June Mysteries 2020

June Mysteries

When two small-time grifters go big and walk away with $1.2 million from a gambling operation, they trigger a cavalcade of carnage.

A rip current of blood speeds through Brian Panowich’s third novel, “Hard Cash Valley” (Minotaur, $26.99, 304 pages), set mostly in the foothills of Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Atlanta-area residents Archie Blackwell and Bobby Turo think they’ve scored big, but both pay a heavy price. Archie’s is particularly horrific, as two Filipino men — gangster “Smoke” and psychopath “Fenn” — conspire to torture and kill him in a motel room in Jacksonville, Fla. — and then set his corpse ablaze.

That leads the FBI to contact the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which assigns former north Georgia fire chief and arson investigator Dane Kirby to the case. He partners with FBI agent Roselita Velasquez. And it’s not long until they learn that Smoke and Fenn are searching for Archie’s 11-year-old brother, William, a math savant who has Asperger’s syndrome.

The chase is on, the body count soars into double figures and betrayals abound as Panowich escalates the tension in this inspired thriller. He does so with breathtaking brutality, gritty and gifted prose and characters rendered with toughness and tenderness.

***

In October 1963, days before presidential assassinations in Saigon and Dallas and months before America’s military escalation, Vietnam was more than a squall but less than a hurricane in America’s psyche.

That’s the time in which “Play the Red Queen” (Soho Crime, $27.95, 360 pages), Juris Jurjevics’ third and final novel — he died in 2018 — takes place.

In Saigon, a beautiful young woman riding on the back of a scooter is dispatching U.S. Army officers with lethal marksmanship. After the third slaying, Staff Sgt. Ellsworth Miser and Sgt. Clovis Robeson are told to take over the investigation, find the killer and liquidate her.

They catch a break when they learn of Ba Van Tam, a Viet Cong deserter who might have information on the assassin’s identity. When they try to contact him, a South Vietnam prison official tells them he is dead.

But when they interview a U.S. officer in Da Nang, he reveals that in an early conversation with Tam, he learned that the next target of “Lady Death,” aka the “Red Queen,” is either America’s old fox, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, or the old American fox, U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge; the uncertainty stems from language confusion.

What follows is a thriller filled with a plethora of politics, clusters of corruption and tides of treachery. As Jurjevics heightens the intensity, he uses his experience as a Vietnam veteran to create a twist-filled story rich with authenticity, edgy prose and characters drawn with plausibility, precision and passion.

***

With distilleries, breweries and cideries proliferating in Piedmont Virginia, you might think stills would be passé.

You’d be wrong, although you surely wouldn’t expect to find human remains nearby.

But that’s what Crozet residents and best friends Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen and Susan Tucker discover while inspecting the timber tract they co-own in “Furmidable Foes” (Bantam, $28, 304 pages), the 29th entry in Rita Mae Brown’s series featuring the two women, their families and their neighbors.

And when Jeannie Cordle drops dead, the victim of a poisonous plant, at a fundraiser for an Albemarle County charity, Harry begins to ponder why anyone would want to kill Jeannie and whether something links the two deaths.

But that’s not all that Brown serves up in “Furmidable Foes.” She continues to alternate her tales between the events of the 21st century with related ones in the Crozet area in the 18th, with numerous subplots that chronicle the lives of white and black folks of that time.

As she does so, Brown, who lives near Greenfield in neighboring Nelson County, explores the connections that link the two eras. She peoples her intricate tale with familiar characters that she continues to develop while simultaneously introducing new ones that freshen the cast.

Jay Strafford, a retired Richmond Times-Dispatch editor and writer, now lives in Florida.

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