Category Archives: Fiction

Ceramics and Spies – A Real Conundrum

Warring States Conundrum - ceramics and spiesSeymour Grufferman’s The Warring States Conundrum depicts a laid-back investigation involving Chinese ceramics and spies. Winston Sage, a former epidemiologist (like the author), visualizes himself as a detective. Sage, with his wife, Julia, retired to Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the climate, art galleries and fly fishing. Or so he thought.

When Bill Harvey, Sage’s neighbor, enlists his help to locate his missing wife, Sage accepts. Sage’s ability to trace cancer patients as part of his previous work affords little help finding Harvey’s wife. Nevertheless, he soldiers on as his interest is piqued by the high-quality Chinese ceramics that are a pivotal point in the case.

Whose Side are You On?

Jessica Harvey dealt in Chinese ceramics from the Warring States period in the East-West Gallery run by the Harveys. Her abrupt disappearance even has the police stumped. As Sage digs deeper by talking to Bill Harvey and other gallery owners, C. Y. Wong becomes increasingly important as Jessica’s main contact for the superlative ceramics he supplied to the gallery. Once Sage learns that Wong also works for Los Alamos National Laboratory, things heat up. From where are the top-notch ceramics coming? Are they payment to Wong for secrets? Wong’s story doesn’t add up. Sage’s gallery contacts in Hong Kong have never heard of Wong or his family as ceramic collectors. What is Wong’s real story? Was Jessica Harvey working as a fence? Can Sage muddle through with a little help from the FBI? One thing is certain. Sage never envisioned his retirement would mix ceramics and spies.

This first adventure in a Winston Sage trilogy is very leisurely paced, sometimes too laid back, especially in the first half. Sage engages in a lot of gallery hopping, eating lunch out with friends and fly fishing. Nonetheless, I found the protagonist enjoyable, if somewhat stodgy. His friends—Charles Herkimer, George de Leon and Chuck Orsini—are distinctive oddballs who enliven the story. Overall, I liked the resolution enough to want to read the next installment.

The Warring States Conundrum
Seymour Grufferman
©2018

Great Mystery Mags – Turn the Doldrums Tide

I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while. Blame this lack of motivation on pandemic blues (still sticking close to home due to household members’ underlying conditions). This has also caused a reading slump. I began subscribing to two great mystery mags to turn the doldrums tide: Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Mystery Scene.

Great Mystery Mag - Ellery Queen Mystery MagazineI’ve read Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine off and on over the years, buying current editions wherever I could find them—usually in my semi-local big-box bookstore chain. (Unfortunately, I don’t live near any independent bookstores.) I’m a short story fan, whether or not they contain a murder or other mystery. So, reading this mag is a no-brainer for me. Writers who’ve contributed are a who’s who in literary fiction: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Dashiell Hammett, Stephen King and Ernest Hemingway, to name but a few.

Along with stories from the likes of Marilyn Todd, most issues have two regular columns. The first, “Blog Bytes,” highlights websites that discuss the mystery and thriller book scenes, as well as authors and booksellers. The second, “The Jury Box,” highlights upcoming mystery fare from various publishers. EQMM is now published as a double issue every other month. It will seem a long, dry wait until the next issue comes over the transom.

Great mystery mag - Mystery SceneMystery Scene defines itself as “Your Guide to the Best in Mystery, Crime and Suspense.” This magazine normally contains articles about, and interviews with, current authors at the top of their field, new authors to watch, and information for collectors. Also included are numerous book reviews. So many reviews, in fact, it could be hazardous to your wallet! Mystery Scene is issued five times per year.

I foresee that these will be great mystery mags to turn the doldrums tide. See you soon with another book review.

Private Investigations – Real Backstory

Private InvestigationsWe all have favorite authors, right? Do you ever wonder what has happened in the real lives of these authors that caused them to write what they do? And in the style they do? And if any of the writers’ backstory ever shows up in their work in one form or another? Well, for lovers of mysteries, some of these questions about style and backstory are answered in Private Investigations, edited by Victoria Sackheim. These nonfiction essays dive into the thoughts and lives of twenty of today’s top mystery writers.

