Sunday, January 29, 2012

Four Days to Die

Say you knew with absolute certainty the day--down to the hour--of your death... how would you spend those last months, weeks, days, and hours? 
Maybe you'd hole up alone somewhere, helpless against the inevitable. Perhaps you’d go all hedonistic, trying to cram in every fabulous experience possible before time ran out. Or, you might opt to spend all your waking hours preparing yourself physically and mentally to "rage, rage against the dying of the light".... on the off-chance that you could somehow change the outcome. 
Door number three is the choice one woman picks in Lisa Gardner’s positively chilling new thriller, Catch Me.
After dealing with an abusive mother for her first several years--during which time the woman did things so awful to her that she's blocked all memories of them from her mind--it's safe to say that twenty-eight-year-old Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant's life has been anything but a bed of roses. Fortunately, she was taken in by an aunt who provided a safe and stable home, and for the first time Charlie was able to have friends.

Randi, Jackie, and Charlie were inseparable throughout school, to the point that most people in their small New England town referred to them as a single entity, RandiJackieCharlie. Although they drifted apart afterwards--what with college, relationships, and jobs--they continued to feel the bond, wherever they were.
Until two years ago on the evening of January 21, that is, when Randi was shockingly murdered. An investigation produced no results, and life for Jackie and Charlie--sadder, emptier--went on.
Then the unthinkable happened, exactly one year later, and Jackie was murdered in identical fashion. Another investigation followed, again with no answers, leaving Charlie the sole surviving member of RandiJackieCharlie.
Now, January 21 is just four days away, and Charlie is through being a victim.
The last 361 days have been spent planning and preparing. She moved to Boston to gain anonymity. The local gym has become her second home, the place where she toughens up with intense boxing training and practices self-defense moves, as has the firing range, where she's become proficient with a handgun. She's wary of everyone and everything, a haunted shadow of her former self.. but she's still alive, and determined to stay that way. 
Just in case things don't go the way she's planned, though, Charlie writes out a detailed account of everything to date--from the first murder to her own, prospective one--and hand-delivers it to one of Boston's finest, Detective D.D. Warren (chosen after much online research as the person most likely to care about finding out what happened to Charlie, in the event of her demise). 
D.D. is a good choice for the job. She's seen almost everything during her years on the force, plus she still cares about trying to make things right in the world. Not even D.D., though, has encountered anyone quite like Charlie, or anything like her predicament, before.
Nor can the already-overworked detective--who has a newborn at home--devote all her time and energy to Charlie's situation; among her cases is an ongoing and troubling one requiring urgent attention. Someone has decided to target Boston's pedophile population, and is systematically killing them off... quietly, neatly, and without a trace (other than a cryptic note left at each scene). While no one is likely to shed many tears over the victims, the fact remains that murder is murder, and she can't very well let a vigilante run loose. 
As D.D.'s team delves more deeply into the particulars of the pedophile murders--and as she struggles meanwhile to uncover Charlie's secrets, in an effort to pinpoint why the young women are being killed--something rattles D.D. to her core. The pedophile killer’s M.O. seems to fit with everything she’s learned and observed about Charlie... making her wonder if Charlie--formerly an abused child, herself--has decided to take matters into her own hands and right a few wrongs on her way out.
There are less than four days left for the team to catch a killer... or a pair of them.
There are many superb thriller writers out there, and Lisa Gardner, with her D.D. Warren series, has earned herself a spot on my list of must-reads. She brings an immensely-powerful quality to her storytelling--an indefinable something that never fails to hit me on a gut level... not for lurid, gory scenes, but for a raw, emotional intensity that I can feel. (Put it this way: she’s one of the few authors that always leaves me incapable of reading anything else for a few days afterward; such is my need to absorb/recover from her stories.)
Catch Me is no different. Charlie’s present situation, when viewed alongside her early years, is striking. Here is a young woman who’s been to hell and back... a journey which can’t help but leave scars. The complexities of how she’s dealt with the damage--and how deeply the changes which followed as a result now lie--are both fascinating and harrowing. Yes, she tells her story (to us, and to the detectives) compellingly... but how much can we trust, or believe, her? What portion of her tale is reality, and what part subterfuge? Is evil something which can be overcome... or, once touched by it, is it forever imprinted on one’s psyche, waiting to come out and be visited upon others? We can’t be sure. 
There’s a nice contrast, as well, with the recent changes in D.D.’s life, from driven working woman to new mom struggling to juggle demands she never thought she’d be facing. That she’s able to separate the truth from the misdirection in these co-mingled cases is a real triumph.
I sort of hate to say it, for fear of jinxing things, but this just might be my favorite Lisa Gardner tale yet... and that’s no small feat.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  Potent Mousie (Don’t Miss ;))

