Category Archives: Murder Mystery

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

Since The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton is a murder mystery of sorts, it’s difficult to summarize without resorting to spoilers. Suffice it to say that daughter Laurel Nicolson witnessed her mother Dorothy murder a man when she was sixteen and now that her elderly mom is on her death bed, the sixty plus year old daughter decides this is her last chance to discover the truth. Her brother Geoffrey, a babe in his mother’s arms, was celebrating his second birthday, so he only has a vague feeling that something untoward happened on that date. Now, fifty years later, Laurel decides it’s finally time to clue him in so they can work together to figure out the details of their mom’s past.

Moving back and forth through time, from the present (2011) to the strife of wartime London (1941) to life as part of a loving family with five children (1961) and various years in between, the plot unfolds giving us bits and pieces of the tale – like a giant jig saw puzzle which has just enough blank spaces so that the big picture remains unrecognizable. Unfortunately, it takes way too many pages to discover the truth, and not until the disconcerting ending does the story finally come together.

While there are some obscure clues at the beginning of the book, by the time their relevance is revealed we’ve forgotten the details. With a slow start which doesn’t pick up until much later in the narration, I feel the main problem is the characterizations. The self absorbed Dolly is just plain unlikeable and at times her actions are despicable. She’s not the only one portrayed in a bad light. Laurel, a famous actress, is not a warm and fuzzy figure, even if the reader is sympathetic to her quest. Her numerous siblings are one dimensional, although the quirky Geoffrey has been fleshed out a bit. While the main focus was developing the convoluted plot (there’s a lot of tragedy along the way providing some sort of logical explanation for the evolving action), I felt more time should have been spent providing some depth to the secondary personalities. In my mind, any book over four hundred pages needs to justify the extra length and despite the surprise ending, this one fell short.

Four stars (just barely and only because of the “twist”) but it could have been so much better with a little tweaking.

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The Beautiful Mystery (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #8) by Louise Penny

Louise Penny is known for her murder mysteries, specifically those involving Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. The Beautiful Mystery is book number eight in the series and for faithful readers there are several disturbing events which could easily be upsetting for those who’ve developed a bond with the central characters. As a newcomer, however, I had no expectations, although I was able to catch the gist of who was who and what was what from the narrative. References to former books in the series filled in the blanks, peaking my curiosity to perhaps go back to the beginning, especially since the first book, Still Life, is sitting on my counter (with a varied bunch of other titles) waiting to be read.

However, this is the one my Book Club picked, so this is the one I’ll discuss.

While the mystery comprises the predominant role in the plot, the interactions between the key players are a major component of the story. Inspector Gamache and his assistant Jean Guy Beauvoir head to a remote Gilbertine monestery, Saint-Gilbert-Entre-Les-Louis on an Island in Quebec, to try to determine who killed Brother Matthieu, the choir director. Not just any choir director, but the man behind the CD of chants which took the world by storm. The once unheard of Cloister, now flush with enough cash to do some modernizations, became famous after their Gregorian Chants hit the top of the charts, upsetting the order of monks who willingly maintained a vow of silence. Which one of the hand selected two dozen monks would want to kill the rector who inspired such beauty? Even with the order of silence lifted, Gamache has a difficult time getting the monks to “talk”, but slowly he determines that appearances can be deceiving noticing that the calmness and serenity in this ancient order is somewhat of a facade.

Complicating matters is the arrival of Gamanche’s nemesis, Chief Superintendent Sylvain Francoeur, the head of the Surete de Quebec, who likes to play mind games, successfully instilling anger and doubt into the minds of his subordinates. Mocking the detectives’ lack of success, he holds back the autopsy report indicating the true murder weapon which puts a different slant on the dead body found in the Abbot’s private garden. The best lead evolves around a weathered vellum full of unusual neumes and nonsense phrases in Latin which the rector was clutching. These neumes, a precursor of musical notes, indicate a haunting melody different from the normal chants. Their significance is another part of the mystery which borders more on a psychological drama than an action packed plot. It’s not until the last few pages that events begin to quickly happen leaving the reader with more than a few questions and the urge to read Mystery #9, How the Light Gets In, to discover how Penny resolves the conflict between the main characters. Four stars.

