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Reviews

June 2011

Roger Smith - Mixed Blood

"Mixed Blood just doesn’t put a foot wrong."

Synopsis:
Reluctant bank robber Jack Burn is on the run after a heist in the United States that left $3 million missing and one cop dead. Discounting all other options he decides to make a new life out in Cape Town, South Africa, for his pregnant wife and young son. But on a quiet evening in their new suburban neighbourhood they are the victims of a random gangland assault that changes everything.

Benny Mongrel, recently released convict and now, night watchman is guarding a building site next to Burn's home. He is another who is desperate to escape his past. After years in the ghetto gangs of Cape Town he knows who went into Burn's house, and what the American did to them. He also knows his only chance to save his own brown skin is to forget what he saw.

Burn's actions on that night trap them both in a cat-and-mouse game with Rudi 'Gatsby' Barnard - a corrupt Afrikaner cop who loves killing almost as much as he loves Jesus Christ. Disaster Zondi, a fastidious Zulu detective who wishes to settle an old score is brought in to investigate Gatsby, but once Gatsby smells those missing American millions the four men are drawn into a web of murder and vengeance that builds to an unforgettable conclusion.

Review:
If you haven't yet discovered the work of Roger Smith it's high time you rushed down to your local bookshop and did just that. Simply said: the man is a talent.

His prose is effective and spare. With just a few brushstrokes a character appears in your mind; the scene is set. The sense of place he evokes rings with veracity as does the feeling of impending violence that thrusts from each page.

Mixed Blood is not an easy read. Modern South Africa is a troubled state with the wonders of this beautiful country and its privileged few on one side and on the other, the townships where life has taken on an aura of hopelessness for many of its citizens. Extremes of lifestyle sit uneasily on the page and in the conscience and that's the power of Roger Smith's writing.

His characters are as fascinating a bunch as any you will read in any book. Despite his past, Smith makes you feel a certain sympathy for Burns. While his previous actions are never far from your thoughts, the payback he suffers as the books courses forward are their own punishment. Yet, still you push for him and want him to succeed. If only for the benefit of his wife and child.

Gatsy Barnard, however is a different story. He is a living dinosaur, a throwback to the bad times of apartheid. An effective tool to demonstrate that the past still has a huge part to play in the present South Africa. He is as vile a character I have come across and one you will get down on your knees and pray that he gets his comeuppance.

Roger Smith is an original - and Mixed Blood just doesn't put a foot wrong.

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Peter James - Dead Man's Grip

"They say that the devil is in the details and on this evidence Peter James could be Beelzebub himself."

Synopsis:
Carly Chase is still traumatised 10 days after being involved in a fatal car crash. The victim of the crash is a teenager studying at Brighton University. Then she hears news which turns her world upside down.

The drivers of the other two cars also involved in the accident have been tortured to death and Detective Superintendant Roy Grace has to break the bad news to her that he fears she may be next.

Review:
I first heard about the idea for this book back in July last year when I interviewed Peter James at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival and right from the start I could see it was a great plot idea. However little did I realise how good it could be in James' hands. The way that the story unfolds and grips you really is quite unique. From the start the reader knows the victim, there is little detection to be done as you are told in the narrative who the killer is and why they are killing.

This book shouldn't work, yet it works better than most because of Peter James' attention to detail. The outlining of police & other emergency services procedures, the thoughts and fears of the main characters, the mundane - almost unnoticed - oddities of everyday life are all described in such a way as to draw the reader into the story alongside the characters.

They say that the devil is in the details and on this evidence Peter James could be Beelzebub himself.

Roy Grace is one of my favourite fictional coppers as his sense of duty; his outrage at events and his unswerving determination to bring killers to justice is simply a joy to behold. However, his personal life with his bride to be, Cleo, always plays a part as does his missing first wife Sandy. It is these traits which make him such good company for the reader and he is surrounded as always with his preferred team. On the opposite side of the divide is Carly Chase who feels guilt at her involvement with the accidental death, the bereaved Mafiosa parents Lou & Fernanda Revere with their quest for revenge and Tooth, the killer for hire. I have met many serial killers throughout my years of reading, yet few can come close to Tooth as he exudes evil, cares about nothing except his associate and has the most fantastically twisted birthday ritual I have ever encountered. He is without doubt, a marvellous creation.

