It’s In His Kiss by Vickie Lester: a book review

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Death is a sidewinder. It strikes from a place concealed and unthinkable, triggering a reality completely unexpected. – Vickie Lester

Anne Brown, a New York teacher and author of literary novels is on her way to Palm Springs in the middle of winter. Movie studio bigwigs are flying her out to renew the option on her first novel, a decade out of print. Why do the rich and beautiful people welcome her with open arms? Is it because she’s the out of wedlock daughter of a retired movie mogul?

No, it’s a bit more sinister than that, Cliff, the most beautiful person there, tells Anne. An acting agent, he fills her in and offers to help her navigate the proverbial shark infested waters. And draws her into a whirlwind affair that is hardly the norm for Anne, a confirmed bachelorette, who thinks of herself as the girl that guys just want to be friends with.

It seems too good to be true, but it is, until the following morning, when Cliff is found dead by the side of the road in his Ferrari. It looks like a tragic heart attack until the coroner finds he overdosed on the kind of drug cocktail used to enhance pleasure at the gay sex club up the road. Cliff hardly seemed gay to Anne, and everyone who knew him swears he was straight in every sense of the word.

Filled with grief, anger, and curiosity, Anne begins to ask questions. It soon becomes apparent that everyone at the Palm Springs house that weekend was hiding something. “Was there not one single normal person in all of L.A.?” she wonders. And then a black Escalade tries to chase her down on the freeway…

Vickie Lester, who blogs at Beguiling Hollywood, used to write screenplays, “Horrid, arty, little things,” she says, “that were…optioned again and again, but never made into movies. Perhaps, because they were neither commercial or cinematic?”

Now she has turned her considerable talent and insider’s knowledge of Hollywood into a gripping mystery, with an ending I never saw coming.  It’s In His Kiss is funny and smart and offers an insider’s view of a world of illusion that still fascinates.

The City of Angels was named for beings most often seen by children, visionaries, and the insane. The best novels out of LA are woven with a noir tone – all that sun and all those palm trees have to cast a shadow. Anne Brown and Phillip Marlowe are very different characters, and yet I imagine the spirit of Raymond Chandler is pleased. As a fan of both authors, I know I was!

Vickie Lester at Joshua Tree

Vickie Lester at Joshua Tree



Thanks to a tip from our niece, Theresa, we’ve discovered a promising mystery show on A&E.  Longmire, based on a series of award winning novels by Chris Johnson, premiered in June, 2012.  Now in its second season, the first years’ shows are available on Netflix.

In the pilot, we find Walt Longmire (played by Australian actor, Robert Taylor), sherif of the fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming, returning to work a year after his wife’s death.  He gets a call from his deputy, Vic (aka Victoria, played by Katee Sackhoff), formerly a Philadelphia homicide detective.  Joining her on a remote ridge, they discover a dead sheep and a dead man, both killed by bullets from an antique Sharps rifle.

The victim is a teacher whose wife thought he was in Laramie.  With more digging and the help of his Cheyenne Indian friend, Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips), Longmire discovers the dead man was the father of a 16 year old girl whose Cheyenne mother reported her missing three months earlier.  That could present new problems; Longmire isn’t popular on “the Res,” having jailed the tribe’s chief for extortion.  A gun expert warns Longmire that the Sharps rifle can kill a horse at 500 yards.  Such an antique sniper’s weapon would only be used “by a coward or a professional, and both can be very dangerous.”

Longmire echoes the square-jawed defenders of justice from earlier era westerns – he reminds me of the McLoud mysteries that starred Dennis Weaver from 1970-77. This show, like our times, is darker and more full of angst than the earlier series. Look for the show on Monday’s on A&E, or on Netflix.  I plan to.

Mad Mouse by Chris Grabenstein


Officer Danny Boyle is excited.  After his efforts in solving the tilt a whirl murder, it’s an open secret that he will be offered a full time position on the Sea Haven, NJ police force.  During the week before Labor Day, Danny is celebrating with a few close friends on the beach late at night when a phosphorescent paintball slams into his ribs.  His friends are spattered, and one of them, Becca, is hit in the eye.

A frantic call to 911 brings an ambulance, which rushes her to a hospital, and summons Danny’s partner, John Ceepak, the quintessential detective, who had been home listening to his scanner, one of his hobbies when he’s not watching forensic shows on the Discovery Channel.

The next day, Doyle and Ceepak discover paintball vandalism on a mural outside a popular restaurant.  And as Danny and a waitress friend leave a dinner with the Chief of Police in honor of his promotion, both are hit again with paintballs, but this time there’s something more – a near miss from a rifle bullet that Ceepak identifies as the type favored by military snipers.  In the next attack, the sniper doesn’t miss; a shot to the chest sends Danny’s love interest to the hospital, unconscious and barely alive.  Clearly, it’s personal.

