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A gritty, assured mystery debut, right up to its satisfying final notes.

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A disheartened private eye does a favor that puts him on wrong side of a dangerous criminal organization in Vaughn’s crime novel.

In 2017 middle-aged Los Angeles private investigator Ellis Dunaway hasn’t had a decent case in ages. His secretary, Reshma, is likely to quit soon, and his once-promising career as a TV writer is so far in the past, it feels like it never happened. He can’t help but keep tabs on Kent Moran, a writer friend who seems to accrue accolades by the day, while Ellis just accrues debt and regret. When a nightclub-owning acquaintance, Terry Montero, asks him for a favor, Ellis quickly agrees; aside from snorting cocaine and listening to pop songs on the radio of an old Porsche his dead father left him, he doesn’t have very much to do. Terry wants Ellis to check on a rental property where he allowed a colleague, Douglas Stefanidis, to crash. Terry hasn’t heard from the guy in weeks and would like to resume renting out the house if it’s empty. The search for Stefanidis becomes a wide-ranging investigation involving porn stars and local criminals who may be involved with the Black Fist—a cartel involved in money laundering, drug trafficking, and more. Vaughn’s jaded protagonist has just enough ruefulness and ambition to make this LA noir click. The pacing is brisk, and the characters are mostly entertainingly seedy. However, when Ellis shows a spark of humanity—he truly cares about his secretary’s son, for instance—the writing truly shines. Vaughn efficiently renders the California settings, although listing every song playing on the radio is almost comically overdone: “ ‘Breakout’ by Swing Out Sister. After that, ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It for You’ by Bryan Adams came on. The song was released on two albums simultaneously in 1991….” Some chapters start with quotes from Ellis’ father, a bestselling author and private investigator. Like other aspects of the story, the father’s words ring true and evoke an era of reminiscent of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books.

A gritty, assured mystery debut, right up to its satisfying final notes.

Pub Date: Aug. 18, 2023

ISBN: 979-8986531908

Page Count: 290

Publisher: Amazon Digital Services LLC

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2023

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

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. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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This book and its author are cleverer than you and want you to know it.

In this mystery, the narrator constantly adds commentary on how the story is constructed.

In 1929, during the golden age of mysteries, a (real-life) writer named Ronald Knox published the “10 Commandments of Detective Fiction,” 10 rules that mystery writers should obey in order to “play fair.” When faced with his own mystery story, our narrator, an author named Ernest Cunningham who "write[s] books about how to write books," feels like he must follow these rules himself. The story seemingly begins on the night his brother Michael calls to ask him to help bury a body—and shows up with the body and a bag containing $267,000. Fast-forward three years, and Ernie’s family has gathered at a ski resort to celebrate Michael’s release from prison. The family dynamics are, to put it lightly, complicated—and that’s before a man shows up dead in the snow and Michael arrives with a coffin in a truck. When the local cop arrests Michael for the murder, things get even more complicated: There are more deaths; Michael tells a story about a coverup involving their father, who was part of a gang called the Sabers; and Ernie still has (most of) the money and isn’t sure whom to trust or what to do with it. Eventually, Ernie puts all the pieces together and gathers the (remaining) family members and various extras for the great denouement. As the plot develops, it becomes clear that there’s a pretty interesting mystery at the heart of this novel, but Stevenson’s postmodern style has Ernie constantly breaking the fourth wall to explain how the structure of his story meets the criteria for a successful detective story. Some readers are drawn to mysteries because they love the formula and logic—this one’s for them. If you like the slow, sometimes-creepy, sometimes-comforting unspooling of a good mystery, it might not be your cup of tea—though the ending, to be fair, is still something of a surprise.

This book and its author are cleverer than you and want you to know it.

Pub Date: Jan. 17, 2023

ISBN: 978-0-06-327902-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Mariner Books

Review Posted Online: Oct. 25, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2022

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