Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Review of "A Refiner's Fire: A Commissario Brunetti Mystery" by Donna Leon

In this 33rd book in the 'Commissario Guido Brunetti' series, the Italian policeman investigates a local man who was deployed during the Iraq war.

One of my favorite things about this book, set in Venice, is the slow pace. Unlike detectives on American television shows, who are always running around and chasing suspects, the detectives in this story amble around Venice on foot, taking time to enjoy the beauty of the city.

The story can be read as a standalone, but readers familiar with the characters will enjoy it more.


As the story opens, teenage gangs in Venice are using Instagram to arrange a 'rumble', and when two groups of boys meet at the Piazzetta del Leoncini after midnight, surveillance cameras catch them tussling, throwing punches, smashing windows, thieving, etc.

The delinquents are rounded up by the Carabinieri, taken to the Questura, and mothers and fathers are called.

All the boys are picked up by their parents except for fifteen-year-old Orlando Monforte, who explains that he lives in Castello with his father Dario Monforte, who turns off his phone at 11:00 PM.

Commissario Claudia Griffoni, on duty that night, decides to act 'in loco parentis' and walk Orlando home.

Along the way, Orlando confides that he can come home any time he wants, and he wishes his father paid more attention to him. Griffoni feels bad for the boy, and they stop for coffee and brioche, and - since it's cold out - Griffoni lends Orlando her red scarf.

The next day, Commissario Griffoni consults with Commissario Guido Brunetti about the teen gangs, which the cops call 'baby gangs'. In fact, pressure from influential parents ensures that the police and newspapers write up the 'rumble' as an argument about soccer, that ended with name-calling.

Later, Brunetti's boss, Vice-Questore Patta - who never saw a job he couldn't evade doing - passes a task to Brunetti.

A wealthy American woman is buying a house in Venice, and needs someone to get permits and take care of administrative procedures. She's considering hiring Dario Monforte, and she wants him vetted. Brunetti recognizes Dario as the father of baby gang member Orlando Monforte.  .

The name Dario Monforte strikes a chord with Brunetti, and a computer search reveals that Dario was 'The Hero of Nasiriyah.' Over twenty years ago, a suicide bombing at the Italian embassy in the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah claimed nineteen victims. Dario Monforte was widely lauded for saving two comrades while being badly burned himself.

Something about the Dario Monforte story doesn't sit right with Brunetti, and further research, aided by Signorina Elettra - who's a whiz at data mining - reveal that there's MUCH MORE to the tale, including illegal activities.

Dario Monforte doesn't appreciate being under the Questura's microscope, and to halt the inquiries, he gets a shady lawyer to allege that Commissario Claudia Griffoni acted inappropriately when she walked Orlando Monforte home after the baby gang clash. It's clear that Dario Monforte has something to hide, and a good part of the novel involves Brunetti trying to figure out what was going on with the Italians in Nasiriyah during the Iraq war.

As this is going on, Brunetti's colleague, forensic lab technician Enzo Bocchese is very upset, and he tells Guido that his teenage neighbor is harassing him.

The neighbor boy, Gianpaolo Porpora, who's tall and built like a bull, trips Enzo on the stairs, bumps into him, and has threatened Enzo's treasured statuettes, which the technician collects. All this has dire consequences, including another, much more dangerous, clash of the baby gangs.

For me, the part of the story that concerns Dario Monforte's schemes in Nasiriyah was especially compelling. I also enjoyed the domestic vignettes in the novel, like Guido and his wife Paola meandering around Venice, looking at the lovely sights.

There are also homey domestic scenes in the book, when Guido is at home with his wife and children. In one of of the best family scenes, Guido, Paola, their teenage children Raffi and Chiara, and Paula's parents (the Conte and Contessa), enjoy a delicious meal while discussing literature, history, education, influencers, and more. This is a family it would be a pleasure to know.

My minor quibble with the novel would be a thread left hanging at the end, which I wish had been tied up.

Thanks to Netgalley, Donna Leon, and Atlantic Monthly Press for a copy of the book.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Review of "The Burning: A Police Chief Kate Burkholder Mystery" by Linda Castillo


In this 16th book in the Kate Burkholder series, the Police Chief investigates the brutal murder of an Amish man who'd been excommunicated. The novel provides enough background information to be read as a standalone.


Police Chief Kate Burkholder grew up in an Amish community in Painter's Mill, Ohio but left as a teenager.

After Kate became a law enforcement officer, Painter's Mill offered her a job and she returned to head the police department. Kate's Amish background is advantageous because she speaks Pennsylvania Dutch and is familiar with Amish culture.

Kate is now married to John Tomasetti, an agent with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI). The couple's dual law enforcement careers are advantageous, because, when it's appropriate, Tomasetti can provide support for Kate's investigations.

