A Thin Dark Line, by Tami Hoag

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

This is officially characterized (though not in the cover copy) as the fourth book of the author’s Doucet series. However, that nominal “series” is apparently very loosely connected, only by having main or other characters from the fictional Doucet clan; and a Doucet appears in this novel, though not as the protagonist. Our protagonists are sheriff’s deputies Nick Fourcade, a detective, and Annie Broussard, a uniformed deputy who’d like to be a detective. (The book is also counted as the opener of the Broussard and Fourcade series, which is apparently more connected; but it has a resolution to the mysteries involved in this volume, while leaving things open for new ones.)

Back in the late 80s, I visited the rural Cajun country of south Louisiana, where this book is set. So I could visualize the scenery, hear the accents and dialect, and appreciate the immersive evocation of place and culture that Hoag conjures, with references to things like zydeco music. (Hoag herself was born in Iowa and lives in Florida; but she’s clearly very familiar with this area, and has frequently set her fiction here.) The plot is very taut, respecting all of Aristotle’s classical unities; it unfolds over a period of about two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday (a season which is a big deal in heavily Catholic south Louisiana) mostly in and around the small town of Bayou Breaux, population around 7,000. As the book opens, we learn that one Marcus Renard has just been set free on a technicality after being arrested by the sheriff’s office for the hideously savage rape and murder of a prominent local businesswoman. (The authorities are certain he’s guilty –but is he?) Soon after, the community begins to be terrorized by a serial rapist.

Like all serious fiction, this novel is fundamentally concerned with moral issues, the answers to which aren’t obvious and force readers to think. Here, the issues particularly revolve around the relationship of law and justice, and the ethics of vigilantism. (Personally, my view of the latter is more nuanced and less unconditionally condemning than some people’s; but Hoag forces us to consider the dangers of too facile a resort to extra-legal vengeance, and the valid reasons why our and other civilized legal systems provide safeguards for the accused.) The solution to the crime(s) is anything but obvious; early on, I was 100% convinced of the identity of the killer, only to change my theory much nearer the end to another solution I was equally certain of –only to be wrong both times. I was totally blindsided by the denouement. But this isn’t just an intellectual puzzle; it’s a story about vividly-drawn, three-dimensional people and their interactions.

This can be a very dark novel (and I’m told that’s often characteristic of Hoag’s work). The murder and rapes themselves aren’t directly described; and the sufferings of the victims, and the gory details of the crime scenes, aren’t alluded to more than they actually have to be. But while the average modern American doesn’t have any real sense that genuine moral evil is a reality which he or she could ever have any need to take into account, Hoag clearly has a very lively sense of that reality, and she doesn’t intend to let us close the book without sharing it. (That’s not a bad authorial aim!) Disgust would be a healthy reaction to the sexist and lewd attitudes of many of the male cops, and readers might want a barf bag handy when perusing some of the comments from these characters. (Hoag isn’t presenting these as role models; disgust is the reaction she wants there.)

Action heroine fans should take note that, though the cover copy doesn’t stress this aspect, Annie packs heat, and her police training has given her skills in hand-to-hand combat and using firearms –which just might turn out to come in handy. (And fans of action heroes will appreciate the fact that while Nick isn’t Superman, he can take care of himself very well in a fair fight.)

Since I’m trying not to get drawn into another open-ended series right now, I’m not planning to pursue this one. But I’d definitely recommend Hoag as a serious mystery writer, and I’d be open to reading more of her work sometime.

Note: While it’s not a romance, the book does have two instances (in 590 pages) of explicit unmarried sex. There’s also a certain amount of bad language, including f-words, much of it reflecting the real-life tendency of this kind of speech to be a feature of cop culture.

Author: Tami Hoag
Publisher: Bantam, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Violent Instinct

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“Mad, bad and dangerous to know.”

