The Darwin Affair by Tim Mason

Playwright Tim Mason’s first adult novel, a rousing mystery set in Victorian England, has it all: thrills, engrossing characters, taut pacing and historical interest.


Playwright Tim Mason’s first adult novel, The Darwin Affair, is a rousing mystery set in Victorian England. In 1859, the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species poses a menace to the powers that be, and some of society’s upper echelon want him squelched. Amid the conspiracy lurks a tall, shadowy man with deep-set eyes; death seems to follow wherever he goes. The dogged Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field is on the case, although his findings are not necessarily welcomed by all. Field tracks his suspect from meat market to tavern to the royal court, from England to Germany, and even to the high-profile Wilberforce-Huxley debate on evolution at Oxford. Scenes of crashing action and adventure include a racing carriage on a collision course with a speeding train. With cameos by Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and a variation on Typhoid Mary rounding out the peripheral cast, this is a wild tale that engulfs the reader from start to finish.

Satisfyingly plot-driven, then, The Darwin Affair also offers very engaging characters: approachable Albert, Prince Consort; Queen Victoria, haughty but not humorless; a comic Marx; and a gracious, gentle Darwin.

But Mason’s less famous hero definitely steals the show. Field has difficulties with authority that will be familiar to fans of contemporary fictional detectives like Harry Bosch and Dave Robicheaux. Mason’s playwriting skills are evident in realistic dialogue and well-constructed, easily envisioned scenes. Readers of historical fiction, murder mysteries, action/adventure and thrillers will be equally entertained and perhaps edified: beneath the excitement lie thought-provoking questions about class and order, the interplay of science and religion and intellectual curiosity. The Darwin Affair has it all: thrills, engrossing characters, taut pacing and historical interest.


This review originally ran in the June 21, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 monkeys.

Girls Like Us by Cristina Alger

Heart-racing action and a twisty-turny plot star in this thriller of multigenerational cops and murders.

Cristina Alger (The Banker’s Wife, This Was Not the Plan) crafts a gripping story of suspense with Girls Like Us. Fans of murder mysteries packed with action and plot twists will be satisfied by this edge-of-the-seat adventure into seedy Suffolk County.

FBI Agent Nell Flynn has returned home to the unbeautiful end of Long Island to sprinkle her father’s ashes, close up his house and move on. It’s her first time back in 10 years. She’s on leave from the Bureau following a traumatic on-the-job shooting, recovering from injuries both physical and emotional. Her father, homicide detective Marty Flynn, had some good buddies on the force, and it’s nice to see them again, but Suffolk County doesn’t hold many pleasant memories. Then Marty’s last partner, Lee Davis, with whom Nell went to high school, asks for her help on one last case. Two young women have been murdered: “working girls,” the cops call them; one of them was undocumented. These are the kinds of lives the department doesn’t really value. In their details, though, these murders take Nell back to the murder of her mother when Nell was seven years old.

Is there a serial killer at work in Suffolk County? Is there a link to Nell’s past? What exactly was her father’s involvement? Was his death really an accident–and was she wrong to alibi him on the night of her mother’s death? As clues mount up and point in different directions, Nell is less and less sure of who she can trust. Her wounds are not at all well healed, but she may be the only one who can prevent more deaths.

Girls Like Us is a little weak on certain details–the way a deadbolt works, the difference between prostitution and pandering charges, how a field agent might tell a suspect was dead. But its plot drives with such momentum that these details may be overlooked. With violent action and split-second turns, this is not a book to put down easily: plan accordingly. Alger’s thriller is emphatically plot-driven, but her characters hold their own, from Lee, who doesn’t quite fit in on the force, to the guys Marty Flynn was closest to in the department and the retired cop who runs the local bar.

