Tag Archives: murder mystery

Lost love regrets lead to uncovering the cause of a mysterious death

The Ephemeral File, by Henry Hoffman. Melange Books. 197 pages. Trade paperback $12.95.

The third installment of the Adam Fraley Mystery Series is an easy-to-like group of tales with an easy-going style and an unusual hero. What’s unusual about Adam? He’s normal: he’s not a superhero, he’s not a tough guy, and he’s not obsessed about firearms, forensics, or procedural conventions. He’s just there to help people and go where the case takes him.  

When Adam’s office manager, Tamra Fugit (pronounced how?) asks him to meet with an elderly man who’s a friend of her aunt, Adam is somewhat hesitate. Taking a case as a favor to someone is not high on his priority list. But he succumbs to Tamra’s entreaty. She’s a person he owes a favor, and she’s extremely good looking.

Roland Westwood is hoping to locate a long-lost love. Adam finds Roland’s lengthy story interesting enough to take the case, even though Roland’s relationship with the girl – Staci Carew – was a tenuous one that began and ended more than fifty years ago during WWII. At that time, Staci was finishing high school and Roland had already begun college. They met at the movie house where Staci worked.

Hoffman

Set largely in Florida’s Pasco County along the Withlacoochie River, Adam’s investigation leads him to a bridge where Staci’s fraternal twin sister, Kati, lost her life. While Mr. Hoffman’s description of this rural area is exceptionally expressive, the interest in the location remains the actions that took place upon the bridge, which soon come into focus.

With Adam, readers learn that the twins had contrasting personalities and didn’t get along well. Kati, an aspiring gymnast, was highly motivated to excel and had the discipline to keep challenging herself and improving her skills. Staci was less motivated. Kati used the bridge structure as an exercise platform.  On one occasion, it seems, things went wrong and she plummeted to her death.

From information that Roland reveals, it seems possible that Staci, jealous of her sister’s acclaim, might have taken the practice session on the bridge as an opportunity to harm her sister, who outdid her in cheerleading competitions and who ended up being favored by Staci’s boyfriend.

Such complications of the available information bring lawyers (including Staci’s husband) and police officers into the story line. The accumulation of facts eventually leads to a highly unexpected resolution in a court of law. . . .

To see the full review, as it appears in the December 12, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 13 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Ephemeral File

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A Florida farm’s fall festival becomes a setting for murder

Trimmed to Death, by Nancy J. Cohen. Orange Grove Press. 288 pages. Trade paperback $14.99.

This is #15 in “The Bad Hair Day Mysteries” that have won Ms. Cohen many fans – and many imitators – over the years. The author continues to maintain her status as the queen of the cozy mystery, a genre that she not only exemplifies in her own fiction but also defines and gives advice about in the expanded second edition of her guidebook “Writing the Cozy Mystery” (Orange Grove Press, 2018). There are four essentials: the sleuth must be both female and an amateur, and readers must encounter that sleuth fitting her crime-solving into a larger, multifaceted life within a well-defined community.  

Marla Vail, who runs a hair salon in the South Florida town of Palm Haven, is all excited about participating in a fall harvest festival sponsored by Kinsdale Farms, located at the western edge of Broward County. Local business bring attention to themselves by sponsoring competitions that attract entrants who sign up months in advance. The general public just loves the goings-on, the food, and the high spirits.

Marla has entered the baking competition, hoping that her coconut fudge pie will take the prize.

Cohen

Ms. Cohen introduces a very large cast of characters who are involved in the festival in some way. One, Francine Dodger, runs a magazine, another is a chef, and another is a food critic. The festival is a time for people to re-acquaint and to network. It’s also a time for fun.

Francine has set up a Find Franny contest for the festival, a kind of scavenger hunt that involves collecting cards, getting each stamped by answering a question correctly, and being the first to report to Franny with all of them stamped.

Only problem is that when Franny is found, she is dead: murdered!  

Marla’s husband – Detective Dalton Vail – will lead the murder investigation. Yes, you guessed it. Marla will be very busy doing her share of the investigation in her own way. For Dalton, it’s just another case – one of many that will occupy him every day and often for long hours.