Valerie Graves (Osborne) is a powder-keg in her mid-twenties, barely surviving from job to job, and troubled by violent dreams. At a party, she meets Andy Cheney, who runs a locksmith company, and who offers her an admin job there. She eventually discovers the company is a front for far more questionable business, and eagerly accepts Andy’s offer of working on that side, collecting debts and enforcing his authority on those lower down the food-chain. But when one of her missions ends up hitting too close to home, she decides she’s going to quit. Her boss doesn’t take kindly to that, and stiffs her of the final payment she needs to set up life somewhere else. Which, needless to say, does not sit too well with Valerie.

This is a seriously grubby and downbeat spiral, which deserves credit for being largely unremitting and consistent in tone. However, that isn’t enough, in itself, to make for interesting viewing, not least because there’s little here to which the viewer can hitch their interest. Valerie is not a nice person. Which isn’t necessary a show-stopper. as that deficiency in warmth of character, can be made up for in a number of different ways. A charismatic lead, compelling back-story or interesting arc over the course of the film, would all help give reasons to watch. Unfortunately, none of them are present here: at least, not in sufficient quantities to take the audience along.

Osborne isn’t bad in  the central role – though she makes about the least convincing interior design consultant (her apparent initial job!) I’ve ever seen. She’s certainly different from the stereotypical mob enforcer you might expect, and have seen elsewhere. Valerie is roughly equal measures of tattoos, piercings and spiky attitude, with no genuine relationships to speak of, save for Tina (Ryan). And she’s probably even more anti-social and depressed than the anti-heroine, which I guess makes them perfect for each other. But I can’t say I was even remotely convinced by Rowley and his crew as supposedly hardcore gangsters. It’s often a problem with micro-budget movies, that the makers operate from a small circle of available talent, in a certain type. There’s a struggle when they need to fill roles outside that type, and this definitely hampers them here.

There are two versions of this floating around. This review is based on the 79-minute producer’s cut, which was edited down from the 124-minute version called Primordial. Among the apparent changes were some quite significant ones, including taking an ambiguous final scene and transplanting it to the start of the film, where it becomes a dream sequence. It also “shortens or removes many of the humorous scenes”, which is likely a good thing, given that the remorseless intensity is likely the film’s strongest suit. Still I’m not convinced enough I’ve missed out, to track down the longer version. Though must confess, I am somewhat intrigued by “the fish hook sex act” apparently included in the extended cut…

Dir: Eric Widing
Star: Marylee Osborne, Erin R. Ryan, Christopher Rowley, Adam Clevenger
a.k.a. Primordial

Tiger Angels

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“Toothless tigers.”

It is pretty close to an article of faith that no movie starring Yukari Oshima and Cynthia Khan can ever be entirely worthless. This film, however, shakes that belief to its very foundation. Not least because despite the cover and credits, found just about everywhere (including here), it barely stars them – indeed, Khan doesn’t even show up for the finale, with absolutely no explanation provided. This is included here, mostly as a warning, and because I’m a stickler for completeness with regard to their filmographies. Though in this case, I suspect, I’m less a stickler and more the sucker.

The plotline is…obscure. There’s a gloriously fractured English synopsis here, with sentences such as “Nga Wah finds her husband fevering with a girl.” This includes some information I would never have guessed, such as Khan’s character (Sally in this synopsis, Rose in the film I watched) being the daughter of the department store owner. I figured she was just a hired bodyguard like Oshima/Butterfly (Oshima), with the general manager of the store actually being the owner’s son. So, everything which follows should be taken as less than gospel. Or as gospel, if you’re of an atheist persuasion, I guess.

The plot concerns a department store CEO who is being threatened by the son (Chow) of a former business partner, over a debt supposedly incurred by the father. Rose & Butterfly are brought in to protect him. The store’s manager is also being threatened: he has a wife who is more interested in material goods and their acquistion, than anything else. There’s also a computer salesman who is a dead-ringer for the businessman, and so is hired to take over the business for five days. At first, I thought this was going to end up tying together with the debt, and the look-alike would end up being kidnapped, with Rose & Butterfly going in to rescue him. Never happens: those two angles completely fails to go anywhere near each other.

