Tour’s Books Blog

July 20, 2010

Short Reviews: 4 Mysteries/Thrillers from Paranormal to Historical

I like mysteries in general, and their frequent partner, action thrillers.  I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew and Dame Agatha so it’s  no surprise really.  I admit that I am a bit particular about them, though.  I have little patience with certain tropes and character types.  Here are 4 very different books, and my reactions to them.

  • Title: A Glimpse of Evil
  • Author:  Victoria Laurie
  • Type:  Paranormal mystery
  • Genre: Amateur sleuth; Psychic Eye series; meddling psychic works for FBI
  • Sub-genre:  Meddling profiler violates FBI procedures and gets in trouble
  • My Grade: C  (3.0*)
  • Rating:  PG-13
  • Length and price:  Full length novel; about 90,000+ words for $7.99 discounts available
  • Where Available:  book available at any book store
  • FTC Disclosure:  purchased book from online bookstore

I started out liking Victoria Laurie’s Psychic Eye books, but along the line of her fifth book her plots and lead character Abigail ‘Abby’ Cooper began getting on my last nerve.

Abby is offered a job at the FBI’s new Cold Case unit that Brice Harrison is starting up in Austin, Texas and Dutch is offered a job as his second in command.  The psychological tests that Abby undergoes before she can work for the FBI as a civilian consultant force her to attend anger management training.  Aside from reforming her swearing, it didn’t work.  It’s amazing just how irritating her constant childishness and lack of control gets.  But Abby’s apparently stunted maturity, and the fact that she sees no reason to grow up and act like an adult, is only part of the problem here.  The disjointed, not very exciting plot is the other.

Abby and Dutch start their new life in Austin with the cold case unit.  Needless to say, Abby is immediately disgruntled at having to prove herself, and she just doesn’t work well within the confines of an FBI environment.  Needless to say, she’s still insanely successful in what she does while the experienced agents aren’t.  This whole time she’s unaware that her lover, Dutch, is struggling with issues of his own.  The wildly lopsided relationship is another source of irritation.  Abby is so self absorbed, Dutch is rarely more than window dressing in the books.  The sulky adolescent attitude really grates on me.  The marginalizing of Dutch to often minor plot prop is a another annoyance.  The whole relationship seemed to work far better in earlier books when Dutch was more of a interesting character rather than the cardboard cutout he is now.

The mystery plot itself has two parts, the first concerns itself with the petulant Abby proving herself and in doing so getting involved in a field action where she shoots and kills the bad guy.  (Yup, never fired a gun and she does all that while scared out of her mind.)  Naturally, she must be cleared by IA before being allowed to work again.  She takes that as she does everything else, as a personal insult.  Can we say Drama Queen?  So while Abby is supposedly on paid suspension, she and buddy Candice, who moved to Austin to be with Brice and has an even more roller-coaster relationship that Abby and Dutch, decide to investigate two cases of missing girls that Abby believes are connected.  Now Candice has no PI license and Abby is suspended, but when did anything ever stop these two?

The mystery part is weak – closer to non-existent, not a huge issue for a cozy, but there’s not much else to hang onto here.  The reason most of us read cozy style books is enjoying the characters and a well told tale.  Alas, my tolerance for teenage histrionics by an adult is very close to nil.  Anyone who has ever worked with a person like this no doubt feels the same way.  Putting Abby in an office is a huge mistake, which is rectified by the end of the book.  Too bad Abby’s character seems stuck in adolescent hell.  Each time she shows maturity and insight and I would again start to get into the story, it dissolved away in another bout of ‘why me’ hissy fits.

Abby was much more likable in her earlier outings than she is now.  In my opinion, obviously not shared by her fans, Abby has slowly evolved into a 2 dimensional character that’s stuck in some teenage hormone driven hell.  Since the mystery part isn’t very mysterious, and the ‘slice of life’ sections are more staged vignettes than accurate and funny observations on life, it just a dull and often annoying read.  The whole part about Abby and the shooting range was an perfect example of self -indulgent childishness.  Abby appears incapable of recognizing the risks and responsibilities she lays on others by her intransigent reluctance to just GROW UP!  GAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  I had to force myself to finish reading the book.  On the upside, it’s a fast, easy read and does have its moments, just not enough to save it from banal mediocrity.

Most series have doldrums.  Characters get stuck in an endless loop till they’re tired, trite and repetitive.  It happens to the best of them, from Stephanie Plum to Spenser to Sean Dillon.  In many ways, it’s the fans, and probably the editors, who push the authors into a position of not allowing characters to evolve.  They want ‘more of the same’ until the whole thing wears out.  This series just hit that wall a little sooner than most.   And let’s face it, Ms Laurie’s mystery plotting was never her strong suit, so the books have all been balanced on her Abby character.  Glimpse of Evil, despite being about childhood abductions and murders, had no real tension or building excitement.