For Marla, it’s a task (more like an addiction) squeezed in along with running her business, mothering Dalton’s 18-year-old daughter Brianna, running the household, networking all over own, dealing with her parents, etc., etc. Meanwhile, she is concerned about her clock running out before having a child by Dalton. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the November 29, 2018 Naples Florida Weekly and Bonita Springs editions, and the December 5 Fort Myers edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Trimmed to Death

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Havana/Key West conference encourages fruitful discussion but meets disaster

Death on the Menu, by Lucy Burdette. Crooked Lane Books. 304 pages. Hardcover $26.99

This is the 8th installment of Ms. Burdette’s Key West Food Critic mystery series, featuring the lovable Hayley Snow. This time out, it’s under the imprint of a new publisher. When a major three-day event is planned to find common ground between the cities of Havana and Key West, Hayley’s mother gets the catering contract. The venue is the Harry Truman Little White House. As the conference approaches, conflicting political agendas seem likely to undermine this good-will opportunity. They are also undermining the aspirations of the man who manages the Little White House facility.  

Hayley and Miss Gloria (Hayley’s 80+ year old landlady and friend) are pressed into service to help with the catering chores. Meanwhile, Hayley is being pushed by her employers at “Key Zest” magazine to meet several deadlines.

Members of a Cuban-American family get caught in the tangle of cross-purposes, and there is a scandal over the disappearance of a rare piece of Hemingway memorabilia that has been loaned to the event by the Cuban visitors. It has been stolen from its display case.

Who stole it? Why? How and why was Gabriel, a member of that Cuban-American family and assisting the event, murdered?

Well, of course, Hayley can’t help pushing herself into the investigation, even while warned about going too far by her boyfriend, police Detective Nathan Bransford.

Lucy Burdette / photo credit Carol Tedesco

As with previous titles in this series, Hayley’s investigations give Mr. Burdette the opportunity to provide colorful – and flavorful – tours all around Key West. The author brings this unique town fully to life, in both its physical and cultural dimensions. The inside look at the Truman Little White House is delightfully engaging, as is the portrait of the Hemingway home and all the adjacent neighborhoods. Hayley’s connection with the conference catering, as well as her need to generate three restaurant reviews for “Key Zest,” takes readers into a series of food establishments. The focus for the conference menu and for Hayley’s column are Cuban specialties, and these vivid scenes will make readers’ mouths water.

Suspense tightens when a relative of the murdered Gabriel is at first missing and then found seriously injured. It gets even tighter when Detective Bransford allows Hayley to play a dangerous role in the investigation as part of the detective’s plan to draw out the perpetrator. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 21, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 22 Naples, Bonita Springs, Key West, and Palm Beach editions, and the November 29 Charlotte County edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Death on the Menu

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“Suitcase Charlie” by John Guzlowski

Kasva Press. 328 Pages. Trade Paperback $14.99.

Review by Philip K. Jason

John Guzlowski beautifully conjures up the seamy side of the allegedly innocent 1950s with a thrilling serial murder mystery featuring two boozehound detectives. For Detective Hank  Purcell, memories of World War II, now ten years distant, invade with regularity. Both he and his Jewish partner, Marvin Bondarowicz, have been known to break the rules. Both men are survivors of the mean streets, appealing in their humorous repartee and in their willingness to seek justice, even if insubordination is part of their means to that end. 

Guzlowski

The case Hank and Marvin are on requires an answer to this question: Who cruelly dismembered a young boy and stuffed his body into a suitcase left on the sidewalk, no doubt meant to be discovered? What is the motive for such cruelty? Hank can’t help but remember the Nazi butchery he witnessed firsthand. Has it found its way to 1956 Chicago?

Soon after the detectives undertake their investigation, several parallel incidents occur; it’s unclear if this is a crime spree by one perpetrator, or if these are independent copycat murders. What will the effects of these horrendous crimes be in the neighborhoods where the suitcases turn up? Why these neighborhoods? Why are the soles of the victims’ feet sliced in an isosceles triangle pattern? To represent, when placed together, the Star of David?

Slowly but surely, the author builds credible references to anti-Semitism and its consequences. Leads appear that Hank would like to pursue, but Marvin, who now announces himself a defender of his people – in fact, makes it clear that their persecution had been his motive for becoming a cop – turns Hank away from pursuing the anti-Semitic possibility. After all, the victims in the suitcases are not Jews. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council site, click here: Suitcase Charlie

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A cautionary tale unfolds in a gemlike psychological thriller

Under My Skin, by Lisa Unger. Park Row Books. 368 pages. Trade Paperback Original $16.99.

