Land of Wolves

I have enjoyed Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series since the beginning, with few exceptions. There has been a book here and there that was a little too weird for me, but mostly I have invested in both the unsentimental policing of the wide open spaces of Wyoming and the slight mysticism brought into the books by Walt’s association with Henry Standing-Bear and the Native Americans living adjacent to Absaroka County. I have never been a big fan of westerns, but this series nicely marries a traditional western feel with interesting mysteries and native lore, which has, for the most part, suited my taste.

All of that changed with book #14 in the series, called Depth of Winter. I don’t know what Mr. Johnson was thinking but, judging from the responses of his fans on Goodreads, it surely wasn’t about them. He took Walt out of context, sending him out of his jurisdiction down to Mexico to fight what amounted to a war with a drug cartel. All the quirky and charming bits for which this series is known were notably absent, as were most of the personnel; and the narrative of the story fulfills the Hobbesian quote “nasty, brutish, and short” to a T. I was both disgusted by and dismayed at the amount of distance covered by Walt as he gave up all logic, pitting himself singlehandedly against this massive foe and then essentially abandoning all who offered to help him to pay the price in order to gain his own objectives. It was ugly.

I breathed a slightly attenuated sigh of relief, then, when I returned to the series with #15, his 2019 offering, to discover that Walt has been returned to Absaroka County and is dealing with a typical mystery for that area, the death of a Basque sheepherder. But this book was definitely a mixed bag. The mystery was weird, to begin with: We didn’t know for most of the book whether the shepherd had committed suicide or had been murdered, and we didn’t find out because the story kept haring off in multiple directions, from a kidnapped boy and a missing man to a lone wolf who has been sighted and blamed for sheep killing, working up the local populace. Usually the author takes all these disparate elements he introduces and weaves them into a coherent whole by the end, but in this case the explanations felt slight and unsatisfactory, and some went unresolved. And even the ones that ended with an explanation seemed tenuous where they should have been forthcoming.

Furthermore, Walt was less than present, due to both physical and mental recovery issues from his time in Mexico, making the narrative—primarily seen from his viewpoint—seem scattered. And although the regular people—Victoria, Saizorbitoria, Ruby, Henry—were once again present and accounted for, they didn’t seem fully realized, and Walt was so out of it that he didn’t pay them much mind, which meant the reader didn’t either. This book wasn’t the horrifying debacle of its predecessor, but it certainly wasn’t Craig Johnson’s best.

I hadn’t realized when I picked this up that I was so far behind with this series: Johnson has already written #s 16 and 17 (with 18 due out later next year), and the stars on Goodreads have been restored to a reassuringly consistent high number from most readers, making me think maybe it is safe to go on. There are also, since I last looked, half a dozen novellas that fall at various places between the full-length books that I could catch up on, for further experiences with Walt and the gang.

Something said towards the end of this book made me wonder if perhaps we will see the end of the series sooner rather than later, so I plan to keep reading, hoping that Johnson manages to avoid almost jumping the shark again, the way Lee Child emphatically did with Jack Reacher. I would hate to have to consign two of my favorite protagonists to the “do not read” pile….

Ruth, Ruth, Ruth

Every time Elly Griffiths comes out with another Ruth Galloway forensic archaeology mystery, I read it, I throw a fit, I swear off all future books in the series, and then…I read the next one. There is something charismatic about the awkward archaeologist that I apparently find hard to resist. So I’m loathe to say again that I’m fed up, but…well…

This is #13 in the series, and the personal angst has gone into overtime long since. In the first book, Ruth was called in to help out at a crime scene, met Detective Inspector Harry Nelson, and fell hard for him despite his abrupt manner. By book #3 she’s returning to work from maternity leave, but DI Nelson is still with his wife. In #13, Ruth’s daughter, Kate, is just about to enter secondary school, and yet the mooning goes on. There have been ultimatums, there have been selfless renunciations, Ruth has moved away and moved back again…but their relationship remains distressingly the same—tauntingly unattainable. And for at least the second time in the series, this book ends on a relationship cliffhanger that will definitely lure me to pick up the next, scheduled for summer of 2022, but I will once again do so with a (justified!) sense of outrage that we’re.still.waiting.

