expectations of a modern novel, steampunk or no. As a result, the first part of the novel drags. The slow start is perhaps due to the necessities of worldbuilding, but the deft way Turnbull uncovers Anderson's unique traits bit by bit make me believe that the worldbuilding could have been performed with several more dollops of intrigue.
More problematic, though, is that the murder is solved far too quickly, and with the reader seeing little detective work on Maliha's part. It's a bit of conjecture followed by a lot of luck, and the arc of the plot that has to do with the murder simply isn't satisfying.
Turnbull's language is usually powerful and astute—and quite appropriate for a steampunk mystery. Unfortunately, the exception is the climactic scene. A physical altercation that takes place very quickly—perhaps one or two seconds at most—is over-described and goes on for a couple of lengthy paragraphs. The immediacy of the scene is lost, replaced with tepid emotion.
In spite of this book's issues, I recommend continuing to read this series. I believe part of the issue is the short length of this book. More time to solve the murder to balance out the time needed to build the world and introduce the characters would have been welcome. I've noticed that the books in the series get longer as they go on, and I'm invested in Maliha as a character.
—Paul Austin Ardoin
She Wore Mourning
Zachary Goldman Mysteries, Book 1 • P.D. Workman • ★★★★
P.D. Workman has created a deeply flawed but very compelling character in Zachary Goldman. His background is tragic and his ability to interact with the world and appear "normal" is one of his greatest daily challenges, and both informs and hinders his work as a private investigator.
The central mystery is heartbreaking—a "cold case" that's the drowning death of a five-year-old—and there are plenty of twists and turns on the way to solving it. The dead child's parents are fascinating to read about, needing to keep it together through their non-neuronormative conditions. Workman writes the characters of the parents believably and three-dimensionally: their conditions don't define them. The reader easily sees the real people where society might only see the conditions.
The secondary characters in the romantic/personal subplots are not quite as compelling as the main character or the child's parents. Goldman's main love interest is a too-good-to-be-true dreamgirl with the patience of Job, and Goldman's ex-wife often veers into too-crazy-to-put-up-with territory, although she comes back from the precipice a couple of times.
While Goldman is well-rounded, he too exhibits some troubling behavior that Perfect Love Interest Girl forgives way too easily. Although these relatively minor nits keep the book from entering five-star territory for me, they didn't detract from the "unputdownability" of this book.
She Wore Mourning is a solid, satisfying detective novel, and it piques interest for the next book in the series.
—Paul Austin Ardoin
When the Party Died
Brock & Poole Mysteries, Book 3 • A.G. Barnett • ★★★★
The first Brock & Poole mystery was excellent, but the second one was disappointing. Fortunately, the third installment of this series is solid, and frankly I'm relieved at the return to form.
When The Party Died gives us our first real glimpse at Brock's wife Laura, at her career and at other complications in their relationship (beyond the very singular focus of the couple's problem in first two books). The plot soon zooms delightfully between an art gallery and a country manor, with an enormous amount of potential clues—and, like the reader, the investigators have no idea what they mean.
It's a great setup for the main plot, which kept me interested throughout, and satisfied with the reveals. It's one of the few mysteries I've read lately in which I had no idea who did it, but looking back, there were plenty of clues.
The subplots were a bit less effective; Poole is now at a point where he's just an idiot for not being more forward with the intelligent young female constable who's so into him, she's being threatened with Perfect Girl Syndrome. It's an interracial relationship, which no one seems aware of in the book, which struck me as more than a little odd. Certainly it's not that big of a deal, but when Poole meets Sanders' Indian mother, Barnett seems to go through contortions not to mention it.
I was glad to read the climactic scene, which reveals something unexpected—and quite delightful—about her character, and saves her a bit from Perfect Girl Syndrome. I hope Barnett continues to show us her multiple dimensions in future books.
The continuing subplot of Poole's mother and father are getting diminishing returns for me as well, but there wasn't much of it in this installment.
One nitpick: there were a lot of typos and grammatical errors in this book—inconsistent use of punctuation, names spelled differently (Frazer and Fraser, especially). It was a bit distracting, but not enough where I ever considered abandoning the book (but certainly enough to dock a star).
Overall, a worthwhile read, and one that has me waiting until the day I can pre-order the fourth book in the series.
—Paul Austin Ardoin
Flynn & Levy, Book 1 • David DeLee • ★★★★
Moral Misconduct is a collection of three novellas, and taken as a whole, these three stories are engaging. Flynn and Levy, the two main characters, are sharply drawn, and in spite of their flaws, easy to root for.
The first story, the shortest of the three (and more like a novelette), goes by quickly—in fact, it's a little too quick. The two main police officers working the case find out dark things in each other's pasts that could have been drawn out in a Shakespearean way, to great satisfaction. It's a chance for conflict between the two, and I expected the misunderstanding to power the mistrust and discomfort between the two. Unfortunately, the misunderstanding resolves almost immediately after coming to light, and I felt a missed opportunity. Still, the first story was good enough to keep me reading the second.
The last story, the longest of the three, was also the best. The story had room to layer complexities, and really explore the process with which the mystery was solved. This made it much more satisfying than the shorter pieces.
DeLee has great command of the language and of his characters, especially Flynn and Levy, and the longer work really showcases how he can put a plot together effectively.
—Paul Austin Ardoin
The 1922 Club Murder
Riley Sullivan Mystery, Book 1 • Stacy M. Jones • ★★
The 1922 Club Murder is a novella featuring Little Rock newspaper reporter Riley Sullivan, as she tries to get the scoop on the murder of the head chef at one of Little Rock's high-end restaurants, a former speakeasy called The 1922 Club. Riley has to balance her demanding editor and her relationship with the homicide detective assigned to the case.
It's a juicy setup, and Jones has a good ear for Riley's voice. The mystery, too, starts to unfold in an intriguing way: the chef might have been in bed with some bad guys, he might have owed the wrong people money, and then there was his affair with the bodybuilder's wife. The plot has several good twists.
But the narrative is undone by a jarring framework: the point of view alternates between Riley telling the reader the story in first person, and then a third-person narrator follows the action of the homicide detective boyfriend. Books like this sometimes have narrative tricks like this, alternating chapters from different perspectives, from literary works like Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club to young-adult popcorn novels like Coin Heist. They can work, too—but usually they're done in alternating first person narratives. This structure is off-putting—I had to go back and figure out if I had missed something. The chapters don't alternate either, and there's no warning we're getting a chapter with a different point of view.
The other problem—and it's a big one—is most of the characters don't have their own voices. The editor, the cop boyfriend, his cop best friend, the sous chef, the bodybuilder's wife all use the same sentence structure and vocabulary, and it's really difficult to remember who's who in the story. The dialogue is written almost entirely without contractions, too, which is not only unusual, but it makes the conversations seem stilted and robotic.
There's enough good stuff in the character of Riley and in the plot of the story to go on to Deadly Sins, book two in this series—but the voices and the dialogue have got to improve to hold my interest in the series. Oddly, book two was published first, which makes me think that perhaps Jones intending The 1922 Club Murder as a prequel, perhaps as a short giveaway to drive interest in Deadly Sins. It's a common marketing tactic, but I might give this one a pass and go right to the full-length (and much better-reviewed on Amazon) Deadly Sins.
—Paul Austin Ardoin