The Perfect Spy Novel

Need to Know

 

 

Need to Know by Karen Cleveland (Ballantine Books, January 2018) is the perfect spy novel, told from the POV of Vivian Miller, an American CIA counter-intelligence analyst, who has just discovered her husband, the father of her four children, is an embedded Russian spy.

Has Matt been manipulating her since they met? Is their ten-year marriage a lie? When she confronts him, he admits being a spy but claims he truly loves her and the kids, has never passed anything she’s told him on to the Russians, and he urges her to turn him in.

Viv knows she should turn Matt in, send him to prison for life. But she also knows she needs him to help her take care of their children, needs his income to pay the bills; worries she’ll lose her security clearance if her boss learns she was married to a spy; and doesn’t want to live without the man she loves by her side.

The conflict is real, the tension palpable. The stakes continue to grow as Viv makes one bad decision, then another. She becomes a traitor to her country, deleting Matt’s picture from the computers at the CIA, and plays into Russian hands. They own her. If she doesn’t do what they ask, they will reveal what she has done and she’ll go to prison along with Matt.

When she refuses to insert a flash drive that will give Russia access to CIA computers, Russian spymaster Yury threatens Vivian’s children. Viv feels trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea, damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.

Is there no way out of the hole she’s dug herself into?

Vivian and Matt are complex characters readers can identify with, juggling personal lives with professional responsibilities. Which is more important: allegiance to spouse and children or allegiance to one’s country? Which vows take precedence: the marriage vows or the vows to protect classified information?

Impossible to put down, Need to Know is masterfully written. I recommend it highly.

Advertisements

Fascinating First Novel

 

 

41n2K6oThw Vanishing Season

 

Abigail Ellery Hathaway is a survivor. She’s also a Woodbury, Massachusetts, police officer with secrets. In The Vanishing Season by Joanna Schaffhausen (Minotaur/St Martin’s Press, December 2017), everyone has secrets. But not everyone is a survivor.

This is the story that won the MWA First Novel competition, and it’s easy to see why. It doesn’t read like a first novel. The characters are fully developed, the plot twists are foreshadowed but practically invisible, and the only speed bump in this mile-a-minute thrill ride is a lovable dog named Speed Bump.

Reed Markham is the disgraced FBI profiler who once rescued 14-year-old Abigail from certain death at the hands of a serial killer. Although Markham literally wrote the book on child abduction by serial murderers, one of his secrets is his wife really helped him write that book. Now she’s divorcing him, he’s fighting a possible addiction to alcohol, the FBI suspended him for making a mistake that cost a girl her life, and he’s not the hero everyone thinks he is.

When Abby grew up, she moved from Chicago to Boston, changed her name to Ellery (a tip of the hat to Ellery Queen?), became a cop, and moved to Woodbury where she thinks no one knows her past. Although Abby/Ellie hides her scars from prying eyes, she’s sure someone stalks her who has somehow discovered her identity.

Every year for the past three, a Woodbury resident disappears on Abby’s birthday. Every year, for the past three, Ellie receives a mysterious birthday card. Is it a coincidence?

With her birthday nigh and  Ellie still can’t convince Chief Sam Parker or Detective Jimmy Tipton there’s a serial killer loose in Woodbury, she goes over their heads and asks Reed Markham for help.

Everyone becomes suspect as  body parts and secrets are revealed. Was Abby so traumatized as a child that she’s now a killer herself? Is philandering Chief Parker so infatuated with Ellie that he’s stalking her? Is bumbling detective Tipton covering up his own crimes? Inquiring minds want to know.

Well-written and riveting, The Vanishing Season is a fascinating first novel by a writer to watch.

 

The Best Frame Story I’ve Read

The New Neighbors review

 

 

The New Neighbors by Simon Lelic (Berkley, April 2018) isn’t a ghost story. It is a lot like a ghost story, though, because main characters are haunted by skeletons in their own closets.

And it’s like a haunted house tale, because there are strange things in their new house that go bump in the night. There’s also a dead cat in the attic, for example, and a child’s treasure box. There are stuffed owls and strange pictures on the walls allegedly left behind by the previous owner.

It’s really a story about relationships. That fact is brought home right from the beginning by framing alternating chapters with Jack’s confessional letters to Syd, and then Syd’s written reply to Jack, using he said/she said as a device  for story reveals. It’s the best frame story I’ve read in a long time. You know what I mean by frame story, don’t you? Of course, you do.

Jack and Syd are only a little suspicious when they acquire their new house for a song, because they’re unwilling to look a gift horse (or gift house) in the mouth. Why should they?

