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Newsletter #44 December, 1998 - February, 1999

Mystery Reviews
by Gerri Balter

        I have read so many series dealing with single mothers trying to raise their children, it was nice to find the Mitch Bushyhead series by Jean Hager where the main character is a single father, trying to raise a teenage daughter. Fire Carrier is what the Cherokee call evil. In the novel The Fire Carrier by Jean Hager ($5.99), it is an apt description of Tyler Hatch, former director of the Job Corps Center. He beats his wife and children and sleeps with other women, married and single. When he is murdered, Mitch Bushyhead, Chief of Police of Buckskin, Oklahoma, wonders if someone didn't do the world a favor. However, his job is to catch the murderer. There are plenty of suspects. Tyler's wife, Jesse, and his oldest son had the opportunity to kill him. Then there's Jesse's brother who broke out of jail to make sure Tyler stopped hurting her. When Tyler tried to attack Dr. Rhea Vann and her assistant, she hit him with a table leg. Since a blow from a blunt instrument killed him, she could have done it. Then there are the husbands and/or boyfriends of the women Tyler slept with. Any one of them could have murdered him. Or could it have been someone else? Jean does a wonderful job portraying a man who juggles a career, parenthood and a social life while keeping me guessing as to who really killed Tyler and what Mitch will do when he finds the guilty person.

        Have you ever felt like reading something lightweight enough to boost your spirits but interesting enough to keep you interested? Then I'd suggest Misery Loves Maggody by Joan Hess ($22.00, due mid-January). It's a fun and interesting story. The main character is Arly Hanks, the sheriff of Maggody, Arkansas, a town filled with eccentric characters. Arly's mother, Ruby Bee and Ruby's best friend, Estelle, decide to take a chartered tour to Memphis to see Graceland and other places where Elvis stayed. When Ruby collapses in Tupelo and is taken to the hospital, Arly rushes there. Soon after she arrives, one of the other people on the tour is killed. The prime suspect is the mayor of Maggody. Arly could care less. All she can think of is her mother. However, the people who were after the murdered woman go after Arly. She has no choice but to solve the crime. The tour is also filled with eccentric characters as well, including a couple who are eloping to Memphis to be married, an Elvis scholar and a woman who is sure that Elvis isn't dead because her friend saw him in Minneapolis.

        From the title of Faye Kellerman's newest mystery, Prayers for the Dead ($6.99), it is obvious that the subject matter has to do with religion. Faye writes about this subject without passing judgment or preaching. In a book like this where different people are discovering different facets of the puzzle, she does a great job of changing points of view without confusing the reader as to who is doing what. Dr. Azor Sparks, a noted heart surgeon and researcher of a new anti_rejection drug, has been murdered. At first he seems too good to be true, a sure sign that he's hiding a secret. It's up to Peter Decker and his team to find out what it is. The investigation goes in several different directions. Sparks' children, some of whom have financial problems, each inherit one million dollars. Then there's the new anti_rejection drug that he was trying to get accepted by the FDA. The newest trials weren't as good as the first ones. Could he have found someone faking the results and been murdered because of it. Or was he faking the results and killed because someone found out? Finally, one of his hobbies is riding with a group of outlaw bikers. Could one of them have killed him? While Decker and his team are trying to sort all this out, he also has to deal with the fact that his wife had been quite friendly with Dr. Sparks' oldest son, Abram, and lied to Decker to help her old friend.

        J.A. Jance does a wonderful job writing about getting on with life after the death of a loved one in Dead to Rights ($6.99). Joanna Brady has been sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona since her husband's death. Not only does she have to deal with learning a new job, she also has to cope with her grief and her daughter's as well as her bumpy relationship with her own mother. When a former cop is accused of killing the man responsible for his wife's death and Joanne believes in his innocence, everyone thinks she isn't being objective. When she finds out the dead man's wife isn't grieving over his death and is busily planning her future as a LPGA golfer, the other officers are willing to give the former cop the benefit of the doubt until he runs off. Then even Joanne wonders if she is wrong about him. She has to find out the truth. Because Joanna is learning her job, she makes mistakes. The reader can't assume her theory is the correct. I like the fact that we learn procedure as well as the facts along with her as the investigation proceeds. None of the characters in this novel are perfect. They are all too human.

