UNSUB by Meg Gardiner

UNSUB by Meg Gardiner has gotten GREAT reviews, so when I started it and found my mind wandering, I put it aside for a couple of weeks and picked it up again.

I knew going in that the story involved a serial killer in the Bay Area with a catchy nickname, reminiscent of “The Zodiac Killer.” This time, the name is “The Prophet,” and this book is a dark, twisted thriller revolving around the apparent reappearance of a criminal who terrorized the Bay Area before disappearing a couple of decades ago.

Back in the initial hunt for The Prophet, Mack Hendrix was the lead police detective in the effort to stop the crime wave. His failure to do so has haunted him ever since. Now, his daughter Caitlin is also a police officer, whose focus has been narcotics. She looks to her father for help as she takes up the work of catching the killer whose victims bear the characteristics of The Prophet’s victims.

I suspect my lack of enthusiasm for this book is based on my own weird experiences. Living in Solano County in the Bay Area during the time of the Zodiac spree, I knew a man who was creepy. I saw a large flashlight in his car with clear red wrapping paper over the lens, held on with a rubber band. The Zodiac supposedly used a flashlight as he approached victims’ vehicles, possibly a large red flashlight to make people believe it was a police vehicle approaching. And as if that wasn’t enough, someone had tracked this guy’s schedule and he was always out sick or otherwise unaccounted for on the dates of the killings. I distanced myself from this creepy guy, but he contacted me by email in the year 2000 to tell me he had been “following” me online. So, yes, anything about the Zodiac brings up some less than positive feelings!

But, I digress. Lisa Gardiner has done a masterful job of plotting and character development showing both Caitlin’s strengths as a police officer and her softer, more human side. I expect we will see a string of stories featuring this feisty young woman. The ending was a bit abrupt, so that knocked off a star. The creepy factor almost knocked off another one, but the “it’s not you, it’s me” thing isn’t something I like to bring into my reviews. Thanks to Penguin Group/Dutton and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my review. Three and a half stars, will show up as four.

Shadow Man by Alan Drew

Cover Drew Shadow Man

Talk about a grabber: the description for Alan Drew’s book Shadow Man starts out “What Dennis Lehane does for Boston, Alan Drew does for Southern California in this gritty thriller…” I thought “what a trifecta!” I’ve been a Dennis Lehane fan for many years, I grew up in Orange County, CA (I am a huge fan of the earlier books by T. Jefferson Parker that were also set in the OC), and thrillers are among my favorite genres. So I couldn’t WAIT to dive into this book! Unfortunately, my husband snagged my Kindle and was instantly hooked, so I had to wait a few days for my chance. Wow, was it worth the wait!

The protagonist is Ben Wade, a police detective who left the LAPD and moved back to the fictional town of Rancho Santa Elena, partly in a failed attempt to save his marriage to Rachel. (Note the town is fictional, but it PERFECTLY captures the Orange County I escaped some years ago.) Ben is a good guy and a loving father, but he clearly has some baggage: as Natasha, the medical examiner and potential romantic interest, points out: “she could see why Rachel left him. He was a room with a locked door, and a wife wanted access.” Ben works on two separate cases throughout the book, one involving a serial killer and the other a mysterious gun death of a teenage boy, whose body was found near the residential labor camp that provides labor for the remaining crops that haven’t yet been replaced by the suburban sprawl that is gobbling up Orange County. No spoilers ahead, but great plot development in both areas.

The setting is incredibly important to the story. As the book opens, the Santa Anna winds are blowing: “The morning had been heavy with gritty smog, the taste of leaded gas on the tongue… winds had burst into the coastal basin midmorning, dry gusts billowing off the desert in the east that electrified the air…” And anyone who has lived in Southern California will nod in agreement with Ben’s thought that there “…wasn’t any scientific evidence for this, but every cop knew something went haywire in people when the winds hit.”

Drew clearly knows the area, and I love the way he reveals what makes Rancho Santa Elena distinctly different from his previous life in LA: the town “… survived on being the opposite of L.A.—clean, organized, boring.” The essence of much of Orange County is due to the people who have moved there: They “…were afraid of the world; that’s why they moved here, to escape it. They believed master-planned order—straight streets, identical houses, brightly lit shopping centers—would keep them safe from the outside world.”

Along with the setting, the characters come alive with Drew’s outstanding descriptive skill: he notes a woman who is “Blonde of course, radiating the forced sexual brightness of plastic surgery and makeup.” (yes, I KNOW these people!) Not everyone is in the same class, including “…beach bums who lived in rotting wooden apartments and worked stocking grocery shelves so that they could ride the waves every day.” Sounds like my adopted hometown of Santa Cruz, which frequently reminds people of Orange County in the 60s.

Even further down the social ladder are the farmworkers who are an integral part of the story. Drew captures their situation and interweaves the immigration issue without being pedantic, always keeping the story moving while at the same time making the reader aware of the class distinctions that are such a strong characteristic of the area. Talking about the farmworkers, we learn that ICE “…harassed the camp every few months, sending a few people back over the border. A cynical game, really, since the owners of the fields didn’t want their people deported, but local immigration needed to look as if the were doing their job. So, a compromise: Haul a few away, get it in the newspapers to appease a certain type of vote, and then let more come in the replace the ones sent home.” Wow.

Ben’s investigations lead him toward two social issues:  the plight of the farmworkers and the effects of child abuse. As he ponders why the latter is often so well hidden, he reflects, “ “There were a few rumors among the teachers.” Jesus. What was the law worth if it was used to keep people quiet about what they all knew?”

I loved this book! It more than met my high expectations, with its compelling plot and relatable characters. But even more, it is the best kind of novel: one that truly entertains the reader while making us THINK. Ben Wade is a great character, and I hope Shadow Man is the first in a series.

For any refugees from behind the Orange Curtain, you will totally relate to Rancho Santa Elena, with lines like “Sigalert for an accident on the 22…everything backed up to the Crystal Cathedral” and the description of what seems to clearly be the Melrose Abbey Mortuary, which is “…crammed between a strip mall dotted with taquerias and a cement wall that separated the cemetery from the rush of the Santa Ana Freeway.” AWESOME!

After finishing the book, I read a few comments from people who were complaining that this is not actually a thriller. My response is “not only is it a thriller, it is a good one, and so much more!” Can’t wait for more from Alan Drew! (Neither can my husband.) Five enthusiastic stars!

NOTE: I appreciate that I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley and Random House in exchange for my honest review.

No Turning Back by Tracy Buchanan

COVER Buchanan No Turning Back

As a teacher, I was always kind of a softie – an easy grader. And I suspect that is true of my reviews as well. And I REALLY liked the sound of this one: “emotional roller coaster filled with heart-stopping secrets and hairpin turns.” Sounds like my kind of escapist fiction! So, when I received an advance copy of Tracy Buchanan’s No Turning Back courtesy of Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley, I was ready for a good time!

The premise is interesting, and the beginning is strong. In fact, reading the prologue, I was sure it would be awesome: “My heart pounds, a bird trying to flutter its way out of a cage. I’m breathing fast and heavy, my bare shoulders scraping the brick with each movement. But I keep looking up, not care about the pain. He hunches down, his pale fingers curling around the wooden slats above. I hear his breath, deep and low.” THAT creeped me out, and I was sure that an author who could set a scene of danger so vividly would meet my standards for a good mystery/thriller. I read on…

In this novel, Anna Graves is a new mother who has recently gone back to her work as a radio personality following the breakup of her marriage. She is walking on the beach with her daughter one evening when she sees a group of teenagers who are not people she knows. Alert to any risk to her daughter, she is stunned to see another teenager (not part of the group) coming at her with a knife.

Adrenalin kicks in along with terror, and Anna reacts instinctively to protect her baby. The result is a tragedy but Anna and her daughter are both safe. Then her life starts to fall apart, and we watch Anna falling apart following this event and the re-emergence of the “Ophelia Killer,” a serial killer who hasn’t been heard from for twenty years. The killings stopped right when Anna’s father committed suicide (red flag alert). That event sent her mother over the edge, and Anna has bonded with her grandmother, who has always been her source of comfort.