The Night Hawks continues the theme of murder entwined with archaeological finds on the marshy north Norfolk coast. Ruth has moved back, after her brief sojourn with Frank in Oxford, and is now head of the archaeology department at the college. This time a body is found lying in close conjunction to a Bronze Age stash of weapons and other doodads. It’s discovered by some “metal detectorists,” a nocturnal bunch of guys who go out as a club looking for artifacts on the beach. Ruth finds this hobby super sketchy, since it impinges on her real work and threatens to disturb legitimate archaeological finds, but she can’t be too vocal about it, considering her replacement lecturer at the college is a member.

After this initial discovery, the bodies start to pile up; one wonders what it is about north Norfolk that apparently causes it to be the new murder capitol of England! There’s what looks like a murder-suicide plus three other deaths, all centered around the ominous Black Dog Farm, named for the Black Shuck, a gigantic hound with red eyes who appears to people when they’re about to meet their fate, according to Norfolk legend. The usual participants all make an appearance—Judy, Tanya, Cathbad—alongside some new characters who lend themselves ably to Nelson’s suspect list. And there is, of course, the endless continuation of Ruth’s wistful longing for Nelson, and Nelson’s conflicted loyalty to his wife and original family up against his attachment to Ruth and Kate. But I have said enough about that!

All in all, it’s a pretty good mystery—much more satisfying in both development and content than a few of the series’ more recent ones—so I’m going to forgive Griffiths for the rest, lean hard on that cliffhanger, and foolishly and optimistically hope for the best for Ruth and Nelson in 2022.

Note regarding the cover: Why the publishers didn’t take advantage of the Black Shuck legend to put a big ole black Rottweiler or Dobie on the cover, instead of this innocuous picture of a life ring hanging on a post (which has no bearing on the story) is beyond me! Hound of the Baskervilles, guys! Why?!

Another McTiernan

I just finished The Good Turn (Cormac Reilly #3), the third offering from Irish writer (although she now lives in Australia) Dervla McTiernan. I’m not going to have a lot to say in this review, except to note that McTiernan continues this excellent series with no momentum lost, and this third book is exponentially better than the previous, as I had both hoped and predicted.

This one has multiple threads running through it, with stories for both Cormac Reilly and Peter Fisher, and she braids them together seamlessly into one enthralling police procedural. There’s a potentially career-ending disaster for Fisher, followed by exile to his home village and a stint working under his small-town Garda father (whom he loathes); Reilly is caught up in this and scapegoated as a ploy to get him out of Galway for good; and there are story lines with missing girls, drugs, police corruption, villains masquerading as saviors…I love how all the characters are evolving, growing, becoming more clear as people and as officers, and the extra background development she has given to this one makes the story that much richer. Looking forward to the next one!

More Irish mystery

I was thrilled this week, just when I encountered a lull after the problematic vampire book, to be notified that the next Dervla McTiernan mystery featuring Cormac Reilly had arrived from the library on my Kindle.

The Scholar features Cormac’s girlfriend, Dr. Emma Sweeney, and finally reveals her back story, which I mentioned as a somewhat frustrating absence in McTiernan’s first book, The Ruin. We get more of the details of Emma’s new job, which is as a researcher on an exciting project for Darcy Therapeutics, Ireland’s most successful pharmaceutical company. Unfortunately for Emma, the way we go about getting those details is by her being the first person to come upon the aftermath of a deliberate hit-and-run murder just outside her lab, only to realize that the victim may be one of her colleagues—and not just any co-worker, but the granddaughter of the company’s founder and CEO.