Indeed, the film has, at most, ten minutes of action. It is, admittedly, not bad action, with both ladies delivering at the level to which we’ve become accustomed. Khan has a particularly good battle around a playground, and Oshima gets her chance to shine in the (inexplicably solo!) finale. However, the rest of the running-time is occupied by crappy attempts at comedy, with hints of romance. This likely reaches its nadir in a sped-up shopping scene, which appears to have strayed in from the reject pile of Benny Hill.

Taiwanese film has long had a bad rep for churning out poorly-made knockoffs of Hong Kong products. Previously, I’ve sometimes wondered where that came from, as I’ve seen a number of entries which, if admittedly cheap, were little if any less entertaining, e.g. The Top Lady of Sword. However, there have been cases where its poor reputation has been entirely justified – Super Cops comes to mind. Largely through being guilty of wanton, wholesale misdirection, this is likely the worst offender I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying quite a lot.

Dir: Sek Bing-Chan
Star: Yukari Oshima, Cynthia Khan, Billy Chow, Chung Kai Cheung

The Glass Gargoyle by Marie Andreas

Literary rating: starstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

Taryn St. Giles is an out of work archaeologist, who has taken up bounty hunting in order to pay the overdue rent, after the untimely death of her current patron. However, her latest target turns out to be considerably more than she can handle. For Alric is a master of both disguise and hand-to-hand combat, and Taryn’s pursuit of him rapidly entangles the heroine in a deepening web of magic and intrigue. The titular artifact – which doesn’t actually show up until well into the second half – is a potential gate, which could open a doorway and leave this world a thoroughly unpleasant place for just about everyone. Fortunately, Taryn has friends both academic and physically-inclined on her side, as well as a trio of semi-domesticated fairies. Though the last-named are engaged in their own war, with a local family of squirrels.

That last sentence should give you an idea that this is not a novel which takes itself, its world or its heroine entirely seriously. And that’s half the appeal, with Taryn being a snarky yet persistent little tomb raider, who is genuinely appealing. Her curiosity is forever getting the better of her – but she has to rely much more on her wits than any Lara Croft-esque antics. Well, except when intoxicated, when she gets a bit… strange. That change manifests itself in a couple of different ways, at least one of which proves essential to the plot at the climax. It’s the only true major set-piece in terms of direct action involving her, but Taryn’s other qualities – bravery, loyalty, inquisitiveness and a moderate resistance to magic – are sufficient to get her over the threshold here. Indeed, it came as a surprise in the middle of the book, when she explicitly stated she has “no real skill” with weapons.

This wasn’t the only unexpected twist. While there are references to trolls, elves, etc. it also turns out that one major character is mostly feline and another is (I think) snake. That aspect of the world could have been made a great deal clearer. Otherwise, however, Andreas has a good eye for quirky personalities. Particularly outstanding are the trio of fairies – Crusty Bucket, Garbage Blossom and Leaf Grub – and their monarch, “High Queen Princess Buttercup Turtledove RatBatZee Growltigerious Mungoosey, Empress of all.” Glorious.

Both Taryn and Alric appear to have their share of dark secrets buried in the past – very deeply buried, in her case. While I strongly suspect there will be more romantic tension down the road, those aspects are kept light here. Indeed, Taryn’s spectacular fail of a dating experience, chronicled here, would likely put me off the opposite sex for quite a while. It works perfectly well as a standalone book, building to an appropriate finale and wrapping up most of the immediate loose ends, yet leaving enough intriguing questions dangling. I’m left inclined to pick up the second volume.

Author: Marie Andreas
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

Ataúd Blanco: El Juego Diabólico

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“Who takes the child by the hand takes the mother by the heart.”

