"I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer", by Michelle McNamara - Book Review

McNamara, comedian Patton Oswalt’s late wife, was obsessed with the serial rapist and murderer she dubbed The Golden State Killer. And when I say obsessed, I mean all encompassing, decades long, detective like obsessed. This book is the result of her obsession and to show just how much it affected her personally, at one point, she casually states, “There’s a scream permanently lodged in my throat now.”

Because what she was obsessed with was terrifying.

The book is a murder mystery of epic proportion and frustration. At the time of McNamara’s death, the book had not yet been published nor had the mystery been solved. She died without seeing her monstrous (pun intended) efforts in print and not knowing just how close officials were to getting her man. She died not knowing what we all know now. In April of this year, Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., was arrested and is being held without bail as the Golden State Killer.

The acronym McNamara used throughout the book, and one used by official types, was EAR-ONS: East Side Rapist/Original Night Stalker. This guy carried on a reign of terror and destruction from the late 70s through the mid 80s and he simply could not be caught. This, despite the fact that once he escaped a crime scene on a stolen ten-speed with officers in cars hot on his tail. As McNamara’s title indicates, he was a master of the dark.

To say that McNamara’s research is extensive, is to understate it grievously. She even became a contact for detectives along the way who took her theories and suggestions as seriously as they would from other law enforcement. But she writes a methodically researched subject like a novel. Interspersed with the facts, she adds anecdotal stories of her own life that shine a light into her as well as giving some softness to a book that is both brutal and clinical in its facts and details.

After McNamara’s tragic death in April 2016, her lead investigator and a well-schooled investigative journalist put all of her diligent work together into what resulted in this book. Their task must have been overwhelming and, if McNamara hadn’t made such an important impression on them, there is no way they would have undertaken it. Her husband, Patton, lovingly writes the afterword and Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame wrote the foreword.

McNamara’s obsession with the Golden State Killer drove her to some dangerously dark places. After her death was ruled an accidental overdose of a lethal combination of prescription drugs, it isn’t hard to imagine that she may have used medicine to dull the edges of her gruesome hobby.

And, who could blame her? As of her death, the killer was still on the loose and constantly on her mind. Oh, how I hope her spirit knows that her real-life demon has been caught and that she’s finally able to lie peacefully at rest.   

Published: 2018
Publisher: Harper

Elizabeth's rating: 4.5 stars

Techno Thriller: "The Last Hack", by Christopher Brookmyre - Book Review

A relatively new genre within thrillers is cybercrime. I recently reviewed David Ignatius’ Quantum Spy and have tackled another - Christopher Brookmyre’s The Last Hack.  While Ignatius’ work is decidedly unmemorable, Brookmyre’s novel may tempt me to read more of his Jack Parlabane series.

The Last Hack is a techno whodunit that teams unassuming 19-year Sam, whose mother is in prison and is caring for her special needs younger sister, with an experienced investigative journalist, Jack Parlabane. It’s light on a lot of technical details, which is good since it’s not incredibly realistic. Not a security expert myself, even I realize many of the tactics simply don’t jive, but it’s background noise. What is engaging are the characters, the suspense, and an unknown common enemy - all of which did make for a fun read.

Relayed from two perspectives of Sam and Jack, they first collide, then join to form a protective front. Sam is a “supervillain” in the underground hacking world. However, in the real world Sam is a fearful, easily intimidated teenage girl who has to drop out of university to get a job to support her little sister.  She’s an ace hacker in the dark web, breaking into corporate sites to expose the hypocrites and greedy. No one knows her true identity until one day she is found out and threatened to be exposed unless she fulfills a dangerous request. Because her little sister is all she has, she is forced to play this perilous game, but she enlists some help. 

Jack on the other hand has had a dodgy career. He’s known to successfully get to the bottom of the toughest stories, but gets himself and his publishers in trouble while doing so. After going off the grid for a while, he’s straightened himself out, some of the skepticism about him has died down, and he’s just started working with a hot new online journal. Just when he thought he was on the safe path, a previous underground source surfaces and traps him back into criminal behavior - he’s back to living on the edge.  This is where Jack and Sam intersect.

Sam’s primal need to care for her sister drives some bold moves, and Jack has desperate, conflicting desires to keep his name clean and chase the juicy story. Brookmyre does a great job of creating tension building up to the moment Jack and Sam feel they are ready to act on their plan, only to find it all falls apart. It is nail-biting and fun, and I stayed awake far later than was wise, but it was well worth the lost sleep.

