Joelle Charbonneau offers a feisty new addition to the ranks of amateur sleuths with the debut of Rebecca Robbins who returns to her insular hometown after her mother bequeaths her the family roller skating rink. Rebecca intends to make a quick trip to Indian Falls, Illinois to set up the sale of Toe Step before dashing back to Chicago and her job as a mortgage broker. Amid a charming set of nosy neighbors and old-time friends, she quickly discovers the body of rogue handyman Mack Murphy in the rink’s restroom, his head stuffed into a toilet. Convinced the slaying will affect the value of her property—now rumored to be haunted—Rebecca stays on to solve the crime. In doing so, she meets a sexy veterinarian, interacts with a retired circus camel, copes with a semi-senile sheriff, and frequently clashes with her rambunctious grandfather. Charbonneau charms the reader with a satisfying conclusion after small-town secrets bubble to the surface in this skating-themed mystery good for some free-wheelin’ fun.
Connelly first introduced defense attorney Mickey Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer. In The Brass Verdict an uneasy relationship developed between Haller and Connelly’s legendary homicide detective, Harry Bosch. In The Reversal the brothers must team up to retry a child killer.
After 24 years in prison, Jason Jessup’s murder conviction has been reversed due to newly processed DNA evidence. But the district attorney’s office believes he’s guilty and decides to retry the case. They recruit Haller to “switch sides” and become their chief prosecutor. Haller agrees, but only if he can use Bosch as his investigator. Jessup’s defense attorney claims he is an innocent man wrongly imprisoned, but Jessup’s ritualistic midnight jaunts belie the statement and alert Bosch to the man’s deadly intent. Connelly uses alternating chapters to track the strategies of his characters: Haller gives readers a detailed insider view of the justice system at work, Bosch focuses on standard investigative police procedures to find evidence and witnesses who will cinch Haller’s case.
Readers who enjoy courtroom dramas will find The Reversal fascinating. The dialogue is authentic and concise and the pace never drags. Real life spectators of this trial would never become bored. But fans of thrilling crime fiction, especially those who expect blood and bullets on every page, will be disappointed, at least until the final chapters when a shocking turn of events kicks the action into high gear. And although the trial’s conclusion won’t satisfy everyone, there are enough unanswered questions in Connelly’s denouement chapter to write a nice follow-up thriller.
The real-life disappearance of unpublished Hemingway manuscripts from a Paris train in 1922 forms the basis for this lighthearted mystery. Hemingway expert David Barnes claims to have gotten his hands on the missing stories and insurance investigator Daphne December “DD” McGil is hired to investigate their authenticity. But she finds David dead and no sign of the manuscripts. Over the next few days, she races around on the trail of the Hemingway papers while sandwiching in new assignments and new men, both of which she finds difficult to turn down. As more bodies fall around her, DD’s status as a murder suspect rises.
Hunting for Hemingway scrambles along at a frantic pace, packing in so many subplots and characters that they’re hard to keep straight. Inconsistencies and excessive references to past cases also mar the book, but the firm grounding in Hemingway lore saves it. Chapter heads include pithy Hemingway quotations. The Chicago setting leads naturally to stories of Hemingway’s unhappy boyhood in the household of his overbearing mother Grace, and allows DD to become embroiled in the battles of the local Oak Park Hemingway Trust. An explanation of how a manuscript can be faked will make fascinating reading for literati and collectors.
For the non-literary, Madsen includes local Chicago points of interest, technical details on crime scene investigation and copyright law, exciting chase scenes, and a cinematic climax. Hunting for Hemingway is Madsen’s second Literati Mystery after last year’s A Cadger’s Curse, concerning Scottish poet Robert Burns.
Lisa Black’s skillful mix of fact with fiction elevates the third novel in her series about Cleveland forensic scientist Theresa MacLean. Trail of Blood works well as an historical novel and a police procedural, giving a glimpse of Cleveland’s past and its present.
During the Great Depression, a murderer called the Torso Killer terrorized Cleveland, claiming at least 12 lives and possibly more, dismembering their bodies and scattering them around the city. Most of the victims were drifters or the working poor who lived in the city’s shantytown. The killer was never found, despite efforts by Eliot Ness, who was the city’s public safety director at the time.
