Category: Mystery Review

The Magic of Abracadabra by David Kranes

Time to take a look at a new mystery, Abracadabra by David Kranes, published by University of Nevada Press (November 1, 2017).

Elko Wells can find things that no one else can. His amazing ability surfaced after a severe head injury he received as a professional football player. When apparently normal, decent guy Mark Goodson fails to reappear on stage while serving as a volunteer during a magic act, Goodson’s wife hires Wells to track him down. Wading through the chaos that is Las Vegas at its liveliest, with the help of celebrity look-alikes and cocktail waitress sleuths, Wells follows the missing man’s trail.

Described as written in the noir tradition, this novel blasts along at a frenetic pace. David Kranes’s dialogue is whip fast and authentic. For example, you can sense the sparks in this exchange between Mark Goodson and his wife Lena (who wants to go to the Rhino):

“Can we still go to Picasso?”

“I thought we could go to…what was it called? The Rhino.”

“I want to go to Picasso.”

“Even though he cuts people up?”

“That makes one of us an accomplice.”

In case you didn’t know, the Rhino refers to an actual strip club or “gentlemen’s club.” Picasso is a Las Vegas restaurant.


Public domain photograph by Jean Beaufort


I love a book with a strong setting, and Abracadabra has setting in spades (sorry, I couldn’t resist). David Kranes lives in Salt Lake City, Utah where he is a professor emeritus at the University of Utah. It would appear, however, that he has spent a great deal of time in Las Vegas. He knows the different casinos, the games, the restaurants, and the people with the precision of an insider who has spent hours observing in real life.

For example, when the protagonist, Elko Wells, isn’t finding people he runs a celebrity look-alike service. When he spots someone who resembles Martin Sheen,  Elko follows him to see if the man has potential as an employee. Kranes’s description of the scene could only come from someone who knows his way around Las Vegas casinos:

Martin Sheen sits down and Elko does the same thing, a stool away. The possible Sheen orders a Dewar’s and water, slips in his club card, glides a hundred into a multigame validator and starts playing Double Double Bonus.

Apparently he is talking about some kind of slot machines.

The Bottom Line

Abracadabra would be a good choice for readers who love Las Vegas. It is also for those who want a fast-paced mystery with a noir spin.

See (and listen to) a review of Abracadabra by Mary Sojourner at KNAU

Disclosure: This book was provided for review purposes by the publisher. I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. If you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a small commission at not extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.

#BestsellerCode100: Writer’s Review of Daddy’s Gone A Hunting

Time to explore Daddy’s Gone A Hunting by Mary Higgins Clark from a writer’s perspective. The discussion began here.

This post may contain spoilers.

Daddy’s Gone A Hunting by Mary Higgins Clark

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:   Why does Kate Connelly ask a retired employee Gus to meet her at the family’s antique furniture museum at four thirty in the morning? What were they doing when the building explodes, leaving Gus dead and Kate in a coma?  Are they victims or perpetrators?

(Public domain photo via



In the Acknowledgements, Mary Higgins Clark writes that her editor of nearly forty years, Michael Korda, was the one who suggested “DNA” of the plot. As an example of domestic suspense (defined here), it centers around members of the Connelly family.

The story unfolds in a unique way. Clark writes a multitude of short chapters (97!) each revealing a small bit about a select group of characters before jumping to another. Because the chapters are so short, most only 2 to 5 pages long, the pages fly by.

At first it isn’t clear how the characters relate to one another, but over time the different threads start to come together until all is revealed at the end.


Daddy’s Gone a Hunting has many, many characters. The cast includes the members of the Connelly family, the Schmidts, the Sloane’s, the fire investigators, various police and private detectives, plant managers, lawyers, etc. The list goes on and on. Some characters seem to be included solely to serve as love interests for others. The main character is Kate Connelly, who ironically is in a coma for the majority of the book while others piece together how she ended up there.

As we’ve read through The Bestseller Code list, I’ve noticed a trend that more experienced authors have many more characters in their books than debut authors.  The debut novels The Silent Wife and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet have a limited cast of characters, whereas Easy Prey, the 11th in a series, has many characters. The most glaring exception is Primary Colors, which has the largest number of characters of any book we’ve read. Perhaps that is due to the fact the author is a reporter with many published articles before he wrote a work of fiction.

