A convincing teenage protagonist and an ending that should leave readers impatiently awaiting a follow-up.

The Betrayal

Having helped stop a terrorist attack the year before, 15-year-old Will Conlan may now be a target for revenge in Kalkowski’s (Red Cell, 2010) latest thriller.

Will’s only in high school but he’s an essential part of the CIA’s Analytic Red Cell, where he and others brainstorm possible ways that terrorists could strike. The teenager’s intuition and skill led to the thwarting of a bomb plot in Chicago the preceding year. Lately, though, he’s been having a spot of bad luck: his grades mysteriously change from A’s to F’s, and his school lunch account is inexplicably empty. But when Will, girlfriend Stacey Chloupek, and a couple pals are assaulted in an apparent mugging, CIA operative (and Will’s mentor) Mark Tenepior suspects that Will’s the intended target for something sinister. The assailant had a Facebook photo of Will and his friends, but it’s a subsequent invasion of the teenager’s home that confirms Tenepior’s hunch. The CIA stashes the Conlan family at a substation, which doesn’t prevent the baddie(s) from making contact. Someone sends a football ticket to Will after abducting Stacey. If Will hopes to see his girlfriend again, he’ll have to attend an upcoming game at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska. This terrorist/kidnapper, it seems, not only wants retribution for last year’s failed strike, but may be planning another attack as well. The protagonist is a surprisingly believable hero, despite the story pitting him against terrorists. He aptly displays his indisputable intelligence in “red teaming” scenes, role-playing scenarios to develop defenses for potential attacks. Will’s mental prowess against villains’ brute strength, however, gives the character credibility, as the quick-witted teenager fends off a home invader with a curling iron and shampoo. There’s definitely dramatic tension once Will’s family and friends learn of his covert CIA status. But the novel’s missing some of the balance between normal teen life and Hollywood-esque action, at which Kalkowski’s debut excelled. The author makes up for this with unremitting tension: Will and Stacey struggling to escape restraints, paralleled with an exhilarating ongoing football game, is the story’s centerpiece. An outstanding final act forgoes resolution in favor of a ferocious cliffhanger.

A convincing teenage protagonist and an ending that should leave readers impatiently awaiting a follow-up.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4917-7371-0

Page Count: 160

Publisher: iUniverse

Review Posted Online: Dec. 11, 2015

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The perfect gift for well-read mystery mavens who complain that they don’t write them like they used to.

EIGHT PERFECT MURDERS

A ghoulish killer brings a Boston bookseller’s list of perfect fictional murders to life—that is, to repeated, emphatic death.

The Red House Mystery, Malice Aforethought, The A.B.C. Murders, Double Indemnity, Strangers on a Train, The Drowner, Deathtrap, The Secret History: They may not be the best mysteries, reflects Malcolm Kershaw, but they feature the most undetectable murders, as he wrote on a little-read blog post when he was first hired at Old Devils Bookstore. Now that he owns the store with mostly silent partner Brian Murray, a semifamous mystery writer, that post has come back to haunt him. FBI agent Gwen Mulvey has observed at least three unsolved murders, maybe more, that seem to take their cues from the stories on Mal’s list. What does he think about possible links among them? she wonders. The most interesting thing he thinks is something he’s not going to share with her: He’s hiding a secret that would tie him even more closely to that list than she imagines. And while Mal is fretting about what he can do to help stop the violence without tipping his own hand, the killer, clearly untrammeled by any such scruples, continues down the list of fictional blueprints for perfect murders. Swanson (Before She Knew Him, 2019, etc.) jumps the shark early from genre thrills to metafictional puzzles, but despite a triple helping of cleverness that might seem like a fatal overdose, the pleasures of following, and trying to anticipate, a narrator who’s constantly second- and third-guessing himself and everyone around him are authentic and intense. If the final revelations are anticlimactic, that’s only because you wish the mounting complications, like a magician’s showiest routine, could go on forever.

The perfect gift for well-read mystery mavens who complain that they don’t write them like they used to.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-283820-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 24, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

A CONSPIRACY OF BONES

Another sweltering month in Charlotte, another boatload of mysteries past and present for overworked, overstressed forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

A week after the night she chases but fails to catch a mysterious trespasser outside her town house, some unknown party texts Tempe four images of a corpse that looks as if it’s been chewed by wild hogs, because it has been. Showboat Medical Examiner Margot Heavner makes it clear that, breaking with her department’s earlier practice (The Bone Collection, 2016, etc.), she has no intention of calling in Tempe as a consultant and promptly identifies the faceless body herself as that of a young Asian man. Nettled by several errors in Heavner’s analysis, and even more by her willingness to share the gory details at a press conference, Tempe launches her own investigation, which is not so much off the books as against the books. Heavner isn’t exactly mollified when Tempe, aided by retired police detective Skinny Slidell and a host of experts, puts a name to the dead man. But the hints of other crimes Tempe’s identification uncovers, particularly crimes against children, spur her on to redouble her efforts despite the new M.E.’s splenetic outbursts. Before he died, it seems, Felix Vodyanov was linked to a passenger ferry that sank in 1994, an even earlier U.S. government project to research biological agents that could control human behavior, the hinky spiritual retreat Sparkling Waters, the dark web site DeepUnder, and the disappearances of at least four schoolchildren, two of whom have also turned up dead. And why on earth was Vodyanov carrying Tempe’s own contact information? The mounting evidence of ever more and ever worse skulduggery will pull Tempe deeper and deeper down what even she sees as a rabbit hole before she confronts a ringleader implicated in “Drugs. Fraud. Breaking and entering. Arson. Kidnapping. How does attempted murder sound?”

Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9821-3888-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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