Fall Issue #146
Teri Duerr
Thursday, 15 September 2016 01:09
A Kind of Justice
Betty Webb

One of the best—and most unusual—picks of the season is Renee James’ marvelous A Kind of Justice, in which celebrity hairstylist Bobbi, a six-foot-tall transgender woman, is in danger of being arrested for the murder of a prominent attorney. The fact that the murder took place five years in the past and the victim was a sadistic predator hasn’t stopped Detective Alan Wilkins from amassing all the evidence he can to convict Bobbi. Hardly LGBT-friendly, this hard case cop is Chicago’s equivalent of Victor Hugo’s obsessed Inspector Javert, who lived only to imprison poor Jean Valjean. Bobbi, knowing what happens to transgender people in prison, is terrified, but the possibility of a murder trial isn’t her only worry. Betsy, Bobbi’s ex-wife, with whom she is still close, has just lost her husband in a car accident, and although Betsy needs her job more than ever now, she’s being sexually harassed by her slimeball boss. As if that weren’t enough grief for Bobbi, the recession has hit the hairstylist industry especially hard and her Salon L’Elegance is about to go under, putting all of her employees out on the street. More for them than herself, Bobbi is determined to keep everyone employed, even if it means having to do things she never thought she’d do. Bobbi is one of the most unique protagonists I’ve come across in a mystery novel, and author Renee James (also a transgender woman) has made a smart choice by telling most of the story through Bobbi’s point of view. The hairstylist/sleuth is compassionate yet unforgiving; optimistic while expecting the worst; desperate for love, but taking pains to avoid it. These seeming contradictions are the result of the hard life she has experienced as a transgender woman, including a brutal beatdown and rape by the man Detective Wilkins believes she murdered. As Bobbi confides to a friend, “I’m the meat in a big hate sandwich.” She’s not wrong. At times it seems the entire world—especially the anti-LGBT crowd—is out to get her. Bobbi isn’t the only fascinating character in this unusual novel. Others include the members of Trans Rising, a support group for those going through transition. Readers curious about the problems faced by transgendered people would do well to read A Kind of Justice. It’s an excellent mystery novel, but more than that, the book provides an insight into a seldom-considered aspect of the human condition.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 September 2016 12:09
The Gender Experiment
Betty Webb

In L.J. Sellers’ The Gender Experiment, morgue intern Taylor Lopez, who was born with both male and female genitalia, comes across two corpses who share the same hermaphroditism. At first, Taylor believes this odd influx of “dual gendered people,” as she calls them, is mere coincidence, but after looking into the corpses’ backgrounds, she discovers each of their mothers had been patients at the same medical clinic. As she continues her investigation, she discovers the clinic oversaw 33 births of dual-gendered babies, many of them obsessed with fire. After more digging, Taylor discovers that the clinic was connected with the US Army, and that the babies were engineered right down to the color of their skin, and the reason for this is downright eye-popping. The Gender Experiment moves quickly—it’s more thriller than mystery. But that’s fine. This is a book that is almost impossible to put down, and the riveting climax proves the old saying true: the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 September 2016 01:09
Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
Betty Webb

Run, don’t walk, to Mario Giordano’s riotous Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, translated from the German by the excellent John Brownjohn. The first sentence lets readers know not to expect some sweet old auntie: “On her sixtieth birthday my Auntie Poldi moved to Sicily, intending to drink herself comfortably to death with a sea view.” Fortunately, Poldi fails to do the deed (except for the move to Sicily part), and readers accompany her on a wild, waggish ride across the storied Italian isle. Poldi is a woman who makes Auntie Mame look like a wallflower. Her age hasn’t diminished her libido, so upon her arrival, she promptly falls for handsome Valentino, the young handyman she’s hired to work on her centuries-old house. Her dreams of an erotic encounter end when, during a walk along the beach, she stumbles across his dead body. Valentino has been murdered, his face obliterated by a shotgun blast. Since Poldi’s little village is littered with mafiosi, she at first suspects them, but once her investigation begins in earnest, she discovers several non-mafiosi who might have wanted Valentino dead, too. When Chief Inspector Vito Montana attempts to stop Poldi from interfering in police matters, he falls victim to her charms, and, despite their age difference, winds up in her bed. Together, the two—but mainly Poldi— bring the murderer to justice. As in all good novels, arriving at the solution is only half the fun; getting there is a delight. Careful readers will learn important life lessons, too. Poldi, who has a rather unique outlook on this vale of tears, regales us with advice such as “always overdress,” and “moderation is a sign of weakness.” In Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, the lady of the hour always follows her own advice.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 September 2016 01:09
Written Off
Betty Webb

