Play Dead: (Byrne & Balzano 4)

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Play Dead by Richard Montanari (Paperback, 2009)

Philadelphia homicide detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano's first assignment from the Cold Case files is the gruesome murder of a young girl in the Philadelphia Badlands, a bleak and desolate area of crime and depravity. Carefully posed, the lifeless girl is perfectly framed in a square window. Soon another Badlands runaway is found viciously murdered, this time arranged on the roof of a building shaped like a triangle. And as the victims add up, each body tells an increasingly grisly story. A seemingly unrelated crime scene leads Byrne and Balzano to an eccentric older woman who introduces them to a Tangram puzzle, an ancient code of shapes.

When the woman takes her own life, she leaves behind a cryptic clue, a word composed of four worn Scrabble tiles: LUDO, the Latin word for game. There is a foul breath of evil blowing through these murderous geometric puzzles and as more runaways vanish and more shapes are revealed, Byrne and Balzano soon realize that the homicidal mastermind plans to complete all seven forms of his dark and twisted Tangram puzzle.

I also understand why, when something works, why spoil it? So once again four stars for a great read. I'll come back to this series again in a few months. Nov 27, F. Let me begin with two points: 1. A lot of modern American thrillers read like a film script rendered into prose. The chapters are short, so that they cut quickly from one place of action to another, much as a movie would do.

Now I like books that are like books. I guess there's less scope for huge dramatic tension in the local handyman who kills opportunistically and relies on quite a bit of luck to not get caught. The modern fictional serial killer has a grand plan, wants to make himself world famous and until the very end leaves diligent, bright cops — who are hunting him remorselessly throughout — trailing in his wake. But I find, entertaining as it can be, that it just requires a greater deal of suspending disbelief. How is this man supporting himself through all of this? All very odd. An excellent police procedural involving sleight-of-hand magic and games.

The setting is familiar to me, so that was fun. The killer is the son of a magician who lives in an old mansion where he maintains a passion for puzzles and murder. All of the clues point to a puzzle maniac. Detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balazano are competent and what begins as the investigation of a cold case turns into a very hot one indeed. The gradual uncovering of geographical clues and fitting them together into a tangram was clever. It was also fun to recognize Philadelphia landmarks where I went to school.

The first nine-tenths of the book were really quite good, but much like chess where the endgame is usually the most difficult, the denouement left me slightly unsatisfied and felt rushed. Everything is tied together too neatly and unnecessarily in the last few pages. Nevertheless, I stayed up too late to finish this book. Whether I give 3 or 4 stars to a book I like often depends more on what time of day it is, if I have papers to grade, if the sun is shining, the outside temperature, if I've just eaten, etc.

May 14, Selina Trafford rated it really liked it. A really interesting and clever book. Based on a magician and his warped son. The devices used to murder were interesting and well thought out and the characters interacted well. I enjoyed this book. Great twist on Lilly, and the original Great Cygne Although, I was unhappy with the failure to tell us where the voice was coming from. A very good thriller, racing against the clock pun intended, read it and understand. I like Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano.

Add to that Richard Montanari's gruesome writing and I'm in heaven in reading terms. The duo are working cold cases and are assigned to the case of a girl sitting on a chair dead in a drinks can fridge, the sought that you buy your can of coke from in the local newsagent's.

The weird weirder part is there is no water on the premises and the cause of death was drowning. As often is the case with this author's books you know who the killer is right up front and here with have the son of a magician who is preying on young runaway girls. He sets puzzles for the police to solve after initially calling them to confess to the murder. A series of twists one early twist is superb and had me saying out loud "Wow I never saw that coming follows as the killer is dubbed The Collector by the media.

Play Dead by Richard Montanari - Hardcover

The puzzles continue and the body count rises all to the target of the seven magical stages. The race is on. My one gripe with the story is tangram puzzle the murders are based upon and the cops pretty quickly identify this as the key and way they will solve the case. Definitely buy it and read it, I'm sure that like me you'll love it. May 28, Daniel Cordero rated it liked it.

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Fourth book in the series because I wanted a fast and easy read. There are another four books in the series but this is probably the last one for me. They are all pretty much the same if you exchange the shtick of serial killer. This one has a fetish for magic tricks. There isn't much explanation for his psychopathy, the interactions between the two detectives is laconic and the string of coincidences is laughable. I'm just not enjoying the brain dead fun as much as I should. Part of it is that Fourth book in the series because I wanted a fast and easy read. Part of it is that it is difficult to turn off my critical brain even with the lighter fare which feels less like a Caesar salad and more like low hanging fruit.

I even thought of a better ending which the author might have gone with but it was executed better in the Prestige or Koontz's Whispers. At any rate, I don't want to bag on a book that gave me a nice reprieve from a string of kind of depressing books but I will have to endeavor to find a better balance that entertains yet provokes thought. At first unique, the device has become overdone and frequently ineffective.

