Book Review: The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker

Book Review: The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker

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Fiction Mystery/Thriller: The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker

 

He’s ba-a-ack!

 

Considering the cover of the book says this is a “4MK Thriller,” I’m not giving too much away by saying that The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker’s sequel to The Fourth Monkey, features the return of Detective Sam Porter and his white whale, Anson Bishop, also known as the Fourth Monkey Killer or 4MK. Detective Porter and his team have been pulled off the hunt for 4MK when a body is found in a frozen lake. The body is that of a young girl who has been missing for a couple of weeks…but she is found under the ice, dressed in the clothes of a girl who disappeared just that morning. Chicago immediately fears that 4MK is back to his old tricks, but Porter believes this to be the work of someone else. Serial killers tend to have a unique style, and this murder does not fit the pattern of 4MK. As the body count climbs and the mystery deepens, the question persists: does this have anything to do with 4MK?

 

The hunt for the killer (or killers) expands beyond Chicago, reaching first to New Orleans and then to North Carolina. Bishop is back, but what if anything does he have to do with these new deaths? Why has he sent a picture of a mystery woman to Detective Porter, a woman being held in jail in New Orleans? What clues remain in his diary? And can they catch him in time to prevent whatever plans he has made from coming to fruition?

 

Barker has taken the loose threads remaining from The Fourth Monkey and woven them together to create a new and even more involved story. Tension mounts throughout the book. As the view shifts from detective to victim to killer, we learn more about the mysterious Anson Bishop. But each new revelation brings more questions. By the end of the book we see some mysteries solved. Many more, though, remain tantalizingly unresolved. Bishop remains free to wreak more mayhem. Porter has lost him again. His team is in desperate straits. And the reader, at least this reader, is left with nightmares about an elusive killer and a very satisfying thriller.

 

In just two books, J.D. Barker has become one of my favorite thriller writers. The Fifth to Die could be read by itself. Enough backstory is given that it stands on its own. But it will be more satisfying to read the two books in order. Just, don’t start them if you need to get some sleep. You will have trouble putting either of them down.

 

Again, a warning to more sensitive readers. There are violent scenes depicted in The Fifth to Die. If that sort of thing bothers you, this is not the book for you. And it is not a book I would recommend to children or tweens. The victims in the book include teenagers, which may make the violence even more disturbing to some. For the genre it is not particularly violent, but the thriller genre can be violent and Barker does not shy away from the grittier aspects of his subject.

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Book Review: The Fifth to Die, J. D. Barker

Book Review: The Fourth Monkey: J.D. Barker

Book Review: The Fourth MonkeyJ.D. Barker

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Fiction Mystery/Thriller: The Fourth Monkey, J.D. Barker

Hear no evil. See no evil. Speak no evil. Most of us are familiar with the three monkeys and their advice, often depicted with actual images of monkeys covering eyes, ears, and mouth. J.D. Barker’s book tells us about The Fourth Monkey: do no evil. But the monkey in his book does all kinds of evil. He is a serial killer, nicknamed the Fourth Monkey Killer, and time is running out for his latest victim. WARNING: if you have a weak stomach or tender constitution, stop reading and find a different book. The book (and consequently this review) do have descriptions that might upset some readers.

 

Detective Sam Porter has been hunting 4MK for over five years. It looks like they have finally caught a break when a pedestrian killed by a bus is found to be carrying a box wrapped in the distinctive style of the killer. Every previous victim was preceded by the delivery of three carefully wrapped boxes. The first contained the victim’s ear. The second, the victim’s eyes. The third, her tongue. Finally, some days later, the victim herself, always a young woman, would be found. This box contained a young woman’s ear. The man himself also had a diary in his pocket, one that told a grisly tale about a young man growing up in a house of horrors.

 

As Porter and his fellow detectives follow the clues, they start with several unanswered questions. Was the dead man really 4MK? Whose ear was in the box? And, most importantly, where was she? If indeed her kidnapper is dead, she only has a couple of days before dying of thirst. This urgency presses the team to follow every lead, even when those leads come dangerously close to the wealthy and politically connected elite of Chicago.

 

The Fourth Monkey shifts perspective often, usually between Detective Porter and the diary of 4MK. As the stories unfold, we realize that Detective Porter is carrying a great burden, one that inevitably affects his ability to follow the killer’s trail. And we realize that the diary is being told from the perspective of the serial killer–how much of its narrative is reliable? Meanwhile, a girl’s life hangs in the balance.

