The Couple Next Door – Shari Lapena

The Couple Next Door – Shari Lapena Published by Penguin Books in 2016 (316 pages) the third novel from Canadian writer Shari Lapena. It’s a masterclass in plotting a fast pace thrill ride… although I think the term is a bit over used, by the second half this book is a real page turner… and I’m glad to be reading a physical copy for the shear joy of actually tuning pages! Much like watching a movie meant to be seen on the big cinema screen.

It’s an intensely intimate look into the characters, their inner world, their life together, not so much their hopes and dreams but their fears and suspicions. Right from chapter one we jump into the heart of the crime… the next ten chapters really focuses on Anne and Marco, but chapter three, Anne becomes ‘the mother’ and Marco becomes ‘the husband’ and it isn’t made clear why. Perhaps this is a chapter written from the detective’s point of view.

Then… click bait alert, chapter eleven is straight out of left field. Things are not what they seem. And by chapter seventeen, the curves start flying – and we know the theme of this is all about the secrets… those we keep from others, but so much more those we keep from ourselves.

But let’s talk about the ending, those last five chapters… the dominoes have been falling one by one and from here the pace just accelerates to a point where all the remaining dominoes are just dumped in a heap, but the truth wins out through a strangling thicket of thorns, and no one comes up unscathed.

And just when you think it’s over… the final chapter holds that sign reading ‘but wait, there’s more’ and as for Anne, in the end, I like to think of her outcome as … ambiguous. But that’s just me, I’m an optimist.

“So what if the babysitter cancelled? They should have brought Cora with them, put her in a portable playpen. Buy Cynthia had said no children. It was to be an adult evening, for graham’s birthday. Which is another reason Anne has come to dislike Cynthia, who was once a good friend – Cynthia is not baby-friendly. Who says that a six month old baby you isn’t welcome at a dinner party? How had Anne ever let Marco persuade her that it was ok? It was irresponsible. She wonders what the other mothers in her mom’s group would think if she ever told them. We left our six-month old baby home alone and went to a party next door. She imagines all their jaws dropping in shock, the uncomfortable silence. But she will never tell them. She’d be shunned.”

Last Breath – Robert Bryndza

Last Breath – Robert Bryndza I’ve read the kindle edition of this thrilling British police procedural. This is the forth in the DCI Erika Foster series.

As this story begins, a body has been uncovered in a trash bin in London. DI Peterson is called to the scene. Erika tags along on this snowy evening despite the fact that she is no longer part of the Murder Investigation Team. Peterson reports to DCI Marion Hudson, who though not on the scene, is still in charge of this investigation. Erika in her fashion ‘crashes’ in on the scene. Her current duties have her compiling administrative reports in Bromley. But being at the murder scene, and seeing it run poorly, gets Erika’s inner detective sparked, that, and Superintendent Sparks chasing her off probably had as much to do with her motivations. But a behind the scenes police investigation and an unforeseen circumstance align in such a way as to promote DCI Hudson to Acting Superintendent and DCI Forster can work the investigation.

While investigating this killing, Erik, through her connection with the pathologist Isaac, finds out that sloppy police work caused a killing with the same signature markings from going unnoticed, these are slow killings where the murderer seems to torture his victim a few days before killing them. So, now there are two brutal homicides. The killer has both luck and skill in hiding his identity as well as his crime and a third killing takes place. But as clues turn up and connections are made, Erika and her team get closer to the truth… As news that a third victim has been taken. With an increasing sense of urgency and a ticking clock until this next victim is killed the pace of this story really starts to race. And luck won’t be on the killer’s side for long…

This story certainty has Erika at her most introspective. As a reader of this series we’re starting to see much more growth in Erika, especially in her interactions with her various superiors up the chain of command. She still shows her indignation at police ‘perception’ motivations. When called in by the Assistant Commissioner she stands her ground while not getting much support from Acting Superintendent Hudson. But through her outside interactions with former Assistant Commissioner Marsh and her nemesis Superintendent Sparks, she begins to see things from their perspective. Which is one of those areas we see Erika becoming more forgiving of those around her.

