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Monday, July 24, 2017


Editor: Lee Child  
Title: MatchUp
Genre: An anthology of thrillers: intense short stories that provoke heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation, anxiety, and nerve-wracking tension
Publisher:  Simon & Schuster


     In 2014, the anthology FaceOff paired branded writers who placed their iconic characters in the same short story. MatchUp takes this methodology one step further, with each match up having a male writer and a female writer. The book is being marketed with the tag line "The Battle of the Sexes Just Got Thrilling!"

     Preceding each story is an introduction written by Lee Child in which he explains the process the writing pairs used to partner up and construct a plot starring their very different characters. Some of the characters are so well known that they have their own Wikipedia pages, so if a character is pink-linked, you can click on it to go there for back-story details.

     I must confess that I don't read many traditional thrillers, but this tome has stories by Charlaine Harris, Christopher Rice, Lara Adrian, Lee Child, Diana Gabaldon, and Kathy Reichsall of whom I have read and enjoyedso my interest was piqued. All in all, this is a nice selection, although several do not have enough suspense, tension, and anxiety to be labeled as "thrillers."

   > Quality Ratings (Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down): In critiquing these stories, I took the definition of "thriller" quite literally (see the definition at the top of this post). A number of the stories were quite good, but not really thrillers. If the story does not have a "thumbs" icon, it is of average-to-good quality. Otherwise, look for these icons, which indicate the best (7 stories) and the worst (1 story) of the lot:


                         THE STORIES                          
Title: "Honor &..." 
Authors: Sandra Brown and C. J. Box
Characters: Lee Coburn (forest ranger) and Joe Picket (FBI agent)
Plot Summary: 
Joe Picket is on a remote mountainside in Wyoming doing a favor for the local game warden when he hears gunshots and stumbles across a dead man—shot between the eyes. When a scruffy-looking, gun-wielding man steps out of the woods and scares off Joe's horse, Joe is inclined to arrest him for murder. Then, unseen gunslingers higher up the mountain start shooting at both of them. What's going on? Will these two diverse personalities bond over their deadly predicament? 
The authors do a nice job of fleshing out their characters so that those unfamiliar with them are given enough details to understand their basic personalities. The story itself is kind of loosenot much tension or suspense. The only suspense is which man's plan will they use. Obviously, Picket and Coburn are more than capable of handling themselves when they are up against the losers who are the villains in this story, so the inevitable ending plays out in a rush. 

Title: "Footloose"

Authors: Val McDermid and Peter James
Characters: Tony Hill (police psychologist; criminal profiler) and Roy Grace (police detective)
Plot Summary: 
In this British police procedural, Tony is working on a case involving a young woman's footless body, and Roy is trying to find the female whose feet were found in a Brighton dump. Although the feet and the body don't match, the crimes are connected. The plot moves from one man's investigation to the other as they work the case, but they never meet face to face.
Although foot-fetishism makes for an inventive criminal motive, this police procedural definitely has no "thrill" to it. The two police departments do what they always do: follow the clues and track down the killer. The story has a thin plot with no true suspense, and the characters lack depth. If you (like me) are not already familiar with Tony and Roy, you won't find out much about them here. The ending is rushed and lacks excitement, surprise, and tension, although it does have some irony. And if you enjoy puns, you'll really enjoy the story's wealth of foot-related wordplay, beginning with the title.

Title: "Faking a Murderer"

Authors: Kathy Reichs and Lee Child
Characters: Temperance Brennan (forensic anthropologist) and Jack Reacher  (knight-errant, loner, mysterious stranger)
Plot Summary: 
     Just as Brennan completes a speech at a national conference for forensic anthropologists, two FBI agents haul her in for questioning about the murder of Jonathan Yeow, a reporter who is investigating one of Brennan's old cases from back in the 1980sthe death of a suspected spy named Calder Massee. Yeow was suffocated with a plastic bag that is covered with Brennan's fingerprints. Massee's family and friends have always contended that he was executed by a government assassin. Yeow reportedly had uncovered evidence that Brennan, who ruled the case a suicide, either erred in her findings or was coerced by the military into faking her final report. 

