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American Crime Fiction

HOT HOUSE . . . Between the covers

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Mari E is an LA private investigator,  distinctly low-rent to judge by her business premises, a converted container in a down-at-heel part of the city. Her premises neighbours are mostly scammers and grifters of one kind or another. She is a former government agent. She has been hired by an federal appellate judge to find out who is blackmailing him. Whoever it is wants her off the case and has been threatening her with anonymous notes. She is also certain she is being followed. For back-up she hires a partner, former LAPD detective, and now a PI himself, Derek Abernathy. He is very smart, though, and soon works out that Mari E leads a double life.

“So I have two jobs, what’s the big deal? A girl’s gotta make a living, right?”
“Jobs? More like lives,” he hissed back, pointing outside towards the parking lot.
“Mari E, as you call yourself, drives a fifteen year-old dented Honda and wears a weathered hoodie artificially inseminated with the smell of smoke and vanilla cologne. Mar-ISSA, on the other hand, drives a freaking Porsche and buys her eight-hundred-dollar Ferragamo shoes in Beverly Hills, which she wears to her Culver City art gallery!”

Hot+House+Final+CoverThat is just a quick sample of the whip-crack dialogue in the book, which fizzles and sparks like electricity across terminals. Very soon Mari and Derek realise that the blackmailed judge is also connected to the unsolved murder of a French duel-passport student, Sophie Michaud, and the fate of two women journalists who investigated the case, one of whom is dead and the other missing.

Mari has her own crusade, which is related to her being shot while on a case twelve months or so previously. Her father resolved to take his own revenge on the European crime boss responsible, but neither has been seen since. She realises that if she can discover who killed Sophie, the rest of house of cards will come tumbling down. Big problem, though. She discovers that Sophie was not just one person. Yes, physically she was one body, but psychologically two separate beings lived under that particular roof, and were even known by different names – Sophie and Sasha. One was a dreamy and talented creative artist, while the other was a calculating sexual schemer who used information about potential blackmail victims with the ruthless logic of a criminal Marie Kondo.

Good crime writers can be lyrical when they need to be, and if there were any doubt that LIsa Towles is a genuine California Girl, this passage dispels it.

“There were some places where the quality of the light is always good, and others where it’s never quite right. Too bright to see an incoming text, too dark to find your keys in the bottom of your bag. Besides California, I’d lived in three other states, and somehow the light in LA had a quality that didn’t exist anywhere else. Sometimes the sun was so high and bright, it bled out all detail leaving a luminous silvery cloak over the sand and surf. Then at dusk, that same beachfront hides in climbing shadows, with only small details visible beneath the streetlamps. It was the unsinkable promise of light and dark that anchored me to this place, this stretch of rugged coastline with its seagulls and secrets.”

LisaIn the end, the blackmailer of the judge is located, and the killer of Sophie/Sasha is brought to justice, but with literally the last sentence, Lisa Towles poses another puzzle which will presumably be addressed in the next book. Hot House is everything a California PI novel should be. It has pace, great dialogue, totally credible characters and a pass-the-parcel mystery where Lisa Towles (right) has great fun describing how Ellwyn and Abernathy peel back the layers to get to the truth. Sure, the pair might not yet stand shoulder to shoulder with Marlowe, Spade and Archer, or even more modern characters like Bosch and Cole, but they have arrived, and something tells me they are here to stay.

Hot House is published by Indies United Publishing House, LLC, and will be available in the UK as a Kindle, audiobook and hardback from 15th June. The paperback was published in March. For my reviews of three earlier novels by Lisa Towles, just click on the cover images

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AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT . . . LM Weeks and Mark Zvonkovic

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BOTTLED LIGHTNING by LM Weeks

Bottled Lightning is an international legal thriller set in Japan with a tech lawyer, Tornait “Torn” Sagara and his super-scientist client, Saya Brooks (both Japanese-Americans with past relationship issues) trying to protect themselves and the world-changing energy technology invention destined to make existing energy industries obsolete. Saya has invented what she calls lightning on demand. When dangerous operatives threaten to bury them and this bleeding edge technology, they are forced into survival mode even as their complicated personal relationship heightens the stakes.

