Tag Archives: mystery

Gritty but Ultimately Good-Hearted

CBR_Logo2Box of Rain
A Street Stories Suspense Novel
by Debra R. Borys

Box of Rain is the third in a series of “Street Stories” suspense novels focusing on the gritty side of Chicago. In this briskly paced story, Debra Borys weaves together two narratives: one about a young black man falsely suspected of murder and on the run from police, the other about a reporter on the case as she grapples with her father’s dubious past.

Borys draws on years of experience volunteering to help vulnerable youths and adults in Chicago. Apparently, nothing is ever quite what it seems to be in this hard luck world. Serious issues regarding race and law enforcement lend some weight to this otherwise lively whodunit.boxofraincover-small

When an innocent young man stumbles across a gruesome crime scene, he chooses to avoid the police. He fears he will not be believed. He has no parents or family to help him. He could turn to community volunteers, foster parents, friends, or kind-hearted individuals. But as it turns out, this network of care can be a labyrinth for young people in distress.

The characters are lightly but clearly sketched in their precarious situations and there are several nuanced angles to the story. For instance, not all of the people striving to help these young men are thoroughly “good.” Many show traces of both compassion and stubbornness or even ruthless greed. The young men themselves are far from perfect. The police show both concern and callousness. The reporter has more than her share of doubts about the young men; she is not their unfailing champion. Personal problems leave her irritable and sharp-tongued—a possible hindrance in her investigation. All this adds up to poor odds for a young man mired in a major criminal case.

Borys skillfully switches between perspectives at a rapid pace while maintaining a solid narrative structure. Though it is part of a series (with the reporter Jo Sullivan and her family mystery binding everything together), the story of Booker T Brooks is self-contained and reaches a satisfying conclusion. There are just a handful of editing missteps, most notably the habitual use of “must of” and “would of” (for “must’ve” and “would’ve”). It is regrettably unclear whether the author means to reflect how the characters think it should be spelled or whether their oral elision has been transcribed incorrectly; in either case, Borys perpetuates this woeful grammatical error unnecessarily. On the whole however, the prose is clear and effective; the dialogue, which is sometimes watered down, has at least an air of authenticity.

With recent news of the deaths of Laquan McDonald and many others, some may notice that police brutality in this novel receives relatively little attention. It feels like an opportunity missed, but it was clearly by design. This quick-paced, sometimes dark, but ultimately good-hearted novel aims for light entertainment with a straightforward message, not unlike the spirited Chicago detective novels of Sarah Paretsky. Box of Rain will not surprise those familiar with the problems between young black men and law enforcement. But with its tightly knit plot and a few good twists, this novel may be recommended for YA and general readers curious about how unconscious biases can lead to vicious cycles of distrust.

Three-Star Review

March 2015, New Libri Press
$14.95, paperback, 223 pages
ISBN: 9781614690450

—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton

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A ‘Winsome’ World of Lies

CBR_Logo2A Winsome Murder
by James Devita

Chicago Police Detective James Mangan has a heavy case load—“two rapes, a North Side drive-by, a robbery gone bad with a baseball bat, and a dealer thrown off a roof in the projects”—when he is handed his next investigation.

That investigation is launched when Mangan opens a manila envelope to find inside a photograph of a dismembered hand, a hand that had recently been delivered to a local magazine editor in a padded envelope just like so many padded envelopes that every day are added to his unending slush pile of article submissions. As it happens, the hand turns out to winsome murderbe quite a story in and of itself.

James Mangan, a somewhat offbeat, self-educated intellectual who hears voices in his head, knows in his heart that the owner of the hand is dead—and so begins the search for that individual in A Winsome Murder, a tightly woven detective story full of colorful characters navigating numerous twists and turns.

Set in Chicago and Wisconsin, A Winsome Murder features several gruesome murders along with a cast of interesting people, from police officers and detectives to hookers and pimps to waitresses and writers—not to mention a psychotic, vengeful misogynist. Many of the lives so vividly brought to life in these pages intersect in interesting ways, and author James Devita does an excellent job of weaving the reader in to the tight-knit circle of crime that unfolds in this mystery.

Devita, a New York-bred playwright and author who now lives in Spring Green, Wisconsin, has written a fast-paced, multifaceted story that is as absorbing as it is entertaining. Detective Mangan drives the story, and he is an intriguing, complex character with fascinating yet believable quirks. Although it seems that so many mysteries are home to detectives with oddball idiosyncrasies, Mangan doesn’t come off as a cliché. Yes, he probably drinks too much. Yes, he’s overweight. Yes, his wife is no longer in the picture. And, yes, he has a daughter who ends up in jeopardy. But Mangan somehow still feels like a fresh, new character—and one who could easily become part of a long-lived series.

