WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – FIND HER, and many other books by Lisa Gardner

FIND HER cover

A couple of decades ago an editor at one of the big publishing houses talked with me about the proliferation of “woman-in-jeopardy” plots filling the drug store bookshelves and occasionally making their way onto bestseller lists. She was cranky about the lookalike plots incorporating stalking villains and “plucky” (her word, taken from innumerable reviews) women protagonists who typically started as victims before “turning the table” on the bad guys.

As she put it:

“There’s always this point – I can predict it exactly – where she suddenly ‘takes charge’ and begins to turn it all around . . .”

She wasn’t disparaging the authors or the readers. She was merely commenting on the enduring popularity of the formula pioneered (or at least made famous by) Mary Higgins Clark. Unfortunately, as someone who had to read umpteen books a week, she had gotten bored with the whole idea, even though she knew she could count on it when arguing for which books to acquire.

Years later, the drug store shelves are still full of these books. Yet there are a handful of writers (a handful who I know of, at least), who have taken what appears to be an ounce of inspiration in the formula and created a darker, richer and far more interesting way to tell these types of stories.

Lisa Gardner is at the very top of that list. All of the Gardner books I’ve read have been centered around a woman in danger. The women are always complicated in a “damaged” sort of way. And they’re always darkest in the Detective D.D. Warren series.

In The Neighbor, for example, Sandra Jones is a blond, pretty teacher who’s married to a nice, good-looking guy and who lives to dote on her young daughter. After encountering an intruder in her picture-perfect home she disappears, leaving her husband and daughter behind, and then reveals, in a series of first-chapters, the bizarre but believable connections between her tortured childhood, jaunts into the city for anonymous sex, and the strong possibility that her husband isn’t nice at all. As a narrator, she’s unreliable, untrustworthy, and completely engaging.

In Fear Nothing, the first person chapters of the woman-in-danger are narrated by Dr. Adeline Glen, the daughter of a serial killer and sister of his other child, who followed in his footsteps. Dr. Glen is a woman who studies pain management, and who cannot feel physical pain on her own. She’s a professional therapist who will tell you she’s dedicated her life to helping people. What she  probably won’t tell you though, is why she cuts and peels away the skin of a traveling salesman as he drifts off to sleep after a brief, carefully-planned, sexual encounter.

In FIND HER, the woman-in-trouble brings that trouble on herself, masquerading as a would-be victim to hunt men who would do harm to other women. Her name is Flora Dane. She survived over 400 days in captivity, spending most of that time in a coffin-sized box. When she’s rescued she learns everything she can about self-defense, but is soon swept back into a horror show almost as bad as what she’s endured before.

This story has everything you want in a thriller – a high-stakes plot; a brisk pace without one wasted word; and characters who step off the page and hang around in your head. It also has one of my favorite detectives in D.D. Warren, the most likable alpha girl you’re apt to meet if you come into contact with the Boston P.D.

D.D. is as tough as the boys and even smarter than she needs to be on the job. Meaning, in FIND HER, she can look at a male bad-guy victim who’s been burned alive in a chemical fire (believe me, he had it coming) with nothing more than a grimace before expertly leading the investigation of his death. In the process she collaborates with a victim specialist and the FBI without the over-used who’s-on-who’s-turf? plot device, and dedicates every ounce of her ability to finding the missing woman even though she doesn’t really like or trust her. D.D. also lives for a greater reason than her professional calling – to make it home safe at every night to be with her husband and daughter.

In this book, like the others in the series, D.D. leads the effort to solve the crime with a keen curiosity about psychology and an ability to get along well with others while staying true to her get-it-done nature. After reading a lot of Lisa Gardner’s work, including the Acknowledgments sections at the end of her books, I have a special appreciation for how she created a character strong enough to stick with in this long series. She set out out long ago to learn everything she could about crime and the investigative process, a task that was undoubtedly made easier by her respect for the profession (she is, indeed, someone who would be well-liked by the police chiefs and sheriffs I meet in my day job). And she does a wonderful job of tapping what she’s learned to share interesting crime-scene knowledge amid the fast-moving narratives of her work.

In this scene, for example, where D.D. and her team go to the former site of a mental hospital, which is now a park where they’ve found buried bodies in the past, Gardner tells us:

“Laypeople generally gravitated toward the mound when digging for a body. Experienced pros like Boston’s ME department, however, knew better. The mound was formed from all the displaced dirt the killer had excavated from the grave – digging down, dumping shovelfuls of soil to the side. The depression, that was the grave. Where the subject had interred the body, then covered it with enough soil to make it relatively level. Never once considering the effects of putrefaction. That flesh and muscle would eventually decay, slide off the bones, melt into the very ground. That if blowflies found a way to lay eggs on the body before it was interred, this process would happen even faster.”

