Around every corner, or rather, page is a new intrigue. Mysteries, the good ones, keep you on the edge of your seat and give you a new question with every clue. Not all mysteries are the same, however. Some are more lighthearted while some are dark and gritty. But whichever you lean toward, everyone loves a mystery that keeps you feverishly reading until the very last puzzle piece has been placed. One of these five mysteries reviewed in our Spring 2016 edition are sure to catch your eye.
A Kiowa Country Mystery
Native American customs and intractable cultural divides clash in this detective story that has depth.
In this installment of his Kiowa Country series, Tom Holm brings back Irish ex-cop J. D. Daughtery and Cherokee war veteran Hoolie Smith to solve the disappearance of rancher and geologist Frank Shotz. Lively dialogue and well-paced action make Anadarko an entertaining novel, a detective story that has depth. Holm’s authentic portraits of Native American and African American characters, and the honest and corrupt white men empowered to deal with them, create nuanced accounts of Anadarko’s environs.
Anadarko opens when Kiowa Indian and wise man Charging Horse discovers a gutted white man’s body on his land allotment. Charging Horse knows the trouble this situation could bring to his family. The mystery of the dead white man is slowly revealed.
The setting, a land layered with the history of Indian disenfranchisement and race riots, is mired in a tangle of bootleggers and bordellos, with an active KKK chapter to boot. The narrative comes from multiple perspectives, and through the diverse cast, differing racial elements are well handled. The detective’s cultural differences complement each other as the investigation unfolds. While Daughtery’s voice is matter-of-fact, Hoolie’s is introspective.
Smith and Daughtery contend with the complex power structures of the small Oklahoma town and its host of questionable characters. Law enforcement officers sometimes prove to be complicit in the divide, with revelations coming through eager deputies and diners at a local café. The investigators find that the land is split by race, and rich with contested resources—and animosity doesn’t exist just from one end. A discussion between Hoolie and traders reveals the racial split that likely cost Shotz his life: Shotz was a white man prospecting in Indian country without asking the Indians. In a peyote purification (sweat lodge) ceremony, Hoolie leverages the truth to bridge the divide.
The book follows a winding path of KKK villains, corrupt law enforcement, and small-town secrets. The truth proves to be complex and culturally trying. Anadarko is an intelligent mystery that achieves cultural sensitivity, making room for Native American customs that are treated as both sacred and crucial to restoring justice.
KAI WHITE (February 29, 2016)
A Sally Solari Mystery
This is a zesty literary amuse-bouche that will leave readers salivating for more.
Leslie Karst’s debut mystery, Dying for a Taste: A Sally Solari Mystery, brings a mix of quirky characters, culinary references, and scenic California locales that is as fresh as the organic produce arriving daily at Sally’s Aunt Letta’s restaurant, Gauguin.
Letta is the iconoclast in her big extended family. She didn’t want to work at Solari’s, the family’s pasta-and-red-sauce Italian restaurant in Santa Cruz, but headed north to live in San Francisco for many years before returning home to open her own fine-dining establishment. When Letta is killed at Gauguin’s, Sally, a former attorney, finds herself torn between continuing to help out with the family business, trying to keep Gauguin’s afloat, and finding her aunt’s murderer. It doesn’t help that the police view Gauguin’s sous chef, Javier, as the prime suspect, but Sally is convinced that he is innocent and enlists her oenophilic district attorney ex-boyfriend to find the real culprit.
Karst’s deft dialogue and well-developed characters make this a satisfying mystery. She is generous with sensual descriptions of local scenery and restaurant kitchen doings, and her mouthwatering accounts of Sally’s home cooking, restaurant meals, and one memorable farm-to-table event really add zest. Karst appends four recipes featured in the story at the end of the book and lards this culinary mystery with topical information about humanely raised meat, as well as sustainable seafood and agricultural practices.
Even with all these plot threads and serious asides, Karst writes with a light, often humorous style. Sally’s inner thoughts accentuate the prose, as when she discovers that Javier has been in love with Letta: “That sure threw a spatula in the works.” Or when she describes her much-revered grandfather’s homemade wine as really just “plonk.”
Dying for a Taste is a successful blend of mystery and foodie novels. Karst does an excellent job of tossing in interesting tidbits about mixology, menu planning, opera, botany, cycling, lesbian culture, small farms, and even accounting. This amuse-bouche will leave readers salivating for the next Sally Solari mystery sometime very soon.
RACHEL JAGARESKI (February 29, 2016)
An Ellie Foreman Mystery
A film producer finds herself embroiled in international conspiracies, in this mystery with Snowdenesque twists.
With Jump Cut, Libby Fischer Hellmann unreels her fifth Ellie Foreman thriller, in which a Chicago video producer finds herself caught up in a deadly international conspiracy.
Ellie and her film company have a good reputation. Even so, it is a surprise when the multibillion-dollar Chicago-based corporation and major defense contractor, Delcroft, asks her to film a candy-coated, feel-good profile. It’s smooth sailing until Charlotte Hollander, Delcroft’s vice president of engineering, goes ballistic when she sees Ellie’s first edit, calling it “a pastiche of amateur photography.”
Ellie is shocked and confused. Then her intuition suggests Hollander’s attack was spurred by the casual background video appearance of Gregory Parks, a mysterious “consultant” she and Hollander both met at a trade show. She traces Parks. He asks to meet her at a Loop CTA station, but as she approaches the meeting, she witnesses his apparent murder. But Parks has left a clue: a zip drive concealed in a cigarette pack.