Jeffrey Deaver considers the multiple twists and turns that his writing career took prior to his writing mystery novels and short stories. This is exactly the type of reading he has enjoyed all his life. In other words, write what you enjoy reading. Anne Perry wants to be someone who “creates worlds and peoples them, makes events occur…and wants them to last so they can be revisited any time.”  She also writes mysteries because she enjoys them and likes the intellectual puzzle.

The mother-son team of Charles Todd became immersed in research of the First World War for their two historical mystery series. This has led them to read memoirs, newspaper accounts and firsthand histories of the war. Such extensive research and the travels to view battlefields and memorials gave them a deep understanding of the suffering war entails. Jacqueline Winspear discusses how her parents’ deep involvement in World War II affected her childhood and thus her choice to focus on war in parts of her Maisie Dobbs series.

So, if, like me, you’ve wondered about how writers’ real backstory affects their writing, read Private Investigations.

Heirs Apparent – A journey of love and death

Heirs Apparent

Malcom Winters, alias for the initially unnamed narrator of Heirs Apparent, by Thomas J. Thorson, escorts the reader on a journey. Wandering through Greyhound terminals, always on his way to the next place, Winters introduces us to a variety of characters, human and architectural. Freddie Four-Fingers, the African American forger, from Winters’ old life. Felicity “Fyre” Stockton, Winters’ new lover, as tight-lipped about her past and present as Winters is about himself.

The list of bizarre characters grows longer once Winters settles down in a three-flat he buys in Chicago. Leo, a tenant, and ersatz chef, supposedly made an assassination attempt on Castro. Ted, or Rebecca, a cross-dressing businessman, Winters’ other tenant. V. N. “Vinn” captures the prize for normalcy in Winters’ expanding network. She’s a science professor at the local university where Winters takes a creative writing professorship for which he’s not credentialed. But even Vinn keeps secrets about her past.

Are Fyre’s secrets the reason for an assailant to fire at her and Winters when they exit a restaurant? Why does Fyre evade Winters, who follows her to the Old Post Office? Who kills Fyre and wounds Winters while there? Help tracking Fyre’s killer comes from Winters’ network of odd-fellow friends.

Leo, Ted/Rebecca and eventually Fyre are fleshed out in Heirs Apparent. Even the Old Post Office comes alive under Thorson’s light and able touch. Each character is deftly drawn and given their own, credible, story. Vinn and Winters remain something of an enigma—hopefully to be further developed in the next installment in the Malcom Winters mystery series.

Heirs Apparent
by Thomas J. Thorson
Austin Macauley Publishers
© 2020

Jamie Quinn – Legal Wrangling

Jamie Quinn - Legal WranglingIt seems I’m reading quite a few mysteries involving lawyers recently. My most recent read is Jamie Quinn Mystery Collection, Box Set 1-3 by Barbara Venkataraman.  Jamie Quinn, an attorney dealing in family law, hits some rough spots of legal wrangling in these adventures.

In the three novellas in this collection, Quinn is pulled out of her comfort zone by cases dealing with sudden death and criminal law. Appearances are deceiving in “Death by Didgeridoo.” Quinn’s cousin Adam, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, is accused of murdering his music teacher. Quinn knows he didn’t do it, but can she catch the real killer? In “The Case of the Killer Divorce,” Quinn’s client is in the midst of a messy, bitter divorce. Did the client end up killing her husband? “Peril in the Park” reunites Quinn with a long-lost love. But can she save him from a stalker that seems intent on killing?

The characterization of Jamie Quinn and her friends, Grace (another lawyer) and Duke (a P.I.) are spot on. The pacing is good for “Death by Didgeridoo” is great but slows down some in the other two stories. In “The Case of the Killer Divorce,” much ado is made about two legs of the love triangle, leaving one to wonder why. What about the other leg—the male buddy/lover? However, I enjoyed these enough to want to read the rest of the series. Jamie Quinn – legal wrangling that’s entertaining.

I received a free copy of Jamie Quinn Mystery Collection, Box Set 1-3 from the author in exchange for my honest opinion.