 

The Fourth Monkey is one of the best thrillers I have ever read. The police procedural rings true. The officers are dedicated, not perfect but not corrupt, frustrated at times with red tape but concerned about following procedure so that the result is a clean arrest and conviction, not to mention rescuing the missing girl. The diary never brought this reader to the point of sympathizing with the serial killer, but it made it easier to imagine how someone might lose his grip on appropriate choices when confronted with a distorted childhood. Of course, it is possible the diary was entirely a fiction within the fictional book–that is a possible interpretation that the author leaves for his readers to consider. All in all, a very well told story that leaves room for many of the characters to return again.

 

Barker tells a story that is both compelling and chilling. He does a superb job of leaving small clues in the story which later bloom into full reveals. There were several times when I realized that “something” was about to happen, only to realize that Barker had left enough clues for my subconscious to go into overdrive but not enough for me to fully figure it out ahead of time. And Barker leaves just enough in the cupboard that even on the final page there is a surprise for the reader. It makes this reader quite eager to see what else this writer has in store for his audience. Despite the occasional gore and graphic detail, The Fourth Monkey is a book I highly recommend to any fans of the thriller or police procedural genres.

 

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Book Review: The Fourth MonkeyJ.D. Barker

Book Review: Hellbent, Gregg Hurwitz

Book Review: HellbentGregg Hurwitz

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Fiction Thriller: Hellbent, Gregg Hurwitz

Third book in the Orphan X series, following Orphan X and The Nowhere Man

A couple of years ago a fascinating book caught my attention. A thriller about a former government wet-ops agent who now worked secretly helping people who were in desperate situations, Orphan X was well written, had an interesting protagonist and strong secondary characters, and told a compelling story. Its sequel, The Nowhere Man, continued the story in riveting fashion, filling in backstory and introducing new characters to the series.

 

The third in the series came out earlier this year, and it is a thriller reader’s dream come true. Hellbent is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year. I finished it in a five-hour straight shot. I made the mistake of starting it after traveling all weekend, and could not put it down. From beginning to end, Gregg Hurwitz takes the reader on a ride that had me gripping the edge of the book with white knuckles. The first two books in this series were excellent, but this takes the series to a new level.

 

Evan Smoak is Orphan X, part of a top secret program that recruited orphans who showed certain useful characteristics into a black ops training program. He was possibly the best of the “orphans,” brilliant, resourceful, and ruthless. His trainer, though, had become like a father to him, and as a father he taught Evan not only how to be a killer, but also how to be a human. Evan was raised with a code, commandments that his trainer instilled within him. “Do not kill innocents” was part of that code, a part that eventually led to Evan leaving the program and disappearing off the grid–which in his case was Los Angeles.

 

When Evan’s arch-enemy Orphan Y, the new head of the Orphan program, finds Evan’s trainer and kills him, Evan has a new mission: kill Orphan Y. First, though, he must decipher his trainer’s final message to him. That message leads to a most unexpected package: a teenage girl who was also trying to escape from the Orphan program. Suddenly, the Nowhere Man has responsibilities that go beyond a mere mission. Orphan Y wants to kill her, too. How can Evan keep her alive, go after Orphan Y and his group of killers, and deal with the trauma and drama of a teenager? The result is a fast paced and action filled novel with twists and turns that go beyond the core “how does our hero survive and complete his mission” of all thrillers. It includes the shock and awe of a shopping trip to Target to purchase “female products.” It includes learning how to listen, how to open up, how to become vulnerable without losing his edge. It includes asking a mother for advice on talking to a young girl. And before you know it, you realize you’ve read a complete novel with the requisite body count of a high octane thriller, but with an unexpected and delightful emotional depth that is rare in this genre.

 

Hellbent checks the boxes for a thriller. But what makes it next level is the emotional growth of the characters. We see new sides to some familiar characters. We see Evan needing help and reaching out for it, and we see others stepping up for him. We see a young girl, traumatized and alone, make informed choices that define who she is and who she will become. Throughout we see that characters define themselves by their own choices, who make emotionally difficult decisions that can cost them everything, who confront themselves and challenge themselves to become more than they have been. Hurwitz spins a great story, but more delightfully he draws great characters. Orphan X books will stay on my reading list because of those characters, and I cannot wait to find out what Evan Smoak faces in the next novel of the series.

 

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Book Review: HellbentGregg Hurwitz

Book Review: The Escape Artist, Brad Meltzer

Book Review: The Escape ArtistBrad Meltzer

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Mystery/Thriller: The Escape Artist, Brad Meltzer

The Escape Artist is Brad Meltzer’s latest thriller. Coming twenty years after The Tenth Justice, his new work shows a greater familiarity with his craft and introduces some interesting characters as well.

