A Rule against Murder by Louise Penny

Inspector Armand Gamache and his wife take a much-needed anniversary vacation toRule against Murder the Manoir Bellechasse, a renowned inn located in remote Quebec.  They have been coming for years, and happily take whichever room is available.

This time, they will share their time with the Finney family, a moneyed clan of patricians whose dirt and insecurities far outweigh their bankbook.  At first, Armand and Reine-Marie are mildly intrigued by the Finneys, or Morrows, as we find out later, who as a collective can be charming.  But fissures are soon seen in the siblings’ interactions as they dig up earlier slights and bide their time until the unveiling of a memorial statue of their late father, a planned permanent fixture on the grounds of the inn.

The statue proves to be anything but permanent, as it topples and crushes a member of the family.  Gamache now is back at work again, plowing through the complexities of sibling rivalry as he and his closest associates try to uncover a murderer amid the forested wilds of the idyllic inn.

Considering the family dynamic of the Finneys, one would suspect the killer as one of their own, but others, whether guests or inn workers, may have unknown grudges against certain family members.  As we get better acquainted with the family, it’s easy to understand why.

A Rule Against Murder, Penny’s fourth Three Pines novel, takes place largely outside of the quiet town, in a locale even more remote and tranquil, until darker things compromise its veneer of safety.  As with all of Louise Penny’s books in this series, it’s a page turner, albeit one with lots of literary references and culinary asides.  Penny also examines the human spirit in a fine way, managing to nudge out the good qualities in even the most damaged souls.

A Rule Against Murder comes in physical format and in ebook.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

Dead Lions by Mick Herron

dead lionsSlough House, a crumbling building somewhere in London, is the last refuge for MI5 Service screw ups, the hapless assigned to tedious tasks until they resign.  Jackson Lamb is their rumpled leader, a longtime veteran of the Service who prefers the diversion of the shamed to the politics of the Service, although he remains aware of the machinations of the head office.

The Slow Horses, as they are known, aren’t expected to do much, other than shuffle reports and dig through nigh-useless data.  But when a low-level spy is found dead on a bus with a cryptic message on his cell phone, and a Service bigwig drafts two Slow Horses for bodyguard duty, our gang of misfits find themselves on missions of grit, danger, and mishaps – lots of mishaps.

Add in Russian oil magnates, an idyllic English village where location is key, and a London rally of dangerous proportions, and you have the setting for Dead Lions, a dryly humorous send-up of the British Security Service.  The pacing is quick, the plot occasionally convoluted, and the end result a satisfying read.

As a character, Jackson Lamb is a class act.  He’s irascible, misanthropic, hard-drinking, hard-smoking – and those are his good qualities.  Lamb is also a scrupulous professional, although not adverse to playing dirty when necessary, and as an old timer in the Service, is privy to the backstabbing and drama that accompany it.  In his abrasive manner, he inspires a begrudging loyalty from his staff that is somehow endearing.

Dead Lions is number two in the Slow Horses series, and is available from the Greensboro Public Library in paper or ebook format.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

The Dresden Files : A Series by Jim Butcher

Last year I found myself in the Central Library’s Science Fiction & Fantasy section Storm Frontbrowsing for my next read when I happened to come across a series by author Jim Butcher called The Dresden Files. I leafed through a few pages of one I picked out randomly and found myself curious enough that I located the first book in the series, titled Storm Front, and checked it out.

The premise of the series is straightforward enough – Harry Dresden is an actual wizard living in modern day Chicago.  He works as a magical private eye of sorts; his office being located downtown in one of the older buildings.  His advertisement in the Yellow Pages lays it out rather succinctly what he does:

Harry Dresden – Wizard
Lost Items Found.
Paranormal Investigations.
Consulting.  Advice.
Reasonable Rates.
No Love Potions, Endless Purses, Parties,
Or other Entertainment.

Harry is written as a mildly gruff person, but with a good heart.  I always picture him in my mind as being like Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie the Maltese Falcon), only very tall and wearing a weathered long black leather duster.  He’s not there to hold long, polite conversations – he’s there to solve the mystery he’s working on.