Gardner’s books are enriched by many crime scene descriptions like this, strengthening her narratives and never slowing them down. They’re all part of the world she’s created around D.D. Warren – and in the characters of her “Quincy” series revolving around FBI profilers. The Next Accident was the first book I read in the Quincy FBI series – and one I still think about as an example of what to strive for in writing thrillers. Gardner is now also finding ways for the characters in these two different series to collaborate with each other.  In FIND HER, for example, D.D. has a phone conversation with Agent Kimberly Quincy, who provides some unique insights into the investigation around Flora’s disappearance. The interaction is completely believable, and shows why Agent Quincy is also worth spending time with once you’ve worked your way through D.D.’s adventures.

While I have absolutely no idea how Lisa Gardner turns out two and perhaps three novels every year, I’m glad she’s able to keep up the pace and ensure we’re rarely without the opportunity to be thrilled, and rewarded, by these darkly compelling stories.

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WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – CRAZY LOVE YOU by Lisa Unger

CRAZY LOVE YOU cover

Crazy Love You

by Lisa Unger

“Worldbuilding” is a term that typically describes the process of creating the richly detailed alternate realities we find in works ranging from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones to the Harry Potter series. These settings are overtly different places peopled by characters with odd and magical traits. You know from the beginning you’re in an imagined universe. It also happens to a different degree in works by John Farris, Richard Matheson, Stephen King and other thrillermeisters who take the richly detailed real world we know so well and integrate an extra dimension where the supernatural becomes completely believable.

In CRAZY LOVE YOU, Lisa Unger has built a world where characters from the pages of graphic novels may or may not be three dimensional flesh and blood people. It’s a place experienced by narrator Ian Rankin as he grapples with genetic mental illness juxtaposed with substance abuse and occasional promises of redemption that are like rays of sunlight breaking through storm clouds.

Unger’s powerful descriptions of what Ian “sees” depict a Gotham City-like New York where hulking men in monster masks push innocent women in front of subway trains and where detectives may or may not be bludgeoned to death moments before flames leap through apartment building windows. A place where Ian’s beloved childhood friend, “Priss,” lives without a fixed address and appears at points of her choosing to seduce and cajole Ian, reminding him all the while that she is a dominant force who will always make him bend to her will. Amid the sad memories of Ian’s childhood, Priss is a woodland waif with ephemeral qualities who avenges bullies with terrifying results. On the pages of Ian’s graphic novels she is a sexually dominating Amazon who becomes terrifying mostly because of Ian’s memories of what she did to those bullies during their childhoods.

The story would be successful enough if you simply came to believe all of the horrors Ian faces are in his mind. Yet it becomes extravagantly successful when the horrors begin to leap off the page – when you come to believe that the world Ian has created actually is the world in which he lives.The visuals Unger describes are so powerful, in fact, that one night, as I watched this amazing video of Disturbed’s rendition of The Sound of Silence, I imagined what it might be like to find myself planted right into the engine of Ian’s mind. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9Dg-g7t2l4

As a storyteller with a day job as a ghostwriter and as someone with tremendous respect for graphic and commercial artists and advertising and PR types, I have a special appreciation for something else Unger does in this novel. Through the power of her storytelling she made me want to learn more about graphic novels as an art form. Her narrator Ian references the fact that they’re sometimes viewed – disdainfully or not – as “comic books,” but she creates the sense that the visuals conjured by Ian could set him apart. I kept thinking, in fact, of illustrations from his novels being blown up into works of art, Ray Lichtenstein-style, and appearing on gallery walls. In other words, Unger made me believe that in a saner, happier world, Ian’s talent might have transcended the limits of the graphic novel genre.

All of which brings me to the most important thing that should be said about Lisa Unger’s work. She’s writing stories of suspense, which as a genre is often maligned by the literary set. She’s an undisputed master – well-loved by many other bestsellers – who tells stories that truly will make a six-hour plane ride feel like a wonderful journey elsewhere. But from the time I found her – perhaps six or seven years ago – I recognized that her writing rises to a higher level than some people might expect in this genre. In novels such as Beautiful Lies and Silver of Truth and In the Blood – which was the best thriller I read in 2015 – she completely eschews the shortcuts writers often use for descriptions on the fly, and always finds a more meaningful way to convey both physical appearances and the emotions of her characters.

Here, for example is a passage from early on in CRAZY LOVE YOU, after Ian meets Megan (“a good girl – the kind you take home to your parents”). In this first encounter, Ian is already imagining how she’d look on the page.

