by Cynthia Chow
& Sandra Murphy
One of the ways that KRL is celebrating Earth Day is to focus in this issue only on e-books. Check out these reviews of 4 different mystery novels/novellas that are all available as e-books, some only as e-books, and you can enter to win a copy of all of them at the end of this post: Fatal Debt: A Dana Mackenzie Mystery By Dorothy Howell, The Play of Light and Shadow By Barry Ergang, Flossed by Elaine Macko, and Justified Action by Earl Staggs.
Be sure to check out all of the other mystery e-book reviews & giveaways, along with a few other Earth Day related articles in our special Earth Day issue! You can also check out more Going Green articles in KRL’s Going Green section!
Fatal Debt: A Dana Mackenzie Mystery By Dorothy Howell
by Cynthia Chow
In Santa Flores, the Southern California city named the Murder Capitol of America, Dana Mackenzie has more or less stumbled into her latest profession as asset manager for Mid-America Financial Services. As impressive as her title and the business name might be, it essentially boils down to Dana having to ensure that clients continue to make payments on the loans, financing, and mortgages they have taken up to and including repossessing whatever they may have put up as collateral. Unfortunately, this also means that the soft-hearted Dana has been charged with collecting Arthur and Gladys Sullivan’s 42-inch Sony television after they fall behind on the payments for a loan to fix their car. After giving them numerous breaks Dana is forced to return only to discover poor Arthur’s body shot full of holes just minutes after being knocked down by an assailant herself.
Still off-balance from the murder Dana is not prepared to be grilled by Nick Travis, the boy from high school who knocked up and abandoned her best friend and on whom she continues to exact revenge by losing (shredding) his Mid-America payments. This guilt nearly causes her to crack, but just as disturbing is her attraction to the bad boy who has become the Santa Flores police detective in charge of solving the Sullivan murder. Dana despises Nick for what he did in his past yet his true character still manages to break through her barriers and may reveal secrets that she is not ready to confront.
With an unexpected talent for tracking people down, Dana is entreated by Gladys’s sister to track down Leonard Sullivan to inform him of his grandparents’ murder. Dana is more than willing to help out even if it complicates her normal duties of assessing foreclosed properties and puts her directly in conflict with Nick, who warns her (justifiably):
“People think that because they discovered the body or pointed out a suspect, they’re involved. They want to solve the crime. They can’t. You can’t. This is a police investigation. Don’t get in my way.”
Not surprisingly, Dana ignores this rather sensible advice and instead enlists Slade, an ex-Air Force Special Ops recovery agent, who helps her repossess an elusive client’s car, as well as provides protection when she is violently warned off investigating the murder. The additional murder of one of her clients has her believing that they are all tied together and only inflames her need to deal out justice on her terms.
As consuming as the life-threatening activities are, the bureaucratic insanity Dana faces in her Mid-America office, from morning meetings that consist of four people to being assigned as the Safety Coordinator (duties she escapes by brilliantly abusing her power, not filing reports, and threatening to slash the tires of anyone who gets hurt and makes her fill out a form), Dana’s family life is just as chaotic. The normally steadfast and reliable marriage of her parents is being threatened by satellite television, with her mother vowing to move out if her father becomes any more inert.
As enjoyable as this mystery is, the comparison to Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series is inescapable. An aimless heroine with retail experience, who falls into a profession that has her hunting down sad and quirky felons, a hot cop from her past who inflames her as much as he exasperates her, a sizzling mercenary who trains her when he isn’t off saving a third world country…to write this off as just another comedic mystery would be a tragedy though, as Howell is a talented writer. She is also the author of one of my favorite series mysteries starring the vain, materialistic, brand-obsessed, and completely delightful Haley Randolph. Dana Mackenzie has the potential to be just as capable of carrying her own series; although she may behave impulsively and not always sensibly, it’s with the intent of meriting out her own sense of fairness and justice. The other characters are just as fleshed out and engaging, and the tone balances the comedy with an underlying sense of menace. This is the perfect read to pull up on your e-reader for a weekend escape of fun, laughs, and romance.
The Play of Light and Shadow & Writing The Play of Light and Shadow By Barry Ergang
Review by Cynthia Chow
A valuable painting. A notorious thief on the loose with the goal of stealing said painting. The painting being housed in an isolated mansion full of party guests. The painting stolen out of the locked room while the guests, a detective, and his professorial partner turn their backs for just a minute. These elements all combine into one very satisfying and completely enjoyable locked-room mystery by Barry Ergang in a novella that was originally published in Futures Mysterious Anthology’s Autumn 2004 issue, but is available now as a Kindle e-book.
Taking a sabbatical from teaching at the City University of Philadelphia, Dr. Alan Driscoll has removed himself from the insular backbiting world of academia in favor of a “real” job bartending at a local pub. However, Chairman of the Art History Department, Dr. Barton Gaines, has requested Alan’s help in hiring a bar patron, ex-homicide cop and private investigator Darnell, to guard the painting during a party at the Gaines’ mansion. The party will celebrate the acquisition of a valuable painting by artist Charles Riveau. Riveau, once imprisoned as a skilled forger, has attempted to rehabilitate his career as a true artist upon his release–severing his ties with his former partner Paul Marchand. Deprived of his source of income, Marchand has vowed revenge and to sabotage Riveau’s career by stealing all of his new work. While Gaines’s art dealing friend Julian Lakehurst believes that a party full of guests will discourage any attempts by a thief, Gaines believes that it will also be an opportunity that the showman Marchand cannot resist.
