Monthly Archives: February 2008

BOOK BEAT 64 – Elizabeth Becka

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   February 27, 2008

by Philip K. Jason

Cape Coral resident Elizabeth Becka, who introduced forensic specialist Evelyn James in “Trace Evidence” (2005, and recently released in paperback), has now followed up with a startling new case for James to unravel. “Unknown Means” continues this heroine’s career in the Cleveland Medical Examiner’s office, while Elizabeth Becka (who once worked for the Coroner’s Office of Cleveland) continues her career with the Cape Coral Police Department. Though too many writers don’t take this age-old advice, Becka has wisely chosen to write about what she knows. 

The plot of “Unknown Means” involves a series of deaths, all to attractive women of some social prominence, as well as an attack on Becka’s good friend and co-worker, Marissa Gonzalez, who is about to marry into that social sphere. Becka’s challenge, which of course is the readers’ puzzle as well, is to discover the who, why, and how behind this series of crimes. The method of operation is a blatant calling card suggesting a single perpetrator.

The “locked room” crime scenes suggest that the criminal is known to the victims or has some special means of access to their various homes. While there are plausible suspects for the individual crimes, Becka needs to find the common denominators of motive and victim selection that point to a single actor. A smudge of grease ends up being a primary clue to the killer’s identity. It is one piece of the physical evidence that eventually leads to the solution.

Collecting and examining physical evidence is what Evelyn James does, and she is very good at it without being flashy or possessed of uncanny insights. The scientific work is interesting, though a bit tedious as well, and Becka knows just how much description of evidence collecting and laboratory work is enough to feed readers’ curiosity while keeping the story moving. She also knows how to continue building Evelyn James as a credible, engaging character, a working mom with concerns that make conflicting demands on her time and her emotional energy.

The protagonist’s character is developed through James’s commitment to her work and to her sticky relationship with her teenage daughter. Though the daughter, Angel, remains a somewhat insubstantial figure in this novel, that’s in part in keeping with the willed distance caused by her independent streak and the odd hours that James’s work often requires. That is, the daughter is not home that much, as she is beginning to build her own life, and when she is home James may not be. There is more to be done with this relationship in future novels. Another side of Evelyn James is shown in her complicated and convoluted relationship with homicide detective David Milaski.  It’s one of those “I should know better than to get involved in a workplace romance” situations, and Elizabeth Becka handles it quite well.

Solving the crimes involves getting to know the victims, and here too Becka crafts her narration of the investigation in an efficient and colorful manner. The portraits of the women are sharply drawn, especially that of bossy Kelly Alexander, whose family company owns the salt mines (yes, salt mines in Cleveland) in which an explosion takes place that kills several people, providing a motive for someone to kill Ms. Alexander.  

Interrogation is an important part of crime fiction, and in “Unknown Means” this part of the inquiry is frequently handled by Detective Milaski and his senior sidekick, Bruce Riley. Evelyn James does her share, but it is both realistic and entertaining to hear this range of voices gathering information. Roles are reversed when James herself is questioned by an aggressive young reporter named Clio Helms.

The city of Cleveland is a major presence in “Unknown Means,” as it should be. Becka establishes the city’s overarching personality as well as the particular feel of various neighborhoods and suburbs. Her handling of place is authoritative without being overdone. Of course, readers will wonder if James will eventually follow her creator to Southwest Florida. Meanwhile, following Evelyn James while she follows the evidence in Cleveland is a very satisfying experience.

Find out more about this must-read author at

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.


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BOOK BEAT 63 – Karna Bodman (2)

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   February 6, 2008

by Philip K. Jason

With her second novel, “Gambit,” Karna Small Bodman has established herself as one of the premier crafters of political thrillers. Drawing upon her own experience as a high-ranking media and security official in the Reagan White House, Bodman can make her handling of government decision-making, the Capitol Beltway environment, and international politics ring true. Her attractive heroine, a scientist who is both personally and professionally dedicated to national defense, wrestles once again with technological solutions to major threats to world peace. And, as in her first appearance in “Checkmate,” Cammy Talbot’s heart is tested on more than one level.

Why are jetliners falling out of the sky? An unknown enemy has found a way to bring down commercial aircraft while leaving hardly a trace of how it was done and how the destructive weaponry remained undetected. With the U. S. government seemingly incapable of dealing with this threat, the transportation industry is grinding to a standstill and the stock market is plummeting. Chaos is on the horizon. Who is behind these atrocities, and with what motive? These are the questions that need to be unraveled as quickly as possible. 

Talbot, whose inventive genius on missile defense systems had saved the world from possible catastrophe several months earlier, is once again placed on center stage in this new dilemma. While working with a Boston-based Chinese colleague on a new missile defense concept, Cammie Talbot learns of activities on mainland China that suggest the development of stealth missile systems with new guidance technologies. When Talbot leaves her friend’s university lab to grab a cup of coffee at a nearby Starbucks, the Chinese scientist and his lab are destroyed by an explosion. 

As the plot unfolds, we meet high-ranking government officials in furious panic, leaders of rival R & D firms vying for government contracts, and, though kept in the shadows, the perpetrators themselves. Panic accelerates when a plane taking off from Dulles Airport explodes, ending the life of Austin Gage, the National Security Advisor to the President. These doomed planes can no longer be considered random targets.

When Vice President Jayson Keller takes over Gage’s duties, new complications arise. Keller and Talbot are now working together on the accelerating security nightmare, and it is clear that he is interested in her. Talbot is hesitant, still nursing a sense of abandonment and betrayal in the wake of her aborted romance with Colonel Hunt Daniels, the White House Arms Control and Strategic Defense aide. When Daniels, who has been on secret assignments, comes back into the picture, Talbot is torn between her passion for him, the genuine appeal of Jayson Keller, and her unwillingness to get hurt once again. These workplace romances are hell, especially in the corridors of power.

As Talbot moves towards testing her new missile detection and defense concepts, it becomes quite clear that her centrality to thwarting the attacks on U. S. aircraft is known to the enemy. She becomes a target. Now it is her heart’s courage that is tested.

Cammy Talbot’s romantic and research concerns are neatly counterpointed through her friendship with Melanie Duvall, who heads corporate communications at Bandaq Technologies where Talbot works. Duvall, herself entangled with a dashing, spotlight-stealing senator, serves as a kind of confidante, yet she is an attractive character in her own right – a breezier and less guarded counterpart to Talbot.

The author moves us sure-handedly through a range of locals – not only the D. C. area, but San Francisco, Travis Air Force Base, remote sections of China, Brasilia, and Taipei. We hear of Chinese military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. We hear of alliances with Japan and assistance from India in the face of the looming threat. The pace quickens, and the pulse of expectation thunders louder and louder.

Karna Small Bodman has another winner in “Gambit,” just released by Forge Books. She will be signing her new title on April 5 and 6 at the Naples Press Club’s Authors and Books Festival, which is being held at the von Liebig Art Center.  

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club. Send him your book news at

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