The Rambling Mann

Book reviews and occasional other thoughts from writer Richard Mann.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Cracked Spine by Paige Shelton (Scottish Bookshop Series #1)

The Cracked Spine
Scottish Bookshop Mystery #1
Reviewed by Richard Mann of

AUTHOR: Paige Shelton
PUBLISHER: Minotaur Books
ISBN: 978-1250057488 Hardcover
ISBN: 978-181466861213 E-book
ISBN: 978-1515950660 Unabridged Audio CD from Tantor Audio

The book starts by quoting this help-wanted ad:

Wanted:  A bold adventurer who would love to travel the world from a comfortable and safe spot behind a desk that has seen the likes of kings and queens, paupers and princes.  A humble book and rare manuscript shop seeks a keenly intelligent investigator to assist us in our search for things thought lost, and in our quest to return lost items to their rightful owners.  This multitasked position will take you places you can’t even imagine.  Apply only if you’re ready for everything to change.  Please note:  the position is located in Edinburgh, Scotland.

When Delaney Nichols, a 29-year-old, newly downsized museum worker in Wichita, Kansas, reads this, she can’t help but email a reply.  In minutes, the shop’s proprietor with his Scottish accent and unfamiliar Scottish vocabulary calls her.  After an hour and half on the phone, she is hired.

Thus begins an adventure that literally lives up to the promise of the advertisement.  A day into her tenure at The Cracked Spine, a hole-in-the-wall bookshop in old Edinburgh, Delaney is drawn into a murder in the shop owner’s family.  It’s a whirlwind introduction to life and culture in Scotland as well as the world of antiquarian booksellers. 

With that general outline, let me tell you about my experience with this book.  I started it during a period of unwelcome wakefulness at 2 a.m.  As I read, the first few chapters drew me into the adventure with a charm and sense of slight otherworldliness I haven’t felt since starting the first Harry Potter book years ago.  I knew I was in the hands of a master storyteller leading me into a tale of wonder with unexpected, delightful events and people along with a frisson of vaguely ominous overtones.  (Would the book exert the same thrall if started while riding the bus or waiting at the dentist’s office?  Probably.)

I’d been wondering what propelled Paige Shelton’s 12th mystery novel, the first in her fourth series, into hardcover for her first time.  Now I know; this story is a cut above the others, good as they are.  People will hear about this book and ask for it at the library.  Thus, hardcover.  I am not the only one thinking this is a special book.

My first two sessions with the book maintained that special master-storyteller feel.  Then, about the time the murder was discovered, some of the mystical charm slipped away, and we got back to a well-told, fascinating mystery story in the gritty, real-life yet still charming city of Edinburgh.

As Delaney begins her job in the bookshop, we learn all sorts of exciting and curiosity-raising bits of information.  The shop owner has a “warehouse” (actually just a big well-locked room) full of wonderful historical items he’s collected over his lifetime, including, for example, an old desk where Delaney will work.  It once belonged to King William II in the late sixteen hundreds.  It’s an example of the treasures there, but we get only a glimpse of the rest of it.  At this point, the murder occurs and the focus turns to Delaney’s efforts to help solve the murder.

As always, in any amateur sleuth story, one wonders why she would do that.  The reasons seem natural and nearly convincing--certainly as convincing as in most cozy mysteries. 

The compact cast of characters includes the shop owner, Edwin McAllister, and his two other employees, who quickly become family to Delaney. There are also the cab driver and his wife, Elias and Aggie, who become Delaney’s landlords.  Elias’s protective instincts take over during the initial cab ride to the bookshop from the airport; by the second day, the couple is ready to adopt Delaney.  Then there’s the occasionally kilt-wearing handsome pub owner down the street.  A mutual attraction that sets off sparks visible to anyone in the vicinity bodes well for future books in the series. If you’re looking for the obligatory cat that seems present in all bookstore mysteries, you’re out of luck (to my everlasting delight).  Rosie, one of the employees, has a tiny Scottish dog that fills that role admirably.  Edwin’s wealthy but secretive friends serve as unwilling sources of information and—at times—suspects. There’s even a mildly attractive police inspector, though we see no sparks with him.