As the bodies pile up in A Winsome Murder, Mangan heeds the voices in his head, usually from Shakespeare or Melville, and those voices help him focus his thoughts and tap into a kind of sixth sense that propels him toward a solution to the crime. Peppered with literary references, Mangan’s unique quirk lends the story a erudite bent, one that might well be appealing to closet mystery readers who think the genre somehow beneath them.

Although a quirky detective seems a prerequisite for a mystery, A Winsome Murder is far from formulaic. Expertly paced, the story is an intricate web full of complex characters acting unpredictably—just like real people do. Even at those times when the reader might be a half-step ahead of the story, the developments remain gasp-worthy, surprising even if not shocking.

In addition to a unique detective, a wholly original story, and some literary flair, Devita has filled these pages with some timely and biting social commentary, which does much to add to the real feel of this creative whodunit. A Winsome Murder is well written, well wrought, and well paced. It is well worth a read, a fun, enjoyable, engaging page-turner that draws you in and doesn’t let go until the last page.

Four-Star Review

June 2015, Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press
$26.95, hardcover, 189 pages
ISBN: 978-0299304409

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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A Tangled Web in Door County

CBR_Logo2Death at Gills Rock
A Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery
by Patricia Skalka

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”

Sir Walter Scott wrote it hundreds of years ago. Patricia Skalka shows it is still true with Death at Gills Rock, the second in her Door County mystery series. The plot originates during World War II when U.S. troops battled to keep the Japanese out of the Aleutian Islands. Another anniversary of Pearl Harbor is coming up December 7. How many U.S. citizens are aware the Aleutians figured in that war? Some old-timers in Door County, Wisconsin, know it because their Coast Guard played an important part in delivering troops to the Aleutians, rescuing them after battle and from horrendous weather and returning them home.

skalka death gills rockDeath at Gills Rock centers around the apparent accidental deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning of three life-long friends, veterans of the Coast Guard’s Aleutian war effort. It features Dave Cubiak from Skalka’s first mystery, Death Stalks Door County. In that story, Dave was a Chicago homicide detective working in Door County as a park ranger while trying to recover from grief over the deaths of his wife and daughter in an accident. After playing a major role in solving a crime that occurred then, he was elected Sheriff and became a permanent resident. He was called to the scene when the bodies of the three victims were discovered. They were successful businessmen, popular supporters of community activities, admired as military heroes and about to be honored at the opening ceremony for a display of war memorabilia. The deaths were originally assumed accidental due to a flaw in the heater in the building where they were playing cards. That feeling changed when a letter arrived saying, “They got what they deserved,” and the building where they died was smeared with red paint. Sheriff Cubiak is drawn into a complicated “tangled web” as he tries to figure out what actually happened.


Author Patricia Skalka

Patricia Skalka is a former freelance writer for Reader’s Digest, specializing in medical and human interest stories. She has also been a magazine editor, ghostwriter, and writing instructor. A native of Chicago, she lives in the city and takes time off at her cabin in Door County. Skalka has spent a lot of time there, and she knows and understands the area, often called the Cape Cod of the Midwest, very well. This was evident in her first mystery in the series; and in the second, she is careful to touch on appropriate references and connections related to the first title. This will be recognized and welcomed by readers familiar with the first book, but reading the first is not necessary to enjoying the second. Skalka is a skilled writer, evidenced by the realistic, charming way she covers the experiences a big-city homicide detective encounters adjusting to his new life style—his adopted dog presenting him with a litter of six puppies, helping a friend renovate an antique sailboat, and learning to navigate the waters of Lake Michigan.

The path Sheriff Dave follows to the conclusion of Death at Gills Rock has a multitude of twists, turns, and backstories plus multiple confessions. The reader needs to stay alert in order to keep up, and, in the end, may wonder if the outcome is believable or right. Actually, Sheriff Dave has some of the same concerns. His debut as the real sheriff will give mystery lovers food for thought along with the pleasure of reading a well-crafted book.

Four-Star Review

June 2015, Terrace Books
$26.95, hardcover, 248 pages
ISBN 978-0-299-30450-8

—Reviewed by Betty Nicholas

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