Published:  2017
Publisher:  Atlantic Monthly Press

Vickie’s rating: 3 1/2 stars

Her Best Prose Yet in "The Lying Game", by Ruth Ware - Book Review

Ruth Ware’s third novel, The Lying Game, is likely proof that she’s here to stay. On the heels of A Dark Dark Wood and The Woman in Cabin 10, she’s etching her name on the list of top-tier modern day thriller writers.

To me, though, this book was a bit of a departure from the focused mystery of her first two books. In The Lying Game, she really hit her mark as a skilled prose writer. Her descriptions of people, places, and relationships were deep and lusty.

The story revolves around four women in their thirties who bonded in prep school. The creation of what they thought would be a harmless bit of fun, the “lying game,” brought them closer together in school and ultimately tied them together for life.

Inseparable as teenagers, almost every weekend while in school, the girls retreated to Kate’s childhood home, The Mill, which was within walking distance. Mysterious and alluring, access to The Mill required crossing The Reach, a fickle waterway that surges dangerously in and out daily with the tide. Ware soars in her descriptions of both places as they almost become characters in the book.

After abruptly leaving school half way through their senior year, all of the women moved out and on with their lives, except Kate, who stayed on at the Mill. But after she sends the other three an urgent text, they all converge on the Mill as adults where they are forced to revisit their cavalier game and foolish actions from the past; and to address very real threats in the present. The narrator, Isa, travels there with her infant, Freya, and here again, Ware, through her writing, captures the sweet and ferocious bond between mother and child.

While there is murder and some mayhem in this book, to me, the mystery wasn’t as compelling as in Ware’s first two novels. Further, there are some inexplicable gaps in the story such as why, after demonstrating her iron like bond with Freya, Isa stays on at the Mill when clearly it is not safe. But the strength of this book lies in the writing. Instead of turning pages as quickly as possible to get to the ‘ah ha’ at the end, I found myself savoring her words on the page.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press

Elizabeth's rating: 3 ½ stars

A Texas Thriller of Race and Murder: "Bluebird Bluebird", by Attica Locke - Book Review

Set in the backwoods of East Texas in the present day, this story feels historical. As a reader, I found myself getting shocked back into the present with modern day facts after feeling lulled into the past with the race relations as author Attica Locke lays them out.

The plot centers around two murders in Lark, TX:  that of a black male lawyer from Chicago and that of a young local white female. In a small Texas town with a heavy concentration of Aryan Brotherhood members, guess which murder gets priority?

Bluebird, Bluebird
By Attica Locke

Both bodies are found in the river that passes behind Geneva Sweet’s Sweets, run by none other than Geneva, of steely hair and character. Opening the shop years back to provide hot meals and respite to blacks when “whites only” signs were the norm, she currently serves all races with efficiency and diplomacy. Across the street from Sweet’s sits the home of Wallace Jefferson III. Geneva and Wally, as he’s known, have a complicated history tinged with a strange mutual respect despite Wally’s overt racism and singular desire to buy Geneva out of her property so he can develop it for profit. Their history ties the past to the present.

Murders aren’t new to Lark. Geneva’s own husband was murdered in her store during a random robbery years before. Or was it random? As Darren, the black Texas Ranger main character unravels the story of what happened with respect to the current murders, secrets of the past pop up like unwanted bad dreams.

Darren is a mass of complications himself. Temporarily suspended from the Rangers, his marriage is on the rocks, his drinking is nearing critical mass, and his feelings for the wife of the dead man reach beyond professional courtesy.

Locke tells a harsh story of racism, hate, and murder with a beautiful voice. Her command of language turns ugly into lovely. Describing the night sky in a scene fraught with tension, she writes it is “thick enough to touch, a velvet quilt of black stitched through with stars.”

The story is intense and edgy, the prose poetic and lilting. The Lark murders resolve in a way that makes sense based on the past that Darren unearths. But Locke packs a blindsided punch at the end that is so hard on a peripheral storyline, I finished the final pages in muted shock. I had to go back and read them again to make sure I had gotten it right.

Will we ever cure the global race problem? No way to know; but Locke urges us through her writing to keep tackling it one-on-one. When you’re looking in someone’s face, she reminds us, you’re dealing with a person, not a color. Act accordingly.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Mulholland Books

Elizabeth's rating: 4.5 stars

Different Kind of Thriller in "Two Days Gone", by Randall Silvis - Book Review

A picture-perfect family is murdered. A man is on the run. The investigating police officer has a connection to the case and a deep, troubling past of his own.  Sound a bit hackneyed? Perhaps, but Randall Silvis’ Two Days Gone is refreshingly different.