And towards the end of this story, through her interactions with Isaac, Peterson and Hudson, Erika is really starting to take stock of her life. The choices she herself has made, as well as the circumstances that life has dealt to her. It seems that a certain amount of healing is taken place within her, and I look forward to seeing her in the next thrilling case!

   She went on: ‘Getting over the loss, that bit people can sympathize with and understand, but moving on, trying to fill the gap the loss has left, is impossible… You know I’ve been seeing Peterson – James – since before Christmas.’

Isaac nodded. ‘You like him, don’t you?’

Erica nodded and got p, grabbing the box of tissues from the desk opposite.

‘He just wants to be with me, and I keep pushing him away. He’s such a good guy… Like Mark, he was the one everyone loved. I just don’t know why Mark had to die and I’m still here. He was a great guy. I’m just a bitch.’

Isaac laughed.

‘I am, it’s not funny.’

‘You’re not a bitch, but you have to act like one sometimes. It helps you get the job done.’

Erika laughed. ‘No, thank you, but I just want to be alone.’

‘No, you don’t… Every day I have to do post-mortems on people, and so many of them had their hole lives ahead of them. They probably died wishing they could have done things differently, wishing they has been nicer, loved more, not stressed so much. Go and see James. You could be dead tomorrow and lying on that slab in there.’

‘Brutal, but true,’ said Erika. ‘You should give advice more.’

‘I do, but most of the people I see at work can’t do anything with it. They’re dead.’

The Woman Aroused – Ed Lacey

The Woman Aroused – Ed Lacey Published in 1951 I read the PlanetMonk Pulps Book 8 Kindle Edition. This is the first novel by Ed Lacy who, up to this point was mostly a short story writer, and this does read a lot like an extended short story. Although a death by mysterious circumstance does take place in this novel, I wouldn’t consider it a mystery… nothing about the death is really investigated, and questions about the death are not formally resolved. However, like the protagonist George, we do have a strong circumstantial case against one of the other characters.

And that is really what this story has going for it, characters. Characters up the Wahoo as we would say; distinctive, quirky and varied. Though not a mystery its more a slice of life story told in a tight first person narrative that has a short story feel to it. You can almost hear George sitting across from you telling you this account about his fall from grace and possible redemption by means of a young woman, the widow of a childhood friend from the neighborhood just returned from overseas Army duty.

And its this friend who has George hold some money for him so that his wife wont get it should they divorce as he anticipates. However, he falls out of the window of his fifth story apartment before he can divorce his wife. Now, George finds himself entangled with this wild foreign woman.

I really did enjoy this story particularly for the realistic sense of New York City in the post world war two late forties with the experiences of the veterans, those who served during the war, The character Eddie (whose political views seem very autobiographical to Mr. Lacy) who is George’s ex-brother-in-law, and the experiences of those who served in the time just after the war Walt, the son of George’s friend and co-worker Joe.

And then of course, there are those classic ‘pulp’ descriptions peppered throughout the book:

   I went into the kitchen and I heard them kissing, then Joe told her,

“I’d best go in and help Georgie boy.” He came in and put a heavy arm around my shoulder, turned on the water in the sink so she couldn’t hear, said, “Jeez, what a night. I tied a big one on. Hey what do you think of Stella? Some sex-boat.”

“Not bad,” I said, pouring the beer. I knew all about Stella – all the Stellas: with a husband someplace in the background, maybe a kid or two, a busted marriage, a routine job during the week, and the frantic week-ends with any guy who treated her “nicely,” as she tried to regain her illusions of bright romance and youth over some bar; a dozen drinks fogging reality.

Blonde Bait – Ed Lacy

Blonde Bait – Ed Lacy Published in 1959 I read the PlanetMonk Pulps Book 8 Kindle Edition published in 2013.

