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Best Indie Thrillers and Mysteries of 2014

A fast-paced, smartly written crime story that’s only the first shot in what could be a high-octane series.

Broken Allegiance

A TOM KAGAN NOVEL

From Young (Off the Grid, 2013, etc.), an intense police procedural focusing on the murders of  Sonoma County gang members orchestrated from within Pelican Bay State Prison, one of California’s maximum security facilities.

An execution-style murder goes down after dark at an abandoned winery. When police detective Tom Kagan arrives at the scene, he sees the gang-tatted dead body and thinks, “This death, like all the others, gives me a reason to live.” Did someone within the victim’s own organization––the Nuestra Familia––pull the trigger, or was the shooter a member of a rival Latino gang? Readers will know the answer (the book’s title is a clue) before Kagan and his crew do, but no matter; the novel is riveting from the opening shot to the parting rounds of bullets. As the body count rises inside and outside of Pelican Bay, Kagan’s reason to live expands to include protecting his wife against the vividly etched, evil man named Ghost. The chilling deadness of Ghost’s eyes and his proclamations haunt Kagan. A lifer, the prisoner exerts tremendous gang control behind bars and beyond them; he has “arms and legs out on the street.” Kagan, emotionally scarred from a past family tragedy, has a long-simmering personal stake in making sure Ghost gets his due instead of his dreams––“cloudless blue skies, long sandy beaches, and the best brews money could buy. And women. Plenty of women.” The author, a 26-year veteran of the Santa Rosa Police Department, writes convincingly about how gang members in and out of prison think; how they communicate with one another; and how they manipulate underlings, wives and other family members. He makes a convincing case that sometimes the only way a gang member can stay alive is to take someone’s “wind”––“to make sure he doesn’t breathe anymore.” Young is also fluent in police-speak—law enforcement procedures, dialogue and actions ring true—and character building: Female characters are smart, tough and capable, while relationships seem genuine, and clichéd male/female encounters are absent, in spite of the occasional whiff of perfume.

A fast-paced, smartly written crime story that’s only the first shot in what could be a high-octane series.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0983266389

Page Count: 346

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Aug. 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2014

A powerful, quintessentially American work from a debut writer whose skills extend far beyond his experience.

AN ADIRONDACK LIFE

A teenage love triangle is the catalyst for murder in this mystery set against the backdrop of the Adirondack wilderness.

Freed makes his stunning debut with a novel that is grand in scope but intimate in its execution. The story follows a trio of teenagers who meet in the tiny fictional community of Henoga Valley, deep within New York’s Adirondack Mountains. The two boys, John David and Jack, who have been friends since childhood, are both legendary local athletes. Their personalities, however, couldn’t be more different. John David is quiet and inclined to spend his free time hunting, hiking and exploring the vast wilderness. Jack, on the other hand, is gregarious and known equally for his intelligence and charm. Into their lives enters Emily, a precocious girl with few friends who captivates both boys. At the end of their senior year, Jack is found stabbed to death, and John David is identified as the chief suspect after he flees into the woods, setting in motion a course of events that will not be completely resolved for another 15 years. The setup may sound familiar, but Freed proves himself to be both a subtle observer of his characters and a deft manipulator of plot. In this compelling novel, readers will need to hang on until the last few pages to fully understand what has happened. But what really sets this debut apart is the way its rich setting entwines with the lives of its characters. Readers will feel like they’re walking through the dense, damp, impossibly lush Adirondack wilderness, as Freed joins a proud tradition of writers who have found an aspect of the American character reflected in the local landscape. Dialogue is occasionally a challenge for Freed, but the other elements are handled so carefully that readers likely won’t care if these teenage voices sometimes feel inauthentic.

A powerful, quintessentially American work from a debut writer whose skills extend far beyond his experience.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 347

Publisher: AuthorHouse

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2014

A breakneck historical thriller.

Coral Hare

ATOMIC AGENT

In Lee’s debut World War II thriller, a young agent infiltrates the Japanese atomic bomb program.

