Mother Daughter Traitor Spy
Jean Gazis

Graduating from Hunter College in the spring of 1940, blonde, blue-eyed Veronica Grace seems to have it all. Her award-winning student journalism has won her a coveted publishing job and it looks like the world is her oyster, despite the wars raging in Europe and Asia.

But when Veronica makes a mistake that costs her her big break, she and her mother, Violet, leave Brooklyn to make a fresh start in Santa Monica, California. With Veronica on the cusp of independence, her mother, Violet, realizes that she, too, is about to embark on a new phase of life. Vi is a German American, the widow of a naval officer, and a wiz at sewing and embroidery.

Unable to land a newspaper job as a young woman without experience, Veronica takes on a typing job. Meanwhile, Violet’s embroidery catches the eye of a wealthy woman, who hires her to embellish a blouse with edelweiss flowers. The two women quickly discover that their employer and new friends are Nazi sympathizers, but the police and FBI are only interested in pursuing communists.

Veronica and Vi turn to a Navy buddy of the late Commander Grace, who puts them in touch with the leaders of a private intelligence operation dedicated to stopping American Nazi propagandists and saboteurs. As attractive women with German roots, Veronica and Vi are uniquely qualified to infiltrate the Los Angeles Nazi groups, which revolve around the Bund, a German social club.

Intrepid and brave, they don’t hesitate to take on the assignment; but the more they learn, the more they realize how truly sinister the groups are. Constantly playing the role of enthusiastically endorsing what they truly abhor takes a heavy toll, especially for Veronica.

Though fictionalized, their story is based on real people and events; the author provides details about each character’s real-life counterpart, a list of sources, and a historical note at the end of the book. Veronica and Vi are wonderful characters, and the supporting characters are nuanced and well-drawn.

The danger escalates as the Nazis’ plot unfolds, while the risks the women take ratchet up the suspense. The theme of patriotism for a diverse, democratic United States versus patriotism for a white, Christian, authoritarian America is sadly still very relevant today. Susan Elia MacNeal’s novel is not just a terrific read, it illuminates an aspect of World War II history that deserves to be more widely known.

Teri Duerr
2022-08-17 16:39:34
The Deal Goes Down
Kevin Burton Smith

Larry Beinhart’s elbows-out private eye Tony Casella (last seen over 20 years ago!) has always had a rather flexible set of ethics. Also rather portable, with exploits carrying him through “half a law degree from Yale,” the police academy, the corrections department, a stint as a Brooklyn-based gumshoe, and several years as an expat laundromat owner in the Swiss Alps (it’s complicated).

Pretty appropriate then, considering Beinhart is probably best known for penning the screenplay for Wag the Dog, the 1997 Clinton-era satire about assorted (and sordid) political “complications.”

Similar complications also rear their ugly heads in this fourth series entry, although it begins in an almost bucolic mood, with seventy-something Tony retired, long out of the shamus game and living in a ramshackle cabin at the very end of a dirt road somewhere up near Woodstock, New York. He’s very much the lion in winter, alone and still mourning the loss of his wife and son. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.

Then, on the Amtrak to New York City to attend a funeral of “another old friend gone,” he strikes up a seemingly random bar car conversation with wealthy and “reasonably attractive woman,” Maddie McMunchun, who Tony dutifully notes, “didn’t start out asking (me) to kill her husband.”

But eventually she’s making him an offer he can’t refuse, and Tony, much to his surprise (and certainly mine) agrees. The fact that his cabin is “36 hours from foreclosure” is an explanation, not an excuse, Tony assures us—although he himself doesn’t seem 100% convinced.

Beinhart has always been good at twists in character and plot and he has a gift for smart-ass observations and off-piste details, like noticing that the satin liner of an open casket was “glittering like a fishing lure.” Either you get it, or you don’t. But perhaps the most notable conceit (beyond the whole hero-agrees-to-kill-someone thing) is Beinhart’s decision to write himself into the narrative, as a casual acquaintance of Tony’s whom he keeps running into, and later seeks advice from.

Lord knows, Tony needs help from someone. He shows considerable savvy for a first-time hit man, at least initially, and he ruefully admits that “the idea of murder for money had made (him) come alive,” but the poor sap doesn’t even seem to notice the slick trap he’s waltzed into.

Complications ensue and wild characters abound, including an obnoxious Russian oligarch, a bookworm hooker who can pass for 14, and a painfully woke lawyer with dubious ambitions, in this defiantly off-kilter tale, deliciously laced with conspiratorial paranoia, slippery moral slopes, and humor of the darkest sort. A heady brew well worth savoring.

But don’t leave your glass unattended…

Teri Duerr
2022-08-17 17:17:55
My Book: Death in a Pale Hue
Susan Van Kirk

Artist Jill Madison takes on an art center renovation and unearths a mystery in the basement...

In 2020, I decided to begin a new mystery series. What was I thinking? Pandemic year. I was going nowhere and seeing no one. I could drive across my Downstate town of Monmouth, Illinois, in ten minutes. With so little creative stimulation, how could I produce a Spectacular Idea? The 10-minute drive worked, and my Spectacular Idea was sparked by a building. I found the heart of my new series in the Buchanan Center for the Arts, an 1870 building located one mile from my home. It became the setting for the Art Center Mysteries beginning with Death in a Pale Hue.

Although Monmouth’s population is only 9,900, the Buchanan Center serves an average of 16,600 patrons a year. It features a weaver’s guild, a senior group, gallery talks, outreach programs, book signings, classes, plays, and national juried exhibits. (Lots of plot possibilities!)

In 1870, the building was constructed in a former apple orchard and became a mercantile that sold everything from seeds to shoelaces, a law office, and a department store. The second floor was the first designated space for a people’s library in Illinois. Sadly, by the time it became an art center, it had sat dejected and vacant for 20 years. The Grace Buchanan Memorial Trust Fund bought it in 1988 and the art center was born.

When the current executive director, Kristyne Gilbert, took over Buchanan Center, the first floor looked like rolling ocean waves. If you set a marble at the edge of the second floor, it rolled to the middle, which had sunk six inches. Kristyne had no architecture or engineering experience, but she was a problem solver, with plenty of curiosity, a sharp brain, and a willingness to reach out for expert help.

For 1870, the Buchanan Center was an architectural marvel. A 53-foot steel beam spanned the first-floor ceiling from east to west. It connected three large columns down the middle of the building from the basement to the second-floor ceiling. The actual floors were suspended, attached to the columns with wood. But now, both floors needed reinforcement and lifting. With no building blueprints, Kristyne was working blind. She found an Iowa company that specialized in old buildings, and they decided to raise the floors a fraction of an inch over eight weeks until each floor was six inches higher. They would do this early in the morning so patrons could still visit the center.

The construction workers put metal plates near the columns to reinforce each floor. Then, they applied jacks to the columns and cranked them up slowly. Replacing wooden support beams in the basement was next. New underlayment straightened the first floor, so it was no longer rolling.

Death in a Pale Hue by Susan Van KirkMiraculously, it worked in real life, and so it would work in my new book.

In Death in a Pale Hue, oil painter Jill Madison returns home to Apple Grove after working in the Chicago art scene. Her confidence is at an all-time low, and her family is still processing the deaths of their parents six years earlier. Her two brothers are supportive and push Jill to succeed. Tom is a detective at the Apple Grove Police Department, and her other brother, Andy, owns a gift shop and specializes in partying. Their ringtones on Jill’s phone show their differences: Tom’s is the theme from Law and Order, and Andy’s is “Welcome to the Jungle.”

Jill’s art center board ranges from those who think she can do this job to those who think she can’t but they’re willing to let her try. Ivan F. Truelove III is her nemesis on the board, and, like an irritating gnat, he emails and texts her with micromanaging posts daily. Her first task is to make the new center safe. Like the executive director in real life, Jill hires a firm to begin in the basement. She hopes their plan to raise the floors will work.

And therein lies the problem.

It’s what they find in the basement…


Death in a Pale Hue, Susan Van Kirk, Level Best Books, June 2022

Teri Duerr
2022-08-18 20:22:47
Just the Facts: Nonfiction Books Reviewed
Pat H. Broeske

Welcome! This is my debut column. I’m excited to be on the case tracking nonfiction titles for Mystery Scene. My opener features works about Golden Age legends and a contemporary genre superstar, plus a pair of infamous murderers whose nearly century-old crime continues to warrant serious scrutiny.

Nothing but the NightNothing but the Night: Leopold & Loeb and the Truth Behind the Murder That Rocked 1920s America
by Greg King and Penny Wilson
St. Martin’s Press, September 2022, $29.99

Nothing but the Night: Leopold & Loeb and the Truth Behind the Murder That Rocked 1920s America
is a compelling examination of a 1924 kidnapping and murder that was so troubling, so perplexing, it altered the perception of crime and criminals.