Harry Dresden lives in our ordinary world, but has access to a magical realm inhabited by creatures with powers beyond our understanding.  There is a backstory to this series that is filled in slowly, book by book, helping the reader to appreciate Harry’s unique position in the universe.

As you dive into Storm Front you quickly learn of Harry’s second job – consultant to a special branch of the Chicago Police Department that investigates bizarre crimes caused by magic.  The head of the department, Lieutenant Karrin Murphy, is barely five foot tall, and a determined woman with courage, and skills in the martial arts.  She’s friends with Harry, and a proven ally against the darker sides of the magical realm.  These cases often prove dangerous for Harry, but then it wouldn’t be a proper adventure without a generous helping of danger!

In Storm Front Harry is brought in by Murphy to investigating the murder of two lovers who were killed rather spectacularly during a very intimate moment.  Ordinary police crime scene tools can’t solve this case; only Harry’s wizardly gifts can help lead them to the culprit before they strike again.  At the same time, he is hired as a private investigator to help a woman find her husband, who has been missing for several days.

Fool MoonA common theme in The Dresden Files series is that Harry never seems to have a weekend off, or time to play.  You know the old saying, “if it’s not one thing, it’s another!”  Harry has a small number of friends to draw strength and help from, but an equal – if not larger – number of enemies.

From his constant problems with modern day electronics or technology, to the numerous times he escapes a horrible fate by the skin of his teeth, Harry’s adventures prove to be both thrilling and enjoyable.  In his second book in the series, Fool Moon, Harry finds himself pitted against a pack of modern-day urban werewolves.  Forgive me for saying this, but it’s a howling good adventure.  And the ending comes as a pleasant surprise, too!

The Greensboro Public Library owns most of the books in The Dresden Files in our print collection, as well as our ebook collection through the North Carolina Digital Library.  If you are stuck at home looking for a fun fantasy read with lots of adventure, please check the series out!

(Robbie Owens, Information Services)

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapeña

When the babysitter cancels, Anne and Marco Conti figure that they can still go to a The Couple Next Doordinner party next door, with the baby monitor in hand.  They’ll check on their infant daughter Cora every thirty minutes.  What can go wrong?

Everything, when Cora goes missing shortly after 12:30 am, and the couple enters the biggest nightmare of their lives.

From doting parents to negligent inebriates – the press will have a heyday with this one, as does the police, who begin grilling the couple shortly after the kidnapping.  Marco is stressed already with running a struggling software business.  Anne is in the middle of an extended postpartum depression; the disappearance of her child is enough to push her over the edge.

Anne’s rich parents enter the picture soon afterward, with the monetary leverage to deal with a kidnapper, should one come forth.  Their relationship with Anne is close – with Marco, it’s more of a strained tolerance.  He will forever be the outsider, an interloper who took their daughter’s affection.  It is Marco to whom they cast the most suspicion.

It turns out that nobody’s hands are clean, as this brisk thriller proceeds.

The Couple Next Door is not what I would call great fiction, but the book is certainly a page turner.  I easily got caught up in the intrigue, and while there are lots of standard elements in the book, it clips along nicely, and the ending got me off guard.  Plus, with plugs from Harlan Coben and Lisa Gardner… well, read the book.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

cruelest monthAfter reading the first book of the Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series by Louise Penny, I skipped to others much further along.  While this was my choosing, it certainly pays to read the books in a series in order for backstory and character development.  So… I went back to the second – now on to number three.  And The Cruelest Month was the perfect shoo-in for a beach read.

The spiritually curious of the village of Three Pines start the Easter season by conducting a séance on Good Friday.  The first one is unsuccessful, so the group decides to hold another, this time on Easter Sunday itself, and in the creepiest house in the village.  This time, their session becomes all too real, when a member of their party literally dies of fright.

Madeleine Favreau, the recently deceased, was a well-liked woman, a relative newcomer who made friends easily.  While she appeared healthy enough, what was her history, and who would want to do her in?

The re-occurring character of Armand Gamache then enters the story.  As chief inspector of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec, he’s seen his share of grisly murders.  Gamache has also had plenty of cases that have required his whole team to solve, and this one is no exception.  But it’s not a given that he can trust his entire staff, or his immediate superiors in the Sûreté, some of whom would rather sully Gamache’s reputation, especially after a controversial case within the Sûreté from several years back that still has repercussions.