A brief pulp book coming in at 147 pages it’s a novella written in a first person narrative style , that really has an authenticity to its voice. A pulp from the late fifties, a guy meets a buxom blonde bombshell, with a suitcase full of cash and not big on telling us the wheres and whys of having it, not to mention a gun, out sitting on a deserted Florida key. The story has a lot of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ but the clipped nature of the story still has a good bit of action and fisticuffs leading to its climax. I look forward to spending a little more time with this author… and of course, being Ed Lacy, the reason for the mystery behind the money… yeah, its political…

It’s a story about a vagabond guy living on a boat who comes across a woman apparently stranded on a deserted spit of an island. This woman it seems had baggage in more than one way, apparently she doesn’t want to talk about the suitcase full of cash she has, nor why she needs the gun in her hand bag. Eventually, as these two characters interact and get to tell each other their life’s story they forge a relationship and appear to live a rather idyllic life on a small island in the Bahamas. But although they are accepting of each other, there is this wall between them.

Micky has a yearning to return to the US, not permanently just an excursion to see the sights but Rose is on the run from people trying to kill her. As she begins to tell Micky more of her story and how she came to have the money. Micky thinks that, since its been two years, perhaps the people looking for her have giving up. So they set sail for Jacksonville and work their way up to Atlantic city. But it seems that while they were out and about, the people looking for Rose haven’t given up yet. She’s more on the radar than ever, and while Micky and Rose as having diner at a club, a person who claims to be a federal agent notices her. Rose is able to slip the agent as Micky creates a distraction. Now he’s become the ‘person of interest’ facilitating her escape!

The Keys were full of boats , big and small yachts , so I crossed over to the Bahamas , found myself a quiet little island . A hunk of sand and a couple of ragged bushes . No place to live and no way of getting there without a boat – a sea boat . I anchored late in the afternoon , about thirty or forty feet offshore . I didn’t do much of anything but fish for my supper , put in sack time . In the morning I saw this girl on the beach . I’d never seen anything like her before , except in the movies . A tall platinum – blonde , with a face and shape … well , you see the snap . She was calmly sitting on a suitcase , peeling off her stockings and a ritzy summer dress . There was a bathing suit under the dress . I went down into the cabin and put my little telescope on her – through a port hole . Up close she looked even better . She also had a cloth – bag pocketbook , and I could see the heavy outline of a . 45 automatic in the bag .

Black Cherry Blues – James Lee Burke

 Black Cherry Blues – James Lee Burke Published in 2011 by Mulholland Books, 288 pages I read this on my kindle at a very nice price.

This is the third book in the Dave Robicheaux series, and it seems to pick up right after the death of his wife. Her death, as well as her ghost haunts him through this story. But it’s a friend of his from College that brings the former New Orleans homicide detective to check into a pair of oil company men his friend Dixie seems to have gotten himself in bed with.

One thing leads to another as they say, and when thugs send a not to subtle threat involving his adopted daughter, its payback time. Then, when one of the oil lease-men turns up dead, Dave follows the leads to Montana to clear himself and finds that his old friend Dixie has taken refuge with a mafia family who’ve helped him in the past.

With missing Indian activists, oil company land deals and mafia drug transactions… well as picturesque as the landscape is, it may not be the healthiest place for an ex-lawman to be asking too many questions.

I’ve read this book having just finished his novel New Iberian Blues (2019). Its been thirty years between these two books and it’s a clear demonstration of something I’ve been calling the “Stephen King effect”. This novel has a fairly simple linear narrative with a limited number of characters moving through it… whereas New Iberian Blues has several narrative threads weaving through numerous characters over a sweeping story arc, and it shows how James Lee Burke has grown and developed as a masterful storyteller.

And, though this novel is smaller in scope than its latter novels it is no less dramatic in is descriptive landscapes:

“I headed for the Blackfeet Reservation, on the other side of the Divide, east of Glacier Park. In the early morning light I drove up the Blackfoot River through canyons of pink rock and pine, with woodsmoke drifting through the trees from the cabins set back in the meadows. The runoff from the snowpack up in the mountains was still high, and the current boiled over the boulders in the center of the river. Then the country opened up into wider valleys and ranchland with low green hills and more mountains in the distance. I started to climb into more heavily wooded country, with sheer rock cliffs and steep-sided mountains that ran right down to the edge of the road; the canyons and trees were dark with shadow, and by the time I hit the logging town of Lincoln the air had turned cold and my windows were wet with mist. I drove into clouds on the Divide at Rogers Pass, my ears popping now, and rivulets of melted snow ran out of the pines on the mountainside, bled across the highway, and washed off the dirt shoulder into a white stream far below. The pine trees looked almost black and glistened with a wet sheen.”

New Iberia Blues – James Lee Burke

New Iberia Blues – James Lee Burke Published January 2019 by Simon and Schuster, 465 pages of pure scenic detective fiction. I checked my copy out from the library and I sure wasn’t disappointed with this. This is the book I had in mind when I was reading Debbie Herbert’s Cold Waters. There are several threads running through this story and its woven together masterfully.

Detective Dave Robicheaux spies a woman tied to a cross drifting in from the bay while on the deck of his old friend Desmond Cormier’s house. The award winning director Desmond and company are in the area filming a new movie when a series of unfortunate incidents occur. From a dead woman on a cross, to a hanged laborer, then a crooked sheriff’s deputy is killed… as Robicheaux diggers deeper into the people surrounding Desmond the bodies pile up.

Is there a killer amongst Desmond’s friends or could it be a fugitive death row inmate from Texas who has been spotted in the area… or perhaps its an albino mafia contract kill whose also returned to New Iberia. It couldn’t be a young deputy who has a knack for being around just when someone is killed… could it?

The descriptions are wonderfully drawn in a vibrancy of detail and oe of the things that I liked about this story is that there is time in between the events. Everything isn’t cramped together, its spaced out, paced over a series of months, season even. The story starts in the spring and concludes in the fall and Burke gives amble nuanced description of the bayou throughout its transitions.

And its not just the physical landscape, no, the characters themselves are painted with a fine-tip brush. Even the recently deceased get rendered in full dimension:

   By Monday the victim had been identified through his prints as Joe Molinari, born on the margins of American society at Charity Hospital in Lafayette, the kind of innocent and faceless man who travels almost invisibly from birth to the grave with no paper trail except a few W-2 tax forms and an arrest for a thirty-dollar bad check. Let me take that one step further. Joe Molinari’s role in life had been being used by others, as a consumer and laborer and voter and minion, which, in the economics of the world I grew up in, was considered normal by both the liege lord in the manor and the serf in the field.

He’d lived in New Iberia all his life, smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, and worked for a company that did asbestos teardowns and other jobs that people do for minimum wage while they pretend they’re not destroying their organs. He’d had no immediate family, played dominoes in a game parlor by the bayou, and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, never traveled farther than three parishes from his birthplace. He had gone missing seven days ago.

Spells And Cells – Sam Short

Spells And Cells: A Spellbinder Bay Cozy Paranormal Mystery – Book Three (Spellbinder Bay Paranormal Cozy Mystery Series 3) (pp. 49-50). Sam Short Books. Kindle Edition.

“Just look around you,” said Judith, her hair shining gold in the sunlight. “Adults are just big kids at heart.” This appears to be an idea that keeps coming through in this very dramatic story. This is the third, and I don’t know if it’s the final, installment in the Millie Thorn “Spellbinder Bay” Young Adult Paranormal Cozy mystery series, and it seems to tie up many of the loose ends from the previous two books. Suffice it to say, I actually believe that the death under investigation in this story, is actually a subplot compared to the other threads being tied together.

There is an apparent death of a werewolf while in police custody.. Is our beloved Sargent Spencer really the guilty party? Or is there some force that might be working through him? And what will the other werewolves think?

In this story, we really get to see a side of Spellbinder Bay and its paranormal community that we didn’t get in the prior two novels. It shows a stratification within the community, ad it shows to some degree internal conflicts within this community. Much like we see different interplay between groups in The Planet Of The Apes, here we get a similar education.

We also delve deeper into the back stories of some of the power players in the politics of Spellbinder Hall… while Henry, the de facto leader of this community is away, such as Frederick, the ‘head vampire in charge’ and Edna a witch who evidently does autopsies as well.

But mostly, this is THE story of Millie, her past, her present, and a possible future with a new set of familiar relations. Well, spoiler alert, as with most cozies this one has a happy ending. But not just A happy ending, there are several happy endings spanning many of the diverse story threads weaving themselves through this third tome.

SERIOUS spoiler alert here, and, although I don’t usually chime in on what should or shouldn’t be done… on a personal note and most certainly in my humble opinion… I think the story would have had more punch, a real moment of reflection, if Rueben didn’t survive the Chaos.

Fredrick gave another smile. “Because of politics, Miss Thorn. All is not what it seems in Spellbinder Hall. I’m content in the job I perform here in the hall, I like teaching the children… it is the one joy in my existence, and I’m content with being on The Board of Governors, but to retain the positions I hold, I must keep on proving my competence. Henry left me in charge, and if I did nothing in the wake of a murder committed during his absence, other people who hold a dislike for me, or who covet my position on the Board, would speak against me, perhaps persuading Henry to remove me from my responsibilities. And I happen to enjoy my responsibilities.”

Broomsticks And Bones – Sam Short

Broomsticks And Bones: A Spellbinder Bay Cozy Paranormal Mystery – Book Two (Spellbinder Bay Paranormal Cozy Mystery Series 2) (p. 89). Sam Short Books. Kindle Edition.

“Sergeant Spencer took a deep sniff of the crisp morning air. ‘I’m hungry,’ he stated. ‘We should have breakfast before beginning a murder investigation.’”

And that’s the sentiment that defines the ‘cozy’ subgenre of mystery fiction. First muffins, then murder. And it is murder, make no mistake about that. After the discovery of a mysterious skeleton unearthed by a treasure hunting beachcomber, the arrival of the alien hunting group ASSHAT, yup, ASSHAT (Alien Search Syndicate and Hazard Alert Team) and an midnight covert incursion by the Spellbinder Sand Diggers group, the body of the beachcomber is found. Who, or quite possibly what killed him puts a recently deputized Millie on the case.

I find myself really enjoying the cozy flow in this series. Broomsticks and Bones is the second in the Millie Thorn ‘Spellbinder Bay’ mysteries. It has quirky characters that quickly draw you in and the narration flows along. This is a wonderful book for a lazy spring day sacked out in the hammock and an ending that satisfies our curiosity, and small town justice as well.

Sergeant Spencer coughed, the sound hiding his laughter, but unable to conceal the mirth his wide smile exposed. “It’s his uniform,” he explained. “He’s from a —”

“I’m quite capable of explaining who I am, and what organisation I represent, thank you, Sergeant,” said the man. He smiled at Millie and Judith. “I’m Mister Anon, which is a clever pseudonym, of course — I like to keep my real identity a secret. I have to keep it secret. I represent a group known as the Alien Search Syndicate and Hazard Alert Team.”

“Erm,” said Judith. “You’re from a group called ASSHAT?”

Mr Anon sighed. “You’re quick at working out acronyms. Very good. Most people don’t pick up on it. The group was named before I joined it. That mistake would have never slipped past me if I’d been in charge at the time.”

“You could change it?” said Millie.

“Too late,” said Mister Anon. “We’ve got headed paper, business cards — the works. We don’t have the funds to make such sweeping changes.”

Wicked For Hire – Lotta Smith

Wicked For Hire – Lotta Smith CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (April 17, 2016) I read the kindle edition 123 pages

I suppose it’s a matter of perception, or rather presentation? No, representation! I just finished reading Cold Waters (see the previous post) and I was critical of the simple no twists storyline, the fact that you had the story pretty much solved by the one third mark, and I was critical of the lack of substance and dimension in the characters.

Well, here is a story… that I expected to be simple and straight forward with fairly two dimensional characters and it was a delight to read. And that was due to my expectation walking into the story.

