Tangled web, suburban style

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

SOMEONE KNOWS. By Lisa Scottoline. Penguin Audio. 11 ½ hours; 10 CDs. Read by Ari Fliakos and Brittany Pressley. $45. Also available in print from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Lisa Scottoline has written more than 30 novels, been on best-seller lists forever and won lots of big awards. She was a lawyer in Philadelphia before she was a writer, and many of her books are legal thrillers.

Somehow, I’ve never read any of her books until Someone Knows came my way. This is one of her standalone thrillers, although by the end lawyers are involved.

For this story, she takes us to Brandywine Hunt, an upscale housing development in Pennsylvania, built on what used to be horse country and with equine-related street names. It’s the kind of place that people aspire to, a place with some prestige, where you know you’ve “made it” if you manage to acquire a home. Of course, within the development there are degrees of luxury; some have “made it” more than others.

It’s also the kind of place that’s supposed to be safe. But in this setting, five teenagers, not even old enough to drive, manage to get into a terrible situation when a “prank” goes very wrong. One of them winds up dead, but because of the circumstances, the other four are able to keep their involvement secret.

At the time, they fear that if anyone discovered their part in what happened, it would be the worst thing that could possibly happen to them.

Twenty years later, on the anniversary of the incident, another of the group dies a violent death.

Allie Garvey, one of the original five, heads home for the funeral of her long-ago friend. Other than keeping up with them on Facebook, she’s had nothing to do with any of the others since the night that changed everything.

She’s learned that being found out isn’t the worst that could happen. Living with a guilty secret for 20 years has wrecked her life. Because society didn’t punish her for what she did, she’s punished herself, and there’s no end to the sentence. Now her marriage is breaking up because her habits of secrecy are driving her husband away.

Allie dreads meeting the other two survivors among the teenagers who were with her that night. They are the only other people who know the secret, and she’s convinced it shouldn’t be kept secret any longer.

As it turns out, she was right to dread the reunion, but she had no idea of the enormity of the chain of events and revelations that would be set into motion.

Scottoline tells the story through points of view shifting through several key characters, with the cast changing as the story moves along – and some people die. Through these characters, we see what happened 20 years earlier, what led up to it and the aftermath.

Then we see how events play out leading up to the final reckoning.

There’s lots of suspense in both halves of the story. There are plenty of twists, turns and surprises, at least one of which at the end seems almost too surprising, to the point of not being entirely convincing.

Overall, though, this is a well-told thriller. One of its themes is that appearances are deceiving, and those upper crusty houses in the suburbs harbor plenty of ugly secrets. Another theme has to do with the damage that keeping secrets, especially guilty secrets, can do. And we come to see that the law, what we call justice and what is right are not always the same.

Scottoline’s handling of the technological advances over the two decades the story spans isn’t obtrusive, but it’s interesting.

I listened to the audio version while driving various places, and I’ll admit that this is one of those books that sometimes make me take the long way to wherever I was going, convinced I am on the verge of some action or revelation. It would be good entertainment for summer travels.

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A taste of violence

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

NEON PREY. By John Sandford. Penguin Audio. Red by Richard Ferrone. 11 ½ hours; 9 CDs. $40. Also available in print from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

There’s no mystery why John Sandford’s thrillers routinely make it to the top of the best-seller lists. They are tautly written, with intriguing surprises and twists and turns, yet always believable. The returning characters are police officers you like and admire, despite – or maybe because of – their quirks, human frailties and occasional unorthodox methods.

This latest in the popular Prey series has Lucas Davenport, in his fairly recent role as a U.S. marshal, heading to Louisiana, Southern California and Las Vegas in pursuit of a very bad guy.

Clayton Deese has operated pretty much under the radar for years, working for a big-time loan shark in New Orleans who uses him when someone needs a little unfriendly persuasion. But when he runs into trouble during what should have been a routine job, Deese winds up arrested. Once released, he soon jumps bail, and the marshals get involved. At first, their thinking is that Deese is relatively small fry and their main target is his boss. But as they start nosing around his remote hideout in the bayous, they discover that he’s been killing and burying quite a few people for years.

