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The Highwayman: A Longmire StoryThe Highwayman: A Longmire Story by Craig Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


A genuinely spooky bit of modern Gothic, with twists all the way to the end. Familiarity with at least some of the other books -- or the TV adaptation -- might be helpful, though this tale doesn't appear to fit into a particular point in the series.

Johnson's evocation of northern Wyoming in the early spring is bone-chillingly accurate (I'm a native of the state), and his continuing cast of characters all feel like old friends. The plot justifies its novella length without overstaying its welcome. A must read for fans of the series -- though anyone interested in contemporary Western mysteries would probably enjoy it.



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Crimson Shore (Agent Pendergast, #15)Crimson Shore by Douglas Preston

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I’m a long-time reader of this series, and a major fan of Constance Greene, but this latest installment of Special Agent Pendergast’s adventures left me a little cold. It was well-crafted, and seemed to have all the required elements of a really good Preston & Child thriller -- but those elements just weren’t coming together in a coherent plotline.

To begin with, the “mundane” mystery – dark historical secrets of a small New England town leading to multiple bizarre murders – went on a little too long (for me, anyhow) before the weird/possibly supernatural component kicked in. The pages definitely kept turning, but the two elements never quite meshed.

The relationship between Pendergast and Constance took some damage, too. I’ve been intrigued by their subtle, strange, almost-chemistry for the past few novels, but this one included a remarkably awkward scene I wasn’t prepared for. As a plot device, it did what it was probably meant to do (and I can’t say more without committing Spoiler); but as character development, it struck some false notes.

There is also the matter of the ending . . . again, without committing Spoiler, I can’t say why it didn’t work well for me. Though cliffhangers are nothing new for this series, this one felt unusually opaque. I was left wondering where the next few chapters were, rather than looking forward to resolution in the next novel.

I did enjoy the read – most of the time – savored the character details, and certainly haven’t given up on the series. Fellow Pendergastlies will of course want to read it in order to keep up, but I suspect I’m not the only one feeling a bit let down. YMMV.




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Blue Labyrinth (Pendergast, #14)Blue Labyrinth by Douglas Preston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Preston & Child tie up a whole macramé project’s worth of loose ends in this fourteenth Agent Pendergast thriller – and, by & large, they do a very solid job of it.

When the first corpse shows up by page four (and on Pendergast’s doorstep!), readers know they’re in for an E Ticket ride. In this case, the ride involves a dark plunge into the agent’s family history. Ever wondered where Pendergast really gets his money? Or how his ward Constance Greene fits into the family picture? Or whether the venerable New York Museum of Natural History can survive yet another murder investigation?

Like most of the later entries in this series, this one is aimed at the faithful. Vincent D’Agosta, Dr. Margo Green, and several other continuing characters all struggle to resolve a lethal threat to Pendergast himself, even as the action moves from New York to California to Brazil and beyond. Tidbits of esoteric knowledge are doled out. Weapons both standard and wildly improbable are deployed with devastating results, and one of the nastier villains in recent series history schemes and betrays his way through Pendergast’s friends and family.

Constance fans are in for a special treat. Otherwise, it’s pretty much what we’ve come to expect: nonstop action, quirky but sympathetic characters, deeply weird plot twists, and plenty of mysteries left over for next time. (Whew!)




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Wait for Signs: Twelve Longmire StoriesWait for Signs: Twelve Longmire Stories by Craig Johnson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This collection of twelve Walt Longmire tales, one new to this book, was a slender but wonderful addition to my holiday reading. Not all the stories take place during the Christmas/New Year’s period, but many do. Most fill small gaps in the ongoing chronicle of Absaroka County’s most notable sheriff, and his friends & family.

The mysteries here are gentler than Longmire’s longer cases (I’ve read three, so far), & some of the stories don’t concern crime at all. All offer witty, poignant, & authentic glimpses of life in rural northern Wyoming. As a Wyoming native myself, I thoroughly enjoyed these stories. However, I did find a few spoilers (minor, I hope) which may affect my future Longmire reading experiences.

Highly recommended to all readers & viewers of the Longmire saga, and to anyone curious about this phenomenon.






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The Secret PlaceThe Secret Place by Tana French

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I’d never even heard of the Dublin Murder Squad series before picking up this book (in CD format, from my local library), but decided to give this one a try after reading a rave mention in Time.

And I am so very glad I did.

This tightly structured story of a cold case reopened at an elite girls’ school is one of the most remarkably elegant mysteries I’ve read or listened to in a long time. Switching back & forth between the actual investigation (which takes a single day) and the events leading up to the murder (which occupy an entire year at St. Kilda’s), this narrative offers so much more than a whodunit. It’s also an examination of friendship – both adolescent and adult – and the sacrifices we’re willing to make for it.

In its depth of characterization, its attention to procedural detail, and its consistently lovely prose, this one reminded me very much of reading the late lamented P.D. James.




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Kindness Goes Unpunished (Walt Longmire, #3)Kindness Goes Unpunished by Craig Johnson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


(Disclaimer: I am a Wyoming native with relatives in the vicinity of “Absaroka County.” Even though this particular Longmire novel is set elsewhere, I’m sure that being from Wyoming improves my taste for this excellent series. YMMV, though I doubt it will by much.)

This third installment of Craig Johnson’s Longmire mysteries finds Walt traveling far from Absaroka County – all the way to Philadelphia, with his friend Henry Standing Bear and Henry’s collection of valuable photographs for display at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He’s also hoping for a visit with lawyer daughter Cady. When Cady winds up in a coma after an “accident,” however, the plot expands to involve not only Walt and Henry – and Dog! -- but also Deputy Victoria Moretti’s incredibly extended family of (mostly) police officers.

Aside from the fun of watching Philly’s seamy side get a dose of Western justice, the mystery itself this time around didn’t interest me quite as much as the first two Longmires did. Stripping away the incidentals, this a story of corrupt officials, bent cops, and political cover-ups. It’s all well-crafted, but a little mundane. What makes this novel shine are the side stories and personal relationships, narrated with Johnson’s usual bone-dry Wyoming wit -- and a surprising but effective amount of sentiment.

If anything, Kindness Goes Unpunished is even more character-driven than the first two novels in this series, The Cold Dish and Death Without Company. Johnson makes some effort to get new readers up to speed, but I’d strongly advise taking these in order to avoid spoilers later.




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Boy's LifeBoy's Life by Robert McCammon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Although I enjoyed Robert McCammon’s horror (particularly The Wolf’s Hour) in the past, I’d never thought of trying his less horrific novels – until now. And I’m so glad I did.

This year-long visit to the 1964 world of eleven-year-old Cory Mackenson in small-town Alabama is a Ray Bradbury-tinged delight. After a grisly murder plunges the protagonist and his father into a mystery no one else in town seems willing to solve, the reader is treated to four seasons of compelling characters, increasingly strange events (including a river monster attack and an escaped triceratops), and relentlessly beautiful prose. Many chapters function as nearly complete stories on their own, creating a mosaic of memorable people and themes.

There’s more than a touch of Southern Gothic here, as well. Madness, family secrets, and hauntings abound. The darkness never overwhelms the light, however, and McCammon is careful to tie up all important loose ends in a 1991 epilogue. Fans of Bradbury, quiet horror, and/or literary fantasy should all put this one on their Must Read lists.




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Death Without Company (Walt Longmire, #2)Death Without Company by Craig Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


(Disclaimer: I am a Wyoming native, & have relatives in that part of Wyoming where this series is set. Those with fewer ties to or less interest in Wyoming might find this novel more of a four-star read -- though I doubt it. The quality is just too high.)

Craig Johnson's second "Longmire" mystery -- which appears to take place soon after the ending of his first, The Cold Dish -- is a bleak, beautiful thing. Combining the classic motive of a disputed inheritance with very modern Western details (the coal methane boom, the regional curse of methamphetamine addiction), this novel delivers a complex & addictive reading experience.

In addition to the Cheyenne people (well represented by Walt's friend Henry Standing Bear), this novel involves both the Crow and the Basque cultures. Even for those raised in the West, it's likely to offer new insights.

Readers new to this series, however, should definitely begin with The Cold Dish. The Longmire novels are heavily character-driven, and these characters grow & change. Though Johnson is careful to provide some background for new readers, I can't imagine that the reading experience would be as rich without having the "full story."



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The Cold Dish (Walt Longmire, #1)The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


[Full disclosure: I am a Wyoming native, & this book takes place in a part of the state I am very familiar with. Those with less familiarity / fondness for Wyoming might only give this one 4 stars.]

I read The Cold Dish after discovering the TV series Longmire on Netflix, & learning that it was based on a series by Wyoming author Craig Johnson. Since I was enjoying the heck out of the series, I thought this first novel might be worth the read. It definitely was, & (as usual) the book was better than the program.

Set in Wyoming's fictional Absaroka County (northern Wyoming, near Sheridan), this first adventure with Sheriff Walt Longmire may appeal to both Western & noir readers. Written in traditional first person with a darkly witty style, it presents a troubled & somewhat flawed protagonist with an appealing cast of supporting characters. The landscape descriptions are dead on, & the atmosphere was utterly familiar. There is also a touch of Native American mysticism, respectfully handled.

The mystery itself is a fine page-turner, with emphasis on character rather than merely whodunit. The case does involve sexual assault on an at-risk young woman -- and murder as vengeance, years after the fact -- so some readers might want to give this one a miss. Otherwise, I'd recommend it to anyone seeking a real taste of the modern West in their mysteries.




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I don't post a lot of book recommendations on this blog (bad me), but I just finished P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley over the long holiday weekend -- and I've got to say something to any Jane Austen readers on my f-list.

Please, please read this book if you haven't already!

I suspect that I'm late to the party on this one, but the reigning Grand Dame (oops, Baroness) of British murder does an amazing job of combining her favored genre with Austen's characters & general style.   This is writing for fans, by a fan.  It is also a fascinating glimpse into Regency forensics & the judicial system of the period, showing how much social class mattered even after the cuffs went on. 

For an author interview (with possible spoiler),  plus one review of the book  & an excerpt, check here

Fair warning: the Austen references go beyond Pride & Prejudice in this one.  The more Austen you've read, the better -- or at least, the more fun you're likely to have.   And I'm honestly not sure I'd recommend this to P.D. James fanciers who haven't read Austen at all  (if such creatures exist).   
  
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