The plot is put together with incredible intelligence and while there are not too many surprises as there is no unmasking of the killer etc, the unwary will still get blindsided. The prose is as tight as you would expect from any author of such experience and pedigree. Whether describing events, setting moods or imparting information between characters there is never a moment when I felt I couldn't see or hear what the author wanted me to. A remarkable skill in itself!

How would I describe this book to friends? A brutal, unflinching, police procedural written by a master penman. I found that while I was reading Dead Man's Grip I was still reading as much as I ever do yet I was not racing through the pages. Instead I found myself savouring the experience and enjoying each little delight. In the same way you would not slug malt whisky or shovel beluga caviar down your throat, you do not race through a Roy Grace novel.

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Jussi Alder-Olsen - Mercy

"Alder-Olsen will have a healthy amount of followers in a very short time."

Synopsis:
Merete Lynggaard is a woman devoted to two things: her career and her brother who she keeps secret from the rest of the world. Neither cross the other. Her brother was severely mentally handicapped through a car accident involving her parents who both died at the scene. Since then, she has mothered him. When going away on holiday, Merete disappears whilst travelling on the ferry. She is never seen again.

Five years later Carl Morck has been 'promoted', but in his eyes demoted to a newly christened 'Department Q'. His crime: to survive a bullet that almost took his life, surviving one of his colleagues whilst another languishes in a hospital, no longer able to move his body. Deep in the basement of the police station, Carl has been teamed up with Assad, a man from another country whose residency in Denmark people could say was dubious to say the least.

Getting Assad to clean and fetch, Carl eventually picks up one of the case files: Merete Lynggaard. As Carl wends his way through a case that has gathered dust in more ways than one he uncovers police inconsistencies and laziness of breath-taking proportions. It is then that he begins to come to the horrifying realisation that some people can never escape their past and that, as Carl will testify, the past has a nasty habit of sneaking up behind you and biting you – very hard.

Review:
Amongst all the 'Scandanavian' crime novels that seem to be sweeping the globe at the moment, 'Mercy' stands a good head and shoulders above some others that have recently been translated. For one, the story is extremely gripping from the outset, especially so, as the story flicks from 2002 to 2007 seamlessly and without confusion. Alder-Olsen tells Marete's story alongside that of Carl's story and investigation, building the tension (pardon the pun) as Marete languishes in a pressure chamber. The fact she has been in this one room for five years is enough to horrify and freak anyone out, but the author simply gives the facts rather than dwells on the horrific nature of the crime.

The other pull in the novel is Carl Morck himself who by turns can be crass as well as sensitive. His only hang up is that he survived an armed attack that took down both his partners. But for us, it can only be welcomed as Carl is now partnered without any notice or ceremony with Assad, a diamond in the rough who I felt was the most intriguing character in the book. Assad is a resourceful man who had many fingers in different pies and who 'knew people who could get things done without too many questions being asked'. I thought he was brilliant and I look forward to seeing the development of Assad in future novels.

Overall, this was a book that required a lot of my time as the plot propelled me towards the end. The solution, for me wasn't unexpected but I did not feel deflated as the story itself engulfed me so much.

Certainly one to read and I believe Mr. Alder-Olsen will have a healthy amount of followers in a very short time.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Tony Black - Truth Lies Bleeding

"Every flaw is stripped of shadow and every bad deed gets punished.if I read a better example of the police procedural this year I will be amazed."

Synopsis:
Teenagers find the mutilated body of a young girl in a dumpster in an Edinburgh alleyway. The police are stumped at all the questions this raises. Who was she? Where has she come from? More importantly, who killed her and why?

Inspector Rob Breannan, recently back from psychiatric leave, is still shocked by the senseless shooting of his brother. The case of the girl in the dumpster looks like the best way for him to get back into work and on track with his career.

As luck would have it events don't quite go to plan. Brennan has enemies within the force, a habit of getting into trouble and what he discovers about the murdered girl blows the case – and his life – wide open.

Review:
As a fan of Tony Black's Gus Drury series I was desperately keen to see what he would make of the police procedural and I am happy to report I am delighted with the outcome.