“Was she going to apologize? I wondered. If I were writing her, what would I have her do? I’d like to get that little wiggle in her eyebrows, that tightness of uncertainty around her eyes, the just-barely-there embarrassed smile. It’s all those little muscles under the skin; they dance in response to limbic impulses we can’t control. It’s their subtle shifting and moving that make expression.”

As it turns out Meg does find her way into the pages of Ian’s work as she becomes a part of his life. While there are plenty of wonderful moments when you can’t aptly tell the difference between what Ian is creating and experiencing, they all add up to surreal journey to a world where nightmares happen in daylight, and where belief is every bit as valid as the truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – HIT AND RUN BY DOUG JOHNSTONE

HIT AND RUN, by Doug Johnstone

HIT AND RUN jpg

A driving factor of successful storytelling is your true belief, as the writer, in the story you’re telling. Meaning, you often feel as if you’re reporting it as opposed to creating it, because there’s absolutely no doubt that it’s really happening. That belief is fostered as your characters break away from your carefully-crafted outline and start speaking for themselves, which makes you feel like you’re simply listening to them and just typing as fast as you can to get it all down. And it’s clinched in those final scenes when everything you imagined and believed comes together with a wham-pow ending that unequivocally assures you that these final lines were where you were headed all along.

That’s the way I felt when I got to the final draft of Fatal Option. Fanciful thoughts aside, I didn’t really believe it actually happened. Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about how easily it could have happened. For years I’ve been mildly obsessed with drunk driving disasters involving the kind of good people we live and work with every day. The story was real enough to me because it’s happened thousands of time in real life.

But then it got a little weirder, when I found myself Googling my characters by name – wondering what it would be like to see an image pop up that eerily replicates the picture of the person that I had in my mind. Thanks to the power of the Internet it was only a matter of time before searching for terms like “man convicted of drunk driving and manslaughter” and “hit and run” led me to . . .  well, a novel called HIT AND RUN.

It’s written by a guy named Doug Johnstone, from Scotland. It’s about a newspaper reporter, Billy Blackmore, who’s living a reckless life of partying fueled by pills stolen by his physician brother, Charlie. Billy, Charlie, and Billy’s girlfriend Zoe are heading home with narcotic filled bloodstreams after a night of partying when Billy, the driver, crests the rise of a hill and stares up at the moon instead of down at the road. There’s an “almighty jolt in the car and a monstrous crashing noise,” and when they stop they find they’ve killed a man.

This gripping opening scene kicks off a “one-lie-leads-to-another” kind of story that leads Billy into deeper and deeper trouble with every chapter. The narrative is completely captivating. You read it with dread but can’t turn away. In terms of the accident, you know Billy “brought it on himself” because of the drinking and drugs and driving, but it’s easy to understand why he chooses – with prodding from Charlie and Zoe – not to turn himself in when the victim is already beyond saving. Unlike Charlie and Zoe, he’s emotionally addled by guilt from the beginning, and unable to ignore his intuition that trying to get away with the crime will lead to more misfortune. He’s right, because the accident triggers wave after wave of violence, described with a driving pace and powerfully evocative writing leading up to a crisis of conscience that Johnstone deals with perfectly.

Which leads me to this true confession. I started reading HIT AND RUN because I was interested in the parallels between Johnstone’s lead character and mine. They’re both good guys who do a bad thing and try to get away with it. Some readers will think Johnstone’s good guy is less sympathetic than mine because he was doing party drugs when it happened, unlike my guy, who was just trying to rescue his daughter. But they’re both likable people worth spending a couple of hours with as you turn the pages.

Fortunately, or not, if you read both books you’ll see that HIT AND RUN is a better book when it comes to the perfection of the writing and the settings that come to life with Johnstone’s carefully rendered descriptions. This is actually a wonderful thing for me as a writer who lives to be inspired by other writers – someone who loves discovering writers who also remind me how awesome it is to be completely captivated by the kind of story you wish you could tell on your own. The kind of story that you keep on your bookshelf for those moments when you want to challenge yourself to work just a bit harder to find the perfect phrase or even the perfect twist.

That’s the way I felt as I read HIT AND RUN, knowing there are many different ways to tell similar stories, and acknowledging how wonderful it is to experience the work of, and learn from, a master of the genre.

 

WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – THE KIND WORTH KILLING by Peter Swanson

THE KIND WORTH KILLING

By Peter Swanson

THE KIND WORTH KILLING cover

I went through a bad spell at my day job a few years ago. It began in March. I was working for a woman who had been a friend for over three years.She’d always had a reputation for creating discord that engendered a kind of mean-girl hatred around the office but I was a nice guy who’d never experienced it firsthand. That began to change when she called me into her office to talk about a client budget and kept me waiting while she gave one of her kids a lecture about homework over the phone. I’d heard this biting, “no-nonsense” tone before, because there had been so many of these conversations with children and stepchildren that had bled into the work day. Her eyes met mine and then narrowed as I stood at the door, giving me the feeling there was something kind of craziness going on behind them. Assuming the call had come in unexpectedly, I listened for about two seconds before stepping back out because I didn’t want to intrude.