In the past I’ve tried to cut back the number of characters in my novel, but based on these bestsellers, perhaps that isn’t necessary or even desirable.


The setting is various regions of New York City. Clark seems to assume the reader is familiar with the city and treats locations in an offhand way.


Although I generally enjoy domestic suspense, I struggled with this novel. Each character was given such brief coverage, and the story jumped around so much, I found myself not caring what happened to any of them. I did wonder, however, if switching back and forth between different characters, plus the topic of family, were the reasons the computer algorithm picked it.

That said, I’m not ready to give up on this author. I’m going to look for some of her earlier titles.

Have you read Daddy’s Gone A Hunting by Mary Higgins Clark? Are you a fan of hers? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time after the discussion starts.

The next book is number 78. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris (2010) – Discussion begins September 4, 2014
Animal-themed humorous short stories

#BestsellerCode100: A Reader’s Review of Easy Prey by John Sandford

Easy Prey by John Sandford is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge.  This book is #11 in a series of twenty-seven (so far) novels starring Lucas Davenport, a police officer and war games designer.  Interestingly, all twenty-seven books include the word “Prey” in the title.  Does that tell you anything about the series?  In Easy Prey, the body count mounts quickly.  

This post does not contain spoilers.

Easy Prey* by John Sandford

This review is written about the first half of the book, up to Chapter 19.

Police Procedural

Easy Prey is a police procedural novel, which means that the murder mystery is solved by those trained to solve murders, the police, and the story is heavy on the police process.  This is a new type of mystery for me to read and, so far, I like it.  As Roberta mentioned in her Writer’s Review, this book has a lot of characters, but I’ve been able to follow along and keep them all straight without too much difficulty.  I was struck by the amount of detail Sandford gives for each character. For example, in Chapter 6 we are introduced to Lapstrake, a police officer from the Intelligence division.

Lapstrake was a bland, twenty-something guy with a home haircut who wore blue Sears work pants and a blue shirt that said “Cairn’s Glass” on the back.

A blue shirt wasn’t descriptive enough.  Sandford added “Cairn’s Glass” to the back of it.  I had to wonder why Cairn’s Glass, if that would be significant to the story later on, but it did succeed in making Lapstrake’s character more memorable.

Appreciation of Women

Lucas Davenport is not your typical police officer.  For one thing, he’s wealthy; he invented board games to supplement his police income, which turned into computer games and led to his own company selling simulations to law enforcement.  For another, Davenport has an innate appreciation of women, especially beautiful women.  He notices and responds to small things about women that seem atypical of a middle-aged male, let alone a street-hardened cop.  For example, in Chapter 2 he interacts with the wife of a friend:

She and Lucas had always liked each other, and if things had been different, if the Clays hadn’t been quite so happy with each other…She smelled good, like some kind of faintly perfumed soap.

Later, when Davenport is home, he continues to think of her:

Clean, mellow, starting to fade, the memory of Verna Clay’s scent still on his mind, he dropped into bed. He was asleep in five minutes, a small easy smile on his face.

Each woman Davenport interacts with affects him in some physical way, and he interacts with several in this book, in multiple ways.  I feel I’m at a bit of a disadvantage, meeting Davenport midway through the “Prey” series; throughout the book there are mentions of past relationships that I am certain were main themes in previous novels.  He is a character that I want to see from the very beginning in order to watch his growth and learn how far he’s come.

Bodies Galore

I’m only halfway through the book, but the body count is up to six and potentially there are at least two different killers, maybe more.  It’s a lot to keep track of, and even more to consider for motives and means, but I’m hooked.  I’m eager to finish this review so I can get back to reading!  And then I’ll have to track down the first book in the “Prey” series, Rules of Prey.

Do you like police procedural mysteries?  What did you think of Easy Prey?

Related posts (links will be added as posts go live):

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

Join us on social media:


What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog.

The next book is number 85. The Klone and I by Danielle Steel (1998) – Discussion begins June 12, 2017.
Touted as a high-tech love story.