Jamie Quinn Mystery Collection, Box Set 1-3
by Barbara Venkataraman
© 2013-2015

Mystery along the Thames

Mystery on the ThamesGreat mystery along the Thames. Set in mid-17th century England, Rags of Time, by Michael Ward, is a marvelous adventure. Steady, quick pacing and skillful characterization put their arms around your shoulders and pull you headlong into the chaos and confusion surrounding Thomas Tallent. Even the minor characters are interesting and endearing.

Thomas Tallent, a spice merchant, just back from India, is thrust into the midst of uncertainty. In addition to the beginnings of civil unrest fomenting in London, a rich wool merchant has died under mysterious circumstances. Within months, the merchant’s partner is also dead. Likewise a destitute young teenager caught inside Tallent’s warehouse. Whispers among the nouveau riche merchant class point to Tallent as the perpetrator. Why would Tallent kill these men? What would he gain? Who can he trust to help clear his name? Edmund Dalloway, his oldest friend? Or Elizabeth Seymour, his new love interest? Is there anyone he can trust besides his parents? They can only do so much. Tallent sets out to prove his innocence, but that doesn’t stop the gossip mill and one of the not-too-bright officials. What’s to be done? Can help come from Robert Petty, one of the investigators?

This mystery on the Thames is a spectacular read. According to an interview Mr. Ward did with Esther Rabbit (see her blog), there will be at least four more books featuring Thomas Tallent during the English Civil War period. Looking for more from this author. 

I received a free copy of Rags of Time in exchange for a truthful review.

Rags of Time
by Michael Ward
Barnaby Press
© 2019

Tropical Doubts – Darkness in Paradise

ATropical Doubts - darkness in paradise top-notch criminal lawyer, a savvy secretary or two, a client who is a long-time close friend. A surfing buddy who’s a dirt-digging private investigator. A female prosecutor who’s tough, professional, hard-driving attitude is a cover for a smart lawyer who really can see both sides of a case. A suave, retired medical examiner. Two doctors who are not always in top form. These are the believable, sometimes duplicitous, characters who populate David Myles Robinson’s Tropical Doubts (Terra Nova Books, © 2018) creating darkness in paradise.

Pancho McMartin, a criminal defense lawyer, takes on a medical malpractice case when Giselle, the wife of Manny Delacruz, McMartin’s close friend, becomes comatose after surgery. A short time later, Richard Takamine, the lead doctor in the case, dies of an apparent heart attack. Or is it? Takamine had been using pesticide in his backyard right before he dies. When Padma Dasari, the former medical examiner, and another of McMartin’s friends, hears of the symptoms Takamine exhibited right before his death, she wonders if its poisoning.

Tropical Doubts – Darkness in Paradise

Who stood to benefit from the doctor’s death? Was it Delacruz, who threatened the doctor in front of witnesses? Or was it Mossman, another doctor on the case who might be addicted to alcohol and drugs? A surgery nurse overheard Mossman and Takamine having words together right before the botched surgery. Manny Delacruz’s fingerprints are found on a can of poison at the scene. But did he know enough about Takamine’s personal life to plan and execute the crime? Mossman is very chummy with the victim. Was he trying to cover up his failures during Giselle Delacruz’s surgery? Who is telling the whole truth?

Can McMartin win the murder charge against Delacruz and win him a monetary award in the malpractice case as well? What happens when the full truth comes out only after both cases are settled?

Robinson’s book reminds me of an updated, but unique, variation of the Perry Mason TV series, which ran from the late ’50s through the mid ’60s. Both offer fast, even pacing, solid stories and believable characters.

I received a free copy of Tropical Doubts from the author in exchange for my honest opinion.

Migrations – A World Apart

Migrations,,,a world apartMigrations, by Charlotte McConaghy, is a world apart. It teeters on the brink of disaster, both ecological and personal. Migrations is a story peripherally about climate change, but also about longing and searching. When finished reading, I felt let down and had more questions than answers. Migrations is the story of Franny Stone Lynch and her quest for I’m not sure what, love maybe, a sense of confidence and self, possibly. I did not connect with Franny, the narrator and thought she was unreliable, as in remarks she makes to others about her parents. To say the least, Franny has an innate urge for wanderlust.

Why the Wanderlust?