And when all that could possibly go wrong suddenly does, Jack and Syd naturally blame each other and not the house. Jack also blames Bart, his best friend and co-worker. And his nearest neighbor, Elsie’s father.

Syd, of course, blames Jack.

Elsie is the teen girl next door Syd befriends because, like Syd, her father physically and mentally abuses her. Elsie reminds Syd of Jessica, her younger sister, who committed suicide when Syd left home in her teens.

The New Neighbors is also a murder mystery, a whodunit, as well as a nearly-perfect frame story. Brits love a good mystery, don’t they? Almost as much as they enjoy a good ghost story or haunted house tale.

Both Jack and Syd have been insecure since childhood, and that leads them to withhold information and tell lies. And makes it easy for them to wind up in a hellish situation. Relationships are always complicated anyway, aren’t they? But being deprived of parental love while growing up only makes matters worse.

The New Neighbors is a bloody good read. Very highly recommended.

 

The Road to Paradise: A New Twist on Family Values

the road to paradise

 

 

The Road to Paradise by Max Allan Collins (Brash Books, November 2017) is the second sequel to The Road to Perdition, which was an award-winning graphic novel and a superb motion picture starring Tom Hanks. Collins is an MWA Grand Master and a multiple Shamus-award winning author.

When I began reading The Road to Paradise, I only knew that the author had co-authored mysteries with Mickey Spillane and had written the Dick Tracy daily and Sunday comics for the Chicago Tribune. I also knew he had written the Ms. Tree comic books and was a fellow member of MWA Midwest. I hadn’t yet read The Road to Perdition nor seen the film.

I lived I Oak Park, Illinois, in the mid-1970s when a mob hit man murdered crime-boss Sam Giancana in his Fillmore Street home, less than six blocks from me, so I was instantly intrigued by this novel’s opening scene where the Outfit similarly slays Mad Sam DeStefano. Not only did I regularly hang out at the Big Top restaurant in Berwyn (at the corner where the cities of Cicero, Chicago, Oak Park, and Berwyn intersect) with lots of people associated with Mad Sam, but I also met two of Momo Giancana’s three daughters when I managed O’Hare convention hotels. Unfortunately, Collins momentarily lost me when we left that familiar road to focus on Michael Satariano, formerly Michael O‘Sullivan, at the Cal-Neva in Tahoe. If I had read the previous Road books (both Perdition and Purgatory) before reading The Road to Paradise, I wouldn’t have confused Connor Looney with Mooney Giancana. Nevertheless, Collins kept me reading until I could piece together who was who and who did what to whom and where and when and why.

The Looneys were Irish bootleggers in Moline in the 1920s. Michael O’Sullivan, Sr., Michael Satariano’s father, went to work for them as their “Angel of Death” enforcer after serving during WWI. He considered himself still a soldier. Soldiers killed enemies. It was easy for him to emerge from one war to fight in another.

When Connor Looney murdered his wife and youngest son, Michael Senior declared war on the Looneys and the Chicago mob. He took his surviving boy along to drive the getaway car while he robbed banks and sought revenge for the death of his wife and his other son.

After Michael Senior’s death in Perdition, Kansas, Michael is adopted by the Satarianos. He grows up in DeKalb, Illinois, and falls in love with Patsy Ann O’Hara. He enlists in the Army and is a sniper on Bataan when war is declared, He’s already a trained killer, and he kills more than fifty enemy Japs. He becomes the first medal of honor recipient of the second world war when he loses an eye saving the lives of his captain and General Wainwright. He’s sent home to make speeches and act like a hero during War Bond tours.

If you want the whole story, read The Road to Perdition and The Road to Purgatory before you read The Road to Paradise. I bought all three books but read them in reverse order, beginning with Paradise. They do work as stand-alones, if you pay attention to the back-fill and can keep it straight. I love all three novels so much I’m now attempting to get my hands on everything Max Allan Collins has written.

It’s easy for me to identify with Michael because I once lived in Chicago and Oak Park and Berwyn and Cicero. I received my masters in educational psychology from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, and still live nearby. I was a hotel and resort manager in Chicago and Atlanta and Florida during the seventies, and I personally encountered some of the real-life mob figures featured in these novels.

And, like Michael Senior, I believe in revenge, an eye for an eye. I do not believe in turning the other cheek.

Is the son of the Angel of Death a saint or a sinner? Can even a merciful God forgive him for killing so many?

I highly recommend The Road to Paradise to anyone who loves a good mystery, a great story, or who simply wants to learn more about history. It’s a wonderful tale of revenge, redemption, and family (no pun intended) values.