The characters work well together; we love some, distrust others, and find plenty to interest us in their quirks and foibles.  Their Scottish accents are ever-present in the book.  It’s not “to,” but “tae.”  They don’t know, they ken, and so on.  That can be distracting, but in this book it works well; it seems natural.  We never forget where we are.

I am anxious to spend more time with these people in upcoming books.  In fact, I want the next book right now!  I want to explore the warehouse, to become familiar with the stock of old books, to see Delaney help find literary treasures for customers, to get to know the bookshop people and Edwin’s friends, and to see what happens with Tom, the dishy pub owner.  I want to explore more of Edinburgh.  I have been well and thoroughly teased with the prospect of the wonders to come in Delaney’s ongoing story.  While I enjoy Ms. Shelton’s other book series, I hope we don’t have to wait for her to add a new book to all three series before we are brought back to Edinburgh!

This review was originally written for

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Dig by John Preston

The Dig
Reviewed by Richard Mann of

AUTHOR: John Preston
PUBLISHER: Other Press
ISBN: 978-1-59051-780-2 Trade Paperback

In 1939, a few months before England was drawn into World War II, a widowed country landowner, Mrs. Pretty of Suffolk, England, decided it was time to finally hire an archeologist to investigate some hillocks on her property that might be ancient burial mounds.  She contacted an acquaintance, the administrator of a nearby museum, who recommended a self-taught local, a Mr. Basil Brown, who was reputed to know absolutely everything about Suffolk soil.

Thus begins a curiously compelling fictionalized account of the dig.  After reading the book, I looked up the famous Sutton Hoo dig to read about what actually happened.  This book uses real names, real personalities, and real events as the basis for a lean, understated, yet fascinating novel that tries to help us know how those days must have felt.

Mr. Brown enlists the aid of Mrs. Pretty's gamekeeper and gardener and begins the job with a couple of shovels.  After several weeks of false starts, Brown finds a rivet, then another six inches away.  More rivets appear along a regular line, indicating a structure of some kind.  They discover that the mound contains a complete ship, which was hauled up from the nearby sound to provide a crypt for what must have been a very important person.  Several other burial ships had been found in England, but none quite as big as this one.

When the scope and importance of this discovery becomes known to the museum people, a rival museum's archeologist, Charles Phillips of Cambridge, shows up.  Soon he has taken over the dig, but allows Brown to remain as an underling.  Two other professionals, the newlywed Piggotts, are enlisted, and the dig progresses.  They find several magnificent gold artifacts and other items of such importance as to make historians rethink their picture of the Anglo-Saxon culture in the 6th and 7th centuries.  Eventually, the government gets involved and takes over the dig.  Then all of it is abandoned as hostilities with the Germans commence.  The site eventually becomes a military training ground with motorized vehicles, tanks, and trenching practice tearing up all but the most significant parts of the dig site.

All of the above is historical fact.  How the author uses these facts to create a story that you'll want to read makes all the difference.

Given this outline of events, personalities, and conflicts, many authors would be sorely tempted to highlight the drama of clashing personalities and turfs.  It would be easy to sensationalize the importance and magnificence of the finds. 

None of that happens.  The story is told by several characters, starting with Mrs. Pretty as she sets things in motion.  Then Basil Brown narrates with his no-nonsense rural expertise, followed by Peggy Piggott, who came in at mid-dig as a neophyte professional working with her professor husband.  Never do we see through the eyes of the true professionals, who we suspect are consumed by their rivalries. Mrs. Pretty closes by telling of the inquest that determines who owns all the treasure at the end. 

The narrators never descend into heated emotions; instead, we get hints of deeper feelings.  We suspect that there may be marital trouble with the Piggotts.  We see the autocratic, short-tempered, self-important Phillips show unexpected periods of empathy and calmness.  Robbie, Mrs. Pretty's son, is a child with hinted-at troubles that are never revealed.  We are subtly encouraged to wonder about our place in history and what our artifacts may say about us millennia from now. 