Those are the facts. Black uses that background as a springboard for a tightly wound story that alternates between Cleveland of the 1930s and today. In Trail of Blood, Theresa and her cousin, police detective Frank Patrick, are called to an abandoned building where a decapitated body has been found in a room that has been sealed for decades. The decayed body turns out to be James Miller, an honest cop who had been investigating the Torso Murders before his disappearance in 1936. Was he a victim of the killer he sought? Soon a crop of new victims indicates a copycat killer may be at work.
Black, a former forensic scientist, keeps the level of suspense high as she adeptly switches the action from the 1930s to present day, contrasting Cleveland’s atmosphere and nuances during the Great Depression with those of the 21st century. The author succinctly contrasts Theresa’s devotion to her work with that of James, also a skillful investigator, in the 1930s. Black also lets us see James as a husband and a cop whose refusal to take bribes, like the other detectives in his squad, put a strain on his marriage. The complicated, insightful Theresa continues to show her mettle as an investigator while dealing with a tangled personal life, and the affectionate banter between her and her cousin, Frank, adds real human warmth to Black’s chilling Trail of Blood.
Recently returned from Alexandria to ancient Rome, Marcus Didius Falco is surrounded by death: His father and his newborn son have died on the same day. While sorting out his father’s affairs, he learns that one of his father’s business associates and the man’s wife have gone missing following a border dispute with the Claudii, a lawless group of freedmen. Then a horribly mutilated corpse turns up. Partly to escape his own problems, Falco begins to investigate, aided by his friend, the vigile Petronius. Their enquiry leads them outside Rome, to the pestilential Pontine Marshes where they “one of the most dangerous areas on earth” and back home again, finding menace everywhere.
Davis’ 20th book once again proves why the Falco series is eternally popular among historical mystery fans. To a complicated plot, she adds a wealth of historical detail and a chatty narrative style—often throwing in pieces of gossip about historical characters and places. A dramatis personae appears at the beginning of the story; her cast of characters is large enough to require it. The language occasionally veers into modern British colloquialisms, as when Falco calls a character “po-faced,” but in the author’s hands the language sounds informal and accessible rather than anachronistic.
Crooked Letter’s solitary Southern voyeur and co-protagonist Larry Ott is a Stephen King-devouring outcast. Growing up in late-’70s rural Mississippi, he is friendless until the day Silas Jones appears, with his mother, on the side of the road, and Larry’s father stops to give the coatless pair a ride on a chilly March morning. This glimpse into the past captures an innocent time for both boys—one black, one white—before Silas learns the consequences of fraternizing with white folks, and before a teenage Larry becomes “Scary Larry” following a first date with a girl who is never heard from again.
In present-day Chabot, Mississippi, Jones is the town constable, responsible for directing traffic when the shifts change at the Rutherford Lumber Mill, removing snakes from mailboxes, and other similarly unglamorous duties. When the Rutherford family’s daughter goes missing, however, the search becomes priority no. 1, and suspicions fall again on Scary Larry, who was never proven guilty in the earlier case, but also never forgiven by the town.
For reasons both professional and personal, Jones has long been careful to avoid his childhood association with Ott. But as the investigation unfolds, Silas faces a moral dilemma. He can reveal his links to Larry and possibly compromise his authority, or remain silent and let a troubled soul stand alone in the face of the community's fear and loathing.
There are any number of ways in which this flashback-heavy, literary crime novel could fall flat, but it avoids contrivance with its pitch perfect dialogue, unhurried small-town pacing, and day-in-the-life faithfulness to its characters.
Unlike the aforementioned King of verbosity, Tom Franklin is a model of literary economy, creating intimate portraits of his characters in just a few well-crafted early scenes. As each carefully-built piece of the puzzle falls into place, the 270-page novel finishes as tidily as one of Franklin’s short stories, which, as the author’s Best Short Story Edgar Award for 1999’s “Poachers” confirms, makes it a pretty good bet.
Ella Clah, a special investigator of the Navajo Tribal Police and former FBI agent, is arriving by small plane at an airport near Shiprock, New Mexico when a team of attackers open fire with automatic weapons. Although Ella is relatively unscathed, Kevin Tolino, her former lover and father of her 11-year-old daughter, and Adam Lonewolf, a national war hero for his actions in Afghanistan, are critically injured.