Lisa Unger’s craft is so astonishing that it makes me want to cry tears of appreciative joy. Tears are also prompted by the harrowing situation of Ms. Unger’s main character, Poppy, as she tries to rebound from the hideous murder of her husband Jack. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Poppy blanked out for several days, coming to consciousness in a state of confusion. Her identity has been oddly transformed and her confidence shaken.  

With the help of a therapist, she has made a lot of progress in the year since Jack’s death, but she is frequently tormented by strange nightmares that might be distorted memories. Are bits and pieces of the lost days pressing for recognition? There are also other patches of time that she cannot recall. Moreover, she doesn’t trust herself to sort out what’s real and what’s the product of a dream-state.

Her goals are to fill in the blanks and to bring Jack’s murderer to justice. Then to pick up the pieces of her life and move forward.

Poppy’s path to health is thwarted by her abuse of pills and alcohol. She sabotages Dr. Nash’s therapy by lying to her. In her attempts to regain control of her life, she resists the overtures of her controlling best friend, Layla. She also resists the overtures of her controlling mother. Poppy needs to be in control; she needs to set limits on well-meaning intrusions on her autonomy.

Poppy lives in a state of fear; she is pathetically vulnerable.

She believes that she is being tracked by a hooded man who might be connected to Jack’s murder. Her attempts at gaining control show courage but also recklessness. Slowly, ever so slowly, she makes progress.

Important secondary characters include Detective Grayson, the NYPD policeman working the murder case, and a Neil, a man who makes metal sculptures. Neil is a shadowy figure from Poppy’s recent past now clearly an important part of her present. Both are protective of Poppy, but in very different ways and with different motives.

Poppy’s ordeal, her attempt to recapture the idealized memories of her married life, carries the unexpected strain of doubts about the true nature of her relationship with Jack, a relationship compromised by his responses to her two miscarriages. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the October 24, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the October 25 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Venice editions, and the November 1 Palm Beach and Charlotte County editions, click  here: Florida Weekly – Under My Skin

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Educating, entertaining fiction about seniors and assisted living

Don’t Admit You’re in Assisted Living – First Mystery: The Kiss, by Dorothy Seymour Mills. Blue Water Press LLC. 154 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.

This delightful three-part mystery series by Ms. Mills, who recently turned ninety, provides an insightful and humorous look at senior living communities. The author’s model for the setting, a place she calls Locksley Glen, is her Naples home of The Carlisle. However, she is writing fiction and she means for her exploration of such a community to be representative. Through this book, readers will journey into a world of people “who are past being active physically and whose ability to contribute to modern life is limited by physical decline and encroaching age-connected illness.” 

As the novel makes clear, these people, mostly women, are abundantly alive, curious, engaged, and brimming with experiential knowledge. They offer one another vital, shareable experience in a setting made to order for their needs.

When 80-year-old Locksley resident Clarence is spotted accepting a kiss from a young Greek waiter named Petros, the rumor mill starts grinding. Alice, the principal character and the narrator, wonders if this behavior – an elderly man showing sexual interest in a teenage employee – fits into the parameters of normality. What is the revealed relationship all about? What is the mystery behind the kiss?

Some speculation about sexual activity between senior citizens follows, but the question is left up in the air. It seems less and less important as another strange event take over the imaginations of the residents. Someone is stabbed during a Halloween party.

Dorothy Mills

Preparations for the party involve the creation of costumes. A most popular and attractive resident, Starr, borrows some paint from Alice, who is an artist about to have a significant exhibition of her paintings. Starr uses the paint to fashion a cardboard gun and knife as part of her outlaw cowboy costume. Somehow the imitation knife is replaced by a real one – a steak knife stolen from the Locksley Glen kitchen.  It ends up being used as a weapon in a real crime against Petros’s father, Tzannis Papadopoulos, who Petros had been trying to prevent from being allowed into the United States. Meanwhile, the cardboard knife is found to have real blood on it. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the September 27, 2018 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach editions and the October 3 Fort Myers and Charlotte County editions, click here:  Assisted Living

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Family secrets and separations fuel a darker shade of cozy mystery

Killer Tied, by Lesley A. Diehl. Camel Press. 264 pages. Trade paperback $16.95.