Our protagonist, Ryan DeMarco, is a Pennsylvania State Police officer in charge of the case - death by knife of Claire Huston and her three children. Tom Huston, Claire’s husband and father of their three children, has walked into the woods and disappeared. A highly acclaimed author and the darling of the university where he teaches, it’s speculated that Huston has snapped. And DeMarco has to get to the bottom of it. Although Huston has a darkness to him, no one can imagine him murdering his beloved family. The first of several complexities begins when we learn DeMarco and Huston have a connection. Huston had based a character in one of his best-selling books on DeMarco, and DeMarco felt a kindred spirit in Huston. Many more intricacies in the case follow.

DeMarco has to chase down multiple leads, learning more about the top suspect’s complicated life as a devoted family man, best-selling author, and respected university professor. DeMarco must investigate Huston’s new manuscript (which is hidden, of course), his envious colleagues, and the subject of his new book.  To solve the case, DeMarco must also uncover the mystery of Huston’s subject matter. We get to know DeMarco’s history as well - dark and lonely; too much alcohol and too little sleep; personalizing the case.

Once every few books, I need to take on something a bit lighter and easier to read, so I chose Two Days Gone. But it certainly isn’t frivolous. It’s a well-written murder mystery. Silvis coherently develops his characters into a believable account when the crime itself seems too brutal to consider. There are certainly some holes, but the dialogue is quick and entertaining. You may be up late reading it through to the end.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Vickie’s rating: 3 1/2 stars

A Thrilling Character Study in "Before the Fall", by Noah Hawley - Book Review

Now THIS was the thriller that I searched for all summer and finally found in the fall.

Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall runs the gamut. He masterfully writes a solid mystery with in-depth character development and a fine-tuned examination into human weakness and capacity for survival. 

No spoiler alert: The plot all revolves around the crash of a private jet into the Atlantic Ocean, which happens in the first few pages. Shockingly, two survivors surface in the immediate aftermath. Their story alone might have been the sole focus of the book but, fifty pages in, that part of the story is mostly forgotten which just demonstrates the strength of the remainder of the book.  

Before the Fall
By Noah Hawley

Hawley uses the flashback technique with precision. He develops the character of each passenger on the plane through specifically designated chapters giving glimpses into their lives ‘before the fall’.

He also offers keen insight into the minds and lives of the elite wealthy. Not the kind of people who have two Mercedes and a beach house. The kind that own islands and skyscrapers. He exposes how that type of wealth can be shackling, albeit with gold, and can lead to incredibly flawed decision making.

Mental illness and obsession also play a role in the story. Specifically, how the harmful actions of someone with an unsound mind seem so insane to the outside world, yet completely justifiable in the mind of the one with the illness.

The thread tying everything together is finding the answer to one question: why did that plane fall out of the sky? Mechanical malfunction? Pilot error? Espionage? Terrorism? Revenge? Delving into the psyches of all the main players makes each of these a possibility but, obviously, in the end, there is only one answer. And it is shocking both in its unexpectedness and its simplicity.

This was my first read of Hawley’s but it will definitely not be my last.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Elizabeth's rating: 4 ½ stars

Murder, Corruption, and Strained Race Relations in “Darktown”, by Thomas Mullen – Book Review

Books such as Darktown make me squirmy and uncomfortable because they delve into the true nature of racism in our country’s history. Set in 1948 Atlanta, author Thomas Mullen’s story centers around Mayor Hartsfield’s appointment of the first eight black police officers in exchange for a vote his way in the upcoming elections from the influential blacks in the community. Despite the motivation, sounds like a break-through for equalizing blacks and whites, right? Not even close. The black officers did not have patrol cars, could not arrest whites, and were relegated to the basement of the YMCA as their headquarters since they weren’t allowed in the regular “white” police station.

On top of the blatant racism from the white cops and citizens, black citizens were almost equally as unsupportive to the new officers. While accustomed to harassment and abuse from white cops, the black community saw the new officers as an additional intrusion into their way of life. In a poignant conversation between one new officer and a black woman whom he was questioning about a fight, she became increasingly agitated by his repeatedly referring to her as ma’am. She finally lost her cool and yelled, “You see a ma’am here? I look like a white lady to you?”

Darktown: A Novel
By Thomas Mullen

The novel tracks a few of the fictionalized black officers as well as a couple of the white officers. As the black officers attempt to solve the murder of a young black woman whose decomposing body was found in a pile of garbage, they face substantial push back from their white superiors. But not everyone is opposed to the integration of the police department, and the black officers find some quiet support from people they wouldn’t have expected.