Thus begins a twisted tale that involves Navajo traditionalists versus modernists, casino operators accused of stealing funds from the tribe, death threats and old grudges. Also involved is a group trying to bring much needed revenue to the reservation with the Prickly Weed Project. The only problem with the plan is that one family clan will have to vacate their ancestral grazing land.
As Clah and her law enforcement partners try to find just who was the target of the ambush at the airport, tensions rise on the reservation over the land project, and soon both situations threaten to become violent. This is the 15th book in the Ella Clah series by authors Aimée and David Thurlo. The 26,000 square mile reservation is located within the states of New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. The Thurlos have done their research thoroughly and their portrayal of the Diné (Navajos, known as The People), their culture, and the arid landscape surrounding them is right on.
But what really brings the story to life are the characters, especially Clah, her mother Rose, brother Clifford, and FBI agent Dwayne Blalock, who are finely drawn and represent the spectrum of beliefs on the reservation. This is a book and series worth exploring, especially for readers interested in Native American culture. The mystery is complex, the tension high, and the plot bends and folds like a never-ending snake.
Louise Penny is fast becoming my favorite living mystery writer, and her latest book is, simply speaking, a masterpiece.
Inspector Armand Gamache is recovering from the physical and psychic wounds suffered in a case gone wrong. While on leave visiting his old mentor in Québec City, a mysterious death occurs at the Literary and Historical Society there, and he is reluctantly pulled into the case. Meanwhile, at his request, his second-in-command, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, also not fully recovered, has been sent to the small village of Three Pines to determine if the right man was convicted of a murder six months earlier.
As Gamache investigates the death of a fanatical historian who spent his life trying to find the body of Québec’s founder, Samuel de Champlain, Beauvoir is slowly coming to doubt that the right man was convicted in Three Pines.
The two mysteries alternate throughout the novel, and they are intriguing puzzles indeed. But what brings this book to another level is the highly nuanced writing that gets us into the minds of the main characters. This sixth book in the series is longer than most novels, but is a fast read that will keep you mesmerized until the surprising and satisfying conclusion.
Elizabeth “Lizzy” Tucker seems to be the anti-Stephanie Plum. For one thing, she is blonde versus brunette. For another, she was raised in homogenous northern Virginia and now lives in quaint coastal Massachusetts, rather than gritty, multi-ethnic New Jersey. And as a cupcake chef at Dazzle’s Bakery in nearby Salem, she uses her oven for more than warming up takeout pizza.
And yet…Lizzy has not only inherited her Great Aunt Ophelia’s historic house in Marblehead, she seems to have been willed several of Stephanie’s prized recent companions: the golden now-you-see-him-now- you-don’t Diesel of the Between the Numbers series (Visions of Sugar Plums to Plum Spooky), and his dark-haired dark-hearted cousin Gerwulf “Wulf” Grimoire (Plum Spooky), as well as etiquette-challenged Carl the Monkey (Fearless Fourteen, Plum Spooky). Automobiles of various makes and models are also despoiled, then replaced. So to say that Wicked Appetite kicks off a “new” series from author Janet Evanovich is a stretch.
And yet…Evanovich cooks up plenty of half-baked wackiness to nourish a tasty tale. It turns out that Lizzy, like Diesel, is an “Unmentionable”—a more-or-less mortal with special skills. Diesel’s employers (the Board of Unmentionable Marshalls, or BUM) need Lizzy’s ability to scout out a collection of ancient relics known as the SALIGIA Stones, which represent the Seven Deadly Sins. Rumor has it that all have been secreted in Salem, and it’s a madcap race to find the keepers of these “magic charms” before Wulf tracks them down for his own less-benevolent purposes. With Gluttony at the top of the scavenger list in this outing, expect appetites of all sorts to run ravenous.
Evanovich also serves up Lizzy with side dishes of sidekicks: bakery owner and former Unmentionable Clara Dazzle, coworker and amateur spell-caster Glo, and a one-eyed ninja house pet named Cat 7143. This being Salem and an Evanovich novel, it’s hard to tell the normal from the paranormal. You don’t have to possess Unmentionable powers to guess that at least six more Diesel and Lizzy adventures are on the menu. So far, the whimsical banter and over-the-top subplots have a familiar flavor. And yet… As Diesel says to Lizzy, “If this is what happens to you with the Gluttony Stone, I can’t wait until we go after Lust.”
Are there secrets to series that just keep getting better and better with each new book? Whatever those magic ingredients may be, Colin Cotterill has them all in ample supply in his delightful Dr. Siri Paiboun books. Setting? How about Vientiane, Laos following the Vietnam War when the communists took control. Characters? Meet 74-year-old Dr. Siri, coroner for the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, who takes delight in bucking the system. With help from his assistants, Nurse Dtui, and handyman Mr. Geung, he manages to run a lab that is unlike any seen on TV. It lacks…well, just about everything. That he is on speaking terms with the spirit world is an added bonus. Story? Intrigue, suspense and adventure in every book.
In Love Songs from a Shallow Grave, Siri, who refuses to let a mystery go unsolved, is faced with the murders of three young women, all stabbed with a fencing sword, a weapon not readily found in Laos. Uncovering the murderer and the motive behind the killings is the focus of the “whodunit” aspect of the book, and a more puzzling and absorbing mystery would be hard to find.
The story takes a more somber turn when Siri, as part of an official delegation, travels to Cambodia, despite dire warnings from friends. Cotterill shows us just how barbaric the Khmer Rouge were and brings the “killing fields” into focus.
I can’t recommend Love Songs from a Shallow Grave highly enough. If you have never read any of the series, it might be best to start at the beginning with The Coroner’s Lunch (Soho Press, 2004). You are in for a wonderful experience.
In this epic debut, author William Ryan proves that Moscow during The Great Purge, a campaign of political persecution under Stalin in the 1930s, was a far more terrifying and paranoid place than any noir novel. With people disappearing off the streets daily, it could seem a bit beside the point to tell the story of Captain Alexei Korolev of Moscow’s criminal division and his attempt to solve a couple of brutal and connected homicides—but even the most corrupt government has use for a good cop.
The murders concern an Orthodox nun found in a decommissioned church, and a master thief dumped in a sports stadium. The mystery, which involves stolen religious icons being sold abroad, is solid, but what elevates William Ryan’s debut is his use of time and place in the city of Moscow. The Holy Thief is a big novel that stretches across many sectors of Soviet society, and Ryan’s depiction of the city is as lively as Holmes’ London. Captain Korolev is constantly in motion, from the precinct to the streets, and into the worlds of the criminal underground, the exiled Orthodox Church, the alleys populated by children left orphaned by The Purge, and, most frighteningly, the interrogation rooms of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). Along the way, Korolev bumps into all sorts of historical figures: Stalin and his brutal proteges, Ezhov and Molotov, who drive through town and are cheered as heroes; and Korolev’s upstairs neighbor, the doomed,
Jewish, writer of The Odessa Tales, Isaac Babel. Though besieged by a reign of terror, Moscow through Korolev’s eyes is still a place full of possibilities. He’s lived through the Revolution and civil war. He can spout Marxist and Leninist philosophy, and still fully believes in the Soviet State. This is a great beginning to a series, and readers will surely want to stick with Korolev in subsequent volumes, which promise to turn even darker.
Who doesn’t love koalas? With their pushed-in faces accented by goo-goo eyes, their long arms ready to cuddle, and their diet of eucalyptus leaves that puts them into a perpetual sleepy state, they are impossible to resist. And the little guys make an interesting back story for Betty Webb’s charming second novel about California zoo keeper Theodora “Teddy” Bentley.
First, keep in mind that no koalas—or animals of any kind—are harmed during the fast-paced The Koala of Death. Instead, Webb delivers an energetic story about greed behind the façade of high society and false philanthropy. The Koala of Death also explores the quirky nature of people who are most at ease among animals. Teddy finds the body of “Koala” Kate Nido, the personality behind Gunn Zoo’s weekly TV segment and newsletter. Teddy is pulled into the investigation when clues point to her fellow zoo keepers and some of her neighbors, who live on boats at the harbor where Kate’s body was found. Teddy also becomes a target of jealousy when she inherits Kate’s TV and newsletter assignments.
Webb balances well-timed humor, the absurd behavior of people, facts about animals, and a behind-the-scenes look at zoos in the deftly plotted The Koala of Death. Scenes at the TV station during which the animals act like, well, animals are hysterical, but counterbalanced by the serious aspects of the investigation. Wild animals can pale next to the wild nature of humans.
Webb, who also writes the Lena Jones series set in the Southwest, continues to show new sides of the likable Teddy, who despite her proclivity for trouble, prefers the simple life, which includes her own pets and a relationship with her high school sweetheart, Sheriff Joe Rejas. And while Teddy is annoyed by her wealthy mother’s nosiness and her constant matchmaking, the two have a loving relationship.
The Vaults takes place in 1932 against the backdrop of a corrupt and dangerous metropolis simply referred to as “The City.” The tale begins as Arthur Puskis, archivist of the Vault, the repository of all of the City’s police records, finds duplicate files indistinguishable to a layman, but wildly different to the eyes of an expert like himself. This discovery prompts Puskis to start asking uncomfortable questions, the answers to which point him to the mysterious Navajo Project involving criminals who simply vanish after they are convicted. Puskis doesn’t know it, but his investigations are being paralleled by newspaperman Frank Frings, and shady PI Ethan Poole. This sudden attention angers the corrupt powers behind the Navajo Project, putting everyone in danger.
I say this with great respect, as I revere the work of the legendary comic artist Will Eisner: The Vault feels like a novel adaptation of one of Eisner’s classic Spirit comics. All the classic elements are there: a dark, dank city, larger than life villains (Mayor “Red” Henry and his enforcer, Feral Basu), bizarre subplots which eventually merge in satisfying ways, the humor, the pathos, the simple humanity the sudden, brutal, shocking violence—all combining in a satisfying noirish stew.
Astonishingly, Toby Ball is a first-time novelist. The Vaults succeeds on every level, in its language, plotting, and ability to enthrall readers.
It’s all trick, and no treat, when the owner of the scrapbooking store Memory Mine, Carmela Bertrand, and her best friend Ava Gruiex stumble upon the dead body of Brett Fowler, one of New Orleans’ most notorious float krewe captains. Soon the friends are “in a jam” when their good friend Jekyl Hardy becomes the number one suspect and asks for help—Carmela’s boyfriend is the lead homicide detective on the case, after all. Turns out plenty of people had reason to hate Fowler. He was running a Ponzi scheme that left a lot of people high and dry, including Carmela’s mean-spirited ex-sister-in-law who hired a thuggish private detective to investigate the fraud. Fowler’s widow isn’t exactly upset about his demise either, in the face of evidence of his philandering.
Readers of previous Scrapbooking Mystery titles will enjoy seeing Carmela continue to move on from ex-husband Shamus Meechum—even if her current relationship with Lt. Edgar Babcock isn’t always smooth sailing. That said, for being eight books along, the other characters in the series are largely two-dimensional. They’re fun to read about but hard to connect to.
The strong story in Fiber & Brimstone kept me reading despite the book’s shortcomings, and readers of hobby mysteries will enjoy untangling the myriad suspects and plot strands. And while the whodunnit won’t be too hard to figure out for veteran sleuths, the why is a bit more challenging.
Laura Lippman’s latest standalone is a fascinating study of the psychological effects on both the hunter and the hunted. At age 15 Elizabeth Lerner was abducted by Walter Bowman. She was not the first, nor the last, young girl he took, but she was the only one he didn’t murder.
Years later, Elizabeth, married with two children of her own, receives a letter from Walter who is on death row awaiting execution. He claims he wants to see her to apologize for what he did. Her first reaction is to ignore him, but he is persistent and she gives in to him a little at a time. Initially it is frustrating and puzzling trying to fathom Eliza’s actions and the reader will wonder why she just doesn’t tell him off and get on with her life. But, like life itself, it just isn’t that simple.
Is Walter playing a cat and mouse game with Elizabeth? And if so, why? What hold did he have over her and does he still have it? Why did he let her live yet murder others? Was she a willing victim helping him lure other young girls into his truck? These and other questions keep the reader turning pages until the surprising, yet logical conclusion.
