Category: Mystery

Bad Blood (Naturals #4)

Cover image for Bad Blood by Jennifer Lynn Barnesby Jennifer Lynn Barnes

ISBN 978-148475732-1

“Without order, there is chaos. Without order, there is pain. The wheel turns. Lives are forfeit. Seven masters. Seven ways of killing. This time, it will be fire. Nine will burn. So it has been decreed, and so it must be. The wheel is already turning. There is an order to things. And at the center of all of it—all of it—is you.”

When Cassie joined the Naturals program, she hoped that she might find a way to solve her mother’s murder. But Lorelai Hobbes isn’t dead but rather has spent the past several years in the hands of a cult of serial killers. Now the next Fibonacci date is rapidly approaching, and soon the ritualized murders will start again. But the race against the clock is interrupted when the Naturals are called in to consult on the disappearance of Celine Delacroix, the daughter of Thatcher Townsend’s business partner. Michael is only days from his eighteenth birthday, and being free of his abusive father forever, but seems that Townsend Senior isn’t willing to let go so easily. Now the Naturals have two problems on their hands, and time is running out.

When it comes to mysteries, I generally prefer cases were the detective is not being personally targeted. Writers usually use this technique to increase the stakes, but it more often jumps the shark. Going from individual serial killers to a cult of serial killers further ups the ante. Combine the two, and it is safe to say Bad Blood can get a little melodramatic. The series finale is naturally the most grandiose, graduating from serial killers to cults of ritualistic serial murders with clear ties to the disappearance of Cassie’s mother. However, at this point in the series I am much more invested in the characters than the plot.

As Michael’s eighteenth birthday draws near, we learn more about his relationship with his abusive father. Michael and Lia also get back together, and inevitably end up engaged in the conflicts that come from always know what your significant other is feeling, or when they are lying. The unusual dynamic created within the group by the Naturals’ uncanny skills remains one of the strongest aspects of this series. The presence of a cult also shines a light on Lia’s past life growing up under similar circumstances. Unfortunately this was not explored in depth, but it was still an interesting peek at her past.

I was particularly delighted to see a love interest for Sloane introduced in this volume. Jennifer Lynn Barnes has made it amply clear throughout the series that despite her social awkwardness, Sloane cares deeply for her friends and fellow Naturals. She also suffered tremendously from losing her brother in All In. It was great to see Barnes show Sloane’s romantic side, and it was a sweet grace note for the series to introduce a new character who appreciates her for who she is.

Bad Blood brings the Naturals series to a dramatic close. It has been a fun ride, and I am going to miss these characters.

Ghostly Echoes (Jackaby #3)

Cover image for Ghostly Echoes by William Ritter by William Ritter

ISBN 978-1-61620-579-9

“Questions are to the clever mind as coal is to the stoker. I will worry more when we run out of them.”

A decade ago, Jenny Cavanaugh was murdered at 926 Augur Lane, currently the abode of one R.F. Jackaby, and his assistant, Miss Abigail Rook. Jenny still cannot remember who killed her, and efforts to help her remember only push her into ghostly echoes that degrade her soul. But she has asked Jackaby and Abigail to take up the case, even knowing that getting her answers may untether her from the mortal world, her unfinished business finally complete. However, the Seer and his assistant are soon called in on another case. Two scientists have disappeared, and the murder of Mrs. McCaffery bears an eerie resemblance to Jenny’s own death. Either a copycat has emerged, or her killer is still stalking New Fiddleham.

Three volumes into the series, the overarching plot is starting to take shape. The mysterious pale man who has been following Abigail finally steps out of the shadows, only to reveal that he is a small part of a much bigger plan. He also seems to know much more about Jackaby’s past than even his closest confidants. As they investigate Jenny’s murder, it becomes apparent that her death has some connection to the deeper mystery of New Fiddleham. While the action is less fast paced than in Jackaby or Beastly Bones, this makes room for important character development, as we finally learn how Jackaby came to be the Seer.