This is a tough book to read and the bad guys don’t get as much of a comeuppance as you’d like. But it is important story. The timing of its release seems ominously appropriate in light of the ‘if you are not like us, you are not welcome’ rhetoric of one of our current presidential nominee’s platforms. In the novel, Mullen references a billboard on a Georgia highway opposing the United Nations. It read, “Keep America safe from foreigners!” Language on a billboard almost seventy years ago that could just as easily be found on one today.

The plot is good; the historical significance and relevance is better. The complexity and ugliness of the relationship between blacks and whites, particularly in the South, continues to remain something that cannot be unpacked in neat little boxes. Mullen enlightens the reader on why the same street changes names when it leaves the white section and enters the black part; those white aristocrats could not stomach having the same return address as their negro counterparts.

Darktown is gritty, real and, despite its historical roots, is hauntingly relatable in today’s times.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Atria Books/Simon & Schuster

Elizabeth’s rating:  4 stars

Lifting Darkness from “That Bright Land”, by Terry Roberts

It took a bit of effort to engross myself into That Bright Land. I had just finished reading Amor Towles’ new, very formally written novel (review coming soon), and switching gears to this post-Civil War drama written in the voice of a Union soldier, turned government man, was stark. But once I made the transition, author Terry Roberts had me the rest of the way.

That Bright Land
By Terry Roberts

The book is based on little-known, true events. Those in the South had greatly divided loyalties during the War of the States. In North Carolina, where our story takes place, even within small communities, some families chose to fight for the Union, causing great divides within the population and families. The basis for the story is a massacre that took place at Shelton Laurel in Madison County, where soldiers were ordered to execute their neighbors, those some considered traitors. Well, you can imagine the bad blood and ongoing resentments this caused, long after the war’s end.

So Jacob Ballard, a former Union soldier, who happens to have been born in Madison County is sent for to investigate a series of recent murders of Union veterans living in the county. They are dropping one by one, and no one can identify who the murderer is.

Roberts paints a vivid picture of rural North Carolina in an age of both poverty and growth; of a grand hotel and moonshine running; and the transition from slavery to freedom. Clues to the mystery reveal themselves slowly, and our hero has no technology nor team of experts to assist him. It is pure use of smarts and ingenuity to bring the murders to an end - a very different style than so many popular books today, and a bit refreshing.

Along the way, Jacob has his own personal awakening through rediscovering his long-lost roots, finding kinship, and ridding himself of the War’s demons that haunt him so. Some of the more endearing characters could have been better developed, but it was just well enough conveyed to build a well-rounded story. That Bright Land is a solid, quick, and engaging read.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Turner Publishing

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars 

“Remember Me Like This”, by Bret Anthony Johnston - Book Review

Like a house of mirrors, only slowing revealing the truth, Remember Me Like This unhurriedly divulges the facts, shattering the assumptions we’ve made along the way.  Taking place in a small Texas town outside Corpus Christi, author Bret Anthony Johnston roots us into the Campbell family four years into the search for missing eldest son, Justin. 

Parents Eric and Laura, and youngest son Griff, are coping with Justin’s disappearance in very different ways, of course. This family is not particularly unique - they are middle America, unnoticed except for the those in the town of Southport around them, recognized only for their grieving faces as they plea for any information that lead to their son’s return. They post flyers, organize search parties, and retreat into themselves. The desperation includes Eric’s father, Cecil, and important part of the narrative. Cecil is steady on the surface, and remains a stabilizing guide for Eric. Cecil grieves too - both for Justin and his late wife.  He’s an important part of the family’s lives and an interesting character - strong, vulnerable, angry, and tender. 

Remember Me Like This: A Novel
By Bret Anthony Johnston

Justin’s disappearance is only part of the story. He’s found. And similar to the troubled emotions of his loss, equally unsettling is dealing with the aftermath - of responsibility of parents and brother alike, and even more disconcerting, his kidnapper. Again, each family member has a unique reasoning and way of coping. So deep does Johnston dive into each person’s psyche, we feel the ache of loss, pain, and the brief allowances of joy.

What truly makes this book special however is Johnston’s writing itself. He brings an authenticity and rawness to each character, especially Eric and Laura, that their weaknesses lay spread out before us, disconcerting in how obviously real they are; too real. More than we would ever really want to know about those in pain perhaps, but here it is. And the prose is seamless - from describing emotions to the crime itself, and about the supporting characters around them. The complex story is precisely woven together and presented to us in a way that both surprises and makes us yearn for more.

Published: 2014
Publisher: Random House

Vickie’s rating: 5 stars