E.J. Copperman’s Written Off is a hoot of a book, in which mystery novelist Rachel Goldman is confronted by a mysterious man claiming he is her fictional protagonist Duffy Madison. While she knows that can’t be true, Rachel soon finds herself pairing up with him to solve the disappearance of several mystery writers. The missing authors are soon discovered dead, each one killed in a particularly authorial way: bashed in the head with a manual typewriter, electrocuted via computer, stabbed in the neck with a pen, choked to death by rejection letters. When Rachel begins receiving death threats, she realizes she might be the next to die. Although working with a man she considers insane isn’t necessarily a good idea, Rachel is desperate enough to do just that. But she also has the sense not to become TSTL, like the heroines of mystery novels who are Too Stupid to Live. She swears she will not enter dark basements when she hears suspicious noises. She will not make assignations with suspicious strangers. She will not...but she does. And just like all those other TSTL protagonists, she almost gets herself killed. Grotesque deaths notwithstanding, Written Off is a delightful read, especially for anyone considering writing a mystery novel. Along with Rachel, the reader explores the scourge of writer’s block, learns what a pantser is, and examines the stringencies of plot and craft. Funnier still, aspiring writers learn that even at their most desperate moments, the authorial ego remains paramount. When trapped in a book-filled room with the killer, Rachel fumes, “The worse part was that the maniac didn’t have one of my titles on the shelf. Not one.”

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 September 2016 01:09
Mountain Rampage
Betty Webb

In Scott Graham’s Mountain Rampage, the second in his National Park Mystery series (after Canyon Sacrifice), the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park is at the forefront of an environmental thriller. Archeologist Chuck Bender is leading a team of college students in an exploration of a deserted mine when one of the students almost falls to his death. The group’s troubles don’t stop there. Soon afterward they stumble across a funereal pile of bighorn sheep carcasses. The rams have all been decapitated, their meat left untouched, a sign a trophy hunter might be roaming the park—or perhaps something even worse. Since poaching has decimated Africa’s rhino population, rumors abound that homegrown poachers have begun substituting sheep horns, claiming they hold the same “aphrodisiac” properties as rhino horns. Therefore, serious money is involved. After reporting the sheep massacre, Chuck and his students return to their rooms at the Lodge of the Rockies, but danger follows them in the form of threats seemingly connected to the legend of a treasure that may—or may not—have lain hidden in the old mine for years. This is an intriguing book, and the descriptions of Rocky Mountain National Park are elegant. Author Graham has a true talent for describing the Rockies’ flora and fauna, allowing his readers to feel almost as if they were trekking the park themselves. In fact, the park is the star of this book; the characters pale by comparison.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 September 2016 01:09
The Black Cat Knocks on Wood
Lynne F. Maxwell

Fanciers of felines rejoice, because Hitchcock the purported “bad luck cat” returns for his sophomore appearance in Kay Finch’s entertaining mystery The Black Cat Knocks on Wood. Pity poor Hitchcock, who is widely feared by the superstitious citizenry of Lavender, Texas, nestled in Texas Hill Country. While his “owner,” fledgling mystery writer Sabrina Tate labors to dispel the mistrust, it is clear to readers that Hitchcock is no ordinary cat. After all, he hitches rides in pickup trucks and manages to appear wherever there is trouble, all of which supports the notion that Hitchcock harbors feline superpowers. But enough about handsome Hitchcock for the moment. Recovering from a nasty divorce and an even nastier job as a paralegal for a hard-charging Houston attorney, Sabrina is determined to pursue her dream life as a mystery author, but her dedication is mightily challenged when real-life homicide gets in the way of the fictional variety. When Sabrina answers an urgent summons by her senior citizen aunt’s friend Pearl, they discover the corpse of the local real estate maven who has reneged on a business deal with Pearl. Yes, there was well-advertised animosity between Pearl and the deceased, but, really, would the generally mild-mannered Pearl venture to slay the realtor because Pearl’s plans to expand her candy shop had been thwarted? Initially, Pearl is a person of interest, but it rapidly becomes evident that the realtor had numerous enemies. Would her soon-to-be-ex-husband commit murder? How about one of the shady cowboys employed by her husband? Or perhaps the woman’s son, who fought frequently with his mother about his future, decided to take matters into his own hands and collect on the substantial trust fund bequeathed to him by his grandfather? Maybe the realtor’s cash-strapped assistant eliminated her boss, so that, finally, she could earn those hefty commissions? None of the above? You get the picture. Sabrina and heroic Hitchcock spring into action to solve the cleverly constructed mystery. Will Sabrina finally be able to concentrate on her writing? Hopefully, her real-life sleuthing skills will enable her to perfect the novel in which a major editor expresses interest!