Ms. Diehl’s sixth Eve Appel Mystery, like the others, uses her background as a former professor of psychology to deepen readers’ understanding of her characters’ dilemmas, fears, and frustrations. At first, the most unsettled and needy character seems to be Eleanor, a young woman who comes to the rural Florida town of Sabal Bay with the seemingly outlandish claim that she is Eve’s half-sister. But how can this be if the woman is much younger that Eve, who has been led to believe that her parents drowned when she was very young. 

Eleanor’s stepfather, who tried to hire Eve to find his daughter, is found stabbed to death, the weapon turns out to be a very recognizable knife belonging to Lionel Egret, Eve’s mysterious father-in-law, who leads the life of a recluse and resents Eve’s marriage to his son. Eve, just launching her career as a private detective, probably should not take on a case that hits so close to home, but she can’t resist professionalizing her busy-body tendencies.

Maybe the story of Eve’s parents’ death, received from the lips of her loving grandmother (“Grandy”), is not true.

With her part-Miccosukee husband Sammy, Eve now has the responsibility for their adopted sons. How can she perform her motherly duties and deal with the stresses of her pregnancy while tracking down the missing or maimed branches in the family tree?

Diehl

Accompanied by a good friend, the friendly mobster named Nappi (Napolitano), Eve shuttles back and forth, leaving the Lake Okeechobee area for investigatory trips to Connecticut and Upstate New York. The diseased family tree needs to reveal its secrets, and Eve is determined to pry them loose, but others are just as determined to keep them hidden and scare her off the track.

That hospital and other records Eve seeks in order to pin down important pieces of family history are missing suggests that she has adversaries trying to foil her search for the truth. Who are they? What, in particular, are their motives? . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the March 22, 2018 Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Killer Tied

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Debut novel illuminates the boundaries of community, connectedness, and identity

The Other Side of Everything: A Novel, by Lauren Doyle Owens. Touchstone. 272 pages. Hardcover $25.00.

Lauren Doyle Owens, who lives in the Fort Lauderdale area and has set her first novel there, is someone to watch. She has written a stunning literary murder mystery that is at once a nailbiter and a brilliantly nuanced evocation of how communities work and don’t work. How proximity to others does not create a neighborhood, how aging in place can foster a misery of isolation as contemporaries pass away and new neighbors remain strangers. 

Ms. Owens builds her novel around three major characters whose situations and perspective rotate through the novel. Bernard White, about to turn eighty, has lived in the suburban community called Seven Springs for decades and witnessed its socio-economic changes. Since his wife’s death, he has become increasingly withdrawn. When he sees smoke rising from his neighbor’s house, he calls 911 and awaits the firemen, police, and paramedics. The fire seems to have covered a murder. But why Adel? Who really knows her, anyway?

Bernard feels helpless in the situation, somehow responsible for what happened. The tragedy wakes up the neighborhood, leading Bernard to begin a tentative re-engagement.

Lauren Doyle Owens / photo by Summer Weinstein

Amy Unger, a cancer survivor, spots the fire on her way home. Once a promising artist, she thought briefly of photographing or sketching the scene. But she is not yet ready. She is still cowed by her husband’s disdain for her avocation. The marriage has gone cold, and Pete’s business trips are far too frequent and extended.

Maddie Lowe, fifteen and suffering from her mother having abandoned the family, works in a restaurant near school and home. She attempts to take care of her brother, and she attempts friendship with a homeless man, Charlie, who comes into the restaurant regularly. Her need for respectful attention is met in part by a neighborhood college student whose advances flatter her. However, her sexual awakening has a raw edge to it. She is a child being pushed into adulthood way to fast and yet meeting her challenges with a surprising degree of effectiveness.

Murders of elderly women in the neighborhood continue. These are not random. The killer has an agenda. What’s his motive? Is he an outsider, or someone in their midst? . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the January 17, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 18 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Owens.

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The Hapsburg Variation: A Cold War Thriller

  • By Bill Rapp. Coffeetown Press. 264 pges. Trade paperback $15.95.

A CIA agent’s mettle is tested in this tale of post-WWII intrigue.   

Vienna, indeed all of Central Europe, is a place of uncertainty in 1955. The major post-WWII forces are working hard to move beyond the uncertainties toward stability. In this powerful historical novel, that movement is centered on the State Treaty among the former Allied nations. This treaty will restore Austria’s independence and rid it of occupying forces.