A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang

1918 was a difficult time in United States history. There was a war going on – The Great War – and more men were needed for the fight. With each draft calling on younger and younger boys to “enlist”, even eighteen year olds were in danger of being called to duty. Then there was the highly contagious Spanish Influenza which was killing people faster than the war. It seemed the young were more susceptible to its deadliness than the elderly. Hospitals couldn’t keep up with the demand and wards were filled to capacity with not enough personnel to properly care for their patients. Medicine also left much to be desired as antibiotics, such as penicillin, would not be discovered until 1928, readily available in 1942. Yet science wasn’t totally ignorant. Autopsies were useful in diagnosing cause of death with forensic science an up and coming field. All this and more is explored in A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang.

Allene Cutter, while celebrating her engagement to Andrew Smythe Biddle with a houseful of guests, is disconcerted when socialite Florence Waxworth collapses, falls down the stairs hitting her head and ends up in a literal “dead” heap. While everyone thinks it’s an accident caused by too much alcohol, Allene and her friends suspect arsenic as the cause. The distinctive smell of burnt almonds tips them off, especially since Jasper’s own parents committed suicide using that same substance. Jasper Jones works as a janitor at Bellevue Hospital and wants to check out the deceased “friend” to test their hypothesis. Through a convoluted series of events, the medical-wanna-be ends up an assistant to Forensics Chemist, Dr Gettler, in the hospital’s morgue. Unfortunately, since the police have determined Florence’s death accidental, he must secretly perform his own autopsy to confirm his suspicions.

Allene, from society’s upper crust, secretly has feelings for her former friend Jasper as well as for her childhood companion Birdie Dreyer, even though they have lost touch these last four years. Now that marriage looms, Allene wants to reconnect while she still can be somewhat independent. Her old friends aren’t sure they want to resume relations after being previously cut out of her life, yet their previous closeness is easily restored as they try to discover who is sending the little notes discovered near each of the increasing number of victims – all people who are known to them. Together they are determined to solve the mystery and stop the madness.

Each has their own obstacles to overcome. Birdie, despite her general feeling of malaise, maintains her focus on her younger sister Holly. Allene must deal with her upcoming marriage to Andrew who expresses his expectations for her behaviors which do not include the chemistry experiments she adores. He won’t even allow her to carry an electric lighter in her pocket, as this device is inappropriate for women. Jasper strives to make enough money to support himself and his sickly, alcoholic uncle plus save a little for medical school tuition.

There are several potential perpetrators of the crimes, but there are also a lot of misdirections, until the shocking truth is finally revealed. In between, the three eighteen year olds deal with their lot in life, often aggravated by the adults who don’t seem to understand (or care about) their needs and desires. The restrictions on females during the early 1900’s, before women were even allowed to vote, becomes a secondary focus as Allene and Birdie push the limits of their gender, determined to come up with solutions. While not everyone gets a happily ever after, the conclusion resolves most of the issues, with the bad guys getting their just desserts.

Each of the characters is selfishly wrapped up in themselves which make them less than likable, although they did, on occasion, have their honorable moments. The one nice guy, Ernie Fielding, was despised by everyone. There was also too much going on in the plot and while historically accurate, the various secondary crisis were overplayed when combined with the murders. I would have liked a simpler, cleaner plot without so many side issues.

Lydia Kang, a medical doctor, also coauthored Quackery, a book I recently read, with details about the radiation poisoning mentioned in this book. The use of radium in Clock Factories during this time period is also the subject of The Radium Girls by Kate Moore (another nonfiction book I am currently reading). The reviews for these books can be found on this blog, Gotta Read.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Lake Union Publishing for providing this ARC In exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

As an aside, at one point in this book Allene goes to a location at Flatbush and Church in Brooklyn. When I was a child I lived around the corner from that very spot. I can picture the Dutch Reformed Church complete with a small graveyard on one corner, Garfields -a restaurant where my grandfather often ate his meals on another, and a drug store with a decent selection of paperbacks on the third, plus not far down Church, the RKO Kenmore movie theater where I saw musicals such as Gypsy, My Fair Lady, and The Music Man. I didn’t even need to cross a street as I lived right on that longish block. If I had stayed in that neighborhood I would have attended Erasmus High School (where my parents went to vote) and perhaps gone to Brooklyn College (my father’s alma mater). A shout out to grads from PS 249. Just a little walk down memory lane.

All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda

What are the elements an author uses to create suspense? One dramatic devise is to slowly release “clues” throughout the narrative leading up to a “big reveal” at the optimal climatic moment. The ultimate success of any thriller is when the reader is kept confused and clueless right up to the proper “ah ha” moment with a surprised “I didn’t see that one coming”. Failure results when the plot is either too obvious (I figured the ending out in the first couple of chapters of the book) or too erroneous (What the ???? This doesn’t make sense.) In the mix is the author’s artistry in creating the perfect “gimmick” as a means of imparting the necessary details.