The authors, who previously teamed for The Last Voyage of the Andrea Doria (2020), explore the complex Leopold-Loeb friendship, the machinations behind their crime, the ensuing investigation and trial, and its strange aftermath. Original source materials, including court records, were re-examined; modern forensics were applied.

Poor Bobby Franks, whose prize possession was a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth, had just finishing playing ball when he happened into view as the would-be kidnappers cruised an upscale neighborhood. No matter that the 14-year-old was Loeb’s second cousin.

Sons of affluence, college students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb carried out the brazen kidnapping and ensuing brutal murder simply for the thrill of it—then turned on each other during the trial that riveted their Chicago hometown.

Once arrested, the two became celebrities—giving breezy jailhouse interviews, and having outside meals and cigarettes delivered to their cells. If they were oblivious to the seriousness of the charges against them, their wealthy parents weren’t. They enlisted defense attorney Clarence Darrow.

For the first time, psychiatry played a role in a major trial. (At one point the Hearst newspaper attempted to coerce Sigmund Freud to attend and comment on the proceedings.) An array of “experts” dissected the defendants’ volatile relationship and their “perversions”—a code word for homosexuality. The media invited phrenologists and astrologers to weigh in.

Darrow’s grandstanding saved the duo from the death penalty, but the authors ably refute accounts that his closing argument was a masterwork of oratory. They also argue against the long-held theory that Loeb was the duo’s driving force. Following Loeb’s savage death in prison, Leopold literally rewrote history, granting interviews and producing an autobiography in which he pointed the finger at a man no longer able to counter his assertions.

A significant work about what was dubbed “the crime of the century”—a case that continues to resonate, having inspired countless TV shows, movies, and mystery title—Nothing but the Night will appeal to both serious students of crime, as well as true crime buffs.

Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive WomanAgatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman
by Lucy Worsley
Pegasus Crime, September 2022, $29.95

Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman reveals the whos and whys behind the queen of crime, a woman who hid her complexities beneath the guise of being ordinary. Imagine, when prompted to clarify her profession on official forms, Christie used to write “housewife.”

This engaging biography is exhaustively researched (the 30 pages of source notes are in teensy type) and appropriate for both fans and rookies alike. Popular British historian Lucy Worsley convincingly links Christie’s life events to the storylines and characters that made her a worldwide brand.

Some of the details of Christie’s life are familiar—including the time she spent working as a Red Cross volunteer in a hospital pharmacy during World War I (and later, World War II). No wonder she had knowledge of lethal toxins—or that they would inevitably permeate her works. (Of her 66 detective novels, 41 deal with a murder or attempted suicide by poisoning.) Previous biographies have also chronicled Christie’s two marriages, including her travels to and from Iraq with second husband-archaeologist Max Mallowan, who was 14 years younger.

But Worsley does more than move with Christie through early family turmoil, motherhood, the chapters of her writing career (the 1930s were Christie’s zenith), and pressures wrought by fame (including Christie’s controversial 1926 disappearance, which occurred not long after her first husband asked for a divorce). She assiduously underscores the constraints, challenges, and social mores of the time, providing context for Christie’s 85-year life.

Here and there Worsley sounds a bit like a tipsy fangirl—as when she calls the young Agatha “a total man-magnet”—but she doesn’t sidestep Christie’s flaws, personal and professional (e.g., Christie’s antisemitism led to her American publisher asking for revisions). Like one of the legendary mystery writer’s own well-crafted characters, Christie is ever-worthy of scrutiny—a total biographer-magnet.

The Science of Murder: The Forensics of Agatha ChristieThe Science of Murder: The Forensics of Agatha Christie
by Carla Valentine

Sourcebooks, May 2022, $16.99

Howdunit elements are the focus of The Science of Murder: The Forensics of Agatha Christie. Author Carla Valentine, a pathology technician who once worked as a mortician (and wrote about it in The Chick and the Dead), credits Christie’s works for her own love of forensics.

Christie was known to have read the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, who was a master of the art of detection. So did Dr. Edmond Locard, the French “criminalist” (aka forensic scientist) who formulated the theory that “every contact leaves a trace.” Did Christie also read Locard’s pioneering works? Her writings indicate more than a passing knowledge of forensics.

Valentine’s chapters on such essential tale-tellers as fingerprints, trace evidence, ballistics, and blood spatter highlight the topics’ appearances in Christie’s works, and discuss aspects of the science the mystery writer got correct and those she didn’t. Valentine then describes the evolution of the history of modern forensic disciplines.

Source materials include books and articles about Christie and forensics, including medical journals and Christie’s own writings—with myriad examples of the author’s clever use of evidence, such as a unique scent in the Hercule Poirot novel Lord Edgware Dies.

This analysis of forensics via Christie’s works is both shrewd and illuminating.

A Sherlock Holmes Notebook: A Cornucopia of SherlockaniaA Sherlock Holmes Notebook: A Cornucopia of Sherlockania
by Gary Lovisi
Stark House Press, May 2022, $15.95

A Sherlock Holmes Notebook: A Cornucopia of Sherlockania is a must-have for devoted fans. It will also appeal to pop culture buffs who want to know more about the vast reach of the famed resident of Baker Street.

The 22-article compilation celebrates Holmes collectables. The focus is on books, as well as materials such as playbills and photo cards. Just shy of 200 pages, the helpful compendium offers plenty of “Did you know?” data. It comes complete with photos (lots of book covers) of many of the materials.

Lovisi has written extensively about Holmes and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and was nominated for an Edgar for a Holmes short story—one of his own pastiches. Curious about others? Those covered in this book include Sherlock Holmes in Dallas (1980) by Edmund Aubrey (yes, it’s about what transpired in 1963) and Daniel Stashower’s The Adventure of the Ectoplasmic Man (1985), which has Holmes working with Houdini—an apt collaboration, considering that Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini knew each another.

In addition to The Great Detective, other Doyle creations warrant attention. The piece on Professor George Edward Challenger of The Lost World showcases print memorabilia from the 1924 silent film adaptation. Another article is devoted to Doyle’s hardboiled Pinkerton man, Birdy Edwards, who predated the tough guy PI’s unleashed by Hammett and Chandler.

A look at the Holmes titles published from 1895 to 1920 by Tauchnitz, which were known for their non-illustrative covers, details the company’s role in the evolution of the mass market paperback. Another piece spotlights picture cards that were packaged with chocolates from a Spanish Barcelona candymaker more than 80 years ago. Yes, there are photos of them.

This lively and authoritative survey could lead Holmes buffs to seek out some of the referenced titles. The Giant Rat of Sumatra, anyone?

James PattersonJames Patterson
by James Patterson
Little, Brown and Company, June 2022, $29

Last but far from least—because, as he likes to remind, he’s the world’s bestselling author—there’s James Patterson, a memoir that will appeal to avid readers of the author’s multitudinous titles, including his mystery-crime and thrillers.

Written in Patterson’s trademark style—short, conversational sentences within short, breezy paragraphs—the book’s concise chapters aren’t always chronological and there’s some repetition as the author reveals how he came to be so… James Patterson.

Among the book’s snapshots and musings: His grandmother used to say, “Hungry dogs run faster.” While attending Vanderbilt University he had long hair, a beard, and wore bell bottoms and flip-flops. At a literary soiree he once saw Norman Mailer and James Baldwin get into a physical altercation.

As for his working habits, Patterson keeps a file titled IDEAS and considers five to six ideas per book, then opts for one or two. He outlines, doing 50 to 80 pages a book, and at least four drafts using a No. 2 pencil.

He isn’t thrilled with Hollywood’s adaptations of his works and makes no apologies for working with (his many) coauthors. He is passionate about the need for kids to learn to read and backs up that crusade with his participation (including financial) in various literacy programs. For that, alone, Patterson deserves his fame. l

Pat H. Broeske is a lifelong mystery devotee and reviewer whose own crime fiction was recently published in Black Cat Weekly. The coauthor of bestselling biographies of Howard Hughes and Elvis Presley, she is a former Hollywood journalist and producer of reality-based true crime TV. A Southern California native, she lives in Orange County where she teaches film analysis for a community college.

Teri Duerr
2022-08-19 15:26:37
Daisy Darker
Robert Allen Papinchak

It’s revenge with a vengeance during a stormy, dreary Halloween Eve in Alice Feeney’s engrossing suspense thriller Daisy Darker, a tale with a large dose of Agatha Christie, a dash of Stephen King, and a smidgen of Edgar Allan Poe.