It's almost the easy way out for an author to create a despicable character who does horrendous things and call that a mystery. As a result, I've become pretty turned off by the whole serial killer thing. Therefore, you can imagine my dismay when I picked up Badlands and found the Prologue to be told from the point of view of a serial killer. Not a very promising start for me—but I'm pleased to say that my initial negative reaction was quickly overcome once the narrative progressed.

Yes, there is a serial killer; but he has a rather interesting background.

Game of the Century - Bobby Fischer vs Donald Byrne - New York (1956)

There is no psycho mother at play here; well, there is the father…. Philadelphia police detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano have a new assignment, the cold case squad. Their first case is a real puzzler. Two years earlier, a runaway named Caitlin O'Riordan was found in the basement of a tenement. The cause of death was drowning, but there was no water nearby. It seems destined to remain a cold case until a tip comes in on the police hotline; suddenly, the team is engulfed in a group of cases involving teenaged runaways killed in bizarre ways.

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The reader learns about the murderer long before the police do. Joseph Swann is a man who is obsessed with puzzles. His father, Karl, was a magician who ended his career in disgrace. Swann is attempting to perform a feat known as the "Seven Wonders". Essentially, that is a series of seven magic tricks each of which end in the death of his hand-chosen assistant. Thankfully, the gore is implied and off stage. Swann has a knack for disguising himself and acting in ways that gain the trust of his victims.

He even fools Jessica. His big mistake is in choosing a victim who has more to her than his usual choices. Although some parts of the book were a little over the top, most notably the layout of the home where Swann lived and the ease with which he killed his victims, the plot was quite believable. I did find it overly fortuitious that a member of the police investigative unit found a site where videos of the murders were posted—that felt like a cheat to me. The best part of the book was not dealing with the crimes or the ultimate resolution; it was the portrayal of the professional relationship between Byrne and Balzano.

In addition to being partners, they are caring friends. Although not perfect, I did enjoy the book.

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Part police procedural and part thriller, it kept me turning the pages. May 13, Piroska rated it really liked it. This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.


  1. Publication Order of Jessica Balzano/Kevin Byrne Books;
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It rarely happens that a writer gives up his usual recipe for a crime series, but here it is! I liked that we knew who the killer was pretty soon, that the end was not solved by the heroes and that the main characters and their families were left out of the endgame. I only missed Victoria from the previous books, I liked her. Byrne and Balzano catch the case of teenage runaways girls who turn up dead. The newspapers have dubbed this madman, "The Collector".

The Collector has kidnapped several runaways and one by one they turn up being murdered in a gruesome manner. Byrne and Balzano soon discove "Badlands" by Richard Montanari is the fourth installment featuring the detective team of Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano. Byrne and Balzano soon discover the Collector is creating a puzzle within the badlands leaving his victims as clues to his horrific scheme.

With each girl turning up violently murdered, more cops get added onto the case. This is a very intense and suspenseful story line to say the least. Having worked in the badlands for several years myself, the graphic crimes and locations really hit home for me. Author Montanari has put together a very good detective team with Byrne and Balzano. With each passing book they are becoming like one very good detective that has skills of each.

The chemistry is so much more evident here in the fourth book.

Some very good dialog, especially from the Collector really adds a strong plus for this story line. I've really enjoyed all four of these books in the series so far. Montanari has really captured the flavor and idiosyncrasy of Philadelphia's neighborhoods.


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  • This is a 5 star out of a possible 5 stars for sure. Pick up this series, you surely will not be sorry. Especially if you live or grew up in the Philadelphia area. Play Dead by Richard Montanari is the fourth book in the Byrne and Balzano series of crime novels but is the first that I have had the privilege of reading. When a man calls a Play Dead by Richard Montanari is the fourth book in the Byrne and Balzano series of crime novels but is the first that I have had the privilege of reading.

    When a man calls and confesses to police of the murder of the missing teenager a bizarre game is about to begin. This leads them to a second missing teenage murder victim who has been dismembered and her remains left in three boxes. A bizarre serial killer is on the loose who not only has a taste for murder but games, puzzles, magic and illusion who wants to put on a show that the world will remember! But even these hardened homicide veterans are chilled to the bone as a dormant murder case stirs to life - leading Byrne and Balzano into the dark heart of their city, their souls, and a psyche of pure evil.

    Months before, a teenage runaway's body was found in the desolate, dangerous North Philly district dubbed the Badlands. Dead runaways were no novelty on these mean streets, but the Caitlin O'Riordan case was different.

    Richard Montanari

    Her corpse was found in the basement of a rancid tenement apartment, the inexplicable cause of death: drowning. In the end, nothing was solved and the case was closed. Now a confession to the bizarre murder on the police tipline sends Byrne and Balzano rushing to make an arrest.

    But instead of a killer, they discover a ghastly scene: a jar containing human remains'"along with a cryptic clue leading to an unlikely witness.