Screen Shot 2022-05-17 at 18.38.37L. M. (Mark) Weeks is a Senior Counsel and former Partner in the global law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP. He has practiced law in New York and Tokyo for more than 30 years and served as Managing Partner of Orrick’s Tokyo office from 2007-17. Mark speaks, reads and writes fluent Japanese. In addition to his work at Orrick, Mark has done pro bono work with young HIV+ parents, indigent criminal defendants, and fisheries conservation organizations. Mark’s passion is tournament fly fishing for tarpon and record chasing. A traveling angler, he has fished all over the world. He was born in Anchorage, Alaska, and raised in Nampa, Idaho. Bottled Lightning is his debut novel, and will be available on 13the June.

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BELINDA by Mark Zvonkovic

Belinda “Lyn” Larkin is at a crossroads. A beautiful and experienced attorney who is married to the law, faces the end of a long and successful law practice at the hands of the “men in suits” who run her firm, when a man once her lover suddenly appears after a long and mysterious absence. Set in the conference rooms of white shoe Houston law firms and the stunning coastline of Baja California, Belinda is the story of a woman’s bravery and resourcefulness as she navigates the end of her career and a complex world of international intrigue, legal infighting, and unexpected romance. This character-driven third book in The Raymond Hatcher Collection (which easily reads as a stand-alone novel) explores questions of dedication, loyalty and love as Lyn contemplates what’s next in her life. Belinda will be out on 14th June.

Screen Shot 2022-05-17 at 18.55.11Mark Zvonkovic lives in Rosarito Beach, Baja California, Mexico with his wife Nancy and their two dogs, Finn and Cooper. He has written two novels. He also writes book reviews and essays that have appeared in several online publications. Before retiring to Mexico, Mark practiced law in Houston, Texas and in New York City. He attended college at Southern Methodist University and at Boston University, and his law degree is from SMU School of Law.

Both novels are handled by PR By The Book, who operate out of Round Rock, Austin, Texas. Their website is here.

AUTHOR PROFILE – Kirk Alex

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HHH024The Tucumcari Press is based in Tucson, Arizona, and they have kindly sent me a couple of books by  Kirk Alex. So who is he? He can tell us:

“I was born in Sarajevo in 1951. My family moved to Brussels when he was eight. I loved Brussels and wanted to stay on. Had the French language down in no time and wished to remain in Europe, at the least. But no, my parents felt like moving again, and there we were, two years later, U.S.-bound. Chicago, to be exact.

After finishing out my two-year military bit returned to Chicago in pretty sorry shape, dealing with bad dreams and a general state of numbness; I was dead inside. Got myself a slave-wage job not far from the Loop, picked up a typewriter for thirty bucks (on layaway; they had layaway back then) and started writing short stories. Got nowhere. After six months of that, tossed what few possessions I had (some paperbacks and clothes) into the used convertible I owned at the time, and headed west. Thought that’s what I had to do, go along with the Pull of the Mythical West, to pursue a dream or two.

I was young and naive, didn’t realize I could just as easily have remained in the Windy City like the great Nelson Algren and written my ass off right there. Live and learn. Instead, ended up in a vicious pit called L.A. for too many years to count.

HNH025In L.A., unless you have the flashy car, luxury apartment, good paying job, you can forget about having a woman in your life to be with, any of that; so yeah, we hung in there alone. What doesn’t break you makes you stronger, so they say.

Was a furniture mover, delivered phone books door-to-door, drove a taxi, was a movie extra, did factory work, painted apartments, did TV repos even, sold rebuilt mattresses to Sunset Strip prostitutes and out-of-work Hollywood actor types. Kept writing and reading. Amassed my share of rejection slips.

Bottom line: My olivetti/LETTERA provided the only light at the end of the tunnel. Granted it may have been a weak light, still, it was the only lifeline available. Without books/writing, I might easily have ended up in a straightjacket in a rubber room somewhere, or dead.

Found myself in the jungles of ‘Nam at nineteen, ducking sniper fire and mortar shrapnel, when I wasn’t busy burning leeches off my testicles and side-stepping snakes and boobytraps.”