Instead of calling in to the garda station to report her discovery, Emma calls Cormac to the scene of the crime, and Cormac goes against policy to keep the case in order to minimize Emma’s exposure. It’s not that he believes she has any involvement; he is simply trying to protect her from stress. It seems that this isn’t the first time Emma has been involved with a murder, and the move to Galway, the new job, and their burgeoning relationship have had a positive effect on her recovery from that experience. He doesn’t want this new trauma to re-ignite her anxiety, and believes that he can protect her. But the high-profile nature of the case works against him, and soon, as the murder is more closely linked first to the lab and then to Emma herself, Cormac must consider the worst…

This book, like the first, is strong in characterization: We get to discover the nuances of the relationships between Cormac and his equals, his boss, and those he supervises, and certain of them—Carrie O’Halloran and Peter Finch—are becoming strong secondary characters in support of Cormac’s lead, just as his supervisor, McCarthy, and the sour and venomous officer Moira Hanley seek to undermine and discredit him, for reasons both political and personal.

The story line is likewise complex and beautifully structured, with lots of twists and turns and multiple diversions. McTiernan really knows how to craft a story to lead you in the expected direction only to surprise you on the next page, maintaining interest throughout. I like that the mystery is realistic and believable yet not predictable. I feel like my confidence that she would grow more assured with subsequent books is well justified by this one, and can’t wait to read #3, which I just discovered is available (today, anyway) from Amazon for the Kindle for 99 cents! Don’t ask me why it’s discounted, given how good it is, but I snapped that right up. I’ll report back.

New Irish

I discovered Dervla McTiernan through a picky fellow reader on the Facebook page “What Should I Read Next?” She had asked for recommendations for mystery series, but then dismissed about a third of them as not what she was looking for. When I recommended a few to her, we discovered we were both fans of Tana French, and she then mentioned McTiernan to me.

I don’t want to damn with faint praise here: I don’t feel like the comparison with French is justified, but I feel like it could be, with a few more books under her belt. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed this debut novel, and will read whatever else is available, which I believe to be only one or two other books.

The lead, Cormac Reilly, is in the midst of a career transition: He has apparently made something of a name for himself in Dublin, but now his partner, Emma, has received a substantial research grant tied to an exciting new job in Galway, and he has agreed to a transfer to their police department so he can go with her. This is a bit of a demotion for him, but he didn’t perceive it as a serious one until he was in place in the Galway station and discovered he was being relegated to working by himself on cold cases. There is only one person on the force he thinks of as a friend, and that officer, too, is currently being ostracized by the rest of the squad. His new colleagues are not welcoming, and it goes beyond the usual hazing of the new guy. There are undercurrents of unease, and some of the officers seem to spend as much time disrupting investigations as they do pursuing them. The total lack of support and cooperation are beginning to get to Cormac, and at a couple of points he feels like he is being deliberately set up, without a clue as to why that would be.

The mystery unites a case from his past with one in the present day: A man has died, presumably by jumping off a bridge in an act of suicide, but his sister and, latterly, his girlfriend don’t believe he would have done it and wish the police to look into the possibility of foul play. The officer in charge of the investigation proves strangely reluctant to do so, and the man’s relatives amp up their protests as a result. Then Cormac is roped in with a cold case that causes him to be in the position of looking at the sister as the possible murderer of her own mother. Cormac is familiar with the case because as a rookie he was sent out on a supposed domestic violence call, only to discover a mother dead of a heroin overdose and two children—Maude, 15, and Jack, 5—on the premises. The boy Jack is the man who is the apparent suicide in the present day.

I really enjoyed McTiernan’s style of writing, and the way she leads the reader through the (admittedly convoluted) story lines. I did feel like there were a few problems with the scene-setting: Reilly is made out to be a big success in Dublin, and yet you see few signs of this when he’s on the ground in Galway. There is never sense made out of the hostility of some of his co-workers. There is virtually no development of Emma—she is an occasional presence, but I couldn’t tell you what she looks like, or anything much about either her job or her life with Cormac except that she works late a lot, leaving him on his own at the pub. But the rest of the characters, the ones directly involved with the mystery, are charismatic, and the sympathy with which she portrays the tragedies that result from the total inadequacy of the children’s social services in Ireland is compelling. I liked what McTiernan did with her material, and look forward to another outing with Cormac Reilly.