Departmental intrigue, idyllic villages with secrets, and descriptions of wonderful food are an unbeatable combination.  Perry’s characters are wise, thoughtful, catty, and flawed, and the setting of Three Pines makes me want to move there, but I think I could do without the Canadian winters.

So, if you like mysteries that start out almost as chatty cozies and then get darker very quickly, this series is hard to beat.  Penny’s books are literate, fast-reading mysteries that puzzle over the human psyche as much as they make you jump.  As I mentioned before, I’ve skipped and jumped over the series – but reading The Cruelest Month makes me want to plow through the rest, and gladly.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller

fast falls the nightI got through the first five books of the Bell Elkins series by Julia Keller and had to quit for a while.  Not because they were bad – far from it – but because the subject matter Keller addresses is so unrelentingly sad.  Her fictional small town of Ackers Gap, West Virginia seems doomed to the fates of poverty and drug abuse.

Fast Falls the Night takes things a step further with the drug situation when, during a single 24 hour period, a series of heroin overdoses has Bell and the sheriff’s department hopping.  All of the cases were using heroin laced with Carfentanil, a sedative strong enough to kill in tiny doses, and it does – at least three of over thirty cases within a day’s time.

This sheer number of ODs is unprecedented, and the department scrambles to find the source of the bad batch, balancing their search between a public indifferent to drug addiction, the relatives of addicts screaming for revenge, and several other subplots which promise to complicate the mix.  We have estranged parents where the father suffers from PTSD and the mother scams her way through life, a possible but impossible love interest for Deputy Jake Oakes, and Shirley, Bell’s older sister, who has some burdens to unload, but will be lucky to talk to Bell during this day of hell.

To be sure, it’s depressing material to immerse oneself in, but immerse I did.  Keller writes page turners, and Fast Falls the Night goes by with a blistering pace.  This one is atypical for the series.  For the previous books, there was a sense of closure for each, at least tentatively.  This one ends with bad news and something else potentially bad.  UNFORTUNATELY – I read the blurb for the next book in the series so I sort of already know what’s going to happen, but no spoiler here.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Confession by Jo Spain

the confessionUltra-rich Harry McNamara is viciously beaten nearly to death in his house by a perpetrator who doesn’t even know him, and his wife Julie witnesses the whole thing with barely a flinch.

J. P. Carney, Harry’s assailant, turns himself in the following day, so you know who did it from early on in the book.

It’s not that Harry didn’t have enemies.  A high level banking wiz during Ireland’s boom years, Harry led a charmed existence, making deals over and under the table.  After the financial crash of 2008, he went through a highly publicized trial for bank fraud and managed to avoid any charges.

So, Harry and Julie are one lucky rich couple – that is, until his assailant puts him into the hospital with a golf club.

Through backstories, the author fleshes out Julie and J. P., and another storyline follows Detective Alice Moody and her investigation.  Moody is interesting, a physically large person who is extremely diligent at her job and quick for verbal banter with her boss.  Her interactions with Sargent Gallagher add some bawdy humor into the book (spoiler – lots of Irish-isms, but it didn’t bother me).

When reading J. P.’s personal background, the author creates him as a sympathetic person who has gotten the raw deal on practically everything.  One almost can see his chief motive behind the attack as that of resentment of Harry and his kind – the high rollers who played with Ireland’s economic boom and then left the country in shambles afterward.  Of course, there’s something much more personal than that.

Julie is…well, interesting.  A country girl originally, she falls for Harry early on and rides her good fortune with ease, but sees the cracks in Harry’s façade long before his would-be fall from grace.  There’s also much that Julie doesn’t say at the beginning that the narrative teases out of her.

To put it bluntly (no pun intended) The Confession is a gripping page turner, definitively for fans of thrillers who have an interest in the recent history of Ireland, particularly the crazy years of the Celtic Tiger and the aftermath.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Himself : A Novel by Jess Kidd

HimselfThe circumstances of truth and the supernatural turn a small Irish town on its ear when a stranger arrives to town wanting answers.