Although there is no overt drama, no real mystery, and none of the trappings of popular fiction, the book kept me fascinated.  I actually put down a best-selling author's thriller (also in for review) just to glance through this book when it arrived.  The next thing I knew, I had finished The Dig without ever wanting to go back to that masterfully mysterious bit of pop fiction I thought I couldn't put down.  This is the real thing:  a book with a compelling story, fascinating actual history, and undercurrents of emotion and thoughtfulness that will keep you in quiet contemplation for a long time.

This review was originally written for

Saturday, February 13, 2016

To Helvetica and Back, A Dangerous Type Mystery #1 by Paige Shelton

To Helvetica and Back
A Dangerous Type Mystery #1
Reviewed by Richard Mann of

AUTHOR: Paige Shelton
PUBLISHER: Berkley Prime Crime
ISBN: 978-0-425-27725-6 Paperback
Publication Date:  January 2016

FAIR WARNING:  Before I get into a discussion of the story and its merits, I will be indulging in some wandering personal thoughts and ideas.  You can skip down to the part called “Actual Review Starts Here” if you don’t want to bother with any of the preliminaries.

I started reading Paige Shelton’s books when I discovered that she lived in Utah, where I live.  (She has since moved to Arizona, which is a close second best to Utah….)  She had two series of cozy mysteries going at the time.  One involves a young woman in the South who runs a permanent farmer’s market.  The other is set in Broken Rope, Missouri, at a cooking school run by a feisty grandma and her granddaughter.  Interesting historical ghosts turn up in these stories.  Of the two, I like the Missouri series the best.  The ghosts are not over the top or involved in the sorts of things some other woo-woo mystery authors use, such as wars between factions of ghosts or witches or zombies or whatever.  These are well behaved ghosts that give us an interesting glimpse into their times and present a single historical problem to be solved along with the present-day murder that always seems to occur.

Then Ms. Shelton started her third series, this one set in Star City, Utah, which is really Park City Utah, in an almost completely transparent disguise.  Park City is an old mining community with Wild West roots. It’s now one of the world’s premiere ski resorts and a year-round tourist mecca.  This is perhaps the only city in Utah that does not descend from strong Mormon roots.  It’s a unique place of pristine mountain scenery with an Old West look and feel.  In one of Louis L’Amour’s western novels, a character is well known for the time he single-handedly tamed the wild, brawling boom town.  Over the years, I have spent a lot of time there in week-long timeshare condo stints and at multi-day conferences and seminars.  To know Park City is to love Park City.  Oh, yes, dozens and dozens of movie stars, billionaires, and other public figures have vacation homes there.

I had to read this book immediately.  I have to admit that, due to my relative poverty, I get most of my books through or from Amazon after the price for used copies goes down to a penny (or $4 with shipping).  That means I’m usually reading books that are one to three years old.  This time I paid full price at for the privilege of getting this one hot off the presses.

Actual Review Starts Here

The story involves Clare Henry and her grandfather Chester, who owns a combination typewriter repair/printing/book restoration shop called The Rescued Word.  They have an interesting history that we learn about in bits and pieces as we go; I found that history to be endearing. 
One day, old friend and professional novelist Mirabelle Montgomery brings in her trusty old Underwood #5 typewriter for repair.  Soon a leather-clad biker dude comes into the store and demands that Clare sell him Mirabelle’s typewriter—now.  Not some other typewriter; specifically that typewriter.  As he becomes increasingly demanding, then threatening, a quick call to the Clare’s best friend, a woman police officer, scares away the would-be thief.  Thus starts an intriguing chain of events that includes a murder (of course), and suspicion thrown on all and sundry, but mostly on Clare’s friends.  

Include a new-to-town geologist as a love interest for Clare, the revelation of a similarly new girlfriend for aging old grandpa Chester, and complications from Clare’s prior relationship gone sour with her best friend’s brother, another local cop, and we have a nice simmering stew of uncertainties to keep Clare on edge through the book.  It’s fun.

I enjoy today’s standard cozy mysteries with their fairly formulaic elements, but at times the formula features that publishers seem to require descend into unnecessary situational clichés.  For instance, the amateur sleuth has to have a contact in the local police department.  They vary from boyfriends to best friends, from exes of various degrees of distastefulness to actual nemeses.  Here, Clare’s lifelong best friend Jodie is a local cop.  Jodie’s brother is Clare’s ex-boyfriend, but he’s not a complete jerk.  Their relationship is not clichéd; it’s realistic and it’s interesting. 