The shooter has been leaving trading cards at his sniper positions, all referencing the year 1996:  a card advertising The Phantom, a movie released in 1996; rookie cards for Derek Jeter whose debut year with the Yankees was 1996.  At scene of the first fatal shooting, one of the cards bears a note for Danny:  “You will never remember.  I will never forget.”

Danny was 15 in 1996.  He has only a few days to remember what he did then to trigger a killing spree ten years later.  Labor Day is approaching, and the Sea Haven Chamber of Commerce is hosting a “Sunny, Funderful Beach Party Boogaloo” concert, expected to draw 50,000 tourists.  Just like in Jaws, the mayor refuses to cancel the event; Danny and Ceepak must catch the sniper before he has 50,000 targets to choose from.

Mad Mouse, 2006 is the second book in Chris Grabenstein’s Boyle/Ceepak detective series set on the Jersey shore.  John Ceepak, ex-military, is highly disciplined and always plays by the rules.  Under the tutelage of his older partner, Danny is beginning to learn the virtues of discipline and rules.

Grabenstein’s mysteries are well plotted and avoid the middle-chapter slog that often plagues detective novels.  The author’s humor and irony, channeled through Danny’s narration, finds ample scope everywhere in the resort town setting and in his descriptions even of passing characters:  “He has this receding hairline coupled with wavy swept-back hair that makes him look like he might sing country music, only he’s wearing clunky glasses with a paper clip pinned through one hinge, and country stars seldom do that.”

The combination of compelling detectives, a setting where there is always more to see, and a well imagined and written crime made Mad Mouse a pleasure to read.  I’ve already started the third book in Grabenstein’s Sea Haven series.

Tilt A Whirl by Chris Grabenstein: a book review

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A recent detective novel recommendation from Amazon sent me to Chris Grabenstein’s website.  What caught my attention was Grabenstein’s series of mysteries set on the Jersey Shore, in a town called Sea Haven, a thinly veiled reference to Beach Haven, where my family vacationed during three summers when I was a kid and we lived in upstate New York.  To this day, I have fond memories of those trips.

The second thing that attracted me was Grabenstein’s writing credits.  He won two Anthony and three Agatha awards in seven years, and wrote for The Muppet Show, a truly impressive credential in my estimation.

I decided to start with the first book in the series, Tilt A Whirl, 2006, both because I loved the seedy amusement park in Beach Haven as a kid, and because the kindle edition cost $0.99.

John Ceepak and Danny Boyle, two Sea Haven cops, are breakfasting at the Pancake Palace, discussing a tricycle theft – the usual sort of summer crime in town – when a 12 year old girl runs up the street in a bloody dress screaming that someone killed her father, Reginald Hart.  Someone emptied a 9mm clip into Hart as he sat beside his daughter on a tilt a whirl car in the Sunnyside Playland before it was open.  Hart was a billionaire real estate tycoon though many called him a slumlord.

Ashley Hart describes the shooter as a local vagrant and drug user known as Squeegee because he sometimes works for tips at Cap’n Scrubby’s Car Wash.  But that night, when Ashley is kidnapped from her mother’s gated mansion, Ceepak and Boyle realize there is a military precision to the crimes far beyond the capacity of an aging hippie who is missing too many brain cells.  The puzzle twists and turns and had me guessing right up to the epilogue.

Puzzling mysteries alone are not that rare.  The best detective stories also have settings that fascinate and sleuths we love to hang out with:  221B Baker Street with Holmes and Watson; the Navajo reservation with Chee and Leaphorn;  St. Mary Mead with Miss Marple or the Orient Express with Hercule Poirot.

I enjoy Grabenstein’s Sea Haven, for I share his love of Americana – of ice cream shops called “Do Me A Flavor,” or the “Scoop Sloop,” in a town “best pictured on one of those perky placemat maps dotted with squiggly cartoons of buildings like The Shore Store, Santa’s Sea Shanty, and King Putt Golf.”

Chris Grabenstein and Fred

Chris Grabenstein and Fred

His detectives are a study in contrasts and yet a complimentary pair.  Danny Boyle, the narrator, grew up in Sea Haven.  He’s a part time summer cop, in large measure because it gives him an edge with vacationing college girls in the pubs on Saturday night.  John Ceepak is new in town, fresh from a 12 year stint as an MP in the army that ended after a tour of Iraq.  The son of an abusive alcoholic father, Ceepak lives by “a Code” that his partner, Boyle admires but doesn’t fully understand:  serve and protect; never lie, cheat, or steal – ever.

The two men are bound together by a growing mutual admiration and a love of Bruce Springsteen.  By the end of the Hart affair, Danny Boyle decides to apply for full time duty.