I just finished reading two new books in a series by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, author of the ever-popular The Naturals. These are so different from those books, though, that I didn’t know whether I would like them. But I think she pulls it off, and although I’m not sure it will be quite as popular with teens as The Naturals, it will still engage them with its mysteries and puzzles. I thought, after reading both, that this was going to remain a duology; but despite feeling like things were well enough wrapped up at the end of book #2, I discovered on Goodreads that there will be a book #3. Hmm. I’m not sure what’s left to discover, given that the mysteries are pretty much solved…unless she’s going heavily into the romantic aspect. I hope not.

The Inheritance Games and The Hawthorne Legacy reminded me of two other books, one for children and one for adults: The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, and The Lying Game, by Ruth Ware. I’m not a personal fan of The Westing Game—I find it convoluted and confusing, and feel like the characters are all made of cardboard—but I can’t deny its appeal to middle school kids, who will grow a few years older and like Barnes’s new series very much because of it. Both books are about people inheriting money and having to play games to do so, although it’s direct in The Westing Game, while in The Lying Game it’s a case of mistaken identity wherein the protagonist decides to keep her mouth shut and go along with it for the sake of the inheritance. The Inheritance Games books are a sort of mashup of those two, although the protagonist has no need to lie, since she is the clearly designated heir; she just needs to figure out why, and to do so before someone manages to kill her to get what they believe to be rightfully theirs.

Avery Grambs is a somewhat disadvantaged girl who grew up in a mostly one-parent household (Dad is kind of a deadbeat), then lost her mother a few years back and was raised the rest of the way by her older half-sister, Libby. Then one day she is summoned to the reading of a will—and it’s not just any will, but that of the fabulously wealthy billionaire, Tobias Hawthorne. She figures that for some random reason the man has decided to leave her some money; but she never in this world expects that he has left her his entire estate, minus some minor bequests, while disinheriting both his daughters and all four of his grandsons. Some would consider it a dream come true; but as Avery is uprooted from everything she knows and has to take a crash course in how to deal with all the repercussions and unexpected issues that come with great wealth, she isn’t so sure that it’s not a potential nightmare instead.

To receive her inheritance, Avery has to live at Hawthorne House, a sprawling estate where most of the rest of the family also resides, for an entire year. Dragging along her sister Libby and attempting in vain to evade the paparazzi, Avery moves into her new home, only to discover that Tobias Hawthorne was a wily old gent whose house is filled with secret passageways, hidden compartments, and a bunch of puzzles, riddles, and codes that may solve the mystery of: Why her?

Meanwhile, half of her new-found family is out to get her, while the other half is fascinated by the puzzle she represents, and all of them, whether hostile or friendly, are trying to use Avery to their own ends.

There is a nice story arc that carries you from the first book to the second, and the riddles and clues will delight most teenage readers as much as they stymie the teens in the book. There are a few confusing subplots that I think we could have done without, but they don’t distract too much from the main trajectory. Barnes is great at the slow build-up and the big reveal, and uses it to good advantage several times to promote further suspense and interest. There are also enough details about parties, clothes, and jet-setting to entertain those who enjoy the trappings of wealth, and a little incipient romance to satisfy that longing as well. This is a series that teens will enjoy, and perhaps some of their parents will too! I look forward with both anticipation and trepidation to see what becomes of everyone in book #3, which has a tentative title of The Final Gambit and is due out sometime in 2022.

The Madness of Crowds

If it’s August, it must be time for the annual Inspector Gamache mystery by Louise Penny. It’s amazing to me that she can keep turning one out every year, no matter what. A few times I feel like the series has suffered, but mostly they are intricately plotted, with intelligent dialogue, in-depth philosophy, and compelling characters. This one was no exception, although there were a few moments while reading it that I wanted to say, Where is your editor in all of this?

The setting is once again the village of Three Pines, south of Montreal, Quebec (the previous book in the series occurred while the Gamaches and Beauvoirs were on a visit to Paris), and it is post-covid. I’m sure that when Penny wrote it, she anticipated a legitimate post-covid world in which everyone was going about their normal lives again instead of one plagued by variants that threaten to keep us in masks and in isolation for yet another season (or year). But at the heart of her plot is a moral issue that has sprung to life partially as a result of the medical shortages and triage of the worst days of the epidemic, and it’s dark.