Then they discover that before he buries them, he’s fond of removing a few choice cuts of their flesh to cook for dinner.

Lucas and company find themselves on the trail of what quickly becomes the most notorious fugitive in America.

That trail takes them to Southern California, where Deese seems to have taken up with what has been a pretty successful home-invasion gang involving his half brother.

Lucas and company, including the FBI, use some good detective work to narrow down – almost – where Deese and the gang are living, and they arrange a raid with local police. It all seems almost too easy – until it isn’t.

After things go badly wrong, the pursuit takes a good while longer, eventually taking Lucas and the others to Las Vegas.  Meanwhile, we learn that there is little if any honor or any other virtue among Deese and the thieves, as they turn on one another. Also meanwhile, they stage more crimes because they need money to support their bad habits.

Be warned: Deese is one of the most thoroughly despicable criminals you can imagine, and it’s unpleasant at times to read/listen to some passages in the book.

But the story is compelling, the settings – especially once the hunt moves to Vegas – are evocative, and the police work is intriguing.

Sandford writes his thrillers so that each can be read and appreciated on its own, without having read those that lead up to it. There are recurring characters and mentions of past events and developments, but you don’t feel lost or confused if you don’t know everything.

Richard Ferrone does a fine job of reading Neon Prey. I usually read while driving, and my hands were gripping the wheel tightly with this one.

 

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Betting on a killer

Bob Moyer is flushed with pleasure after reading this novel, and he hopes you’ll go straight out to get a copy. More poker puns welcomed.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

BLUFF. By Jane Stanton Hitchcock. Poisoned Pen Press. 264 pages. $26.99.

When “Mad” Maud steps into a Manhattan restaurant and shoots billionaire financier Sun Sunderland, she starts a journey that rushes the reader from the high society of the Upper East Side to the flops, folds and flips of the world of poker. From salons where tea is sipped in bone china cups, to poker parlors where pizza crusts are plucked from the garbage, author Jane Stanton Hitchcock takes us on a highly entertaining ride. Familiar with both New York Society and poker — she’s played in the World Championship — she creates a vivid context for the Bluff.

Because this is not just a story that makes fun of society, and elevates poker to philosophy for life. It’s about Maud, a master poker player who is playing for the biggest stakes of her life. When Maud shoots Sun, he’s sitting next to Burt Sklar, the man who made Maud mad. Many years ago, Sklar, taking a page from Bernie Madoff’s playbook, swindled Maud’s mother out of the family fortune. Maud hasn’t been able to get anyone’s attention — until now. A master poker player herself, Hitchcock keeps her narrative cards close to her chest as the game unfolds. When she plays a card, the plot twists so hard it gives the reader whiplash. Maud’s plan comes out of Hitchcock’s pen slowly, but steadily.

Meanwhile, of course, all the sympathy in the book goes to Maud. Very rarely has an author succeeded in actually getting readers to cheer a killer so heartily. Like the best of heist movies, Bluffputs us on the edge of our chairs. After the “river,” when all the cards are out, Maud pulls the Bluff— and it’s a beauty. Both she and the reader are all in by now, and the denouement is most satisfying. As one of the book’s blurbs says, Bluffis a royal flush of a novel.

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Sons and mothers and Jackie O.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE EDITOR. By Steven Rowley. Penguin Audio. Read by Michael Lee. 10 ½ hours. 9 CDs. $40. Also available in print from G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

What an original and wonderful idea for a book: James Smale is a struggling would-be writer in New York City in the early 1990s, when, at last, an editor at a major publishing house wants to buy the novel he’s worked on for so long.

When he goes to his first appointment at the publishing house, he is shocked – flabbergasted wouldn’t be too strong a word – to learn that the editor who wants to acquire his book and work with him to revise it is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Jackie, as James calls her when he’s not actually with her (in person, she’s Mrs. Onassis), is impressed with James’ largely autobiographical novel, in which he describes a version of his own dysfunctional family, particularly his troubled relationship with his mother.

But Jackie thinks James has shied away from writing a true ending, and she’s determined to push him to deal with things more honestly and fully.

