Thursday, November 15, 2018
Books

Jean Heller and Cheryl Hollon bring back engaging mystery series

Deuce Mora tries to stay out of trouble. Lucky for mystery fans, she rarely succeeds.

Burning Rage, the third novel about the Chicago newspaper columnist and reluctant sleuth by Jean Heller, kicks off with Mora getting a tip from Mark Hearst, an arson investigator for the state of Illinois and Special Forces veteran. He also happens to be her romantic partner, so the tip blurs ethical lines.

But when he tells her that the investigation of a major fire at an abandoned warehouse in the South Loop has revealed two charred human bodies, and that it might be linked to several earlier fires, her ears perk up. And when he adds that agents from the FBI and the National Security Agency turned up at the scene — hinting at terrorist ties — she tells us, “That’s when my news senses overwhelmed what little common sense I had left.”

That fire is just an introduction. An inept attempt to firebomb the iconic Water Tower makes Mora and the investigators think the arsonist might not be such a threat — until it’s followed by a huge and lethal blaze in the K-Town neighborhood. Chasing that story lands Mora amid an angry mob, and that won’t be the last time she barely escapes alive.

Heller was for many years an award-winning investigative reporter and editor for the then-St. Petersburg Times, the Associated Press and other news organizations, so she brings authenticity (and a classic curmudgeonly metro editor) to her novels about Mora. She also lived in Chicago for years, and Burning Rage offers a real sense of that city.

Burning Rage crackles with a fast-paced, suspenseful plot and benefits even more from Mora’s smart, wisecracking voice and sharp reporter’s eye.

• • •

The first four novels in the Webb’s Glass Shop Mysteries series were set in St. Petersburg, with the city rendered in such detail the books could serve as mini tours. Even the surname of Cheryl Hollon’s series character, Savannah Webb, is a piece of St. Petersburg history.

The fifth novel takes Webb out of her element and out to sea, literally. Webb solves crimes when they seem to fall in her lap; her real job is running a glass shop with classes in glass blowing and stained glass as well as studio space and sales.

In Shattered at Sea, Webb gets a last-minute offer to fill in as a glass-blowing instructor on a cruise ship sailing the Mediterranean. It’s an inviting opportunity, and on the way there she and her boyfriend, pub owner Edward Morris, can visit his parents in England before boarding the ship in Barcelona.

The family visit introduces Webb to Edward’s cousin Ian, a wild child who has just managed to finally graduate from college, after numerous fits and starts. As a graduation gift, he’s coming on the same cruise, although his abundant attitude and heavy drinking might not make him the greatest traveling companion.

Also along for the cruise, Webb discovers (more happily), are the Rosenberg twins, Rachel and Faith, retirees who are among her most devoted pupils back in Florida. She’s nonplussed to find that one of the other instructors she’ll be working with is recovering from a serious brain injury that swept away much of his memory, but she goes to work with her usual gusto.

The cruise turns dark, though, when Ian disappears. At first they think he has simply hooked up with another passenger, but after searching the vast ship it becomes apparent something serious has happened. Perhaps it was suicide — or perhaps Edward is involved.

Along with Webb’s investigative escapades, Hollon gives readers plenty of information about glass art (including a glossary) and about how cruise ships are run. The book also skips back occasionally to St. Petersburg and the employees holding down the fort at the glass shop, because there’s a bit of a mystery going on there as well.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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