As an added complication, the new murders and that of Nell’s mother may be class-based, as the rich summer people of the Hamptons meet the working-class section of Long Island, where Nell and the Suffolk County Police Department guys are from. Nell is a quintessential damaged cop, even if she is FBI: ignoring her own injuries, pushing too hard, taking foolhardy risks, with a strong sense of right and wrong (as her father seemed to have). Her personality serves as backbone to the electric plot of Girls Like Us, and the reader trusts that she will follow through to the truth, no matter how much it hurts.


This review originally ran in the June 3, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 deadbolts.

movie: The Lovely Bones (2019)

And then there was The Lovely Bones, which I’ll call a sleeper: we didn’t pick this movie out like we did Extremely Wicked, and in fact missed the first half hour or so. But it turned out to be an impressive one.

I read the book, by Alice Sebold, but some time ago, clearly pre-blog; I don’t remember it very well, and don’t remember it impressing me terribly, but it came back as the movie unfolded. I do remember some talk when the movie came out, of the challenge of the first-person narration by (very minor spoiler here) the ghost of a murdered girl. I remember not being impressed by this challenge: don’t you just use voiceover narration? I guess that’s pretty obvious – maybe too obvious – but it’s how it is handled here. And I have no complaints.

Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon is brutally murdered by a neighbor: this is the part of the movie I missed, but it sounds like it’s all off-screen and implied rather than shown. She spends the bulk of the film in an in-between zone, neither living nor ready to move on; she wants her murder solved, and she misses her family, and she regrets never having had a first kiss. The killer neighbor cleans up well, and the Salmon family struggles to cope: Susie’s father obsesses over the case, her mother eventually leaves, and her younger sister will take matters into her own hands. There are lovely, ethereal scenes in the in-between, magical and visually stunning – I was reminded of A Wrinkle in Time‘s visuals. The killer is an easy man to hate (the friend I watched this movie with commented that that actor’s now typecast for life). The Salmon father, played by Mark Wahlburg (I confess a weakness for Mark Wahlburg), is easy to sympathize with even as he makes some less than wise choices. And the ending is strangely happy, for a movie with such disturbing content.

I’m deeply impressed by the cinematography, the revelation of information, and the visuals. When I saw that Peter Jackson directed, I thought, oh, of course. That’s why it’s so beautiful, at least. I’m also reading that the plot diverged heavily from the novel in a few points; but my dim recollection of the book felt very familiar here. Maybe it’s better that I let so much time pass between reading and viewing, because I’m always prickly about the way movies mess up the books. But here, the general familiarity felt faithful enough, and the film version was stunning.

I do recommend; and suspect I recommend the book as well.


Rating: 8 bouncy balls.

reread: Never Go Back by Lee Child (audio)

In my defense, it’s been more than four years since I listened to this audiobook for the first time (and reviewed it here): I had forgotten what happened, and got to find it new again. I seem to have reached the stage of forgetfulness in which I can enjoy a thriller/murder mystery novel a second time, with the same fresh eyes. Hooray! That always looked like one of the best features of aging. (Perhaps my brain’s just saturated.)

I recently took a road trip with a friend, and he wanted to listen to a book, and I figured Reacher would work for him, so here we are with an unplanned reread. I’ll keep this brief, because I think my earlier comments remain true. I was deeply concerned this time around with the erroneous use of the 50/50 coin toss idea. Reacher (and therefore Child) is usually so smart! But the many scenarios where the coin toss idea is used here are all binary choices, having two options; rarely do they hold even odds. Ugh.

On the other hand, I still love the sexiness, the cleverness, and the depth of the Susan Turner character (Reacher’s romantic alliance in this episode). I still love the formula, and formula it most certainly is; but having acknowledged that, what’s the problem? It works for me every time.

The extent to which I’d forgotten this plot excites me. It’s got me thinking about all the Martha Grimes books I enjoyed in my teens and early 20s: those should all be new to me now, too!

On that note, Happy Friday, y’all. I hope you have a weekend as awesome as a Lee Child novel (but with less violence).


Rating: I’ll stick with those 7 cars.