Author Linda Castillo 'kills off' the victims in her books in the most gruesome fashions, and this story is no exception. As the story opens, Milan Swanz is drunk, and walking home from a bar in ankle deep snow.

When Milan is offered a ride in a passing car, he accepts with alacrity. Big mistake!! Before long, Milan is tied to a stake in the woods and burned alive.

Police Chief Kate Burkholder is called to the scene of the crime, which is soon crawling with law enforcement personnel. Kate looks at the blackened corpse with peeling skin and feels sick to her stomach. She thinks, "Milan Swanz was a troubled man who made plenty of mistakes in the thirty-six years he'd been on this earth. But he was a human being with a wife and children and parents who'd loved him despite his flaws."

Or maybe not so much! As Kate begins her investigation, she learns that Milan had been excommunicated from the church for repeated wrongdoing. Moreover, Milan and his wife Bertha were divorced (an unimaginable no-no in the Amish culture), and Bertha doesn't seem too shocked about Milan's death.

Bertha is reluctant to speak about her ex-husband because the Amish are extremely insular, and never air their dirty laundry to 'Englischers'. For that reason, Kate finds it hard to find out about Milan's transgressions. Nevertheless, Kate eventually learns that unfortunate things happened to people who angered Milan. For instance, after Milan was fired from his job in a cabinet shop, the shop 'accidently' burned to the ground; and the Diener (church officials) who excommunicated Milan.....

.....suffered personal injuries or damage to their crops.

Kate even learns that her own brother, an Amish farmer named Jacob, had a run-in with Milan....but Jacob refuses to discuss the matter with Kate.

As Kate pursues her inquiries, she hears about an old sect called the Schwertler Anabaptists, who 'dealt with' wrongdoers in Amish sects.

When Kate tries to determine if Schwertler Anabaptists are still active, she's warned off and told, "If you cross them, they will come for you. They will find you. They will devour you. The pieces of you will never be found." Fateful words, since Kate is repeatedly attacked by a stranger dressed in black.

There's more drama in the book when a BCI agent named Neil Chambers insists Kate recuse herself from the investigation because her brother Jacob is a possible suspect. You can't keep a good police chief down though, and Kate keeps looking into Milan's death. All this leads to an exciting and heart-stopping climax, which readers familiar with the series know to expect.

On a more personal note, newlyweds Kate and Tomasetti enjoy a romantic evening with a charcuterie board, wine, and a lit candle.

I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to readers who enjoy thrillers, especially Kate Burkholder fans.

Thanks to Netgalley, Linda Castillo, and Minotaur books for a copy of the manuscript.

Rating: 4 stars

Monday, July 8, 2024

Review of "Dog Day Afternoon: An Andy Carpenter Mystery" by David Rosenfelt

In this 29th book in the Andy Carpenter series, the Paterson, New Jersey attorney represents a man accused of mass murder.


Ever since he inherited a large fortune, defense lawyer Andy Carpenter takes very few cases.

Instead, Andy prefers to hang out with his wife Laurie, son Ricky, and dogs Tara (a golden retriever), Hunter (a pug), and Sebastian (a basset hound). Andy also likes to watch sports; help run a canine rescue operation called 'The Tara Foundation'; schmooze with his friends at Charlie's Sports Bar; and so on.

On the rare occasions Andy takes a case, he assembles his team, one of whom is private investigator Marcus Clark. Marcus is known for two traits: he's the toughest guy on the planet; and he doesn't talk much, usually just grunting and nodding.

Marcus has had Andy's back on innumerable occasions, so when Marcus speaks up and asks Andy to take a case, Andy agrees. It seems Marcus mentors young men who've gotten into trouble, and one of his 'wards', Nick Williams, is being accused of mass murder.

Nick, a handyman/cleaner, has been employed at a personal injury law firm called Moore Law. One day, when Nick is absent from work, a masked man walks into Moore Law and shoots six people.

Two survivors, a lawyer called Sally Montrose and a paralegal named Laura Schauble, say the killer resembled Nick, with a hook tattoo on his arm and distinctive striped sneakers.

When the murder weapon is found in a dumpster near Nick's home, with Nick's print on the gun, the police figure 'case closed.'

Nick's story is that he was abducted on the morning of the murder, and held in a room somewhere. Later, when the kidnappers released him, Nick was told to turn himself in to the police.

Andy knows the district attorney has a very strong case, and he'll have to hustle to prepare a compelling defense. So Andy assembles his squad. This consists of lawyer Eddie Dowd - who's great with paperwork and filings;

accountant Sam Willis - a computer hacker extraordinaire;

office manager Edna - who goofs off more than she works;

and The K-Team, a private detective firm consisting of Marcus Clark as well as other PIs, including:

Andy's wife Laurie, an ex-cop;

Corey Douglas, also an ex-cop, and Corey's police dog, Simon Garfunkel.