When the dysfunctional Darker family gathers for matriarch Nana’s 80th birthday party at Seaglass, her isolated Victorian home situated on a private island off England’s Cornish coast where it is accessible only at low tide, death visits on the hour, each crime marked by Nana’s hallway of clocks—80 of them that chime and cuckoo at the same time.

A palm reader at a fair in Land’s End once told Nana (aka Beatrice Darker) she would not live beyond 80, so she has invited her son Frank, his ex-wife Nancy (together jokingly referred to as the Sinatras), their daughters Rose, Lily, and Daisy, and granddaughter Trixie for the last hurrah.

She has also asked blonde, blue-eyed Conor Kennedy, a childhood neighbor whom the daughters once had crushes on and who is now a BBC crime correspondent, to join the celebration. No one wants to be there, but they are all living off the royalties of Nana’s international bestselling children’s book Daisy Darker’s Little Secret, and dutifully attend.

The mood darkens further after Nana unexpectedly reads her bombshell of a last will and testament. She leaves her son the clocks (to remind him to use his time wisely), and a drinks trolley goes to heavy drinker Nancy. Rose gets unpublished artwork and brushes (to “paint a happier future for yourself”), a collection of mirrors goes to Lily (“in hope that you might see what you’ve become”), and a “sizeable sum” for favorite charities goes to Daisy. She leaves the biggest bequest for last. Nana inherited Seaglass from her mother, whose dying wish was that the house “would always belong to women.” Nana surprisingly bypasses her daughters and leaves it to Trixie.

That’s at 9:45 pm. By midnight, Trixie discovers Nana (shades of Clue) bludgeoned in the kitchen. A terrifying rhyme predicting future deaths has replaced recipes and sketches on the kitchen’s chalkboard wall. Successive family members are unceremoniously poisoned and shot (in the music room, the garden, the lounge) as the tide slowly rolls out.

During those murderous hours, more secrets are exposed, some through a series of old home movies on VHS tapes with imperative notes to “WATCH ME. HEAR ME. NOTICE ME. SEE ME.” Motives for past grievances are revealed; seems grief, jealousy, and guilt can last a lifetime. Before it’s all neatly tied up in red ribbons and everything is revealed, including the shocking truth about what happened on a “night to remember,” Alice Feeney delivers an atmospherically cinematic novel where almost nothing is what it seems and that fans of authors like Anita Shreve, Sarah Pinborough, and Louise Candlish will relish as they fiendishly delight in the fall of the House of Darker.

Teri Duerr
2022-08-22 13:55:17
Robert Allen Papinchak

New age empowerment goes awry quickly as psychic slips into psycho in Kismet, Amina Akhtar’s second novel, a Hitchcockian horror thriller set in the red canyons of Sedona, Arizona.

When lifelong Queens, New York, resident Ronnie “Rania” Khan, of Pakistani descent, leaves her abusive and controlling Auntie Shehaam Khala for the deserts of the Southwest with her new BFF Marley Dewhurst, little does she realize that she could be trading one toxic relationship for another.

Marley, who fashions herself a healer goddess, paints an imagined, blissful world of hikes, smoothies, and “adaptogens” (in short, plants and mushrooms that “help the body respond to stress, anxiety, fatigue, and overall well-being”—the stuff of Sedona). But Ronnie and Marley have barely begun their first early morning hike near the landmark sandstone arch known as Devil’s Bridge, when they stumble upon a severed head (and it’s not the last bodily remains they will encounter). Paradise quickly mutates into a threatening nest of rattlesnakes, scorpions, javelinas, spiders, and a conspiracy of ravens.

The first red flag are those ravens. Occupants also in Ronnie’s nightmares, the birds’ cacophonous community chorus functions as prophetic voice, alerting her to upcoming murders.

But they aren’t the only strange birds in Kismet.

There’s also twin sisters Brit and Star, who own BritStar Crystals, a gathering spot for townies and tourists seeking comfort and confirmation through tarot readings and calming gemstones. They offer a budding friendship to Ronnie that leads her to work in their shop.

Then there’s the titular Kismet Center itself, a “one-stop wellness-o-rama place” that Marley agonizingly wants to be part of. She desperately seeks the good graces of its founder, Lorraine.

Fate and destiny—as the title suggests—may have brought Ronnie and Marley to Sedona, but gruesome serial murders motivated by jealousy, betrayal, revenge, and long-buried secrets will determine the arc of their blood-soaked friendship. No one will go untouched by the evil that lurks in the supposedly tranquil but terrifying beauty of the desert.

Astute readers may have whodunit all figured out before the revelatory conclusion, but Kismet is an entertaining tale that should appeal to fans of writers such as Liane Moriarty and Stephanie Wrobel.

Teri Duerr
2022-08-22 14:00:07
My Books: To Kingdom Come

Claudia Reiss

About a year and a half ago, I came across an intriguing reference to the Benin Bronzes in a newspaper article. It sparked an idea for an art history mystery.

First thing I did was order a copy of Stuart Butler’s Benin: The Bradt Travel Guide. When it arrived from Amazon two days later, I dug right in. I was reading some fascinating material on Benin’s culture and had just embarked on the section entitled “Practical Information,” when, on page 38, the following highlighted notice hit me like a pie in the face:

BENIN AND THOSE BRONZES I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news, but if your chief reason for visiting Benin is to see the homeland of the famous Benin Bronzes then you had better cancel that ticket because you’ve got the wrong country.

I was humiliated, but not defeated. After all, the notice itself was an indication I was not alone in my ignorance and, as I discovered, like misery, it loves company. I was determined to educate myself on the subject, both for the sake of my potential story and, I would like to think more so, as a matter of conscience. I read the reviews of books written on the Kingdom of Benin (in modern-day Nigeria!) and, more specifically, on the British “punitive expedition” of 1897, during which thousands of artworks and artifacts were seized from Benin City, a few in retaliation for an aggressive action that had occurred about a month earlier. Dan Hicks’ The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, appeared to be the most comprehensive coverage of the event and its surrounding history. I started my education with the Hicks book, and the sentence of his that most succinctly summed up the event and got my blood boiling was this:

To Kingdom Come by Claudia RiessThe sacking of Benin City in February 1897 was an attack on human life, on culture, on belief, on art, and on sovereignty.

It took a while to drum up the courage to begin writing To Kingdom Come, the fourth book in my art history mystery series featuring amateur sleuths Erika Shawn, art magazine editor, and Harrison Wheatley, art history professor, here caught up in a multiple murder case involving the repatriation of African art and artifacts looted during the late 19th century. I took notes, made outlines, read some more, procrastinated. I was afraid of either being accused of exploiting or trivializing the subject. Especially in these understandably sensitive times, when writers engaged in the intimacy of fiction are apt to be criticized for stepping outside their lanes—race, religion, social status, cultural heritage.

I asked myself how I’d feel if the tables were turned, if a fictional writer for whom the Holocaust is not directly related to their history—part of who they are—were to create a story in which the Holocaust is a pivotal plot point. I answered that provided they’re mindful of the sensibilities of others, it’s fine—welcome, really.

Anyway, as fellow humans, aren’t our histories from a broader perspective integrated, the divisions of “otherness” blurred? In the end, I decided it’s possible to preserve the sanctity of a group’s heritage without its becoming sacrosanct. We buy travel guides, we visit foreign lands, we read history books and memoirs, and write fiction. Why else if not to reach beyond our own frontiers in the hope of understanding what to others is familiar ground?

To Kingdom Come, Claudia Riess, Level Best Books, May 2022, $16.95

Teri Duerr
2022-08-24 20:57:51
2022 Bouchercon Anthony Award Winners
Mystery Scene

Bouchercon 2022

This year's Anthony Award winners for best in crime and mystery fiction were announced Saturday, September 10, at Bouchercon 2022: Land of 10,000 Thrills, held in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was another year of wonderful mysteries. Congratulations to all the winners (highlighted in bold).