Kirk Alex’s novel Lustmord: Anatomy of a Serial Butcher was a finalist in the Kindle Book Review’s Best Book Awards of 2014. He is also the author of Zook, Fifty Shades of Tinsel, the story collection: Ziggy Popper at Large, and the Love, Lust & Murder series:

So what about the Edgar ‘Doc’ Holiday books? You might meed to be a fan of Westerns to get the nickname. The LA private eye’s near namesake (there’s an extra ‘L’) wasn’t a doctor at all, but an infamous gambler and gunfighter, who happened to be a dentist. He was a chum of Wyatt Earp, and took part in the legendary shoot-out at the OK Corral in Tombstone. One thing is for sure, the Edgar ‘Doc’ Holiday books are long – the two I have run to 573 and 631 pages respectively. Alex is also an admirer (as am I) of one of the all-time geniuses of crime fiction, and he includes a couple of quotes from the great man in the frontispiece to the books.

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To give you an idea of Alex’s prose style, there’s a vivid scene (probably not for pet lovers) in Hard Noir Holiday where the detective ends up at an Arizona dogfight as part of his investigation.

“The MC waved his arms and the killers were released. NightDemon’s lunge was so fierce and carried so much force that the black pit bull not only knocked the other down, but was already plowing his jaw back into the other’s snout. He was tearing away at the left side of Max Pain’s mouth. The tan pit bull attempted to pull away and only managed to lose a chunk of his snout in the process.”

With characters called Biffle, McCrud, Jack Spot and Ilsa Goth, there is no mistaking that we are deep in Noir territory, and this novel is clearly not for the faint of heart, or those who like their fictional crime committed in sleepy English villages. I intend to make a start on these books as soon as I can fit them in around blog tour commitments, but for now, they are available on Amazon.

NINETY-FIVE . . . Between the covers

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ninety-fiveZak Skinner is a pretty unremarkable guy in many ways. He’s bright enough, for sure – that’s why he is studying engineering at the University of Chicago. Why he moved there from NYU, we’re not sure at first, but we suspect that he lacks the essential ingredient of ‘stickability’. Or maybe he is running away from something? He and his old school buddy Riley room together, and Riley is most things that Zak is not. Like steady, reliable, unimaginative and not prone to destructive self analysis.

Zak is slightly in awe of a fellow who lives on the same landing – David Wade is preppy, confident, glib and has an air of natural authority. When Wade takes him off campus to the house of a man called Jane (surname – so no gender crisis) Zak’s nightmare begins. Never one to turn down a toke of anything that might be mind altering he imbibes a concoction made, apparently from several rare species of South American tree bark. Over the next few hours Zak is unsure whether he is on some strange trip, or actually walking around the streets of Chicago with a mysterious woman. What does seems to be real, however, is that he has bought a notebook from an artisan craft store, and has the receipt in his back pocket.

When he finally returns to reality and shuffles back to his accommodation to share his apparent adventures with Riley things begin to go pear-shaped. First, a fellow student mistakenly takes delivery of a pizza ordered by Riley and Zak – and becomes seriously ill; then, Wade disappears, and Zak is hauled in by the campus cops as he was the last person to be seen with him; thirdly – and most bizarrely, someone seems to be in desperate need of the receipt that is sitting harmlessly in Zak’s back pocket.

Long story shortZak takes the receipt to an obscure department of the university where specialist mathematicians ponder the intricate relationships between series of numbers. When the receipt is placed under a highly refined scanner, it reveals a sequence of numbers invisible to the human eye. Stavros, the head of this arcane department is then involved in a drive-to-kill incident, but Zak escapes the wreckage, but realises he is being followed by a group of sharp-suited men who clearly work for some big corporation.

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We learnvia Zak being snatched and taken into what appears to be an alternative world beneath Chicago’s streets – that the heavies work for System D. This organisation operates on the university campus by snaring students – via drugs – into committing crimes, the videos of which are used to blackmail the victims – who are, ipso facto, highly intelligent and capable people – into working for the corporation. System D’s mission statement seems to involve using crypto currencies to arm-twist big pharma companies into providing better healthcare for the vulnerable people in society, but Zak suspects that the true aim of the organisation is something much more sinister.