There’s a cantankerous cat that lives in the store—all shops in cozy mysteries must have a cat or two.  I really get tired of them.  This one, however, does not play too big a part and seems natural rather than being there because the reading public demands there be a lovable cat present.

Clues are deftly strewn about the story with a comfortable ease that avoids calling attention to them.  There are enough red herrings to keep us happily guessing wrong about what’s really going on, but they are understated and arise naturally from the flow of events.  I enjoyed the real mystery here, which is that we have no idea for a long time why someone would want to buy or steal an old typewriter.  When the reasons slowly come into focus, they have a natural feel while yet being different from anything else I have ever read.  That’s the product of an author with talent, imagination, and a refreshing creativity.  It must be that clear, crisp, high-altitude mountain air up there in Park City that brings out such a wonderful story.

There’s one more frequent feature of many mystery novels that is missing here—to my everlasting delight.  There is no moment when the sleuth suddenly knows the solution to the mystery but coyly refuses to share it with us, the readers.  Those books go on for another chapter while the main character toys with us, not revealing what she now knows.  I hate that—and I’m overjoyed that Ms. Shelton did not do that to us in this refreshingly different book.

I guess you can tell that I liked the book.  I loved its setting.  The characters resonated with me.  The events rang true with a solid logical progression.  One little aspect of the final solution seemed a bit off to me, but I was quickly willing to suspend my disbelief and get on with the story.  I was having too much fun to let a little thing like that get in the way.

If, like me, you are tiring of all those mysteries set in small southern towns, charming New England townships, and Atlantic seaboard cities, come on out west and hang around in a real historical western town in the Rocky Mountains.  You’ll like it.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Off the Books, Novel Ideas Mystery #5, by Lucy Arlington

Off the Books
Novel Ideas Mystery #5
Reviewed by Richard Mann of

AUTHOR: Lucy Arlington
PUBLISHER: Berkley Prime Crime
ISBN: 978-0-425-27667-9  Paperback

This fifth entry in the popular Novel Ideas Mystery series, the second since author Susan Furlong took over the series from its initial co-authors writing as Lucy Arlington, is another winner.  I promise to stop hearkening back to the original co-authors in the future; Ms. Furlong has proven her mettle and is now the secure owner and proprietor of the Lucy Arlington franchise.  In my experience, 99 percent of the time a new author takes over another author’s mystery series, the result is an unsatisfying shadow of the real thing.  This instance, however, is the one percent exception that proves the rule.  Susan Furlong’s two books in this series carry the characters and situations forward seamlessly and accurately.  Her books might even be better than the first three.  So…enough about that.  We can all be happy that Ms. Furlong is now running the show.

And a show it is.  If you work at a literary agency in the small North Carolina town of Inspiration Valley, one of the best ways to get a new cast of potential murderers and murder victims into town is to have an exposition or show.  In the last two books we had a cookbook show and a combined gardening-landscaping expo.  In this one, it’s a wedding planning and bridal exposition set to take a week highlighting all aspects of wedding planning while showing off many of the agency’s best authors and books.

Lila Wilkins, the book’s viewpoint character, is one of the literary agents charged with organizing and running the event.  She is also engaged to be married at some as-yet undetermined date in the near future to a local detective, Sean Griffiths.  Their romance has been percolating through the previous four books and is now approaching its logical next step.  Lila hopes to enjoy planning her own wedding as she learns from the many facets of the exposition.

Unfortunately, the characters in the book don’t know—as we readers certainly do—that there will soon be a murder.  Sure enough, a local handyman with a reputation for shoddy work and a less-than-sterling character is offed by a nail-gun shot to the skull in the kitchen of the exposition hall.  Lila, the poor dear, finds him while the fatal injury is still fresh.

As the plot unfolds, two of the agency’s authors become suspects.  One, Lila’s new client whose first romance novel is soon to be released, is an abused ex-wife of the victim.  The other author’s recent book describes a murder done with—you’ll never guess—a carpenter’s nail gun.  What police detective could resist arresting her?