I went back to my office and waited for her to call and apologize for delaying the meeting, and to let me know she was ready to see me. When that didn’t happen I sent her an email:

Let me know when you’re ready to meet about the budget.

Her response came a millisecond later:

Uh – 15 minutes ago.  I’ve been waiting.

I frowned as I read it, wondering if I’d somehow misread the encounter – wondering if she had actually expected me to stand there like an underling and listen while she berated her son. I picked up my notebook and tried to ignore my off-centered feeling as I headed back into her office.

The crazy eye-narrowing thing happened again as I stepped through the door. In retrospect I remember two reactions. One was that I had somehow taken the place of the 14-year-old son who had behaved so egregiously. The second was that I was actually caught up in some really odd stuff going through her mind, and that the meeting request and the phone conversation and the delayed start were all carefully orchestrated to break my kneecaps even before I sat down across from her desk.

Both reactions were on target, because the next several months were filled with wide-awake nights that forced me to realize I was dealing with a sociopath who had a scheme to build up her prestige in the office by taking me down, and make-believe days when I actually thought I might be able to change her. Despite the gut feeling that virtually all of her life’s satisfaction came from sucking the life out of “weaker” beings, I did my best to stick to my belief that there’s good in every soul, if you can just find a way to bring it out.

If you’re rolling your own eyes now, you’re right. It didn’t happen. Every moment of projected goodwill on my part only pushed her further into her determination to instill pain that had nothing to do with the quality of the work and everything to do with her obsessive need to press her foot into my neck and pin me to the ground. It would have been bad enough if I hadn’t read Gone Girl during the middle of it. As you probably know, the book was about a sociopath who was attractive and charming and more evil than any villain you’re apt to remember. But it became even more terrifying as I came to realize I was completely outgunned when it came to the mind games, that made me feel like a blind-folded duck in a real-life shooting gallery virtually every day.

Which brings me to the point of this review . . . about brilliantly written books about brilliantly bad people who look and outwardly act like the normal people we encounter every day. Gone Girl”s Amy was that character. THE KIND WORTH KILLING has two of them. It’s a story about a guy who finds out his wife is a cheater and who gives in to a seductive ploy by a seductive woman who offers to kill her. The wife, Miranda, is shallow-bad – a sorority babe who marries for money and hatches a short-cut scheme to acquire her husband’s riches. She describes her plans in first-person narration without the slightest moment of conscience. Lily, the woman who plans to kill her, is more analytically bad, because she comes up with reasons to justify her crimes. My old boss didn’t succeed in her scheme. In fact years of badness brought her world down like a house of cards. But as you watch Lily’s mechanizations you’ll experience the kind of charisma that makes it feel like she’s going to get away with everything. Both of the men who are caught up in the story’s noirish turns are perfectly depicted as saps – a la William Hurt losing his mind to Kathleen Turner in the 1980s hit, Body Heat. Both of the women come off as 10 times smarter, and capable of more bad things than either guy could imagine.

Conventional wisdom (which Gillian Flynn and Peter Swanson probably heard from plenty of agents and publishers) is that “there always has to be one character to root for.”  Fortunately, they both mostly ignored that mindset. Both of the unreliable narrators in Gone Girl are bad (although Amy’s a lot worse) . . . and Swanson waits until THE KIND WORTH KILLING is about two-thirds over before bringing in the good-guy-you-want-to-root-for (a cute detective who writes limericks). But as nearly 1,700 Amazon customer reviews testify, Swanson’s book is a whirlpool that sucks you in deeper and deeper, thanks to characters that are just too disturbingly true-to-life. It’s the best bad-character book I’ve read since Gone Girl – with a story that will encourage me to pay far more attention the next time I see that scarily shrewd narrowing of the eyes from someone I thought I knew so well.

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WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – ROGUE MISSION by Jeffrey S. Stephens

ROGUE MISSION

by Jeffrey S. Stephens

ROGUE MISSION cover

Thriller writers can evoke different kinds of fear. There’s that boogeyman kind of fear you feel as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs heads down the stairs to the basement where Jame Gumb is waiting to cut away her skin. There’s the psychologically scary “this can’t be happening” fear you feel when Tessie from The Lottery opens the white slip with the black dot, a nightmarish moment that might forever change the way you view “normality” in your life. And then there’s the slow-burn fear you feel as you scroll through CNN headlines and realize that the terrorism that’s happening in the real world could suddenly hit right here and now.