Wicked For Hire is put forward as a young adult, paranormal cozy mystery and that’s what I got… just as expected. Cold Waters was put forward as a serious, location-style mystery and it didn’t meet expectations…

But yes! I certainly enjoyed this light, quick, quirky story. At just over a hundred pages you can read it in one sitting. The bright, tongue-in-cheek narration adds to the color and the quick pace keeps you turning those pages.

It’s the story of a young woman, Amanda, who has some serious student loans to pay back… being denied the chance to finish med school can do that to a gal, but that’s what happens when some of the patients drop dead from your touch. Oh, and you also get labeled “The Grim Reaper”. Such is the opening to this young adult paranormal cozy…

Amanda is recruited by FBI Special Agent Rick Rowling who just happens to be the star loose cannon of a secret ‘paranormal cases’ division. Seems he needs a new assistant as he goes through them like tissues, and his boss wants someone to rein in the one-man wrecking crew.

So Amanda starts her new job with her new boss trying to solve the mysterious disappearance of a struggling artist, whose sugar-momma is the sister of a woman seeing Rick’s father. Seems the cops have a suspect, the sugar-momma’s other beau. He seems the perfect culprit right up until he mysteriously disappears while under police surveillance.

Can Rick and Amanda find out who, or what is behind these disappearances, before we all disappear?

Riding with him was a hellish experience—he drove as if he were in the Daytona 500, not the middle of Manhattan. “Are you insane?” I managed to say while I tried my best not to puke in the passenger’s seat. “Seriously, you should give your driver’s license back to the state. You can’t drive like a meth-crazed maniac!” “Ha. They shouldn’t grant a driver’s license to someone incapable of dodging my car” was his reply. He had a point, so I made a mental note to file a complaint to the local DMV

Cold Waters – Debbie Herbert

Cold Waters – Debbie Herbert 2019 published by Thomas Mercer 323 pages, I read the kindle edition

There are more drama llamas running through this book than bulls at Pamplona!

I picked this book hoping to get a sense of small town Alabama, and a good mystery in the mix… instead, I know more about the Keurig machine in the police station in an ‘old man vs new tech’ trope than I do about the building itself. The characters themselves are drawn straight out of central casting and never really developed past their tightly confined narratives… they boarder on base stereotypes. .. and as far as the ‘mystery’ goes, the only red herring will be found in a jar of cream sauce in Delaney’s pantry…

The story is about Violet, as she returns home from her stint in a halfway house having been interred at a mental facility for ten years following her witnessing the death of her best friend… or is she more than a witness? She is presented as a troubled soul who takes solace in her superstitions and talismans. And she has her reservations about returning to her home in Normal, a small Alabama town, to claim an inheritance left by her mother.

Waiting for her there are her evil step-sister Delaney and her father, an alcoholic with rage issues now showing signs of dementia. I characterize Delaney as ‘the evil step-sister’ because that is how she is presented by every character that narrates their interactions with her… and she is true to that stereotype.

The story is narrated in the first person and predominantly by Violet. For most of the time she’s narrating in the present-time, but smore chapter are set in the past, mostly ten years ago when the death of her friend Ainsley occurred. Other characters narrate scenes from their points of view, Delaney, Hyacinth (Her mother), Boone (the detective)… but even though the narrator changes, the ‘voice’ doesn’t change. Its as if all these characters sound the same.

Since is was an Amazon April recommendation I didn’t want to just shelve it. But, at about the halfway point I was able to push the throttle down and go right into skimming mode, just to get through this.

As for the theme in all this? Quite simply, the ends justify the means. Cue music, roll credits…

“You were rude,” she accused. Her eyes raked over me. “And why didn’t you wash up? I told you they were coming this afternoon.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“I mentioned it twice at breakfast,” she insisted.

She hadn’t, but I let that go. “Why did you tell them those lies about me having nightmares?”

“they weren’t lies. Every night, you scream in your sleep.”

My anger went down a notch. Was she telling the truth? I shook my head. “If I had nightmares, I’d remember.”

Delany arched a brow. “Do you always remember your dreams or wake up from a bad one?”

“No, guess not,” I had to admit. “Do I really call out Ainsley’s name?”

“You do. Repeatedly. Last night and most every night.”