What ensues is an entertaining, often humorous, and richly insightful story about more than one kind of relationship, about secrets and the power they hold – about the complexities of love, family and life.

Steven Rowley made it big with the bet-selling novel Lily and the Octopus, which I have not read but intend to. Reviews of that book call it funny, wise and wholly original, and all those adjectives can be applied to The Editor.

The whole idea of a young, insecure gay man developing a relationship with perhaps the most famous and adored woman in his world is without a doubt unusual, and it is also deeply affecting. Jackie is pushing James, we gradually see, to deal fully with his relationship with his real-life mother as well as to write a strong ending for his novel.

She’s Jackie O, sure, but she’s also a mother herself, and a woman who was once an idealistic girl, and a skilled editor who knows and values good literature.

And James is believably funny in his honest narration of his reactions to “Mrs. Onassis” as well as to the other relationships and events complicating his life.

The problem with following Jackie’s advice and creating an authentic, powerful ending for his novel is that it’s likely to further estrange him from his mother. Making matters worse, his struggles with the book, and the effects they have on him, are causing problems with his partner, Daniel.

Along with James, we see his developing relationship with Jackie deepen in a way that will affect the rest of his life. And we see him navigate the complexities of his relationship with his mother, who sheltered and pampered him, her youngest and most unusual child, but now is decidedly not happy with what he’s writing about her – and the uncomfortable truths he’s going to uncover.

The audio version is doubly entertaining, as Michael Urie does an excellent job of voicing the characters, including James, his mother and the lovely Jackie O.

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Cat and criminal

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

CAT CHASE THE MOON. By Shirley Rousseau Murphy. William Morrow. 288 pages. $24.99.

Those who love both cats and mystery novels know there is a whole genre of mysteries involving cat sleuths. Years ago I had the privilege of interviewing Lilian Jackson Braun, whose “Cat Who…” mysteries featured a very smart cat with a sixth sense who had various ways of pointing his less-perceptive human in the right direction. I had an enjoyable visit with her at her home in the North Carolina mountains.

I’ve also enjoyed the books of Rita Mae Brown, with cats and dogs that talk to one another so that readers can understand them, but who don’t actually talk to the humans in the books.

Now I’ve read my first Joe Grey mystery by Shirley Rousseau Murphy, one of the contemporary stars of cat fiction, having won the Cat Writers’ Association Award for best novel of the year 10 times. And to think I didn’t even knew there was such an association or award.

Joe Grey and some of the cats closest to him can actually talk to select humans, when they so choose. Joe Grey can even use the phone and call in tips to the local police.

Joe Grey is a cat detective who lives in Molena Point, a fictional town on the California coast south of San Francisco. He has a partner, Dulcie, and they have young-adult kittens.

As the book opens, Joe Grey finds a badly beaten woman lying near the beach and makes sure the police find out so that they can rescue her.

Normally, Joe would be investigating who attacked this woman and why, and he’d be looking into the suspicious, quarrelsome new family in town, along with other suspicious people and happenings.

But Joe and Dulcie, the town library’s cat, are too preoccupied with worries about their daughter, Courtney, who’s gone missing. They enlist the help of all their friends, feline and human, to look for the lovely but headstrong calico.

Courtney, meanwhile, is being pampered in an apartment above an antiques shop, torn between wanting to escape and being flattered by the big plans her kidnapers seem to have for her.

As the police are struggling without his usual help, and as he begins to think that the various mysterious happenings and crimes in town might all be connected somehow, Joe Grey knows he must get back to his detecting ways.

Joe Grey, Dulcie and the other cats are interesting, especially as they carefully navigate in the human world without revealing too much about their special talents. They are endearing, as they care about their own loved ones and about others, humans as well as cats, who might need help or affection.

And there’s enough to the mystery – or, in this case, multiple mysteries – to engage the reader. As usual with “cozy” mysteries, the people (and cats) in the town provide a good bit of the entertainment. This is good, light reading to please the many people who enjoy both mysteries and cats. For me, it was a welcome break from some nonfiction and heavier fiction I’ve been reading lately.