Never assay a Penny mystery expecting it to be an ordinary police procedural. She incorporates not only philosophy and politics, but also art and poetry, and while the police work is meticulous, the feelings and intuitions of the officers involved (with Gamache at their head) are always as essential as are the bare facts of the case. One of the things I enjoy about Penny is that she inserts real poems and quotes and books into her fictional works; the title of this one is based on a book by Charles Mackay, called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. She immediately made me want to seek it out.

This book uses its characters and story to explore such social issues as disinformation and propaganda, xenophobia, and eugenics. I feel like her pivotal character, Professor Abigail Robinson, is consciously modeled on some of the charismatic but wildly morally skewed characters who have appeared as players in the recent American story, in the way that she divides the culture in two over the validity of her theories with the sheer strength of personality and certitude.

One Goodreads reviewer opines that this novel is “the most allegorical of Louise Penny’s work. The actual murder is incidental to the plot, serving only as a springboard to examine morality on both personal and societal levels.” I’m not sure I would go that far; but there is occasionally an arms-length feel to the crime they are supposed to be solving, as opposed to the debate they are constantly having.

Gamache is asked to provide security at a lecture being given by a professor of statistics. Given the presumably dry content of a speech on statistical analysis and the fact that it’s taking place at an obscure university auditorium in between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Gamache is puzzled as to why anyone would approach the Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec to oversee this task; but then he does a little research on the likely content of the professor’s speech and immediately musters a far bigger response than anyone would expect at what should be an incidental, poorly attended event. More people show up than the venue can accommodate, and Gamache has a volatile and angry crowd on his hands as the professor steps up to speak.

One thing that bothered me about this book is how long it takes to reveal the specific contents of the professor’s government-solicited (but later repudiated) report on which her call for action is based. Another was how long it took to get to the actual murder, using some “foreplay” crime to keep the reader going until we arrive. And a third was the resolution of the mystery: There were multiple individuals who could have been the culprit, and none of them stands out for long, as facts are discovered that exonerate each one, only to raise more doubts about the others and then circle back around again. It felt like Gamache, Beauvoir, and Lacoste spent an aeon going over basically similar theories for why each person was or could be the murderer, and they all made sense! This is one of the few of her books that didn’t have that “Ahah!” moment in it when the unexpected solution arises and proves to be the truth. I think this is probably because Penny wanted the social commentary, rather than the murder, to be the star of the show…but it made the actual mystery a long, drawn-out process.

With all this caveating (is that a word?), I was still thoroughly engaged by and absorbed in the story. We are reunited with familiar villagers, get to know others who haven’t been prominent before, and are also introduced to a variety of strangers, each of whom brings their own twist to the plot. The physical details are, as usual, spot-on for a winter interlude in coldest Canada, and made me want to drink hot chocolate even in 100-degree Los Angeles! (I sometimes wish that her annual pub-date was in February, so I could be in accord with her characters as they snuggle up with comfort food and beverages around the fire.) And the moral dilemma around which the entire plot is wrapped is likewise riveting, albeit deeply disturbing.

I made a comment in my review of A Better Man (two books back) about a stylistic shift I saw taking place in Penny’s writing structure and, while I noticed that it mostly disappeared again in All the Devils Are Here, it’s back in this book. She does this short-phrase, incomplete-sentence thing that can occasionally work as a device to emphasize something, but is less pleasing when it constantly occurs. Perhaps she (or her editor) will see this comment, here or elsewhere and, taking it to heart, go back to the more fluid literary construct of yore. But even with that, I still give the book four stars out of five.

More Barclay

It turns out that my last read by this author, No Time for Goodbye, has a sequel, called No Safe House. So I decided to read that too, but while I was waiting on a copy from the library, I picked up his book Never Look Away. I think this one is my favorite so far, in terms of the drawn-out suspense.

It actually answered questions that came up when I read his more recently published Promise Falls series. It’s the back story of one of the protagonists from that series—David Harwood, the newspaper reporter. There are comments made in that series about the tragic events involving his wife that took place the last time he lived in Promise Falls, and this book tells that story.

