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Lisa Towles

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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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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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Lloyd & Towles

I’ve had two rather special posts in the last couple of days, which is good to see, especially when one comes from America. Also, each came with some tasty ‘bits and bobs’! Neither is due out for a while, but I want to get the word out now, as they both look intriguing.

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THE BLOODLESS BOY by Robert J. Lloyd

This sounds like the literary equivalent of a Restoration banquet of many rich courses, each more piquant than the preceding one – and a dramatic contrast to the grim years of he Protectorate. From that broad hint you may already have guessed that the novel is set in the London of Charles II. it is 1678, and the main character is a man of whom I first became aware while struggling to comprehend ‘O’ Level Physics back in the 1960s. We had to study Hooke’s Law (and I failed, dismally) but Robert Hooke was a polymath who has been called “England’s Leonardo“, and he is the central character of this story. He is called upon to investigate the gruesome death of a boy, found on a London riverbank, completely drained of blood. To extend the banquet metaphor, the menu includes a suspected Catholic plot, sinister foreign assassins, wild political intrigue, and a London slowly being rebuilt after the disaster of 1666. The Bloodless Boy is published by Melville House, and will be available on 2nd November. Look out for a full review when the blog tour launches.

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NINETY-FIVE by Lisa Towles

Lisa Towles is a very smart lady who works in the California tech industry, and she also a fine writer. I reviewed two earlier books, The Unseen (2019) and Choke (2017) Her latest novel features a young man called Zak Skinner who is – to be blunt – something of a mess. Avoiding awkward decisions and ignoring reality are two of his predominant life-skills, and he has just solved problems he was having at New York University by running away – to the University of Chicago. Zak may not be someone on whom you would rely in a crisis, but he is not stupid, and when he discovers a campus crime scam that involves drugs, coercion and blackmail, his talent for being inquisitive unearths an even bigger criminal operation, which puts him in the gun sight cross-hairs of some very dangerous people. Ninety-Five will be available from Indies United Publishing House on 24th November, and I will write a review nearer the time.

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THE UNSEEN . . . Between the covers

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Lisa Towles is a California Girl by residence, but she hails from New England. She writes crime novels when she isn’t putting her IT Management MBA to good use in The Sunshine State’s tech industry. Long time followers of Fully Booked will recall my enthusiastic review of her earlier book Choke (2017) and will remember that I began that review with the words:

“Lisa Towles is over-cautious. Said no-one, ever.”

TU051She is back with a vengeance – and that same imaginative flair – with her new mystery thriller The Unseen and the action is just as breathless. We have a story that spans five decades and whirls us between Dublin, the Egyptian desert, Boston Massachusetts, London and Rome. With a cast of larger-than-life characters including archaeologists, journalists, hit men – and a direct descendant of an Eastern Orthodox Pope – the story is never short of surprises and dramatic twists.

The basic plot is that back in 1970, an archaeologist unearths a series of documents which, if they are authentic, could re-write the history of early Christianity. That archaeologist, Rachel Careski, disappears in mysterious circumstances, and the artifacts are believed to be in the safe keeping her brother, Soren. The story moves to 2010,  Soren Careski is long dead, and the secrets of the scrolls are assumed to have accompanied him to the grave.

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lisaWhat starts off in a rather Indiana Jones vein quickly morphs into Robert Langdon territory and there’s no shortage of rapidly-changing locations, sinister ancient manuscripts and malevolent religious freaks. Lisa Towles shows great skill in taking these well-visited elements and stamping her own imprint on them. The Unseen is published by 9mm Press and is out now.

 

Lisa Towles has a Facebook page, her own website, and can be found on Twitter as @bridgit66

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