Razorblade Tears by S. A. Cosby (WINNER)  
Runner by Tracy Clark
The Collective by Alison Gaylin
Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara
These Toxic Things by Rachel Howzell Hall

Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala (WINNER)
Her Name is Knight by Yasmin Angoe
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Walking Through Needles by Heather Levy
All Her Little Secrets by Wanda M. Morris

Bloodline by Jess Lourey (WINNER)
The Ninja Betrayed by Tori Eldridge
Warn Me When It’s Time by Cheryl A. Head
Bury Me In Shadows by Greg Herren
The Mother Next Door by Tara Laskowski
This Time for Sure: Bouchercon Anthology 2021, edited by Hank Phillippi Ryan (WINNER)
Under the Thumb by S.A. Cosby
Midnight Hour: A Chilling Anthology of Crime Fiction from 20 Authors of Color by Abby L. VanDiver
Trouble No More: Crime Fiction Inspired by Southern Rock and Blues by Mark Westmoreland
When a Stranger Comes to Town by Michael Koryta

“Not My Cross to Bear” by S.A. Cosby (WINNER)
“The Search for Eric Garcia” by E.A. Aymar
“The Vermeer Conspiracy” by V.M. Burns
“Lucky Thirteen” by Tracy Clark
“Doc’s At Midnight” by Richie Navarez
“The Locked Room Library” by Gigi Pandian
“Burnt Ends” by Gabriel Valijan

How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America edited by Lee Child & Laurie R. King (WINNER)
The Combat Zone: Murder, Race, and Boston’s Struggle for Justice by Jan Brogan
Murder Book: A Graphic Memoir of a True Crime Obsession by Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell
Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York by Elon Green
The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale

I Play One on TV by Alan Orloff (WINNER)
Cold Blooded Myrtle by Elizabeth Bunce
Bury Me In Shadows by Greg Herren
The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur
Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche by Nancy Springer

Teri Duerr
2022-09-13 18:00:39
Hank Wagner

Lilian Donaldson is, in a word, stressed. Having recently given birth to a daughter, she’s as anxious, if not more, than any new parent. She’s also recently lost her parents under tragic circumstances and experienced a bump in her medical career, having botched a diagnosis in spite of observing what she sees in hindsight as some obvious symptoms.

So, when her estranged younger sister Rosie invites her to dinner, wanting to discuss what she labels as a life and death matter, she is somewhat reluctant to meet with her, for fear of opening old wounds. Nevertheless, she agrees. Any reconciliation that might have occurred is delayed, as Rosie and Lilian are involved in an automobile accident on the way to the restaurant before they can discuss the mysterious matter. Rosie is severely injured and seems to have lost her memory. She doesn't recognize her sister or her fiancé. Curious as to what Rosie was going to tell her, Lilian starts to dig into her sister’s recent past.

What she finds only leads to more questions and the suspicion that their car crash may have been engineered by someone out to get Rosie. It's truly been a month for promising, well-written debuts, as that’s all that seems to have been coming across my desk lately. Imposter is no exception, delivering suspense and intrigue in copious amounts. The book’s title conceals hidden depths, as, besides exploring deceit, marriage, dysfunctional families, motherhood, and sisterhood, it also considers phenomena such as identity, imposter syndrome, and Capgras delusion, a condition in which patients become convinced that someone close to them has been replaced with an exact duplicate. Truly fascinating stuff.

Teri Duerr
2022-09-13 18:31:40
Vanessa Riley on Writing a Black Woman in Regency England
Robin Agnew

Vanessa Riley "There were 10,000 to 20,000 Blacks living in London during the time of Jane Austen. [A person] would have been more likely to see a person of color on the streets, serving in homes, or running businesses, than [they would be] to bump into one of the 28 dukes of the period."

Vanessa Riley’s Murder in Westminster is the first in a new series set in Regency London. The central character, Lady Abigail Worthing, is a smart, headstrong, woman married to a high-level naval officer and like many heroines before her seems uninterested in following all of society's rules. Unlike many before her, though, she's also a mixed-race Black woman. Fans of the genre will find much to enjoy in Riley's well-constructed mystery and its sparkling main character. Murder in Westminster is not only a standout, but a really fun read.

Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: I loved that you made the main character Black. Just that one twist in perspective brings so much richness to the story and such a different way of seeing the world. Seems obvious and simple, but sometimes those things are the hardest. Can you talk about creating Abigail?

Vanessa Riley: Creating Abigail was so much fun. Having a Black character run toward the danger instead of away is liberating and very different from what I would do in real life. I'd be out of there. But Abigail takes her fears of being misunderstood or even scapegoated with her, heading to the danger in ways I think the audience will enjoy. They will go along with her on the adventure.

You've written historical fiction and romance before, but this is also a true mystery. Are you a fan of historical mystery fiction?

I am a big mystery fan, and I adore Sherry Thomas and Deanna Raybourn. They bring fun and danger and history to every page. Yet I also love Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins mysteries. The way we get to do life with Mosley's characters while a mystery is being solved offers readers a version of the world that's unexpected. This is what I want to do with Lady Worthing—deliver the unexpected while learning about London through her brown eyes.

How much research did you have to do? And what was the most surprising thing you discovered?

I do an incredible amount of research for every book. With this series, I did a deep dive into abolition politics. I found it fascinating that when Haiti became free in 1806, all the abolition movements around the world stopped. The legends of progressive fights like [William] Wilberforce were stumped. They didn't know how to get things going again. Dropping Abigail into the middle of this perfect storm is a history lover's delight.

I thought it was interesting that Abigail has second sight. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Both Scots and Jamaicans are known to have second sight, the ability to know things about the future. It's a complication that may or may not become important as we learn more about her.

How common would Abigail's type of marriage to an officer be in this time period? I saw some Facebook chatter recently that Jane Austen would never have encountered a Black person, but that’s obviously not true. What is the history of Black people in England and London at the time?

There were 10,000 to 20,000 Blacks living in London during the time of Jane Austen. [You] would have been more likely to see a person of color on the streets, serving in homes, or running businesses, than [you would be] to bump into one of the 28 dukes of the period. Yes, fiction loves for readers to believe there were 10,000 hot dukes running rampant in London. Alas, there were only 28, and just two were hot.

Fiction is fiction for a reason. We want to be entertained. We want costume accuracy, but we should also allow room for everyone to be entertained and included in the fantasy. Mix-race couplings were common in the West Indies. Mix-race and Black children were sent to schools in England, Ireland, and Scotland for education.

A wealthy planter's daughter, the mulatto Miss Lambe, the wealthiest woman in Jane Austen's Sanditon, was sought after for marriage. Since Austen's father had friends who owned plantations in the Caribbean, I'm sure she saw 'Miss Lambe' in church and social outings. Austen often wrote about real people. Yes, there was a Mr. Darcy. I'm fairly certain Miss Lambe was someone she met.

I also wondered about all the time Abigail spends alone since her husband is off at sea, and how that will affect their dynamic. Will he be making any appearances in future books?

Abigail married young but did so, seizing an opportunity to advance herself and save her family. She didn't realize it would cost her so much, but she has a dedicated staff, an adoring cousin, and childhood friends to keep her from being lonely. James Monroe, Lord Worthing, will make appearances as the series progresses. We will have to keep reading to see if he is a good guy, a villain, or something in between.

I love your prose style. It’s really lovely. What literary influences or specific books have affected your writing?

Austen's wit is something I strive for in writing. Maya Angelou has rhythm in her lyrics. I adore this. Octavia Butler brings drama and the unexpected. Danielle Steele is the queen of family sagas. I want the Lady Worthing series to give all of this to the readers.

Do you have a story arc in mind for Abigail as the series progresses?

Yes. The first book is the series promise. As we journey with Abigail, we'll watch her find herself and learn how to best use her privilege and her gifts. We'll get answers about her husband, family, and friends. She will have to deal with harsh truths and big failings. How do you control a gift like second sight when it drove your mother crazy? How do you deal with loving the wrong man? How do you keep going when the politics of the day are against you because you're a woman and Black?

Finally, what’s next, another mystery? Or a straight historical novel? I hope this is a long series!

I'm revising the next historical fiction. It's about the life of a forgotten queen. Also, I'm drafting the next murder mystery, Murder in Drury Lane. I want the Lady Worthing Mysteries to be a long series, like 30 books.

Fascinated by the Regency and early Victorian eras, Vanessa Riley made time for renaissance fairs, and period novels and films while obtaining her PhD in mechanical engineering from Stanford University. She is a member of Romance Writers of America, Specialty RWA Chapters: The Beaumonde, and the Georgia Chapters, as well as the Historical Novel Society. Vanessa also juggles her military hubby, mothering a teen, and speaking at women's events.

Teri Duerr
2022-09-13 19:39:31
Killers of a Certain Age
Vanessa Orr

Not every retirement is peaceful, which is something that four female assassins, now all in their sixties, discover when their previous employer decides to have them terminated. Though Billie, Mary Alice, Helen, and Natalie have no idea why they are being targeted, they aren’t ready to meet their maker just yet, and they jump back into action in a kill-or-be-killed battle with their former coworkers and the men who have marked them for death.

While their killer instincts are still sharp, being an assassin at age 60 comes with a unique set of challenges, including old knees, suspicious spouses, hot flashes, and more. On the plus side, no one really pays attention to elderly ladies, a fact that the assassins use deftly to their advantage.