That’s the kind of fear that crept up on me as I experienced the unfolding events in Jeffrey Stephens’ ROGUE MISSION, the latest thriller featuring CIA operative Jordan Sandor. As someone who spends a good bit of the work week in Washington, DC in a job that requires me to pay attention to politics, I’ll admit to having a certain mindset. In the hour or so before I head to my office I typically scan half a dozen headlines that have something to do with terrorism “somewhere else.” Many days I purposefully push the knowledge that it could/might/probably will happen in my beloved Nation’s Capital into the locked room at the back of my mind.

Fortunately, terrorism hasn’t happened in DC in the years since 911. Unfortunately, Jeffrey Stephens has stepped up my fear of how easily it could happen thanks to his clear and compelling understanding of geopolitics and the ease with which terrorists can infiltrate trusted financial, humanitarian and governmental sectors. Like other Jordan Sandor stories, the plot takes the CIA operative to places around the world, this time in what really is a “rogue mission” fostered by his ability to connect dots that no one else is able to see. From the opening scenes, which show how easy it could be to sneak explosives into a U.S. Courthouse (scenes I actually read while on jury duty!), you know something big and terrible is coming. You don’t learn what it is for certain until way later in the story, but that won’t stop your mind from wondering “is it this  . . . ? Or this . . . ?”

Eventually I learned the scenario was actually more hateful than an attack on my city, which hopefully is fortified and surveilled well-enough to fend off the kind of terror ROGUE MISSION’s villains are plotting to unleash. That revelation showed an extra level of depravity among the bad guys who are the architects of the death and destruction, and spurred my disgust at those who are complicit either because of naively leftist mindsets and actions, or because they have something to gain from it.

Stephens’ ability to evoke the “oh God, this could really happen?” kind of fear is just one reason why this thriller will appeal to fans of Jack Du Brul, Brad Thor, Daniel Silva and the late Vince Flynn. A few other reasons include Jordan Sandor’s wise-cracking personality, adeptness with violence, and indisputable moral code. You’re going to laugh fairly often at his snarky, snappy comebacks to assertions of authority. You’re going to marvel at the way he handles his guns, knives and fists. But what you’ll admire most is his devout loyalty to his friends and his country as the driving force in everything he does. Simply put, he’s a lot like Jack Bauer with a sense of humor, or a more realistically imaginable Jack Reacher, and ultimately the kind of friend you’d love to have in real life.

For these reasons and more, ROGUE MISSION is one of the best books I’ve read in this genre. I wasn’t just captivated by it. I believed every word of it. So much so that when I reached the last page and looked from the living room of my DC apartment toward my straight-on view of the White House I actually had to check the lock on that door to that back room on my mind and tell myself: “It won’t happen here.”

That is, unless Jeffrey Stephens decides to write it that way in his next Jordan Sandor novel, which I will have no choice but to read.

 

WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – SON OF A GUN and FOUNDERS’ KEEPER, by Ed Markham

 

SON OF A GUN and FOUNDERS’ KEEPER, by Ed Markham

SON OF A GUN  FOUNDERS' KEEPER COVER

Based on its essential role in everything I write, buy, or watch, I expect the Internet knows me pretty well by now. Every once in a while I get a sign that that might actually be a good thing – most recently through Amazon, where a team of people behind a mysterious curtain tracks my browsing habits and online reviews to come up with books that I have a good chance of liking.

The latest recommendations are for the work of Ed Markham, author of SON OF A GUN and FOUNDERS’ KEEPER. Because the lineup I see most mornings when I log on is full of brand name authors, I hadn’t heard of him. But at some point, thanks to Amazon, I ordered his thriller, SON OF A GUN. I started it on a Sunday night with that “I’ll just read a few pages before I go to sleep.” mindset. An hour later I was a third of the way through, and completely spellbound.

SON OF A GUN is about a possibility most parents forcibly push out of their minds – the abductions of their kids. In this case they’re 13 and 14-year-old boys living in upper middle class neighborhoods with good schools and nicely tended yards – places where families are lulled into believing they’re completely safe. What the good moms and dads don’t know is that there’s a serial killer who’s obsessed with his need to hide his true nature – a need that’s manifested in his placement of white masks over the faces of the boys he murders. The masks bear no expression, conveying nothing but a blankness that shouldn’t scare you. Except that it does, especially when you realize the masks are a mental projection of the face the killer wears to blend into the regular world, right up to the point where he shoots the boys through their hearts.

This genuinely frightening narrative is underscored by the relationship between a father-son team of FBI investigators. The primary, David Yerxa, is assisted and guided by his semi-retired dad, Martin. David’s eager progress to unravel the psychologically twisted mystery that leads to the abductions and murders is supported and occasionally turbocharged by Martin’s wisdom and experience with a related case. Both characters are natural leaders – exactly the type of guys the parents of these children would wish for in investigators to the disappearances of their kids.

The ticking clock fight to catch the bad guy before he kills again becomes especially compelling in chapters from the perspective of Carson Affeldt, the latest boy to be abducted. Markham does a masterful job of getting into the head of a kid who skips school to smoke cigarettes and look “cool” to older kids, yet bursts into tears in the horrifying moments when he realizes, in the killer’s locked basement, that he’s probably going to die. Fortunately, Carson has wits and gumption, and realizes he might stand a chance when he notices something that’s not quite right about the layout of that basement room. Underlying that narrative is Markham’s keen understanding of the social politics of high school and the vulnerabilities that lead 14-year-old boys to pick and choose friends who will strengthen or propel their position on the ladder of popularity.

From the first pages to the last, I kept wondering what would happen next, and was genuinely surprised by the identity of the bad guy and thrilled with the way David and Martin Yerxa brought him into the light.

It was only then, when I got ready to post my Amazon review, that I realized Markham had another book, FOUNDERS’ KEEPER. This is an astoundingly original story that actually turns the Constitution into an instrument of terror for a serial killer. It’s also pretty scary – first because every one of the murders is vividly wrought with imagery that stayed in my mind; second because the possibility – in a world where people could actually elect a whacko to become the next president – of the possibility that the killer’s justification for the murders could happen in real-life.

In this book – which was written prior to SON OF A GUN – Martin Yerxa’s deep knowledge of American history and the Founding Fathers era becomes an essential compass in the efforts by Martin, David and another FBI agent to navigate their way toward an understanding the killer’s mindset. The trail is lined with clues based on where the murders take place, the ways in which the victims are killed, and the language of the Constitution. Along the way we meet one of the creepiest murderers I’ve seen in recent thrillers, a perfectly realized character who embodies what happens when victims of terrible childhoods grow up to wreak terror in their adult lives.

Once again I was mesmerized by the story and the characters, and sent into that wonderful place where reading becomes more important than just about anything else. I was also genuinely stunned by the ending, which was more surprising than anything I’ve read in recent months. I was also confounded by yet another mystery: why hasn’t a major publisher seized the opportunity to send both of these books right up to the tops of the bestseller lists? Based on more than 250 customer reviews, Amazon knows they’re absolute winners – and if Amazon knows this, publishers should likewise know that Ed Markham is a master storyteller who has everything it takes to become one of those brand-names who commands that first row of “recommendations” every time you log on.

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WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – CAPITAL OFFENSE, by Kathleen Antrim

 

CAPITAL OFFENSE, by Kathleen Antrim

Capital Offense

Hey, you! Yes, you – in the dark blue suit, second row; the one who can’t stop looking down at your screen in hopes of finding a trailer for the next season of House of Cards. The one who binge-watched all of the previous seasons – twice – spellbound by the suspense and wondering all the while if you’d ever see one single honorable moment in the lives of Frank or Claire Underwood.

I’ve got bad and good news for you. The bad is that you probably won’t see any teaser trailers for the next season until at least January of 2017. The good is that Kathleen Antrim’s CAPITAL OFFENSE gives you another opportunity to be pulled into a story that chronicles the same kind of scheming, betrayals and outright charisma it probably takes to get the keys to the residential floors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

That said, there are a few key differences. First, you’ll meet a lead character who becomes First Lady with every bit of the intelligence we’ve seen in Claire Underwood but with a moral center and likability that Claire certainly doesn’t have. Second, you’ll see many more murders. That’s what happens to the individuals (and in some cases their families) who threaten a carefully laid-out plan to get Missouri Senator Warner Hamilton Lane into the White House. The bad guys behind the plan are wealthy and extremely powerful political power brokers. Their assassin is a single woman who knows how to tinker with airplane engines and fashion bullets to be fired out of high caliber rifles that disappear on impact with the victim. The bodies pile up between chapters that artfully describe the deals and deceits that enable the plan for getting Lane into the White house to fall into place.

The story is a lot of fun for people who work in Washington – and probably for anyone involved in politics at any level, particularly if their experiences have led them to become more cynical about the “calling” to serve, or whatever. The audacity of the misdeeds will also be fodder to the millions of people who rage online about “conspiracies” that will put the next president into office (none of which have been proven and most of which are fed by the mentality that saying it makes it so). In fact, when the first edition of this book was published in 2005 tens of thousands of readers found it immensely entertaining but probably doubted any of it could actually happen.

No one will feel that way now, given what actually has happened. In fact, CAPITAL OFFENSE is an irresistible story for everyone who’s interested in both the substantive elements of political discourse in our country right now, and in the family dramas of the two most interesting candidates. And if you’re really into conspiracy theories you’ll love it even more.

What you’re likely to remember and appreciate in the long run though are the two protagonists, First Lady Carolyn Alden Lane and veteran journalist Jack Rudley. As a prosecutor driven by her need to protect innocent children and win the everlasting battle against illegal drugs, Carolyn enters the story in the place where she has the most power – the courtroom. She’s immediately appealing, and you know by a few pages on that she deserves so much better than the trap her husband and father in-law pull her into. Rudley is an investigative reporter accustomed to breaking big stories. He also has a very personal stake in Carolyn’s quest to expose the bad guys and right the scales of justice.

Through a strategic alliance they mount a thrilling effort to strike back at people who believe they simply can’t be taken down. Given the powerful forces they’re up against, you might doubt Carolyn and Jack can pull it off. What they actually achieve is even better and more surprising – the perfect wham-bam ending that shows how a combination of true investigative journalism and righteous political gamesmanship can ultimately bring honor back to the highest office in the nation.

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WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – THE FIXER, and other stories by Joseph Finder

 

THE FIXER, by Joseph Finder

THE FIXER

Joseph Finder’s bestselling novels frequently incorporate mysteries that must be unraveled by lead characters we can instantly empathize with. They’re typically smarter-than-average guys who are emotionally wired to play by the rules, but who are tempted to roll the dice and score something far more exciting than what their simple lives might otherwise deliver. Virtually always, they’re good guys caught in desperately bad situations that force them to commandeer their moral compasses to save their souls while simultaneously striving to save their skin.

These were the thoughts that ran through the subterranean part of my mind as I fell headlong into last summer’s Finder novel, THE FIXER. I went into it knowing I was apt to experience a fast-paced story about a single protagonist mortally endangered by conspiracies and secrets. I knew the high-stakes of those conspiracies would make the villains especially violent. I also knew, based on all of the Joseph Finder novels I’ve read, that the protagonist would be a likable but far-from-perfect everyman, and that his success in staying alive would ultimately save other lives, take down powerful people, and lead to personal redemption.

THE FIXER delivers all of this in a fast, thrilling read. Without giving away much of the plot I’ll tell you of the elements that play into the intrigue. There’s an enormous pile of cash that out-of-work journalist Rick Hoffman discovers behind a closet wall. There are violent bad guys who might once have been vigilantes with the Irish Republican Army who have Rick in their crosshairs. And there’s a compellingly plausible description of political corruption in Boston that’s becomes an irresistible subject for an expose that ultimately enables Rick to better understand certain mysteries in his past while laying a path toward a far brighter future.

I loved this book every bit as much as Paranoia, Company Man, Buried Secrets and High Crimes, which forced criminal defense attorney Claire Chapman to square off with military lawyers intent on putting her husband to death for a horrific crime (a book that was also made into a great movie at the end of the 1990s with Ashley Judd and James Caviezel). As someone who’s spent three decades behind a desk and weathered quite a few economic recessions, I appreciated Company Man and Paranoia (which also became a film starring Harrison Ford) for Finder’s ability to thrust characters who are living unremarkable lives into deadly, high-stakes conspiracies. They’re stories that capture the insecurities of white collar workers who occasionally feel as if they can’t trust the authority figures who have so much power over their lives. People who know what it’s like to clench their fists under a conference room table and wonder why certain people are inside their boss’ office with the door closed. While your own job may not turn office politics into life-or-death situations, you can probably recognize elements of your own experiences in these stories. Buried Secrets is a bit different because main character Nick Heller actually is a “private spy” who basically goes looking for trouble, yet once again Finder makes that trouble personal, and terrifying.

Taken together, all of Finder’s stories stand out in a crowded thriller field because they mix escapism with realism. They’re a perfect read after a long day at the office when you want to slip into a “what’s going to happen next?” kind of story with characters who take extraordinarily dangerous measures to stay alive and solve crimes while staying true to moral values that may or may not be in their best interests. Stories that will probably intensify your white collar insecurities en route to satisfying conclusions where the good guys win the day.

 

WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC and THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT, by A.J. Tata

FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC and THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT, by A.J. Tata

FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC UPDATED COVER   THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT COVER

Thriller fans have all kinds of reasons to love hit shows like 24 and Homeland. There are the high stakes of the interpersonal and geopolitical conflicts that get all mixed up in the minds of Jack Bauer and Carrie Mathison. There’s the pacing and cliffhanger plotting (which is faster and scarier in 24 but more nuanced and perhaps more rewarding in Homeland). And there’s the realism. You don’t really believe Chloe can instantaneously send schematics where bad guys glow green to Jack’s PDA every time he enters a warehouse with his gun drawn. Yet the terrible things that happen in both shows aren’t any less terrible than the things that are happening in real life right now.

