Footsteps in the Dark anthology offers up some incredibly well-written mysteries by today’s masters. From Nicole Kimberling to Z.A. Maxfield, with so many more in between, this collection was just marvelous to read. I will give you a very brief rundown of each story with a mini-review and then end with some final thoughts on the overall group.
Entrée to Murder by Nicole Kimberling
When Drew Allison agrees to follow a friend to a small island town to open a new restaurant she inherited, little does he know that along the way murder will end up on the menu. His partner in the business, Samantha, had hired a bartender whose side business of dealing drugs captures Sam in its net and Drew watches as one wild party after hours leads to death. Now, under suspicion for the murder, Drew must convince one of the town’s deputies he isn’t the one who did the deed, while he slowly is falling for the guy.
I loved Mac; he was slow to anger, gentle, and deep—a very thoughtful giant of a man who everyone underestimated, including Drew. He was the perfect foil for Drew, who often jumped to conclusion and never seemed to get that he was in mortal danger despite Mac constantly trying to tell him he was. The cast of side characters, Lionel and Evelyn, in particular, provided the comedic spots that kept this story from becoming too dark and intense. Instead, there was this perfect mix of comedy and tragedy with just a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. The ending of this novel caught me completely by surprise and I love that—so often mysteries are too transparent or easily solved, but not this one—it kept me guessing to the end. Entrée to Murder was a perfect way to start this anthology and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Twelve Seconds by Meg Perry
Justin loves his job reporting on anything and everything relating to space exploration and the rockets that take people there. When two companies merge to set off a rocket carrying a mysterious payload, Justin covers the event for his newspaper. What should have been fairly routine becomes a dangerous mission when a phone call takes Justin out in the middle of the night to meet an informant who says he has a secret to tell relating to the upcoming mission. The man never shows and the next day more than the rocket explodes when a body is found within the debris field. The next thing Justin knows, Special Agent Greg Marcotte is knocking on his door, asking questions and then asking him out. The two put their heads together to solve the crime and try to discover what the rocket was carrying.
Meg Perry is a new author for me but I expect I will be watching for any future work since this story was quite satisfying. While there was no great sense of danger involved, it was still nice to watch two older gentlemen date each other and find common interests. I loved the idea that Justin was not physically fit—he wasn’t obese by any means, but compared to Greg, he was definitely not in top form. Greg was mature enough to look for the inner man and not necessarily focus on the outer—although Justin’s eyes captivated Greg from the start. I liked the easy way these two men fell into a new relationship with each other. Both had had long-term partners before and both were at a time in their life where they were looking for more than just sex. The author built a great deal of conversation and time spent getting to know one another into the story, which made their attraction to each other even more realistic. Overall, this was a neat little story with interesting characters—not a lot of action, but still a pleasant read.
Reality Bites by S.C. Wynne
Take one reality show featuring participants who place themselves in dangerous situations with wild animals, one killer determined to end the life of the show’s director, and one hardened detective who thinks very little of the rich and famous and you have a story that is perfect for Hollywood; unfortunately, it’s reality and Jax Thornburn’s life is in danger. Hollywood homicide detective Cabot Decker just wants to do his job, find the killer, and forget he ever met Jax, but the guy somehow worms his way under the cop’s skin and before long Decker is breaking every rule he’s ever had with not getting involved with a potential suspect.
S.C. Wynne offers up a bit of a whodunnit in her story, Reality Bites. While I liked the idea that Decker wasn’t swayed by all the glitz and glamour around him, I was taken aback by the lines I felt his character crossed in not really taking the job seriously right away. Thinking that a contestant getting literally eaten by a lion might be more of an animal control issue, when it becomes clear that Jax’s life is threatened, Decker continues his wisecracks and slightly offensive attitude toward the Hollywood director. This was definitely one of those cases where I never really got a feel for any real chemistry between the two lead characters and found myself focused more on the mystery and less on their attraction. Again, there were times when I felt Decker really didn’t quite act like a cop should or might have and so I really struggled with this story and getting into the snappy dialogue the writer was offering up. It may just be me, but I think this was one of the less satisfying stories in the anthology.
Blind Man’s Buff by L.B. Gregg
They are a motley crew, a few teachers, an EMT or two—nerds one and all and adrenaline junkies. Every Friday they get together and play a game—not a board game, but a physical one, like paintball or capture the flag. This time it is in the deserted, falling down mall at the edge of town. As usual, they lock their phones in the trunk of a car and set off in two teams to play. Then a body falls on Tommy—right after he and Jonah finally kiss. What began as a fun adventure turns into a nightmare with a crazed gunman on the loose and no way out of a mall that has turned from a spooky playground to a deadly prison.
I have long loved the work author L.B. Gregg has put out and Blind Man’s Buff is no exception. With Tommy, one of the teachers, narrating the story in an almost stream of consciousness style delivery, we are privy to every horrific moment this group of friends are running for their lives. With a sweet subplot featuring Tommy and Jonah finally admitting they like each other just in time to nearly be blown away by a madman, this story is nonstop action. It’s tense, exciting, and often funny despite most of it taking place in a creepy decaying mall and featuring an insane killer who has a trophy wall featuring everyone he has abducted before. I cannot begin to tell you how much I enjoyed this clever tale. Every character added just a little bit more to the story and were their own distinct person. Then there was Tommy who, despite the danger, took time to count the number of times Jonah held his hand—it was really so very sweet. Blind Man’s Buff is at the top of this collection for me.
A Country for Old Men by Dal Maclean
Escaping the man he loves, Calum Macleod returns home to the western isles of Scotland and a life filled with loneliness and denial. He simply cannot be gay—it is unacceptable to his staunchly religious parents and the community that raised him. But when a murder brings his ex back into his life, Calum is faced with the painful memories of how much he has allowed his life to change and wither. Now the past reaches out its hand to haunt Calum and the only question is can he be strong enough once again to turn away the man he loves.