Reading the blurb I could see a couple of tripwires. The loner cop and worryingly misogynist murders of young girls are ten a penny in modern crime fiction, but I needn't have worried because Black hurdled these with ease. Yes, Brennan is your archetypal loner but he is so well drawn and sympathetic that this never becomes an issue. And the issue of the murdered and mutilated girl never feels exploitative. This issue is treated with sensitivity and compassion, both for the recently deceased and for the bereaved family.

Another area where Tony Black excels is in his depictions of those living on the edge of the law. There is no soft edge to these people. Every flaw is stripped of shadow and every bad deed gets punished.

The city of Edinburgh receives the same treatment, as Brennan and crew journey through its ancient and new streets, in among a world of tourists, in search of uncomfortable truths.

Truth Lies Bleeding is fast, sharp and brilliantly plotted. It's only just turned spring but if I read a better example of the police procedural this year I will be amazed.

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating:

John Hart - Iron House

"A fantastic and enthralling read."

Synopsis:
Two babies left to die in an icy creak - two boys who must fight to survive. Two men, two very different lives - one unbreakable bond. When a twelve-year-old boy murders his tormentor in their brutal orphanage, his older brother takes the blame and runs to New York - into the heart of organized crime.

Two decades later, Michael returns to North Carolina with a sentence on his head, the mob in hot pursuit and his long-lost brother in trouble of a different kind.

With vast sums in play, political fortunes at risk and bodies piling up, the brothers must reunite to solve the mystery of their shared past.

Review:
I had forgotten how much I enjoyed the books of John Hart until I read Iron House: a mix of childhood survival, murder and strange mental health illness. As usual, the mental health illness was dealt with in a rather melodramatic, instead of realistic day to day portrayal to enhance the storyline but I am the critic of a novel in this instance, not a medical reviewer!

Iron House sees Michael and Jeremy, two very different brothers brought up in an orphanage, but whose lives take very different paths. But the book deals with love and betrayal and asks the question as to just how far one would go to protect those you love.

Again, as with all good authors, Hart manages to make Michael, a cold blooded killer, garner sympathy and empathy from the reader, despite the fact that his life has not been blameless and he is not without guilt.

It is a book you will need to pick up when you know you have a whole day spare to read it as you will be unable to put it down once you have started it. There is plenty of mystery and questions which are all solved and answered by the end. A fantastic and enthralling read.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Philip Carter - Altar of Bones

"...double crosses, family feuds, ancient historical connotations and more twists than a Chubby Checker convention."

Synopsis:
In 1936 Lena Orlov escaped from a Soviet prison camp based to the one place of refuge she knew. It was a cave hidden behind a frozen waterfall deep in the Siberian tundra. The cave was the home of the mysterious Altar of Bones.

Fast forward to the present day and Zoe Dmitroff discovers that she is the latest in the line of women to protect a secret many have died defending and trying to discover. When Zoe is hunted by a ruthless killer she learns the hard way that no-one can outrun their destiny.

From the frozen wastelands of Siberia to the busy backstreets of Paris, Altar of Bones spans generations and unearths a dark secret behind one of man's greatest conspiracies ever.

Review:
When this book arrived it came with a fanfare usually reserved for royalty. Philip Carter is the pseudonym of an internationally best selling author and the publishers have put their full weight behind this project. Being a cynic at heart I had to ask myself why the book was written under an alias instead of using the authors own name to sell the book. The best reason that I could come up with was that the author is pigeonholed into a specific genre or writes exclusively about a certain character, and did not want to damage their brand should this book fail to excite readers.

I'm sure that before long there will be entire web forums dedicated to conspiracy theories as to the real identity of Philip Carter. All I'll say on the subject is 'I don't care what Philip Carter's real name is. I would go out and buy the next instalment; such was my enjoyment of Altar of Bones!'

Now, down to business; I found the book to be a thoroughly excellent read. The book is more or less a chase style novel as Zoe and her accomplice race across Europe trying desperately to stay alive as they are pursued by killers from varying different factions. The characters are all standard fare for such a novel with a few dark secrets, mysterious backgrounds and surprising attributes.