From the next installment preview as a bonus chapter, the Psychic Eye  plots will get more improbable than James Bond without the charm, verve, or joie de vivre.   Honestly, where are Goldfinger or SPECTER or even Pussy Galore when you really need them?

My recommendation – Don’t bother with Glimpse of Evil unless you’re a die hard fan, save your money and give the series a rest, or get it used, borrow it, or try the local library.  Enjoy Ms Laurie’s earlier books and then try one of the many other entertaining paranormal mysteries available from Madelyn Alt, Shirley Damsgaard, Casey Daniels, or one of the dozen quality other  authors working this rather crowded field.

NOTE: Take the Amazon reviews with a grain of salt.  After an episode with author backlash, readers are unwilling to post negative reviews for fear of getting bashed by fans and the author alike.

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  • Title: Hostage Zero
  • Author:  John Gilstrap
  • Type:  Action Thriller
  • Genre:  Independent quasi-military operator; Jonathan Grave series
  • Sub-genre:  Corrupt government official tries to hide past crimes
  • My Grade: C+ (3.3*)
  • Rating:  PG-13  Note: violence against children
  • Length and price:  Full length novel; about 100,000+ words for $6.99 discounts available
  • Where Available:  book available at any book store
  • FTC Disclosure:  purchased book from online bookstore

John Gilstrap is one of the many second tier action thriller writers who has enjoyed a long career.  He’s reliable, but never groundbreaking with his characters or plots and Hostage Zero is no exception.

The story starts with a man living in a tent hearing a shot in the middle of the night.  Two men pretending to be FBI agents breaking a young criminal caught in a kidnapping scheme out of a county prison.  Told in a series of scenes, the story flashes between the recent past and the current time and the point-of-view changes from section to section.

Two seemingly unrelated boys being kidnapped from an ‘orphanage’ that is actually a home for children whose parents are incarcerated in prison.  One boy, Jeremy Schuler, is the son of a man on death row convicted of murdering his wife and the other is Evan Guinn, the son of a mob boss.  The this is, the home where the boys stayed is no ordinary place.  It’s operated by Jonathan ‘Digger’ Grave, the son of a former mob boss who disowned his father, changed his name, became a spec ops solider in a very black unit, and now runs a successful security business specializing in hostage rescue.

Jonathan Grave and ‘Boxers’ remind me of Blaine McCracken and Johnny Wareagle in Jon Land’s McCracken series from the ’80’s and early ’90’s.  The excitement here isn’t equal to Land’s best, but it is enough to carry the book and make it readable and entertaining in a rather predictable fashion.  The story moves along and there’s plenty of action, just not much suspense or tension.  The most interesting characters are all the smaller roles, like Harvey Rodriguez.  It’s mindless and shallow, but fast paced.

My recommendation on Hostage One is a beach read or something to pass the time in flight.  Best to get it used or borrow it from a friend.  Don’t go out of your way for this one, but if it comes your way, or you’re a fan, enjoy a harmless bit of ‘dick-lit’.

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  • Title: Where Serpents Sleep
  • Author:  C. S. Harris
  • Type:  Historical mystery
  • Genre:  Sebastian St Cyr series; nobleman estranged from family dabbles in solving mysteries in Regency London
  • Sub-genre:  Social activist daughter of a powerful noble seeks help in solving murder of a prostitute
  • My Grade: B- (3.7*)
  • Rating:  PG-13
  • Length and price:  Full length novel; about 90,000+ words for $7.99 discounts available
  • Where Available:  book available at any book store
  • FTC Disclosure:  book from book swapping site

C. S. Harris is a historian and non-fiction author who brings a fair amount of story telling skill to her Sebastian St Cyr series.  I don’t think this is by any means the best or most entertaining historical series, but it is well done and the author weaves enough historical verisimilitude to make for a satisfying read.

Hero Jarvis is the daughter of Lord Jarvis, the powerful cousin of the Prince Regent and in many ways the power behind the throne.  Hero is his only adult child, his son and heir having died.  He will do anything to protect her and the status quo.  A ruthless schemer, he does things by whatever means necessary and is draconian in his approach to problems – your basic ‘Kill ’em all and let God sort them out.’  Jarvis tried to have Sebastian, Viscount Devlin, killed when one of his investigations threatened the monarchy.