Ghostly Echoes also sees the introduction of Lydia Lee, who is rescued from a beating in a back alley by Jackaby and Abigail. A tall, broad shouldered woman with a low voice, she is attacked after two men who solicit her services realize that she is not quite what they expected. Interestingly, while Abigail sees what the two men saw, Jackaby, with the Sight, seems to see Lydia entirely as herself. Unfortunately, Lydia has little role to play in the story, and seems to have been introduced more as an object lesson than as a fully realized character. But of course, since this is a series, it is possible that Ritter is bringing her on-stage now because she has a bigger role to play in the fourth and final volume of the series.

Ghostly Echoes leaves the reader with as many questions as answers. The murder of Jenny Cavanaugh is solved, but in uncovering the answers, Jackaby and Abigail have meddled with dark forces that do not willingly suffer interference with their plans. The sense of resolution is incomplete, because it is evident that there is a much larger battle on the horizon.

Every Heart a Doorway

Cover image for Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuireby Seanan McGuire

ISBN 978-0-7653-8550-5

“Hope hurts. That’s what you need to learn, and fast, if you don’t want it to cut you open from the inside out. Hope is bad. Hope means you keep holding on to things that won’t ever be so again, and so you bleed an inch at a time until there’s nothing left.”

A long time ago, a little girl named Ely West found a doorway, and went on an adventure to a Nonsense world, where she was very happy, until one day she was too grown up to tolerate all the nonsense. Now Eleanor West runs a school for other children who have found doorways that led them home, only to be forced back into a mundane world where no one understands what happened to them. No one except Eleanor. The newest student at Eleanor’s school is Nancy Whitman, and she has just returned from the Halls of the Dead. After years spent perfecting the art of stillness for the Lord of the Dead, everything about this world seems too hot, and fast. Her parents insist on things being just like they were before, meaning colourful clothing, regular meals, and dates with boys, even though Nancy has realized she is asexual. So Nancy is sent to Eleanor’s school to recover from her “ordeal,” and there she meets other children who have had the same experiences. But soon after Nancy arrives, someone begins murdering students.

Sean McGuire builds a cast of distinct characters in relatively short order. Like Eleanor, Sumi traveled to a Nonsense world, and this tiny whirl-wind of energy and chatter becomes Nancy’s roommate, contrasting her stillness. Except for twin sisters Jack and Jill, no two children at the school have traveled to the same world. And even Jack and Jill had entirely different experiences on the Moors (their journey will be explored in the 2017 prequel Down Among the Sticks and Bones). Each world is a reflection and extension of the character that traveled there, so that world-building is character development and vice-versa. And McGuire’s premise is very appealing, locating worlds on spectrums between High Nonsense and High Logic, Virtue and Wicked, with perhaps a cross-direction of Rhyme or Mortis, leaving ample room to imagine and explore.

Every Heart a Doorway uses fantasy and portal worlds as an allegory for children who feel like outsiders, constantly out of place. For many, this rejection comes most strongly from their own families, who cannot handle their strange journeys. Even their peers at the school may struggle to understand them if they traveled to a very different world. Most poignant however is Kade, who went through his door as a little girl known as Katie, only to find that neither the Prism world he was drawn into, nor the parents he returned to, could accept that fact that he was really a boy. The children return to their worlds poised on the cusp of adulthood, grappling not only with the loss of the only place they ever felt at home, but also with their own identities in a world that insists on labels. A murder mystery forms the plot arc, but these themes prove to be the true heart of the story.


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All In (Naturals #3)

Cover image for All In by Jennifer Lynn Barnes by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

ISBN 978-148471643-4

“It’s always personal…Even when it’s not.”

After finally receiving permission to consult on active cases, Cassie Hobbes and the rest of the Naturals are called in to assist with an unusual string of murders in Sloane’s hometown of Las Vegas. This new serial killer is unpredictable; everything from the type of victim, to the location, to the murder weapon varies with each new kill. The only thing that is a consistent is a string of numbers inscribed by various means on the bodies of the victims. As rest of the team watches suspect interviews and struggles to profile the illusive killer, Sloane tries to crack the code, hoping that it will help them figure out when and where the killer will strike again. It might be their hardest case yet, but the Naturals team is also distracted by personal problems stemming from their unusual childhoods. Michael has recently come to a troubling new agreement with his abusive father, Sloane is preoccupied by trying to keep a secret from her Las Vegas past, and for the first time since her disappearance, there has been a break in Cassie’s mother’s case.