David and Jan Harwood have been married about six years, and have a darling four-year-old boy, Ethan. But lately Jan seems to be struggling with depression. She isn’t able to articulate what’s wrong, so David encourages her to see the family doctor for a talk, and hopes for the best. They make plans for a little getaway one Saturday, taking their son Ethan to a new amusement park that has just opened. But shortly after they arrive, Jan takes her eyes off Ethan’s stroller for just a couple of minutes, and when she turns back, he’s gone. The parents split up to search the park and finally, when they have almost given up, David spots Ethan’s stroller, with a suspicious-looking man running away from it. He’s relieved to find Ethan unharmed—the kid apparently slept through the entire abduction!—and calls Jan’s cell to let her know everything is okay. David waits with Ethan just inside the park for Jan to meet up with them, but after standing there for a really long time, David starts to wonder—has he found Ethan only to lose his wife?

In the days that follow, David’s work life impinges upon his personal situation in such a way that the police start to look at him with suspicion in the matter of Jan’s disappearance and continuing absence. It’s up to David to figure out how he could have gotten his signals so crossed up and what, exactly, has happened to Jan…and why.

No Safe House takes us back to Cynthia (Bigge) Archer, whose family disappeared without a trace one night when she was a teenager. This book takes place six years after the end of No Time for Goodbye; Cynthia’s daughter Grace is now 14 years old, and is responding with typical teenage contrariness to Cynthia’s admittedly somewhat paranoid attempts to keep a tight hold on her schedule. After a particularly fraught interchange, Cynthia moves out of the house and into a sublet apartment to take a break from family life, leaving husband Terry, who’s a little less tightly wound, in charge of Grace. Grace takes advantage by telling her dad she’s going to the movies with a girlfriend and will get a ride home from the friend’s mom afterwards, but instead going out with Stuart, a former student of her father’s who is a couple of years older and exemplifies trouble on two feet. Later that night, there’s a panicky call from Grace to her dad: “I think I might have…done something.” And this sets off events that bring the family back in contact with the lawless Vince, who helped them out during their drama six years ago and suffered for it, and Vince’s stepdaughter Jane, who proves to be a tower of strength for Grace. Things escalate, as is typical of Barclay stories, and stay pretty exciting and perilous throughout. I enjoyed this follow-up even more than I did the first book.

I’m going to take a break now from mysteries to embrace some other genres, but I’m sure I’ll be back with Mr. Barclay someday soon.

Promise Falls

On the recommendation of my friend Patrice, who also enjoys mysteries, I checked out a few books by Linwood Barclay, whose writing I had yet to explore. It just so happened that a fairly recent trilogy by him was available through the library (e-books), so I first read Broken Promise, Far From True, and The Twenty-Three.

The structure of this trilogy seemed to me like an anomaly among mystery writers: Although many write series featuring the same detectives, most of the books in those series are self-contained; that is, a mystery is opened at the beginning of each book and solved by the end of that same volume. But this trilogy carried several complex situations over from book to book, so that small parts were solved in books one and two, but it took until book three to reach final resolution on all sides.

Additionally, instead of just one detective protagonist (or a team), these books feature three protagonists, each with a different profession and a separate agenda, although all of them are ultimately interested in solving the complex situation taking place in Promise Falls, an upstate New York town seemingly plagued by bad luck.

We are introduced to the town in Broken Promise by David Harwood, a “native son” who decides to move back from Boston and a decent (though stressful) career as a reporter, after the passing of his wife. He applies for and gets a job at the local newspaper, only to have the paper fold within a week of his returning home, and he and his son Ethan are stuck living with his parents until he can figure out some other way to support them. Then his cousin Marla, who suffered a recent devastating loss when her child was stillborn, turns up with a baby that is not her own. She claims the child was left with her by an “angel” who exhorted her to care for it; but when the child’s mother turns up murdered, all eyes are on the somewhat unstable Marla as the culprit. David puts aside his own concerns to focus on finding out the truth, but other strange events in town muddy the waters even further.

