Old mysteries and thrillers gathering dust and adding to your clutter? Donate them to the Burrito Boyz and they'll distribute to the homeless of San Diego.

Sunday, August 28, 2016


Martin J. Smith has written several novels, but this is the first one reviewed in MRB. “Combustion” is a well-titled murder mystery since the concluding scene takes place in the midst of the Southern California wild fire season in the midst of a new home development project that is about to go up in flames. Paul Dwyer was the primary developer of the Inland Empire near San Bernardino. He was a ruthless businessman who was also a drunk and was physically abusive with his wife and daughter. Shelby was well aware of her husband’s serial infidelities, something she chose to ignore out of her fear of him. His abuses were well hidden from the public since his wife colluded with keeping the bad behaviors in the dark. Fellow contractors got rich from working for Dwyer, and Dwyer and his wife, Shelby, gave millions to local charities through their foundation. It seemed everyone wanted this cash cow to keep going.

Shelby had always been a social climber, a gold digger, and when she married Dwyer, she left behind her high school lover Ron Starke, a police detective who still carried tender memories of their time together. And Ron had a problem. He was recently passed over as Chief of the department when Donna Kerrigan, an outsider from LA, a rising star there, was hired for the position. It was clear to Starke that Kerrigan saw him as a threat and she wanted him out of the department.

Then Paul went missing, and it was a month later that his body was discovered in the pond of one of his new massive developments. He had been shot in the head. As Paul’s secret life was being uncovered, it was also discovered that Shelby had her own secret life, one that was linked to an internet fantasy site, a place where she felt she found someone who would listen to her, understand her problems.

Smith’s characters were believable and the drama was intense. This book was a one-day read. Certainly the fire scene at the end was fitting in that lives and life-dreams were going up in smoke as the true villainy unfolded. The subplots were well used to flesh out the qualities of his main characters. The author tied together all of these stories, and while I did not see the ultimate “bad guy” revealed until the end, I was ultimately disappointed with the conclusion as being a bit too unbelievable. Those of us that love this crime genre novel must be willing to suspend reality judgments to a certain extent, but there is a limit to that suspended judgment – and Smith carried this one a bit too far. Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining read, one that you might enjoy on a flight from LAX to O’Hare (hence, it falls into my category of airplane books).

Monday, August 22, 2016

Mercy: A Novel by Daniel Palmer and Michael Palmer

Dr. Julie Devereux is an ER doctor at a large Boston hospital and a divorced single mom.  While she is an outstanding doctor, she is also outspoken about death with dignity and finds herself unopposed to physician-assisted suicide.  Then one day her fiancé, Sam is injured in a motorcycle accident that leaves him a quadriplegic.  Sam wants to die and becomes depressed but Julie sees hope for a life together with Sam, even in his condition.  Ironically, Julie seeks help to pull Sam from his dark despair while Sam longs for death.  Then suddenly, Sam mysteriously dies from a heart attack.  The autopsy suggests Sam had a rare heart defect but as Julie researches the disease, she finds other, too frequent cases right there in her own hospital… all in patients with fatal health conditions.  Could someone be mercy killing patients in her hospital?  Who would benefit and to what lengths will they go to cover-up murder?  As she digs deeper into hospital records she is suddenly suspected of a mercy killing and her career is on the line.  But that doesn’t stop her investigation.  As she gets closer to discovering the killer her own life is threatened.  Now the stakes are high… find the killer or die trying.

Michael Palmer died in 2013 from a heart attack after a successful career as an author of medical thrillers.  He began writing in the 1970’s as a diversion from addictions to alcohol and prescription pain killers.  He conquered both addictions when he began writing.  His son Daniel has become a talented writer in his own right, and completed this novel that Michael began.  I’ve read several of Michael’s works and enjoyed them all but simply grew tired of the genre… but if you like medical thrillers, Michael Palmer was the best.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Dirtbags by Eryk Pruitt

Lots of those small rural southern towns are charming. As long as there are jobs to keep all those interesting locals employed, around, and available. If the local mill closes, there is little to keep the locals, well, local. 