Our beloved cast of characters, familiar from the previous books, works through challenging, pleasant, and satisfying events in their lives interwoven with the emergence of new clues leading eventually to the real murderer.  Making this happen is a real challenge to most authors.  For the series to go on for many books, the characters need to move forward in their lives, endure happy and sad changes, and grow and develop.  In some books from less talented authors, their efforts to do this get in the way of the real story and frustrate me.  Often, I truly don’t care what’s going on with the sister or other relative, the best friend, or other peripheral character.  It seems to be annoying filler.  Not so here.  Susan Furlong is a master at making us care about those characters. 

Those who could be nominated for Best Supporting Character include Lila’s mother, who as The Amazing Althea reads tarot cards; Lila’s son Trey, who has a change of heart in his first year of college; best friend Makayla, the local barista, who is also planning her wedding; and the whole crew at the literary agency.  There’s also an interesting bit of byplay with the agency’s big boss adopting a problem dog that upsets the agency’s long-time cat mascot and other more human folks.

The balance between these subplots and our primary concern, the murder, is exquisitely maintained such that we never notice that the author isn’t talking about the murder for a while.  All of it is interesting, fresh, and natural.  This balance is one of the hallmarks of a truly well-crafted story; it sets this story head and shoulders above most of the competition.

Then finally at the end, all of the disparate threads come together in a satisfying revelation of who done it.   The solution of this story has a different feel from most cozy mysteries.  I can’t tell you exactly why without spoiling the story for you, so you’ll have to take my word for it and maybe think about it a little when you get to that point in the story yourself.  I can tell you that I really like the difference.

When I finished the book, I sat back with a sigh of happy satisfaction.  How nice to learn what’s been going on with Lila, her family, and her friends.  How nice to have a series of problems large and small solved with ingenuity and compassion.  How nice to have the guilty securely in jail.  How nice to know that in a year or so, there will be another installment in this series.

Get the book.  Read it.  Then you can share in that happy sigh of satisfaction at the end.  What more could you ask?

This review was originally written for

Saturday, March 07, 2015

For the Love of Baseball: A Celebration of the Game that Connects Us All

For the Love of Baseball
A Celebration of the Game that Connects Us All

Reviewed by Richard Mann of

EDITORS: Lee Gutkind and Andrew Blauner
PUBLISHER: Skyhorse Publishing
ISBN: 978-1-62914-247-0 Hardcover

Ah, baseball.  As an old Baby Boomer, I still have the patience and attention span to truly enjoy baseball.  I haven't always been able to follow it as I did as a kid, when knowing all about baseball was my major hobby.  Now, having retired and having found the MLB Network, I can again give the game the attention it deserves.

In fact, that's part of the problem with this review.  The book came out at the beginning of the 2014 season, and I'm writing the review as spring training is ramping up for 2015.  I was too busy watching the games to spend the necessary time to read the book with the attention it deserves. I also got seriously bogged down with the book's information about the Polo Grounds lights and poles having moved to a new home in Phoenix.

This book has something for every baseball fan.  It contains 24 essays-really magazine articles, more than anything else.  The range and depth of coverage is staggering.

In these pages you will find reflections on past glories of the game.  An essay talks about the loyalty of fans whose teams rarely win.  Another tells of the development of baseball parks over the years, but spins off to tell us all about Babe Ruth, who had a lot to do with the size and shape of modern baseball parks.  I got bogged down seriously in a long article about the writer's baseball glove.  It told me everything about that individual glove's history, then went on to generalize about the physics and aesthetics of glove design and manufacturing.  No detail is left out.  I would have been happier if a lot of those details had been left out.

A woman laments that she could not actually play with the Big Boys.  We feel her pain.  Another tells us about her daughter's league where it takes eight strikes to get an out.  George Plimpton tells us how lonely and demeaning it is to be relegated to playing right field.  We read an ode to baseball caps. I really enjoyed learning about a kid who persevered his way into a job as the New York Yankees bat boy.

