Denise Tiller,
Calculated Risk
(Timberwolf, 2000)

One of the criteria I use to evaluate a good mystery novel is how many times I put it down before I finish it. Calculated Risk was certainly successful in this department -- the few times reluctantly let the book out of my hands were to take in nourishment and go to work.

Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, Denise Tiller currently resides near Kansas. An actuary by trade and co-author of a leading actuarial textbook, Tiller has decided to leave the profession of "counting dead people" to focus on her writing.

When deciding on the principal character for her mystery novel, Tiller decided that the analytical, organized mind of an actuary would be the perfect personality to solve a complicated murder. Thus, the principal character in Calculated Risk, Liz Matthews, shares Tiller's love for numbers, and the formula works!

Liz is a professional, take-charge sort of woman who finds herself suddenly at the centre of a complex and intriguing mystery. Unable to ignore the allure of putting her problem-solving skills to use, and against the advice of her cop boyfriend Jack, she plunges headfirst into a murder investigation. I won't delve into the plot too much, as it is better left to the reader to discover. After encountering and befriending a rape victim, Liz vows to help find the perpetrator. In the process however, she finds instead a body, a mother whom she'd told everyone was dead, a sister she didn't know that she had, and difficulties in getting others to listen to her theories. As the story progresses, more bodies turn up, the list of suspects grows and Liz's life becomes more and more complex.

Tiller's characters are well developed and evoke empathy from the reader. Even the much-tattooed and pierced Viper manages to gain some sympathy and understanding. Much of this empathy is accomplished through Liz, whose open-minded and caring nature allows the reader to see both the positive and negative attributes to each of the characters. All of Tiller's characters are normal people with normal problems and dilemmas to face, not the sugar-coated versions of real people we sometimes find in works of fiction. Even Liz is not infallible, making the same mistakes in her reasoning as any person might be expected to do.

There is no shortage of action in this book. The plot is always moving and continuously evolving. Many subplots are intertwined, and even though the eventual solution to the murders is not incredibly surprising, there is much in the novel to keep the reader interested. There are many more mysteries to solve than just the rapes and murders.

There are only a couple of things in this book that I felt could have improved the overall read. With so much action going on, and the number of subplots and involvements, some of the issues are never resolved. Of course, this assumes that they should have been, where in fact, many of life's issues are never resolved. On occasion, I felt that some of the subplots could have been more developedl they seemed to just end without a reason. The other issue I had is the introduction of characters in the novel. A number of characters seem to jump out of nowhere, haphazardly appearing when they are needed to move the plot along. Although I don't necessarily disagree with this method -- it introduces the character as though the reader is eavesdropping on Liz's life -- at times it was a little confusing.

Overall, I felt the book to be an excellent first fiction novel for Tiller. It is a good, fast read, it kept me interested and made me think. There is a good measure of suspense, and the characters are likeable and realistic. The somewhat predictable plot meanders a bit at times, but it is an interesting journey. I believe that this book is to be the first in a series, and if the next book is equally as enjoyable as the first, Denise Tiller will be a name to look for in the future.

[ by Cheryl Turner ]

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