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

My mistake is also my good fortune. Travel to West Virginia was supposed to go smoothly from the San Antonio airport, through Dulles, to Rochester; but of course I ended up delayed, rerouted through O’Hare, with a half-day to kill at the airport before ever leaving Texas. I had packed more books in my checked bag, but ended up running out of available-at-hand reading material in Chicago. So I bought a book at an airport newsstand. Bad news: long travel day. Bad news: so many books at home (and in that checked bag) that I wanted or needed to read. Good news: a delicious, un-looked-for chance to read a new-ish Harry Bosch mystery.

Remember when I got to read genre mysteries for fun? Whew, it’s been a while (a little over three years). The Wrong Side of Goodbye finds LAPD’s Detective Harry Bosch retired from the force–forced into retirement, in fact, under a dark cloud (which will surprise no one who knows his genre-typical troubles with authority, despite also being an authority). He’s got a PI license, and has been moonlighting–unpaid–with the small-town San Fernando police force, in an “island city” in the middle of LA. His job with the SFPD is to examine cold cases, which is right up his alley. In the opening pages, Bosch has just received a pair of assignments. A multi-billionaire octogenarian hires him, with the utmost secrecy and confidence, to track down an heir who may or may not exist. And San Fernando is plagued by a serial rapist who appears to be escalating. With the help of Mickey Haller (whose fame began with Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer), Bosch tracks both cases. The first will take him into his own memories and traumas of the Vietnam War, and the second will take him into grave danger. But Bosch hasn’t lost his touch, no matter what the LAPD may think.

Classic, and good for the fans. Bosch’s daughter Maddie has grown up and is attending college. Bosch and Haller have a solid working relationship and more. Bosch retains his old skills. This was a nostalgia read for me. I found the same old, good old hero I remember. As I reflect, I’m not sure he shows the evolution of age that perhaps he should at this point in the series. Maddie has grown up, but Bosch feels the same. His professional status has changed, but I don’t detect much of a nod to aging, physically or in terms of his outlook on the world. This may be an element of unrealism in a mostly realistic series. But this is escapist reading for me, too, so I’m unbothered. If I find Bosch just as I left him, that’s okay with me. This is the Bosch I missed.

The mystery part of the book is as good as ever. I love this stuff, and I’m so grateful to Michael Connelly and to that newsstand at O’Hare for bringing me this joy. It was a rare pleasure. And now back to my studies.


Rating: 7 pre-rolled joints.

guest review: Night School by Lee Child, from Mom

I’m so glad to have my mother around to review Lee Child along with me – or in this case, to review one I haven’t read yet! (For the moment, this is his newest, but I’m sure there’ll be another along shortly.) Night School follows my most recent Reacher read, Make Me, although the two are not chronological sequels. My mother sent this as an email to me, not intended as a formal review, but I appreciated it and she gave her permission to post.

Here’s Mom.
night-school

I really liked this book, especially compared to Make Me, which I finished afterwards. (And found excessively cruel and graphic, although well-plotted.) The story line carries us along beautifully. Another working of what’s up?, as in Make Me, where we don’t know quite what the deal is, but we have enough info to be looking hard at the details. And of course we get to tangle with some bad guys in number, and whip their fascist asses in entertaining variety.

Here Reacher is still in the army, which means a lot of structure and conflict built in from the bureaucracy. (In Make Me, he’s a bit of a drifter looking for adventure – and I know that’s a claim to fame for his fans.) So the Army sends him to Germany in this quest for the problem they need to solve. He bumps against the neo-nationalists so much you start to wonder if they are part of the plot. Hmmm.

So the plot is the thing, but Child’s writing is beautifully not present. I noted at first the short declarative sentences. After a 50-page warm-up, the story just flowed through. Some of the great stuff: He says to the German adversary, So why do you suppose you speak my language but I don’t speak yours? (Something to do with how important your language/country might be?) Or – the Germans thought they were uniting under one umbrella, but the West saw it as an arrangement of military bases with the people there efficiently manning the hotels and cafes.