All Tom London wanted to do was cook. Restaurants were his life. He served the best dinners in Lake Castor, VA. Married with a son. But he had difficulty keeping his hands of the wait staff or some of the entertainment at Club 809, a strip joint (more like a double-wide) just outside the city limits. 

Predictably, Tom gets caught, his wife divorces him and heads home to Texas with their son. She hits on really hard times and ends up a junkie. Tom goes down and takes his son home to Virginia. No sooner does she get her life together she petitions the Texas courts for custody. Tom ain't happy. 

But he's remarried  to the hot but shrill Corrine. Shops, co-owns a clothing store that is going under fast, hates Tom's son (and his dog) but loves the money Tom's restaurant brings in. Tom's current fling is Rhonda Cantrell, his restaurant manager and former stripper at the 809. And she's married to Calvin. 

Calvin is one of those locals (not the charming ones. They've all left) who lays around, does an occasional odd job, and longs for something better. He met Rhonda at the 809 and was OK with her extracurricular activities at the club that brought in cash money. Even after they got married. Calvin has dreams just like everyone else.

He dreams of being a serial killer.

Tom London hires Calvin to go to Texas and kill his ex-wife. Make it look like an overdose. Then there would be no question about him keeping custody of his son. So Calvin and a high school classmate (who but for a blip of fate would've carried out a high school massacre) head off for Dallas.

As you might expect, things don't go according to plan. Yes, the ex is killed, but so is his classmate. To identify the victims as his kills, Calvin carves a '1' into her chest and a '2' into his classmate's chest. And off he goes.

Numbers 3 and 4 happen in New Orleans. The press calls him The Couple Killer. And he likes it; the killing and the notoriety. Works his way back to Lake Castor all the while piling up kills in twos and carving the current numbers into each victim. When he gets home. Corrine has forced Tom to sever all ties with Rhonda. When Rhonda figures out that Calvin is The Couple Killer, she sort of joins in helping him identify targets and pose the victims in such a way that they are quickly found. Calvin's count is now in the teens.

Eryk Pruitt is a Durham, NC screenwriter, author, and filmmaker. One of my favorite authors is JD Rhoades (who lives about 30 miles SW of Raleigh). Saw that JD was going to be participating in a reading at something called "Noir at the Bar" in Durham. I marked my calendar to hopefully meet him and maybe pick up some names of a couple new authors to read. Pruitt was the organizer of this "Noir" gathering of eight authors from NC, VA, KY, and SC. Afterward, I went up to him to thank for organizing the reading and he gave me an autographed copy of Dirtbags.

My previous review on the blog (A Dotted Red Line) described a book with very weak character development (almost absent). Not Pruytt. This is a heavily character-driven story. It's told from three viewpoints: Calvin, Tom, and Rhonda. And while I was getting enthralled with each of these 'dirtbags', I also found a great deal of humor where Pruytt poked fun at the rural life of Lake Castor and some of the colorful locals who remained. In fact, given the right mindset from the start, this might be closer to some of the books by Carl Hiassen in terms of its lighthearted approach - if a serial murderer can be lighthearted. Or it could be viewed to be more like some of those recent serious extended series on TV like The Killing or True Detective or The Following. To me, that's a sign of a pretty talented writer. His website (ErykPruitt.com) is pretty entertaining to boot.

Genre? Of course, it's a mystery, even though you know who the killer is from the start. I thought of it as one of my favorite genres: redneck noir. If Rhoades is the Crown Prince of redneck noir, Pruitt is certainly in his royal court (or trailer park as the case may be).

This might be hard to find outside of Amazon, but if more current day noir mysteries are your bag, you really need to add Pruytt to your shopping list. I'm on the prowl for his second book, #Hashtag. Ignore the latest and greatest NYT bestseller on the racks at the local Piggly Wiggly. Find Pruitt instead. An example of another under the radar author worth trying to find.


A Red Dotted Line by Simon Gervais

Its offices are in Manhattan. The operatives live in penthouses. They are privately funded by billionaires who have no say in how their money is used. They do what must be done outside the rule of law and far enough from the White House for plausible deniability. Their level of tech is years ahead of all but the NSA. They are:

The International Market Stabilization Institute.