This is a fun, fast-paced thriller of a book, made even better by chapters alternating between the present in which the women are fighting for their lives and the past when they were at their prime as hired killers. While the action is quick and sometimes brutal, what really makes the story is the friendship between Billie, Mary Alice, Helen, and Natalie and their willingness to accept the limitations (and advantages) of their aging bodies. Though they may not be able to do everything they used to, their minds are still sharp and their faith in each other unwavering.

While readers in their golden years may hold a special appreciation for these formidable females, Killers of a Certain Age is for anyone who appreciates humor, wit, and a job well done—even if that job is not for the faint of heart.

Teri Duerr
2022-09-27 18:05:48
S.K. Golden Brings Style and Substance to "The Socialite's Guide to Murder"
Robin Agnew


"My intention is for Evelyn’s readers to have fun when they pick up one of her books."

S.K. Golden’s first novel, The Socialite’s Guide to Murder, is a fun, smart read set inside the confines of the (fictional) Pinnacle Hotel in New York City in the '50s. Evelyn Elizabeth Grace Murphy, has suffered from agoraphobia ever since finding her mother murdered in an alleyway 15 years ago. She now lives out her days entirely within the walls of her family's hotel, the Pinnacle. That world includes Evelyn's best friend and actor Henry Fox, colorful guests, resourceful employees, and luckily (or unluckily) a murder for her to solve.

Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: How did you think of setting this inside a hotel? (I’m a hotel brat myself and really enjoyed the setting.)

S.K. Golden: The entire plot and setting came together when I combined a couple different ideas I’d been brainstorming. The main one was Eloise at the Plaza all grown up and solving mysteries. Also, probably, some of it is wish fulfillment. I’m a mom. So the idea of there being a place where I don’t have to cook or clean is the stuff dreams are made of.

Why 1958?

Well, Eloise is set in the '50s. Beyond that, for shallow reasons, I didn’t want cell phones or CCTV. And then the fashion. I love the clothes. The time period got deeper for me as I researched and began writing about it. This is a cozy, of course, and my main goal is for anyone who reads the book to have a fun time. But there are some things about the '50s that I can sort of hold up a mirror about as a reflection of things going on in our time.

Such as?

Homosexuality was illegal. There were separate water fountains you could drink out of based on the color of your skin. While things are better today than they were in the late '50s, there is still a ways to go. This isn't a book about social issues, but I do try my best to keep these things in mind when writing about Evelyn and her friends.

I know this is your first published book, but is it the first book you’ve written? What path did you take to publication?

No, this was not the first book I wrote. I started writing when I was 10. Pokémon fan fiction, actually. I wrote it with a friend. We’d each write a page in a notebook, pass it back and forth, continue on whatever the one wrote. I spent a lot of free time growing up writing fan fiction.

I took creative writing classes in college and enjoyed those immensely, except for when I signed up for a poetry class. I am terrible at poetry. That was horribly embarrassing. And there were some amazing poets in that class! And I’d just sit there, sweating, waiting for my turn to read the absolute sludge I’d written. But I liked the professor, so I stuck it out. I didn’t start on original stories until my mid-twenties, and I had no idea how to plot a story, really. Not a full novel.

I wrote slice of life stuff. Characters bantering. But to tell a complete original story from start to finish took a lot of learning on my part. Reading craft books and picking up novels and reading them like I was studying them. I wrote a crime caper after the twins were born. I started drafting that about six years ago. It took me a long time to finish. I queried it and signed with my agent and we went out on submission and it didn’t sell. During that time, I’d completed a book about aliens, but decided I wanted to focus on mysteries. Once we made the decision to shelve the crime caper, we sent Evelyn out to editors, and I’m so happy she found a home at Crooked Lane.

I think of this as a cozy, and like all good cozies, it’s driven by character. As the book proceeds, Evelyn becomes a deeper and more interesting character. I was interested by her ability to find lost things. Can you talk about developing her?

I started with a lot of daydreaming. And then I opened a blank document and spent some time just writing Evelyn in her voice without a goal in mind, just trying to figure out how she would think, how she would talk. Knowing her backstory helps that a lot, how her parents raised her—or, how they didn’t. But even as I drafted Book One, I got to know her more. She became her own person in my mind. (Hopefully that doesn’t make me sound like too big of a weirdo.) I just turned in Book Two, and I feel I know her even better now.

Was agoraphobia or post-traumatic stress disorder recognized in 1958?

Agoraphobia was recognized in the time period. PTSD, not so much. They did recognize “shell-shock” however, in soldiers returning from war. I am very lucky to have a friend who is both an author and has a PhD in psychology. She read a very early draft and took a red pen to quite a bit of it. I do take some liberties, because as someone who has generalized anxiety disorder, I’ve found a few things that do help with anxiety, and I wanted to include them even if they aren’t exactly what an analyst of the time would’ve been suggesting.

How did you manage to maintain a fairly light tone while integrating some more serious psychological aspects into your story?

My intention was for Evelyn’s readers to have fun when they pick up one of her books. In my very early planning stages of this book, we had an emergency. Everything is fine and I won’t go into details, but I found myself alone in a hospital waiting room with nothing but my purse. I happened to have a book in my purse; one of the Parker books by Donald Westlake (under penname Richard Stark). I’d read a lot of Parker books by then. I knew him as a character. I knew he was going to take a job heisting something, that another criminal would double-cross him, and that Parker would come out in the end alive and slightly richer. Having that book with me was a comforting thing in a very trying time. I wanted Evelyn to be able to provide that for someone, too. A friend when you’re lonely. Something entertaining after a long day. A bit of fun, wherever you are, because we all deserve that.

I like the different tensions you’ve set up between the characters. Who will return in Book Two? Is there a character arc you have in mind for Evelyn?

Thank you! There are a lot of the same characters coming back for Book Two. Mac [Evelyn's romantic interest], of course, and Poppy. The manager, Mr. Sharpe. Henry, too. And Detective Hodgson. He plays a big role in Book Two.

Who has influenced you as a writer? Was there a transformational read for you that set you on the path to being a writer?

The first influence that comes to mind is, of course, Agatha Christie. There’s a comic book writer, Gail Simone, and she’s been my hero since I was a teenager. Other writers that have had the biggest impact on my life are Jane Austen and Donald Westlake.

As for a transformational read, whew, that’s a good question. That all goes back to childhood. Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons was the first book I can remember ordering from a Scholastic flyer. It’s also the first book I ever read cover to cover by myself that didn’t have pictures. My mom read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to me and I remember being so nervous for Aslan as a kindergartener.

My father made sure I read The Hobbit when I was in fifth or sixth grade, and then I tore through the Lord of the Rings trilogy a few years later in a single week once the hobbits finally made it out of the Shire. Reading about the hobbits getting out of the Shire took a full week on its own. And I took out every Nancy Drew book I could from our local library, sometimes more than once. Sometimes more than twice. One Nancy Drew book, I can’t remember which one, but there was someone standing outside her window at night and that scared me so much I threw the book across the room. I didn’t dare peak out a window at night again for at least a decade.

What makes you happy or excited when you sit down to write? What’s difficult about it?

I love drafting. Specifically, when I get into a groove and I can type what is playing out in my head. It’s like I’m transcribing a movie. That’s the best, the stuff I live for. It isn’t me typing anymore. I’m not even part of the equation. I’ve lost myself to the writing. The hardest thing is when it’s not flowing, when I’m aware of every single word I’m choosing to write, when I’m worried I’ve overused a particular phrase too many times or not enough times. But you have to push through that to get back into a groove and find the joy again. Bit of a scam, that.

Finally, what’s next for you? Another Pinnacle Hotel book (I hope?)

Yes, another Pinnacle Hotel book! I turned in book two at the end of September, so we’ll be working on those edits here soon. I’ve seen some cover art, too, and it’s incredible!

S.K. Golden is the author of the cozy mystery The Socialite’s Guide to Murder. Born and raised in the Florida Keys, she married a commercial fisherman. The two of them still live on the islands with their five kids (one boy, four girls—including identical twins!), two cats, and a corgi named Goku. Sarah graduated from Saint Leo University with a bachelor’s degree in human services and administration and has put it to good use approximately zero times. She’s worked as a bank teller, a pharmacy technician, and an executive assistant at her father’s church. Sarah is delighted to be doing none of those things now. She can be reached on twitter @skgoldenwrites.

Teri Duerr
2022-10-16 15:27:12
Marcie Rendon on the Compulsive Need to Read
Marcie R. Rendon

"You name it, I read it."