Following up on The Naturals (2013), and Killer Instinct (2014), All In retains many of the elements that made the first two books strong. The members of the Naturals program have become one another’s chosen family, but their unique skills ensure an unusual dynamic and spirited banter between them. Jennifer Lynn Barnes also continues to incorporate the creepy “You” sections that take readers into the head of the killer in the same way that Dean and Cassie try to get in their heads when they are profiling. Setting the story in Sloane’s hometown finally reveals more about a character that hovered on the periphery of previous installments, and we also get a couple of key glimpses at Lia’s old life, as well.

A common tactic in mystery and thriller novels is to make it personal by putting the protagonist in the way of danger, or having the case link to their tragic past. Cassie has already been held hostage by killers twice when their cases got personal, so this is a dynamic that Barnes has used extensively in the series. All In more than doubles down on this technique, linking to the past of some characters, while actively targeting other members of the Naturals team. Even Judd, who is supposed to be responsible for remaining objective and prioritizing the well-being of his charges, find ghosts from his past turning up in unexpected places in this case. Barnes no longer has to find excuses to pull the Naturals off cold cases and into the action, but she is still relying on other favoured plot devices, such as personal vendettas, and new murders mimicking cold cases.

As Barnes moves from episodic murder cases to revealing some large elements of her overarching plot for the series, All In undergoes a rather sudden tone shift, from a CSI or Criminal Minds-like vibe to a more Da Vinci Code-type feel. These revelations have broad implications that would tend to ensure that the next volume in the series will have to continue in this direction. It is still possible to make it all work, but the tone has changed dramatically. Currently, no title or publication date has been announced for the next installment.


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Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike #3)

Cover image for Career of Evil by J.K. Rowling writing as Roberth Galbraith  by J.K. Rowling writing as Roberth Galbraith

ISBN 978-0-316-349925

“Death and hatchet had reduced the unknown female to a lump of meat, to a problem to be solved and she, Robin, felt as though she was the only person to remember that a living, breathing human being had been using that leg, perhaps as recently as a week ago.”

After two successful, high-profile cases solved with the help of his assistant Robin, business at Cormoran Strike’s private detective agency has never been better. But when a dismembered leg arrives in the mail, addressed to Robin, suddenly no one wants to employ a detective with such violent enemies, and their cases begin to evaporate. Worse for Robin, that fact that the leg was addressed to her has led Strike to believe that this killer with a personal grudge is trying to use Robin to get to him, and he responds by trying to sideline her from the case over her protests. Strike can think of at least four people who might have done the deed, but can he figure out who it is and track them down before they get to Robin?

Inevitably in almost any detective series, eventually the author will try to raise the stakes with a case that comes after the detective in a personal way, threatening themselves or their loved ones, and clouding their judgements. Such is the case for Career of Evil, the third volume in the Cormoran Strike series. If, like me, you are not particularly fond of this trope, then this may not be your favourite case.

Meanwhile, Matthew’s worse fears about the dangers of Robin working at a detective agency are coming true, making him even more insufferable than usual. Rowling reveals him to be more of a cad than in previous volumes, but I couldn’t find it in me to dislike him more than before. He is the character we are supposed to love to hate, but I value him primarily as a barrier to the tiresome hints about Robin and Strike possibly getting together. He is less a character than a conflict, but if you don’t ship Robin and Strike, then he is a useful impediment.

Rowling also finally delves further into Robin’s back story, revealing the events that led her to drop out of university, and give up her dreams of pursuing criminal psychology. Unfortunately, the back story is the most tired and least imaginative option of the many I considered as I puzzled over Robin’s secret past while I read the first two volumes. Robin has been fighting to be regarded as an equal in the business, but between this disappointing revelation about her past, and being targeted by a serial killer, she is facing a serious setback.