Lisa Towles has an MBA in Information Technology, and has a ‘day job’ in the tech industry, so the fast paced narrative of Ninety-Five goes from one complex techno concept to the next with sometimes bewildering speed. Towles never allows this journey into the Dark Web to obscure the human element, however, and towards the end of the book she reveals Zak Skinner’s tragic family history and thus we learn, for the first time, just what the young man might have been running away from.

Ninety-Five  travels, one might say, at 95 mph, and Lisa Towles breaks up the narrative into sixty seven short chapters, so the pace is relentless. The novel is a dazzling trip into a dystopian techno-nightmare – a place where Alice Through the Looking Glass meets The Matrix, with more than a touch of Twin Peaks. Published by Indies United Publishing House, Ninety Five will be available on 24th November.

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WHEN GHOSTS COME HOME . . . Between the covers

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Wiley Cash lives in North Carolina, and I reviewed his first two novels, A Land More Kind Than Home (2013) and This Dark Road To Mercy (2014). Both had an intense, brooding quality. The first was more of a literary novel but the second – while still thoughtful and haunting – sat more comfortably in the crime genre. You can read my interview with Wiley Cash here.

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His latest novel is set, once again, in the writer’s home state. It is 1984 and Winston Barnes is the Sheriff of Oak Island, a  town on the state’s southern-facing coastline. It’s separated from the mainland by the Intracoastal Waterway. Barnes is sixty, he is up for re-election and faces a wealthy and brash challenger who has money to burn on his election campaign. In the small hours of an autumn morning Barnes and his wife – who is suffering from cancer – are woken by the sound of an aircraft apparently heading for the island’s tiny airstrip. Barnes knows that something is wrong, as no legitimate aircraft would be flying in the dead of night. When he reaches the airstrip his flashlight reveals two things: a ditched aircraft, much larger than those the facility can safely handle, and a man, recently shot dead. The aircraft is devoid of clues as to its origin, and any fingerprints have been wiped. The corpse is, however, less mysterious. It is the twenty-something son of a  local black teacher, and civil-rights activist.

What starts as merely a bad day for Barnes turns into a nightmare. His daughter Colleen, who lives in Dallas with her lawyer husband, and who is mourning a still-born child, turns up unannounced, an emotional wreck. The ditched aircraft case is summarily handed over to the FBI, and the local rednecks (including Barnes’s rival in the upcoming election) assume that the aircraft was carrying a drug shipment from South America, and that Rodney Bellamy – the murdered man – was part of the deal. Consequently, they turn up in the dead of night at Bellamy’s home, in their pick-up trucks, flaunting Confederate flags and shooting guns into the air.

Barnes knows that he unless he can cool hot heads, he is going to have a race war on his hands. No-one sitting here in Britain reading this can have the remotest idea of the intensity of the emotions stirred up in the southern states of America by the matter of race. There’s a vivid depiction of the issue in the Penn Cage novels by Greg Iles, and you read more about them by clicking this link. I have family in North Carolina and know – from a relatively recent visit – that public institutions are at great pains to distance themselves from the past. The whole business of statue-toppling and contemporary apologies for what some see as past offences is a contentious one. But this novel is set in 1984, almost four decades ago, and Wiley Cash paints a haunting picture of a community where the past still collides violently with the present.

Winston Barnes still has a murder to solve, and against the background of his wife’s illness and the mental fragility of his daughter, he has to summon up all his resolve to keep things on an even keel. The FBI sends a qualified pilot and engineer, Tom Groom, up from Florida to repair the aircraft’s damaged landing gear and fly it out so the the Oak Island airstrip can resume business. Barnes is asked to put Groom up for a few nights as the local hotels are all closed for the winter. Colleen, after meeting Groom, has a sixth sense that something is not quite right.