NOTE: Catch Me will be released on Feb. 7, 2012.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Lipstick Red & Dead- The Caddy in the Lake

Wise-cracking detectives--from the rank amateurs who somehow stumble into the practice of investigating, to the licensed professionals with their fancy gizmos and snazzy Yellow Pages listings--are a dime a dozen in mystery novels... but a wise-cracking, ex-fashion-model, crop-dusting sleuth? That puts a quirky new spin on the genre, in R.P. Dahlke’s peppy debut, A Dead Red Cadillac.
Lalla (short for--or preferable to--Eula May) Baines is reaching a memorable conclusion to her thirty-ninth year. Still limping around, recovering from a recent on-the-job accident--one which ended spectacularly when she crash-landed her plane in a big field of tomatoes around Modesto, California--while dealing with all the usual problems such as difficult employees and an irascible boss (who happens to be her dad), and still smarting from her second divorce (from another of the two-timing losers she seems to gravitate toward), the former-model-cum-crop-duster is primarily concerned with avoiding the traditional fanfare around entering her fifth decade. (Honestly, looking in the mirror each day is all the reminder she needs of this aging stuff.)
As luck would have it, something does come up to (mostly) detract from the unwanted birthday hoopla. Unfortunately, that something involves Lalla’s beloved ’58 Cadillac--a pristine, candy-apple-red-and-chrome classic, which she hadn’t yet realized was missing from its parking spot in the barn--when it’s found submerged in a nearby lake, its signature tail fins sticking up... and one very-dead little old lady--a woman too small to even be able to see over the dashboard of the bulky car, no less--buckled in behind the wheel.
The police, after officially determining that Lalla had neither means, motive, nor opportunity to do in the harmless, widowed piano teacher (who was never much more than a casual acquaintance to her, anyway)--and certainly no reason to destroy her prize Caddy in the process!--persuade Lalla to help them with their investigation. 
It seems the deceased’s favorite nephew has recently arrived from Oklahoma for a visit, and--seeing as how he was in the middle of going through his dear aunt’s house when the police showed up--they thought it prudent to bring him in for questioning. The problem is, he’s not saying much, so they figure that, since he’s asking to see/meet Lalla, anyway, she might as well help them find out whatever she can. The sooner she gets some answers from the prodigal nephew, the sooner they’ll release the Caddy to her, that’s the deal. (And no, it doesn’t exactly hurt that the nephew turns out to look like someone who poses as the cowboy hero for the cover of romance novels.)
Not that he’s the only suspicious character around, though; when someone with ties to the dead woman breaks out of prison after twenty years and turns up in town, Lalla’s suspect pool doubles. It grows even larger when she gets wind that a rival crop-dusting operation--and coincidentally, the dead woman’s ex-employer--may be involved in drug-smuggling and who knows what else. 
Throw in a missing bag of money (which everyone seems to be looking for), some old love affairs, a handful of cross-dressers, a showy fifth-wheel motorhome, a twenty-year-old unsolved murder, an excitable Chihuahua, a sheriff for a BFF, and the teenage-model-wanna-be goddaughter who idolizes her--plus getting threatened, shot at, and run off the road--and poor Lalla has more than enough to occupy her mind besides her birthday.
Problem is, now that she’s actually hit 40, she’d sorta like to make sure she lives to see 41...
A Dead Red Cadillac may be Dahlke’s first published work, but it doesn’t read that way; the author is assured in her storytelling, crafting a witty, breezy, and thoroughly-entertaining lark peppered with interesting characters in a unique setting... and even tossing in some (much-appreciated) surprising twists along the way.
(Mystery fans-on-a-budget, take note, too: both A Dead Red Cadillac and its sequel, A Dead Red Heart, are each currently available on Amazon for Kindle/Kindle apps at the bargain price of only 99 cents, making these a real steal... of the not-so-criminal variety.) 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Wedding Day Blues: The Case of the Down Under Runner

Of all the things that could go wrong on your wedding day, being jilted would have to rank right up at the top of the list as the worst. 
Learning that you'd been dumped via a Post-it note stuck to the fridge would certainly add a whole new level of awful, though... and finding out your formerly-significant other had also just absconded with your life savings? Well, that would pretty much be the icing on top of your suddenly-useless wedding cake.
Putting your broken heart and humiliated pride aside for the moment, though, the real issue would be, what would you do next?
Aussie author Jennifer Rowe blithely offers up one possible scenario in the clever and cheeky new caper, Love, Honour, and O'Brien.
Holly Love had always considered herself a happily-ordinary sort of girl, with average looks, respectable intelligence, and a certain degree of competence in most things. No, she wasn't likely to win any beauty pageants, earn big money appearing on a TV quiz show, or find herself ensconced in a cushy office with a large staff at her beck and call, but she had friends and family who appreciated her and a steady job handling the invoices for a busy Melbourne office supplies company, which in turn allowed her to rent a little place of her own.