My main problem with Cat Chase the Moon was that it’s No. 21 in a series, and I haven’t read the first 20. I had a little trouble keeping all the recurring characters straight, and I don’t think I know all I’m supposed to about these cats’ special abilities and histories.

The solution to my problem, however, is easy enough and promises to be not at all unpleasant. I just need to find the earlier Joe Grey books and start reading.

 

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Escaping the trap

“Not a mystery” was the subject line on the email in which Bob Moyer sent me this review. He knows that I know that most of his reviews are of mysteries, especially detective stories. But I also know that Bob has diverse interests, a lively intellect and a big heart, so I’m not really surprised that he read, and loved, this nonfiction book.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

MAID: Hard Work, Low Pay, and A Mother’s Will to Survive. By Stephanie Land. Hachette Books. 270 pages. $27.

Pubic hair. Author Stephanie Land mentions it more than once, to make sure the reader understands the degradation a Maid faces daily, cleaning up the disgusting detritus of her clients. Bathrooms in general play a large part in her life. It’s the most difficult room to clean, and Land prides herself on the skills developed to do it right. She also suffers injuries there, weakening her arm from scrubbing so hard, and her back from leaning over. The bathroom also becomes a haven, where she may retreat from the owner, or just weep over her distraught situation.

Land lived for real the life Barbara Ehrenreich lived for the purposes of her book, Nickel and Dimed, in which she played a low-wage worker. A mother out of high school, the author had to fight for custody of her child with no help from her parents or grandparents. She had to jump through hoops that made her feel at each step she wasn’t worthy while being told she was lucky. She stayed in relationships just because she could not afford a place for her and her daughter. People called out “You’re welcome!” in the checkout line when she used food stamps and WIC coupons. Going hungry, she ate oatmeal while her daughter got the proper food. When she finally was able to move into a place out of transition, she ended up in a hellhole with black mold that kept her and her daughter in ill health. Worst of all, no matter how hard she worked, there were not enough hours in the week to clean enough houses to make enough money to get out of her situation — even with the aid she could generate.

The houses she cleans, in other words, become the scourge of her existence, and the source of her great envy. She comes to resent those who, to her, so casually reside therein, and treat her like a “nameless ghost.”  The houses take on character, as she names them — the Chef’s House, the Cigarette Lady’s House, the Porn House, all described in lavish, sometimes loving, sometimes vicious detail. They don’t know her, but she knows them intimately. The result is riveting reading.

That’s the strength of this book, the thread that keeps it from being a litany of bitterness and woe. From an early age, Land wanted to be a writer, and that passion survives her suffering. Taking online courses to further her education, she writes almost feverishly about her life, revealing late in the book that she kept an online blog that had many followers.

Her perseverance pays off, as she uses her ambition and skill to leverage her way out of Washington state into college and a degree. Along the way, she also gains the insight that wherever she was, and is, is home. The effort and will to have a home, made a home for her and her daughter.

Land has articulated the difficulties millions of people in America face in their lives, and how she rose out of them. Her book leaves us to question: What about those who cannot articulate, cannot leverage, cannot rise out of the trap of poverty?

 

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Bosch, times two, with a twist

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

DARK SACRED NIGHT.  By Michael Connelly. Little, Brown. 433 pages. $29.

It’s fitting that Rene Ballard and Harry Bosch share a book.  She’s the latest Michael Connelly character with one book under her belt, and Bosch has more than two dozen. They’re both cut from the same creative cloth Connelly has been weaving for years. In fact, if you take out the name in certain passages, as the narrative shifts back and forth between them, you can’t tell which one Connelly is talking about.  “… had never been the kind of detective who could leave the work in a drawer at the end of shift, “ in one chapter.  “… operated according to the axiom that everybody counts in this world or nobody counts,” in another. In other words, this latest book is double-barreled Bosch, with a twist.

When Ballard catches Bosch snooping around the Hollywood LAPD station, she finds out he is working a cold case, a young girl whose mother he’s sheltering for the time being.  She’s been shunted to the “late show,” the night shift, since she filed a harassment complaint against her last supervisor, and lost. Bosch, who makes more on his pension than she does in salary, is working for free at the San Fernando Valley Police Department. Ballard decides to help him out. And therein lie two tales that come together at the book’s conclusion, as they work their regular cases, and then the cold case as time allows.

