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2014 Whitney Awards: Mystery/Thriller Finalists

By Linda Hoffman Kimball

Blood on the Water: A William Monk Novel by Anne Perry (Ballantine, Sept. 2014)

The setting for Blood on the Water, is, like the other books in the William Monk series, Victorian London. When a pleasure boat full of partyers explodes on the Thames, taking nearly 200 people to their deaths, William Monk assumes that, as commander of the River Police, he will have to investigate this disaster. To his surprise and disappointment, the case is handed instead to the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police who quickly labels the event a crime and captures, tries and sentences the ne’r-do-well Egyptian Habib Beshara to death. When Monk proves that Beshara was elsewhere at the time of the blast, the case – now in shambles – is handed to Monk.

With the assistance of his brilliant wife Hester and long-time friend Rathbone, Monk endeavors to sort out the complexities of the disaster. Was it in some way connected to the construction of the Suez Canal, certain to be a boon to wealthy British shipping companies? Was the explosion intended to senselessly kill innocent people or were they collateral damage in an effort to murder one specific person? How and when was the bomb planted and by whom? Was there a motive or was this the work of a madman?

International intrigue seems afoot. Monk’s investigations are stonewalled by the rich and powerful. In the confusion and complexities of his inquiries Monk senses he may be the next victim.

With well-honed skill, Ms. Perry evokes the charm and tranquility of a lovely day on the river in Victorian London. Then she blasts that notion dramatically out of the water in the first pages. The prettiness of proper England is upturned, and the muddy, bloody bits of that era’s political and social turmoil surface in grim horror. Rather than the precise unpeeling of societal layers as happens in other of Ms. Perry’s books, Blood on the Water’s uses a more “sorting through the wreckage” approach. Yes, Ms. Perry still provides her trademark subtleties and internal, intuitive “ah ha!”s, but the pace is more energetic.

Pairing that energy with strong undercurrents (so to speak) of issues of justice, mercy, guilt, and institutional and political face-saving, Blood on the Water provides deep engagement on many layers. Who exactly are the guilty, and are they in fact brought to justice?

A compelling and thought-provoking read!

Wedding Cake: A Culinary Mystery book 12 by Josi S. Kilpack (Shadow Mountain, Dec. 2014)

As the twelfth and final book in Josi Kilpack’s popular “Culinary Mystery series”, Wedding Cake provides an exciting and suspenseful conclusion to this successful mystery series from Shadow Mountain. Just a couple days before the scheduled wedding of protagonist Sadie Hofmiller to long-time love interest Pete Cunningham, trouble with capital J turns up. Jane Seeley, a dangerous villain from a previous book is back, threatening and stalking Sadie and her family. While hoping to thwart the stalker’s murderous designs, many other characters familiar to those who have read previous books in the series show up for the festivities to stir things up and to resolve their own story lines.

Despite the author’s urging readers not to read this book until after reading others from this series, I dove right in making the last my first. Even though I couldn’t always guess who was an old familiar or a new character, my appreciation of the book wasn’t tainted by “spoilers.” In fact, the jaunty characters, pleasant and quirky townsfolk, quick wit of the dialogue and suspenseful plot made me now want to read the earlier books in this delectable series.

It takes a particular talent to create such an engaging, intelligent, funny and well-paced cozy mystery – not to mention an entire series of them. Ms. Kilpack has done just that. She is pitch perfect in harmonizing her sense of humor, knack for suspense, and her compelling story lines. The recipes included at the ends of the chapters add the perfect garnish.

If Josi Kilpack is as effective in the other 11 Culinary Mysteries as she is in Wedding Cake, I’ll have to go back for 2nds, 3rds…11ths?

Drop Zone by Traci Hunter Abramson (Covenant Communications, Oct. 2014)

Drop Zone, a new book in Abramson’s “Saint Squad” series, finds Paige Vickers, a psychiatric nurse with the CIA, taking on a new assignment as administrative assistant for Vanessa Johnson, an instructor for undercover operatives at the CIA’s training facility.

Damian Schmitt, a new transfer to the Saint Squad—an elite group of Navy SEALs, is nearly killed in a training exercise with the team. The team suspects the incident was no accident. Shortly thereafter, Schmitt is discouraged when the rest of the Squad leaves on a secret mission without including him. Tension mounts when the Squad vanishes after their deployment to the jungles of South America.

When Paige’s boss is endangered by the disappearance of the Squad, Paige and Damian go undercover together to Venezuela, the country of Damian’s childhood, to search for the other Saint Squad members.

Riveting plot twists and shocking turns keep the tension mounting for everyone – including the reader – as Paige and Damian seek the source of the attacks on the Saint Squad.

This is the first book by Traci Hunter Abramson I have read, but I found myself quickly and smoothly enveloped by the story. For some writers it is tricky to balance backstory with the introduction of new characters for a new reader. Ms. Abrahmson handles this nicely. I appreciated her skill creating distinct and interesting characters and the speedy clip of the plot line with an insider’s eye to intrigue and peril. (Ms. Abramson worked for the CIA.) It is also refreshing when an action-packed thriller limits its heavy breathing passages to what one would expect from running through jungles, tracking down bad guys, and arriving (hopefully) in the nick of time to rescue the good guys. For those who enjoy fast-paced suspense with exotic settings, plenty of explosions and a kindling love interest, this should more than satisfy.

Death on Blackheath: A Charlotte and Thomas Pitt Novel by Anne Perry (Ballantine Mar. 2014)

In this 29th book of prolific Anne Perry’s Pitt mystery novels, Thomas Pitt has been promoted to the commander of the powerful Special Branch, where his job is to keeping Britain safe from spies and traitors. Unlike his earlier service crime solving on the streets of Victorian London, his work is now hush-hush and distanced. A suspicious disappearance of a lady’s maid, the discovery of a woman’s mutilated body and the other indicting physical evidence launch readers into a complex braid of espionage, murder, duplicity and intrigue.

This is the first book in this series I have read. Thomas and Charlotte Pitt are vividly compelling characters facing the challenges of a new juncture in their lives. With a fine delicacy Ms. Perry allows us to see and feel their adjustments. I imagine that readers familiar with the couple from previous books would feel even more intimately connected to their internal lives.

Like other books by Anne Perry, the nuances and mores of Victorian England are as vital to the story as any specific plot point or character. This provides a meticulous exploration of motives and possibilities. It is in the minute details of an observed glance, body posture or facial expression where some of the most significant crime solving occurs. The world of this book is layered, interwoven, and subtle as is the story line itself. Peeling the layers makes this a book for reflective savoring rather than breathless page turning.

Tomorrow We Spy by Jordan McCollum (Durham Crest Books, Nov. 2014)

Tomorrow We Spy is the third and final book in Jordan McCollum’s “Spy Another Day” series. This time protagonist CIA operative Talia Reynolds (Fluker) is in Paris on her honeymoon with her aerospace engineer husband Danny, enjoying and adjusting to newly married life. She doesn’t get to luxuriate long before the CIA tracks them down for a top secret mission. There’s a big switch this time: the assignment is not for Talia — it’s for her husband Danny.

Danny’s the one with the background and network to connect with their target, a Russian FSB officer and aerospace executive. Talia, who has always been insistent on protecting Danny from the dangerous aspects of the spy life, goes undercover to accompany him.

Undercover life challenges Talia’s abilities to balance her personal and professional lives. When the FSB officer shakes their world, Talia hopes she has the talent and skills required to rescue Danny and save both their marriage and their lives.

This is the first book I have read in the “Spy Another Day” series. I imagine reading the previous books would provide more insight into Talia and Danny’s relationship, but the characters were skillfully enough drawn in Tomorrow We Spy that I was quickly caught up in the adventure.

And adventure it is! The settings for the action are wonderfully drawn with care and detail, capturing the reader enough to practically smell the brie or the borscht. The pace is lickety-split from the first chapter, carrying the reader eagerly along from plot twist to plot twist for the wild ride. Despite the dangerous encounters and intrigues, the reader is comfortably confident in Talia (and in the author) that the ride, though suspenseful, is a pleasure. The witty dialogue – internal and external – works to great effect in capturing the energy and humor of the escapades and the personalities of the characters.

The heart of the story, I feel, is not as much in the flash and sparkle of the plot, but in Talia’s interior work. What does it mean to be part of a team? What does it mean to be a spouse? How do partners learn to share and balance leadership? How does each person come to appreciate completely different skill sets? And, just for the thrill of it, how does one do this in the ultimate stressful situation where everything, including life, is at risk?

About Linda Hoffman Kimball

Linda Hoffman Kimball is an artist, writer, photographer, and poet who grew up as a faithful Christian near Chicago, & joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1971 while at Wellesley College near Boston. Early on she assumed that all Latter-day Saints were articulate, inquisitive, faithful, and socially engaged since her role models in the University wards in Cambridge, MA., were. Her husband says she is “fluent, but not native” in Mormon-ese. She is a founding member of Mormon Women for Ethical Government.

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