This crisp little Argentinian film clocks in at 70 minutes – not even enough to be considered a feature by the Screen Actors Guild. You’ll understand, therefore, there isn’t much fat on its bones. Virginia (Cardinali) has left her husband, taking daughter, Rebecca (Duranda), with her. But a moment’s inattention at a gas-station proves fatal, as Rebecca is abducted, and Virginia’s car driven off the road during the subsequent pursuit. Brought back (from the dead?) by a mysterious stranger (Ferro), she is told Rebecca has been chosen by a religious cult as a sacrifice. It’s up to Virginia to stop them, and she can let no-one get in her way. Which becomes an issue, for we quickly find out, she is not the only mother looking to recover a child from the cult – and, it appears, only one can succeed.

It’s a blowdart of a movie, picking nastily away at the scab of “How far would a mother go to save her own child?” – and keeping at it. “No, really. How far?” It does require a certain suspension of disbelief, not least in Virginia’s inexplicable failure even to attempt contacting the authorities regarding her missing child, surely the first thing most people would do. If you are able to get past that – and it is likely the plot’s biggest weakness – then you’ve got a steady descent into hell. The unspoken question which informs everything is whether the stranger actually has her best interests at heart, or is simply pulling her strings. Weird sacrificial cults in rural places tend to do that, as anyone who has seen The Wicker Man knows. And if to you, that means only the Nicolas Cage version: my sympathies on your loss.

However, there are elements of another Cage movie here: Drive Angry, in which he played a criminal who came out of the grave, to track down the cult who are preparing to sacrifice his grand-daughter. This is nowhere near as lurid: save for perhaps one sequence involving a chainsaw, this is more about psychological torment than the physical. For example, Virginia’s quest involves tracking down and burning the white coffin referred to in the title (the subtitle translates as “A diabolical game”). Yet as the film goes on, it becomes clear that any success in this is going to come at a hellish cost to her own humanity – and, arguably, that of her daughter as well.

The quote at the top is a German proverb (or maybe Danish, depending which Internet site you believe), and it’s an appropriate summary, though doesn’t capture the thoroughly mean-spirited nature of this, especially in the final reel. That’s no criticism in the genre of horror, which should go the extra mile to push the viewer’s buttons, yet especially in more mainstream works, tends to bail out at the last minute. It’s something of which this isn’t guilty; when it ends, it’s going further into the same bleak darkness, where the movie has been heading all along.

Dir: Daniel de la Vega
Star: Julieta Cardinali, Rafael Ferro, Eleonora Wexler, Fiorela Duranda
a.k.a. White Coffin

Left For Dead

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I knew I shoulda taken that left turn at Albuquerque!

Coming out of the micro-budget scene in New Mexico, this is a straightforward tale of vengeful “hell kittens”, to quote the official synopsis. Bella Meurta (Kate) is a hooker, who kills one of her clients after he gets rough with her. In revenge, her little sister is savagely beaten and left dead [note: not left for dead…] in the street. Bella gathers together her posse to take out the mobsters responsible: stripper Fageeda Cunt (Blackery), dominatrix Silky Gun (Coi), and jailbird turned home healthcare professional Harley Hellcat (Rebelle). [Look, I’m just reporting these character names, I didn’t create them. Particularly Fageeda’s] But as the saying goes, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” Or perhaps more, in this case.

The aim is clear here, with West looking to create (yet another) throwback to the days of grindhouse and straight-to-rental action flicks. Which explains the faux artifacts like film scratches, I guess – though since it’s clearly shot on video, you kinda wonder why they bothered. Unfortunately, the execution falls a bit short as well. Cheap, I can easily forgive; it’s the occasional sloppiness here that’s annoying. For instance, when we see little sis lying dead in the road, her corpse is in pristine condition. Then, when Bella shows up in the next shot, the body is suddenly blood-spattered and badly bruised. Having a low-budget is no excuse for glaring continuity gaffes such as that.