Mina Sakamoto, code-named Coral Hare, is no ordinary teenage girl. Born and raised in Honolulu, she learns medicine from her father, a doctor, and also becomes proficient in several languages. Her life is changed forever on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan bombs Pearl Harbor and Mina’s beloved father is killed. As a skilled Japanese-American linguist, she’s uniquely suited to join the U.S. government’s Office of Strategic Services—first as a translator and later as a spy posing as a young nurse. After three years of fieldwork in Asia, Mina is already battle-hardened at the age of 17, but her greatest test is yet to come. Japan is making dangerous progress in its atomic bomb program, so Mina must travel behind enemy lines to Tokyo and mark an atomic facility for destruction. In the process, she encounters Col. Tetsuo Matsui of the Imperial Japanese Army, the man in charge of the program who’s also known as the Butcher of Bataan; she gains his eternal enmity by causing the firebombing of Tokyo. From Japan to northern Korea to Borneo, Mina witnesses horrifying violence and leaves a trail of bloody destruction as she races to stop Japan from building an A-bomb and dropping it on the United States. With her Japanese schoolgirl uniform, arsenal of weapons and exclamations such as “Aloha, bitches!,” Mina seems more suited to the graphic-novel or comic-book format; so do the secondary characters, as the good guys are all good, and the bad guys are all bad. However, even if this thriller seems a little too enamored of its own protagonist, it moves at a whirlwind pace. Every time it seems that Mina is about to catch a break and wrap up her adventures, another crisis sends her back out in the field, regardless of her life-threatening injuries. The story also delivers a submarine chase, a Tommy-gun–wielding priest and even a shark attack.

A breakneck historical thriller.

Pub Date: March 15, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-9914800-0-5

Page Count: 450

Publisher: Caleb Lee

Review Posted Online: April 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2014

A sophisticated, deft and exciting thriller and a great beginning for a planned series.

A LAYER OF DARKNESS

AN ANDREW JOHNSON NOVEL

In 1945 San Francisco, a police detective’s investigation exposes a tangled political conspiracy and international espionage in Niles’ debut crime/political thriller.

With its opening line, this novel gets off to a dramatic start: “They said the cleaning lady had run out of the house, screaming into the street.” When police inspector Andrew Johnson arrives at the scene, he sees why: There’s a horribly burned corpse on the garage floor, curved around a small sledgehammer. From above, it looks like a Soviet hammer and sickle. But nothing is what it initially seems in Johnson’s investigation—not even the cleaning lady. (Indeed, not even Johnson himself: He looks African-American but is also half-Irish.) The overall mystery encompasses elements that initially seem as foggy as San Francisco itself, including a secret radio, a Chinese launderer (of both clothes and money), mysterious foreigners, Italian fishermen, a femme fatale, a sketchy bartender and a Cuban law student named Fidel. In his debut, Niles shows great skill in characterization, deftly sketching the players’ back stories to help readers make sense of their present actions. Johnson, for example, has some faults, but he’s compassionate, observant, brave and clever. He’s no idealistic dreamer, though; when he was 5, he saw his father murdered by Chicago drug dealers. The plot is tricky but not overly contrived, and it never relies on cheap narrative devices. Niles uses his historical and geographical settings well; there are even a few deliberate anachronisms, explained in an afterword. For all the novel’s high drama, however, it thoughtfully explores questions of morality and the human condition: “I think there are a lot of people with maybe some good intentions at some point in their lives who come to realize they’re nothing but suckers….Maybe we’re all suckers, but if we can find just one thing—one good thing—we should hang on to that and the hell with all the rest,” says Johnson.

A sophisticated, deft and exciting thriller and a great beginning for a planned series.

Pub Date: June 17, 2014

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 282

Publisher: Amazon Digital Services

Review Posted Online: Sept. 9, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2014

A truly impressive thriller debut in the vein of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

AN ESSENTIAL DECEPTION

In this sprawling international thriller, an ancient secret society seeks domination over Western governments.