With that, Ellie descends into a labyrinth of conspiracies and cover-ups involving government alphabet agencies, rogue Blackwater-type private security operators, Uyghur separatists from China’s Tamir Basin, and an ambitious Chinese general named Gao.
Short chapters rocket the fast-paced plot through references to drones, encrypted computer codes, and Hollander’s scientific breakthrough—DADES, Delcroft’s Air Defense Energy System. Ellie races around with zip drive in hand, stopping at Chi-town landmarks like the Baha’i Temple and Northfield’s famous Happ Inn, along with other restaurants, bars, and hot spots.
The supporting cast adds depth, including Ellie’s stalwart retired military boyfriend, Luke. Hellmann catches perfectly the nuances of an autumn romance. Other notable secondary characters are the Porsche Spyder-driving FBI agent Nick Lejeune, and Jake, Ellie’s ninety-something-year-old father, “a wizened Ben Kingsley” always up for “kreplach soup, corned beef on rye, and coffee” at his favorite deli.
With Hellmann tossing in IEDs, murder by car crash, kidnapping, and spooky allusions to the “Deep State,” the nightmare confederation of bureaucrats, moneyed interests, and military-industrial-complex honchos controlling the US government, Jump Cut is an easy-to-read mystery inspired by the paranoia-causing NSA-Snowden headlines.
GARY PRESLEY (February 29, 2016)
A diverse group of cops handle a murder, as well as squad politics, in this engrossing mystery.
Based on the experiences of police chiefs John Cutter and Robert Nivakoff, The Squad Room is an intriguing murder mystery with a bit of romance.
Cutter and Nivakoff create a realistic and believable squad of detectives, led by Capt. William Morrison. This book is not for the squeamish. The squad investigates the deaths of several upscale women murdered in a brutal manner, and the scenes are described in graphic detail. Morrison, flawed but likable, is depicted as a “good guy” among a department of officers and detectives who mostly respect him. Rogue cops and an inept and unscrupulous chief complicate matters. Political maneuvers among departments, police corruption, and the bending, sometimes breaking, of rules are explored.
Events reinforce the difficulties and dangers that law enforcement officers face daily. Decision making that takes place on the job, at all levels, is depicted as challenging and subjective. Some decisions are portrayed as heroic, while others are shown to be blatantly unethical and illegal. At times, the bending of rules is condoned as a means to an end.
Several long passages of monologue recount past events. Scenes that include more back-and-forth dialogue, and those depicting action, are more engaging.
Morris faces his own challenges, as his personal life is in disarray: he’s distraught over the death of his son in the line of duty, he struggles with alcoholism, and he has no emotional connection with his wife. When he meets a woman in a bar, he quickly starts an affair that is invigorating for him, though not integral to the story or the character.
Dispelling the myth of the “blue wall,” this mystery shows how officers self-police, to an extent, to expose corruption. The officers are loyal to each other, but not blindly. Further, diversity among the department—in race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and personality—is highlighted, and a progressive message is established, particularly with the captain’s acceptance of a newly transferred female detective to the squad.
Throughout, there is an emphasis on how only a cop can understand another cop, but this compelling murder mystery offers everyone a small glimpse into life in law enforcement.
MARIA SIANO (February 29, 2016)
A Novel in Stories
Spiritual quests in the sky tie together the stories in LeGras’s emotionally powerful collection.
Christopher LeGras debuts with Weather to Fly, a story collection that can be read as a novel. The narrative constant is a love of aircraft and flying, and how the melding of the two lifts the soul. Both aircraft buffs and short-fiction fans will be entertained.
The collection is anchored by stories about Kandy Kim, a Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Assembled near the end of WWII, Kim crashed on a remote Aleutian Island. Later salvaged, Kim becomes the crown jewel in a collection accessible only to certain aviation buffs.
Kim’s stories fly into the mystical, but one of the most affecting in the collection is the melancholy “Canvas and Cables.” Drinking Four Roses bourbon in a run-down taqueria, Captain Trent Wilcox, a 747 airline pilot, confronts a seemingly insurmountable wall of depression. From such debris, LeGras constructs great romances.
LeGras’s settings are solid, reflecting the flying milieu, with each story thematically addressing the human condition and the spirit’s desire for peace and love. Despite allusions to the mystical, characters always seem to be a firmly anchored.
There is no postmodern ambiguity here, but LeGras sometimes offers striking surrealism. There’s the allegorical “Riding the ’Cane,” in which Jasper, a crow, experiences both the terror and the thrill of flight. Surrealistic also is “The Orange,” where a nebulous cloud entity haunts the career of a military pilot.
The author explores connections between fathers and sons by way of his experiences in three separate wars, flying B-17s in WWII, F-4s in Vietnam, and F-15 Strike Eagles over Iraq. Another theme is marriage. In “Water Bomber,” a beer-driven discussion leads a couple to the wry understanding that “we both win, we both lose.”
LeGras’s talent with prose-poetry is illustrated with the emotionally powerful “Clouds of Men,” about bomber missions in the icy skies over Europe: “I can hear the airplane. I think she’s as scared as we are.”
Employing flyers and flying as metaphors to address life’s meaning in this fragile world, Weather to Fly reconnoiters who we are and where we’re going, in a way similar to, and different from, the spiritual quest undertaken by the barnstormer in Richard Bach’s classic Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah.
GARY PRESLEY (February 29, 2016)