Connelly fills the narrative with police procedure, as two detectives ply their trade. The detail serves as counterpoint to the constant decision by these two mavericks to get around procedure. In both cases, their decisions lead to crises requiring the other one to come to the rescue.

There is chemistry here, between the two detectives, and in Connelly’s writing. At the end of the book, they shake hands and go their separate ways. Here’s betting they’ll be back together sooner or later.

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The courage to love

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

WE MUST BE BRAVE. By Frances Liardet. Penguin Audio. Read by Jayne Entwistle and Juliet Mills. 16 hours; 13 CDs. $66. Also available in print from G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

This beautiful, moving novel is the first to be published in America by Frances Liardet, a British writer and translator, and what a marvelous debut it is.

As the story opens, Ellen Parr, a young bride, is one of the residents of the English village of Upton who rush to help people who have been evacuated from nearby Southampton as German bombs fell. In the back of a bus, Ellen finds a small girl, sleeping and alone.

Ellen and her husband, Selwyn, temporarily take Pamela to their home, along with some other refugees.

But what was supposed to be temporary becomes more permanent, as they learn that Pamela’s mother was killed in the bombing and her father has long been absent. Eventually, at first against her husband’s wishes, Ellen takes Pamela into her heart as well as her home, cherishing her as the daughter she would otherwise never have.

As the story moves back and forth in time, we learn Ellen’s past and why taking in Pamela is so important to her. Because of bad decisions on the part of her father, Ellen’s family had fallen from a privileged existence to very hard times in the years leading up to World War II. She came to know poverty and hunger, and eventually was, like Pamela, left on her own.

She’s a practical and determined young woman, who fell in love with Selwyn even though he’s much older and, because of an injury in World War I, unable to be a “proper” husband and father a child.

Pamela fills an important gap in her life. But Pamela is not really hers to keep, and one day the thing she most dreads comes to pass. Pamela is taken from her home and eventually from her life.

But even a diminished, bereft life goes on, across the decades, and one day, a much older, widowed Ellen encounters another girl in need. Penny reminds her of Pamela almost more than she can bear. Eventually, Penny repays Ellen’s kindness in an unexpected way.

This story of love, courage and friendship is beautifully written, with vivid, memorable but unobtrusive descriptive passages and great understanding of complex emotions. The novel is skillfully understated, yet – or maybe because of that – it says so much.

The audio version is lovingly read by Jayne Entwistle and Juliet Mills. I admit I was worried when I saw that Entwistle would be doing much of the narration, because I have her voice firmly in my head as that of Alan Bradley’s intrepid young heroine, Flavia de Luce. But such is her skill that I was soon so immersed in this story that I temporarily forgot Flavia.

 

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Only the truth

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE SUSPECT. By Fiona Barton. Penguin Audio. 11 ½ hours; 10 CDs. Read by Susan Duerden, Fiona Hardingham, Nicholas Guy Smith and Katharine McEwan. $40. Also available in print from Berkley.

Fiona Barton’s latest suspense novel is gripping, heartbreaking and thought provoking.

It’s a story that any parent will find chilling, as it tells of three young Londoners who try their wings in Thailand and stumble into a lot more than they bargain for.

Alex O’Connor is a responsible 18-year-old girl who persuades her parents to let her make a summer trip to Thailand for an adventure before she starts university. When her closest friend backs out of the trip at the last minute, she agrees to let Rosie Shaw, a girl she doesn’t know well, go along instead.

That proves to be a mistake, as Alex discovers almost as soon as they step off the plane. Alex has carefully planned their itinerary so that she and Rosie can have a range of experiences, but Rosie has other ideas. She seems to be interested primarily in partying and chasing guys.

Being on her own in a foreign country isn’t as easy as it seemed when Alex was reading websites. On the first day, Alex can’t find the hostel she had carefully selected, and she and Rosie wind up settling in at a questionable place called Mama’s Paradise Bar and Guesthouse.