What makes both shows most compelling to me are the changing faces of the enemies. They hide behind the uniforms and credentials of military and government authority. They are concealed by the charisma of sociopathic schemers who prove to be deranged only after you’ve come to think of them as good guys. And more often than not, they’re U.S. citizens whose minds have become corrupted by an insane need for power or wealth or faulty psychological wiring.

That’s a good way to explain how I felt when Sgt. Nicholas Brody of Homeland emerged as a POW from the Iraq war and set in motion a precise plan to kill the Vice President. I was far more unsettled, however, by the homegrown bad guys in A.J. Tata’s bestselling FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC.

One is a reptilian murderer born and raised in the U.S. He could easily be compared to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, except for a level of intelligence and bloodlust that makes him more lethal. Another is a lieutenant general and Pentagon power-player determined to make story’s protagonist, Jake Maheegan, a pawn in a scheme to make money and settle certain family conflicts. And then there are the private military contractors who are sleeping in a bed of snakes thanks to financial dealings with terrorists.

All of the villains are perfectly wrought, with motivations that range from emotional to financial to simply wanting to kill as many innocent people as possible. They’re scary because they’re so believable. Yet you also believe from the beginning that none are going to be a match for Maheegan, a Delta Force captain disgraced by a bad but completely understandable decision in the heat of an operation to capture a terrorist.

I won’t give away any more of the plot but will spotlight a few elements that drive the page-turning suspense. There are thuggish U.S. Army warrant officers acting on the general’s behest to permanently destroy Maheegan’s professional reputation. There are Afghan prisoners who become foot soldiers in acts of terror on U.S. soil. And there are many situations that have Maheegan fearlessly squaring off, Jack Reacher style, with an I don’t give a #$@&^ about your authority attitude toward the corrupt general, which makes Maheegan even more likable to hard-working guys and gals who have been forced to face up to the fact that life really isn’t always fair and just.

Amid all of this there are two elements to this story that will stay on my mind forever. The first is the characterization of Jake Maheegan. He’s of native-American ancestry. He’s beginning his own mission to reconcile terrors and ghosts of his own past when he returns to the coastal North Carolina town where most of the action takes place. He’s emotionally wired to live a good life protecting good people despite the horrible things that have been done to him in the past. He’s also a physical marvel who can swim miles a day in the ocean to recover from a war injury and, in one especially gripping scene, jump out of a plane flying several thousand in the air and land precisely on a boat loaded with terrorists.

The other element that stays with me is the way A.J. Tata made me think. He’s a retired brigadier general, combat infantryman and paratrooper who has deployed on combat missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and other dangerous places, so it’s easy to see how life experiences prepared him to write thrilling action scenes. He also has advanced degrees and credentials from the Army School of Advanced Military Studies, Catholic University and Harvard University’s JFK School of Government, and served as the Chancellor for Washington, DC schools working alongside Michelle Rhee.

This second realm of life experience in public policy became especially interesting in the telling of this story. General Tata isn’t afraid to expose how military contractors could jeopardize the lives of innocent Americans to make a quick buck. He’s willing to challenge – perhaps for the sake of a good story but in a completely believable way – the conventional wisdom that ascendance to the highest ranks of the military is always driven by character and patriotism. And he’s deftly successful at deconstructing the notion that war can simply be viewed as good guys from the US verses bad guys from somewhere else.

True to its name, this book is about enemies foreign and domestic. While they’re equally scary, those who look like the college kid or high ranking military official who might live next door might encourage many readers to learn more about opportunists in our war on terror.

I had planned to end my current review of General Tata’s work after reading this book in a day and a half. Fortunately the version on my Kindle ended with a teaser to the sequel, THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT. I kept going, and was immediately sucked in to a story that’s even more personal for Jake Maheegan.

The plot of THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT incorporates everything readers will love about its prequel, albeit with higher stakes (eg: a nuclear threat that could murder millions) accelerating into a race-against-the-clock climax featuring a heroic and heartbreaking death. Yet it’s General Tata’s decision to drill down farther into Jake Maheegan’s psyche that yields the greatest reward. Through a narrative blending another smart soldier who makes a series of bad decisions, corrupt law enforcement officials and, not incidentally, a subplot of sexual blackmail, THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT turns out enough surprises to keep you reading into the night, and forcing you to reconsider any assumption that the greatest threat to American’s safety comes from across the border or on the other side of the world.

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