Even at barely an hour long, there feels like there are significant chunks of padding, such as scenes of Fageeda and Silky at “work”, which bring plot development grinding to a complete halt. Particularly in the second half, the plot seems herky-jerky, with scenes in utterly different locations next to each other, lacking any explanation of how or why the characters went from Point A to Point B. There’s also a weird, almost complete lack of anyone over the age of about 30, which makes this seems like a revenge-based remake of Logan’s Run. And it appears most of the lead actresses are local burlesque dancers. The Venn diagram of the skills needed for those professions is not two superimposed circles, shall we say.

Yet I can’t say I hated this. We’ve been involved with enough low-budget film-making to be able to appreciate what’s involved, and much of the same vibe is present here. There are enough moments of quirky eccentricity, such as the Russian mobster confused by an ignition interlock device, which kept me adequately entertained through the film’s slacker moments. The fight scenes – something we always found a nightmare to try and make look even half way to good – didn’t entirely suck. You certainly will need a high degree of tolerance for ultra-cheap independent cinema to get through this, and I wouldn’t recommend it for beginners in that genre. Yet, I’ve seen worse [much worse, trust me on that], and despite the flaws, have to acknowledge the obvious effort involved.

Dir: Mikel-Jon West
Star: Intoxi Kate, Joy Coy, General Blackery, Holly Rebelle

Taken Heart

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“Taken, out of context”

There seems to have been a sudden surge of gynocentric takes on Taken (as it were), with first Never Let Go, and now this. Both concern single mothers with a very particular set of skills, venturing into treacherous foreign territory after their daughters are abducted. In this case, the setting is Belize, where Nina Johnson (Calis) has gone to spend the summer with her boyfriend, volunteering at a local orphanage. When the promised daily contacts stop, single mom and Miami detective Kate (Holden) gets not much in the way of immediate help from the local authorities, and makes a bee-line to Belize so she can investigate on the ground. She’s helped, after some initial doubts, by friendly embassy employee Francisco Orizaga (Degruttola), who has particular skills of his own, being ex-special forces.

They discover Nina has been kidnapped by local cartel, La Muerte Roja (The Red Death), who have branched out from traditional cartel business like drugs, into black market organ transplants. A bar in Punta Dia, visited by Nina, has become ground zero for them, from where they kidnap tourists and turn them into spare parts for their rich clients. It’s up to Nina and her sidekick to track down the base of operations, and free Kate before she becomes a selection box of replacement organs. But that won’t be easy, given how deeply embedded LMR are in the town, and how feared they are by the residents.

There’s a huge plot-hole here, in that the last thing any cartel will ever do is target tourists, for nothing brings down federal heat faster. It’s been that way ever since the murder of Mark Kilroy in the seventies (by a satanist cult who had previously killed and dismembered more than a dozen locals with impunity) and remains the case now. Gangs would far rather sell visitors weed, than do anything which might interfere with a valuable and vital cash cow like tourism. But why let that get in the way of a slice of something which teeters between naked xenophobia and being really guilty about its naked xenophobia. Dammit, pick a side and commit to it, why can’t you.

That aside, this falls squarely into the realm of bland competence. Holden has the desperate mother thing down, yet isn’t as convincing when it comes to playing the tough-nosed detective. I sense that Francisco’s purpose in the script is to handle that heavy lifting, and the resulting dilution is perhaps why this doesn’t work as well as Never Let Go. It’s inoffensive enough: I watched the movie on a plane, and it beat browsing the in-flight magazine for a couple of hours. However, if you’re going for that Taken vibe, it isn’t enough to lift the premise, since the story was likely the least interesting thing there. You need someone who can deliver intensity somewhere in the same ballpark as Liam Neeson, and Holden comes up emphatically short in that department.

Dir: Steven R. Monroe
Star: Gina Holden, Natasha Calis, Raffaello Degruttola, Matthew Ziff

Scars

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“The 19th cut is the deepest.”