     Meanwhile, Reacher just happens to be hitchhiking through the area when he hears Calder Massee's name on a car radio and decides to ditch his ride and get involved. He is familiar with the circumstances surrounding Massee's death, which occurred while Reacher was still in the Army. Brennan and Reacher make a fine investigative team as they dig into Yeow's life and discover the real motive for his murder.

As expected, this is one of the top stories in the book because these two master writers managed to hit all the "thriller" marks in just 44 pages: anticipation (of how the relationship between Brennan and Reacher will develop); suspense (as to who really committed the murder, whether Brennan made a mistake in her earlier investigation of Massee's death, how she and Reacher will get along), tension (over Reacher's dangerous situation in the final scene); surprise (on learning the killer's true identity and what really happened to Massee); and excitement (in imagining what happens off the page between Reacher and Brennan after the tantalizingly suggestive ending). Going above and beyond, they also manage some well-layered character development, even for the minor characters. The Brennan-Reacher team-up is spectacularsomething that I never realized I wanted to see, but now that I have, I'd love to see more. What a great pair they make, both viewing the situation with cold logic, meticulous analysis, and scrupulous attention to detail. But they also make a delightful personal connection that the authors convey with just a few eye contacts and gestures as the duo Ubers their way around Washington, D.C., following the clues and tracking down the villains. It's a terrific story.

Title: "Past Prologue"

Authors: Diana Gabaldon and Steve Berry
Characters: Jamie Fraser (18th century Scottish hottie) and Cotton Malone (21st century American spy and Danish bookstore owner)
Plot Summary: in the world are Gabaldon and Berry going to fit Jamie and Cotton into the same short story? Well, they do it brilliantly in a way that seems quite natural. Cotton is in Scotland for an auction of ancient rare books (including three grimoires). He is having a fine timewearing a kilt, enjoying the company of his fellow book buyers, and sipping some fine single-malt Scotch. Then, one of the grimoires goes missing and Cotton has a run-in with a gun-toting thug. That's when things get really weird for Cotton. After suffering from a dizzy spell, the world looks different to him. He has a dangerous encounter with a beautiful but treacherous woman (fans of the OUTLANDERS series will recognize her), and then Jamie helps him out and asks for a favor. Will Cotton ever make it back to his 21st century life? What happened to the stolen grimoire? What favor does Jamie ask?
This is a terrific story with lots of thriller elements, particularly when Cotton is placed in jeopardy more than once and has to use his brilliant mind and eidetic memory to think his way to safety. The plot is a mix of contemporary schmoozing, shoot-um-up action, time travel, betrayal, and suspense. At the end, the authors work in a perfect twist involving the missing grimoire that loops the story back on itself. 

Title: "Rambo on Their Minds"
Authors: Gayle Lynds and David Morrell
Characters: Liz Sansborough (CIA psychologist) and Rambo (former U.S. Army Special Forces, PTSD sufferer, violent loner, star of fiction and films)
Plot Summary: 
Ten days before her wedding to Simon Childs, Liz Sansborough is kidnapped by Russian mobsters who force Simon to find a way to release one of their gang members who was swept up by the FBI the night before. Simon is an M16 operative on temporary assignment to the FBI's Russian Mafia task force. The plot follows Simon as he does what he's told; it also follows Liz in isolated captivity, supervised by a pair of vicious Russian cousins who punish her with fists and knives as they bicker over details of all the Rambo movies they have watched over and over again. (One of them used the movies to learn to speak English.) Of course, Liz and Simon are well-trained warriors, while the two cousins are not Rambo-esque by any stretch of the imagination (except their own). Will Simon and Liz, working separately, be able to resolve this dangerous situation before Liz suffers permanently disfiguring and/or disabling injuries? Who's the real Rambo in this story?
This is an inventive way to get Rambo into the story. Even though he doesn't appear in person, he's there in spirit, particularly for Liz. It's a brutal, suspense-filled story that will keep you on the edge of your seat, but the unexpected twist at the end doesn't quite ring true.