We learn about pesapello, the odd variation of baseball played in Finland, where a pitch is arched at least three feet over the batter's head.  If the batter doesn't hit it and the ball lands on home plate, it's a strike.  If it misses home plate, it's a ball.  Two balls is a walk.  Bases are not symmetrically placed and the distance between them varies. A fly ball caught by an outfielder is not an out, it's a "wounding."  You get 11 woundings or 3 outs in an inning. The whole concept is mind-boggling.

We learn about umpiring in Slovenia in an amusing essay that includes shots at our ownAmerican umpires' famous blown calls. A personal essay tells of life with Casey Stengel, the legendary Yankees manager.  One of my favorites is the story of Art Williams, the first black Major League umpire. We learn what it really means to be an umpire, one of the hardest jobs on the planet. (Things have changed in the umpiring world, however, after the 2014 adoption of instant replay.)

I had a really hard time getting through 20 pages of exquisitely detailed information on the lights at a spring training field in Phoenix, which had originally been the lights at the Polo Grounds in New York.  Why anyone would want to know that much about the lights escapes me completely. I would pick up the book, read a page or maybe two, then put it down, shaking my head.  A week later, I'd try again, with the same result.  (Reviewers believe that we have to actually read the book-all of it.  Luckily, you could skip over this story-unless you are a luminaphile, which is a word I just made up to describe lovers of lighting facilities.)

The final offering gives us the history of baseball's distinctive pitches.  I've always wondered exactly what a "slider" is and how it differs from the more ubiquitous curve ball.  Would you believe that no one has ever been identified as the inventor or originator of the slider?  It took 80 years of pro ball before it became common, but no one knows where it came from.  Fascinating stuff.

So now you know what's in the book.  It covers all the bases, to use an obvious metaphor.  Well, almost all the bases. I just realized there's no treatise on the history of the actual bases.  I enjoyed most of the articles, but got bogged down in an excessive quantity of details in several of the stories.  You, of course, could skip over these few items and still enjoy the fascinating stuff in the rest of the book.

If you love baseball, this book will teach you a lot, amuse you, and help you to deepen your fascination with the Great Game.

This review was originally published on

Friday, March 06, 2015

Blood Jungle Ballet by John Enright

Blood Jungle Ballet
Detective Apelu Soifua Jungle Beat Mystery #4
Reviewed by Richard Mann of

AUTHOR: John Enright
PUBLISHER: Thomas & Mercer
ISBN: 978-1612185033 Trade Paperback

This is the fourth book about Detective Apelu Soifua, a police detective in American Samoa.  Three years ago, I read the first book in the series, Pago Pago Tango, because I had spent three weeks in Samoa on a business trip many years ago.  There are really two Samoas.  American Samoa is an American territory.  Samoa, or the Independent State of Samoa, was formerly known as Western Samoa.  They are only 40 miles apart.  Surprisingly, Pago Pago has a somewhat different feel from Apia, in independent Samoa.  It is fun to have even a small familiarity with the exotic setting of a mystery novel.

While I liked the first book in the series, it was not fascinating enough to make me look for the rest of the series.  When this one came up for review, it seemed a good time to see how the series had matured.  The book has the same general feel as the first one, but the storytelling has improved.  I should also note that you need not read the preceding books in the series to enjoy this one.

The story starts when a couple of kids report finding a freshly dug empty grave deep in the jungle.  It proceeds through a sequence of deaths that the police write off as suicides or arising from natural causes.  Only Apelu suspects that there is something deeper than meets the eye going on.  Because these are not official investigations, Apelu pursues them in odd moments of spare time. 

When I left Apelu at the end of book one, he was married with kids.  We find him in this book living with a younger Samoan woman while his undivorced wife and children have returned home to independent Samoa.  His girlfriend has a baby during the course of the story. 

As the story develops, Apelu consults with Laura, a palangi (white, off-islander) lady medical examiner. Together, they notice unexplained or ignored aspects of the deaths.  They send samples to California for HIV testing, but no results ever come back.  As Apelu and Laura become friendly, Laura meets his girlfriend.  They become fast friends; eventually Laura spends more time with the girlfriend than with Apelu, who seems to become an unnecessary third wheel in his own home.