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 September 2016 01:09
The Calamity Café
Lynne F. Maxwell

If you are feeling peckish, The Calamity Café might be just the thing. While this winning entry—or entrée—is first in a new series, Gayle Leeson is by no means a novice author. You may already know her as Amanda Lee, Gayle Trent, or G.V. Trent, and if you do, you know you are in for a treat with The Calamity Café. The novel begins when culinary school alumna Amy Flowers returns to her small Virginia hometown. Having inherited a tidy sum of money from her nana, Amy is biding her time to open her dream restaurant. She makes her move by offering to buy out her boss, Lou Lou, who is surprisingly intransigent. Not so her son Pete, who wants to escape to open his own trucking business. Pete is eager to sell, perhaps suspiciously so. Thus, when Lou Lou appears to capitulate and meet with Amy to discuss the deal, she is first on the scene to discover the corpse—and Pete is quick to close on the sale. During renovation for her café, Amy discovers a metal lockbox concealed in the wall. When she opens the box, she discovers a bundle of bills in mint condition, and the total just so happens to coincide with the amount of money stolen in a bank robbery decades ago. Strangely, older townsfolk recall a rumor that Lou Lou’s father had been involved in this robbery. What is the mystery of Lou Lou’s past and how does it tie into her murder? Read on to discover how family history and bad karma play out. When you have finished, you will want to come back for seconds!

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 September 2016 01:09
Death of a Pumpkin Carver
Lynne F. Maxwell

Hayley Powell, my favorite food and cocktails columnist, returns in Death of a Pumpkin Carver, by Lee Hollis (actually brother-sister writing team Rick Copp and Holly Simason). As always, this Food and Cocktails Mystery is rollicking fun, as protagonist Hayley multitasks as newspaper columnist, mom, friend, ex-wife, and romantic partner (or not). Trouble begins when Hayley’s ne’er-do-well ex-husband Danny returns home to Bar Harbor, Maine, pretending that he has reformed. Hayley is not taken in, though, and when Danny’s uncle, purveyor of fine moonshine, is murdered and Danny becomes a suspect, matters deteriorate. While Danny is an unregenerate scoundrel, Hayley does not believe that he has become a killer and finds herself in the awkward position of defending him. Not only is he absolved, but he actually behaves heroically—before quickly reverting to type. Join Hayley in pumpkin-centric food and cocktails as she celebrates Halloween in style!

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 September 2016 01:09
The Demonists
Hank Wagner

The first in a planned series, Thomas E. Sniegoski’s The Demonists features adventurer John Fogg and his wife, psychic Theodora Knight, a pair of married paranormal investigators who star in their own syndicated television reality series. Unlike others in their field, however, their encounters with the supernatural are frighteningly real.

It is one particularly horrifying encounter that starts the ball rolling in The Demonists, as the couple encounters a sort of Pandora’s box (a jar, actually), the opening of which results in the brutal demise of their television crew, and in Theo being possessed by a plethora of ancient demons.

You might think that John’s desperate search for a cure for his beloved spouse would provide ample story material, but it is merely the jumping off point for an ambitious, cannily crafted, wide-ranging, often-terrifying tale of impending doom. Sniegoski obviously loves what he does, gleefully presenting John and Theo with myriad challenges and dilemmas (including an especially creepy antagonist known as The Teacher), all leading to a fabulous, violent crescendo.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 September 2016 01:09
The Detective and the Chinese High-Fin
Hank Wagner

Michael Craven’s second John Darvelle mystery, The Detective and the Chinese High-Fin, is his follow-up to his Nero Wolfe and Shamus Award nominee, The Detective and the Pipe Girl. This time out, Darvelle is asked to investigate a cold case involving the killing of Keaton Fuller, a well-born reprobate who spent his days arousing the ire of everyone with whom he came into contact. Darvelle sorts through myriad leads and dead ends until he finds one that is pertinent, eventually directing his attention on a small business venture which provides rare fish (thus, the title) to eager (and wealthy) collectors.