Title: "Short Story"

Authors: Karin Slaughter and Michael Koryta
Characters: Jeffrey Tolliver (police chief) and Joe Pritchard (retired cop)
Plot Summary: 
Downtown Helen, Georgia
Contrary to its title, this is the longest story (64 pages) in the anthologyactually, more a novella than a short story. It's also the best of the lot. Most of the action takes place in Helen, Georgia, a mountain village that is in the path of a record-breaking snowstorm. 
NOTE: In the story, Helen, Georgia, is described as an American version of an Alpine village, and that it true. Click HERE for more information.
The story takes place in 1993 so both Tolliver and Pritchard are very early in their law enforcement careers. Alsono cell phones, which isolates the characters in a manner that would be impossible today. Lincoln Perry tags along with Pritchard on this assignment when the partners are sent from Cleveland to Georgia to track down a Cleveland drug dealer who has turned up in Helen. When Tolliver (a hard-drinking party boy at this phase of his life) is robbed by the women he picked up in a bar and spent the night with, he chases her down an alley only to watch her fall dead from a gunshot. Almost immediately, the local police arrest him for her murder. Just as he gets out of jail (ten hours later), the Ohio detectives show up and the three of them work together to figure out the link between Pritchard's drug dealer and Tolliver's dead con-woman, because, of course, there definitely is a connection. Believe me, this plot has so many twists and turns that you'll never be able to predict what's going to happen next, the identity of the good and bad guys, or who's going to get the drop on whom.
The authors have constructed an engrossing, edgy thriller that will keep you tense with anticipation from its colorful beginning to its twisty ending. This is definitely the most complex and suspenseful plot in the book, and I kept hoping that it would never end. The characters are richly drawn, and the action is so compelling that it makes me want to read all of the books in both these series. As a bonus, I'm from Cleveland, so all of the Cleveland references (like street names and weather-related sarcasm) added some engaging realism.

Title: "Dig Here"
Authors: Charlaine Harris and Andrew Gross
Characters: Harper Connelly (finder of the dead) and Ty Hauck (former NYPD detective, now private security specialist)
Plot Summary: 
Stephanie Winters, a young American student has vanished in Alexandria, Egypt, and her wealthy family has hired the services of Ty's company as well as Harper Connelly. Naturally, Ty and their Egyptian police escort go through the whole disbelief scenario when Harper announces that she can find the dead and see their final moments of life, but Harper soon proves herself by locating some catacombs, so everyone settles down and believes in her abilities. In addition to Harper, Ty, and Inspector Honsi, Harper's step-brother/manager/lover, Tolliver, is also along to take care of Harper. Unfortunately, Tolliver has a bad salad experience and spends most of his time in his hotel bathroom. After picking up on some clues, Harper and Ty lead Honsi to a place she would never have thought to look. 
There isn't much suspense here, and the story doesn't exactly have a thriller edge to it, but it's a nice police procedural with a slight supernatural flavor. I have always enjoyed Harris' Harper Connelly books because Harper is such a straightforward, matter-of-fact young woman who has—after years of emotional turmoil—finally figured out how to accept her singular talent as a gift rather than a curse and to use it to help people. She has the logic, practicality, and work ethic of Temperance Brennan (particularly as portrayed on the TV series, Bones), and it's fun to watch the tentativeness and uneasiness of the nonbelievers who find themselves working with her. In any other anthology, this would be a fine story, but it doesn't qualify as a thriller.

Title: "Deserves to Be Dead"

Authors: Lisa Jackson and John Sandford
Characters: Regan Pescoli (police detective) and Virgil Flowers (investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension)
Plot Summary: 
This nail-biter takes place at a run-down fishing lodge near Grizzly Falls, Montana, where Pescoli works as a detective for the Sheriff's department. Flowers is on a fishing holiday with his friend Johnson Johnson (and no...that's not a typo). When the daughter of the lodge's owner finds her savings have been stolen, she asks Flowers to help, and his investigation leads him to a much more serious crime. These villains truly deserve the ultimate punishment. 
This is a fast-paced thriller that alternatively follows Pescoli as she pursues clues away from the lodge while Flowers and Johnson stick close to home and do some window peeping. Much of the suspense-filled action takes place at night in the darkness of the woods, so your pulse will be speeding up as Flowers and Johnson sneak around in the villain's back yard. Add in some explosions and a car chase and the excitement revs up some more. The ending is quite satisfying if you believe in the truth of the story's title.

