Saturday, July 31, 2021

Review of "A Fatal Lie: An Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery" by Charles Todd


This review was first posted on Mystery and Suspense. Check it out for features, interviews, and reviews.

In this 23rd book in the Inspector Rutledge series, the detective investigates the death of a man who fought in World War I. The book can be read as a standalone.


Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard returned from World War I suffering from shell shock (PTSD) exacerbated by guilt.

In addition to being traumatized by the horrors of war, Rutledge killed an insubordinate soldier in his own company. The dead man, named Hamish MacLeod, now haunts Rutledge, constantly whispering in his head - usually about criminal cases.

The story opens in 1921, when Inspector Rutledge has recovered somewhat from his war experiences. Rutledge is on desk duty when a body is pulled from the River Dee near Llangollen, in northern Wales. The dead man apparently fell from a narrowboat aqueduct high above the river.

The corpse has no ID and the police can't tell if the incident was an accident, suicide, or homicide. So the Welsh authorities call Scotland Yard, and Rutledge is sent to investigate.

No man is missing from Llangollen, and the body is too decomposed for easy recognition. However, the dead man's short stature, military tattoo, and custom-made shirt lead Rutledge to identify the deceased as an Englishman named Sam Mitford, who served in a UK Bantam Battalion during the war.

Rutledge drives to Mitford's home town of Crowley, far from Llangollen, to inform Ruth Mitford about her husband's death.

Rutledge learns that the Mitfords and their relatives own a failing pub, and Sam left for Shrewsbury about a week ago, to negotiate with the pub's liquor suppliers. Sam said nothing about going to Wales.

With ghostly Hamish providing helpful tips, Rutledge determines that Sam was pushed off the Llangollen aqueduct. However, local residents and boat owners who use the aqueduct say they never saw Sam and know nothing about his death. Determined to find out what happened, Rutledge drives back and forth between England and Wales multiple times, interviewing people and gathering evidence.

Rutledge eventually learns that Sam went from town to town looking for someone, and contacted people for assistance along the way.

The case gets complicated, and comes to involve Sam's disturbed half-sister; a devious solicitor; abandoned lead mines; murderous squatters; marital infidelity; a no snitching culture; and more. Additional murders occur, and it's clear someone is threatened by Rutledge's investigation. In fact Rutledge himself is imperiled when he heedlessly walks into dangerous situations.

As Rutledge travels around, we get evocative descriptions of post-WWI British towns, still reeling from the effects of war.

We also learn about the Bantam Battalions. When World War I started, the height requirement for recruits to the British Army was 5' 3". This excluded many small men who were anxious to do their bit. So Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, permitted the formation of fighting units composed of men between 4' 10" and 5' 3". These units were named Bantams after the small roosters that became their battalion emblem. The victim Sam Mitford was one of these men - brave, fearless, and determined.

This clever mystery has plot twists that will surprise even the most ardent mystery fans.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Review of "The Heron's Cry: A Detective Matthew Venn Novel" by Ann Cleeves


In this second book in 'The Two Rivers' series, Detective Inspector Matthew Venn investigates murders in an artsy community in North Devon. The book can be read as a standalone.


Wealthy economist Frank Ley has a sizable estate, called Westacombe, in North Devon - with a large house and several outbuildings.

Ley wants to give back to the community, so he rents space to struggling artists for a nominal sum. Thus Westacombe houses glassblower Eve Yeo;

furniture maker/craftsman Wesley Curnow;

and a married couple named Sarah and John Grieve, who manage Ley's farm and run a small dairy. Ley is friendly with his tenants, and occasionally invites them to his home for drinks.

One morning Eve Yeo enters her glassblowing studio at Westacombe and finds her father - Dr. Nigel Yeo - dead, stabbed with a shard of glass from a vase she made.

DI Matthew Venn gets the case, and he and his colleagues - Detective Sergeant Jen Rafferty and Detective Constable Ross May - investigate.

Eve tells the detectives her father worked for North Devon Patients Together (NDPT), an advocacy group that represents patients' interests. At the time of his death Nigel was helping a family called the Mackenzies, whose teenage son had committed suicide. The Mackenzies feel their mentally ill boy was let down by the health trust that oversees North Devon hospitals, and Nigel was looking into the matter.