In All the Missing Girls, the author, Megan Miranda, uses reverse chronology. Along with both an introduction and epilogue, the story counts backwards from day fifteen to day one of events with each chapter adding a bit of background about the details surrounding the disappearance of two girls, ten years apart. The story is told from Nicolette Farrell’s point of view as she revisits her hometown of Cooley Ridge in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina to help her brother Daniel in the care of their aging father who is at a facility. With his apparent encroaching demensia, it is time to repair and sell their no-longer-needed family home. Yet the process brings back old memories of the disappearance of her best friend Corinne after their celebration at the local fair following their high school graduation. The resulting accusations and recriminations from the local community led to Nic’s flight from home and relocation to Pennsylvania. Yet her brother Daniel and pregnant wife Laura, along with her Dad, remained a link for her to touch base from time to time allowing an occasional reconnection with her high school sweetheart Tyler. Now, ten years later, she’s engaged to Everett, a high end Philadelphia lawyer, and Tyler is dating Annaleise Carter. It isn’t long though before Nic’s world turns upside down when Annaleise turns up missing, rekindling all the horrors associated with the loss of Corrine. As the tale “progresses”, Nic reveals specifics about both mysteries through her analysis of past events as she revisits the sites containing the ghosts of her past.

There were various problems inherent in this type of format. It was harder to keep track of events necessitating repetitions and calling for a quick read to keep the various particulars front and center. The opportunity for in depth character development was also hindered, since too much information would take away from the end result, especially since Miranda wanted to maintain a sense of mystery as we tried to figure out the guilty party. There were also a lot of dead ends left dangling as Nic’s thoughts rotated from present to far past to recent past.

For me the results were muddled. None of the characters were particularly likable, especially the two victims, and even the townspeople were petty and judgmental. Outsider Everett was the only one who had my sympathy as he tried to do the right thing and ended up getting kicked where it hurts. The conclusion, while acceptable, didn’t blow me away, but overall, a worthwhile read.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

What goes on in the minds of the people who surround us, individuals who are there but invisible, going about their daily lives while we are involved in our own personal minutia so that even if we notice their presence they are an afterthought?

That is the case in the novel Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka, a murder mystery which slowly reveals the guilty party via the personal reflections of three troubled souls who are somehow interconnected within the borders of the small town of Broomsville located in Northern Colorado. Fifteen year old Lucinda Hayes has been murdered on the carrousel at the playground of the local elementary school found by the night janitor, Ivan, an immigrant from Mexico with a criminal past. Cameron Whitley, Lucinda’s next door neighbor, has been obsessed with this beautiful teen, spending his evenings as a stone statue watching her movements. Cameron’s thought processes are a little strange as he has difficulty relating to others, becoming “Tangled” when situations are ltoo stressful for him to handle. Detective Russ Fletcher, a colleague of Cameron’s dad (a man who deserted his family several years previously), has vowed to watch over his former partner’s son keeping a promise to someone who ended up on the wrong side of the law. Cameron fears he will one day develop the evil characteristics which sealed his father’s fate, despite his inner sense of love for his long departed dad. Then there’s Jade Dixon-Burns, a girl who exhibits no empathy, not since she was rejected by her childhood friend who decided he’d rather hang out with the alluring Lucinda than remain cohorts with his fat, pimply companion from elementary school days. Through their collective thoughts the details of that fateful February night are slowly revealed with their paths intersecting as the surprising truth – clearly visible the entire time – finds its way to the surface.

Slowly is the key word. The reader must be patient as each trail is examined to see if it is a true path or a dead end. The bizarre contemplations of theseo three characters lead us to false conclusions time and again, yet within these premises are the clues necessary to solve the mystery. While I was curious to see how the author would reveal the perpetrator, I do wish she was a bit more purposeful and a little quicker in wrapping up a story which left a few too many strings dangling at the conclusion.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears as on Goodreads.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kreuger

Unlike many novels which highlight dysfunctional relationships, Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger introduces us to the Drums, a loving family leading what, on the surface, appears to be an idyllic life.

It was the summer of 1961 in a small town in Minnesota when a series of deaths shake up the lives of the village, especially the pastor, Nathan Drum, his wife Ruth, and their three children Ariel, Frank, and Jake.