Readers used to the author’s more action-packed writing may find the pace of this more meditative departure a little slow at times, especially in the beginning. But don’t give up on it. The talented Lippman creates some very real, very compelling characters who will linger in the mind long after the book ends. Highly recommended to those who like an intellectual puzzle told with expert skill.
The titles of Arnaldur Indridason’s Icelandic police procedurals seem to reflect not only the wintry land in which they are set, but the chilling crimes that are committed there. His latest novel is no exception. Hypothermia, or death by freezing, is often the way nature kills the unwary in the Arctic. Evidently man has learned a lot from nature.
When a woman’s body is found hanging from a beam in the living room of her lakeside cottage, the local police call it a suicide and the case is closed. However, when Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson of the Reykjavík police visits the husband with the news, casual questioning about the victim stirs up an unusual amount of animosity. In an unofficial investigation, Erlendur follows his suspicions, meticulously examining inconsistencies and questioning multiple witnesses until an unthinkable truth emerges.
Readers will discover that the central crimes in Indridason’s novels, as in real life, don’t always have satisfying conclusions. Fortunately the author weaves into his stories fascinating subplots with solutions that deliver their own rewards. And always in the background is the personal, unsolved tragedy that keeps his protagonist restless and melancholy.
Indridason’s lean, uncluttered writing reflects the harsh, sometimes bleak landscape of his native Iceland. His descriptions are brief but vivid, like contrasting images in a black and white film. An intricately plotted and complex crime thriller, Hypothermia has a “chill factor” way below zero.
Sebastian Stuart, an established writer of plays, screenplays, and books (as well as partner of prominent gay author Stephen McCauley), introduces his Janet’s Planet series in this acerbic first installment. One of the first things readers will notice is the sarcastic, witty manner in which Janet, series protagonist, thinks and speaks. Janet never minces words, particularly as she narrates this mystery. Who is Janet, you wonder? Janet is Janet Petrocelli, a refugee from New York City (much like her author) and her successful, but taxing, career as a psychotherapist. Like many similarly situated heroines in the cozy genre, Janet is also recovering from unhappy romantic attachments. Again, like many other characters, she mistakes a bucolic location for a tranquil one.
Appearances deceive as Janet sets up shop as a collectibles dealer in a small Hudson Valley town. Ironically, the inhabitants of this town are every bit as mentally disturbed—perhaps even deranged—as Janet’s former patients. But maybe that goes along with old money and the eccentric characters who have it—or, rather, used to have it.
Certainly, that is the case here, as a potential customer, one of the shabby-genteel members of the previously moneyed Livingston clan, is murdered, and Janet discovers the body. Unlike the local constabulary, who conveniently dispose of the evidence, Janet believes that murder, rather than suicide, has occurred. Accordingly, she investigates the truly mad Livingstons, a clan who bring to readers’ minds the two Edie Beales of Albert and David Maysles cult documentary Grey Gardens—even without Stuart’s many allusions to his inspiration. Not surprisingly, money and ambition impede the investigation, but Janet ultimately prevails.
This book is an amusing romp, but, from the beginning, I found Janet to be an unconvincing character (distractingly so), because, quite frankly, she doesn’t ring true as a woman. Why, one wonders, did Stuart decide to create a female protagonist when a gay male character would have been more credible? You tell me.
There is a crime novel, of sorts, in this award-winning Canadian journalist’s first full-length foray into fiction, but it’s buried under the rubble of a crazy, blackhearted maelstrom of desperation, suicide, drugs, Bob Seger, memory, and delusion. Certainly there’s enough crime here—everything from gambling and drugs to murder and horse theft—to keep crime fans happy, but this is, more correctly, a novel of bleak self-discovery and dark redemption.