Tilt A Whirl reminded me of a couple of chick-lit detective novels I’ve read.  I think that’s due to the humor and irony of Boyle’s first person narration.  His upbeat, “lemme tell you what happened” tone makes you want to buy him a beer at The Sand Bar and hear all about his latest case.  A lot of Danny’s humor is couched in food references, as when he describes a witness as “a few fries short of a Happy Meal,” or when, after a break in the case, he says, “I’m feeling kind of jazzed, like you do after chugging two cans of Red Bull and snarfing down some Hostess Ding-Dongs.”  I think that’s what the male equivalent of chick-lit would sound like.

The author researching beach food at Beach Haven, NJ

The author researching beach food at Beach Haven, NJ

Danny Boyle has a thoughtful edge as pronounced as his irreverence.  In a key thematic passage, he quotes a math teacher who once explained Chaos Theory in terms of a tilt a whirl:  “if the operator keeps the whole thing going at the proper speed of 6.5 revolutions per minute, it’s practically impossible to predict what will happen next…The teacher called it ‘mind-jangling unpredictability.’ Chaos Theory in action,’  for two tickets a ride.” 

Tilt A Whirl was a page-turning mystery that was also a lot of fun.  I downloaded the next book in the series, Mad Mouse, also published in 2006.  Stay tuned for an update on that.

Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman: A book review


As I worked on a recent post, Favorite Fictional Detectives, I realized I didn’t remember the details of Skinwalkers, a key Tony Hillerman novel that I read soon after it was published in 1986.  I read it again and found it to be a thoroughly satisfying mystery.  I offer this brief review to encourage others who may not know Hillerman’s work to give it a look.


Officer Jim Chee, of the Navajo Tribal Police, tosses and turns one night in the airstream where he lives in the desert.  When his closest neighbor, a feral cat, shoots through the pet door, Chee gets up to peer out the window at what might have scared it so badly.  Probably a coyote, he thinks.  For a moment, thinks he sees a shape in the darkness.  Then the night explodes.  Three shotgun blasts tear holes in the trailer just above the bed where Chee was sleeping moments before.

In the morning, as he cleans up his trailer, Chee makes a frightening discovery.  Among the shotgun pellets that litter the floor is a small bone pellet.  Navajo witches, or skinwalkers, inject bone into the bodies of people they want to kill.  The bone produces the fatal “corpse sickness.”  This bone fragment links three apparently separate killings that Lt. Joe Leaphorn, a senior tribal detective, has been trying to solve without success.  When Leaphorn and Chee join forces, their first problem is persuading anyone to talk, when tradition holds that speaking a skinwalker’s name will attract his harmful attention.

Chee is learning to be a traditional Navajo healer.  With a background in college psychology classes, he understands his role to be restoring people to the core Navajo values of beauty and harmony.  Skinwalkers have fallen away and try to take others with them.

Leaphorn is not a believer, but he learned by hard experience that other people are.  Early in his career, when he ignored talk of witches, three murders and a suicide were the result.  As he and Chee grope through the dark, a very real menace is watching from a direction they do not expect.

This book represents fine storytelling, with characters and a setting that are outside our normal experience.  It’s one of the best mysteries I’ve read, and I suspect it will make you want to read more of Tony Hillerman’s work.

Favorite Fictional Detectives

Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget.  Public domain.

Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget. Public domain.

In literary gatherings, I usually introduce myself as part of the fantasy camp, but I’ve probably read and enjoyed just as many mysteries over the years.  In my previous post, I gave a lukewarm review to James Patterson’s latest Alex Cross thriller.  I think the real reason is that I’ve never bonded to Alex Cross the way I have to other favorite detectives.

Character is key to detective novels just as it is to other types of fiction, and this is separate from an issue that has surfaced over the last decade, the distinction between plot driven and character driven stories.

In character driven tales, some attribute of the protagonist begins and sustains the action, the way Katniss Everdeen’s sacrifice for her sister gets things moving in The Hunger Games.  Mysteries are almost always plot driven – the story begins when the first body is found.

These days, agents and editors say they’re looking for character driven tales.  Dan Brown wasn’t listening when he wrote The DaVinci Code, now one of the five best selling books of all time, a distinction shared with The Bible and Harry Potter.  Like much advice for writers, I think it misses the point.  Regardless of what moves the action, we love novels with characters we love, in worlds we’d love to visit.  Have you ever imagined yourself in Baker Street when Holmes jumps up and cries, “The game is afoot?”

If so, read on!  I’ve listed a few of my favorite detectives, not necessarily in order, for that, like everything else, is subject to change.

Sherlock Holmes:  This is obvious.  How many popular books of today will still be read and loved 100 years from now, spawning a lively stream of new presentations in all the popular media of the future?  I seldom reread mysteries – often there is no point when you know the criminal’s identity, but I still dive into Holmes for recreation.  Has there ever been a more dastardly villain than Dr. Grimesby Roylott in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band?”  And for chills up the spine, one sentence has never been beaten:  “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” 

I enjoy all the presentations of Holmes in film, but my favorite movie Holmes is still Jeremy Brett for his perfect blend of genius and madness, without the slightest trace of modesty:

Cadfael:  The Brother Cadfael mysteries were the creation of Edith Pargeter, under the pseudonym, Ellis Peters.  In early 12th century England, during a period of contention for the crown known as The Anarchy, Cadfael, a middle aged and disillusioned veteran of the crusades, becomes a Benedictine monk.  With keen powers of observation, a scientific turn of mind, and an in depth knowledge of herbalism, he solves the many murders that just happen to happen whenever he is near.

I enjoy the film versions more than the books, thanks to renowned Shakespearean actor, Derek Jacobi, who plays Cadfael.

Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple:  Most writers are lucky if they can create a single unforgettable character.  Agatha Christie gave us two.  Sometime in the early 90’s, I went on an Agatha Christie binge, and over the next few years, read all the stories of both characters I could find, some 80 novels in all.  Poirot and Miss Marple turn up often in films and on TV.  I’ve enjoyed several versions of Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile.

The bad news is that Miss Marple stories are usually classed as “cozy mysteries,” a sub-genre with a distinctly unmanly name.  The good news is that  I’m too old to care.  There is no definitive movie Miss Marple, but British actor, David Suchet takes the honors for his portrayals of Hercule Poirot:

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

Wallender: To re-establish my manly credentials, I add Kurt Wallender to the list.  Wallender is sort of a Swedish, existentialist, high plains drifter, and the most angst-ridden detective in the history of the world.  The creation of Swedish novelist, Henning Mankell, Wallendar was adapted for British TV, beginning in 2008.  Episodes are show up here on PBS.

The series stars Kenneth Branagh, another great Shakespearean actor.  Branagh says Wallender is “an existentialist who is questioning what life is about and why he does what he does every day, and for whom acts of violence never become normal. There is a level of empathy with the victims of crime that is almost impossible to contain, and one of the prices he pays for that sort of empathy is a personal life that is a kind of wasteland.”  

Don’t watch this guy when you’re feeling blue!

Kenneth Branagh as Wallender

Kenneth Branagh as Wallender

Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn:  These officers in the Navajo Tribal Police star in 18 mysteries Tony Hillerman wrote between 1970 and 2006.  The grandeur of the American southwest and Navajo tribal beliefs are the background against which these unique detective stories unfold.  Chee, the younger officer, struggles to hold on to tribal traditions in 20th century America.  Leaphorn is more world weary and cynical, but he knows that where there is talk of witches and taboos, trouble erupts.

Hillerman, who died in 2008 loved the four corners and wrote about it so vividly that it’s really another character in the stories.  His books won many awards, but he always said what pleased him most was being named a Special Friend of the Navajo Nation in 1987.  Adam Beach and Wes Studi starred in three movie versions of Hillerman’s novels, including Skinwalkers, (the Navajo name for malevolent sorcerers), that is regarded as Hillerman’s breakout novel.

Amelia Peabody:  Elizabeth Peters’ 19 book series centers on the adventures and detective skills of independently wealthy and independently minded Egyptologist, Amelia Peabody and her family, which at first includes her husband Radcliff Emerson (who hates his first name and refuses to use it), and their son Ramses, who was born as stubborn as his parents.  Later Amelia and Emerson take in two wards, David, the son of a Muslim and a Christian whom they rescue from semi-slavery, and Nefret, a red headed former priestess of Isis who will eventually marry Ramses.

Set in the years between 1884 and 1923, there are rascals, rogues, adventurers, tomb robbers, mummy’s curses, and Sethos, aka, The Master Criminal.  Historical Egyptologists and archeological events are woven into the series which ends with the 1922 discovery of the tomb of King Tut.  The author has said that Amelia herself is based in part on Amelia Edwards, a Victorian novelist and Egyptologist, whose 1873 travel book, A Thousand Miles up the Nile was a best seller.

The middle east has changed since Peters began writing her novels, but they remain among my favorite beach reads of all time.  For anyone who enjoys a good mummy movie or has ever fantasized lost tombs, pith helmets, and midnight at the oasis, these are great adventure stories, ever complicated by the corpses that turn up wherever Amelia goes.

I’ve only listed detective series here because I cannot remember every good singular mystery novel I’ve read.  Please add any favorites of yours to the list.  There’s always room for more, since the game is always afoot somewhere!