The what? Sounds more like a think tank for bankers and economists, not super duper spies.

The main spooks are Mike Walton (he's the one with panic attacks. Great trait for a spy wouldn't you say?) and his physician wife Lisa. As the book opens, the IMSI has just foiled/escaped an attempted hit on their leader. The chief suspect is The Sheik.

Mike and Lisa are sent to Moscow to observe and report on an exchange of sorts. But their cover is blown almost as soon as they land. Lisa is quickly sent to a backwoods town that is home to Russia's biomedical weapons research facility that apparently is close to weaponizing a virus that makes Ebola look like a chest cold.  Mike is tasked with finding a contact who used to work at the research lab and try and trace back who is the political boss in charge of the project.

If you like chases, this is your bag. Me? For most of the book, I felt like I had come into a movie theater midway through the film. Maybe one should first read the predecessor to this book, The Thin Black Line. That probably contains the requisite character development and history into the shadowy IMSI. I always seemed to be behind, trying to catch up. Thought about quitting numerous times, but decided to mostly skim through just to see the final result. Once achieved, I personally never felt anything for the successes of the characters because I knew nothing about them.

My suggestion would be to start with The Think Black Line (just an assumption as I haven't read it) before delving into A Red Dotted Line. I'm guessing that where 'Black' leaves off, 'Red' picks right up and assumes that the reader of 'Red' has previously completed 'Black' and has all the necessary background. But with my nightstand piled as high as it is, I doubt I'll be going back just to fill in the many blanks found in 'Red'.


available November 1, 2016

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Black Widow

Daniel Silva is the best author in the genre of international espionage. The Black Widow is the 16th in his series with Gabriel Allon as the protagonist. If you’ve not read Silva, then don’t start here (although this could be a stand-alone novel) or you’ll cheat yourself out of the joy of the development of multiple characters who flesh out Allon’s adventures. Start with the first novel in this series, The Kill Artist. All of Silva’s books are reviewed in this blog.

I thought the 15th book, The English Spy, was perhaps the weakest story in the series, but Silva has come roaring back with this one. It’s a pivotal book since he has now introduced a new compelling character, Dr. Natalie Mizrahi, a Jewish physician working in France, a.k.a. Leila Hadawi, a covert ISIS warrior. The story was written before the latest terrorist bombings in France and Belgium, which is precisely the main action of this story. Silva nearly pulled this book from publication because of the terrorist events this year which he had essentially predicted. In the course of his book, he manages to explain aspects of ISIS and European immigration that you probably don’t know. The book is also pivotal because Allon has his last direct adventure (apparently) and officially takes over as the head of The Office, which is the secret intelligence service for the State of Israel. And it is Mikhail Abramov, a character who has been worked into the last half dozen of these books, who as the new assassin was given the final assignment of this novel.

This novel is a page-turner, so once you start it, be prepared to give up any other plans until you’ve read the last page. The very good ride with Silva and Allon continues.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

A Crime of Passion by Scott Pratt

Joe Dillard is a successful defense attorney in a small town in East Tennessee: successful enough that he can be selective about which clients he represents.  The cancer that previously attacked his wife Caroline has returned and he cherishes any time spent with her.  Then a client turns up he cannot refuse.
Paul Millius is a wealthy Nashville record label owner who is accused of murdering his eighteen year old protégée, Kasey Cartwright.  Kasey’s career as a country music singer was blossoming under Millius’s direction.  Then one night Paul and Kasey are overheard having a heated discussion and Kasey’s body is found hours later in her hotel room.  When police learn that Paul was the last person to see Kasey alive, he is arrested for her murder.  As rumors circulate about Millius’s reputation as a womanizer, adulterer and ruthless businessman, the court of public opinion finds him guilty.  Millius’s wife, Lana Raines-Millius reaches out to Dillard having learned of his flawless reputation as a defense attorney.  But Joe soon learns there’s no love in the Millius’s marriage.  Lana’s hope is for her husband to be imprisoned for life or worse, be sentenced to death.  Joe wonders if he was hired for his legal skill or his country bumpkin stature.
As conspiracy theories begin to emerge, Joe suspects Lana may be behind Kasey’s murder and Paul may have been slated to die in that hotel room as well.  Proving that may be Paul’s best defense and the legal challenge of Joe’s life.  Getting the judge to allow evidence for his ‘some other dude done it’ defense requires legal maneuvering.  And collecting that evidence proves extremely dangerous.  Not only is Joe’s reputation as a lawyer on the line but his life as well.