An explicit, or even implicit, reason for Franny’s itchy feet was never offered. Franny says of herself, “I leave for no reason, just to keep moving.” She had found love with Niall and acceptance and companionship, maybe even love, with Ennis Malone. Similarly, even Penny, Niall’s mother, accepted Franny and helped her.

In the end, what became of Ennis and his salty, eccentric crew on The Saghani? These folks are too integral to the plot to just fade away. The backstory kept jolting me out of the story. What? When did this happen, now? Where is this, again?

And, why bring in Franny’s father exactly at the end of the story? What did he have to do with anything except possibly in a minimal way by his absence. I enjoyed Niall and Ennis and wished for a better way to have their story told.

Migrations is a world apart, one that is lost. Franny says, “my life has been a migration without a destination, and that in itself is senseless.” To me, the course of this book feels much like that. I felt almost as adrift as Franny.

I received an Advance Reader Copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

Freezer Burn by Gayle Carline

Freezer Burn by Gayle Carline

In Freezer Burn, by Gayle Carline, Peri Minneopa has cleaned her last house. A licensed P.I. now, she has moved from housecleaning to background checks and tailing cheating spouses. That is, until Benny Needles pays a call to her new office. Needles, the son of a former cleaning client, asks for help finding his Dean Martin ice cube tray. Who would think that such an innocuous request would lead to Minneopa’s involvement in solving two local murders.

This series installment wins high marks for development of the primary characters. Persistence is Minneopa’s middle name while Skip Carlton, her significant other, is a smart, likeable, patient detective for the local Placentia Police Department. Both become well-rounded characters in Carline’s hands. Benny Needles, Minneopa’s acquaintance, exhibits obsessive-compulsive behavior among other things. Needles’ fascination with Dean Martin turns his house into a kitschy, not very clean memorial to the Rat Pack member. In addition, Needles’ compulsions preclude almost anyone else from touching his mementos. At times, Carline’s characterization of Needles seems overdone, at other times right on the mark.

I consider this a good first installment of Carline’s Peri Minneopa series. The pace is brisk and moves the story along. However, the pacing and good characterization of the primary inhabitants—Peri, Skip and Benny—cannot overcome the anticlimactic discovery of the murderer’s identity and the reason for the murders. Without giving anything away, the denouement is somewhat disappointing, and the frozen hand is something of a red herring. But, generally, Freezer Burn by Gayle Carline is a pick. I enjoyed the book and will read others in the five-part series.

For insight on the newest book in the Peri Minneopa series, Murder Bytes, see my previous post.

(Dancing Corgi Press, © 2012)

Gayle Carline’s Murder Bytes – a new mystery

Murder BytesNew on my reading horizon is Southern California author Gayle Carline‘s Murder Bytes.

Carline releases her newest Peri Minneopa mystery, Murder Bytes (ISBN 978-1-943654-14-7), on February 14, 2020. Murder Bytes follows the first four books in the acclaimed Peri Minneopa series: Freezer Burn, Hit or Missus, The Hot Mess, and A More Deadly Union. Other Carline fictional offerings include the short story, Clean Sweep (ASIN B004U37614), and the Willie Adams romantic mystery, Murder on the Hoof. Carline also authored the humorous memoirs, What Would Erma Do? and Raising the Perfect Family and Other Tall Tales.

In Murder Bytes, 50-year-old private investigator, Peri Minneopa has had enough. She’s closing her business, marrying her detective boyfriend, and settling down to a life of ease—until her brother shows up, accused of a murder he swears he didn’t commit. Now she’s back in the thick of things, investigating the death of an engineer who may have been stealing techno-secrets from other companies. Her relationship with her brother is an icy one, at best. Peri struggles with her ambivalence as well as her desire to leave investigative work behind. Digging around in people’s lives is reasonably easy. But when the bullets start flying, will Peri be able to keep her promise?

UPCOMING

Gayle CarlineCarline indicates that any future books featuring Peri Minneopa may have a different flavor and evolve into a different series. A sequel to her romantic suspense, Murder on the Hoof is also in the works.

I’ll be checking out Gayle Carline’s Murder Bytes as well as the rest of the Peri Minneopa series. Stay tuned for possible reviews of this series in the coming months.