Mahony, a youngish man of long hair and fine looks, comes calling from Dublin in the spring of 1976 and ingratiates himself among the locals of Mulderrig, a town at the end of nowhere.  He takes a room at the town’s dilapidated bed and breakfast and makes fast friends with one Merle Cauley, an elderly ex-actress who has been living at the B & B for eons.  She picks up quickly on Mahony’s talents, not just as a charmer, but as one who can see and converse with the dead.

Mahony’s visit is a homecoming of sorts – it seems that his mother was the town shame,  an errant teenager from years ago who had him out-of-wedlock, and then promptly disappeared.  Mahony then grew up in a Dublin orphanage, and had no connection of her other than a tattered photograph that he recently got from a priest associated with the orphanage.

As Mahony and Mrs. Cauley pry for clues about his mother, it’s soon apparent that someone wishes they wouldn’t pry so much.  Certain villagers, initially friendly, are not so much anymore, and an occasional unnerving happening is enough for the two to hesitate with their search.

But the dead are becoming more vivid to Mahony, and some of them need their stories told.

Himself is a murder mystery in places, a picaresque lark in others.  Amidst the scary elements there is sheer glee.  The book itself is a laughing finger pointed at small town life, where the fear of the unknown mixed with dark secrets propel all involved to an uneasy future, and perhaps some sort of redemption.

Kidd’s ghosts are playful, bawdy, and profane, a sort of Greek chorus to their living counterparts.  Most say very little; it’s in their actions where the humor kicks in.

There are lots of shifts in time and narration, so be prepared for this.  Aside from these quirks, and lots of Irishisms in the dialogue, Himself is a rollicking book.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Don’t You Cry by Mary Kubica

Quinn wakes up to find that her roommate, Esther, is not in their apartment.  In spite ofdon't you cry the cold weather, the door leading from Esther’s room to the fire escape is open, and Esther’s phone is still in the apartment.

As hours go by without Esther’s return, Quinn becomes more and more concerned.  Surely, she thinks, Esther would have left a note explaining her unusual behavior.  Quinn eventually calls the bookstore where Esther works; she did not show up for her shift.  Again, this is totally out of character for Esther.  Quinn contacts the police, who assure her that adults who go missing will eventually return on their own.  Esther does not.  Quinn searches the apartment, desperately seeking clues to Esther’s disappearance.  Her findings eventually lead Quinn to rethink everything she’d thought she knew about Esther.

Meanwhile, in a small town some miles from the apartment, Alex, a young man working as a dishwasher in a coffee shop, is intrigued by a beautiful young woman who enters the shop.  It isn’t tourist season, and few strangers enter the shop at this time of year.  Why is she in town?  Who is she?  He fantasizes that she might become his girlfriend, but the better he gets to know her, the stranger she seems.

This novel, after a rather slow start, gradually becomes more and more suspenseful.  Stick with it; you’ll be glad you did!

Mary Kubica wrote the bestselling novels The Good Girl and Pretty Baby.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Undertow by Elizabeth Heathcote

undertowZena Johnson is beautiful, charming, and driven – and beguiling enough to separate Tom, a successful lawyer, from his wife and children.  After his divorce, Tom and Zena buy a cottage on the eastern coast of England, and seemingly have a perfect setup.  Or do they?

Several months later, Zena, a determined swimmer since childhood, goes for an evening swim in the ocean and doesn’t return.  A mother with her child and dog find Zena’s body washed up on a beach a few days later.

Tom remarries, this time to Carmen, and doesn’t tell her everything about this chapter of his past life.  As such, Carmen begins to have doubts about their supposedly idyllic relationship, particularly when she notices Tom’s peculiar behavior; behind his calm lawyer demeanor is an unpleasant temper.

Carmen delves into Tom’s past with as much secrecy as she can muster, and what she finds gets increasingly unnerving.  And Zena, dead for three years, haunts Carmen’s dreams and thoughts.

Undertow brings the Rebecca motif into the modern age.  Tense and nervy, the book will have you doubting Carmen’s sanity as she skirts danger and finds help from some unlikely sources.

(William Hicks, Information Services)