Screen Shot 2021-10-31 at 19.19.37Wiley Cash is at his best when describing the complex social history of his home state, and the ways in which it affects families and relationships, and he is on good form here. Where the book didn’t work so well,  for me at least, was in the ending. In literally two and a half pages, everything we thought we knew about what was happening on Oak Island is turned violently on its head. Abrupt? Yes. Enigmatic? Certainly. There’s no rule that says every plot has to end neatly tied up like a parcel with every question answered, and many readers may enjoy the ambiguity at the end of this book. You could say that Cash (right) gives us the dots and leaves it up to us how we join them up. When Ghosts Come Home is published by Faber and Faber, and is available now in Kindle and paperback. The hardback is due in February 2022.

THE BURNING . . . Between the covers

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The Kellerman family – Jonathan, Faye and now Jesse – seem to be able to turn out highly readable thrillers at the flick of a switch. My personal favourites are the Alex Delaware novels, but this is the second Clay Edison book I’ve read, and it’s excellent. The Burning is billed as 4 of 4, so the series will come nowhere near the astonishing 36 books books of the Delaware series (with the 37th due next year) You can read my review of the 36th, Serpentine, by clicking the link. My review of the third Clay Edison book, Lost Souls is here.

Burning028But back to Clay Edison. He is a Deputy US Coroner in Berkeley, California, and The Burning begins, quite topically, with a destructive bush fire that has knocked out power supplies for everyone except those with their own generators. When Edison and his partner are summoned to retrieve a corpse from a mansion up in the hills, they find that Rory Vandervelde – a multi millionaire – has died from gunshot wounds. He was an avid collector. Rare baseball and basketball memorabilia, Swiss watches, antique knives – you name it, and Vandervelde had bought it. It is when Edison is inspecting the dead man’s astonishing collection of classic cars, stored in a huge garage, that he discovers something that sends a shiver down his spine, and not in a pleasant way.

“I’d missed the Camaro on my way in. So much to gawk at. Eyes not yet adjusted. I saw it now. It was, to be specific, a 1969 SS/Z28. V8 engine, concealed headlights, black racing stripes, custom leather upholstery.

A hell of a car. One that I recognised specifically. I had seen it before. Not once, but many times.

It was my brother’s.”

Edison muses that there has to be an innocent explanation why his brother’s prize possession – a car he had restored from near junk – is in the murdered man’s garage. He surely wouldn’t have sold it to him? Luke Edison is a reformed addict who has done jail time for killing two women in a drug fuelled car theft, but he has rebuilt not only the car, but his life. Simple solution – call Luke on his cell phone. No answer. Repeated calls just go to voice mail. Clay Edison has the black feeling that something is very, very wrong, but in an instinct for family protection, he tries to prevent any of his law enforcement colleagues from identifying the vehicle’s owner and linking him with the murder.

No-one – Luke’s neurotic hippy partner, his parents, his boss at a marijuana-based therapy start-up – has seen or heard of Luke for several days. Working off the record, explaining to no-one what he is doing, and sensing that his brother is a victim rather than a perpetrator, Clay Edison finally discovers that his brother is being used as bait by some seriously evil characters who – as payback for deaths in their family for which they hold him, Clay, responsible – are prepared to stop at nothing to exact their revenge.

I finished this book during a return train journey and a quick hour before bedtime. It is ridiculously readable. Yes, it’s slick, unmistakably American, and probably formulaic but, as the late, great British film reviewer Barry Norman used to say, “And why not?” Just shy of 300 pages, it is everything that is good about American thriller fiction – fast, exciting and  – like Luke Edison’s Camaro – a bumpy but exhilarating ride. I have no idea who wrote what in the Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman partnership, but who cares? Published by Century, The Burning is out on 21st September in Kindle and hardback, and will be available next year in paperback.

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SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME . . . Between the covers

This is a strange one, and no mistake. Not the book itself, which is perfectly readable, but the title. Mainly because the one thing it isn’t is Robert B Parker’s. It’s Ace Atkins, re-imagining the world of the tough wise-cracking Boston PI, Spenser. I suppose it must be some legal stipulation from the estate of Spenser’s creator (1932-2010), but it certainly makes for an unwieldy title. I was a huge fan of the forty canonical Spenser novels and, also, the equally readable Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall books, but let’s remember that Spenser was himself something of a reinvention of Philip Marlowe: a few decades later, for sure, more up for a fist fight, but still with a good line in wise-cracks and sarcastic put-downs. Unlike Marlowe, however, Spenser had a reliable repertory company of helpers, notably his alluring psychologist girlfriend Susan and the implacable and intimidating Hawk.

