Mysteries reviews

smacknee@mcclatchy.comSeptember 7, 2013 

Hearts of Sand, by Jane Haddam. Minotaur. 368 pages.

High-profile FBI consultant Gregor Demarkian is called in on a murder in a tony Connecticut beach town. A woman found knifed in the back turns out to be a former society debutante who dropped out of sight decades ago after being identified as one of two thrill-seeking bank robbers.

Gregor’s own close-knit Armenian community in Philadelphia provides a contrast to the insecurities and intrigues of the wealthy New York suburb where Chapin Waring’s family and former friends try to sort out what the murder has to do with the notorious events of 30 years ago. The town’s police force seems paralyzed by the political considerations of every new revelation.

It says something about Jane Haddam’s skill that you could begin with this, the 28th book in the Gregor Demarkian series, and really get a good feel for Gregor, his community and his backstory, all in a totally natural and engaging way

The Return, by Michael Gruber. Henry Holt. 384 pages.

Richard Marder, mild-mannered Manhattan book editor, is handed a death sentence by his doctor. He sheds his lightweight persona and lights out for Mexico to settle old scores. It's a highly satisfying story: part caper novel, part buddy movie, part action tale, and all of it by one of the best writers out there today. Gruber is definitely in my Top Five.

The military savant who tags along to Mexico is an old war buddy, and the tale of their time in Vietnam unfolds as long-buried memories resurfacing for Marder.

Gruber also manages to pay a very respectful tribute to Mexican traditions while at the same time painting a grim picture of modern-day life among the cartels.

Go to the ObserverMysteries Facebook page and post a note to enter a drawing for a copy of “The Return.”

Bitter River, by Julia Keller. Minotaur. 400 pages.

This is the second Bell Elkins novel, about a county prosecutor returning to her West Virginia roots.

A teen whose bright future had been derailed by an unplanned pregnancy is found dead in her car, submerged in the Bitter River. Sheriff Nick Fogelsong has a history with the girl’s mother – an old hippie who ekes out a living with a permanent front-yard flea market – which dents his professionalism a bit and hampers the investigation. We also meet Nick’s wife, who is housebound by mental illness but plays a part in the story’s climax.

Bell has her hands full and can’t make much time to spend with an old associate who works in military intelligence but has decided to take time off and decompress in the wilds of West Virginia.

The region’s poverty is almost a character all its own, driving plot points large and small.

And I just have to say: Two books, two deadly café incidents. The citizens of Acker’s Gap might want to stick to home cooking.

At presstime, Louise Penny was scheduled to sign books at Flyleaf in Chapel Hill at noon Sunday. (Exit squealing.)


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