Scar (Cole) has anger issues, which we see in the opening scene, where she stabs her boyfriend to death. Scarlett (Kimmel) makes her living by having affairs with married men, then blackmailing them. The two women team up after Scar rescues Scarlett, when one of her extortion targets is beating her up in an alley. The pair subsequently begin an odd relationship, peppered with bursts of brutal violence against men. The police investigation, led by Detective Mike (Wells) passes over them, but Mike begins a relationship with Scarlett, until he begins to suspect that her friend is involved in the string of killings.

There’s an off-kilter style here, in a variety of ways. Scar and Scarlett spend a lot of time sitting around the latter’s apartment watching news broadcasts. These mostly appear to be about the conflict in the Middle East. While unclear, I guess the film is making a comment about male violence on a global scale by juxtaposing it with more up close and personal violence by women? Robb’s visual approach, in his directorial debut, is also a bit different, shall we say. He often seems content to park the camera in a fixed position,. and let events unfold in front of it (or, in certain cases, somewhat in front of it) as they may. He’s a big fan of about half a second of black screen between scenes too, and the use of deliberately inappropriate classical music. Not sure how effective any of this is; for instance, the static shots give a distancing feel, almost as if you were watching on CCTV. Hey, at least it’s making an effort.

That last sentence could be an accurate summary of the film as a whole. It’s clearly trying, and given the limited resources, it isn’t a disaster. But neither was this very successful at holding my interest for the entire duration. There isn’t much in the way of a character arc for either Scar or Scarlett. Right from the start, Scar is the obviously more psychotic one, and Scarlett is better able to conceal and control her impulses. That’s how it is for the rest of the film, although there was a while where I thought we were going down the Fight Club route, with Scar being a manifestation of Scarlett’s darker side.

On the positive side, the two leads deliver decent performances, and the violence – mostly in the form of repeated stabbings with the traditional weapon of movie psychos, the carving knife – is unflinching and credibly brutal. Part of the problem is, we’re not really given much reason to empathize with Scar or Scarlett. While there’s an implied suggestion Scar’s boyfriend is abusive, there’s nothing to suggest the punishment she unilaterally imposes is anything close to fitting the crime. Meanwhile, Scarlett is a manipulator, also depicted without much in the way of redeeming features. The results are watchable enough, yet left me feeling little or no impact, emotionally or intellectually.

Dir: Sean K. Robb
Star: Danielle Cole, Neale Kimmel, Matt Wells, Eric Regimbald

Huff

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“Brings home the bacon.”

A modern-day update of The Three Little Pigs, this works better than you might think. The wolf is “Huff” (O’Connell), a really warped individual whose interests appear to be religion, drugs and molesting his three step-daughters. Bit of an odd combination. Their mother, Lorelei (Elina Madison), is a largely absent stripper, who seems not to care too much that her boyfriend’s attention have now turned from her oldest daughter, Brixi (Bollinger), to the youngest one, Shay (Stefanko). But when Huff prepares his big score, using cash “borrowed” from his mistress’s ex-husband (or something like that – the relationships here are so complicated, you need a chart to keep track), Lorelei sees her opportunity, sending the three girls away with the money. That leaves Huff in serious trouble, and he’s soon after them, intent on retrieving the cash. Huff is indeed going to puff… on his asthma inhaler.

Yeah, that’s a bit of an over-reach, and you feel it might have worked better, had the makers not apparently felt obligated to stick so close to their source. Contrast, say, Freeway, which was a similarly modern version of a fairly tale, specifically Little Red Riding Hood – but had no qualms about discarding elements that didn’t fit, and was all the better for it. Here, even the daughters’ names are clunkily shoehorned in to the narrative; as well as Brixi and Shay, there’s Styx. Okay, I think we get the concept: even for a stripper mom, those are a bit much. Fortunately, when it’s not being incredibly contrived, this is a decent enough slab of trashy fun, located right at the bottom of the social pecking order – although everyone has far better teeth, and are generally much more attractive than you’d expect. This is a compromise I’m happy to live with, since it is clearly not intended to be Winter’s Bone.