For authors who are compulsive readers, writing gets in the way of our addiction. We are the ones who hold the cereal box in front of us while we chow down on Cheerios or Corn Flakes as we read the ingredients, the nutritional content, and whatever tidbits of information might make their way to the other narrow side of the box.

I remember reading my way through the encyclopedia—the ones titled A–Z, with a gold letter on the spine for each book—Popular Mechanics, Outdoor Fishing, Seventeen, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. You name it, I read it.

I remember terrorizing my second-grade classmates with vivid, verbal replays of Alice in Wonderland. Who remembers what my version of the story was? But the other second graders were horrified by the rendition I told them. Growing up in rural, northern Minnesota, books were my window to the world, and I constantly traveled out into the universe on a magic carpet of words.

I cannot recall the author or the book, but I remember a scene in a story where the author described the sunlight on a warm summer day, filtering down through the green-leaved trees into a meadow in the middle of a forest. The beauty of the place and the peace I felt reading that passage can be recalled to this day.

In fourth grade, while I read at an adult level, it was discovered I knew nothing of math when the teacher busted me with a library book hidden behind the math book I was supposed to be working from. I had been lost in the world somewhere off in Egypt while the rest of the class was multiplying fives. High school and college studies fit my compulsive need to read.

Reality hit when I became a mother. I was heartbroken that I could no longer sit and read a book nonstop to the end. The child needed attention, food, a bath. I took to short stories that could be read from beginning to end in between parental duties. As the child grew older, I enjoyed reading my coveted crime and horror novels at bedtime, reading until three or four a.m. Books continued to not just bring the world to me, but to transport me out into the world.

The first time I drove through Maine, I had a sense of déjà vu, having visited the state in every Stephen King novel.

Needless to say, other people binge-watch internet-streamed movies and TV shows. I read.

Marcie R. Rendon is an enrolled member of the White Earth Nation, author, playwright, poet, and freelance writer. Also a community arts activist, Rendon supports other native artists/writers/creators to pursue their art, and is a speaker for colleges and community groups on Native issues, leadership, writing. She is an award-winning author of a fresh new murder mystery series, and also has an extensive body of fiction and nonfiction works.



Teri Duerr
2022-10-18 17:47:43
Kill Me If You Can
Kevin Burton Smith

By now Max Allan Collins’ name has appeared on more than half of the Mike Hammer novels, whether you regard them as canon or not. But Collins wasn’t one of those pens-for-hire parachuted in to keep a corporate cash cow mooing—he was handpicked by Spillane himself, who left behind a treasure trove of unfinished manuscripts, rough notes, and story ideas. He told his wife shortly before his death that “Max will know what to do.”

It’s clear, after 14 cowritten novels (plus a handful of short stories and non-Hammer material gleaned from Spillane’s leftovers) that Collins knew exactly what to do—he “gets” Spillane in a way much of the mystery establishment still doesn’t.

You need look no further than his latest, the bruising Kill Me If You Can, which takes place somewhere in the mid-fifties lost years of the Hammerverse between Kiss Me, Deadly (1952) and The Girl Hunters (1962). Never the most stable of detectives, Mike’s particularly unchained now—the love of his life, Velda Sterling, is gone, maybe kidnapped, maybe dead, and he’s responding the only way he knows. By drinking too much, wallowing in self-pity, guilt and rage, and vowing revenge—or at least violence. And plenty of it.

The first line, “I had nothing to keep me company but my .45 and an itch to use it,” pretty much sums it up, and the action never really lets up. Mike is in free fall, cut loose from anything (i.e., Velda) that tethered him to a world of laws, and the result is an alcohol-fueled fury that eventually costs him his PI ticket, his only real friend (NYPD homicide dick Pat Chambers), and even his beloved .45, as he tries to set a trap, with the help of former bootlegger turned nightclub owner Packy Paragon, for a burglary crew he suspects may have had a hand in the disappearance of Velda. The trap, though, goes horribly, violently awry.

Those more familiar with Collins’ other work (particularly his masterful Nate Heller series, a string of complex, richly detailed and nuanced tales of a fictional private eye thrust into the maelstrom of some of the twentieth century’s most notorious true crimes) may not at first recognize Collins’ style here. But the coauthor has no problem serving up Hammer the same way Spillane did, with plenty of mayhem, violence, and sex, dished out in straight-ahead, no-frills prose, right on target, so direct, with no room for sissy stuff like digressions, detours, or doubts. Hammer is a shark that needs to keep swimming to survive, and Collins tosses plenty of chum into these waters.

Like the murder of his old pal Packy Paragon, who may—or may not—have been killed for trying to help Mike. Or was it the ledger of mob secrets Packy supposedly possessed? Or an overly ambitious rival? An old grudge? Hammer isn’t sure, but he’ll follow the clues to the savage, bloody end—whatever it takes—to avenge Packy.

It’s the real deal, folks: primo, primal detective fiction. Pass the peanuts.

(If that’s not enough, there are five bonus stories included by Spillane, curated and tweaked by Collins, two of which feature Hammer. You know, just in case…)

Teri Duerr
2022-10-25 14:31:43
An Honest Living
Kevin Burton Smith

Dwyer Murphy is probably best known as the editor-in-chief of CrimeReads, which bills itself as the internet’s “most popular destination for thriller readers.” So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he’d eventually try his hand at writing a mystery.

What is surprising is how coy and idiosyncratic An Honest Living is. At first, it feels like your standard private detective entree, dipped in a Chinatown-style plot full of twists and real estate scams, but closer inspection reveals it’s been playfully rolled in the crumbs of the author’s own obsessions and interests, becoming something else again.

Perhaps too playfully. Murphy teases us frequently about the undivulged name of his protagonist, like that annoying kid who refuses to take his finger off the checker and thus complete his move. So let’s cut the crap—the hero’s name is Dwyer Murphy.


Which may be too cute by half. But it’s that sort of book, with the in-jokes and shoutouts folded right into the mix, and names dropped like literary sprinkles all over the place as we’re taken on a tour of NYC’s bibliophile underworld just before the digital boom came down. It’s a wild time, populated with rare book dealers and collectors, poets and novelists, critics and reviewers, and various other miscreants, all wheeling and dealing and fighting the blank page, plotting their plots and dreaming their dreams of glory or revenge in restaurants and bars, salons and saloons, backrooms and museums and libraries.

Into this netherworld stumbles Murphy, a former hotshot intellectual property attorney at a fancy-pants Manhattan firm, who’s chucked it all to hang up his own shingle as a Brooklyn “legal advisor.” Murphy claims he’s aiming for an “honest living,” but he’s not exactly stubborn about it. A woman easily ropes him into a scheme to expose her soon-to-be ex, antiquarian bookseller Newton Reddick, as a thief, selling off books from her personal library.

Murphy easily succeeds, and Newton disappears. Only later does Murphy realize the woman who hired him isn’t who she claimed to be and that Newton’s wife is actually well known but troubled novelist Anne Reddick, who shows up threatening to sue Murphy. And asking him to find Newton. Who turns up dead. It’s clear to everyone, including Murphy (the character), that despite a wry, dry cynicism even Marlowe could envy, he’s way out of his league.

So what follows isn’t exactly a private eye tale—it’s more private eye-adjacent—but any fan of the genre will easily recognize the moving parts.

It’s equally obvious that Murphy (the author) has great fun shuffling those parts around (the femme fatale who suffers from writer’s block, the cop buddy who’s a Venezuelan poet), and I’m guessing that fans of the more distaff side of the genre will have just as much fun reading this shaggy dog caper.

Teri Duerr
2022-11-07 17:37:58
Dirt Creek
Craig Sisterson

While deadly deeds in remote Australian small towns surrounded by heat-struck landscapes have become more familiar to international readers in recent years thanks to the likes of Jane Harper, Chris Hammer, and Gabriel Bergmoser, newcomer Hayley Scrivenor shows there’s still plenty of mileage and fresh takes left in Outback Noir. Scrivenor’s excellent debut, Dirt Creek, is an intimate portrait told via kaleidoscopic narration of a community torn by the disappearance of 12-year-old Esther Bianchi.

Readers are plunged into Durton, a sunburnt rural town of “dirt and hurt,” via the eyes of missing persons expert Sarah Michaels and several locals. As each day unfolds, readers are offered multiple perspectives, from Sarah to Esther’s mother Constance to Esther’s two school friends Veronica “Ronnie” Thompson and Lewis Kennard to an omniscient “We," a Greek chorus of unidentified Durton children.