Mason Dubisee, a Toronto journalist and would-be novelist whose life went off the rails long ago, returns home after years of wandering, gambling, booze, drugs and squandered talent, to be taken in by childhood friend and current drug dealer Chaz. The action follows Mason’s quixotic struggle as a vendor of hot dogs near City Hall, a coke-fuelled gambler on a major losing streak, an addict sweating through recovery, and eventually, a potentially lucrative career as a professional writer of suicide notes. It’s the latter that ultimately puts Mason in the crosshairs of Seth, a charming but sadistic sociopath—and finally lights a fire under the sputtering plot. Fortunately, the finely rendered rogues’ gallery of memorable but damaged characters—the beautiful wheelchair-bound junkie Willie; the sad, shy, guilt-ridden Warren; the unloved, obese Sissy; the suicidal performance artist Soon; and Chaz, the amiable criminal, among others—and a barrage of pop culture name dropping (hey, it’s a Toronto novel, after all) will keep patient readers turning the pages of this often disheartening but ultimately rewarding book. In fact, with its lovingly drawn broken characters, ruminations about the act of writing, the fragility of life, the lies we tell ourselves to keep on going, and a GOTCHA! climatic confrontation between Mason and Seth that finally wraps all those disparate threads together, this bleak, frequently nasty but always literate novel reads like a film noir pounded out by a pissed-off, hung-over John Irving.
Over the years, the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Private Eye Novel Contest has proven to be a wonderful spotting ground for new talent in the genre—particularly if their first name is Michael. Joining Michaels Kronenwetter, Wiley, Koryta, and Siverling is Pittsburgh scribe Michael Ayoob, whose winning contribution, In Search of Mercy, may just be the best one yet—and certainly one of the most original.
Former star high school goalie Dexter Bolzjak is a real nowhere man, an empty shell still trying to make some sense out of a life shattered by his traumatic assault and sexual humiliation by a gang of sports fans. Definitely not your typical PI background. But then, Dexter isn’t really a private eye at all. At the ripe old age of 25, he’s not exactly setting the world on fire: He’s a sorter (onions are his specialty) at a Pittsburgh fruit and vegetable warehouse; he sleeps in a cot in the curtained off corner of a friend’s mom’s basement; and he’s estranged from both of his divorced parents. No prospects, no girlfriend, nothing. Then Lou Kashon, an aging, sickly alcoholic, makes him an offer he can’t refuse—find out what happened to Mercy Carnahan, a reclusive film noir star who disappeared more than 40 years ago. Tempted by the dying Lou’s dresser drawer full of money, and realizing he can’t live in a basement forever, Dexter agrees, unaware that there’s more to the actress’ disappearance than originally suspected—or that in the age of online streaming video, the past is never really over.
The rundown, rusted glory of a dying steel town is the perfect backdrop for this surprisingly moving tale of broken dreams and broken lives, pain and healing, and ultimately, desperation and courage. More, please.
The always-redoubtable Archer Mayor offers his 21st police procedural featuring Joe Gunther, who now heads the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, and it could well be the best in this outstanding series. There is no apparent motive in the slaying of 54-year-old Doreen Ferenc, a spinster who combines seemingly tame hobbies with twice-daily visits to her mother, who is confined to a nursing home. She does have ties to McNaughton Trucking Co., where she worked as executive secretary for many years to both the patriarch of the firm and his obnoxious son who inherited the business.
Gunther and his entertaining team of detectives are examining that link when more apparently motive-less murders are discovered. The one clue found at each scene is a lone drop of blood, not matching each other or the victims.
Meanwhile, Gunther is nurturing his new relationship with tavern owner Lyn Silva while his ex-flame, Gail Zigman, runs for governor in a campaign that soon turns nasty over the issue of police invading the privacy of citizens.
Mayor combines superb plotting with stellar characters in a complex tale wrapped up with the author’s usual expertise. The reader will never see the ending coming. Promise.
An astute reader will nail the murderer early on in this first in a new series from Kay Finch (PI Corie McKenna series), but her engaging characters will keep him or her reading.
Houston divorcée Poppy Cartwright is a professional organizer and the proprietor of Klutter Killer. She suddenly finds herself with two major projects that have pressing deadlines—culling debris from the Sugar Town home of her 70-year-old Aunt Millie before the weekend arrival of her snarky stock broker cousin Janice, and tidying up the detritus in the mansion inherited by Hollywood lighting expert Steve Featherstone. Add to that the unexpected arrival home of her college-dropout son, Kevin, and Poppy has her gloved hands full separating trash from treasure.
Things go from hectic to hellacious when Poppy discovers a corpse with severed hands amidst the jumble in her aunt’s garage. A second victim soon surfaces, adding to the puzzle. When her son becomes a suspect, Poppy sets out to find the killer before no-nonsense homicide detective Rae Troxell makes an arrest. In her quest, she encounters an enigmatic handyman; a mysterious red-haired neighbor who entertains an inordinate number of daytime visitors; an overbearing homeowners’ association leader; and a cast of others with possible links to the double murders.
Although the conclusion is somewhat lackluster, Finch does a marvelous job with her characterizations. Poppy Cartwright is a welcome addition to the mystery world, and hopefully she and her cast of idiosyncratic relatives will return for more mayhem.
This is a treasure trove for anyone interested in the early 20th-century mystery scene, mostly but not exclusively concerning Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. A few samples of the wonders to be found: a description of Carolyn Wells’ library; a letter challenging ophthalmologist Doyle’s understanding of eyeglass lenses in “The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez”; a 1929 profile of Anna Katharine Green, then 83, and her distress at contemporary detective fiction (“We wrote for love of our work…. They, it seems, write only for dollars”); a 1927 piece by Doyle on “The Alleged Posthumous Writings of Known Authors,” which is very logically developed provided you accept both his premise (the reality of Spiritualism) and the reliability of his evidence; a humorous 1929 account by Vincent Starrett of some of his experiences as a journalist, including a 1909 meeting with an elderly suffragist who assured him that “The Vatican, you know, is terribly Roman Catholic”; contemporary reviews of some of Doyle’s books, Sherlockian and otherwise; and the ongoing friendly disagreement between senior editor Henry Thurston Peck, who was prescient enough to know the Baker Street sleuth represented Doyle’s literary legacy, and junior editor Arthur Bartlett Maurice, who preferred his non-Holmes work.
A substantial preface recounts the history of The Bookman, which was based on a British model, and the lives of its editors. Dahlinger and Klinger provide helpful annotations throughout, identifying references that might be obscure to today’s readers. A couple of errors were noted: S.S. Van Dine published more than two novels after 1929, and Clemence Dane was not a pseudonym of Helen Simpson.
Though most of this volume’s contents are fiction, it is most valuable as another contribution to pulp magazine scholarship by editor/publisher Locke, following his 2008 volumes From Ghouls to Gangsters: The Career of Arthur B. Reeve and Gang Pulp. Fifteen pages provide a history of a short-lived pulp subgenre, represented by the six issues of Prison Stories (1930-31). Black-and-white reproductions of all six covers are included. Another 34 pages recount the biography of Harold Hersey, longtime pulp editor and publisher, partially based on his 1937 memoir Pulpwood Editor. There follow eight pages on the authors represented, some of them pseudonyms of Henry Leverage, the ex-con whose writing talent and real-life experience influenced Hersey in founding the magazine and whose death in February 1931 presumably hastened its demise. Original illustrations are included with the dozen stories, one of which, “Cell Number Seventeen,” by Leverage writing as Edward Letchmere, will be of special interest to locked-room buffs. Following the stories and a brief editorial by Hersey is a 21-page selection from “Kites from Stir,” the magazine’s letters column.
Yum! Jessica Beck’s Glazed Murder is, hands down, the most scrumptious mystery to appear during the spring publishing season. This superb series opener features likable North Carolina donut shop owner Suzanne Hart. Liberated from a failed marriage, Suzanne invests her divorce settlement funds in a donut shop in small town April Springs. Suzanne works day and night—or, rather, from well before dawn to noon—to operate her shop, frying up, with the help of one assistant, a variety of donuts each morning. Growing and maintaining the shop is hard work, of course, but it becomes even more taxing when the body of a customer is dumped in front of her shop. Why was this seemingly innocuous man slain, and why is his corpse discarded near Donut Hearts, Suzanne’s cozy shop?
With the help of friends, Suzanne investigates, uncovering scandalous information about doings in her sleepy town. Beck’s plot is engaging, but the most delectable portion of the book is the wonderful set of donut recipes. I should tell you that ever since I’ve read Glazed Murder, I’ve had an insatiable craving for donuts, so if you’re serious about that diet, beware the caloric content of this mouth-watering mystery.