So, to the novel. The characters are all present and correct including (regrettably, as far as I am concerned) the latest manifestation of the dog Pearl. Pearl and her little ways used to irritate me in the original books but, to be fair, Spenser simply wouldn’t be Spenser without the doggy love, so Ace Atkins gets a reluctant star for authenticity. Spenser is asked to investigate a sex crime. Not his normal bread and butter, but a very much under-age friend of a friend has been used and abused by someone much richer and infinitely more powerful. Peter Steiner and Poppy Palmer are disgustingly rich – and have disgusting moral values. To put it bluntly, Peter likes under-age girls, and Poppy likes that he likes them, and gets her kicks from sucking them into their decadent whirlpool.

The Steiners are also well-connected. Politicians great and small, financiers, socialites, fund-raisers – mostly anyone who is anyone in Boston and further afield – all tip their hats to the Steiners. Neither does it hurt that the Steiners’ clout enables them to hire serious muscle from the criminal underworld and, as most of the child rape is conducted on a private island somewhere in the vicinity of the Bahamas, neither the Boston Police Department nor the FBI can do anything to intervene.

Spenser is, if nothing else, an extremely moral man, and the plight of the youngsters stirs him to put his hands into the hornets’ nest. He has important allies in the shape of two other long-standing members of Spenser Inc. – tough and honest cup Quirk, and the voluptuous campaigning lawyer, Rita Fiore. Despite their authority, however, neither Quirk nor Fiore can lay a glove on the Steiners while they are despoiling young lives on their Caribbean hideaway.

Clearly, in real life, things work differently. Or maybe they don’t? Much closer to home we have witnessed the appalling abuse of thousands of young girls across English towns and cities, while those in authority, like the Jew and the Levite in the parable, passed by on the other side. Maybe they weren’t swayed by money directly, but their livelihoods in social services, the police and local government would have been under threat if they had done or said “the wrong thing”. Back to the fiction, Ace Atkins sets up a terrific finale here, with Spenser and Hawk travelling to an island close to the Steiners’ lair. Not only do they face a small army of minders and gunmen, but a man known as Ruger who, a few books ago, bested Spenser and left him for dead.

Spenser’s crusade is flawed, however, because someone he counts on is working for the bad guys, and the plans to liberate the youngsters goes pear shaped. Just when you think that this is finally “it” for Spenser and Hawk, something totally unexpected happens and a certain amount of rough justice is meted out. The scandal of powerful men – not just the rich and privileged, but men with social status in their communities – abusing young children seems to be a growth area. Ace Atkins has written a scathing account of one such atrocity in America. Someone needs to have the balls to write one set in Britain. Someone To Watch Over Me is published by Oldcastle Books and is out now.

BENEATH BLACKWATER RIVER . . . Between the covers

She looked alive, her hair drifting freely in the water, her red lips gently parted, as if to let her final breath escape. A small locket floated by her face, attached to her neck with a silver chain…”She looked alive, her hair drifting freely in the water, her red lips gently parted, as if to let her final breath escape. A small locket floated by her face, attached to her neck with a silver chain…

There are times when a book’s plot is so complex that it doesn’t hurt to pause at the half way mark and ask. “what do we know?” Beneath Blackwater River is the latest novel from American novelist Leslie Wolfe (above), and is one such book. Firstly, the author herself. Her website says, “She creates unforgettable, brilliant, strong women heroes who deliver fast-paced, satisfying suspense, backed up by extensive background research in technology and psychology.” The central figure in this book is former FBI profiler Kay Sharp. She is now working as a relatively junior detective in a California sheriff’s department. Thus far in the book, we have, in no particular order:

  • A young woman is found dead, her throat recently slashed, beneath the waters of a mountain river.
  • She is initially mis-identified by investigating officers.
  • One identity was that of a girl from a very poor home; the other girl comes from a rich family.
  • In another part of the country, a teenage runaway is abducted by a mysterious man, known only as Triple-Dollar-Sign.
  • Detective Kay Sharp is sheltering, in the home she shares with her brother, the battered wife of a fellow officer.
  • The abusive officer is in the pay of an as-yet-unidentified person – with money.