In her eyes, though, the biggest measure of her success was actually her fiancé--hunky, successful, self-made businessman, Andrew McNish. The fact that he knew she was the one for him after only a couple short months together made it that much sweeter... until, that is, the whole wedding day fiasco, complete with vanished bridegroom, Post-it note apology, and emptied-out joint bank account. 
When Holly factors in her sudden loss-of-domicile (because of course she'd let her apartment go, since moving in with her new husband was imminent) and loss-of-wages (since of course she'd given notice at her job, as the newlyweds would soon be living and working together in a whole new town), the prospects for her immediate future add up to a very grim picture, indeed.
Deducing that feeling sorry for herself won't go far in putting a roof over her head or food in her belly, she decides to try to get some answers, instead. First stop, a pay phone, where a directory search points her to a slew of private investigators, each promising results and assuring confidentiality. 
Holly's chosen-at-random p.i.--one Mick O'Brien--is as scruffy and shady as they come, but his world-weary air and seen-it-all eyes convince her that if anyone can track down her wayward, scallywag-of-an-ex-fiancé, he is the man to do it.
There’s just one small problem. When she goes to his office a couple days later to see if he’s had any luck, she finds a hungry parrot, some junk.. and one now-very-much-dead private eye.
Things being what they are--Holly, with nowhere to stay (aside from her ancient Honda, which is less-than-homey) and literally no money (having hired the detective with the last of her cash), and some of O'Brien's eccentric neighbors (an elderly dominatrix and a kooky psychic), persuading her to stay on at his place overnight (well, honestly, it was just easier to let them think she worked for him than to admit hiring him to find her sleazy ex)--she soon finds herself in the strange position of considering filling O'Brien's shoes... taking over not only his office space/living quarters, but also taking on his job.   
And yes, the fact that the first of O'Brien's clients whose calls she fields is a woman, demanding a progress report on her case... a case which involves finding the handsome, charming, long-lost brother she had just recently found, but who was now suddenly missing (along with some of her family heirlooms and money)... well, it's only natural that Holly would find herself sort of sucked in to the whole bizarre idea.
When her amateur investigating lands her in the middle of one huge mess of certifiable craziness, though--and when scary men with guns start chasing and threatening her--she starts to rethink this whole finding-Andrew-at-any-costs-and-masquerading-as-a-private-eye idea. Of course, by then, she's in way too deep...
Love, Honour, and O'Brien is one of the most-delightfully droll books I've read in a long time; it had me chuckling from beginning to end. Holly is a great "everygirl" sort of heroine--plucky and determined to make the best of things, even if that means taking over a dive apartment in the middle of nowhere (a hamlet in Australia's remote-but-scenic Blue Mountains, actually) and accidentally finding herself running the anything-but-lucrative business (for which she has no training or special aptitude) of its deceased owner.
Full of loopy characters--from the aforementioned hokey (but accurate) psychic, the white-haired provider of sexual services, and the know-it-all parrot, to an Elvis impersonator (who drives a hearse), a velour-track-suited health care worker, a mousey little exterminator (with a voluptuous--and possibly-cheating--wife), and a somewhat-inept gang of mobsters--and scene after scene of hilarity and mayhem, Love, Honour, and O’Brien is a fast-paced, frothy treat... and I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing what the talented and inventive Ms. Rowe serves up next. 
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.5 mousies

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Proud, the Prejudiced... and the Murderous?