The second book, Far From True, features Cal Weaver, a private investigator who, subsequent to a major tragic event that takes several peoples’ lives, is hired by one of the deceased victims’ daughters to look into a break-in at his house. Cal discovers far more about a number of supposedly upstanding town citizens than he ever wanted to know; but how are their activities related to the break-in, and are they also connected somehow to the murders the local police are still trying to solve?

The third book’s narrative, The Twenty-Three, is primarily driven by Detective Barry Duckworth, the lead officer on almost every criminal case in Promise Falls. Right now he is feeling out of his depth, torn in five different directions, between the murders he has yet to solve, the new and ominous events that are piling up around the significant number 23, and the latest disaster that is sending a good portion of the town’s citizenry to the emergency room—and some to the morgue.

Although each of the books begins with a particular narrator and may feature more details about that person and his efforts, all three of the protagonists appear in each of the other books as well, and it’s a bouncing timeline that jumps from one crime scene to another, from one character to another (and not just the protagonists), from one interview to another, as the three pursue their separate agendas but also come into contact with one another—sometimes for an amicable exchange of information, other times as opponents or even suspects.

I enjoyed these books in a different way than with regular mysteries, since the cases took three books to solve; the pace is more leisurely and allows you to get to know the characters better (and also for the author to add characters without too much confusion as to who they are). At first I did have to pay close attention to the different story lines between David and Cal, because they are about the same age and share some of the same concerns and characteristics (intelligent, curious, fit, interested in some of the women with whom they interact); Barry Duckworth was much easier to keep separate, since he was the only policeman involved (initially), as well as being a decade (or two) older than the others, married, and described in different terms (a big gut owed to an irresistible sweet tooth, a sweaty suit and tie rather than casual dress, etc.). I liked having all the different perspectives from which to draw conclusions, and I also appreciated Barclay’s introduction of other colorful characters from the community, particularly the former (and hoping to be future) mayor, a genial sociopath who mucks up the works for all of the crime-solvers in his attempts to be both relevant and constantly in the public eye.

In the end, it was a lot to wrap up, even for a trilogy! Serial murders, sex scandals, opportunistic former mayors, a series of what amounted to terrorist attacks on the people of Promise Falls…and basically only two detectives and a couple of well-meaning amateurs working full-time on all of it. In the hands of a less skillful author this would have become a confusing mashup, but I feel like Barclay handles the multiple trains of thought well and keeps everything focused in the general direction he wants things to go. I saw one of the guilty parties coming, but only because our attention was so firmly directed towards someone else; but I was blindsided by the other one. A good conclusion, although Duckworth’s final situation left something to be desired—by him! Still, he knows he has cake in his future…

After completing the trilogy I decided to read a few more of Barclay’s books, which are for the most part stand-alone. One, Too Close to Home, harks back to a specific event in the history of a minor character from the later trilogy; Derek Cutter (father of cousin Marla’s baby in the trilogy) was just 17 when the family next door were all brutally murdered while he hid in their basement. Barry Duckworth has his eye on Derek as his prime suspect, and Derek’s father, Jim, has to do some quick work to figure out who else besides his son could have done the deed and, almost as important, why? Soon Jim has a potential culprit in his sights, but Jim’s wife, Ellen, thinks Jim is taking this opportunity to exact revenge on a former rival. Getting to the truth proves more complex than anyone expects.

The other, No Time for Goodbye, has a fascinating premise: One morning when she is 14 years old, Cynthia Bigge wakes up to discover that her entire family is missing from the house—her mother, father, and brother Trevor. The cars are both gone, and she initially assumes that they have left for work, school, or errands before she came downstairs. When they don’t return, however, the suspicion by the authorities is that they have left—and left her behind. There’s no note; no clothes or possessions are missing; there are no circumstances that overtly indicate a violent end; it’s completely baffling. Twenty-five years later, Cynthia and her husband and daughter are dealing with the trauma afresh, after Cynthia goes on one of those television documentary shows that tries to solve cold cases. Weird things start happening: A car lurks in the neighborhood and seems to follow Cynthia when she walks Grace to school; an anonymous phone call hints that the mystery should be abandoned; a strange artifact from the past appears inside the house. Cynthia’s husband, Terry, is trying his best to be supportive, but can’t help wondering if it’s all a figment of Cynthia’s anxious imagination—or worse, that she’s the source of all of it. Cynthia, determined to solve the mystery, hires a private investigator, and his actions soon send things out of control.