This latter device, along with several other aspects, including Michaels’ sexuality and relationship history, bring a fresh perspective to an increasingly familiar, if fascinating, backdrop. But the greatest triumph of Dirt Creek is the exquisite characterization, as Scrivenor deftly brings a variety of townsfolk to vivid life, along with the intricate tapestry of their connections, secrets, feuds, prejudices, and (mis)perceptions. In such a tiny town, people know much about their neighbors, but can be oh-so-wrong about them, too.

Esther’s disappearance is the violent tremor that shears open the dusty veneer of Durton, and as Detective Sergeant Michaels and her partner Smithy dig into the cracks, they’re confronted with a clear suspect—Esther’s father—along with plenty of other wrongdoing. But why is Esther’s friend Lewis reluctant to share what he saw on the day of Esther’s disappearance? And what is really going on behind some of the town’s closed doors? Scrivenor deftly juggles her multiple narrators, building tension and her piercing portrait of the town. Dirt Creek is a character-centric crime novel imbued with humanity and hurt.

Teri Duerr
2022-11-07 17:44:21
Hokuloa Road
Jean Gazis

Grady Kendall is an ordinary young man, a carpenter in the small Maine town where he grew up and works repairing and renovating the fancy homes of wealthy summer residents. It’s a few months into the coronavirus pandemic, and his work has completely dried up. When his brother sends him a Craigslist ad for a caretaker job on a Hawaiian island—“carpentry skills a plus”—he applies and is immediately hired over Zoom by Wes Minton, a reclusive billionaire and well-known conservation advocate who owns a remote, undeveloped peninsula called Hokuloa Point.

To Grady, who has never even traveled outside of Maine, Hawaii’s juxtaposition of natives who struggle to get by and rich vacationers is familiar, while its brilliant sunshine and unique plant and animal life are utterly strange. He knows no one beyond Jessica Kiyoko, a girl he chatted with on the flight from Los Angeles who’s visiting a friend on the island. His only other contact is Dalita Nakoa, a Hawaiian and former caretaker who still does occasional work for Minton.

The billionaire is enigmatic and largely absent, spending most of his time out at the point, where he claims to have seen bird species that are officially considered extinct. The caretaker’s job is to make repairs and keep an eye on Minton’s isolated house and the collections of exotic birds and poisonous sea creatures he keeps there.

While still in his initial two-week COVID quarantine period, Grady begins to notice odd things about the place, such as a padlocked storage room in the unkempt garage, and is startled by a terrifying, dog-like figure that appears outside his cabin late at night. Is it a nightmare, jet-lag-induced hallucination, apparition from ancient native legend, or something real and dangerous?

Then, just as his quarantine ends, Jessica is reported missing. Grady realizes that the idyllic façade the island presents to tourists hides serious problems with homelessness, drug and sex trafficking, police corruption, poverty, and environmental destruction. Shocked to learn about a long list of unsolved disappearances, Grady fears that Minton may be using his vast resources to get away with murder—and Jessica may be his next victim. Believing the authorities are complicit in the cover-up, he sets out alone on a desperate rescue mission.

Grady’s loneliness, naiveté, and keen powers of observation make him an engaging, everyman hero. Elizabeth Hand’s writing is exquisite, studded with gem-like nuggets of description: Wes’ eyes have “the icy sheen of an expensive hunting blade,” his extravagant aquariums display “unrecognizable creatures that would be nightmarish if they didn’t also resemble something from a candy store on Mars.” The novel serves up plenty of biting social commentary—to Grady, it seems that “no matter where you went, rural Maine or some upscale compound in Hawai’i, you found the same old shit.”

Though the suspense builds slowly at first, the wait is well worth it, as the reader is immersed in Hokuloa’s mysterious, exotic setting, mysterious supernatural elements, and real-life danger as Grady finally confronts Wes.

Teri Duerr
2022-11-07 17:47:44
A Tidy Ending
Vanessa Orr

While one doesn’t normally find stories about serial killers amusing, trying to get to the bottom of why a number of young women have been killed in quiet suburban neighborhood in England is actually far more fun than one might expect. This is entirely thanks to the story’s narrator, Linda, a seemingly simple yet extremely complicated character who takes the reader on quite a journey as she attempts to go about her daily life amidst the murders, which, incidentally, may have been committed by her husband, Terry.

Bored with her life as a housewife and part-time employee at a thrift store, Linda longs for a more glamorous life. She’s always found it hard to make friends, and her attempts are both cringe-worthy and humorous. Yet despite her social awkwardness, Linda somehow manages to wiggle her way into other people’s lives, resulting in surprising and often incredible situations.

While Linda at first seems to be something of a doormat, there is far more to her than the reader might think. A traumatic event in her childhood has affected her deeply, and her desperate need to fit in makes it easy for others to take advantage of her need for acceptance. Yet Linda has a way of turning things around, making the reader wonder if she is not quite as naïve as she appears to be.

This fun, funny novel may take more than one reading to understand exactly how all of the pieces—the murders, the irritating husband, the troubled past—weave together. The ending may be tidy, but getting there is anything but, in the very best of ways.

Teri Duerr
2022-11-07 17:50:42
The It Girl
Ariell Cacciola

Hannah Jones can’t believe she’s attending Oxford. Even more so, she can’t believe her roommate is April Clarke-Cliveden, the titular “it girl”—beautiful, wealthy, popular, and smart. And she considers Hannah her new college best friend.

Set between the present and 10 years prior, The It Girl unravels a murder that is not quite what it appears. Right from the beginning, we know that April is eventually killed and a creepy college porter is convicted of her murder. But when he dies in prison a decade later, the question of his possible innocence is raised.

Hannah finds herself tangled back in memories that might not have been as reliable as she once thought and now feels it’s her personal duty to investigate, as it was her testimony that sealed the porter’s fate.

The most suspenseful and captivating parts of the novel are the scenes set in the past when Hannah is first in college, making friends with her roommate, April, and the others in their orbit: Will, Hugh, Ryan, and Emily. The group feels the pressure of high academic expectations, but also enjoys the frivolity and thrill of college antics like strip poker. But sometimes their friendships experience fissures, as when April pranks members of the group: a ruse that makes Ryan flush his pot down the toilet, a sex doll in Hugh’s bed, and some that even more seriously impact people’s academic pursuits.

The details of April’s death are left till the end, but the possible suspects and motives are teased out as Hannah, 10 years later, returns to the past to try to solve what really happened. It is a pleasure to discover what the friends were hiding—and the possible reasons each one might have had for murdering April.

Ruth Ware also deftly and fully defines April, who feels far from the two-dimensionally drawn victims so often forgotten in murder mysteries. Ware does such a good job, the reader may find themselves hoping the murder was all a dream and that April will pop out from behind a medieval Oxford staircase after all those years, revealing to Hannah it was only a prank.

Teri Duerr
2022-11-07 17:56:57
All That’s Left Unsaid
Vanessa Orr

When Ky Tran’s brother, Denny, is murdered in a restaurant while celebrating his high school graduation, she is determined to find out who committed the crime. Yet she finds herself alone in her search—without support from her family, Denny’s friends, or the Asian-Australian community who live in Cabramatta, a suburb of Sydney.

While the murder is at the heart of the story, it is only one of many losses explored by author Tracey Lien. Many of Cabramatta’s Indo-Chinese residents are refugees who fled Vietnam after the war. It’s a community touched by trauma and guilt from all that they’ve experienced. They are distrustful of strangers, including the police and native-born Australians. Cabramatta is a gritty, frightening place where a heroin epidemic and the struggle to survive sometimes means turning your back on the bad luck of others. Many have turned to gangs, drugs, and violence to survive.

Others, like Ky, have focused on their studies, working hard to succeed in this new, not-always-welcoming world. Through alternating chapters featuring Ky and the other witnesses at the restaurant, the reader begins to understand the pressures felt by immigrants and their children, and how the refugee experience has shaped people’s reticence to say what they’ve seen—and how the killing becomes another loss that deeply affects the community.

Despite all of this ugliness, Ky continues to search for her beloved brother’s killer, and her determination and sense of duty fuel both her and the reader in their quest. Dramatic, heartbreaking, and often achingly beautiful, All That’s Left Unsaid is well worth the journey into Cabramatta.

Teri Duerr
2022-11-07 18:10:57
The Devil Takes You Home
Craig Sisterson

“You can wrap a shotgun in flowers, but that doesn’t make the blast less lethal.” From the opening pages of Texas storyteller Gabino Iglesias’s new novel The Devil Takes You Home it’s clear we’re in the hands of a master storyteller who can wrap some very harrowing events in some rather beautiful language.

There’s a brutal poetry to Iglesias’ crime writing, as he takes readers on a heck of a ride alongside a man spiraling downwards, searching for a glimmer of hope among a sea of pain, revenge, and violence.