Zoe made a good central character and the interplay between her and her mother was terrific. Ry O'Malley had surprising depths and resources while battling his own demons. Also worth a mention are Nikolai Popov, Katya and most especially Yasmine Poole.

It's hard to get into too much detail about the plot without spoiling things for future readers which is a great shame because the plot is the best part of the book. With double crosses, family feuds, ancient historical connotations and more twists than a Chubby Checker convention. Like Dan Brown, Carter gives an alternative reality to events which for many still remain unresolved.

The prose is delicate and brutal as required and serves up enough information to educate without attempting to lecture. Carter has the knowledge of how to write an incredibly fast paced novel while still imparting information relevant to the myriad of plot twists.

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Harlan Coben - Live Wire

"This is mainstream crime fiction as its best. "

Synopsis:
Myron Bolitar has always dreamed about the voluptuous femme fatale walking into his office and asking for help. The woman standing in his office has the curves all right; she's eight months pregnant, which pegs back the fantasy somewhat...

She's former tennis protégé Suzze T and she and her rock star husband, Lex are both clients. The problem is that as the weeks draw close to the birth Lex has disappeared.

To complicate matters a Facebook message is questioning the paternity of the child and Suzze fears this may have driven Lex away.

Thoughts of fatherhood hit close to home for Myron as his father lies dangerously ill in hospital, and the brother who disappeared from their lives years before resurfaces – with danger close behind. Myron is soon forced to confront deep secrets in Suzze's past, his family's mortality – and his own.

Review:
If you haven't read any of Coben's Myron Bolitar series here's a quick summary: Myron is a sports agent who goes the extra mile for his clients. Becoming friend, confidante, problem solver and P.I. whenever required. He is ably assisted by Win (a sociopathic blue-blood) and former tag team wrestlers Esperanza and Big Cyndi.

As you might imagine, from a cast of characters like that Coben produces an entertaining read and he does so consistently, time after time.

This is mainstream crime fiction as its best. What Harlan Coben has in spades is the readability factor. You pick up one of his books, you tuck your legs under you on the sofa and before you know it you've been there for hours (and you can no longer feel your feet).

Live Wire is chock full of the quality we fans have come to expect from the man's work. Myron is still the go-to good guy and Win gleefully takes on the more unpleasant violent tasks. The book is a “live-wire” combo of charm and wit, a strong sense of family, a very real sense of danger and the plot will effortlessly whirl you off into the wee hours.

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Tom Bale - Terror's Reach

"...a gripping read which constantly reminded me of Alistair Maclean."

Synopsis:
A beautiful summer's day explodes into violence as a murderous gang target an exclusive south-coast island populated by the super-rich. Who is the man who has hired them and what are they really after?

There are many secrets held by the inhabitants of Terror's Reach. Take Joe Clayton and ex CID undercover officer hiding from his troubled past by working as a bodyguard for the family of Russian oligarch Valentin Nasenko. As the day of terror draws into night and the betrayal gathers pace, Joe becomes the only man who can protect the innocent. But can he save them without revealing all he has striven to hide?

Review:
I found Terror's Reach to be a gripping read which constantly reminded me of Alistair Maclean.

The isolated group of people in a lonely location, the mysterious forces at work, strong brutal characters, damsels in distress, the constantly shifting balance of power are all trademarks of Maclean's finest work and Bale uses them all in abundance.

Joe Clayton is of course something of a cliché, but without the cliché his character would not work as well. He is forthright, strong, ingenious and most of all moralistic - with the usual troubled past to give him depth.

Priya, Liam and Turner are the best of the bad guys, with Priya being the standout of the three. Among the uber-rich Nasenko and Robert Fenton are equally dislikeable and Fenton's son Oliver is a fantastic addition to the cast.

There are some excellent twists to the plot which weaves and wends its way back and forth constantly providing new scenarios as different protagonists gain superiority before the final battle royale. The prose is tight with clever insinuations as to motive and desire.

To sum up Terror's Reach I would have to say that it is an excellent adventure written in a new, yet familiar way.