The book is narrated by Ping-Pong aficionado Darvelle, who proves to be a witty and interesting guide to the noirish, often dangerous world he inhabits. Smart, caustic, opinionated and funny, he brings readers into intimate contact with the proceedings, and with the colorful characters he encounters in his travels. Simply put, Darvelle does for Los Angeles what Robert B. Parker’s PI Spenser did for Boston.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 September 2016 02:09
The Nice Guys
Hank Wagner

Charles Ardai takes readers back to 1977, providing laughs and hard-edged action aplenty in his excellent novelization of the recent Shane Black film The Nice Guys. Also using Los Angeles as a backdrop, the man behind the successful Hard Case Crime imprint follows the unlikely duo of hapless PI Holland March (Ryan Gosling in the film) and enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) as they investigate the death of porn star Misty Mountains. Their convoluted, disjointed efforts eventually lead them into conflict with the US Department of Justice, and with the US auto industry. Trust me when I say, hijinks ensue.

Ardai does a terrific job of adapting Black’s screenplay, managing to effectively render the humor and action which have become the screenwriter/director’s trademarks. Fans of Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake, and Elmore Leonard should greatly appreciate this fast, fierce, laugh-out-loud adaptation.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 September 2016 02:09
The Crossing
Dick Lochte

As Amazon Prime subscribers know quite well, in two seasons of a series that makes fascinating use of Michael Connelly’s novels, Titus Welliver is the living, breathing image of Harry Bosch. Happily, his skill as an actor includes a versatile voice that he now uses to advantage on Bosch series audios. Here, as the retired-against-his-will, almost-too-saintly Harry is finally cajoled by his half-brother, Mickey Haller, into going over to the dark side—i.e. helping build a case for the defense—Welliver proves equally adept at capturing the upbeat buoyancy and courtroom patter of the author’s other main series character, the Lincoln Lawyer. It’s evident early on—in chapters focusing on the villains (unusual for Connelly)—that Haller’s client has been set up by two very nasty, sadistic cops. In typical fashion, the author follows Bosch as he digs into the brutal rape-murder of the wife of a deputy sheriff. Thin cracks in the case eventually lead to more cracks, more deaths, more danger to Harry. As always, it’s fun to follow his progress, annotated with fascinating police procedure points and cop lore. This is definitely a Bosch novel, but the few moments of Haller’s courtroom magic add a lot to the overall enjoyment. And for those interested in Harry’s troubled romantic life, one door slams shut and another opens.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 September 2016 02:09
King Maybe
Dick Lochte

This fifth caper of Timothy Hallinan’s Junior Bender finds the smart aleck but charmingly self-effacing LA burglar stealing the rarest of stamps and discovering a bit late that, by so doing, he has enraged a very dangerous man. He adds to his peril by agreeing to help a bad-luck movie producer by breaking into the home of a Hollywood power-brokering mogul, King Maybe, so-called because he likes to keep projects in development hell, to recover one of those sidelined scripts. There’s more to it than that, and Junior finds the mansion, like the Roach Motel, a snap to enter, but impossible to leave. The plotline moves from break-in to break-in to break-out, but each of those has all the thrills needed to avoid seeming repetitious. Reader Peter Berkrot’s voice has a soft, tough intelligence that fits narrator Junior’s personality to a T. And he’s adaptable enough to easily shift sounds to give voice to a passing parade of mobsters, damsels, actors pretending to be cops, eccentrics, and the whispery, sinister little King.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 September 2016 02:09
Perchance to Dream
Dick Lochte

In my teens, I fell under the spell of several writers of short stories that were then labeled sci-fi and/or fantasy and/or suspense and would now, I suppose, be lumped under the speculative cross-genre banner. They included Ray Bradbury, of course, John Collier, Roald Dahl, Richard Matheson, and the late, great Charles Beaumont. Of them, Beaumont, though he published more than 80 stories during his all-too-brief 38-year lifespan, is remembered less for his literary excellence than for his overactive parallel career as a film and television writer (whose contributions to The Twilight Zone were second only to its creator’s Rod Serling). This collection, at the very least, should serve as a reminder of how good and how versatile an author he was. The 23 shorts, each featuring a surprising twist in the tale, hop from sci-fi to noir to romance to humor to horror, frequently combining those categories. The title story is my favorite. It focuses on a man terrified of falling asleep. Beaumont’s fondly recalled adaptation during Twilight Zone’s first season no doubt helped to build the show’s reputation. Here it’s read by Harlan Ellison, himself no slouch at short-form fiction, and he gives a full-out performance right down to a panicky scream of desperation. Another highlight is “Song for a Lady,” in which newlyweds find themselves aboard a very old ship filled with very old married couples. The CD package, aside from listing the seven readers, doesn’t mention who’s reading what. Ellison is easy to identify. As is John Rubenstein, who gives a chilling rendition of “The Jungle” (arrogant hunter tracked by veldt creatures in the city), the postapocalyptic “Place of Meeting,” and William Shatner’s “Afterword,” a reminiscence of the making of The Intruder, a Roger Corman film based on Beaumont’s novel and adaptation. I’m guessing that Alex Hyde- White is the reader of “Song for A Lady.” His father, Wilfred, was one of the stars of the hour-long Twilight Zone adaptation, retitled “Passage on the Lady Anne.” Bradbury’s affectionate intro recalls the days he, Beaumont, Matheson, and William Nolan were fledgling scribblers who’d get together to talk books and discuss one another’s manuscripts. Now, that’s a writers’ workshop.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 September 2016 02:09
Terror in Taffeta
Dick Lochte

Though I don’t mind the occasional poisoned cookie caper, I’m not an avid fan of occupational cozies. So I had to be cajoled into sampling Marla Cooper’s debut yarn about Kelsey McKenna, a hapless San Francisco wedding planner tasked with guiding a destination nuptial in San Miguel de Allende. As adaptable and capable as she is, Kelsey gets stuck with a murdered bridesmaid, an innocent but imprisoned sister of the bride, a priest who may not be what he seems, a semi-boyfriend who may not be what he seems (it’s hard to avoid spoilers), several brain-dead Mexican policemen, and, worst of all, a mother-of-the-bride who is as supercilious as she is demanding. The book has the funniest dialogue this side of TV’s iZombie, thanks in part to Kelsey’s snark, not to mention the equally snarky ripostes from her sidekick, a gay wedding photographer. Happily, reader Romy Nordlinger is able to capture every nuance of narrator Kelsey’s shifting attitudes. All in all, a very engaging package that has me eager to check out Kelsey’s next caper, Dying on the Vine, in 2017.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 September 2016 02:09
The Ageless Agatha Christie: Essays on the Mysteries and the Legacy
Jon L. Breen

Academic essays on detective fiction too often bury the occasional striking or original nugget of insight in long-winded sessions of belaboring the obvious. While I’d never claim there’s nothing of interest in this collection of essays, written by professors for other professors, very little of it is important to the general reader of Agatha Christie. The leadoff piece by Merja Makinen compares Christie’s The Hollow to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The second by Rebecca Mills, on how objects reflect the changing times in wartime and post-World War II Britain, includes an intriguing statement worth testing: “If people in Christie’s villages kill people they know, people in Christie’s cities kill people they don’t—and this is why it is a dangerous world.” Other topics include children in Christie’s works; “feminine identity” in the Harley Quin stories; a “queer perspective” on how Captain Hastings, Countess Rostakoff, and Miss Lemon are developed in print and on TV; Miss Lemon’s filing system; information sources in the Miss Marple novels; Christie translated for the Hungarian market; and how Kerry Greenwood pays tribute to Christie in her “postcolonial tribute series.” Of most interest to the general reader may be Sarah Street’s account of Kathleen Tynan’s novel Agatha (which I remember finding in questionable taste) and its adaptation for the screen. In the last piece, the editor surveys Christie’s fans and quotes some of their comments.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 September 2016 02:09
Encyclopedia of Nordic Crime Fiction: Works and Authors of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden Since 1967
Jon L. Breen

This is the rare reference book that delivers more than its title promises. It not only introduces the writers, including many not yet translated into English, but offers substantial essays on the cultural context of each country, exploring how its geography, history, politics, literature, and major recent events may have influenced the writers’ work. Listings of each country’s awards and a literary/historical chronology precede the alphabetically arranged entries on individual authors. Each nation has at least a few writers available to monolingual readers of English. Some prominent examples follow: Denmark (Jussi Adler-Olsen, Anders Bodelsen, Peter Høeg), Finland (Leena Lehtolainen, Harri Nykänen), Iceland (Arnaldur Indri›ason, Yrsa Sigur›ardóttir), Norway (K.O. Dahl, Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbø), and Sweden (K. Arne Blom, Ake Edwardson, Camilla Läckberg, Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell, and the pioneering team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö).