I remember that Child is originally British, not to suggest he has an ax to grind. His character is man of integrity without a lot of allegiance to the system. His assistant in this is Neagley, the sergeant in War Games (the short story included at the end of Make Me). She’s perfect here, completely at his command (“adores him,” someone says), but has some complex that doesn’t allow any touch. So the sex interest is his boss, and of course the sex does not get in the way of the plot advances.

I could do some more page-turning like this, and I can’t help but like this impossible character.

Well said all around, in my opinion. I like what you said about the bureaucracy and the foil it provides. Cruel & graphic, yes: this is an important note for prospective new Reacher readers. Must have high threshold for blood. And the plot is indeed the thing. Lee Child excels at several things, I think: that invisibly expressive writing you mention, and action sequences (suspenseful fights I can really see), and a hell of a charismatic lead man. You said it: he’s an impossible character but we just can’t help but follow him. But the plots are nice and complex, filled with technical details and enough to challenge the experienced mystery/thriller reader. That is what I think you’re saying here, anyway.

About that “beautifully not present” writing, I find Reacher’s voice to be distinct and entertaining. Some of the books in this series are written in third person and some in first. And perhaps since I’ve listened to so many as audiobooks (and I highly recommend what narrator Dick Hill does with them!), I think that voice is a big part of the charisma. Those short, declarative, sarcastic, witty deliveries, even just inside his own head, really serve to characterize him.

Well done and thanks. I look forward to Night School and more of the page-turning and impossibilities.

Make Me by Lee Child

make-meWhen my grandmother was visiting Bellingham, in the final days of my residence there, we took a walk through the new location of the local indy bookstore. I was excited at the prospect of having time to choose a book to read on our big drive south, a book just for me and just for fun; so I bought myself a paperback copy of Lee Child’s latest. I read this book in a day and a half, in Durango, Colorado and on the road from there to Santa Fe. It was a deeply pleasurable time.

It’s been a while since I read any Lee Child, and Reacher was just as I remembered him. The formula is perhaps getting a little see-through at this point; but I love it no less.

Reacher gets off the train in the little town of Mother’s Rest, in the middle of nowhere. (I suspect Mother’s Rest is in Kansas, although it is never stated, and it is, of course, a fictional place.) When he steps off the train, he is greeted by a woman clearly waiting for someone, and disappointed Reacher isn’t that someone. He’s really just curious about the name of the town, though none of the locals can or will explain it to him. Instead, he finds them oddly surly, even antagonistic. What’s going on in Mother’s Rest? And what happened to the man Reacher was mistaken for at the train depot?

The locals are up to something, of course, and of course Reacher is the man to figure out what. Following the formula, he teams up with an attractive and highly competent woman, beats up on the baddies, and untangles the plot. He is at once a do-gooder, motivated to defend the world’s innocents, and an isolationist, apt to keep moving unless dragged into things by outside forces–like the bad guys trying to mess with him. The tagline for this novel’s title: “But as always, Reacher’s rule is: If you want me to stop, you’re going to have to make me.”

Like I said, the formula is clear to me. But this fast-paced, involved and involving, smart plot; Reacher’s big, handsome, smart (if a little fantastic) superhero powers; and the detailed, fully-formed world of Mother’s Rest are totally compelling. I scarcely put this book down, and was so sorry when it was over. On the other hand: in my paperback copy, Make Me was followed by a Reacher short story “Small Wars,” and then by an excerpt from the next Reacher novel, Night School, due for publication just next month. Lee Child really knows what he’s doing, cranking them out like this, and keeping us teased along the way. And, happily, the quality does not decline. My fandom is again confirmed.

To review: more of the same Reacher, except different in its particulars, so Child’s fans are never bored. You could start here or anywhere in the series, as they all jump around in time. But beware that once you start, you may not want to stop.


Rating: 8 hogs.
%d bloggers like this: