Death in Nostalgia City

By Mark S. Bacon

Con game, murder and lies keep you reading

License to Lie
Terry Ambrose
304 pages  2014
Satori  Kindle $3.99   Trade paper $10.96

A fast pace, an unlikely pair of accomplices, short chapters with alternating points of view, a variety of crimes—from fraud to kidnapping to murder—and a nascent romance that threatens to get in the way are the main elements making the Southern California novel License to Lie, by Terry Ambrose, a top notch mystery.

A sketchy synopsis might tell too much and would not explain how this novel moves along and engages you, so let’s examine the way the story is put together.

It’s fast. The story consumes only a few days and each of the two protagonists have multiple challenges unrelated toLicense-to-Lie each other—until they meet. Strange characters and surprises, some menacing, some puzzling, come along quickly. The prose is lean without being emaciated. Settings, people and action are described with enough detail to create good images and put you in the scenes.

My insides churned with a dangerous combination of rage and fear that pumped my system full of adrenaline and dulled my senses.

The unlikely protagonists are Roxy Tanner, a young but not inexperienced fraud artist who pulled her first con at age 8 and Skip Cosgrove a consulting criminologist with a code. Tanner, a wily, ambitious (and good looking) blonde, plans to escape San Diego (and the US) with $5 million she’s scammed from unsuspecting investors.   She imagines her future in a bikini on a Caribbean beach.  She just needs one more score to push her ill-gotten nest egg to the magic five mil mark. But just as Tanner is about to make her move, her father is kidnapped and a ransom demanded.

Cosgrove, the other half of the mismatched pair, has just wrapped up a daunting case that landed him on local TV news. As he explains to the camera how he managed to return a missing teen to his parents, Tanner and her mother see Cosgrove on the news. They decide to hire him to help find Tanner’s father.

The plot takes several twists, made all the more absorbing because the story unfolds in 61 short chapters, many with page-turning endings that drag you into the next chapter.

But you’re not always rewarded with a solution to Tanner’s or Cosgrove’s immediate crisis because the chapters alternate points of view. Half the chapters are written in first person from Tanner’s viewpoint and the other half are third-person narratives with Cosgrove as the point-of-view character. This combination of first- and third-person narrators is not uncommon, but it was nonetheless initially jarring. The speed with which the plot progresses, however, dominates your attention and the POVs become an integral part of the story telling.

For example, Tanner might be on the verge of danger, but the chapter ends and the reader then follows Cosgrove who may be in a different part of town with his own troubles, unaware of Tanner’s situation. Alternating chapters between two point-of-view-characters is effective to keep the action and the suspense flowing. (Full disclosure: I use alternating chapters—with a male and female protagonist, but all in third person—in my mystery, Death in Nostalgia City, and its upcoming sequel, so obviously I like the technique.)

Many and varied crimes form other pieces of the License to Lie puzzle. Although there’s some shooting and other bits of violence, it’s the fraud and tracking the money that are most interesting.

Possible romantic entanglement is always present, though usually in the background. It’s definitely not love at first sight, but both characters are intrigued. “What was it about this woman that he found so damned desirable?” Cosgrove thinks about a third of the way through the book.

Tanner is the greater risk-taker and smart mouth of the pair, her interior and exterior dialog providing tension and sometimes humor. When she meets an eccentric land lady she thinks, “Her make up wasn’t too terribly overdone—for a hooker.”

Finally, looking at the structure, License to Lie does not pin all its entertainment value and suspense on the denouement. It’s a mystery that rewards the reader all the way along.

The second book in this series, Con Game, is also available.






Get a load of this one, will ya

The Barefoot Stiff, a Maggie Sullivan short story
M. Ruth Myers
Tuesday House
16 pages $.99 Kindle

Looks like the scrappy female PI is in trouble again. A man “who looked large enough for a prize fighter through the shoulders” busts into her office demanding something. She pleads ignorance. “Keep lying,” the hulking stranger says, “and I’ll make you sorry, toots.”

Toots, is depression-era gumshoe Maggie Sullivan, creation of Shamus Award-winning author M. Ruth Myers. Sullivan makes her living exploring dark alleys, getting beat up and cracking wise as well as any male detective of the literary era.

Homicide lieutenant Freeze is questioning Sullivan about the case she’s working on:

Two assistants who trailed Freeze everywhere leaned against the wall. One was taking notes while his pal memorized my legs.

Continue Reading →

Whodunit: murder mysteries 101


Who has sold the most mystery books? Where did the line, “the butler did it” come from? And who wrote the first detective novel?

Begun more than 170 years ago, the detective story is a staple of American literature and equally popular overseas. American writers are joined on best seller lists by mystery authors from the UK, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Italy and other countries. In essence, killing people on paper is popular the world over.

This begins an occasional series on the history, subject matter, authors, techniques and trivia of this genre.

Fedora,-gun-etc.-Sepia--Es-The modern detective story was born in 1841 with the publication of The Murders in the Rue Morgue in Graham’s Magazine in Philadelphia.

First in an occasional series

Edgar Allen Poe’s story describes the analytical power used by detective Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin to solve a series of bizarre murders in Paris. Like the later Sherlock Holmes stories, the tale is narrated by the detective’s roommate. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but a monkey did it. Yes, it is a bizarre twist to have a murderous monkey, but consider who wrote the story.

Following the publication of Poe’s tale, detective short stories and novels gradually became popular. English novelist Wilkie Collins published The Moonstone in 1868, a detective novel that includes several features of the typical modern mystery, including red herrings, false alibis and climactic scenes. Continue Reading →


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