 

Blessed Mayhem by Sue Coletta is filled with suspense

blessed mahem

Blessed Mayhem by Sue Coletta (Crossroad Press, August 9, 2017) is the second book in this author’s Mayhem series, featuring cat-burglar/computer hacker Shawnee Daniels.

I’ve been watching Coletta develop her unique style of storytelling and complicated characters during the past several years, and I’ve become a devoted fan of her fiction. Like any experienced crime writer she begins with a murder. Then she places her protagonist in jeopardy and heaps on the complications. Shawnee is caught, again and again, between a rock and a hard place. Although she’s incredibly resourceful, you just know one of these days she’ll get into trouble she can’t talk or fight her way out of.

Or the people closest to her will be killed, and it will be her fault for placing them in jeopardy.

Nadine, Shawnee’s BFF and roommate, tries to be helpful but usually manages to make things worse. I’ve never known a real librarian to be so clueless. She’s like a cross between Lou Costello and Stan Laurel. If Coletta wants to highlight the differences between the two friends, she’s certainly succeeded. Shawnee has a wisecracking mouth on her that won’t quit. She swears like a sailor and kicks ass. Nadine, on the other hand, won’t even say “shit.” She’ll say “ship” instead. They’re as different as night and day.

Coletta also gives Shawnee Daniels a unique first-person voice while using third-person POV to define Levaughn and Mr. Mayhem. Nadine is such a nay-sayer, she doesn’t deserve a voice.

As in her previous novels, Coletta obviously does lots of research and passes along what she’s learned. Blessed Mayhem includes factual information about crows, crime scene procedures, and the meaning of BLEVE (Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion), plus a few choice tidbits about computer hacking.

And kudos to Coletta for heightening the suspense. Just when Shawnee is hip-deep in alligators, she tosses a poison snake—maybe not literally, but close enough for government work—into the pond.

I look forward to the next book in the Mayhem series.

 

Great Mystery, Superb Suspense

The Other Girl

The Other Girl by Erica Spindler (St. Martin’s Press, August 22, 2017) is a great mystery story, expertly crafted.

Miranda “Randi” Rader and Jake Billings, police detectives in rural Louisiana, investigate the murder and mutilation of a college professor. Before Miranda became a cop, she’d been a victim herself of kidnapping and attempted sexual assault. Evidence found at the murder scene leads her to believe the professor, who is also the college president’s son, was the man who abducted her and another girl fourteen years ago.

Spindler builds suspense by piling up more and more evidence that points fingers at the wrong people, including Randi. Is someone trying to frame her for murder? Who? Why?

No one seems to believe Randi (Miranda), except her partner Jake and her best-friend Summer. She’s removed from the case and suspended from the department. She has to hire an attorney because she’s about to be arrested for murder.

Things go from bad to worse. Miranda learns Summer has an inoperable brain tumor and is going to die. Randi’s brother informs her their estranged mother is in the hospital recovering from a heart attack.

And when she and Jake fall in love, it only complicates things even more.

There’s an old saying among suspense writers that when your protagonist is hip-deep in alligators, you should throw a back-biting poisonous snake into the mix to add excitement. Spindler does that in The Other Girl, only she throws in more than one. Miranda doesn’t know (nor does the reader) she’s about to be bit in the butt until the snake strikes.

Great mystery, superb suspense. The Other Girl is a page-turner you won’t be able to put down until the very end.

 

A Perfect Obsession by Heather Graham

a perfect obsession graham

A Perfect Obsession by Heather Graham (Mira, April 2017) is full of surprises. The first surprise is discovery of supermodel Jeanette Gilbert’s body in a crypt below an old church. The second surprise is Kieran Finnegan’s twin brother Kevin is the “Mystery Man” Jeanette’s been secretly dating. The third is FBI special agent, and Kieran’s boyfriend, Craig Frasier being assigned to the case.

And the surprises just keep on coming as one beautiful corpse after another gets unearthed, proving a serial killer is loose beneath the crowded streets of New York City.

Graham loves to include history and geography lessons in each of her novels, blending fact with fiction whenever she can. But this is first and foremost a murder mystery Kieran and Craig must solve before Kieran becomes a victim herself.

It’s no surprise that A Perfect Obsession is part of a series. Graham has fully developed the Finnegan family, the bar they own, and the regulars who frequent Finnegan’s Irish Pub into something special. Kieran’s day job as a forensic psychologist and her night job as a bar maid, Craig’s job as an FBI agent, Kevin’s roles on Broadway and film, and Danny’s tour guide business are icings on the cake (or, in this case, suds on the Guinness). The pub and the city of New York overshadow everything that happens.

An exciting and fun read by a mistress of suspense.