        I enjoy learning new information while reading fiction. That's part of the reason I enjoyed Anne Perry's Ashworth Hall ($6.99). However, there's more to it than that. She has come up with characters and situations that everyone can understand and can empathize with even if we disagree with their politics. Her books take place during Victorian England where the clothes and food may be different, but the problems and morals are all too familiar. A discussion about home rule for Ireland is taking place at Ashworth Hall, home of Superintendent Thomas Pitt's sister_in_law and her second husband, Jack Radley. Ainsley Greville, the moderator, asks Pitt to go there to protect him because someone has threatened his life. Because Pitt is working undercover, his wife Charlotte and their maid, Gracie, accompany him along with one of his officers, Tellman. Soon after they arrive, Greville is murdered. It is obvious that one of the people there killed him. There are plenty of suspects, including all the members of the meeting and their servants. When Jack takes over Greville's duty, his life is in danger too. Pitt needs all the help Charlotte and Gracie can give him. The novel starts out by giving the reader a feel for what life is like during that period of time. However, it isn't slow paced. There is plenty of intrigue to keep the reader guessing as to whom is doing to what to whom.

        Hamish Macbeth is an unusual police officer. He isn't traditionally handsome. He is lazy. He poaches fish. He isn't ambitious. Yet I like him even though I'm not sure I can explain why. Maybe it's because he isn't a traditional cop yet is intelligent enough to find out who the criminals are. In M.C. Beaton's Death of a Macho Man ($5.99), Hamish accepts a challenge from a bully that moved into the small Scottish village of Lochdubh to a fight. Hamish is soon sorry that he accepted the challenge especially after the bully is found dead. Hamish's superior office, who doesn't like him, blames Hamish and tries to get him fired. By lying Hamish manages to save his job, but is prohibited from investigating the murder. That doesn't stop him however. He founds that the dead man has been involved with several villagers, including one of Hamish's friends. The novel doesn't end when Hamish finds the killer. Because he disobeyed orders, he could be fired. This time lies won't save his job. Is this his last case? If you're looking for a lightweight, fun to read book, I suggest you try this one.

        In Honky Tonk Kat ($6.99) by Karen Kijewski, PI Kat Colorado is hired by a friend of hers, country_western singing star, Dakota Jones, because someone is sending her threatening notes. Kat has plenty of suspects to choose from, Dakota's ex_husband, a relative who Dakota knew nothing about until recently, members of her band, fans and her father. Or is Dakota doing this for publicity? Kat hasn't seen her friend for several years and people change. While Kat sifts through all the clues, the violence escalates. Karen Kijewski is good at developing characters and drawing you into their lives to such an extent that you forget all about solving the mystery.

        I read The Bone is Pointed by Arthur W. Upfield ($11.00) several years ago. I still remember it. When I heard it was being reissued, I decided to reread it. It is even better the second time around. His novels take place in Australia in the 1940's. There are no televisions, computers, or any of the modern conveniences that we take for granted. I often find descriptions boring and skip them. His novels are an exception. He works them into the story so that you feel as if you are there. Australia is as much a character in these novels as any of the people. The main character is Napoleon Bonaparte, a half_white, half_aborigine detective. His friends call him Bony. He is sent out to Opal Town to investigate the disappearance of a man five months earlier. All he has is his talents as a tracker and his intelligence. He has a way of learning about people from talking with them. He's sure he can find out what happened. So are the members of an aborigine tribe who want to stop him. So they point the bone at him, which will lead to his death if he doesn't leave. His white side tells him not to give into native superstition. His aborigine side knows he will die. No one, white or aborigine, belittles this pointing of the bone. They all want him to leave for his sake as well as their own. He refuses. Will he find out the truth before it's too late? If he does, what will he do? I enjoy reading about people and places so different from my experiences, especially when it's done by someone who obviously loves the places and people he writes about.

        I was one of the lucky people who read the galleys of Hostage by R. D. Zimmerman ($10.95) last year. I remember it vividly. It's a book that I would recommend to everyone. It's not lightweight reading. It's intense. It's not a book you can skim. Nor can you read it in one sitting. Take your time. It's worth it. R. D. develops characters so that you get to know them all too well. Todd Mills is a Minneapolis TV news reporter who has just come out of the closet in public. Todd receives permission to interview Johnny Clariton, a congressman who is anti_gay and is promoting legislation that will remove money from AIDS funding and deprive people of medical care for AIDS. Before he can begin to ask his questions, three people break in and kidnap Clariton. They are dying of AIDS. With nothing to lose, they want to tell the world about what happened to them and infect the congressman with their blood so that he can feel what it's like. Todd tries to be objective even when they send him videos of their stories and threaten to kill Clariton if he doesn't broadcast them. When Todd learns where they're hiding Clariton (one of the many surprises in this novel), he goes after them. He finds out that they have taken his lover, Rawlins, as hostage too. Can Todd save Clariton? That's only one of the mysteries in this story.