At thirteen, Frank is not quite old enough to be included in the loop so he uses every opportunity he can to tag along when events are happening. Eleven year old Jake takes advantage of his big brothers wheedling and comes along for the ride.Since the grown ups aren’t forthcoming, Frank finds a way to secretly listen in to adult conversations and snoop around to fill in the blanks. However, sometimes eaves dropping can be a heavy burden. Secrets have a way of complicating life, resulting in feelings of guilt and reticence. Yet the information the boys hold close are the very facts which are needed to answer the mystery which will redefine their lives. The problem is deciding which secrets to tell and which ones must be kept quiet.

Jake, afflicted with a stutter, has what some people would call “the sight” because, since he is reluctant to speak, he listens and has an innate understanding of people and events. Although he is more of a sidekick, in a way one might consider Jake the hero of this novel.

It is the captivating Ariel, ready for college at Juilliard, who is the spark of the family with her musical talent and light hearted loving relationships with family and friends.

The setting is one of the major players in the story -from the railroad tracks to the river to the location of the church across from the parsonage – each locale becoming an important focal point in advancing the plot.

One of the many positives of this novel is the development of the numerous characters, both primary and secondary. Knowing that Kreuger’s favorite novel is To Kill a Mockingbird, you can see the influence of an Atticus Finch on the Methodist Pastor.

One can also see touches of Hemingway where what is not said is just as important as what is said. The author finds no need to explain every fact, for example, the reader is left to ponder what tragic event happened to Nathan during WWII which made him switch careers from lawyer to pastor.

Although I felt the book had a slow start, it quickly picked up speed and easily engages the reader throughout the first half of the story. While the second half is just as exciting, it is difficult to read due to the tragedy which befalls the Drum family. Even though the events are hinted at in the first chapter of the book, it is still heart wrenching to read of such loss. Kudos to the author for presenting an accurate reaction to such events through the individual thoughts and behaviors of the various townsfolk. Anyone who has experienced a similar heartache will relate to (and possibly relive) these feelings.

Closure to this saga is abruptly presented at the very end of the book, not giving the reader much time to process the information, although the epilogue ties up some of the loose ends quick nicely.

Told by an adult Frank looking back on that fateful summer, Ordinary Grace is a well written, engaging story. Four stars. This review also appears on Goodreads.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

It starts on a train and ends on one as well. Poor Rachel who goes back and forth to London each day must stop at the way station in a small suburb just outside the city where she is able to look down upon her former beloved home, now occupied by her ex-husband Tom, his new wife Amy, and their recently born little girl. A glutton for punishment, Rachel can’t seem to keep herself from watching the life which should have been her own. Then there is the perfect couple living just up the street in a home laid out in an identical manner to her previous abode. She creates imaginary scenarios of loving married bliss while watching the beautiful wife sitting out on the terrace joined by an adoring husband who fondly enfolds her in his arms. Vicariously she inhabits this fantasy world as each day she catches a glimpse of an existence beyond her reach.

Paula Hawkins in The Girl on a Train has created a scenario where our heroine, poor Rachel, feels compelled to drown her sorrows in booze which only complicates her predicament. Yet Rachel is lucid the day she sees that pretty girl on the porch kissing a man who is not her husband. Within days that same girl is found dead and so the mystery begins. On that fateful night an inebriated Rachel had tried to see her former husband, just as she often did when stinking drunk. She knows she witnessed something vitally important, but her frequent blackouts prevent her from remembering exactly what really happened. The reader looks at the unfolding events alternatively through the eyes of Rachel, Anna, and the murdered Megan. Megan’s story takes place 6 months to a year before all the events unfold, while the others thoughts are reflected as they occur. While it is a little confusing marching back and forth through time (although the entry’s dates are clearly labeled) it is helpful to hear each of the women’s perspectives in order to understand the unfolding developments. Please note that none of the men have a voice despite their importance to the plot. We can only assess their characters through the interactions and reflections of the three females. I must warn future readers that, similar to Gone Girl, none of the participants are particularly likeable. It is even difficult to sympathIze with Rachel who seems to be her own worst enemy. Despite the slow start of this book, the momentum draws the reader in, like a cowboy with a lasso, until they are caught up in the drama and led to continually wonder which of these nasty characters are culpable for Megan’s death. While I still have some questions about a few lose ends which are never answered, the climax is not only satisfying, but makes sense out of a senseless situation. Four stars.