At the start of Tucker’s blandly titled but brilliantly executed debut, British Prime Minister James Moore goes missing while horseback riding. He’d entered office on a wave of popularity, but parliamentary frustrations caused the public to nickname him Dismal Jimmy, “a political disaster, stumbling from one crisis to another, while his government scrambled to complete its first full term in office.” Scotland Yard naturally treats his disappearance as a potential kidnapping and calls in Dr. Hanson Shaw, one of their former investigators. He’d left their ranks for the private sector after resolving several investigations with uncanny speed and skill. Unbeknownst to his former colleagues, Hanson used to have preternatural insights (“spontaneous spells of contemplative abstraction”) during his migraine attacks, and this new crisis has reawakened his weird abilities: “Visions were once again invading his mind, breathing life into a subconscious inner awareness he thought was lost forever.” Shaw teams up with Cate Brocklehurst, a research associate of his old mentor, former Oxford don Winston Elliott, and they begin sifting through clues involving a medieval secret society called the Lions of Jerusalem. Their investigation eventually leads them to sinister billionaire (and eminently hissable villain) Edward Cheyne, who intones such Bond-villain lines as “Change is coming.” It turns out that he’s funding a clandestine terrorist agenda that reaches far beyond the kidnapping of one British head of state. With an amazingly assured narrative style, Tucker takes readers from the machinations of his nefarious, multicultural bad guys to the dogged sleuthing of Shaw and his allies, punctuated by vivid descriptions of Shaw’s painful attacks and incredible deductive visions. Before long, the plot expands to a global scale involving the Syrians, the Americans, and al-Qaida and half a dozen other volatile groups. Tucker handles it all with extremely lively pacing and frequent glints of Shaw’s wry outlook on life. As long as this book is, readers will likely wish it were longer.

A truly impressive thriller debut in the vein of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

Pub Date: Oct. 30, 2013

ISBN: 978-1481187749

Page Count: 726

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Dec. 5, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2014

A laugh-out-loud mystery that will delight fans of the genre.

MURDER BY MISRULE

A FRANCIS BACON MYSTERY

Lawyer, scientist and original Renaissance man Francis Bacon enlists four high-spirited law students to help solve a murder and secure his return to Queen Elizabeth’s favor.

In this debut historical mystery set in 1586, a 25-year-old Bacon is horrified when he stumbles over the body of his former law tutor in a Westminster alleyway. But when his uncle, the powerful courtier Lord Burghley, asks him to investigate the murder, he sees an opportunity to regain the queen’s favor, lost after he dared to suggest the English legal code needed an overhaul. Hoping to restart his stalled career, the ambitious Bacon takes the assignment, but owing to delicate digestion and social awkwardness, he delegates much of the actual investigating to his four pupils: Tom Clarady, a good-hearted mischief-maker whose privateer father is determined to make him a gentleman; the miniature Allen Trumpington, owner of “a tragic wisp of a moustache of which he was perversely proud”; highborn, pompous Stephen Delabere; and the studious, intelligent Benjamin Whitt. At the murder scene, Clarady spies a golden-haired beauty gazing down from a window and falls immediately in love. The possibility that she might have witnessed the murder provides him an excuse to hunt for her, though identifying her does prompt certain concerns: “Had he fallen in love with a strumpet? Again?” Fortunately for Clarady, Clara Goossens only charges for the portraits she paints of noblewomen. Bacon suspects the enemy is close at hand: namely, another lawyer at Gray’s Inn allied with Catholic factions and intent on fomenting political unrest to unseat the queen. Castle’s characters brim with zest and real feeling, whether it’s Bacon dithering on a doorstep and wondering whether anyone has seen him do it or the prickly dynamic between Tom and Stephen, longtime pals from different social classes whose established symbiosis—“sharing Tom’s father’s money and Stephen’s father’s influence”—is starting to fray. Though the plot keeps the pages turning, the characters, major and minor, and the well-wrought historical details will make readers want to linger in the 16th century.

A laugh-out-loud mystery that will delight fans of the genre.

Pub Date: June 8, 2014

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Capitol Crime

Review Posted Online: April 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2014

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