The police interview the Mackenzies, the health trust administrators, employees of NDPT, Nigel's neighbors, and residents of Westacombe, but no obvious suspect emerges. The situation escalates when another murder occurs - again with a shard of glass from one of Eve's vases. This is followed by a suicide, and Matthew knows he has to stop the carnage. This is easier said than done, because people have secrets, and they withhold information and prevaricate even if they're innocent of the murders.

Like the first book in the series, the detectives are just as interesting as the mystery. DS Jen Rafferty, a single mother with two teenagers, struggles to be a good mom while doing her job and partying after work; DC Ross May, who has lofty ambitions, chafes at being assigned (what he considers) boring, mundane police duties; and DI Matthew Venn struggles with the aftermath of growing up in a religious sect. Matthew left the sect and married his husband Jonathan, which was hard for his parents to accept. A rapprochement with Matthew's mother may be on the horizon however, since Jonathan invited her over for a birthday lunch....and she agreed to come.

I enjoyed the book and recommend it to mystery fans.

Thanks to Netgalley, Ann Cleeves, and Minotaur Books for a copy of the book.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, July 26, 2021

Review of "The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: A Novel" by Stuart Turton


When I imagine Stuart Turton writing this book I picture him consulting a complicated flowchart with arrows pointing in all directions - so he can stay on track with this complex, inventive story.

The premise: Lord and Lady Hardcastle are hosting an extended house party at their crumbling estate, Blackheath House.

There's plenty of food and liquor, nighttime revelry, a men's hunting party, and - the pièce de résistance - a glamorous costume ball. On the night of the gala, the daughter of the house, twentysomething Evelyn Hardcastle, is shot dead at 11:00 P.M., just when the fireworks go off. Aiden Bishop, a guest at the house party, has to discover the identity of the murderer. Sounds simple....but it's not.


As the story opens, Aiden Bishop 'wakes up' in a woodland with no memory of who he is, and the name Anna on his lips. Bishop has seen a woman named Anna being chased by a man intent on killing her, but he isn't able to catch up with them. When Bishop makes his way back to Blackheath House to get help, people address him as 'Sebastian Bell'.....which is very puzzling.

Bishop is soon brought up to speed by a mysterious figure dressed as a plague doctor.

The plague doctor informs Bishop that Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed during the costume party that night, and Bishop has to identify the killer. Bishop will be forced to relive the day of the murder up to eight times, in the bodies of eight different people, unless he fingers the wrongdoer. If Bishop doesn't name the killer by the eighth day the cycle will repeat again and again and infinitum.

Moreover, other people are also trying to find the killer, and ONLY one 'sleuth' can 'win.' The first person to name the killer will be permitted to leave Blackheath. The others will be trapped there forever, in a sort of purgatory. Bishop has no memories of himself - or his life - outside Blackheath, but he knows he wants out.

As the story ambles along, Bishop occupies various bodies, including:

A drug-dealing doctor;  

An obese banker; 

A wealthy dilettante; 

A lascivious playboy; 

A disfigured butler;

A dissolute artist; and more.

The story gets even more complicated because Aiden has to spend the equivalent of a full day in each body, and 'jumps hosts' every time he falls asleep. So Bishop might be the banker for few hours, then doze off and become the butler, then zonk out and become the banker again, and so on.....until he's spent the correct amount of time in each body. To add to the drama, there's a murderous footman skulking around, bent on killing each and every host.

As Bishop advances through the eight-day-cycle, minute by minute.....hour by hour.....and day by day, he accumulates clues to the identity of the killer and even tries to change the course of events. Along the way Bishop makes 'allies' - some of whom are true friends and some of whom are dirty backstabbers.

Bishop eventually learns that the current situation at Blackheath has a connection to events that occurred nineteen years ago; that Lord Hardcastle has squandered the family fortune; that there's a vile blackmailer at work; and that things aren't always as they seem.

The plot is cleverly constructed and I enjoyed the book, though the ending is a bit too drawn out (IMO). A few other things bothered me as well:

- It's hard to believe that uppity aristocrats like the Hardcastles would have a house party in a decaying estate that's literally falling apart - with threadbare furnishings; peeling wallpaper; dirt and cobwebs everywhere; a crummy stable; a falling down boathouse; and so on. The snobby British upper-class gossipers would rip them apart.