Sebastian St Cyr, the third son and now heir of his estranged father the Earl of Hendon, Chancellor of the Exchequer, is doing his best to go to hell in his own way, hating his father and drowning in brandy.  His father threatened the woman he loves, actress Kat Boylen, with a traitors death if she did not stop seeing his son.  His sister, older than he and filled with bitterness at not being heir just because she is female, tried to set him up for a crime he never committed and even tried to have him killed.  Sebastian has survived, but is the basic ‘tormented hero’.  He’s recovering from a night of excess and looking at buying yet another dagger when Hero approaches him in the shop.

Hero needs Sebastian’s aid to discover the truth about the deaths of 7 prostitutes at a house run by Friends.  She was there researching her position on what drives woman to prostitution.  Ms Harris has a theme of women’s issues running through all her books, along with a fairly unvarnished peek at just how much power the aristocracy had over ordinary citizen’s and how little power women had over themselves at any level of society.  As she usually does, Ms Harris weaves her tale around actual events – altered slightly to fit the book, but still events that you will not see mentioned in your typical Regency.  The political intrigue in this one is fascinating.

Sebastian is reluctantly drawn into the investigation and with the help of his physician friend, quickly determines Hero’s account of the incident is accurate.  So is her observation that her father will do all he can suppress the truth to keep his daughter’s reputation  untouched.  Hero is equally determined to find out WHY this happen and who that obviously gently bred young woman who was the target of the killings really was – and how she came to be a prostitute.

The Sebastian St Cyr series might not be my favorite historical mystery series, just a personal preference for the acerbic wit of Lindsey Davis or John Maddox Roberts, but it is good one.  I like the way the author uses actual historical events as a key plot element (even if it gets tweaked a bit) and blends them into the fabric of her characters.  I also like Hero Jarvis.  I’m kind of not sure about Sebastian St Cyr.  Part of that is my natural aversion to the whole ‘tormented hero’ thing – I have a limited tolerance for such self-indulgence – and part is the way the character is written.  Lindsey Davis makes her Falco a very accessible and believable person, one that relates well the modern reader.  St Cyr is so wrapped up in his own misery, he lacks that je ne sais quoi that makes a character whole.

My recommendation – the Sy Cyr series, and Where Serpents Sleep,  would be interesting for Regency historical fans, historical mystery fans and, to a lesser extent, Regency romance fans.  The paperback gives you your money’s worth.  Buy it or borrow it from the library.  The hardcover can be found on some discount sites that sell remainders, often for less than the paperback.

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  • Title: The Third Rail
  • Author:  Michael Harvey
  • Type:  Chicago PI
  • Genre:  Mike Kelly series; Chicago PI and former cop gets involved in a terrorist attack
  • Sub-genre:  A series of sniper killings somehow are linked to Kelly’s past and present
  • My Grade: B- (3.7*)
  • Rating:  PG-13
  • Length and price:  Full length novel; about 90,000+ words for $24.95 deep discounts available
  • Where Available:  book available at any book store
  • FTC Disclosure:  book from book swapping site

Michael Harvey’s third Mike Kelly book isn’t his best work, but the plot is interesting and intricate and the ending had a surprise.  Mike Kelly is waiting for the L train when a gunman shoots a random woman.  Kelly takes off after him, tracking him down an alley in the newly fallen snow.  Even though the trail continues, a gunman leaps out from behind a dumpster and points at gun at Kelly.  Instead of killing him, he knocks him out and gets away.

While the police and Kelly are busy with the crime scene, a sniper takes out three people at another station.  The race is on to unravel the motive.  As usual, the mayor asks Kelly to act for his office in an ‘unofficial’ capacity.  Soon it becomes evident that Kelly is very much a target of the campaign to terrorize the city, but he is also supposed to figure the whys of it all.  In doing that, he crosses another person who doesn’t want to make Kelly suffer, like the ones doing all the killing, this person has something else entirely to hide.

More people die as Kelly operates on very different assumptions than the FBI.  It soon becomes obvious the killer knows everything the police and the FBI are doing and when they all celebrate his death, no one listens to Kelly.  And it is also obvious, the whole old event has a lot more to it than it first seems, something buried very deeply that others don’t want dug up.  Too late, the FBI and cops realize Kelly was right, but by then the woman he loves is held captive by a killer with a personal grudge going back 30 years.

Based on real events and reporter Harvey’s long experience with the inner workings of Chicago and its politics, the books manages to achieve a level of credibility for the plot, but despite the fast pace, it seemed too pat and shallow.  His earlier books were better.  A good read, not a great one.

My recommendation for The Third Rail was an interesting, quick read with enough substance to keep the reader involved, but it lacking a compelling plot like The Chicago Way had.  A lot of excitement and action that was well paced, but the underlying motives were weak and the double villain ending kind of predictable.  Wait for the paperback, get it used or borrow from the library.  His first book, The Chicago Way, remains his best.

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