I really enjoyed both of these books. The writing is engaging and entertaining, the plotting is smart and convoluted without being confusing, and the outcomes are nearly always unexpected. I would probably label his books thrillers rather than straight mystery, although there is an element of detecting going on throughout. But the pacing and the level of suspense (and the ultimate revelations) definitely qualify as thriller material. I’m happy I’ve been introduced to Linwood Barclay and will look forward to reading more.

Next two Kruegers

After my fantasy binge, I went back to Cork O’Connor, since I had checked out the first three in one volume from the library and wanted to keep going before my time expired.

The second book is Boundary Waters, and it takes place about nine months after the conclusion of the first. Based on a promise to a friend, Cork has given up cigarettes and taken up running; his relationship with his ex-wife and children has improved; and his burger stand is doing a thriving business.

Then a man, a prominent music producer, comes to town looking for his daughter, a famous singer named Shiloh, who has been on retreat in a remote cabin in the area. The Anishinaabe man who has been bringing her supplies and carrying her letters out into the world has gone missing, and his family is likewise concerned that something is wrong. It turns out a bunch of people are looking for Shiloh, including the FBI, in connection with a murder she may have witnessed as a child. Cork, her father, some FBI agents, and a 10-year-old Ojibwe boy and his father head out into the wilderness to find her, but there are also some hired assassins on her trail, and they’re not going to let Cork and friends stand in their way. Lots of bloodshed and cruelty ensue amidst a high-tension story as various people end up running for their lives.

I liked this book better than the first one—the involvement of Cork was more logical, given his connections with various of the protagonists. Plus, he has the freedom to take independent action, unlike the sheriff, who has multiple responsibilities in various directions and can’t just flit off into the woods after the bad guys. I thought the red herrings were quite effective and kept the mystery going long after one usually guesses what’s up. And the details about nature and woodcraft, including the portage of canoes between bodies of water, were engaging.

The third book, Purgatory Ridge, was better written and plotted than either of its predecessors; I can see why people keep going with this series after the somewhat disappointing debut book. This one has two distinct story lines, the one in the present that directly involves Cork in its drama, and a tragedy from the past that is drawn together with the first as the action progresses.

The first involves a logging operation that is directly counter to the sacred traditions of the Anishinaabe tradition, which seeks to preserve the white pines known as Our Grandfathers. The owner of the lumber mill, Karl Lindstrom, is attempting to reach a compromise with the tribe over selective winnowing of the trees when some environmental activists cross the line and set off a bomb at the mill. The sheriff calls on Cork to investigate, since he is former law enforcement but also a distant member of the tribe, but having ties to both sides makes it a difficult proposition.

The second story is of the sole survivor of a shipwreck on Lake Superior in which he lost his beloved brother. It’s not clear at first how this story relates, but it’s an involving one that approaches ever nearer to the central theme as the book unfolds.

I was completely caught up in this narrative and didn’t see the twist in the story until moments before it was revealed. The involvement of Cork also finally began to make more sense; the current sheriff’s wife is descending ever farther into the fog of Alzheimer’s, and he has plans to retire that include encouraging Cork to re-up in the election for a new sheriff.

Not to harp on one note, but I really hope Krueger quits being such a fat shamer in future volumes. Sister-in-law Rose “lumbered,” short of breath, throughout this book, and as usual I wonder why it’s considered bigotry and prejudice to call people out for their race, their handicaps, and other elements over which they have no control, but completely acceptable to belittle a woman for the size and shape of her body. The days of believing that all it takes is will power to be perfectly svelte and beautiful are over, and I hope Krueger figures this out as this series progresses, because it’s getting really wearing to repeatedly encounter these slurs.

One might consider the beauty and strength of Vermeer’s milkmaid as an example of a woman to whom “the perfect body” is a foreign concept…