Following the author entries on each country are descriptions (where applicable) of short-story anthologies in English from the Akashic Noir series and TV crime shows. For all but Denmark, there are notes on selected mysteries set in the country by foreign writers. The page-count score by country is Sweden 159, Norway 124, Denmark 95, Finland 81, Iceland 60. The term “Nordic noir” is used broadly, referring more to a general dark mood than to a more purist definition.

This excellent book belongs on the reference shelf of any collection concerned with world crime fiction.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 September 2016 02:09
Josephine Tey: A Life
Jon L. Breen

Elizabeth MacKintosh (1896-1952) had two notable pseudonyms: Gordon Daviot, whose 1932 play Richard of Bordeaux was a key turning point in the career of John Gielgud; and Josephine Tey, author of eight detective novels including the 1951 classic The Daughter of Time. Playwright Daviot’s fame has faded, but mystery writer Tey’s reputation lives on. MacKintosh spent a large part of her life caring for her elderly father in the Highlands of Scotland, with occasional trips to London on theatrical or literary business. Her identification with England and lack of interest in Scottish nationalism led her to be underappreciated on the literary scene of Scotland and even her hometown of Inverness. Biographical details have been sparse, with standard accounts often repeating misconceptions about her life and character. Henderson’s is the first full-scale biography, providing the most thorough account imaginable of her subject’s very eventful life, including critical summaries of the Daviot and Tey writings and a theory of why the latter have survived better. Anyone interested in the British theatrical scene in the 1930s will find the book just as rewarding as the mystery buff. Who knew that London’s celebrated Old Vic Theatre began as a temperance ploy, to “distract [its local audience] away from drink and expose them instead to high culture”?

Henderson’s work ranks with the very best biographies of crime writers and is sure to be the standard source on Tey for years to come. It is so excellent, I will even forgive the customary assumption that Golden Age detective fiction was strictly a British and female product, with nods to the traditional big four (Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Allingham) plus Gladys Mitchell and Georgette Heyer. Apart from passing references to Chesterton, Chandler, Buchan, and Fleming, the only male crime writer mentioned is the Scottish contemporary Ian Rankin.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 September 2016 02:09
The Red Hot Typewriter: The Life and Times of John D. MacDonald
Jon L. Breen

Originally published in 2000, this is a thorough and agreeably written literary and personal biography of one of the great 20th century crime writers. Spanning 1940s pulp stories through 1950s paperback originals to 1980s bestsellers, John D. MacDonald’s was a remarkable and prolific career. Hugh Merrill does full justice to his subject’s character and experiences and their influence on his work, including the social and environmental sermons that reached full flower in the Travis McGee novels. Every one of the many quotes from MacDonald’s writings, not only published works but letters and even school assignments, makes impressive reading. His parody of Mickey Spillane is among the best I’ve ever read. (“It was one of those afternoons when the greasy sunshine flooded Third Avenue like a men’s room with a broken john. She came out of the alley lapping at her juicy red lips with her pointed spicy tongue.”)

The new edition has an improved bibliography, an afterword by Carl Branche, and a reprint of Ed Gorman’s last interview with MacDonald plus a selection of Gorman’s favorite standalone novels by JDM. I agree that, good as the McGee books are, his creator was at his best in his nonseries work.

There are some inconsistencies that the late author or his original editors should have caught. At one point, Merrill inaccurately brands Richard S. Prather in the Shell Scott novels and Brett Halliday writing about Michael Shayne as Spillane imitators; in both cases, this assertion is contradicted later in the book. Shayne preceded Hammer in print by several years, and the lighthearted and humorous Scott was nothing like Spillane’s detective.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 September 2016 03:09
Marcia Clark’s Reinvention
Oline H. Cogdill

 

clark marciaSMALL
One of the hot topics to come out of the Emmy Awards last Sunday was actress Sarah Paulson’s win for lead actress in a limited series for her role playing prosecutor Marcia Clark in The People v. O.J. Simpson, which aired on FX.

It wasn’t her well-deserved win, but what Paulson said about the person whom she was portraying on-screen.

Paulson has been widely quoted in a variety of publications saying that it wasn’t just a win for herself, but also a win for Clark.

In her acceptance speech, Paulson offered an apology to Clark, whom the actress brought along as her date for the ceremony.

“I, along with the rest of the world, had been superficial in my judgment, and I’m glad that I’m able to stand here in front of everyone today and say, ‘I’m sorry’,” said Paulson in her speech.

Paulson was referring to how Clark was ridiculed in the news during the trial. Clark often was accused of blowing the prosecution, which resulted in Simpson going free.

Everything from her clothes to her hairstyle was targeted.
clarkmarcia moraldefense

But in many ways, Paulson’s sympathetic portrayal of Clark—and the series’ popularity—made people see the former prosecutor in a different light.

In an interview with Variety, Paulson said, “The thing I kept coming back to was I wanted to cut to the quick of how abandoned I felt she was by women, almost as a collective. It just felt like everyone wanted to drop the hot potato that was Marcia Clark. I so felt for her, having only played it. Multiply that by a million, and also have it be your actual life,” Paulson told Variety.

Clark not only was Paulson’s date, but the trophy was engraved with both of their names: “Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark.”

I think everyone should applaud Paulson’s insight about Clark. I well remember that trial and felt, at the time, that Clark was being unfairly singled out.

For some years now, the mystery community has proudly called Marcia Clark one of our own.

Her four novels about LA district attorney Rachel Clark and her two novels about defense attorney Samantha Brinkman are terrific legal thrillers. In both series, Clark delivers well-rounded, realistic characters and insight into the legal system.

Her second Samantha Brinkman novel, Moral Defense, comes out in November.

Clark also was featured in a profile in Mystery Scene’s summer issue (Summer 2016, #145).

I have met Marcia Clark several times at mystery writers’ conferences and found her to be gracious, witty, and very interested in her fans.

And now she has an Emmy.

Author photo: Claudia Kunin

Oline Cogdill
Wednesday, 21 September 2016 04:09
Alex Marwood Homage to Grandmothers
Oline H. Cogdill


marwoodakex darkestsecret
Some people call them Easter eggs, others little gems.

I call them bits of business, and sometimes homages.

I am referring to those little references to other authors that many writers include in their plots. A kind of wink-wink to readers.

Some writers will have their characters reading others’ novels. Some will have their characters run into another character, or even another author, making the encounter an organic part of the plot.

For example, in Ace Atkins Robert B. Parker’s Kickback, Boston private detective Spenser makes the evening news. His story is reported by Hank Phillippi Ryan, who, in addition to being the award-winning author of the Jane Ryland series, also is an award-winning television journalist, having won 32 Emmys and 13 Edward R. Murrow awards for her reporting.

But one of the most unusual—and poignant—references is in Alex Marwood’s newest novel, The Darkest Secret.

Marwood, who is profiled in the latest issue of Mystery Scene magazine (Fall 2016, No. 146), honors her grandmothers, who were both authors.

Marwood, whose real name is Serena Mackesy, comes from a line of authors.

Both her grandmothers were successful novelists in Great Britain. 

Her maternal grandmother was the award-winning Margaret Kennedy, whose novel The Constant Nymph was the top bestseller of the 1920s and was recently relaunched in the U.K.

Her paternal grandmother, Leonora Mackesy, supported her family by writing under the names Leonora Staff and Dorothy Rivers in the genre called “housemaids novels,” or, as Marwood added, “straight-up romance.”

So Marwood sprinkles references to her grandmothers’ works throughout The Darkest Secret. One character is referred to as The Constant Nymph.

There are references to The Midas Touch, which was published by Kennedy in 1938 and was a Daily Mail book of the month.

Marwood makes several references to works by her grandmothers, both of whom would, I think, be proud of their granddaughter’s gripping, well-plotted novels.

Oline Cogdill
Sunday, 25 September 2016 01:09
Paperback and Audiobook Sales Are Up
Oline H. Cogdill


girlonthetrain emilyblunt
I am not a fan of process stories—those statistics-laden stories meant to tell us how things work. Usually, they just make my eyes glaze over.

But when it comes to books and reading habits, I am happy to hear statistics that show good news.

According to The New York Times, paperback book sales are up. Independent bookstores are thriving again, and e-book sales have tumbled.

The Times reports: “Sales of adult books fell by 10.3 percent in the first three months of 2016, and children’s books dropped by 2.1 percent. E-book sales fell by 21.8 percent, and hardcover sales were down 8.5 percent. The strongest categories were digital audiobooks, which rose by 35.3 percent, and paperback sales, which were up by 6.1 percent.”

OK, so it is not all good news.

But any increase of books, no matter the platform, is good news.

The Times acknowledges that several factors might have made book sales at the beginning of this year slightly worse than those in the same period last year.

The Times states that “like the movie business, publishing depends heavily on a few outsize hits each season to drive profits. In the early part of this year, there wasn’t a huge, breakout bestseller, certainly nothing like 2015’s The Girl on the Train, which came out in January and sold two million copies in just over four months.”