Honestly, this anthology just gets better and better. Again a new to me author, Dal Maclean offers up A Country for Old Men, a murder mystery shrouded in the lore of a family history that will bring death to its door. My heart just wept for Calum and the life he is forcing himself to fit in to out of fear. His parents, while loving and kind, are deeply religious, leading Cal to believe that he could never ever let them know he is gay and so he denies that part of himself and leaves behind Adam, the man he loves. This was such a sweeping romance, an old fashioned last moment save with a climactic ending that had me cheering. Alongside this subplot was a taut and fast paced mystery that absolutely left me gob smacked when the killer was finally revealed. I loved this story and it was just marvelous from beginning to end.
Pepper the Crime Lab by Z.A. Maxfield
Lonnie likes order. As a chef and owner of his own restaurants, it has taken lots of hours and plenty of hard work to get where he is and all that has taken a toll on him physically, Recuperating and finally moved into his new apartment, little does Lonnie expect to have his second day in the building begin with discovering that his next door neighbor has been stabbed to death—with one of his knives. With the help of the ex-cop, Rick, Lonnie begins to piece together just who did the actually murder. Now if he can convince everyone else, including Rick, before the culprit exacts his revenge.
In Z.A. Maxfield’s Pepper the Crime Lab, we meet one determined chef who has never relied on anyone but himself for just about anything. With the intention of getting a designer dog that will look good but not demand much affection, Lonnie thinks he has everything worked out. If he can just follow his own hard and fast rules which include no fraternizing with neighbors lest the relationship end badly then he will do just fine. But Rick dings everyone of Lonnie’s bells and it’s so nice to finally have someone to lean on, especially since the horrific murder Lonnie discovered left him so shaken. The chemistry between Lonnie and Rick is palpable in this clever and witty little mystery/romance. I enjoyed watching Lonnie’s thoughts about keeping himself aloof and isolated began to change the more time he spent with the dog he ended up fostering and with the enigmatic Rick. This story pretty much flew off the page for me and was really very entertaining.
Lights. Camera. Murder. By C.S. Poe
When private investigator Rory Byrne is called out on another job, he never dreams it will be to infiltrate a Hollywood set and find the person who stole a script–not just any script, but apparently one with a potentially multi-million dollar idea for its basis. But if there’s one thing other than closing cases that Rory is known for it’s his ability to blend in on any job. The job is anything but easy as there are over a hundred potential suspects and so Rory begins the massive task of weeding out those who couldn’t have done the deed. When he meets the lead actor, Marion Roosevelt, Rory is shocked at how attracted he is to the man. Despite that, Rory uses his litmus test on Marion—if he discovers the man is lying, all bets are off, but while it’s obvious Marion is hiding something, a liar he’s not. Then a prime suspect ends up murdered and everything Rory hoped to be true about Marion is shaken to the core—could Marion have stolen the script and somehow know who the murderer is?
C.S. Poe gives up the second to last story in the anthology and sets it up much like a script might appear on page. With Rory finally realizing that his human lie detector skills have always provided an easy way to not let a relationship get too intense or have any real chance of lasting, his foundation is rocked to its core. Learning hard truths about yourself at the age of forty is never easy, but realizing that you have not really been living life because you are essentially commitment phobic is a huge pill to swallow. Good for Rory that he is ready not only to take his medicine, but make some changes and that’s where Marion comes in. There was a lovely flirty feel to the relationship that quickly built between Marion and Rory and it went hand in hand with Rory’s self-realization that he needed to start embracing the life he had slowly denied himself. When you coupled this romance with a pretty solid mystery, you have a winning combination and a very entertaining story.
Stranger in the House by Josh Lanyon
When Miles finds out his mother’s best friend, his godmother, has left him the bulk of her estate totaling over nine million dollars in assets, he can hardly believe it. After all, she was survived by two sons, one of whom, Linley, Miles has had a crush on since he was a young teenager. But several years before, Linley, a new and upcoming art dealer, had crushed Miles’ dreams of ever being a successful artist and so he turned to teaching instead. This inheritance means he can give it another try and not have to worry about whether he has to be successful enough to put food on the table, but instead just paint to his heart’s content. Now, if only he can survive seeing Linley again, as well as whoever he believes is stalking him in his new home.
Josh Lanyon gives us the last story in the anthology, Stranger in the House. With all the proper creepiness an old mansion can muster, Miles is positive he hears things every night—and his nightmares of someone stalking him with a huge knife don’t help. Between trying to decide if he will keep the house and slowly sell off the contents in order to live so he can focus on his painting, to having to meet the man he still harbors a crush on despite their last meeting being so extremely difficult, Miles feels as though he is spinning in circles.
While I enjoyed the mystery elements of this story, I was disappointed at both the incredibly neat ending and the way too soon (in my opinion) declarations of love. I just didn’t think the story needed to essentially create this amazing opportunity for Miles in the last few pages when it could have just ended with him still making the decision as to whether or not he would be keeping the house. I also felt the same about the sudden admissions both Miles and Linley make about having fallen in love almost immediately after seeing each other again. It just felt a bit contrived to me and, considering the story was pretty great to that point, I was unhappy to see it forced into giving more than a happy for now ending, which would have made more sense.
This anthology was really well written and highly entertaining. For any mystery lover, this is the book to have on the shelf. Because there were so many different themes addressed in the collection, I never felt that any of the stories lacked imagination. I am giving this anthology an overall rating of 4.5 stars. Footsteps in the Dark is a lovely group of stories by some top notch authors.