This time, Sam Willis also recruits reinforcements for computer searches, an elderly couple called Eli and Hilda Mandelbaum. This is a real bonus because Hilda makes unbelievably great rugelach.

As Andy prepares Nick's case for court, he interviews the survivors at Moore Law; relatives of the victims; clients who got big personal injury settlements; and more.

Andy comes to suspect that Moore Law was a party to fraudulent claims, and it seems he might be right, because people start trying to kill him. Of course Andy eventually figures out what's going on.....but is it soon enough to save Nick?

The Andy Carpenter books are formulaic, but fun. Andy is a sarcastic quipster whose frequent wisecracks make him unpopular with cops, prosecutors, and judges, but VERY popular with fans of the series.

In one amusing passage, Andy - who's in the habit of discussing the case with his dog Tara - records this exchange:

" 'Tara, what do you think I should do?'

She turns towards me and gives her cute head tilt; no one tilts their head as cute as Tara. But she's giving me a message, she's saying, 'What are you asking me for? I told you not to take the case.'

I can't say I'm thrilled with her attitude, but Tara doesn't beat around the bush."

I always enjoy these cozy mysteries, and I'll keep reading them as long as David Rosenfelt keeps writing them.

Thanks to Netgalley, David Rosenfelt, and Minotaur books for a copy of the manuscript.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, July 4, 2024

Review of "The Instruments of Darkness: A Charlie Parker Thriller" by John Connolly

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

In this 21st book in the 'Charlie Parker' series, the sleuth investigates the disappearance of a child. This supernatural mystery thriller works fine as a standalone.

When two-year-old Henry Clark disappears from his toddler bed in Portland, Maine.....

.......suspicion quickly falls on Henry's mother Colleen.

Colleen's husband Stephen - who was on a business trip when Henry vanished - tells the police that Colleen had post-partum depression and anger issues. When Stephen finds a blood-stained blanket in the trunk of Colleen's car, that clinches it.

For her part, Colleen says she had a glass of wine, fell asleep, and woke up to find Henry gone. Colleen further claims to know nothing about the blood-stained blanket in her car, but the authorities don't believe her, and prepare to make an arrest.

Colleen is represented by attorney Moxie Castin......

......who works with private detective Charlie Parker. Colleen, who's distraught about her missing child, believes Parker will understand her plight because he lost his daughter years ago.

Little Henry's disappearance galvanizes the public, and journalists, vloggers, amateur detectives, web sleuths, and would be podcasters, along with protesters of various types haunt the Clarks' neighborhood.

Vandals aren't far behind, and Parker engages two bruisers, Paulie and Tony Fauci, to guard Colleen's house.

Meanwhile, state attorney general Paul Novak and assistant attorney general Erin Becker see an opportunity in the situation.

Novak plans to run for governor, and Becker hopes to climb the ladder into Novak's shoes. A successful prosecution of Colleen Clark would help their ambitions, and they mean to put her on trial and lock her up.

As Parker investigates Henry's disappearance, he learns that Colleen's husband Stephen had an affair with a woman, Mara Teller, whom he met at a National Gas and Petrochemicals Forum. When Parker tries to track down Teller, who's supposedly an industry consultant, he finds that Teller's name is fake and her company doesn't exist.

Meanwhile, a psychic named Sabine Drew, who's had mixed results finding missing children, contacts Parker. Sabine tells Parker she hears young Henry screaming in her head, and that the boy is in the clutches of an evil entity. Parker is skeptical - but since he sees and speaks to his dead daughter Jennifer - Parker doesn't blow Sabine off.

As all this is happening in Portland, we visit rural Maine, where the wooded property of the Michaud family harbors a very old house built from Sears Kit #174. No one has ever lived in the house, which is dilapidated but secure, with a heavy steel door. The unfinished basement of the dwelling harbors an ancient unseen hungry presence.

The Michauds, two sisters and a brother, have a home near the Sears dwelling, and do their best to ensure that no one disturbs the old place.

This is getting more difficult, because militant Neo-Nazis have a camp near the Michaud property, and they want to rent Sears House #174. The Neo-Nazis are funded by billionaire racist Bobby Ocean, who's an old enemy of Charlie Parker.

A firebomb thrown at Colleen Clark's house, seemingly by acquaintances of Bobby Ocean, brings Parker to rural Maine. As always in dangerous situations, Parker brings his good friends Angel and Louis, two tough birds who like nothing better than killing bad guys.

The novel is long and complicated, but all the story lines come together in an exciting, action-packed climax. People like to say Charlie Parker has nine lives, which is great, because I look forward to his further adventures.

Rating: 4 stars