Fairly early in the book, which uses flashbacks, changes of setting and shifting points of view liberally, we learn that Rosie and Alex have been found dead after a fire at Rosie’s.

The distraught parents head to Thailand, hoping the bodies they find won’t really be those of their daughters. They are, however, and slowly, haltingly, the distraught parents  – and we – begin to learn what happened to the girls.

Another important and well developed character is a London detective inspector, Bob Sparkle, who gets deeply involved in the investigation even as his wife is dying of cancer.

The main character, though, is an old friend of Sparkle’s, Kate Waters, a top reporter at a London newspaper. Using all her wiles, Kate works to gain the trust of the girls’ parents to help her unravel the story so she can have a big exclusive.

Kate sympathizes with these parents even more than she normally would because her son, Jake, inexplicably dropped out of law school and headed to Thailand to find himself. She and her husband have heard next to nothing from Jake for two agonizing years.

And then, in one of many twists in this well-told story, Kate discovers that Jake also was a bartender at Mama’s and knew the dead girls – perhaps very well.

That’s where the book gets really thought provoking. As a seasoned journalist, Kate is dedicated to finding and printing the truth. She is skilled at persuading other people to open up about their personal lives and their families. But what happens when her own son is involved, when she becomes terrified of what the whole truth might be?

Talk about psychological suspense. This book has a number of surprises, all thoroughly credible when they begin to emerge. And even when we reach the end, there are still doubts and questions.

The audio version is well done, using multiple readers appropriate for the multiple points of view.

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Back from the dead

I’m catching up with all the reviews Bob Moyer sent we when he was catching up. And now you can catch up on your pleasurable reading.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

ONLY TO SLEEP. A Philip Marlowe Novel. By Lawrence Osborne. Hogarth. 256 pages. $26.

The world’s oldest hard-boiled detective is alive and living between the covers of this book, thanks to the Raymond Chandler estate. They commissioned Lawrence Osborne, no slouch as an author himself, to bring Philip Marlowe back. In Osborne’s conceit, it is 1988, and Marlowe is 72 (using a formula derived from Chandler’s notes and books). He’s retired to Mexico, whiling away his days in a hotel bar. Then an insurance company approaches him to find out if the dead man for whom they paid out a fortune is really dead. Marlowe takes the case, reasoning, “You could call it the imperative to go out with full-tilt trumpets and gunshots instead of the quietly desperate sound of a hospital ventilator.”

As he tracks down the “truth,” Marlowe travels through the same melancholic, metaphor-filled landscape that Chandler always sent him into. Everywhere he turns, he sees his mortality reflected, his hands in the sun “…a fossil alone in his little rock bed, curled up as if ready for the eons. As sidelined as the old Pacific Electric Red Cars that used to plow their way across West Hollywood.” He interviews a man whose hair was “… spun finely … and then dyed to the color of an eggplant after a fair amount of stir frying.”  A hotel owner has “… a broken nose, and the bright eyes of the ones who will never die easily.”

When he meets the dame who inherited the “dead” man’s money, he decides she “… wasn’t an Able Grable, and she wasn’t a cheap muffin looking for easy money either.”  Although he claims his “… pilot light had long been blown out,” he takes to her while taking after her husband, who is a “drip” but not dread.

Osborne moves Marlowe through the same dream-like, surreal plot that Chandler excelled at. In a cavernous hotel room, “Through my sleep moved old monsters and charlatans. The men beaten in alleyways decades ago, the women resigned to their twilight.” When confronted with danger, he “…felt no fear whatever. When a man can already see his end the means of passing through it don’t matter that much.”  He doesn’t hesitate to keep drinking:  “I grow old, I grow old, I will take my tequila bold.”

When he finally decides what to do, whether to side with the dead man or the insurance company, it all comes down to the cash — and the dame. He sees her one last time, and realizes “She was the only thread I was handling as I groped my way through the dark on my small and wind-swept odyssey.”

Osborne has taken a “perilous presumption,” as he points out in an afterword —“stepping into the mind of one of (Chandler’s) characters.”  The gamble pays off admirably in this worthy sequel.

 

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