Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: Reviews of mystery/suspense books

Borg crafts sweeping story of purpose, peril

Tahoe Blue Fire
Todd Borg
351 pages
Thriller Press 2015
Kindle $3.99 Trade paper $16.95

Todd Borg creates multifaceted puzzles in his Owen McKenna mystery series, but he also knows how to scare the pants off you. The first chapter of Tahoe Blue Fire begins with a description of “…single-purpose machines built like tall, square locomotives, big boxy monsters that prowled the highways at night.” These giant, diesel-fired snow blowers with twin engines producing nearly 2,000 horsepower have massive, sharp blades designed to cut snow as deep as 12 feet. Imagine a train-size snow blower as a murder weapon and have a good idea how the story starts.

This thirteenth installment of the series could be the best of all. The book evokes different emotions and combines erudition, intrigue, violence and sorrow. Ex-San Francisco PD detective-turned Lake Tahoe PI, Owen McKenna, hits the ground running searching for someone who has killed at least three people—apparently at random—and now has his Tahoe-Blue-Fire-web-optisights on McKenna. The first half of the book crackles with suspense and impending doom. It’s almost (but not quite) mild compared to the book’s scary concluding scenes.

It’s a layered plot in which Owen must first determine connections between the victims, then search for a motive. Neither come easily. Without giving away too much of the plot, the solution involves the Italian Renaissance, well-known 1950s and 1960s movie icons and traumatic brain injury (TBI), a condition suffered by one of the book’s several memorable characters.

Ex-pro football player Adam Simms is the victim of TBI, the fancy term for having his brains scrambled during a career marked by hundreds of collisions. Simms is a semi-invalid, mentally weak, physically still strong. He works to overcome frequent seizures by writing poetry. Simms plays several roles in the Tahoe story. Continue Reading →

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.






Christie, Woolrich, Grafton and 37 more cook up short stories of crime and puzzlement

Masterpieces of Mystery and Suspense
Compiled by Martin H. Greenberg
International Collectors Library
651 pages  1988
See below for prices and availability

Note to regular readers: This review originally appeared in the mystery books review section of this website that has now been merged into the weekly blog page. The blog will continue to include new reviews of mystery/suspense books and movies now that past pages have been incorporated here.

It’s the late 1950s, Ginger works in a dime-a-dance joint in a rundown part of town, and someone is killing taxi dancers.

When two police detectives show up at the dance hall one night, Ginger falls for the taller one.  “…if I’d had any dreams left, he coulda moved right into them.”

The cops only know the killer’s favorite song, the kind of ring he has on one finger and the bizarre way he leaves the dancers’ bodies.  With nothing more to go on, they try a stake out.   Luckily, Ginger is one sharp cookie and a step ahead of the police.  Question is, will she be a step ahead of the serial killer?masterpieces of mystery

This carefully crafted tale, The Dancing Detective, is classic noir by Cornell Woolrich and it’s one of 40 short stories in Masterpieces of Mystery and Suspense, a must for the library of every mystery and short story lover.  The stories are short, 10-20 pages, but they clearly demonstrate how a skilled mystery/suspense writer can weave a tale, create characters with depth and have you guessing right up to the end–all in a tiny package.

Woolrich’s story is a good example, combing rich characters and dialog with a snappy plot.   Aspiring mystery writers: read this story.  See how Woolrich creates a thick, gloomy atmosphere and tells us so much about his characters through the way they talk in addition to what they talk about.  Woolrich, like many of the authors in the anthology, were or are known as much for novels as well as short stories.  And again, like other authors, many of Woolrich’s stories became movies.  One of his most famous was Hitchcock’s 1954 Rear Window.

I discovered this collection of gems in a used book store.   It can be found easily online.  See the note at the end of this review.

Writers from Poe to Sue Grafton and Lawrence Block are represented here.  Stories of suspense, mystery and those featuring hard boiled detectives fill the pages.  The collection’s anthologist, Martin Greenberg, introduces each story with a brief biographical sketch of the author and a few words about the selection.

The usual suspects are all here: Dorothy Sayers, Earl Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Ross Macdonald, Ellery Queen, Dick Francis and John Dickson Carr.  A few writers not known for mysteries also provide fascinating stories.  Greenberg included Mark Twain, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King in the collection.

King’s Quitters, Inc. has Dick Morrison run into an old friend in an airport lounge, back when you could smoke in an airport.  The friend has quit the habit for good, he tells Morrison, with the help of an organization that guarantees its results.  In this suspenseful story, the method is the mystery and Morrison’s trials trying to stay off cigarettes can be most appreciated by ex-smokers.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Copper Beeches, Holmes and Watson are approached by a  governess who lives in a country house and works for an eccentric gentleman.  She becomes fearful when her employers ask her to pose for them in certain ways.

Frederick Forsyth’s contribution is, There Are No Snakes In Ireland, a creepy tale of revenge set in Ireland and India.

Rex Stout offers, Help Wanted, Male.  One of the longest entries in the collection, the story begins with a man who has received an anonymous letter saying he is about to die.  He goes to Nero Wolfe for help.  Archie Goodwin figures the man would need to look elsewhere:

“In the years I had been living in Nero Wolfe’s house…I had heard him tell at least fifty scared people, of all conditions and ages, that if someone had determined to kill them and was going to be stubborn about it, he would probably succeed.”

The next day, of course, the man is killed and the police want to know what Wolfe and Goodwin know about it.

If you’re looking for a collection of new crime and detection stories, obviously this isn’t it.  The book is 25 years old and many of the stories are decades older than that.  If, however, you want to be challenged and entertained by some of the best mystery and suspense writers who ever pounded a typewriter, this is the collection for you, if you can find it.

Note on availability:  The book is out of print, but used copies are available from many online sellers.   I purchased my hardbound copy (International Collectors Library edition, listed above) from our local library’s  book store.   A check of listings for the book at Amazon and other online stores yielded the names of three other publishers and page lengths.  Most common was an edition from St. Martin’s Press at 672 pages.  Minotaur and Doubleday are also listed as the publisher on some sites.   Most available copies are paperback going for $1 or less; shipping charges vary.

Next week: In the late 1940s, film director Harold Clurman attempted to create a cinema version of Deadline at Dawn, the noir suspense novel by Cornell Woolrich (writing as William Irish and reviewed here last week). Susan Hayward headed a cast of many notable character actors of the period. Did Clurman succeed in creating a class ‘A’ roman noir? See my review next time.

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