Office worker Mario has been floundering ever since his young daughter’s leukemia diagnosis, and his life keeps going from bad to worse thanks to old, sorta-friend and colleague Brian, who “helps” out Mario with medical bills and other debts by putting a gun in his hand and hiring him as a reluctant hit man. Snipping the strings of several bad men, Mario discovers he has a penchant for violence; it’s an outlet for his anger at God and circumstance. Driven to the edge, Mario agrees to a near-suicidal mission that could provide life-changing cash: $200,000 if he helps hijack a cartel’s cash shipment before it reaches Mexico—and survives.

Iglesias takes us on a surreal journey, meshing genres as Mario descends into a nightmarish scenario of cartel violence, extreme religious beliefs, waking dreams, and monsters imagined and real. Iglesias packs The Devil Takes You Home with unforgettable characters and nasty events, while also providing a meditation on a host of harsh realities of the American Dream: poverty, mountainous health-care costs, and racism systemic and personal.

The Devil Takes You Home is a gut-punch of a novel that lingers long after the final page.

Teri Duerr
2022-11-07 18:15:28
Peg and Rose Solve a Murder
Dori Saltzman

Peg and Rose may be sisters-in-law, but no one would ever call them friends, so when Rose reaches out to Peg to partner with her at a bridge club, Peg doesn’t know what to make of the offer. But with her niece Melanie and her family away on a road trip, Peg has to admit she’s feeling lonely. Talking to her beloved show poodles just isn’t cutting it, and she says yes.

Their partnership gets off to a rocky start. Neither has played bridge in decades and the two couldn’t be more different. Peg is a no-nonsense dog breeder and show judge. Rose is a soft-spoken ex-nun who runs a home for battered women with her ex-priest husband. Add in some hurtful words from the past and the two butt heads from their first game. But when a member of the bridge club is shot and killed, the two find themselves bonding—albeit begrudgingly—as they dig into who might have wanted the man dead.

The rest of the club isn’t thrilled about two sexagenarian busybodies digging into their pasts and it doesn’t seem like either Peg or Rose is making any headway. There’s lots of juicy gossip to uncover, but nothing that seems relevant to the murder.

Someone thinks they’re getting too close, though, and takes a shot at Peg while she’s home with her dogs. The two don’t scare easily and the thought that her dogs could have been hurt lights a fire under Peg. But can she and Rose put aside their differences long enough to figure out who is trying to get away with murder before that person strikes again?

Fans of Laurien Berenson’s Melanie Travis Canine mysteries will enjoy seeing Peg and Rose, secondary characters in some of her other books, take center stage. Berenson gives Peg and Rose rich backgrounds that bring them to life, and her strong storytelling skills will have you guessing whodunit it until the end.

Teri Duerr
2022-11-07 18:19:19
Light on Bone
Robin Agnew

This is the first in a series featuring Georgia O’Keeffe as the detective. That made me hesitate, but this was an intriguing and interesting read, and it gave me a new appreciation of O’Keeffe. I can only assume the author is a huge fan—I was before I read this book, but am now even more so after taking this well-imagined trip inside O’Keeffe’s creative brain, and (virtually) visiting the Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico, where she did the paintings that have made her an icon.

Georgia has come to the desert for clarity and to recover from a nervous breakdown of sorts after discovering that her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, cheated on her. Georgia appreciates the solitude, quiet, beauty, and light she finds there.

I ended up googling photos of her very minimalist home in the desert, where in Lasky’s book, the painter takes her early morning walks. The fictional O’Keeffe never leaves the house without her snake stick and beheads a rattler right off the bat, establishing her bad-assery (as if that were needed).

She’s out on an early morning painting expedition when she discovers the body of a priest. The law, in the form of the sheriff and a rare female coroner (it’s 1934) are summoned, and the mystery is underway.

As the investigation progresses, she becomes friendly with the sheriff and the two have a nicely balanced detecting style. I liked very much that detective Georgia ends up using her visual memory to solve the crime. While there are a number of corpses and the methods of death range from the unusual to the really unusual (in fact, one of my all-time favorite methods for murder happens toward the end of the novel), the mystery is not completely front and center. Light on Bone is a character study, and since the character is Georgia O’Keeffe, it’s very hard to look away.

There’s also an interesting depiction of some of the famous folks who visited the Ghost Ranch, including Charles and Anne Lindbergh just a year after the infamous kidnapping and murder of their child and Robert Wood Johnson (of Johnson & Johnson fame). Other historical touches include a secret radio network of spies tied to the Germans. Unraveling this network becomes part of the mystery.

The story, while set in 1934, anticipates World War II, and it’s a very different take from many other books set during the war in Europe. It gave me a different way into what was happening at the time through a nicely assembled mystery story with an absolutely fabulous woman at the center of it.

Teri Duerr
2022-11-07 18:25:16
The Floating Girls
Sarah Prindle

Twelve-year-old Kay Whitaker lives with her family in an isolated part of Georgia near a swampy marsh. Aside from her siblings, Kay doesn’t get to play with many kids, so she is excited to meet Andy Webber, a boy her age living deep in the marsh with his father. She immediately develops a crush on Andy, but is shocked when her parents vehemently discourage her from going anywhere near the Webbers.

Kay soon learns that Andy’s mother died in a suspicious drowning years before, and she becomes aware that there is something about the Webbers her parents are hiding from her. As Kay’s parents’ behavior becomes increasingly strange, her older sister, Sarah-Anne, disappears. Suddenly, Sarah-Anne’s disappearance and Mrs. Webber’s death collide, and Kay’s life is turned upside down. Long-buried secrets involving the two families come to light, changing both the Whitakers and Webbers forever.

The Floating Girls is a slow-paced, character- driven novel that delves deep into how criminal actions impact families, especially children. The characters are well described and distinct, especially Kay, who is on one hand a precocious, sharp-tongued, and witty narrator, but on the other hand still very much a child dealing with events far beyond her control. Kay’s parents clearly have serious problems, so her home-life and that of her siblings’ is heavily influenced by dysfunction and neglect.

The mystery is intriguing, though there are parts of it that are never fully explained, just hinted at, which may frustrate some readers. Nonetheless, The Floating Girls succeeds as a psychological thriller. The author, Lo Patrick, lives in Georgia, and her ability to capture what life is like there showcases her firsthand experience. She does a good job of bringing readers into the heat of the vast marsh setting alongside Kay.

At its heart, The Floating Girls is the story of a difficult childhood, a family in turmoil, and the resiliency and bravery of one young girl as she faces events that would shake anyone to their core. It is a haunting debut.

Teri Duerr
2022-11-07 18:31:22
Mystic Wind
Jay Roberts

In author James Barretto’s debut legal thriller Mystic Wind set in the 1980s, readers are introduced to attorney Jack Marino. The Boston lawyer is married to an heiress and at the top of his legal game as the lead prosecutor in the D.A. office’s gang unit. He’s long left his hardscrabble roots in the past, but a brutal attack after winning a big case changes things for the worse.

By the time 1982 rolls around, he’s been fired from his job, his marriage is on the rocks, and he can barely walk into a courtroom, never mind function in one. But when Jack is manipulated into defending a man facing the death penalty in a politiczed case meant to show how tough the D.A. is on crime, Jack starts to come back to life.

The D.A. and the prosecuting attorney want nothing more than a quick verdict to fuel their political ambitions. There is also a biased judge seemingly out to hamstring Jack’s case, and the cops are convinced they’ve got their man. But as he digs into the evidence, a different picture begins to emerge. Believing his client to be a patsy and with a life on the line, Jack becomes determined to win the case. But with the real bad guys onto his game, he’ll have to figure out how to survive long enough to reveal the truth and bring them to justice.

Author Barretto is a sitting judge on the Massachusetts District Court, so the various legal components of Mystic Wind feel authentic, but what really made this book is it’s assured writing. With the story focused on preparing and then trying the case, readers see each progressive step in Jack’s professional and personal redemption arcs. And yet, it all moves so smoothly there’s no getting bogged down with minutia that would pull you out of the story.

Of course, a series is built on the strengths of its lead character, and with Jack Marino, readers have a legal eagle that they can actually root for. He needs to prove himself over and over again, but he never loses focus on the main goal of proving his client innocent. I will say that Jack’s coterie of adversaries could’ve used a bit more development, as they come off a little bit too much like mustache-twirling versions of Snidely Whiplash, but it’s a flaw that doesn’t ruin the overall experience of the book.

Mystic Wind, the first in a new series, gives legal thriller fans a new hero with a story so good and nuanced that I wished I could read it for the first time all over again.

Teri Duerr
2022-11-07 18:36:37