 

Jim “Zig” Zigarowski is a mortician at Dover (DE) Air Force Base. Preparing deceased military service personnel for burial is his job, and he is quite good at it. Usually the deceased are strangers, but when a young woman who knew his daughter dies in a plane crash, Zig insists on taking care of her himself. However, the body on his table is not that of Nola Brown, and the mix up is not accidental. Zig begins looking for Nola, and soon finds himself in the midst of a mystery that takes him back to his Pennsylvania hometown, to Washington, DC, and back again to Dover. His journey uncovers secrets and crimes that some very powerful people would rather keep covered, and reopens some wounds within him that he thought were closed.

 

Nola Brown was supposed to be on that plane, but switched places at the last minute. She suspects the plane crash was meant to kill her. Instead, it killed her friend and several other people, including the Librarian of Congress, who was a close personal friend of the president. She is eager to get to the bottom of things, too, but she also must confront both external enemies and internal memories to solve this mystery.

 

Zig and Nola share part of their history, connected through Jim’s late daughter. Still, they do not really know each other. Part of their challenge is learning to trust each other and work together. This journey may cover more ground, metaphorically, than the two must cover in their search to find out who was behind the fatal plane crash.

 

Brad Meltzer is a prolific and popular writer. He has had best selling books in many categories, including novels, advice, childrens, YA, and non-fiction. He is also the host of two shows airing on the History Channel networks.

 

The Escape Artist is an interesting and engaging book featuring a strong heroine. Parts of it are formulaic, and the characters flaws sometimes overcome their features, but overall the effect is positive. Definitely a great book for fans of Brad Meltzer and for fans of the thriller genre, and not a bad introduction to the genre for those who like to see smart, tough women overcome challenging circumstances. Unlike many thrillers, The Escape Artist does not use women as mere foils for the male characters. Nola has her own brokenness, her own issues, and she is truly a co-protagonist with Zig. Neither of them survives this case without the other, and both of them are changed by the other.

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Book Review: The Escape ArtistBrad Meltzer

 

Author Spotlights: If You like Tom Clancy, You will Like Mark Greaney

Author Spotlights: If You like Tom Clancy, You will Like Mark Greaney

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Tom Clancy

In the 1980s the Cold War was nearing its end, though no one knew it then. Into this backdrop of geopolitical tension and rivalry, Tom Clancy, an insurance agent from Maryland, published his first book. With brilliant and heroic CIA agent Jack Ryan working to help a Soviet submarine captain defect with his state-of-the-art sub, The Hunt for Red October became a bestseller. Promoted by no one less than the Book Critic in Chief, Ronald Reagan, Tom Clancy embarked on a second career as an author, turning out book after book that kept him at the top of the best seller lists for decades. Several of his books also became hit movies, starring the likes of Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, and Chris Pine.

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Tom Clancy dominated the literary world like few others, from 1984 until his death in 2013. With iconic characters, sharp dialog, and technical accuracy, he shaped the genre of wide-focused geopolitical thrillers. Multiple conspiracies, nefarious political actors at home and abroad, bold action by our enemies and too often dithering and indecisiveness on the part of the US set the stage for crises that fortunately could be resolved at the end by Jack Ryan, John Clark, Rainbow Six, and the rest of his ultra heroic ubermenschen. His heroes did not have super powers, but they had few physical, mental, or moral weaknesses and never needed (nor ever received) oversight or punishment for overreach.

 

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Clancy could tell a story. To his credit, he often shared that story with others. He partnered with other writers during his life, and his estate has continued to do so since his death.  One writer to pick up his mantle is Mark Greaney. Greaney co-wrote Clancy’s last three novels, Locked On, Threat Vector, and Command Authority.

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Following Clancy’s death, Greaney has written four more novels in the same world: Tom Clancy: Support and Defend, Tom Clancy: Full Force and Effect, Tom Clancy: Commander in Chief, and Tom Clancy: True Faith and Allegiance.

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Mark Greaney

Greaney is also known for his Gray Man series of novels. These novels feature a disavowed CIA Agent who has become the best assassin for hire in the world, but one that holds to a moral code that prohibits him from killing “innocents” or good guys. You could hire him to kill your drug dealing rival, but not your ex-wife (unless she was a drug-dealing rival). As the novels progress, Court Gentry (the Gray Man) works out his differences with the CIA, but continues to hew to his own moral code even when it interferes with his agency missions. This usually means he is in a position where he is opposed by all of the competing parties in the novels, most of whom want him dead. Fortunately, the skill set and tenacity of the Gray Man allows him to walk–or at least limp–away at the end.

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There will never be another Tom Clancy. But in the world of high energy, world traveling, politically intriguing, death-dealing heroes, Mark Greaney fills the void.