- Bishop's growing obsession to be the 'hero' to a 'damsel in distress' - no matter her flaws - strikes a wrong note.

- It would have been interesting to see Bishop have at least one female host (just for fun). 😊

These are minor criticisms though, and I strongly recommend the book to mystery fans.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (Stuart Turton) and the publisher (Sourcebooks Landmark) for a copy of the book.

Rating: 4 stars

Friday, July 23, 2021

Review of "Secrets on the Fens: A DI Nikki Galena Thriller" by Joy Ellis

This review was first posted on Mystery and Suspense. Check it out for features, interviews, and reviews.

In this 12th book in the 'DI Nikki Galena' series, the detective investigates a series of odd murders. The book can be read as a standalone.


Detective Inspector Nikki Galena and Detective Sergeant Joe Easter lead a police squad that oversees the Lincolnshire Fens, with the goal of keeping the peace and seeing that justice is served.

This can be a difficult proposition because rival criminal families, the Leonards and the Burgesses, both want to be the top mob in the region, and hostilities are easily provoked.

The animosity between the criminal clans ratchets up when homicide victims start appearing in the fens. First, the bodies of a young man and woman are found in the woods, posed like sweethearts. The couple, dressed in Goth attire, have no ID, and the police dub them Romeo and Juliet. Soon afterwards another young couple is found dead, in a boat in the Tunnel of Love. The boy and girl are again dressed like Goths and lack ID.

No missing persons reports match the deceased, and detectives Nikki and Joe speculate that the victims' families don't want police attention. This may in fact be the case because young people associated with both the Leonard and Burgess families are missing, and - instead of calling the authorities - the mob bosses accuse each other.

The situation escalates when Mickey Smith, a young man who was adopted into the Leonard family, goes missing. The Burgesses seem like natural suspects, but someone is anxious to divert attention from both the Burgesses AND the Leonards. An anonymous phone call to each mob family, and a note to the police, claims the perpetrator is a member of the Goth community.

The police interview the local Goths, and a Goth woman named Nova helps them identify the Romeo and Juliet and Tunnel of Love victims.

It turns out all the dead individuals were using made-up names and hiding their Goth identities from their relatives, who disapprove of the Goth subculture.

Following all possible lines of inquiry, Nikki and her team interview the victims' families, friends, and co-workers; speak with the mob bosses; and look for clues on cemetery tombstones where the Goths hang out.

While the police probe the fen deaths, Nikki's mother Eve and her friend Wendy - dedicated amateur sleuths - investigate a mystery of their own.

Eve and Wendy have been restoring the studio of a famous artist named Robert Richmond, who went out to paint flowers a hundred years ago and never returned. Eve and Wendy uncover hidden letters that hint Richmond was involved with a woman, and embark on a quest that has unexpected consequences.

Readers new to the series will meet an interesting array of characters, and established fans will enjoy visiting with old favorites, like pathologist Rory Wilkinson - who has a Shakespeare quote for every crime scene.

This is an artful mystery and police procedural that will challenge even the most clever armchair detective.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Review of "Starstruck: My Unlikely Road to Hollywood" by Leonard Maltin

Author Leonard Maltin

Leonard Maltin is an American film critic, film historian, and author. He was the movie critic on 'Entertainment Tonight' for 30 years and published Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide from 1969 to 2014.

Leonard Maltin with fellow film critics Gene Siskel (left) and Roger Ebert

Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide

Maltin's love of movies began as a child, when he had a TV Guide route instead of a newspaper route, and studied his father's weekly edition of 'Variety', which covers entertainment news.

Even as a youth, Leonard Maltin devoured Variety

Young Leonard saved his money to buy vintage films with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and other silent era stars, and even tried to make his own silent shorts, which usually featured shenanigans with cream pies.

Leonard Maltin is a big fan of Laurel and Hardy

Leonard tells lots of stories about growing up in New York and New Jersey, where he was a devoted viewer of The Mickey Mouse Club, haunted the public library for film-related books and biographies, and saw as many movies as he could.

Young Leonard was a fan of The Mickey Mouse Club

Leonard's description of movie-going as a youngster, where his family 'sat down in the middle of a film, watched it to the end, sat through a cartoon, a travelogue, coming attractions, and a second feature, and then watched the first movie until the part where they came in' is reminiscent of my movie-going as a kid.