During the investigation of the first two deaths, I noticed that the pace of the investigation of these cases is spot-on for the way things occur in Samoa.  There is no urgent press to find out what happened.  Apelu remains aware and waits for developments to develop.  He knows the necessary information and connections will reveal themselves in good time.  One good technique he uses is to stop in at the bar and idly wonder about things for an hour every day or two.  After fifty pages or so, I found myself fully immersed in the pace and cultural ambiance of life in American Samoa.  I then had a firm grasp of what it feels like to have as much of an understanding of local Samoan affairs as any palangi can, given our own cultural biases.  It felt quite similar to the feelings I had during my visit there so long ago.

Occasionally, a few uneventful months pass between chapters.  The final events take place a full two years after the opening scenes.  During that time, the connections between the many deaths emerge as things become increasingly dreary in Apelu's life.  I won't tell you anything that would spoil the surprises, but you can expect life for Apelu to become thoroughly unpleasant. 

In fact, by the end of the story, Apelu has decided to quit the police force and spend his time farming on his "plantation," a few acres of overgrown slopes well into the jungle.  The way the book ends, it is likely to be the last of series.  I would rather have the series continue, but it would take quite a turnaround in Apelu's attitude and situation. 

One option for continuing the series would be to let the young police officer who has been mentored and helped by Apelu take over the series.  It would be fun to observe Ropeti as he learns police work and matures.  I'm not sure I could take much more of the dreariness that overtook Apelu.

The strengths of this book include an accurate portrayal of Samoan life as it appears to a palangi; strong, interesting characters; an intricate if slowly developing plot; and several outstanding descriptive passages.  I also enjoyed a throwaway line on page 98:  "Absence makes the mind go ponder."

Several things about the story bothered me, both in this book and in the first one.  I fully realize that these items are my personal quirks rather than the way many people feel, but I mention them for the few people who may share my outlook.  I have a hard time identifying with point of view characters who do not have rigorous integrity.  Apelu, a police officer, smokes marijuana and lets occasional people get away with things that he shouldn't.  He lives with a girlfriend while still married and has a child with her, yet he doesn't seem to really care much about her.  I also do not enjoy stories where the main character suffers unfair blows that plunge him into despair without there being a recovery by the end of the book.  If I want that sort of thing, I'll go read literature, not mystery novels.  Again, these would not be universal points of bother; many will rightly scoff at such a silly, old-fashioned attitude.

If you have any desire to learn about Samoa and can enjoy a leisurely pace in solving the mystery, you have an excellent chance to enjoy this book.

This review was originally written for

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Dead Man Walker, an e-book by Duffy Brown

Dead Man Walker
Consignment Shop Series Info #3.5 (or maybe 4)

Reviewed by Richard Mann of

AUTHOR: Duffy Brown
PUBLISHER: Berkley Prime Crime
ISBN: 978-0-698-17802-1 E-book only

This little e-book is a strange item indeed.  First, and most important, it is the next installment in the brilliant, hilarious Consignment Shop Series from Duffy Brown.  On that basis alone, the release of this …er… book is cause for elation.  I have a bit of a problem with the way it turns out, though, which I will tell you about in a minute.

The marketing materials, blurbs, and so forth, tell you this is a “novella,” which is a shorter-than-a-novel long story.  It features Walker Boone, the bad-boy romantic interest in the first three books of the series.  This time, Walker is the viewpoint character, so we are privileged to know what he is thinking and seeing.  All the others are written from the viewpoint of Regan Summerside, the sexy but impetuous owner of a consignment shop.  In her earlier adventures, we met the wonderful cast of characters who keep the complex series of wildly unlikely events delighting us, the readers.

After three books, changing the viewpoint character to a male—even temporarily—involves substantial risks.  Think about it:  Up to this point, Walker Boone is a seeming superhero who somehow knows everything that’s going on.  He shows up at just the right moment and saves the heroine—repeatedly.  Now, in this story, we will find out what he knows, what he thinks, what he does, and how he does it.  The magic (or lack thereof) will be revealed.  It may take a lot of the romantic mystique out of the character.

The second risk is that Ms. Brown, the author, may not be up to the challenge of showing us how this amazing man thinks.