The mystery itself is quite twisty and intriguing, as Robin and Strike divide their inquiries amongst three serious suspects. One is Strike’s step-father, revealing more about his family life and his mother’s death, while the others come from his military past, making it a little difficult not to confuse the two. But given that the trappings are some of my least favourite aspects of the mystery genre, the twists and turns of the case couldn’t entirely make up for the deficits.  As a matter of personal taste, this wasn’t my favourite installment of the series thus far, but your mileage may vary.


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Beastly Bones (Jackaby #2)

Cover image for Jackaby by William Ritterby William Ritter

ISBN 978-1-61620-354-2

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2015. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“Give me some credit. You don’t get far in my game with your eyes closed. I get it—who doesn’t like a man in uniform? But trust me, men are never worth it. Behind every great man is a woman who gave up on greatness and tied herself into an apron. Romance is for saps, Abbie. You’re sharp and you’ve got pluck. Don’t waste it.”

Abigail Rook and her employer, the supernatural detective R.F. Jackaby have just finished tracking down a litter of carnivorous shape-shifters that have been terrorizing New Fiddleham when they are summoned to consult on a theft out in Gad’s Valley. Abigail finds herself back in her element when the missing object turns out to be a tooth that was stolen from a recently uncovered fossil on a small farm. However, it seems that there is more than a thief on the loose in Gad’s Valley; the farmer’s wife has been murdered, and a beast no one has seen is terrorizing the local livestock. Assisted by Detective Charlie Cane and big game hunter Hank Hudson, Abigail and Jackaby set out to find the fossil, discover the murderer, and subdue the beast.

In a deft mix of mystery, humour, and historical fantasy, William Ritter follows up on Jackaby with another supernatural whodunit set in New Fiddleham and its environs. Abigail is beginning to settle in as Jackaby’s assistant when the news that fossils have been discovered in Gad’s Valley leaves her longing for her former career as an amateur paleontologist. Fortunately, the suspicious theft of a portion of the skeleton provides the perfect opportunity for her and Jackaby to investigate what turns out to be an extremely twisty and amorphous case that blends science and mythology.

Jackaby and Abigail make a great team, and while some fans are longing for the protagonists to kiss already, the fact that there is no romance, unrequited or otherwise, between them is extremely refreshing. Last year’s buzz for Jackaby touted the book as “Doctor Who meets Sherlock,” but fortunately Abigail’s relationship with her employer is more Watson to his Sherlock than companion to the Doctor. That isn’t to say, however, that there is no romantic interest in Beastly Bones. The case in Gad’s Valley brings Abigail and Jackaby back into contact with Charlie Cane, the shapeshifting police officer who had to flee New Fiddleham after his secret was exposed. However, Abigail is forced to consider what she really wants when an intrepid female reporter advises her that no career-minded woman can hope to succeed if she ties herself to a man.

In addition the missing fossil at the centre of Beastly Bones, there is evidence of a larger plot taking shape that will overarch the series. A shadowy villain appears on the periphery of the story, and the events in Gad’s Valley seem to be part of some larger design. This mysterious figure also seems to have some connection to the murder of Jenny Cavanaugh, 926 Augur Lane’s resident ghost, which volume three seems primed to investigate.


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The Bishop’s Wife

Cover image for The Bishop's Wife by Mette Ivie Harrisonby Mette Ivy Harrison

ISBN 978-1-61695-476-5

“Even the kindest men in the church had no idea of the many ways in which they made their wives and daughters into lesser persons than their sons and fellow male church members. ‘I wouldn’t be where I am today without my wife,’ they say in testimony meetings. But what they are also saying is that their wives have given up their personal ambitions in favor of the ambitions of their husbands. Mormon men protect their daughters, but they encourage and cheer on their sons.” 

Linda Wallheim is a Mormon housewife, the mother of five sons, and the wife of the ward’s bishop. She fills her days with reading and cooking, and checking in on various members of the ward who might need help. But with her youngest son poised to leave home soon, Linda finds herself wanting more, and questioning her place in the family and church. Early one morning, ward member Jared Helm turns up on the Wallheim’s doorstep with his young daughter, Kelly, claiming that his wife Carrie has left them. Suspicious of the fact that Carrie left her daughter behind, Linda begins to suspect that Jared may have harmed his wife. Still troubled by the loss of her own stillborn daughter years before, Linda becomes powerfully attached to Kelly, and determined to find out the truth about what happened to her mother.