Young Leonard Maltin watched a lot of movies

Leonard also liked comic books and watching TV, which took up much of his time in the hours after school.

Leonard and a friend started their own magazine in the fifth grade, and Leonard began writing fan letters to show business people he admired, some of whom sent warm replies. In time Leonard even scored interviews with some 'generous, gracious individuals', and he names names. This doesn't come across as bragging because Maltin clearly reveres the people he's met.

Young Leonard Maltin with radio and television host Joe Franklin

Young Leonard Maltin with Ginger Rogers

At the age of 15, Leonard took over 'Film Fan Monthly', and he and his contributors spotlighted character actors such as Nigel Bruce, Robert Donat, and Miriam Hopkins....the kind of people that fascinate Maltin to this day.

Film Fan Monthly magazine

Leonard Maltin admires character actors like Robert Donat

As Leonard got older, he began to view old and new films in every possible venue, and his extensive knowledge came in handy when he interviewed film stars, directors, and other cast and crew. Leonard's movie expertise even helped him meet his wife Alice, when he gave a lecture about movie history to an adult education class.

Leonard Maltin with his wife Alice

Leonard started publishing books about movies as well, and his early titles include: Movie Comedy Teams; The Disney Films; Our Gang: The Life and Times of the Little Rascals; and more.

Leonard Maltin was a big fan of The Little Rascals

A lucky break got Leonard hired as the movie critic for Entertainment Tonight, which was a reason to move to California. The job was also an opening to film festivals, award dinners, Oscar shows, television specials, and other media-related events - many of which Maltin was asked to host.

Leonard Maltin Celebrity Tribute

These activities, plus teaching classes about animation, television, and movies gave Maltin almost unlimited access to entertainment folks as well as enthusiastic movie fans.

Leonard Maltin talking about the Oscars with heavyweight boxer “Iron” Mike Tyson

Leonard Maltin with Mitzi Gaynor

Leonard Maltin with Fess Parker

Leonard Maltin with Shirley Temple Black

Leonard Maltin with Johnny Depp and director Scott Cooper

Leonard Maltin interviews Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden about the National Film Registry selections for 2017

Teaching also became one of the joys of Leonard's life. (I'd like to attend Maltin's film class - at the University of Southern California - myself. It features full length movies and interviews with famous people like J.J. Abrams, Guillermo del Toro, Marion Cotillard, Angela Lansbury, Sidney Poitier, and lots more.)

Marion Cotillard was a guest at Leonard Maltin's film class

Sidney Poitier was a guest at Leonard Maltin's film class

A pair of anecdotes that made me laugh feature George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Talking about an Oscar party, Maltin writes, "When George Clooney walked into the green room backstage at the Arlington Theatre in 2006, I witnessed something I'd never seen before. Every woman in that room, regardless of age, simply melted."

Leonard Maltin with George Clooney

Later, when Leonard talks about the Maltin Modern Master Award, he observes, "In 2020 the honoree was Brad Pitt. I have never seen anything quite like the reaction of Santa Barbarans to this mega-movie star. If George Clooney made the women swoon, Brad Pitt knocked them senseless."

Leonard Maltin with Brad Pitt

Maltin's numerous stories about people in the entertainment industry are fascinating and fun. I recognize many of the movies and people Maltin mentions, but not all of them. Dedicated film buffs will probably do better than me. Leonard also sings the praises of Walt Disney; Jerry Lewis; Roy Rogers, cartoons; radio, jazz; film-viewing at the Playboy Mansion; and more - all of which he's passionate about.

Leonard Maltin with Jerry Lewis

Maltin's wife Alice and their daughter Jessie feature in many of Leonard's stories, since Alice was a partner in Leonard's business ventures and young Jessie joined her parents for media events.

Leonard and Alice Maltin with their daughter Jessie

As an adult, Jessie works in the entertainment industry herself, and hosts a podcast with her dad.

Leonard Maltin and his daughter Jessie

Leonard Maltin and his daughter Jessie with Laura Dern

Maltin has a more glamorous lifestyle than most people, but he seems like a congenial guy who'd make a good dinner party guest.

I found the narrative, enhanced by photos, to be informative and fun. Highly recommended to movie fans.

Thanks to Netgalley, Leonard Maltin, and GoodKnight Books for a copy of the book.

Rating: 4 stars