In A Crime of Passion Joe’s career as a lawyer evolves to yet another level of disenchantment.  In previous books he begins his career as a defense attorney and grows tired of representing drug dealers, rapists and murderers.  He switches sides and becomes a prosecutor only to find the dirty politics and lack of ethical standards of his coworkers unbearable.  He moves back to the defense side, opens his own practice, and attempts to carefully choose his clients but finds he can’t be too discriminating and still make a living.  So the author presents an interesting but popular view on the life of a lawyer.  Can our highly principled, squeaky clean protagonist survive in such a corrupt environment?  Personally, I can’t wait for his next installment to see.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

IQ by Joe Ide

In 2006, Isaiah Quintabe was in high school living with his older brother Marcus. Isaiah had a bright future despite living in the gang infested streets just east of Long Beach. He was smart. Book smart. Really smart. College credit this and Advanced Placement that. But in all changed in an instant. Gave up the chance at Stanford and dropped out of high school.

He needed money to help pay the rent so he took in a wannabe thug from school. Dodson was small. Talked trash non-stop. Talked big. Made plans. The world was gonna know Dodson one way or another. Money was tight so they decide to become a team that robbed some strange targets. Like the hair salon that stocked $500 hair extensions, or the shoe store with a rack of high-end heels for ladies.

A neighbor lady has an issue with someone trying to take advantage of her. Isaiah talks reasonably with the guy hinting that some bad things might happen if he continued on this path. Problem solved. Word gets around. That smart kid gets things done.

He becomes: IQ. An unlicensed and off-the-books problem solver. No marketing. Just word of mouth. Some days he gets paid, some days he gets gumbo.

It’s 2013. Dodson is still around only he’s less trash talk but is still all mouth. Serving as IQs sounding board/verbal billboard finding jobs and negotiating fees. A magazine article did a profile on IQ bringing plenty of business. Big money is calling.

Black the Knife is a rapper. One of the biggest. Numerous multi-platinum albums, a trophy wife — make that ex-wife, cutthroat bodyguards, a personal secretary, driver, mansion, millions of fans, clinically depressed and totally burnt out. And someone is trying to kill him. He is convinced it’s his ex. After reading the profile on IQ, he demands IQ he hired to find the proof.

Security footage shows an intruder at the back of the house with a pit bull the size of a Great Dane. It’s obvious the dog is a trained killer, but no target this night. IQ realizes that in order to find out who is behind the threats, he has to find the dog, then its psychotic owner to finally find out who hired out the hit.

You can't help but root for IQ. He is a genuine and refreshing new character in the PI genre, with a huge heart, a gift for deductive reasoning, and an ethical streak that continually perplexes Dodson. Ide gives us a ghetto version of Sherlock Holmes in IQ and, come 2013, allows Dodson to evolve from a teenage thug to more of a Leo Getz (Joe Pesci in Lethal Weapon 2. If this ever became a movie, Kevin Hart is typecast to play Dodson). In the midst of numerous steps in the investigation, I found myself laughing out loud (unusual for me) picturing a manic black Leo Getz. No sooner have the yuks died down when Ide puts IQ face to face with the massive killer pit bull causing me to hold my breath, or worse.

The dialogue is what sets this apart from most other LA PI novels. Yes, it’s coarse. Very coarse. But at times it felt a bit rushed to me. Like Ide was maybe trying too hard. The best street dialogue I’ve ever read is anything by George Pelecanos. I would guess that Ide’s gift for dialogue will mature and become more natural, like Pelecanos. In the meantime, we have to be satisfied by delighting in a story that sounds like it sprung from the love child of Tarantino and Scorsese and then nurtured on Conan Doyle.

Put this on your must-read list. IQ and Dodson are a truly original pair. Pretty sure you’ll like it.

Available October 2016.

East Coast Don