Written by an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, The Bishop’s Wife is deeply steeped in LDS culture, and yet outward facing; an LDS audience would not need the many explanations of day-to-day life and church rituals that Harrison provides. Even the use of the common term Mormon in the book, rather than LDS, which is generally preferred by the membership, suggests that the intended audience reaches beyond the church. Harrison touches at least briefly on all of the many issues that plague public perceptions of the church, from polygamy to temple garments, and beyond. However, the views of her left-leaning and somewhat cynical protagonist will probably not be appreciated by many in the church.

Linda is a rather liberal character who was an atheist for a time before returning to the church, and her view is still coloured by those experiences, though she tends to hide her liberalism from those around her. Linda is a determined detective, but she also makes exactly the kinds of mistakes a real person might make if they decided to take investigating a crime into their own hands rather than leaving it to the police. She jumps to faulty conclusions, and is forced to reassess her assumptions again and again. Although some might find her character bumbling, I liked that she could admit that she was wrong and adjust course.

As a murder mystery, The Bishop’s Wife is somewhat slow paced. Harrison spends a lot of time on Linda’s day-to-day life, and the rituals of the church. In many ways, Harrison is more concerned with using suspicions of violence and abuse to elucidate the problematic role of women in the church, and the way the power structure privileges their fathers and husbands. The mystery seemed poised to close on a slightly ambiguous note in a manner that would not have been unrealistic, but in the last few pages, Harrison brings about not one but two improbable revelations which seem intended to bring more definite closure to the situation.


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Angel Killer

Cover image for Angel Killer by Andrew Mayneby Andrew Mayne

ISBN 978-0-06-234887-6

“A purpose can be larger than a man. Even if the man dies, the purpose can become a cause. If it holds on long enough, it will grow into a belief and then a religion. This is how gods are made.”

FBI agent Jessica Blackwood comes from a long line of stage magicians. She was poised to enjoy a successful career as magician herself, before a stunt-gone-wrong prompted her to leave the family business in favour of a career helping others. Her unusual past goes largely unremarked at the agency, and she does her best not to draw attention to it, until FBI consultant Jeffrey Ailes realizes she may be perfectly suited to helping the FBI catch a new serial killer calling himself the Warlock. The Warlock’s carefully planned and highly visible murders seem to defy explanation, driving media attention and public speculation to a fever pitch. It is up to Jessica to use her knowledge of stage magic to help the FBI expose the murderer’s methods and bring his killing spree to an end.

As a magician himself, and with a father and brother who are federal agents, Andrew Mayne is uniquely positioned to tell this type of story. Original independently published as an e-book, Angel Killer was picked up and re-released by HarperCollins as part of their Fall 2014 catalogue. Mayne has also worked with the James Randi Foundation to use magic to teach critical thinking skills in schools, giving him first-hand experience with how the public reacts to and thinks about stage magic, which he puts to good use here.

The chapters in Angel Killer are short but have cliff-hanger endings that keep pushing you forward to get that next bit of information that Mayne is holding back. The structure can be both exhilarating and a little frustrating when Mayne plays coy about how the killer has pulled off his various illusions. But Mayne explains his logic through Jessica: if you give the explanation too quickly or simply, the audience will believe the trick was equally simple and that they could have eventually figured it out on their own. Mayne also seems to adapt the big reveals to the pacing of the novel; early on, they are either very drawn out or sometimes elided all together. But as the action gathers speed, so do the revelations leading to a twisty and intriguing plot. Inevitably, the stakes eventually become personal when the media latches on to the idea of the FBI’s “Witch” opposing the self-proclaimed Warlock, drawing unwanted attention to Jessica’s past.

Although it stands alone well, Angel Killer is also set up for a larger series. We get only a glimpse at Jessica’s background, and she isn’t in contact with her family, the older magicians who shaped her childhood and early career. We meet Damian Knight, a mysterious past love interest whose inability to leave Jessica alone borders on obsession, but whose insight into the Angel Killer case proves invaluable. Mayne still has plenty of additional ground to cover, beginning with The Name of the Devil, due out in July 2015.


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