        I have always enjoyed Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody mysteries partly because of the witty writing style but mostly because she takes me to a time and place unfamiliar, England and Egypt in the early 1900s. Amelia and her husband are archeologists who spend their time excavating Egyptian tombs. They have one biological son, Ramses, and two adopted children, David and Nefret. All three are teenagers who accompany their parents on the digs. Normally the novels are written in first person from Amelia's point of view. Amelia is a modern woman for her time. She believes in independence but defines the term as it would have been defined in the time period in which she lives. Although the novel takes place in the past, Amelia suffers from the problem that most modern parents face, teenagers and the difficulty in realizing that they aren't babies anymore.
        In Peters' latest novel, The Ape Who Guards the Balance ($24.00), we not only hear from Amelia but from Ramses and Nefret as well. It is 1906 and the family is going back to Egypt. Unfortunately, instead of working on one of the major digs, they are working on one of the minor ones because Emerson insulted the man who hands out the assignments. Before they leave for Egypt, someone tries to kidnap Amelia. Amelia and Emerson have several enemies, but their most formidable, Seth, has promised not to harm them. Then who is it? Amelia and Emerson try to keep their problems away from Ramses, Nefret and David. That makes the three teenagers more determined to find out what is going on. While they go off on their own adventures and get into plenty of trouble, Amelia and Emerson are trying to pretend that everything is fine. After break_ins, kidnappings and dead bodies, they are forced to realize that Amelia is being targeted. The teenagers confront their parents and the whole story about Seth and his accomplice is told. Even then, they're not sure as to who the guilty party is. Once they work together, the truth comes out.
        This novel has a bit of everything, adventure, humor, romance and mystery. The author does a good job moving from one viewpoint to another by labeling the changes. The plot is complex but she does the pacing well by adding a description of the dig in the Valley of the Kings. One of the most humorous part of the book is the description of the tourists walking around the various digs, dressed in fancy clothes as if they were going to a party.

        I tried to read two books with Japanese_American main characters. One I couldn't finish. The other one, Death in Little Tokyo by Dale Furutani ($5.99) kept me interested all the way to the end. The main character, Ken Tanaka, is a Japanese_American male who is interested in mysteries. He's a member of a mystery club where different members stage mysteries for the others to try to solve. Ken has rented office space in a run down building in Little Tokyo and has set himself up as a pretend detective, complete with his name on the window. When a woman comes in and wants to hire him, he thinks it's someone his actress girlfriend asked to play a joke on him and goes along with the gag. The joke's on him when the job is real and the man he visits as part of the job is murdered. He, of course, is the main suspect. As he tries to solve the mystery, he explains life in the Japanese_American community in Los Angeles. It's interesting to read about a world most of us know so little about it. What I liked most about this book, besides the fact that I never figured out who did it, is that although the author established Ken as an intelligent man, he also made him realistic. He made the kind of mistakes that most people would make in his situation.

        Normally I don't read acknowledgements. They usually aren't very interesting. However, I recommend that everyone read the acknowledgement in Harlan Coben's Backspin ($4.99). Once you do, I think you will want to read the novel even if you aren't a sports fan. I admit I started reading Harlan's books because I enjoyed talking with him and someone, whose taste is similar to my own, told me I would enjoy the series. She was right. Sports aren't a major part of these novels. Harlan concentrates on the players and shows that they aren't any different from people who work in any other profession. Myron Bolitar runs MB SportsRep, a sports representation firm along with Win, an old friend of his. They are at the U.S. Open to recruit new clients. When Win's uncle asks Myron to help him and Win's cousin, Linda and her husband, Jack, by investigating the kidnapping of their teenage son. Myron begins to wonder if the boy actually was kidnapped especially when the kidnappers call from the local mall and don't ask for a ransom. What's even stranger is that Win refuses to help him. When Linda's husband is killed and the kidnappers release the boy, the police think that either Myron helped Linda kill her husband or she conned him. That makes Myron mad enough to make a determined effort to find out who is responsible. The suspects range from the very rich to a former caddy that may or may not be dead. Each of them has a secret that could make them the guilty one. Good luck in trying to figure out who it is.

        I have heard many complaints from people who grow tired of mystery series because the main characters never grow or change. That isn't true of Mary Daheim's Emma Lord series. Emma Lord is a single mother who inherited some money and bought a small newspaper in Alpine, Washington. Since the beginning of the series, Emma has been involved with two men, her son has gone off to college, members of her staff have left and been replaced by new people and they have had relationships, gotten married, and become pregnant. In The Alpine Icon ($5.99), Emma is suffering from the empty nest syndrome. Her son isn't coming home for vacation. Nor is her brother. The current man in her life, Milo Dodge, is the sheriff and has to work long hours. She doesn't have time to feel too sorry for herself when Ursula O'Toole Randall is found drowned in six inches of water. It isn't long before Milo and Emma find out that she's been murdered. Ursula had been born and raised in Alpine, left and then returned to marry a local man who had been married twice before. She also was one of the people running for the school council in a catholic school. She wasn't a very popular or well_liked woman. Almost everyone who knew her had a reason to dislike her. Only one person hated her enough to kill her. While Emma and Milo look for her killer, the killer is watching them, waiting for a chance to stop them.


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