O’Connell was The Batchelor in the show’s seventh series, in 2005, so guess it’s a bit of a change in pace and content here. He certainly makes for an ultra-evil villain, right from the get-go when he’s telling his (at that point, extremely young) daughters a particularly sordid tale from the Bible. Indeed, it’s kinda remarkable that the sisters have managed to survive with any fragment of their morality intact. Yet, on more than one occasion, Brixi is prepared to imperil herself to protect her siblings – a cooler head might have considered saner options. If you know the fairy-tale, you’ll already know how things progress, and the story follows its inspiration closely, up to the point where Huff and Brixi face off. It’s a finale that really doesn’t deserve the coda it receives, which seems to render much of what has gone before pointless, or close to. But as a tacky grab-bag of low-life scumminess, where an unpleasant death is never far away, it appears more than happy to wallow in the mud along with its “little pigs”. It does so adequately enough to be a guilty pleasure as a result.

Dir: Paul Morrell
Star: Marie Bollinger, Charlie O’Connell, Jenna Stone, Elly Stefanko
a.k.a. Big Bad Wolf

Devil Dance, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

This final installment (the author confirms that fact in her Acknowledgments) of the series is set in May 1921, a few months after the previous one. The book’s opening finds Jade in Zanzibar, a new setting for her, which takes her out of the Nairobi area and away from her friends there. One reviewer complained about their absence, but as a compensation, we get to not only spend some more time with Jade’s formidable Spanish-born mother, Inez, but to meet Jade’s dad as well. Her parents have come to Africa for her impending nuptials, and she and Inez plan to enjoy a relaxing sight-seeing trip while Richard del Cameron gets acquainted with his new son-in-law on a planned safari.

Since she didn’t expect to need it, Jade didn’t bring along her trusty Winchester. But Simba Jike’s reputation has preceded her, and her propensity to land in the middle of dangerous skullduggery is as much in evidence here as ever. (Luckily, she did bring her knife….) She and Inez soon encounter a sudden mysterious death, an appeal for help, and a wealthy Arab household rife with secrets. And meanwhile, back in Mombasa, their menfolk stumble across an apparent slave-trading operation –and they’re not the sort of guys who’d let that sort of thing go on without getting involved.

This is the only novel in the series to be self-published; Arruda evidently wrote it without the aid of her usual proofreading and editorial services. There was also a five-year gap between it and the preceding novel, during which she apparently had the distraction of a pregnancy, childbirth, and care for a newborn daughter, to whom the book is dedicated. (From internal evidences, I’m guessing that the early chapters may have been written before the pregnancy, and the middle and later ones after the baby had become a toddler.) These factors show in a number of typos (though none of them are bad enough to keep the reader from understanding the author’s intention), and in some discontinuity between plot elements near the beginning and the developing story, which cost the book a star.

Otherwise, the quality is very similar to the other series installments. The mystery was more deeply concealed, with several developments that genuinely surprised me. As always, the author thoroughly researched her setting(s). An element of the possibly supernatural has typically been a feature of these novels, and that’s particularly strong here, with the background of the witchcraft guild of Zanzibar’s neighboring island, Pemba, and their rites of human sacrifice. Jade’s (and Arruda’s) concern for human rights in the face of injustice is also a strong note in the book, in the face of the persistent practice of slavery, which was nominally outlawed on Zanzibar in 1897, but still went on in practice even on into the 1920s. (And it continues to flourish today in the countries of the Arabian peninsula that are still governed by Sharia law, which regulates slavery but doesn’t forbid it.)

Barb and I read this book together, as we have the whole series, and we’re both sorry to see the series end! Jade has been one of our favorite heroines, and its been a privilege to get to know her.

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.