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Imogen Robertson - Island of Bones

"... Gabriel Crowther and Harriet Westerman are original creations with a wealth of attributes that encourage you to keep reading. "

Synopsis:
It is 1783 and Gabriel Crowther is called to Westmoreland to his old family house where his sister is staying with the current owner. An unexpected extra body has been discovered in an island tomb on the estate. Crowther had sold the estate on the death of his brother and has spent many years distancing himself from all connections there. He takes with him on the trip Harriet Westerman and her young son, Stephen. Harriet has worked with Crowther before on suspicious deaths and has become a close and respected colleague.

Nobody is sure who the corpse is, although suggestions include a Jacobite supporter from the 1745 rebellion. When Crowther goes about his investigations to discover what the remains can tell him, little does he suspect that the answer ties in closely with his own family history and he discovers that he has been wrong in his judgements of his own brother.

Harriet Westerman provides the personal interaction that puts flesh on Gabriel's bones and leads to the discovery of the body's identity, along with unravelling other mysterious events.

Folk magic of the time is intertwined in the events and the character of the seer is satisfyingly linked to the character of Jocasta in the previous novels.

Review:
This book, the third in the series, develops the two main characters and moves their location to the Lake District. The mysterious and hidden truths about Gabriel Crowther, previously only hinted at, are now revealed and do explain something about his character. Harriet Westerman is slowly emerging from her mourning for her husband's death, but remains an unconventional figure for her time. She is supported and committed to her loving family and they contribute, not only to her confidence and well-being, but also to the continuity and interest of a developing series.

The history and geography of the Lake District in the late 18th century is fascinating, and the author's research makes the story come alive. The mystery, and clever way it is revealed, is beautifully constructed. The characters are well described and draw you into their world. One of the pleasures of a series is the affinity you develop with the characters, and Gabriel Crowther and Harriet Westerman are original creations with a wealth of attributes that encourage you to keep reading. I wonder where the next book will be set! I think that this book is even better than the last.

Reviewed by:

CrimeSquad Rating:

Fred Vargas - An Uncertain Place

"This is an original and unusual work, peopled by original and unusual characters."

Synopsis:
Commissaire Adamsberg, along with Commandant Danglard and Sargeant Estalere, are visiting London for a three day conference to discuss “the harmonisation of migratory flows”. Not exciting stuff, but the days are enlivened when a colleague from Scotland Yard describes his latest case where a pile of shoes containing severed feet is discovered outside Highgate Cemetery.

When the French policemen return home they are called to a brutal murder in a suburban home. The trail from this leads to Serbia, taking in vampires along the way and leads back to the London feet.

Adamsberg discovers secrets from his own past and finds himself deeply involved in the motives and methods of the murderer.

Review:
Adamsberg is a strange and infuriating hero. He has a philosophical turn of phrase and observes his fellow detectives and members of the public with a detached and curious mind. He understands their human foibles and attaches some whimsical and curious motives to their actions. He follows his own path with little regard for his impact on other human beings. Always, his roots in rural France are close to his heart.

The story grabs the attention as it is so bizarre. Adamsberg may not believe in vampires but there are certainly many of the characters who do, and it is their faith in the supernatural and their fear of it which drives the plot on.

This is an original and unusual work, peopled by original and unusual characters. I certainly enjoyed it, even if Adamsberg is not entirely “simpatico”.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Tom Winship - The Opposite of Mercy

"...a strong debut of a new series which hints at a bright future for author and character alike."

Synopsis:
Ex-soldier Paul Curtis who has recently returned from the battlefields of Afghanistan is covertly approached by the estranged father of a friend from his past. He is offered a job; re-acquaint himself with his old friend and protect him from harm.

His old friend, Chris, is dating the gorgeous Lara - a British Asian whose brother Pasha Durrani is against their relationship and will do anything in his power to split the couple up.

As Paul renews his friendship with Chris and Lara it becomes ever clearer that Durrani is mixed up in organised criminal gangs whose roots spread back to Pakistan. Before he knows it Paul is engaged in a deadly battle to save his friends lives.

Review:
This is a different slant on a theme which has long been used. Calling in a mercenary to protect a friend or family member from foes unknown. Winship does a credible job by having the organised crime and terrorist links although the book does get off to somewhat slow start. It is however worth sticking with as once it starts to gather pace then it keeps building up speed until the inevitable final showdown.