The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott

J. Todd Scott‘s debut novel, The Far Empty, starts out with a bang:

“My father has killed three men.”

With tough, gritty language the narrator describes what happened to the three men his father killed, interlaced with evidence that his father’s three wives all died or disappeared under mysterious circumstances as well. Is the narrator’s father a hardened criminal? No, he’s the local sheriff.

J. Todd Scott’s The Far Empty*

(*Amazon Affiliate link)


The story is told from the points of view of several characters. In the prologue, the first person narrator turns out to be seventeen-year-old Caleb Ross, whose mature voice belies his age. Caleb has seen way too much in his young life.

After the prologue, each chapter is named for the character who narrates it (from the third person point of view.) For example, “Chris” is Deputy Chris Cherry, who responds to the call when a rancher discovers a body on his land. At first Chris thinks it might be an immigrant who died of exposure — a common occurrence  in that area — until he notices that someone tied the arms with zip-ties. Realizing the implications of what he sees, he investigates the murder and unknowingly triggers a violent chain of events.


The setting is the fictional town of Murfee, Texas. It is located in the wide open spaces near Big Bend National Park, a harsh area along the border of Texas and Mexico. People really do die there and law enforcement officers aren’t always whom they seem.

Big-Bend-J. Todd Scott

Public domain photo via Visual hunt

The Author

As mentioned in a recent  book beginnings post, J. Todd Scott visited our writing group last Friday. He told us about his journey to becoming a published author.


Like many of us, he got his start with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

Because J. Todd Scott has a job as a DEA agent, he gets up two hours early every weekday morning to write, trying for 600 words per day.  It is working because he has two more novels due out over the next two years.

He mentioned that although the stories of the new novels follow characters from The Far Empty, the next two will be branded as mysteries rather than western crime because they are set in other locations.

A bit of a maverick by modern writing standards, Todd revealed he didn’t share his work with critique groups or beta readers. His agent was the first person to read his first novel. Perhaps that’s why his voice is so strong and clear, because it is not sanded down by the comments of others.


When some members of my writing group said how much they enjoyed The Far Empty, I was excited to get my hands on it.

The author develops powerful and interesting characters. Although it’s a cliché, you will love some of the characters and others you will love to hate. I’ll admit that at first the multiple character narration was a bit disorienting. Who is this person and how do they relate to the others? I gave it a chance, however, and things came into focus.

J. Todd Scott has a unique voice, writing with a combination of English major prose and law enforcement realism. These two ingredients make The Far Empty a novel that will stick with you.

Have you read The Far Empty? What did you think of it?

#BestsellerCode100: Reader’s Review The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest by Steig Larsson

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, by Steig Larsson, is next on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge.  You can read Roberta’s kick-off description here.

This post contains spoilers.

Steig Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest*

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Stieg Larsson first introduces us to Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (check out my review at Musings, Mischief, and Mayhem), where Lisbeth and Mikael team up to solve the mysterious disappearance of 16-year-old girl more than forty years ago.  The Girl Who Played With Fire continues the saga, with Lisbeth eventually confronting her father, the terror of her childhood, with disastrous consequences.  In The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, Larsson pulls the various story lines from the preceding books together for a thrilling conclusion.

When I first saw this book on our list, I knew I would be reading all three books in the trilogy for a couple of reasons:

  1. I hate reading books out of order
  2. To compare the three books to figure out why only the third book showed up on our list

Each of the books in this trilogy became bestsellers, so why did the computer “kick out” this particular book as the best of the best and not the first two in the trilogy?

After reading all three books, I believe the answer is in the level of human interaction that Lisbeth achieves in this third book.  More than one character throughout the books made the observation that Lisbeth might be autistic.  She has extreme difficulties making and maintaining friendships and in sharing personal details about herself with others.  Partly this is a learned response – during her childhood, authorities repeatedly ignored her statements and requests.  Even worse, there was a government group that conspired to incarcerate her in a mental institution as a preteen in order to protect the identity of her father.  But even Lisbeth knows she’s different; she just doesn’t view friendships and social norms the same as others do.  She expends great energy, time, and expense in the first two books protecting her personal privacy to the point of anonymity.  Yes, that’s partly due to safety issues, but also because that’s how she prefers it.  Even those closest to her have learned they will never really know anything personal about her.

Personal Crisis → Growth?

In The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, though, Lisbeth undergoes a trial by fire that brings her to a personal crisis.  She must decide whether to take the advice of others, to rely upon others, to resolve her legal issues.  Without their help, it’s certain that she will end up incarcerated in a mental institution for the rest of her life.   Only with their help does she have a chance to be free.  And then when she achieves that legal freedom, Lisbeth goes through more personal conflict before she ultimately admits to herself that she has friends, that she needs friends, that she wants friends, and opens herself and her life up to them.

Larsson’s trilogy is Lisbeth Salander’s story, and it is in this third, and final, book that we see real character growth in her. Without this growth, even though the series wraps up nicely, we would not care as much for Lisbeth.  If she continued her solitary life, continued to ignore and block out of her life those who helped her, all she went through in the three books would have been pointless.  She might as well have allowed those conspiring against her to lock her back up.  Instead, Larsson allows Lisbeth to open the door to a potentially more fulfilling life.  And that, I believe, is reason enough for book three to make the 100 Books List.

What did you think of The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

  1. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest landing page
  2. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

After you finish the book, you might want to drop by to take our survey.


You can also join us on social media:

Do you have suggestions for ways to improve this reading challenge? We’d love to hear them.


What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog.

The next book is number 93 on the list, Olive Kitterage by Elizabeth Strout (2008) – Discussion begins February 13, 2017.  This books is classified as Literary Fiction.

Craig Johnson (Longmire Series) @poisonedpen Bookstore

Have you ever met Craig Allen Johnson, who is the author of the famed Longmire Mystery series?

Johnson was in Arizona recently to discuss the release of his newest novella,  The Highwayman.


(Amazon Affiliate Link)

We are lucky in Arizona because The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale regularly brings in top-notch authors to give talks. Even better, they record many of the events and post the videos on Livestream. Being able to watch on your own schedule is so helpful for those of us who are constantly overbooked.

If you have a few minutes, check out how living on a Wyoming ranch adds balance to Craig Johnson’s life and creates the setting for his books.



It is such a treat to get the inside scoop on what the author’s typical writing day is like. In this case, Johnson talks to his horses and ends his work day looking up at the stars in the clear Wyoming skies.

The discussion about the novella length is also fascinating. There’s the impression a novella is a short story, but really it is a 200 page novel. Johnson convinces us that sometimes the story shouldn’t be padded with extra words just to meet the novel-length page requirements.

John is a staunch plotter, writing from an outline he sets up ahead of time. He says it helps prevent the potential from writer’s block because he always knows what is coming next.

I think watching interviews like these help inspire and inform one’s own work. What do you think?

Are you a fan of the book series? What about the TV series based on the books?

If you watch the video, what parts resonated with you?



Photo via Visualhunt

Disclosure:  I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. If you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.





Logical #Mystery The Nine Mile Walk: The Nicky Welt Stories of Harry Kemelman

Author Harry Kemelman is best known for his mystery series featuring Rabbi David Small, but he also wrote short stories featuring a college professor named Nicky Welt. The Nine Mile Walk: The Nicky Welt Stories of Harry Kemelman is a collection of these short stories.


(Amazon Affiliate link)

In all his stories, Kemelman’s protagonists use logic to solve crimes, but nothing beats the pure logic of “The Nine Mile Walk”  (text available online).


Modified slightly, the short story is also available as in a two-part video.

First part:

2nd part:


It is a short, but highly-entertaining mystery.


(Public domain)

Have you read Harry Kemelman’s books? What do you think of them?

#amreading #mystery: Camelback Falls by Jon Talton

A friend who lives in Arizona recently recommended the David Mapstone series by Jon Talton. Because I am reading mysteries as a way to study the craft of writing, this will be more of a discussion of writing techniques than a general review.

This post contains affiliate links to Amazon.

Let’s start with Camelback Falls, although it is the second in the David Mapstone Mystery series.


Main character David Mapstone began his career working in the sheriff’s department of Maricopa County, Arizona. After a detour to train as a historian, he found himself back in the sheriff’s department. When the newly elected sheriff who has been his mentor is shot, Mapstone must find out who did it and hopefully clear his mentor’s name.


The first thing I noticed when reading was the rhythm of Talton’s words. Even though he sets his stories in the Sonoran desert, the cadence reminds me of the uneven staccato of the rain on pavement. I have to admit it took me a couple of pages to adjust to his voice after having just read the slowly ambling prose of Elizabeth George. Once familiar with it, however, the driving beat was compelling.

Many mystery authors write using a third person point of view, but Talton writes in the first person. The distinct advantage of first person is that there are no confusing shifts in voice or perspective. It can be limiting, however, because it only tells one person’s story. It also can be difficult to show action because the main character must always be involved. Talton adroitly overcomes the limitations by adding certain characters with a wider perspective of events and by moving Mapstone around to follow the action (even though as acting sheriff realistically he might have been trapped in his office). Kudos to Talton, because that is hard to pull off in a mystery.

One intriguing pattern in this novel was that most of the male characters tended to be either mentors or adversaries. Few men were neutral or friends. As Mapstone interviews the women characters, on the other hand, they impart many of the clues to that help wrap up the mystery. I wonder whether the choice of helpful females was a conscious decision as a way to define Mapstone’s character or an unconscious choice by Talton. Because he is an experienced journalist, I suspect the former.

In any case, Camelback Falls is a enjoyable mystery to read, and delving more deeply, an informative case study of the writing process.

Have you read any of the David Mapstone mysteries? What did you think?




#amreading #mystery: Revealing the Strengths of Lisa Gardner’s Hide

Have you read any Lisa Gardner mysteries? I have been reading through her D.D. Warren series, and I have to say my new favorite is Hide (A Detective D.D. Warren Novel).

This title really stands out for a couple of reasons. First of all Annabelle, even though she is at the brunt of some of the villain’s wrongdoing (victim/potential victim), gets as strong a role as some of the law enforcement characters. Including the victims’ viewpoints gives Gardner’s books an interesting emotional core because their reactions are more intense and direct.

Second, I love that Bobby Dodge, who got pretty beat up in the last book (Alone), has a better time of it in this one. To say anything more would be a spoiler.

The main reason Hide works so well, however, has to to do with Annabelle’s motivations. Having recently read a Writer Unboxed blog post about The Duplicity of A Character’s Desire, it seemed like a good time to evaluate how desire worked in this novel. Annabelle’s desire to find out who her father was, why he kept her family on the run throughout her childhood, and ultimately her desire to discover whether or not she can have a more normal adulthood align to make her a clear and compelling character. Many of Lisa Gardner’s characters wander off into the realm of unreliable narrator, which is fine. Keeping Annabelle confined to a clear path, however, made this particular book more satisfying.

The bottom line is that although the Annabelle character spent her childhood in hiding, the act of revealing her desires to others ultimately makes Hide a highly enjoyable read.


What do you think?



Mystery Review: The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz

Let’s start out with a mystery that you could feel comfortable recommending to a young adult or even your mother because it is completely devoid of violent murders. The Spellman Files  by Lisa Lutz is about a unconventional family (read dysfunctional) of private investigators who often spend more time investigating each other than criminals. It is the first of a six book series (list on authors website.)

Although the books are touted as humorous, be aware that Lutz’s humor runs towards the deadpan. You have to pay attention to catch all the improbably funny situations.

You can get a feel for her wacky humor in this video about another in the series, Trail of the Spellmans.

If you have trouble getting the jokes, you should think about what it might be like to be an author at a book signing.

Speaking of book signings, I met Lisa Lutz at the Tucson Festival of Books last weekend. There she revealed she wrote The Spellman Files as a screenplay first and revised it to be a stand alone novel. She also said that if she had known the Spellmans would become a series, she wouldn’t have killed off one of the characters.

If you are tired of the standard meaty fare, give the The Spellman Files a try. It is a light fruit salad of a mystery, perfect for a warm summer night.

Have you read The Spellman Files? What did you think of it?


Disclosure: This book was purchased and signed at a book signing. Also, I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title or image link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website

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