So far, so good. And I appreciate the way the author let the reader know about Anna’s journalistic instincts. “She just had what her dad used to call the “crowd’s gut”: a natural instinct to know what the zeitgeist was at any given time.” Nice!

But things fell apart for me as the clues mounted, and the revelations about both the current mystery and the events from twenty years earlier began to mount up. At the end, I just wanted it to be over.

I looked at the author’s other titles and think that if I had looked at any of her previous work I would not have been interested in this one. But damn did the marketing people put on a good case! I was convinced, and again, it started strong. I might consider looking at her work again, because she does have strengths in the genre. But it wasn’t put on my favorite new author list. Easy grader that I am, three stars.

 

The Forgotten Girls by Owen Laukkanen

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Several years ago, I stumbled upon Owen Laukkanen’s book The Professionals, featuring the crime-fighting team of Kirk Stevens (with the Minnesota BCA) and Carla Windermere (FBI). It was great! Since then I have enjoyed the exploits of these partners (in Criminal Enterprise, Kill Fee, The Stolen Ones, and The Watcher in the Wall), so I was happy to get an advance copy of The Missing Girls (to be published in March 2017), thanks to Penguin Group Putnam / G.P. Putnam’s Sons and NetGalley.

I wasn’t more than a paragraph or two into the Prologue before a scary premise was revealed: young women are hopping freight trains and meeting creepy guys. Given the title, I knew this wasn’t going to end well for more than one of them. And the line from the Prologue, repeated early on in the book, sent a chilling message: You don’t ever surf trains on the High Line.(seriously, it creeps me out just to write the words.)

Seems there is a serial killer targeting women, all of whom tend to fall into the categories that are unlikely to be missed: runaways, freight hoppers, barmaids, prostitutes, etc., many of them Native Americans – and many who disappear into a snowbank, not to be found until the spring thaw. He chose women the mountains wouldn’t miss, women who died easy. Women who nobody saw, anyway.

It takes awhile for the identity of the killer to be revealed, and Laukkanen is extremely skilled at building tension and describing the atmosphere. So good, in fact, that I kept having to get under a heated blanket as I followed Stevens and Windermere while they worked the case in horrific winter conditions in the North (Montana and into Canada).

Both the atmosphere and the killer are incredibly COLD: “…put that girl’s death down to natural causes, whether it was cold that killed her or a man. It’s all the same thing on this side of the mountain.”

Earlier titles in this series seemed to focus a bit more on the relationship between Stevens and Windermere, which is clearly now only a professional partnership. But they work well together and share a commitment to following through on the search for the killer, because they both clearly care about the women, regardless of their social class, history or current living situation.

Not so much a who-done-it mystery as a character study for the reader but there is a puzzle for them to solve in order to identify the killer, and there is some nifty Internet/Cloud technology as they follow the trail. And OMG, the scenes as the victims and the authorities plow through near-blizzard conditions! These chapters are incredibly tense and build to the ending (not perfect for all the characters by any means).

A great weekend of escapist fiction reading, and another winner from Owen Laukkanen. Five stars.

Murder in Missoula by Laurence Giliotti

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I admit, I wasn’t sure about this one…sounds fine, a retired DEA agent moves to Missoula, MT where he has been offered a faculty position — wait, what? Sorry, but faculty positions don’t just fall from trees like that…but I overlooked that. Then there is the really creepy serial killer part…harder for me to overlook.

This book is nearly impossible to discuss without giving away too much. It is a fairly quick read, and would be enjoyed by people who like a good police procedural, some Rocky Mountain atmosphere, some budding romantic tension, a “good guy” protagonist, and some good writing.

Personally, the creepy serial killer part was a tiny bit TOO creepy but overall, I enjoyed it and will definitely look forward to Mr. Giliotti’s next book! Thanks to Chateau Noir Publishing and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for my honest review. Four stars!