But I am sure that we’ll see an increase in the sale of the paperback version of The Girl on the Train when the movie version comes out in a few weeks.

The advance clips of the film version, starring Emily Blunt (pictured), look great.

And I hope that inspires more people to buy Paula Hawkins’ book, as well as other mystery novels.

If you are looking for a list of mysteries written by women that are equal to or even better than The Girl on the Train, let me suggest a few: Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, Alex Marwood, Megan Abbott, Julia Keller, Clare Mackintosh, Jennifer McMahon, Val McDermid, Alafair Burke, Allison Brennan, Lisa Unger, Karin Slaughter, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Elizabeth Hand, and a slew of others.

And yes, there are an equal number of wonderful mystery writers who are men, but I am making the comparison to The Girl on the Train, not Boy on the Train.

Bottom line: read, buy books, buy audiobooks, buy paperbacks.

Just read.

Photo: Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train. Photo courtesy DreamWorks Pictures and Reliance Entertainment

Oline Cogdill
Wednesday, 28 September 2016 02:09
IQ
Kevin Burton Smith

The blurbs suggest that troubleshooter Isaiah “IQ” Quintabe’s debut is “part Tarantino, part Sherlock Holmes.”

Maybe. But I’d suggest there’s a healthy dollop of “gee whiz” à la Robert Arthur Jr.’s Three Investigators series in there, too. In particular the Investigators’ Jupiter Jones, a confident if eccentric young genius who trusts in logic. But IQ isn’t living in a loopy yet essentially benign white-bread SoCal suburb where evil lurks at the Scooby-Doo level. Nope, IQ’s universe is infinitely more dark and dirty, a Los Angeles where children disappear. For good. And people get killed. For real.

The novel, the first in a proposed series, alternates between origin story and detective story.

Here’s the meet-cute. Left on his own after his beloved older brother Marcus dies, Isaiah, an honor student, drops out of high school and reluctantly takes in a boarder, the sometime dealer Dodson, a pint-sized chatterbox and would-be gangsta and ladies man whose bark is worse than his bite. Dodson soon becomes Isaiah’s partner in a brief but mostly successful stint as professional thieves, and eventually serves as his Watson.

But the action also follows IQ, now in his twenties and working on the side of the angels as a local private eye who takes on, at Dodson’s urging, a “payday case.”

Seems someone sicced a gigantic pit bull dog on legendary rapper Black the Knife (aka “Calvin Wright”). But who sends a dog to kill a man? And, assuming it was a failed hit, who would hire such a person? The ex-wife? A professional rival? A member of his own entourage? Cal is willing to pay big bucks to find out.

The ensuing investigation is a hoot, caught somewhere between Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen, particularly when the canine-averse Dodson goes to the dogs. Meanwhile, Cal’s loosening grip on reality gets played for big laughs, and the assorted low-lifes, scam artists, hangers-on, and oddballs that fill Cal’s world aren’t exactly portraits of mental health either. Then there’s that gun-nut dog breeder....

Unfortunately, the two narrative threads too often simply run parallel, undercutting each other’s narrative push, making for an enjoyable but uneven read. But now that we’ve seen where Isaiah and Dodson have come from, I’m looking forward to seeing where they go next. Promising.

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 28 September 2016 07:09
Dangerous to Know (Anne Buist)
Vanessa Orr

Natalie King is a forensic psychiatrist battling her own mental illness. After a harrowing episode with depression, she moves to the country to recover and to escape the stress of her rash lifestyle choices, including an affair with a married man. Though she has left her troubles behind, she soon finds herself drawn to a man even more dangerous to her mental health. Natalie becomes obsessed with her new boss, Frank, and his pregnant wife after discovering that Frank’s pregnant first wife was killed under mysterious circumstances. Though Natalie believes that she has everything under control, acting as Frank’s confidante while also furtively analyzing his behavior, the reader can see her decompensating even as she revels in her therapeutic role.

The story alternates between Natalie’s and Frank’s points of view, showing the ways in which both of them attempt to manipulate the other, while also providing insights into Frank’s traumatic childhood and dangerous nature. The psychological cat-and-mouse interplay is interesting and it becomes hard to determine which person will crack first.

There are a number of subplots in the story, including a court case in which Natalie is pitted against her ex-lover, and a romantic story line between Natalie and a homicide detective. While hoping that she can change her self-destructive ways, both the reader and Natalie are all too aware that her need to live on the edge will likely lead to nothing good. It is still worth the read to watch her wage the battle.

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 28 September 2016 07:09