It is, I’d wager, the rare person who hasn’t read an awesome story, only to turn the final page, realize there’s nothing more, and wail, “But... what happens next?!?”
Leading the pack in the insatiable wishing-for-something-“more” department is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. That delightful classic alone has spawned countless prequels, sequels, and “inspired-by” tales, ranging from prim-&-proper continuations of the same story lines, to mysteries putting Elizabeth Darcy’s keen mind (and fine eyes, no doubt) to the test, to bawdy bedroom romps and zombie battles--the likes of which must’ve surely made Miss Austen do several spins in her grave.
The resulting works, as one would imagine, vary wildly in their successfulness; not every idea translates well (the zombies--much as I enjoy reading about their insatiable brain-munching and the thought of such a quirky mashup--got old very quickly), while others sort of ooze inappropriateness (graphically-smexy scenes featuring heaving Bennet parts and pulsating Darcy pieces have a rather high ick-factor for me).
When an undeniable master of her craft--in this case, the highly-acclaimed British mystery writer P.D. James--decides to take on Austen, though, that’s the sort of thing to make me sit up and take notice. A closer look at her spin on the genre, then, with Death Comes to Pemberley...
James picks up the tale in 1803, six years after the Darcys and Bingleys said their joint “I do’s”. Since then, Elizabeth has settled nicely into her role as mistress of the posh Pemberley mansion (with very few, cough--Lady Catherine De Bourgh and Mr. Collins--detractors), and she and Darcy are the doting parents of two small boys. The Bingleys, meanwhile, have an estate located at not-too great a distance--as well as three young children of their own--which adds immeasurably to the happiness of both couples.
Things are presently a bit hectic, as final preparations are underway for the yearly, not-to-be-missed shindig at Pemberley, Lady Anne’s Ball. The swanky soiree, held in honor of Darcy’s late mother, will be a nice break from all the anxieties over thoughts of more war.
Not quite everyone known to the Darcys is invited, however. Since that fateful day more than six years ago when Darcy simultaneously bailed out/forced the cad Wickham to make an honest woman out of Elizabeth’s hopelessly-flighty younger sister Lydia, the two couples have maintained a mutual policy of no contact.
Ah, but things have a way of changing. On the dark-and-stormy eve of the big ball, a coach suddenly barrels up the mansion’s driveway with an hysterical Lydia on board... claiming, as she throws herself out of the carriage in a flurry of sodden flounces and salty tears, that Wickham and his friend have just been murdered, somewhere on the grounds of Pemberley.

Darcy and erstwhile family friend Colonel Fitzwilliam spring into action, mounting a 
search in the woods... whereupon they stumble across the body of one very dead Captain Denny, in the arms of a bloodied and drunken Wickham, loudly wailing that he has just killed his only friend.
The festivities, naturally, are kaput, as anyone who might know something, have seen something, or been party to something must be questioned... from the staff at the nearby hotel (from whence the ill-fated trio obtained the coach in which Lydia planned to crash the ball, and where Wickham imbibed mass quantities of alcohol), to Colonel Fitzwilliam (out on a lengthy--and curiously-timed--walk in the storm), to Wickham (who--once sobered up enough the following day--insists that Denny must have run into a startled poacher or other scoundrel before Wickham caught up with him). 
Darcy may have managed to pull some strings (especially those on his purse) in the past for the ne’er-do-well thorn in his side, Wickham... but no amount of money or favors will help now. Guilty or innocent... only the lawyers, the judge, and a jury of his peers are left to decide Wickham’s fate--not to mention, the reputation and happiness of the Bennet and Darcy families--this time.
There’s a lot that’s all sorts of wonderful about Death Comes to Pemberley. First, of course, is the quality of the writing; P.D. James is no slouch, and her words manage a poetic sort of ease while maintaining the proper tone. The story is a fabulous homage to Austen; James not only highlights all the salient details of the assorted relationships and events from P&P, but she goes on to embroider and expand upon them with descriptions and characterizations of which Miss Austen surely would’ve approved--even, in a couple of places (and much to my delight!) bringing in characters from other Austen works for brief appearances. This is the way to treat fans to a little of the “what happens next” we’ve always craved!
The mystery--which is quite a good one, by the way--remains true to everything we know of the characters and their histories. Elizabeth doesn’t suddenly fancy herself a detective or anything convenient like that; instead, the mystery plays out as another troublesome event in her life to be gotten through. There are some really well-crafted courtroom scenes, too, and it was fun contrasting them in my mind with similar scenes from modern mysteries and legal thrillers.
My only quibble (which, admittedly, is rather a strange one, coming from really-enjoys-the-dark-and-gloomy me) is that there’s a bit of a pall overhanging Pemberley for most of the book. That isn’t to say the humor so treasured in P&P is absent here, though--quite the contrary; several passages had me grinning, and a few made me laugh outright. Still, the overall tone definitely seems a trifle grim. (Granted, there isn’t any dancing here--what with the ball being pre-empted by that pesky murder--nor any picnics, visits to the seaside, or rampant flirting, so perhaps a bit less effervescence is to be expected.)