Leslie Wolfe has, then, set several hares running, to use the venerable English metaphor. The rogue cop – Herb Scott – is a truly nasty piece of work, and seems to have half the Sheriff’s Department under his thumb, as when his wife, Nicole, has reported her many beatings as a crime, nothing ever happens. The mis-identification of the murdered girl is a seemingly unsolvable mystery. Were there ever two girls, or are they one and the same? Does the conundrum stem from a complex inheritance issue involving the wealthy Caldwell family? The Caldwells are magnificently disfunctional, riven with bitterness and jealousy, and to spice matters up even more, there is the deadly whiff of incest in the air.

Meanwhile, the runaway teenagerKirsten – has fallen into the hands of a psychopath who seems to have loved and lost a beautiful girl at some stage in the past; now, he seeks out young women who resemble his lost love; when, inevitably, they don’t match up to his distorted memories, they are done away with. At the half way stage I was scratching my head to think how could Leslie Wolfe ever tie up the apparently unconnected story lines, but she does it with all the flourish of a stage magician dazzling the audience with a seemingly impossible sleight of hand. Readers who love a fast-moving melodrama will not be disappointed here.

Beneath Blackwater River is published by Bookouture, and will be available as a Kindle and an audiobook on 23rd April which, as I’m sure you’re aware, is both St George’s Day and the birthday of William Shakespeare.

LONG BRIGHT RIVER . . . Between the covers

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A wintry Philadelphia is the setting for Liz Moore’s fourth novel. A female police officer, Michaela ‘Mickey’ Fitzpatrick, works the streets of Kensington, This district’s history owes much to its proximity to the Delaware River, and the fishing, milling and transport industries, but these have long since ceased, and the area is run down, dilapidated, and one of the centres of the city’s drug trade.

LBR coverThis is not a crime novel in the traditional sense, and it certainly isn’t a police procedural, despite Mickey’s profession. The plot partly involves the search for someone who is killing young women who have been forced into prostitution to feed their drug habit but, although this is resolved, it is eventually incidental to the main thrust of the novel.

Mickey comes from a dysfunctional family. Her mother is long dead, she is estranged from her father, and both she and her sister Kacey were brought up by a rather forbidding and humourless grandmother they call Gee. Micky’s career in the police force is unspectacular, but it pays the bills for her and her young son Thomas. As the blurb on the back of the book cleverly puts it,

Once inseparable, sisters Mickey and Kacey are on different paths, but they walk the same streets. Mickey on her police beat and Kacey in the shadows of the city’s darkest corners where the drug addicts and the sex workers preside.

As more women fall victim to the mystery killer, Mickey becomes ever more frantic that Kacey will be the next body wheeled on a gurney into the mortuary to await the investigation by the police pathologist. When she hears from an old friend of Kacey’s that the killer is thought to be a police officer, she confides in her immediate boss, Sergeant Ahearn. Not only is he sceptical, but he bounces the accusation back at Mickey, and she finds herself suspended and under investigation into allegations about her own conduct.

Screen Shot 2020-12-27 at 18.57.52Liz Moore (right) treats Mickey’s search for her sister on two levels: the first, and more obvious one, is a nightmare trip through the squats and shoot-up dens of Kensington in an attempt to find Kacey – a search, find and protect mission, if you will. On a more metaphorical level, the books becomes a journey through Mickey’s own past in the quest for a more elusive truth involving her family and her own identity.

As readers we have one or two tricks played on us by the author as she allows us – through Mickey’s narrative –  to make one or two assumptions, before turning those on their heads. Liz Moore’s style is interesting, particularly in the way she replays dialogue. This is a powerful and thought-provoking novel which, despite some measure of redemption, has a truly chilling final few lines.

Long Bright River came out as a Kindle and in hardback earlier this year, and this paperback edition will be published by Windmill Books on 31st December

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