The party at the sprawling home is attended by Gaines’s wife Marjorie (who refuses to believe that any threat to the art exists), his disdainful stepdaughter Alexis, her photographer boyfriend, beautiful graduate student Carol Prentice, and an assortment of art patrons, graduate students, and caterers. When the macabre Riveau painting is whisked away while their backs are turned and a gloryhound police detective and his more respectful partner are called in, it’s up to Darnell and the professor to unravel the mystery surrounding the painting and its mysterious disappearance.
What is so remarkable about this relatively short novella is how Ergang succeeds in creating completely developed and fully formed characters that the reader immediately becomes attached to and interested in knowing. Darnell and the professor have a charming and respectful partnership and their shared skills allow them to decipher the few clues left by the culprit in a very coherent and brilliant manner. The author plays fair by leaving a trail of evidence and it leads to a conclusion that is completely unexpected, but also makes complete sense, with a well-researched background of art and its history to back it up. Ergang applies his own twist on the locked-room mystery and has created a thoroughly enjoyable and unique novella that provides the perfect introduction to the works of this award-winning short story author. A coda to this edition is an explanation of how the story came to fruition. A fan of westerns, along with a love of the impossible, a series of bumps in his work and life culminated in this elaborate tale that was forty-five years in the making.
Check out a flash fiction mystery story by Barry right here in this issue of KRL!
Flossed by Elaine Macko
Review by Sandra Murphy
So, did you hear? Alex and John got married. I wasn’t invited to the wedding either. After the last book, they moved in together and Alex got used to the idea while John bided his time. Good planning on his part. When Alex saw that marriage was the only answer, her family pitched in to plan the wedding while Alex and her grandmother sat back and relaxed. The wedding dress was black—and in another break with tradition, the honeymoon was not just the bride and groom but included Alex’s sister/business partner Sam and her brother-in-law, Michael, the dentist.
John is excited to meet up with his old college friend, Bill, in Belgium. The diamond district isn’t too far away so Alex can get her engagement ring, even if it’s after the wedding. Bruges is a wonderful trip as is taking the train through the Channel to London. The sisters should have brought an empty suitcase (each) for all the goodies they’re bringing home—chocolates, biscuits, teas, souvenirs and things they couldn’t resist for themselves as well. The American community in Europe is strong as most wives have given up their careers to support the husband’s overseas assignments.
There are only a couple of things that mar the trip—Alex’s fear of flying and two murders. One is Bill’s secretary, unhappy in her marriage and unwelcome by the wives of several husbands. The other is Bill’s business partner. Surely the murderer is the same for both which means it must be about business—or is it? And who knew you could kill somebody with dental floss?
There is a lot of information about Belgium, its history and current life without be intrusive to the storyline. Alex and Sam investigate behind the scenes while John and Inspector Willix take care of the formal investigation. Meanwhile, Michael is guest speaking at the local college and comparing dentistry techniques with his European counterparts.
I liked the character of Inspector Willix and expect to find him in the next book, when he and his wife visit America. I was happy to see a mention of Grandpa who is the talk of the nursing home. Emails to and from Meme (Grandma) were good but not as satisfying as having her there. The sisters are planning on a vacation that includes bringing Meme back to Italy (she left many years ago) so I expect Meme will manage to find some scrapes to get into when they visit.
I thought I knew who the murderer was but found I was about 75% wrong about who and why. It’s a more satisfying ending that way. If only they’d brought me some chocolates….
Armed and Poisoned are the previous two books in this series. While each can stand alone, it’s best to read them in order so you can see the character’s growth. Currently, Flossed is available only in e-book form.
Justified Action by Earl Staggs
Review by Sandra Murphy
Tall (Tallmadge) is bored. He’s been busted down to Lieutenant and forced into a desk job. Hey, it’s at the Pentagon but watching a printer spew reports that nobody’s ever going to read is boring no matter where you are.
A phone call from Stephen, old friend and fellow officer, changes everything. Stephen left the service and now is second in command for a small, top-secret agency whose job is to stop terrorist attacks before they happen, by whatever means necessary.
Stephen takes Tall on a short notice mission. After Tall sees just what could have happened, he agrees to join the agency. Of all the terrorists, from small cells to organized thugs, Remski is the most dangerous. He’s elusive, a master of disguise and the agency hasn’t even come close to capturing him. He’s now Tall’s number one target.
Along the way, Tall falls in love. The love story is handled nicely, without detailed sex scenes but a warm show of true feelings for one another. The violence of the terrorist plots and how they are stopped is a stark contrast to the love story. Staggs also shows restraint when describing those scenes too, so while people get shot or blown up and die, we don’t have to visualize exactly what that looks like.
Remski has been kidnapping victims around the world, the loved ones of people who are used to such tactics and who will pay the millions of dollars ransom and count it as pocket change. The agency theory is that Remski is financing an attack that will rival 9/11.
At the same time, agents are being killed. Some look like accidents but when so many are happening, are they? Is it Remski, clearing the way for his plan?
The plot takes the reader around the world and back again. Are any of the conspiracy theories real? Who could be behind the killings if it’s not Remski?
The characters, whether part of the agency or the terrorists, ring true. The details of world travel, plans to avert an attack, relationships between the people who make up the agency and those who are part of their personal lives make me want to know more.
It’s nice to read a thriller that’s suspenseful with a bit of romance thrown in, but minus the blood and guts so often seen. I read the book in four hours flat and was disappointed to come to the last page.
I hope this is the beginning of a new series because I want to visit these people again.
Other writings by Earl Staggs:
Short Stories of Earl Staggs, Memory of a Murder, Where Billy Died, The Missing Sniper, and short stories in The Devil Wore Cranberry and The Devil Wore Cranberry, A Second Helping
To enter to win e-book copies of all 4 of these e-book mysteries, simply email KRL at life@kingsriverlife[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, with the subject line “e-book”, or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen April 27, 2013. U.S. residents only.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.