Title: "Midnight Flame"
Authors: Lara Adrian and Christopher Rice
Characters: Lucan Thorne (vampire; leader of the Order) and Lilliane (eternally young supernatural being who can fulfill sexual desires with a mere touch)
Plot Summary: 
This is the only 100% supernatural story in the anthology. Lucan, leader of the Breeds, is walking on an isolated street in New Orleans one stormy night when he stumbles on a pair of thugs intent on mugging a young, beautiful woman carrying a briefcase. Just as he steps up to rescue her, she tosses her attackers aside with inhuman strength and shoots a spray of gold dust at them from her fingertips. At this point, Lucan is thinking, WTF? Still, he jumps into action, transforming into his fierce vampire form and helping the woman dispatch the attackers, only to be blindsided when a van pulls out of a side street and the driver videotapes the pair of them. This story takes place well before vampires were outed to the general public, so Lucan and Lilliane (who leads the Radiants) must find that man with the camera. I'm not going to fully explain what a Radiant is—just know that she was cursed with being immortal and forever young and she isn't happy about it. 
The thriller edge in this story appears in the early pages during the attack and later in the search for the unlucky photographer. During the attack, the level of anxiety for Lilliane's safety rises and then falls as soon as we realize the extent of Lilliane's powers. There is also a brief period of tension when we're not sure how Lilliane will react to Lucan's intervention. The authors provide just enough back-story for us to understand the motivations and feelings of the lead characters. 

Title: "Getaway"
Authors: Lisa Scottoline and Nelson DeMille
Characters: Bennie Rosato (Philadelphia trial lawyer) and John Corey (former NYPD homicide detective, former Anti-Terrorist Task Force Agent, currently on administrative leave from the Diplomatic Surveillance Group becauseonce againhe's been a bad boy)
Plot Summary: 
At a charity auction, Bennie and her boyfriend won a weekend at an upstate New York lakeside cabin deep in Adirondack State Park, but he's stuck in Philadelphia working on a case so city-girl Bennie is on her own in the woods with just her dog for company. Meanwhile, Corey is staying in the cabin next door, which belongs to a friend from his days with the NYPD. He's in trouble with his boss, estranged from his second wife, and having an affair with the undercover agent from the State Department who is supposed to keep an eye on him. It's October, so all of the other cabins are empty and the area is deserted. When Bennie goes into the deep woods looking for her dog, she stumbles across some suspicious goings on and needs help from Corey when the situation turns dangerous.
Is there such a thing as a fluffy thriller? Because that's how I'd describe this story. It does have a few anxious moments, but it relies on snark and banter for most of its essence. After Bennie's experience in the woods, I thought we had the makings of a suspense-filled adventure, but then everything fizzled out in an anticlimactic broment, leaving me with deep feelings of disappointment. Also a downer: the number of implausibilities in the plot.

Title: "Taking the Veil"

Authors: J. A. Jance and Eric Van Lustbauer
Characters: Ali Reynolds (ex-newscaster and security specialist) and Bravo Shaw (medieval scholar and cryptanalyst)
Plot Summary: 
When one of Bravo's team leaders is arrow-shot and tortured while hunting down an ancient artifact in the Arizona mountains, Bravo teams up with Ali to find the artifact before Bravo's enemies reach the scene. Just as in "Short Story," a blizzard complicates matters.
Lots of suspense here as the authors first take us back in time to 1601 when a Jesuit brother first hides the artifact in a cave, then fast forward to the present day when Bravo's people find the cave but then are ambushed, and finally to Bravo and Ali's snowy trip to that same cave and one final ambush. Even though the story is short (29 pages), Lustbauer manages to provide just enough of the Gnostic Observatine mythology that the story makes perfect sense. Adding salty Sister Anselm and wry butler, Leland, to the mix was a masterful touch that put a few touches of dry humor into an otherwise dark and dangerous thriller.

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