Now, let’s talk about the story itself.  It opens as Walker’s once-a-week housekeeper calls him when she finds a dead body at another client’s house.  The victim is a low-life rich guy whose fingers are in a lot of pies that upset a lot of people.  For semi-logical reasons, the police quickly lock in on Walker as the primary suspect. 

We encounter three or four people tripping over each other trying to investigate the killing themselves because they know Walker didn’t do it and for other reasons of their own.  Of course, our old friend Regan is one of them.

In the defining scene, Regan comes to Walker’s rescue in a nice reversal of the normal way things have worked.  She takes Walker’s hat, coat, and hot car and gives Walker her pink scooter (named Princess) and pink helmet with glitter.  Walker scoots off to hide, while the police chase Regan in hot pursuit, thinking she is Walker.  It’s a wonderful scene.

Now comes the problem I warned you about.  The story moves right along, adding suspects and complications, building situations with lots of promise for funny resolutions.  Then it stops.  It STOPS!  Right in the middle of the story!  Walker is off hiding somewhere with the scooter.  Suspects abound.  There are clues everywhere.  It’s not fair to just stop and tell us the rest of the story is in the next book.  This is not a novella. A novella is a story—you know, beginning, middle, and an end.  This is just a lonely beginning.  A good one, a fascinating one, yes, but no one told me I was getting a book which was really just the first few chapters of a longer book that will be coming out in a few months.  That’s not right, people!

Have you watched an hour-long drama, perhaps an NCIS, that didn’t seem to be wrapping up?  Then at the end of the hour, the screen said, “To Be Continued.”  I always hate that.  This is the same feeling.

To add to the confusion, when the Walker-narrated portion stops in the middle of a page, we are told that the next book, Demise in Denim, will continue the story.  Then it gives us a few pages from the start of that book, which continue the story we have been reading, but it is now from Regan’s viewpoint. First we are shocked by the story stopping in mid-stream, followed immediately by an equilibrium-disturbing change in viewpoint for the next few pages.  Oh, I was not a happy man when I got to that point.

I think the author’s legion of fans (which includes me!) could blame the publisher for this odd decision to give us an unsatisfying, incomplete story masquerading as a novella. Marketing people occasionally come up with bizarre ideas like this.  Unfortunately, I have a couple of other complaints—admittedly minor ones—that have to fall to the author.
 [Note from editor. After reading this review on, Ms. Brown told me this in an email:
This novella was my idea, not Penguin/Berkley Prime Crime. So I take full responsibility. If I don't shake things up once in a while they just become the same old thing. There's a lot of same old thing out there.]
One is the way Walker thinks.  I am a man, unlike probably 75 percent or more of the people who will read this book.  I know how a man thinks and how a man wants to pretend he thinks.  There were several times when Walker’s thoughts were decidedly unmanly. The way those thoughts were expressed would embarrass most men. Most female readers would not know the difference—but those instances brought me up short and took me right out of the story.

Another minor problem was pacing.  A half-dozen times, I turned a virtual page and found myself confused.  I turned back to the previous page to be sure I hadn’t accidentally skipped a page.  Only once was a skipped page the cause of the momentary confusion.  As I thought about these matters, I decided that the problem was that the author had to compress things too much to keep the novella short.  We know how that turned out. The story was not resolved at all, so it could have stopped at any time.

Now, lest these complaints turn you off completely, I need to come back to reality and give up my idealistic notions of publishing fair play.  This e-book is (a portion of) the next story in the Regan Summerside-Walker Boone series of absolutely delightful mysteries.  Does it have the undeniable madcap magic of the first three books in the series?  Oh, yes, it does.  Am I dying to find out what happens when I get the actual book that (hopefully) finishes the story?  Yes!  Do I hope that Duffy Brown’s legion of adoring fans will control their outrage and fail to mount a crusade to Roy, Utah, to destroy this infidel of a book reviewer?  YES!  Please be kind.

After all, what’s the point of a book review that doesn’t tell you what the reviewer really thinks?  I assure you that when the story is eventually completed in the next book, we will all be deliriously happy and very willing to overlook a few curious problems in the slightly unpolished story fragment we were given a few months before the real book is due to be published.  Satisfaction awaits—just not right now.

This review was originally written for