If you’ve never “gotten” the allure of Jane Austen and her brilliant P&P, this one isn’t going to change your mind. But, if you’ve always harbored the hope that someone would finally do justice to Austen’s vision, pick up Death Comes to Pemberley pronto.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4 Mousies

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Demons within... and the Monsters without

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche
Those ominous (if somewhat cryptic) words are most often seen as a kind of warning, cautioning us to guard ourselves against the dangers of lingering too long in the presence of evil lest it rub off, infecting us with its insidious malevolence. 
Sage advice, to be sure. But, what happens to someone who’s already been exposed to more than a taste of genuine evil... is that person more, or less, apt to become a monster, in turn?
That question is at the core of much-lauded British crime author Val McDermid’s latest tour de force, The Retribution.
❖  ❖  ❖
It’s the beginning of the end for Bradfield PD’s special murder squad, long helmed by the determined Carol Jordan and manned by her elite group of detectives. Despite being able to boast of an enviable success rate, intradepartmental politics have effectively pulled the plug on her unit, and it’s about to be disbanded and reassigned. 
Rather than cleaning out their desks with a sad little whimper, though, her team would like nothing more than the chance to go out with a bang, thumbing their noses at the higher-ups who made the foolhardy decision. And, it appears they might be able to do just that, when a clue in the murder of the third prostitute over the last couple of weeks makes it clear they have a serial killer on their hands.
There’s one small problem, though. Carol’s superior has forbidden her from seeking out her go-to profiler, long-time acquaintance/friend, clinical psychologist Dr. Tony Hill, who--for all his oddities, eccentricities, and utter lack of people skills--is a spot-on judge of the criminal mind. No matter that Tony repeatedly offers his help pro bono, either; Carol pointblank refuses to accept it, asserting that he is a professional and should rightfully be paid for his services.
Enter Carol’s top detective, Paula, who goes behind her boss’s back for the sake of the case and enlists the doctor’s help, anyway. Suddenly, the old team is back together one last time. Good thing, too, because their killer is definitely escalating, leaving none of Bradfield’s female sex workers safe.
Things have also been changing (at a glacier’s pace) on a more personal level... but just as Tony and Carol are finally at the point where they’re able to contemplate the next move (literally, in this case, as the specter of moving in together--as housemates--approaches), a case from the past comes back to rip their fragile hopes, plans, and dreams to shreds. One of the most sadistic and brutal killers they’ve ever put away engineers an unbelievable escape from prison... leaving no one, anywhere, safe.  
Jacko Vance, the handsome, charismatic former Olympian and popular TV personality--who, it turned out, was also a sick and twisted sociopath who got off on murdering teenage girls in his spare time--has been incarcerated for the past decade. Despite occasional reports from the prison’s psychologist of his supposed rehabilitation, however, Jacko actually spent his time behind bars doing everything but feeling remorse; he was quietly hatching--and patiently enacting--an elaborate plot to break out. 
Once free, Jacko is determined to exact his full measure of revenge on everyone who had a hand in putting him away before he pulls a disappearing act. He wants retribution... and the members of the not-quite-defunct special murder team--particularly Carol and Tony--are at the very top of his to-do list.
The duo have long hunted and studied monsters while doing plenty of battle with their own personal demons, but they’re about to go head-on with the unspeakable embodiment of their worst nightmares. What emerges from such a clash can only be damaged, at best... or utterly and completely broken, at worst.
❖  ❖  ❖
Val McDermid holds a place on my shortlist of must-read-immediately authors; from the first, I’ve been captivated by her Carol Jordan/Tony Hill stories and her stand-alones.
The Retribution is no exception. It’s as full of adrenaline-fueled action, heart-stopping fear, and mind-bending twists as anyone could hope for from a crime thriller. But, what really sets McDermid apart for me is how masterfully she’s able to illustrate that it is the individual’s mind in which all of the really important action--the thought processes, rationalizations, mental arguments, soul-searching, and internal monologues which drive everything else--take place... and the terrifying realization that it is also the one area to which no one else can ever truly be privy.      
McDermid’s characters aren’t touchy-feely sorts; rather, they’re prickly and temperamental, the type of people whose life experiences have honed their edges into sharpness rather than wearing them down and leaving them dull. Carol and Tony have always been prime examples, but never more so than here, when everything in their lives--down to who they are, the tragedies and experiences which helped to shape their personalities, what they believe in, and what they hold dear--is in danger of being tested, perverted, and possibly lost forever. This case--visceral and brutally-emotional-- is the one which will determine more than any other the paths, together and separate, the rest of their lives will take. 
I wouldn’t recommend reading The Retribution if you haven’t followed the Carol Jordan/Tony Hill series; too much of the emotional impact of seeing what they--as well as other members of the team, who by now feel like friends--go through, would be lost. Instead, if you’ve not read these compelling, intelligent books before, start at the beginning. But, if you’re a long-time fan like me, pick up The Retribution as soon as you can get your hands on it. It’s powerful stuff. 
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 5 out of 5 mousies