As the time for the signing approaches, the nations invested in the outcome keep jockeying for position. It is not clear if all parties wish the treaty to succeed. Maintaining influence remains the goal of Great Britain, the U.S., France, Germany, and the Soviet Union.

The intelligence agencies are the key players, and CIA agent Karl Baier, stationed in Vienna, is part of the U.S. government team hoping to avoid an outcome that positions Austria as a neutral entity. Soviet motives and moves are suspect. Baier is a complex, well-developed professional who has been with the agency for eight years.

Baier finds himself involved in investigating the death of an Austrian aristocrat, a man who seems to have been trying to bring back the structure of the Hapsburg Empire. He has connections with the British and the Soviets, but the meaning of these connections is not clear.

Complicating Baier’s professional and personal life is the abduction and imprisonment of his wife.

Bill Rapp

Intrigue is everywhere, trust is hard to find, and needed information, let alone the interpretation of that information, seems hidden behind murky windows of indirection, suspicion, and fear.

Most of author Bill Rapp’s scenes are built on conversations between Baier and his colleagues or counterparts. The flavor of these exchanges is nightmarish. Representatives of supposedly cooperating agencies are busy trying to pry into each other’s heads, attempting to gain knowledge without giving away anything. It’s clear to Baier that even those in his CIA cadre hold things back. Therefore, the accumulation of information is a slow and unsteady process. All involved fear being compromised — or worse.

The conversations go around in circles and barely move Baier forward. Readers will share his frustration, and Rapp runs the huge risk of losing them even as his characters move on with their mind games.

When a narrative depends this much on dialogue, that dialogue ought to accomplish something beyond setting up smokescreens. While this technique captures a valuable verisimilitude, one is tempted to skip much of it and look for the next action sequence.

In scenes with greater action and less of the artfully phony chatter, Rapp more readily holds readers’ attention. When Baier checks to make sure he isn’t being followed, for instance, we feel his anxiety and appreciate his tradecraft. When Baier evaluates meeting places or notes the hide-and-seek of carefully orchestrated seating arrangements at clandestine gatherings, the author has his readers in thrall. . . .

For the full review, published in Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  The Hapsburg Variation

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Dueling narratives interact to extend Michael Lister’s literary mastery of North Florida ethos

Blood Shot, by Michael Lister. Pulpwood Press. 346 pages. Trade paperback $17.99.

How many writers come up with a novel that is a sequel to two of their earlier novels? Perhaps only one – the super talented and tireless Michael Lister. Blood Shot is number 15 in the John Jordan Mysteries series. It is also a follow-up to Double Exposure, a Remington James Novel. Do you need to know this? Well, there is plenty to enjoy without such information. However, the author may be leaning a bit too heavily on his established fan base. For example, characters’ names are dropped that will mean nothing to a new Lister reader.  

Set in the northwest section of Florida and taking us deep into heavily forested areas of great natural beauty that Mr. Lister describes with profound passion and acute vision, this novel runs along to rails separated by three years. The chapters alternate. Those labeled “then” trace the movements of photographer Remington James. Those labeled “now” follow sheriff’s department investigator John Jordan’s search to bring James’s killer or killers to justice – one way or another. Jordan is committed to help his good friend Heather, James’s widow find closure. It’s a cold case that needs to be heated up. Earlier investigations seem to have lacked commitment – or worse.

We meet James making his way through the disorienting woods, looking for the opportunity to snap the perfect picture, and speculating about the source and cause of a distant scream. In subsequent “then” sections James is questioned about what his is doing on his own land and warned about staying too long as darkness falls. He does, in fact, get lost. When he finds one of his camera traps, he scrolls through the images on the memory card. Plenty of great shots of wildlife, and then “the random horror his camera has captured” – a murder. He becomes panicky, wondering of the killer is still out there. And he is going to find out.

Lister

In the “now” sections, Jordan’s effort to find James’s murderer connects with the attempt to discovery what lies behind the murder of the former sheriff of Gulf County and several of his men, each “executed one by one with their own guns.” Jordan’s relationship with his boss and other law enforcement associates is developed in a context that suggest that lawmen are participating in or ignoring certain crimes.  There is an enormous amount of money coming from a huge marijuana enterprise. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the December 13, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 14 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Blood Shot

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