Curtis is typically haunted by his war experiences and is striking out in his own 'loner' kind of way before the approach of Chris' father. His re-acquaintance with Chris and Lara is cleverly done and both play a prominent part to proceedings along with Lara's friend Jules. Durrani is utterly amoral and there are some spectacular revelations as to his misdeeds and errors of judgement. The dogged DS Andy Macall almost steals the show from under Curtis' feet as the one cop who seems to have some handle on what is going on.

The plot is cleverly interwoven throughout with different factions all striving towards their own personal goals and many little twists and surprises thrown in along the way to keep the reader guessing. I found the prose and atmosphere created to be sufficient to the cause with neither factor proving to be either a strong or weak point.

To sum up the book I would have to say it is a strong debut of a new series which hints at a bright future for author and character alike.

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Michael Jecks - King's Gold

"Jecks builds into every paragraph a deep sense of time and place which evoked sounds and smells of medieval England. "

Synopsis:
1326 sees the year close out with London in flames and King Edward II held prisoner thanks to his queen and her lover Sir Roger Mortimer. They are claiming the succession of the King's son Edward III and have demoted Edward II to Sir Edward of Caernarthon.

As the kingdom's elite fight over the spoils of the invasion, the Bardi family, who were once the King's bankers, are in a quandary as to which side to back.

Guarding the deposed King on behalf of his usurpers are Sir Baldwin and Simon Puttock who once again are drawn into a web of deceit, lies, greed and murder.

Review:
I owe both this book and its author an apology as I very nearly did not get past the first hundred pages. The reason for this was because I was not giving the book the full attention it deserved and demanded. Some books you can read a few pages at a time without ever losing track of the plot or characters. King's Gold is not one of these books; instead it is a book which will reward the dedicated reader who puts in the effort to read the book without distraction. If you cannot devote enough time to read this book in sizeable chunks then I urge you to pick up something else. If you can do this, then you will find your reward in the pages you read.

Once I had overcome my own mistakes I looked at the book with fresh eyes and was drawn inexorably into the book and loved every minute of it. Jecks builds into every paragraph a deep sense of time and place which evoked sounds and smells of medieval England. The prose has a master's touch and is entirely responsible for the tickling of my senses which the book endlessly did.

The plot is myriad to say the least and when you see a glossary and cast list at the start you really do know you have to pay attention (Lesson learned). The differing factions all have different agendas be they of national, feudal or personal interest. This at times is on the verge of clouding things for the reader but somehow Jecks manages to stay on the right side of the clarity and confusion divide.

The novel is written purely as a narrative, flitting between characters so there is no real hero or baddie to root for or despise, instead you are left to decide who is right and wrong. With a cast so large it would be unfair to single out just one or two for a special mention but I'm going to do it anyway as some of the laws mentioned in King's Gold were unfair in the extreme. They are Father Luke and the joyous Sir Richard along with the surprise who is John.

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Alex Barclay - Time of Death

"...superb writing."

Synopsis:
FBI agent Ren Bryce′s work chasing some of the most-wanted killers in the country becomes a nightmare when family tragedy rears its head: but there is unfinished business between Ren and those she is pursuing.

One of her closest friends disappears in suspicious circumstances, and suddenly Ren′s biggest secrets are about to be laid bare. The past is poised to destroy the future.

Doubting even her own judgement, Ren must unpick the past. Could the abduction of her friend and the vendetta against her family be connected? Or are even darker forces at work, manipulating everything around her?

Review:
Alex Barclay brings back FBI Agent, Ren Bryce, for her second novel, and whilst there is a new storyline involved in this book, there are many references to the previous novel. And whilst the plot is so fast moving and has an array of characters, it would probably be beneficial to read the books in order to enable the reader to keep a track of who is who a little more easily!

Ren is struggling to hold down her job as she suffers from bipolar disorder, leaving her with periods of depression and manic highs. But because of this she is a vulnerable character that you can't help but warm to. Trouble seems to follow her, but like the leads in most books, with some fast talking and quick actions, she manages to get out of most of it.

A very complex plot that has been cleverly put together, perhaps a little too convoluted at times, but any flaws were compensated by the characters and superb writing.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating: