Rufus Sewell's Zen Moments
Oline Cogdill

titleI've written several times about the images we have in mind when we read our favorite mystery series. Since we are surrounded daily by pop culture, often those images involve actors.

And it's not just we readers who think about who could play a particular character.

Take the movie Lincoln Lawyer, based on Michael Connelly's novel and now out on DVD and Blu-ray. I was dubious when I first heard that Matthew McConaughey would play Mickey Haller in the screen version. But McConaughey's portrayal of the attorney whose office is the back seat of his Lincoln is one of his best performances since A Time to Kill.

I may not have envisioned McConaughey as Mickey Haller, but Connelly did.

Apparently while watching McConaughey in a movie, Connelly told his wife that the actor would make a good Mickey Haller. He even put his opinion in his latest novel The Fifth Witness during a scene in which a producer asks Haller which actor does the attorney think should play him. He says Matthew McConaughey, "of course."

Which leads me to Zen, the series currently airing Sundays on PBS and based on the late Michael Dibdin's novels featuring Roman police detective Aurelio Zeno  -- best known as Zen.

Rufus Sewell makes an impressive Zen, delving into the detective's perceptive nature, his humor, his frustration with corruption and the way he circumvents the system yet remains incorruptible.

The British actor makes us believe he is indeed an Italian cop. In addition to Zen, Sewell has appeared in Cold Comfort Farm, Middlemarch, Dark City, and The Pillars of the Earth. He played Dr. Jacob Hood in the TV series The Eleventh Hour. Sewell also does a lot of stage work in Great Britain and New York.

Sewell can appear both rumpled and debonair at the same time, especially when dealing with women.

As a personal, aside, Sewell is a darn good-looking man. This is alluded to a couple of times during Zen, though one character says she thinks he resembles Joaquin Phoenix. I think that character needed glasses.

So judge for yourself Sewell's portrayal of Aurelio Zeno. The second episode of Zen entitled "Cabal" airs July 24.

In "Cabal," the Ministry of Justice wants Zen to rule that a disgraced aristocrat committed suicide despite the evidence that suggests murder. But a powerful female prosecutor, who wants to make Zen an offer he cannot refuse, wants the detective to find a murderer. Was the secretive Cabal, which apparently has members at all levels of Italian society, behind the death?

Zen, which aired last year in Britain, also is available on DVD or Blu-ray.

Zen airs at 9 p.m. July 24 and July 31 on PBS. Check your local station for additional airings or change in times.

Photo: Rufus Sewell as Aurelio Zeno.PBS photo 

Super User 2
Sunday, 24 July 2011 06:07

titleI've written several times about the images we have in mind when we read our favorite mystery series. Since we are surrounded daily by pop culture, often those images involve actors.

And it's not just we readers who think about who could play a particular character.

Take the movie Lincoln Lawyer, based on Michael Connelly's novel and now out on DVD and Blu-ray. I was dubious when I first heard that Matthew McConaughey would play Mickey Haller in the screen version. But McConaughey's portrayal of the attorney whose office is the back seat of his Lincoln is one of his best performances since A Time to Kill.

I may not have envisioned McConaughey as Mickey Haller, but Connelly did.

Apparently while watching McConaughey in a movie, Connelly told his wife that the actor would make a good Mickey Haller. He even put his opinion in his latest novel The Fifth Witness during a scene in which a producer asks Haller which actor does the attorney think should play him. He says Matthew McConaughey, "of course."

Which leads me to Zen, the series currently airing Sundays on PBS and based on the late Michael Dibdin's novels featuring Roman police detective Aurelio Zeno  -- best known as Zen.

Rufus Sewell makes an impressive Zen, delving into the detective's perceptive nature, his humor, his frustration with corruption and the way he circumvents the system yet remains incorruptible.

The British actor makes us believe he is indeed an Italian cop. In addition to Zen, Sewell has appeared in Cold Comfort Farm, Middlemarch, Dark City, and The Pillars of the Earth. He played Dr. Jacob Hood in the TV series The Eleventh Hour. Sewell also does a lot of stage work in Great Britain and New York.

Sewell can appear both rumpled and debonair at the same time, especially when dealing with women.

As a personal, aside, Sewell is a darn good-looking man. This is alluded to a couple of times during Zen, though one character says she thinks he resembles Joaquin Phoenix. I think that character needed glasses.

So judge for yourself Sewell's portrayal of Aurelio Zeno. The second episode of Zen entitled "Cabal" airs July 24.

In "Cabal," the Ministry of Justice wants Zen to rule that a disgraced aristocrat committed suicide despite the evidence that suggests murder. But a powerful female prosecutor, who wants to make Zen an offer he cannot refuse, wants the detective to find a murderer. Was the secretive Cabal, which apparently has members at all levels of Italian society, behind the death?

Zen, which aired last year in Britain, also is available on DVD or Blu-ray.

Zen airs at 9 p.m. July 24 and July 31 on PBS. Check your local station for additional airings or change in times.

Photo: Rufus Sewell as Aurelio Zeno.PBS photo 

At the Scene, Summer Issue #120
Kate Stine

120cover_250Hi everyone!

It’s a long way from Gone with the Wind to any of Karin Slaughter’s gripping, graphic and up-to-the-minute thrillers. While Slaughter (her real name, by the way) first aspired to be another Margaret Mitchell, this child of the New South soon found her true subject: violence, particularly violence against women, and its repercussions. Slaughter’s hard-hitting latest novel, Fallen (June), features characters from both of her Georgia-based series and is an excellent place for new readers to begin. By the way, as part of her book tour for Fallen, Slaughter will be hosting fundraisers for local libraries. Find out more about Save the Libraries on page 34.

Jeff Abbott’s first idea for a new thriller hero—a traveling book editor—was “laughed at by my agent,” he notes ruefully in our interview in this issue. So Abbott came up with Sam Capra, a brilliant young CIA agent living in London whose pregnant wife is kidnapped on the same day he is framed as a traitor. The aptly named Adrenaline is a big hit around the Mystery Scene office and we’re looking forward to more in this new series. Mickey Spillane would often proclaim: “I’m not an author. I’m a writer.” In “The Murders in Memory Lane,” Larry Block ponders the subtleties of that statement—with a little help from the French author Colette— and concludes that Mickey was probably right. But as Larry points out, no matter what you thought of his books, everyone liked Mickey himself. A lot.

(My thanks to Max Allan Collins, Mickey’s friend and frequent collaborator, for his help with the Spillane book list on page 52.)

When the nine-year-old Megan Abbott first saw the classic Rita Hayworth film Gilda, she distinctly remembers thinking “This is what life is.” Some years and a literary career of her own later, she reconsiders in her essay “Bar Nothing.”

Decades after the Golden Age of Mystery ended, James Anderson’s lighthearted puzzles both parodied and paid homage to classic tropes of yesteryear. The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy, The Affair of the Thirty-Nine Cufflinks and The Affair of the Mutilated Mink are just as delightful as their titles suggest—and they have no bigger fan than Jon L. Breen who discusses them in this issue.

Figuring out if a book is a true first edition is often surprisingly complicated—but vital. As Nate Pederson notes in his column, “Properly identifying a subtle variant in a printing of an edition can turn a $5 thrift store find into a $150 collectable book.”

Also in this issue, Katherine Hall Page discusses the enduring appeal of Mary Stewart’s novels of romantic suspense, and Kevin Burton Smith looks at William Ard, whose untimely death in 1960 robbed the genre of a potential hardboiled master. We also chat with Juliet Blackwell, whose Lily Ivory mysteries about a young witch in San Francisco offer spells, demons, romance...and some interesting thoughts on a gifted woman finding her place in the world.

Over the summer, we will be publishing more original articles, book reviews, and commentary at the MS Website. “At the Scene,” our monthly e-newsletter will offer updates on events, reviews of new books, contests, fun quotes, and the popular “Writers on Reading” feature. (You may sign up for the free e-newsletter at our website.) We’ll also be active on Twitter and Facebook, so do come join us. We hope you have a wonderful summer. Happy reading!

Kate Stine
Editor-in-chief

Teri Duerr
Friday, 04 March 2011 11:03

Read Kate's Summer #120 "At the Scene."

Summer, Issue #120 Contents
Mystery Scene

120cover_250

Features

Karin Slaughter: Southern Discomfort

This daughter of the New South doesn't pull any punches in her hard-hitting, socially conscious thrillers.
by Cheryl Solimini

Bar Nothing

One of today's leading noir writers look at Gilda from a woman's perspective. 
by Megan Abbott

Jeff Abbott: A Jolt of Adrenaline

This new series focuses on 21st century international crime rings and features a young family man and parkour enthusiast.
by Oline H. Cogdill

Juliet Blackwell Casts a Spell

The Lily Ivory novels make use of some of the real and traditional history of witchcraft.
by Mario Acevedo

Sequels, Prequels & Pastiches

These writers have picked up the story where a predecessor let off.
by Tom Nolan

Mary Stewart: Teller of Tales

Highly intelligent, deeply romantic, and broadly cultured, these novels of suspense are classics.
by Katherine Hall Page

Building Your Book Collection: First Editions

Every publisher has its own way of designating a first edition.
by Nate Pedersen

James Anderson: The Case of the Golden Age Gems

Anderson's lighthearted puzzles both parodied and paid homage to the English Country House Mystery.
by Jon L. Breen

The Murders in Memory Lane: Mickey Spillane

Not only the creator of Mike Hammer, also one hell of a nice guy.
by Lawrence Block

Writers on Reading

Three Treasured Reads: Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Eyre, and The Three Musketeers
by Charlaine Harris

Cozy Crime Crossword

by Verna Suit

Departments

At the Scene

by Kate Stine

Mystery Miscellany

by Louis Phillips

Hints & Allegations

Edgar Awards, Ellis Awards, MS Online, Agatha Awards, The American Writers Museum

The Hook

First Lines That Caught Our Attention

Gormania

Jack Vance's Bad Ronald, Books We Should be Reading
by Ed Gorman

Eyewitness

William Ard: He Coulda Been a Contender
by Kevin Burton Smith

Author Anagrams Quiz

New Books

Reimagining History
by Stefanie Pintoff

Laurel Hells, Grassy Balds, and Wild Boars
by Ed Lynskey

Reviews

Small Press Reviews: Covering the Independents

by Betty Webb

Short & Sweet: Short Stories Considered

by Bill Crider

What About Murder? Reference Books Reviewed

by Jon L. Breen

Sounds of Suspense: Audiobooks Reviewed

by Dick Lochte

Very Original: Paperback Originals Reviewed

by Lynne Maxwell

Mystery Scene Reviews

Miscellaneous


The Docket

Letters

Readers Recommend

Advertiser Index

Admin
Monday, 05 April 2010 10:04

120cover_250

Features

Karin Slaughter: Southern Discomfort

This daughter of the New South doesn't pull any punches in her hard-hitting, socially conscious thrillers.
by Cheryl Solimini

Bar Nothing

One of today's leading noir writers look at Gilda from a woman's perspective. 
by Megan Abbott

Jeff Abbott: A Jolt of Adrenaline

This new series focuses on 21st century international crime rings and features a young family man and parkour enthusiast.
by Oline H. Cogdill

Juliet Blackwell Casts a Spell

The Lily Ivory novels make use of some of the real and traditional history of witchcraft.
by Mario Acevedo

Sequels, Prequels & Pastiches

These writers have picked up the story where a predecessor let off.
by Tom Nolan

Mary Stewart: Teller of Tales

Highly intelligent, deeply romantic, and broadly cultured, these novels of suspense are classics.
by Katherine Hall Page

Building Your Book Collection: First Editions

Every publisher has its own way of designating a first edition.
by Nate Pedersen

James Anderson: The Case of the Golden Age Gems

Anderson's lighthearted puzzles both parodied and paid homage to the English Country House Mystery.
by Jon L. Breen

The Murders in Memory Lane: Mickey Spillane

Not only the creator of Mike Hammer, also one hell of a nice guy.
by Lawrence Block

Writers on Reading

Three Treasured Reads: Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Eyre, and The Three Musketeers
by Charlaine Harris

Cozy Crime Crossword

by Verna Suit

Departments

At the Scene

by Kate Stine

Mystery Miscellany

by Louis Phillips

Hints & Allegations

Edgar Awards, Ellis Awards, MS Online, Agatha Awards, The American Writers Museum

The Hook

First Lines That Caught Our Attention

Gormania

Jack Vance's Bad Ronald, Books We Should be Reading
by Ed Gorman

Eyewitness

William Ard: He Coulda Been a Contender
by Kevin Burton Smith

Author Anagrams Quiz

New Books

Reimagining History
by Stefanie Pintoff

Laurel Hells, Grassy Balds, and Wild Boars
by Ed Lynskey

Reviews

Small Press Reviews: Covering the Independents

by Betty Webb

Short & Sweet: Short Stories Considered

by Bill Crider

What About Murder? Reference Books Reviewed

by Jon L. Breen

Sounds of Suspense: Audiobooks Reviewed

by Dick Lochte

Very Original: Paperback Originals Reviewed

by Lynne Maxwell

Mystery Scene Reviews

Miscellaneous


The Docket

Letters

Readers Recommend

Advertiser Index

You Killed Wesley Payne
Sarah Prindle

Sean Beaudoin’s high-school noir novel You Killed Wesley Payne stars aspiring detective Dalton Rev, a 17-year-old who goes undercover at corrupt Salt River High. Dressed in a suit and tie like his crime-novel hero, Lexington Cole, Dalton investigates the murder of popular Wesley Payne, who was found hanging upside down from the goal posts of a football field. Dalton navigates through the many cliques, all struggling for dominance—ranging from the Dracula-like Pinker Casket rock stars to the nasty jock club, the Balls. The mystery deepens with missing money, anonymous notes, and the murderer watching Dalton’s every move. The story is enhanced with Dalton’s romantic dilemma (his “should I or shouldn’t I?” feelings for Wesley’s sister, Macy) and his struggling family life—an older brother fighting in the military, a father with a back injury, and demonic little brother whom Dalton calls “Turd Unit.”

The dark humor and tough-guy slang give the book color and separates it from so many other young adult detective novels. The intrigue comes from watching not only how Dalton solves the mystery but also how the numerous cliques interact with each other. Though the corruption in the school hardly seems realistic (for example, a teacher has been paid off not to notice while Dalton is beaten up in her class), You Killed Wesley Payne is an entertaining and fun read. And the twists throughout made the unexpected ending—the identity of the villain and what the motive was—even better.

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 06 July 2011 04:07

beaudoin_youkilledwesleypayneTeen sleuth Dalton Rev navigates a colorful scene of cliques to uncover the killer of Salt River High.

The Exploits of the Patent Leather Kid
Jeff Marks

Long before he was known as the creator of Perry Mason, Erle Stanley Gardner was known as the “King of the Pulps.” He wrote some 600 plus short stories and novellas between 1923 and 1943, averaging 10,000 words a day. Sadly only about ten percent of this prodigious output has been collected in short story collections; the remainder are available only in the original issues of the pulp magazines, which are becoming increasingly rare and expensive to locate.

Happily, Crippen & Landru has produced a third volume of Gardner short stories entitled The Exploits of the Patent Leather Kid. Gardner had myriad series characters over his two decades in the pulps, and The Patent Leather Kid was one of his rich adventurer characters. While outwardly idle, this type of character led a double life that took him into danger as he attempted to correct injustice. The Patent Leather Kid shares a number of traits with Gardner’s other popular pulp characters. Like most of Gardner’s heroes, he has no real back story. He shares Sidney Zoom’s unexplained income and penchant for justice. Like Paul Pry, The Kid has a bodyguard to protect him from the gangsters he tweaks and as a reference source on all underworld activities.

The Patent Leather Kid stories are well plotted, using two sets of opponents to make for a particularly suspenseful scenario. Each story begins with Dan Sellers (aka the Patent Leather Kid) at his club, speaking with a banker, an explorer, and a policeman, none of whom know his real identity. Police Inspector Brame absolutely detests The Patent Leather Kid and in one particularly telling story, Brame and the police turn a blind eye to a gangster’s plot to kill The Kid.

After hearing of a particular miscarriage of justice, Sellers disappears from the club, takes a mysterious route to a penthouse in another part of town where he is registered as “Rodney Stone,” but is widely known as The Kid. In this alternate universe, only Gertie, the switchboard operator who may presage Perry Mason’s operator of the same name, the doorman and later his bodyguard, Bill Brakey, know his assumed identity as The Patent Leather Kid.

These two universes never collide. While Brame might give the details of an unavenged crime, Brame is never seen in the same scenes as The Kid; Brame only interacts with Sellers. Only the explorer, Bill Pope, seems to suspect the truth, but even he never makes the claim explicit. It is interesting to see the development of the character over the course of the 13 stories. In the very earliest of stories, The Kid does not wear a mask at all. It only appears after a few stories and then is only worn when meeting the “mark” of the adventure.

Gardner also made the occasional mistake in his writing and reading the stories in chronological order makes these clear. For example, the circumstances through which Dan Sellers assumes his Rodney Stone alias varies from story to story. The characters who know The Kid as Stone also changes, adding a doorman here and a manager there.

This is the first time this series has been available since the last one was published in Detective Fiction Weekly in 1934. I wouldn’t wait another 75 years to pick up this volume of some of Gardner’s best pulp work. Crippen & Landru Publishers will be following up this volume with new collections starring Erle Stanley Gardner’s Lester Leith and Speed Dash with yours truly as the editor.

Teri Duerr
Thursday, 07 July 2011 10:07
::cck::3378
Fallen
Betty Webb

In her stunning new thriller, Karin Slaughter dares to deliver four female protagonists, not just one, but this seeming surfeit of riches never disappoints. When Faith Mitchell, an agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, arrives at her mother’s Atlanta home to pick up her infant daughter, she finds blood on the front door, her mother missing, a dead man in the kitchen, and two gang bangers in the bedroom. She immediately shoots one, then the other during a running gun battle. Although baby Emma is found safe, the only men who might have revealed Faith’s mother’s whereabouts are now dead. In the immediate aftermath of the shootout, Faith, a diabetic, suffers a full blown health crisis, causing arriving Atlanta police officers to misconstrue her erratic behavior for inebriation. And that’s just the first chapter.

Slaughter’s rich tapestry of amazingly strong women includes Evelyn, Faith’s retired police captain mother; Amanda Wagner, her tough boss; and pediatrician Sara Linton (also lover of Will Trent, Faith’s police partner). Will’s horrific backstory could have made him the protagonist in any other book (a spin-off, perhaps?), and his clear characterization highlights another unusual aspect of Fallen. There are almost no “minor” characters, not even Roz Levy, Evelyn’s next door neighbor, who just might be a murderer. All are stars in their own right.

Fallen’s twisty plot features a ruthless drug cartel known for slitting people’s throats; a group of dirty cops, including one on death row; and a long-buried secret that may have led to Evelyn’s kidnapping. This complicated interweaving of plot, character, and multiple points of view could have sunk a lesser writer, but Slaughter’s an expert. She knows when to segue from one character to another, and how to weave a brand new thread into an already complex drama. During all this switcheroo, she keeps magnifying the tension, which—given that gulp-inducing first chapter—is downright miraculous. Superb in every way, Fallen is a virtuoso performance, Slaughter’s best work yet.

Teri Duerr
Thursday, 07 July 2011 11:07

This stunning new thriller delivers four female protagonists, not just one, and never disappoints.

The Twisted Thread
Lynne F. Maxwell

There’s no other way to say it: this is an astonishing book. Bacon’s prose, plot, and characterization are superb. The novel begins with the discovery of the murder of Claire Harkness, a beautiful senior at Armitage Academy, a preeminent prep school located on a lovely Maine campus. Attractive, bright and not-quite-likable, Claire was prototypical of the privileged, entitled Armitage student. Or, was she, really?

As the plot of The Twisted Thread unravels. It seems that Claire was full of surprises, not least the fact that, unbeknownst to any of her teachers, she was pregnant and had recently delivered a baby boy. With the assistance of a team of girls belonging to the secret society to which she was elected head, Claire managed to pull this off—until, that is, she was murdered and the baby kidnapped. Who killed Claire—and why? Who was the baby’s father? What follows is a tale of wealth, neglect and revenge, concluding with the unmasking of Armitage Academy, exposing its true character of subterranean ugliness.

Bacon dazzles with the elegance of her narrative. In fact, her precise prose verges on the poetic in a story that skillfully explores the disconnect between appearance and reality, surface and depth. But to counterbalance the novel’s ruminations on the darker side of human nature, Bacon also gives readers two admirable and complex characters: Madeline Christopher, an intern at the school, and Matt Corelli, a police detective with an Ivy League degree and a connection with Armitage. In the midst of a lot of human failings and viciousness, these two heroes struggle toward comprehension of the crime and of themselves.

Teri Duerr
Thursday, 07 July 2011 11:07

Prose, plot, and characterization combine in this superb novel about what lies beneath the surface.

Cozy With an Edge
Oline H. Cogdill

Beaton_Chesney_MarionFrom the Scottish Highlands to the English Cotswolds, M.C. Beaton laces lovely landscapes with an acidic wit.

During her writing career, M.C. Beaton has been called many things—Sarah Chester, Helen Crampton, Ann Fairfax, Marion Gibbons, Jennie Tremaine, Charlotte Ward, and her real name, Marion Chesney.

Marion Chesney has had just as many professions—bookseller, journalist, theater critic, fashion magazine editor, crime reporter, BBC commentator, and of course she is the author of the Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin series.

Chesney/Beaton’s push for variety led her to publish 101 historical romance novels and 44 mysteries.

Her prolific output has earned her a legion of readers on both sides of the pond, who are drawn to her two witty, well-plotted series that foster a contemporary version of the English village mysteries. She’s often been compared to Agatha Christie.

Last year, Beaton was the British guest of honor at two mystery fiction conferences, the Bouchercon in Madison, Wisconsin, and Magna cum Murder at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

Beaton shows no sign of slowing down. Death of a Chimney Sweep, her 26th novel about the artfully lazy police constable Hamish Macbeth came out in February 2011. The 22nd novel about prickly, pushy Agatha Raisin, to be called As the Pig Turns, is scheduled for publication in fall 2011. She has also written four Edwardian detective novels.

Hamish Macbeth is featured on a popular BBC television series that has been shown in the U.S. on PBS and is now available on DVD. The Agatha Raisin novels have been dramatized on BBC Radio 4.

beaton_hamish_tvIn person, Beaton—let’s call her that for the sake of simplicity and because that’s how most of her mystery readers know her—is a diminutive British lady who is charming and quick-witted, prone to peppering her answers with a joke, a smile or a quote from George Orwell, Robert Louis Stevenson, or W. Somerset Maugham.

Each turn in Beaton’s life has prepared her for a career in crime writing. At least, it seems that’s exactly where she has been heading since her birth in Glasgow, Scotland in 1936. When she was 11, one of her first crushes was Richard Hannay, the hero in The Thirty-Nine Steps. She graduated to Lord Peter Wimsey at age 13. Hanging out at libraries and devouring novels became her favorite pastime.

Her career as a journalist began at age 18 with a cookbook. While working in Glasgow as a bookseller, she helped a customer find a cookbook for a bachelor. On a coffee break a few weeks later, she met the woman again and it turned out she was the features editor of the Glasgow Daily Mail. The editor needed a reporter who could cover a play. Other reporters had turned down the assignment because a nephew of the editor was in the play and any review would have to mention him. Beaton had 50 words to review the play—and, of course, had to throw in a line about the nephew.

Beaton’s turn as a theater critic was followed by stints as a fashion writer, a crime writer, and finally work as a journalist on London’s Fleet Street.

“I would walk down Fleet Street at night and smell the hot paper and see St. Paul’s floodlit and think this was it. It was like six characters in search of an author. Everyone told me it was an exciting job,” said Beaton who added she wasn’t sure she liked being a reporter.

“I used to have Walter Mitty fantasies and if I had a good one, I would save it for the way home. And I read detective stories, one after the other.”

Beaton’s leap to novelist began after she and her husband, Harry Scott Gibbons, a former Middle East correspondent, moved to Brooklyn Heights where they both worked for Rupert Murdoch’s Star newspaper. She began reading Regency romances written by American writers and found herself getting madder and madder.

“I said to my husband, ‘These are crap. The history is wrong, the dialogue is silly, the scenery is off and the writing is just bad.’”

So her husband issued her a challenge—write one herself. It took her agent three days to sell her first Regency novel. The agent took the manuscript on a Friday and by Monday had it sold based on Beaton’s first 50 pages and a plot outline. A month later her agent asked if she could also write novels set in Edwardian times.

“I said ‘sure.’ I thought it was going to be like ‘have some Madeira, my dear,’ but they wanted some candlelight romances.”

Starting in 1979, Beaton began churning out Regency and Edwardian novels and, along the way, acquired an impressive library on the history and fashion of the times.

“It’s not just the history you are writing; it’s the clothing, the snobbery, the feel of the times and the double standards. And the 13th commandment—thou shalt not get found out,” said Beaton, who added that she has begun to weary writing about those eras.

She may have tired of the period, but not of writing. Her debut as M.C. Beaton was just around the corner. You might say she just needed the right hook.

While living in Brooklyn, she and her husband vacationed at a fishing school in an isolated Scottish village. While learning about fly casting, she got to thinking about murder. What better place to set a mystery, she thought, than this remote wilderness.

“Here were 11 of us trapped in the wilderness. What a wonderful place for a murder! Especially this one woman who was irritating the hell out of me.”

Beaton talked to her editor about a series set in Scotland, maintaining the area was ripe for stories.

“You could set your watch back 100 years [in north Scotland],” she said. “It’s like a sped-up nature film. You could believe in fairies up there. It is very beautiful. It’s a fascinating mix of people—those who treat everyone the same way; the cowboys and, yes we have cowboys in Scotland, who can’t stand to see anyone getting on. They don’t like incomers. It’s good for detective stories, what with its weird landscape, twisted mountains and totally landlocked center. It’s as if being in a time-away land.”

Her agent agreed that Beaton certainly had the setting and the makings of a good plot. There was just one problem.

beaton_deathofchimneysweep“She said, but who is the detective?” said Beaton. “I wasn’t going to tell her I hadn’t thought that far. So I said off the top of my head ‘the village bobby.’ So then she has to ask another question—‘What’s his name?’ Well, again, I just said off the top of my head ‘Hamish Macbeth.’”

That was the beginning of Hamish Macbeth, the local constable in Lochdubh, a quiet village in the Scottish Highlands. And not so coincidently, Hamish’s debut in Death of a Gossip in 1985 featured a local fishing school. Beaton’s light approach and snappy dialogue launched her new writing career. Hamish, who “understands the happiness and contentment of the truly unambitious man,” struck a chord with readers.

With a new genre, it was also time for a new name. Her romance novels had been written under several different names.

“Half the time, I didn’t know who I was,” she said.

Her agent told her that since she had made a name—actually several names—for herself with the romances, she needed a new nom de plume so the readers wouldn’t be confused.

“She said give me a name that sounds Scottish, but is not a ‘Mac’ something,” she said. So the author quickly recited an old Scottish ballad:

“Yestreen the queen had four Maries,
The night she’ll hae but three;
There was Marie Seaton, and Marie Beaten,
And Marie Carmichael, and me.”

The agent said she would take Beaton, and the author said she would keep M.C. for Marion Chesney. And a new mystery writer was born.

For several years, Beaton’s popularity increased with each Hamish Macbeth novel. But Beaton wasn’t content to write just one series. During the 1980s, she and her husband moved back to the Cotswolds in the heart of England, a picturesque area famous for its honey-colored limestone villages, castles, and history. The Cotswolds encompass the cities of Bath and Stratford-Upon-Avon and Warwick; the Rollright Stones, considered England’s third most important stone circle after Stonehenge and Avebury; and Malmesbury Abbey.

With all that scenery to serve as inspiration, Beaton’s agent asked her to come up with a detective series set there. It would have been easy for Beaton to clone Hamish and plop him down in the Cotswolds. Instead, she came up with Agatha Raisin, a prickly, pushy snoop who, at 53, is about to retire from her public relations job in London to reinvent herself in the countryside.

Female characters who dominated the genre at the time tended to be in their early to mid-30s, establishing their careers and dealing with their fears of commitment. Agatha had done all that. She retired at the height of her career, and, as good as she was at public relations, she was a bumbling sleuth in the early books. Divorced, her ex-husband wouldn’t appear in the series until the fifth novel. Still, Agatha has several close, though not always successful, relationships with men. Her obsessiveness, her completely politically incorrect approach to life and her rudeness belied a vulnerability that connected with readers. Agatha may act as if she thinks she’s a little more sophisticated than her neighbors, but in truth she desperately wants to be accepted by the villagers. The child of alcoholic parents, Agatha is a self-made woman.

“I wanted to create someone you might not like but who you wanted to win out in the end,” she said.

As in the Hamish novels, Agatha’s Cotswolds are as much of a character as the villagers.

“The Cotswolds are very foggy and misty and you think if you could see beyond that (hill) you know there is a perfectly good party going on to which you have not been invited,” said Beaton.

As with the launch of Hamish, Beaton used her own experiences to form the plot of Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, the series’ 1993 debut. The headmaster at the school Beaton’s son attended asked if she would contribute some of her “splendid home baking” for a fundraiser the academy was holding. Beaton didn’t want to let her son down—and she didn’t want to admit that baking just wasn’t one of her priorities. So she purchased a couple of storebought quiches, prettied them up and passed them off as her own. “They sold for 30 pence a slice. They were a great success,” she said.

In real life, Beaton’s “homemade” quiche helped raise some money for the Vietnamese boat people who the school was sponsoring; in Agatha’s world that store-bought quiche poisoned a judge.

beaton_busybodyIn creating Agatha, Beaton said she wanted a heroine with life’s experiences that she could relate to.

“Fifty can be a bad time for a woman because she’s not yet at menopause, but everything is starting to go south in the body. The lines suddenly seem to spring up overnight and the mustache starts to grow, you know. And the waistline thickens all by itself. That makes Agatha more vulnerable because [aging] is something women approach differently, but they have to come to terms with it.”

“My customers love Agatha Raisin,” said Joanne Sinchuk, owner of Murder on the Beach bookstore in Delray Beach. “They love her spunk. M.C. Beaton offers everything my customers like—a British series set in modern times and a cozy.”

Beaton said she didn’t plan for her two lead characters to be so different. “They just came out that way,” she said.

“Hamish is based on my knowledge of people in the Highlands. Agatha is based on my knowledge of myself.”

Although Beaton’s series are quite different, both examine life in a British village. The village mystery endures, said Beaton, because you have “a small cast of characters in one place and in this world, justice will be done. It’s about friends and neighbors. George Orwell said that middle class crimes are the ones people remember. There are plenty of murders that are a smash on the head or a slash in the gut. But the ones that fascinate are the ones that sort of lift the veil of respectability.”

“Village mysteries also offer readers an escape. Again, in an increasingly violent world, you know that justice will be done here. And that escape is highly entertaining. I always just wanted to be an entertainer. And I think I am an entertainer. I am certainly not literary,” she said with a laugh.

The village mysteries also allow Beaton to share her sharp British sense of humor. British humor has more irony, she says; her humor comes from “cynicism.”

“What makes me laugh is the ridiculous, the unexpected, the quirky.”

And gossip, which shows up in many of her novels and often helps her lead characters uncover the mystery.

“I quite like gossip,” she said with an almost impish smile and a little shrug. “I like finding out about people. Of course, I mean that in a good way.”

The Hamish MacBeth novels were made into a popular British series that lasted for three seasons, from 1995-1997, starring Robert Carlyle. Beaton is not particularly a fan of the series, which she says are nothing like the novels.

“The scenery is good,” she said. “The dog is good.” But that’s pretty much all she has to say on the subject, except: “Do you know they even changed the dog’s name from Towser to Wee Jock?”

Beaton much prefers the radio dramatizations of 12 Agatha novels that have been broadcast for BBC Radio 4 since October 2005. A television production company is now interested in the Agatha novels, but Beaton says only, “We’ll see. We’ll look at that contract very carefully.”

Beaton and her husband share their time between “a very small” cottage in the Cotswolds and a Paris apartment that they rent (“We couldn’t afford to buy there.”) The cottage was built in 1807 (“quite new for around here”) and features a long garden that her husband tends. “I write and read or sit and stare at the wall. If it weren’t for my husband handling all the accounts taxes and so on, I would just give up.”

The couple has one child, a son, Charles, 35, a computer programmer who is unmarried. “I’m a granna-be.”

Juggling the two series does take its toll. Beaton had begun an Edwardian mystery series featuring Lady Rose Summer, an independent 19-year-old. After four novels, Beaton decided to stop because of time constraints. Meanwhile, she plans to write more Hamish or Agatha novels.

“I am a writer,” she said. “That’s what I do. It’s not like you like it—maybe there’s one day out of [writing] each book that’s good. But it’s something you have to do. It’s something you cannot not do.”

Despite the scores of novels she has written, Beaton said she doesn’t know where her characters are going next.

“They are just there when I start writing. It’s a great mistake to fall in love with your characters. The minute you do you forget about the reader. The character must not just appeal to you but to the reader. The reader must be as interested in them as you are.

“I don’t know where either of them is going until starting writing. I actually don’t. If I knew, I think that would break the spirit of the story.”

village_of_Bibury_Cottswolds_crDavid_Iliff

M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin novels make evocative use of the charming English Cotswolds. Shown here is the
village of Bibury. Photo: David Iliff

An M.C. Beaton Reading List

THE HAMISH MACBETH MYSTERIES
Death of a Gossip, 1985
Death of a Cad, 1987
Death of an Outsider, 1988
Death of a Perfect Wife, 1989
Death of a Hussy, 1990
Death of a Snob, 1991
Death of a Prankster, 1992
Death of a Glutton, 1993
Death of a Travelling Man, 1993
Death of a Charming Man, 1994
Death of a Nag, 1995
Death of a Macho Man, 1996
Death of a Dentist, 1997
Death of a Scriptwriter, 1998
Death of an Addict, 1999
A Highland Christmas, 1999
Death of a Dustman, 2001
Death of a Celebrity, 2002
Death of a Village, 2003
Death of a Poison Pen, 2004
Death of a Bore, 2005
Death of a Dreamer, 2006
Death of a Maid, 2007
Death of a Gentle Lady, 2008
Death of a Witch, 2009
Death of a Valentine, 2010
Death of a Chimney Sweep, 2011

THE AGATHA RAISIN MYSTERIES
Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, 1992*
Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet, 1993
Agatha Raisin and the Potted Gardener, 1994
Agatha Raisin and the Walkers of Dembley, 1995
Agatha Raisin and the Murderous Marriage, 1996
Agatha Raisin and the Terrible Tourist, 1997
Agatha Raisin and the Wellspring of Death, 1998
Agatha Raisin and the Wizard of Evesham, 1999
Agatha Raisin and the Witch of Wyckhadden, 1999
Agatha Raisin and the Fairies of Fryfam, 2000
Agatha Raisin and the Love from Hell, 2001
Agatha Raisin and the Day the Floods Came, 2002
Agatha Raisin and the Case of the Curious Curate, 2003
Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House, 2003
The Deadly Dance, 2004
The Perfect Paragon, 2005
Love, Lies and Liquor, 2006
Kissing Christmas Goodbye, 2007
A Spoonful of Poison, 2008
There Goes the Bride, 2009
Busy Body, 2010

*In the US, St. Martin’s Press has reissued the first four Agatha Raisin books with abbreviated titles, e.g., The Quiche of Death.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #98.


Teri Duerr
Thursday, 07 July 2011 11:07

Beaton_Chesney_MarionFrom the Scottish Highlands to the English Cotswolds, M.C. Beaton laces lovely landscapes with wit.

Tammy Kaehler's "Dead Man's Switch" Revs Up
Oline Cogdill

Get your motors running Saturday, July 9, in Sharon, Connecticut, with Darren Winston Bookseller, Lime Rock Park racetrack, and Mystery Scene for a reading and signing to celebrate the launch of Tammy Kaehler's Dead Man's Switch, the first in a new American Le Mans Mystery series set at Connecticut's real Lime Rock Park raceway.

Readers can pick up an advance copy of this debut mystery due out later this August from Poisoned Pen Press, which features the competitive female Corvette racer Kate Reilly who takes pole position on a list of murder suspects when she gets a dead driver's place in the big race. The first 100 visitors will also receive gift bags including a free issue of Mystery Scene's Summer #120 Issue just out.

"I tell people I'm genetically predisposed to be a sports fan (thanks, dad)," says Kaehler on her site. "By marriage, I'm disposed to like cars. And then I fell into the racing world because I was interested in learning something new. Then I met a woman who used to race cars. It all clicked."

Mystery Scene publishers Kate Stine and Brian Skupin will be on hand, as will Skip Barber, the owner of Lime Rock Park, along with several Corvettes, which will be parked up and down Sharon's Main Street.

See you at the races!

darrenwinstonbooksDead Man's Switch Official Book Launch
5:30-7:30 pm, Saturday, July 9, 2011
Darren Winston Bookseller
81 Main Street
Sharon, Connecticut 06069
Tel: 860-364-1890 | MAP

kaehler_deadmansswitch

Dead Man's Switch
by Tammy Kaehler
Poisoned Pen Press, August 2011, $22.95

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Super User 2
Thursday, 07 July 2011 01:07

Get your motors running Saturday, July 9, in Sharon, Connecticut, with Darren Winston Bookseller, Lime Rock Park racetrack, and Mystery Scene for a reading and signing to celebrate the launch of Tammy Kaehler's Dead Man's Switch, the first in a new American Le Mans Mystery series set at Connecticut's real Lime Rock Park raceway.

Readers can pick up an advance copy of this debut mystery due out later this August from Poisoned Pen Press, which features the competitive female Corvette racer Kate Reilly who takes pole position on a list of murder suspects when she gets a dead driver's place in the big race. The first 100 visitors will also receive gift bags including a free issue of Mystery Scene's Summer #120 Issue just out.

"I tell people I'm genetically predisposed to be a sports fan (thanks, dad)," says Kaehler on her site. "By marriage, I'm disposed to like cars. And then I fell into the racing world because I was interested in learning something new. Then I met a woman who used to race cars. It all clicked."

Mystery Scene publishers Kate Stine and Brian Skupin will be on hand, as will Skip Barber, the owner of Lime Rock Park, along with several Corvettes, which will be parked up and down Sharon's Main Street.

See you at the races!

darrenwinstonbooksDead Man's Switch Official Book Launch
5:30-7:30 pm, Saturday, July 9, 2011
Darren Winston Bookseller
81 Main Street
Sharon, Connecticut 06069
Tel: 860-364-1890 | MAP

kaehler_deadmansswitch

Dead Man's Switch
by Tammy Kaehler
Poisoned Pen Press, August 2011, $22.95

{youtubejw width="430"}OKpqCBFyu8Y{/youtubejw}

Before I Go to Sleep
Barbara Fister

There’s something terrifying about the idea of losing one’s memory, and S. J. Watson uses that fear to subtle and elegant effect in this claustrophobic and suspenseful literary thriller.

Christine wakes in an unfamiliar bed beside a man she doesn’t know. She feels ashamed of herself, but there is worse in store. When she stumbles into the bathroom and looks in the mirror she sees a middle-aged stranger. It’s the result of a car accident, she learns when the strange man explains that he is her husband Ben, and that she has amnesia and has to relearn every morning who she is. After Ben leaves for work, she gets a call from a doctor who has been treating her. If she looks in her closet, he tells her, she’ll find a journal where she has been recording any memories that surface. Following his instructions, she locates the notebook and starts to read her own story, one that begins with the disquieting instruction, “Don’t trust Ben.” Over the next 350 pages, we experience Christine’s daily erasure and her mundane life as an isolated housewife, but bit by bit, with the help of her secret diary, she pieces together the memory of a previous life and a violent attack.

Reading this accomplished novel is like waking over and over again from a disturbing dream, trying to grasp its meaning just as it fades, leaving nothing but cold fear behind—and a compulsion to start the next chapter.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 08 July 2011 01:07

watson_beforeigotosleepS. J. Watson uses fear to subtle and elegant effect in this suspenseful literary thriller.

Misery Bay
Hank Wagner

It wasn’t all that long ago that I was lauding Hamilton’s The Lock Artist in these pages (it just won the 2010 Edgar for Best Novel, by the way), so it may seem a bit repetitive for me to sing the praises of his latest, the aptly titled Misery Bay, so soon afterwards. But heck, when an author is on a roll, you have to act accordingly, so let me say right up front that it’s hard to imagine anyone being disappointed with this book, the latest entry in Hamilton’s popular Alex McKnight series.

The book starts out grim, with an apparent suicide, and gets darker from there, as McKnight, hired by a grieving father to look into his son’s final days, begins to perceive connections to other deaths, some glaringly obvious, and others so subtle as to go unnoticed until now. McKnight’s investigations lead him into an unlikely alliance with Paradise Police Chief Roy Maven and the duo investigates a series of tragic deaths that unfortunately hit very close to home.

It’s impressive how Hamilton, who started out so strong way back in 1997 with the first McKnight book, A Cold Day in Paradise, continues to grow and improve as a storyteller. Expertly crafted, written with obvious passion, and featuring a durable, engaging cast of characters, it’s clear that Hamilton, and the McKnight series, can continue to provide entertaining diversions for many years to come.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 08 July 2011 01:07

It wasn’t all that long ago that I was lauding Hamilton’s The Lock Artist in these pages (it just won the 2010 Edgar for Best Novel, by the way), so it may seem a bit repetitive for me to sing the praises of his latest, the aptly titled Misery Bay, so soon afterwards. But heck, when an author is on a roll, you have to act accordingly, so let me say right up front that it’s hard to imagine anyone being disappointed with this book, the latest entry in Hamilton’s popular Alex McKnight series.

The book starts out grim, with an apparent suicide, and gets darker from there, as McKnight, hired by a grieving father to look into his son’s final days, begins to perceive connections to other deaths, some glaringly obvious, and others so subtle as to go unnoticed until now. McKnight’s investigations lead him into an unlikely alliance with Paradise Police Chief Roy Maven and the duo investigates a series of tragic deaths that unfortunately hit very close to home.

It’s impressive how Hamilton, who started out so strong way back in 1997 with the first McKnight book, A Cold Day in Paradise, continues to grow and improve as a storyteller. Expertly crafted, written with obvious passion, and featuring a durable, engaging cast of characters, it’s clear that Hamilton, and the McKnight series, can continue to provide entertaining diversions for many years to come.

English Tea Murder
Bliss Kern

In this, the 15th in the series, reporter and sometimes detective Lucy Stone jumps at the chance to join her girlfriends on a tour of London. She gets more than her guidebooks might have led her to expect though, when just hours into the trip, the group’s tour guide dies. Lucy is shocked by the scene and the callous reactions of her fellow tourists. Soon tempers flare, one of the group’s members is rushed to the hospital, and a web of surprising relationships among the tourists begins to emerge.

Because we all know the travel partner who would rather shop than absorb the culture, the one who always needs to find a restroom, the one who marks time through meals, we laugh along with the Lucy and her friends as the trip brings out the best and worst in each of them. The girlfriends banter their way through the major sights of London, letting the reader experience a bit of Westminster Abbey and the Crown Jewels along with them.

However, the hundred-odd pages of travelogue do slow down the narrative; most of the whodunit happens in the final third of the novel. The limited space provided for the plot’s unraveling results in a certain oversimplification and key characters are left one-dimensional. Still, the story manages some good twists and poses a serious and unexpected moral conundrum to Lucy, who must decide what, if anything, can justify a murder. The journey might not be what the reader expects, but it is enjoyable all the same.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 08 July 2011 02:07

In this, the 15th in the series, reporter and sometimes detective Lucy Stone jumps at the chance to join her girlfriends on a tour of London. She gets more than her guidebooks might have led her to expect though, when just hours into the trip, the group’s tour guide dies. Lucy is shocked by the scene and the callous reactions of her fellow tourists. Soon tempers flare, one of the group’s members is rushed to the hospital, and a web of surprising relationships among the tourists begins to emerge.

Because we all know the travel partner who would rather shop than absorb the culture, the one who always needs to find a restroom, the one who marks time through meals, we laugh along with the Lucy and her friends as the trip brings out the best and worst in each of them. The girlfriends banter their way through the major sights of London, letting the reader experience a bit of Westminster Abbey and the Crown Jewels along with them.

However, the hundred-odd pages of travelogue do slow down the narrative; most of the whodunit happens in the final third of the novel. The limited space provided for the plot’s unraveling results in a certain oversimplification and key characters are left one-dimensional. Still, the story manages some good twists and poses a serious and unexpected moral conundrum to Lucy, who must decide what, if anything, can justify a murder. The journey might not be what the reader expects, but it is enjoyable all the same.

Bloodline
Oline H. Cogdill

In Bloodline, Mark Billingham delivers a multilayered crime novel that digs deep into characters’ psyches with the dark, edgy approach that has made him a bestseller in England. The fragility of families proves a compelling theme for the latest outing of Detective Inspector Tom Thorne. A family isn’t in the immediate future for Thorne and his girlfriend, Louise Parker, who has just miscarried. Neither knows quite how to deal with the loss of their baby, and Thorne finds that anything he does or says is wrong.

A family tragedy of another sort occupies Thorne at work. What appears to be a domestic murder turns out to be the first in a series of killings targeting the children and relatives of a notorious serial killer’s victims. Anthony Garvey died in prison years ago, but a copycat killer is now preying on his victims’ survivors. Thorne tries to find the killer as well as track down the next victims, while seeking a link between the late Garvey and the unknown murderer.

It’s easy to understand why Bloodline, which is just now hitting American bookstores, quickly became a bestseller when it was released during 2009 in England. Billingham builds a superior police procedural filled with twists and turns as he explores his richly imagined characters. Each member of Thorne’s tight-knit team emerges as a unique individual, but the standout has always been Phil Hendricks, an intelligent medical examiner who mourns the breakup with each of his boyfriends with a new piercing. Phil is a friend to both Louise and Thorne, the latter of whom admits to being a bit jealous that his girlfriend seems more comfortable discussing her feelings with Phil than with him. Louise, a detective inspector in the Kidnap Investigation Unit, finds it easier to talk about murder with her lover than the miscarriage. Billingham continues to explore the broody, complex, country music-loving Thorne. While melancholic cops abound in the mystery genre, Billingham is careful to make Thorne realistic, not a caricature.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 08 July 2011 02:07

billingham_bloodlineA multilayered crime novel that digs deep into characters’ psyches with the dark, edgy approach that has made its author a bestseller in England.

A Spark of Death
Sue Emmons

In an autobiographical footnote to this debut mystery, Bernadette Pajer confides that she loves to do research, be it for a few minutes, hours, or days. Her passion shines through in this nuanced introduction to widowed Benjamin Bradshaw, an introspective but inspired professor at the University of Washington.

Set in 1901, the inspiration for this tale is the new invention of electricity, its various adaptations, its detractors and admirers. Think electricity can’t be fascinating? Pajer will change your mind.

With President William McKinley due to visit the university, and in particular its electrical laboratory where excited students plan to exhibit their projects, the campus proves a hotbed of intrigue that leads to three murders and an attempt on Bradshaw’s life at Snoqualmie Falls which powers Seattle’s electrical power. Moreover, he is the initial suspect in the strange electrocution of his nemesis, the overbearing department chairman who dies in a cage that houses the Electric Machine’s Tesla Coil. While the chairman was a devotee of Tesla, one of the pioneers of electricity, Bradshaw favors the inventions of Thomas Edison, which led to heated disputes between the two.

This enjoyable mystery touches on quirky students, politics, anarchists, feminism, police detection, and even the search for elusive Alaskan gold. When Bradshaw’s own life is at stake, he fears for the future of his eight-year-old son and finds a soupcon of romance as well. Pajer offers full-fleshed characters and spares no effort in detailing turn-of-the-century life and the new-fangled electricity that forever changes it. She skillfully weaves her subplots into the story, making seamless transitions among them. Hopefully, this is the just the first of many adventures for the indefatigable Bradshaw and his equally delightful cronies.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 08 July 2011 02:07

pajer_sparkofdeathA debut mystery that touches on detection and electrical invention at the turn of the century.

Revenger
Joseph Scarpato, Jr.

In this swashbuckling adventure-mystery set in 1592, John Shakespeare, the fictional older brother of William Shakespeare, is a retired intelligencer (super spy) who now runs a school for boys. Because of his unique talents, he is called back to duty by the Earl of Essex to locate a woman named Eleanor Dare, who may be the lone survivor of the ill-fated Roanoke settlement in the New World. He is soon called upon by Sir Robert Cecil, another high-ranking aristocrat, to spy on Essex, who Cecil suspects is planning a royal coup. Before long, John is up to his doublet in an unsolved double murder and more political intrigue than you can shake a broadsword at.

Thanks to the meticulous research done by the author, many of the most important characters here are real people who were involved with much of the historical action described in the novel. The aging Queen Elizabeth and her favorite courtier, Essex, are pivotal characters, as, in a lesser role, is the real William Shakespeare. Even the deadly plague, which ravaged Europe at the time, plays an important part in the story.

I call this an adventure-mystery because the murder investigation is less important than the growing intrigue and heart-pounding adventure that carries the story to its conclusion. The intricate plot moves at lightning speed and the author’s knowledge of the language, clothing weaponry, etc., of the era makes you feel you are in that place and time. This is the second John Shakespeare mystery penned by Rory Clements, and it’s a dandy!

Teri Duerr
Friday, 08 July 2011 02:07

In this swashbuckling adventure-mystery set in 1592, John Shakespeare, the fictional older brother of William Shakespeare, is a retired intelligencer (super spy) who now runs a school for boys. Because of his unique talents, he is called back to duty by the Earl of Essex to locate a woman named Eleanor Dare, who may be the lone survivor of the ill-fated Roanoke settlement in the New World. He is soon called upon by Sir Robert Cecil, another high-ranking aristocrat, to spy on Essex, who Cecil suspects is planning a royal coup. Before long, John is up to his doublet in an unsolved double murder and more political intrigue than you can shake a broadsword at.

Thanks to the meticulous research done by the author, many of the most important characters here are real people who were involved with much of the historical action described in the novel. The aging Queen Elizabeth and her favorite courtier, Essex, are pivotal characters, as, in a lesser role, is the real William Shakespeare. Even the deadly plague, which ravaged Europe at the time, plays an important part in the story.

I call this an adventure-mystery because the murder investigation is less important than the growing intrigue and heart-pounding adventure that carries the story to its conclusion. The intricate plot moves at lightning speed and the author’s knowledge of the language, clothing weaponry, etc., of the era makes you feel you are in that place and time. This is the second John Shakespeare mystery penned by Rory Clements, and it’s a dandy!

Fun & Games
Kevin Burton Smith

If there’s an Edgar for truth in titles, Philly’s favorite cheesesteak, Duane Swierczynski, better dust off his mantle. His latest, Fun & Games, the first in a planned trilogy of back-to-back thrillers featuring ex-cop turned housesitter and old movie buff Charlie Hardie, is the most fun I’ve had in a long time; a total thumbs-up. Not for Duane the endless navel-gazing and angsty pontification over what is (or isn’t) noir. Nope, Duane’s too busy putting his delightfully loopy characters through their paces to worry about stuff like that. Call him the Stephen King of pop noir, if you must—the pop culture references, nods and winks fly through the air like bullets. But what this really is, is pure, unadulterated (and unapologetic) pulp; a videogame for those who read.

Poor Charlie just wants to move into the swank Hollywood Hills pad of his latest client, a flaky film composer who’s off to Europe. His big plans? Unpack, order some grub, and then drink and watch movies until he passes out. But his slacker utopia is disrupted when he discovers the mansion is already occupied—by Lane Madden, a troubled action movie star in hiding, who’s convinced a team of hired assassins is lurking outside, intent on killing her. Even worse for Charlie? She’s absolutely right. Exotic poisons, bombs, gas, death vans, even rigged traffic “accidents”—there’s almost no ploy that The Accident People—or their ruthless but huge-breasted (hey, it’s pulp!) leader Mann—won’t use to complete their “narrative.” But the apparently indestructible Charlie’s got a few tricks of his own, not the least of which is the fact he’s got a golden horseshoe up his, uh, sleeve.

When in doubt, Chandler said, have a guy come into the room with a gun. Swierczynski takes him at his word, but that dour fusspot Ray never cut loose like this. There may be more important books out this year, but there won’t be a wilder ride. Pure pulp for now people. Dig it.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 08 July 2011 02:07

If there’s an Edgar for truth in titles, Philly’s favorite cheesesteak, Duane Swierczynski, better dust off his mantle. His latest, Fun & Games, the first in a planned trilogy of back-to-back thrillers featuring ex-cop turned housesitter and old movie buff Charlie Hardie, is the most fun I’ve had in a long time; a total thumbs-up. Not for Duane the endless navel-gazing and angsty pontification over what is (or isn’t) noir. Nope, Duane’s too busy putting his delightfully loopy characters through their paces to worry about stuff like that. Call him the Stephen King of pop noir, if you must—the pop culture references, nods and winks fly through the air like bullets. But what this really is, is pure, unadulterated (and unapologetic) pulp; a videogame for those who read.

Poor Charlie just wants to move into the swank Hollywood Hills pad of his latest client, a flaky film composer who’s off to Europe. His big plans? Unpack, order some grub, and then drink and watch movies until he passes out. But his slacker utopia is disrupted when he discovers the mansion is already occupied—by Lane Madden, a troubled action movie star in hiding, who’s convinced a team of hired assassins is lurking outside, intent on killing her. Even worse for Charlie? She’s absolutely right. Exotic poisons, bombs, gas, death vans, even rigged traffic “accidents”—there’s almost no ploy that The Accident People—or their ruthless but huge-breasted (hey, it’s pulp!) leader Mann—won’t use to complete their “narrative.” But the apparently indestructible Charlie’s got a few tricks of his own, not the least of which is the fact he’s got a golden horseshoe up his, uh, sleeve.

When in doubt, Chandler said, have a guy come into the room with a gun. Swierczynski takes him at his word, but that dour fusspot Ray never cut loose like this. There may be more important books out this year, but there won’t be a wilder ride. Pure pulp for now people. Dig it.

Twice as Dead
Lynne F. Maxwell

This is the sixth entry in Jaffarian’s delightful series featuring plus-sized Southern California paralegal Odelia Grey, a self-proclaimed “corpse magnet.” Jaffarian doesn’t waste time getting down to business, as the book opens with one of Odelia’s habitual grisly discoveries, this time inconveniently situated at the wedding reception of her BFF’s daughter. Who killed the likable and talented wedding planner? No murderer stands a chance when Odelia, her wheelchair-bound husband Greg, and their police detective friend Dev, pool their collective wits and resources to solve the mystery.

Jaffarian outdoes herself this time with an exceedingly clever plot turning upon the apparent resurrection from the dead of a whole group of characters (and, no, this book isn’t one in Jaffarian’s supernatural series). People who had purportedly been killed in previous accidents reemerge with new identities, and, even more strangely, apparently socialize with each other. Even more perplexing is the fact that members of this group begin dying, this time for real (hence the title). I won’t reveal more because you will want to read and enjoy this intricately plotted mystery for yourself. Suffice it to say, however, that you will never guess the motive for the murders, although you will enjoy spending time with savvy, sassy Odelia and crew.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 08 July 2011 02:07

This is the sixth entry in Jaffarian’s delightful series featuring plus-sized Southern California paralegal Odelia Grey, a self-proclaimed “corpse magnet.” Jaffarian doesn’t waste time getting down to business, as the book opens with one of Odelia’s habitual grisly discoveries, this time inconveniently situated at the wedding reception of her BFF’s daughter. Who killed the likable and talented wedding planner? No murderer stands a chance when Odelia, her wheelchair-bound husband Greg, and their police detective friend Dev, pool their collective wits and resources to solve the mystery.

Jaffarian outdoes herself this time with an exceedingly clever plot turning upon the apparent resurrection from the dead of a whole group of characters (and, no, this book isn’t one in Jaffarian’s supernatural series). People who had purportedly been killed in previous accidents reemerge with new identities, and, even more strangely, apparently socialize with each other. Even more perplexing is the fact that members of this group begin dying, this time for real (hence the title). I won’t reveal more because you will want to read and enjoy this intricately plotted mystery for yourself. Suffice it to say, however, that you will never guess the motive for the murders, although you will enjoy spending time with savvy, sassy Odelia and crew.

Collecting Cooper
Kevin Burton Smith

Let’s face it—there’s something creepy about our collective serial killer fetish. Maybe even more disturbing if you’re a bookseller, watching customers stocking up daily on Manson, Bundy, et al. And don’t even get me started on those novels full of lovingly detailed gore and mutilation narrated in the first person. New Zealand thriller writer Paul Cleave’s dark and bloody Collecting Cooper kicks off with, yes, yet another abduction of yet another pretty young woman, and relates the horrendous details of her prolonged captivity as the forces of good race to save her. But Cleave is actually doing more than writing porn for sickos—he’s also poking a stick into some very dark places, which is what makes his tale alternately enthralling and unsettling.

It’s not enough that Christchurch, New Zealand, is crawling with psychos—no, everyone in the story is seemingly obsessed in one way or another with homicidal maniacs, in particular nominal hero Theodore Tate, the disgraced, guilt-ridden private eye just out of prison after four months for driving under the influence. He’s hired by Donovan Green, a figure from his troubled past, to find his daughter, Emma. Meanwhile, Schroeder, one of Tate’s few remaining police friends, asks him to look into the whereabouts of another serial killer, Melissa X. And then Emma’s psychology professor, Cooper, who’s writing a book on serial killers, is kidnapped by a former mental patient who is also, yes, obsessed with serial killers.

The circle of obsession—and the impulse to torture and kill—spreads through this book like a virus, as though contact with monsters alone can turn you into a monster. Cleave juggles multiple points of view and some deft misdirection to keep readers off-balance. His hellish depiction of Christchurch in the middle of a heat wave is without pity, and, as a reward to the faithful, perhaps, villains from his previous thrillers also pop up (because of course, who doesn’t want to recall fond memories of eyeball gauging, cannibalism and torture?). The cynical, ambiguous conclusion to this wild, violent romp really makes you wonder about Cleave. And his fans...and me. I couldn’t put it down.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 08 July 2011 02:07

cleave_collectingcooperThis wild, violent romp will raise questions about your mental soundness—when you can't put it down.

Chihuahua of the Baskervilles
Lynne F. Maxwell

With a title like this, can a mystery be anything but hilarious? Fortunately, Chihuahua of the Baskervilles lives up to its comedic promise—and the mystery isn’t bad, either. Despite the title’s invocation of Arthur Conan Doyle, there’s nary a Holmes and/or Watson to be found here. Instead, the sleuths are a ragtag team of freelancers working for a moribund publication, Tripping Magazine. Again, flaunting expectations generated by its title, this magazine isn’t a vestige of the ’60s chemical culture. Rather, it chronicles ghostly tourist destinations and is targeted toward connoisseurs of the supernatural.

The action commences when the Boulder-based freelance team is commissioned to do a story on the appearance of a ghost—ahem—chihuahua. Ostensibly the ghost of the deceased Petey, this apparition manifests itself to the dog’s former owner, Charlotte Baskerville, who also owns a successful catalog business selling boutique clothing for dogs. Suspend your disbelief, and enjoy the play of the improbable here, as “Petey” enjoins Charlotte to divorce her husband, Thomas, and is also instrumental in causing Thomas’ death. The skeptical freelance team ultimately deflates the supernatural element of the plot, but not without offering immense entertainment value of its own, namely through the sardonic nature of its investigation. Employing deductions worthy of Holmes himself, the Tripping team reveals the truth about Petey’s ghost and about the dysfunctional dynamics of the household in which he “appears.” Frightfully funny.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 08 July 2011 02:07

allbritten_chihuahuaifthebaskervillesChihuahua of the Baskervilles lives up to its comedic promise—and the mystery isn’t bad, either.

A Bad Night’s Sleep
Kevin Burton Smith

The public relations flacks for the Chicago Police Department are going to just love this one. When private eye Joe Kozmarski dozes off in his parked car while guarding an abandoned South Side construction site on a freeze-your-ass-off November night, the last thing he expects is to wake up in the middle of what looks like a convention of cops (in uniform, no less) loading up vans with rolls of stolen copper wire. I mean, gee, who ya gonna call? Chicago’s finest? They’re already there. It’s one of the best opening scenes I’ve read in years, a real WTF? that drags you right into this pulpy, hardboiled yarn.

If Wiley doesn’t quite keep up the feverish pace throughout, it’s not for lack of trying. Shootouts, betrayals, corruption, violence, narrow escapes, and more betrayals keep things moving and deliciously off-kilter, so that readers—and Joe—are never quite sure where the next hit is coming from. And there are some doozies in store, particularly when Joe, a recovering alcoholic and a disgraced former cop himself, with few friends left on the force or anywhere else, is roped into going undercover to nail the bad boys in blue. Who, it turns out, have some very big and very nasty dreams.

The author, a Shamus Award winner, manages to keep the occasionally high-flying plot grounded with clean, taut prose and an appealing grit that melds perfectly with his beleaguered, Everyman hero. Another solid entry in a series that never fails to get the job done. Just don’t expect Wiley—or Joe—to be awarded the key to the city of Chicago any time soon.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 08 July 2011 02:07

The public relations flacks for the Chicago Police Department are going to just love this one. When private eye Joe Kozmarski dozes off in his parked car while guarding an abandoned South Side construction site on a freeze-your-ass-off November night, the last thing he expects is to wake up in the middle of what looks like a convention of cops (in uniform, no less) loading up vans with rolls of stolen copper wire. I mean, gee, who ya gonna call? Chicago’s finest? They’re already there. It’s one of the best opening scenes I’ve read in years, a real WTF? that drags you right into this pulpy, hardboiled yarn.

If Wiley doesn’t quite keep up the feverish pace throughout, it’s not for lack of trying. Shootouts, betrayals, corruption, violence, narrow escapes, and more betrayals keep things moving and deliciously off-kilter, so that readers—and Joe—are never quite sure where the next hit is coming from. And there are some doozies in store, particularly when Joe, a recovering alcoholic and a disgraced former cop himself, with few friends left on the force or anywhere else, is roped into going undercover to nail the bad boys in blue. Who, it turns out, have some very big and very nasty dreams.

The author, a Shamus Award winner, manages to keep the occasionally high-flying plot grounded with clean, taut prose and an appealing grit that melds perfectly with his beleaguered, Everyman hero. Another solid entry in a series that never fails to get the job done. Just don’t expect Wiley—or Joe—to be awarded the key to the city of Chicago any time soon.

The Hypnotist
Lourdes Venard

In the wake of Stieg Larsson’s mega-Millennium trilogy, crime fiction readers have been looking for the next good Scandinavian crime story. Their next stop might be The Hypnotist, a fast-moving, well-written Swedish thriller. The story opens with a 15-year-old boy, Josef Ek, having been admitted to a hospital. His father, mother, and younger sister have been stabbed to death outside Stockholm; Josef himself has hundreds of cuts and stab wounds, from the soles of his feet to his face and scalp. Dr. Erik Maria Bark is called in, not for his expertise in shock and trauma, but for his hypnosis skills. Bark hasn’t hypnotized anyone in 10 years, and is reluctant to do so. He’s persuaded, though, by Det. Joona Linna; Josef’s older sister is missing, and the detective feels she may be in danger. Under hypnosis, Josef’s revelations are shocking—and the consequences to Bark are larger than could have been foreseen.

Like hypnosis itself, the full story reveals itself in pieces, layer by layer. But this is not a slow-moving psychological novel; this is a read-late-into-the-night thriller. Kepler (the pseudonym for married coauthors Alexander and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril) are adept at moving the story between past and present, and between character narratives. The book is dark and violent, and there’s a nightmarish quality running through it at times—but those who love Scandinavian fiction shouldn’t be put off by this. The only drawback might be the translation—leaden in spots. But, mesmerized by the plot, you are likely to overlook it.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 08 July 2011 02:07

kepler_hypnostistFor lovers of Swedish crime fiction, a new psychological suspense that reveals its plot piece by piece.

The Wild Hog Murders
Bob Smith

The feral hogs in Clearview, Texas, are causing all kinds of havoc, much to the chagrin of Sheriff Dan Rhodes, but there is no way he can blame the pigs for the two murders that occur. Wild hog hunting is legal, but very dangerous, so it is no surprise when a couple of bodies are discovered after a hunt. The problem is both victims were shot and, well, that isn’t the usual modus operandi for pigs who prefer to just gore and trample their victims to death.

If you are familiar with the ongoing Dan Rhodes series, than you know you are in for a puzzling mystery (always logically solved), an interesting, small-town Texas setting, offbeat characters, and many a smile at the author’s subtle humor. For instance, can anyone resist the back and forth, Abbott and Costello-style repartee of Rhodes’ two deputies, Lawton and Hack? They may frustrate the Sheriff but they delight the reader.

This time around the cast includes a couple of motorcycle thugs (with whom Rhodes has had previous run-ins), a loudmouth radio talk show host, a bounty hunter—oops sorry, a “Fugitive Recovery Agent” as he prefers to be known, and an animal lover and her son who, in an effort to save the hogs use rock salt loaded rifles to discourage hunters. These and all the regulars of Clearview make this book the perfect leisure-time read. Start with any of the 17 other Dan Rhodes books and you’re sure to end up reading them all.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 08 July 2011 03:07

crider_wildhogmurdersFeral hogs are causing havoc for Texas Sheriff Dan Rhodes, but he can't blame the pigs for murder.

Killer Move
Derek Hill

For the last six years, ambitious realtor Bill Moore has been making a name for himself in the Florida Keys selling condos in the once-exclusive area known as The Breakers. He loves his wife, Steph, and his career is moving in the right direction to make a financial killing and early retirement. That’s the plan, at least. But when he receives a mysterious business card with only the word “modified” printed on it, an element of chaos infiltrates his stable life: a sexually provocative book that Moore never ordered arrives at his house; without his knowing, a racist joke is sent from his email account to all of his associates; a dinner reservation is made at a restaurant for him and his wife that he doesn’t remember; and disturbing photos of a co-worker undressing are found on his home computer. Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Hunter is released from prison and is exacting methodical revenge on the people he believes sent him to jail for a crime he did not commit, and he’s circling toward Moore.

Marshall’s thriller is the perfect summer read: a high concept page-turner that is always rooted in character and the everyday despite its outlandish plot—which is why it’s so horrifying. The plot machinations that Marshall wields so effectively, and that become increasingly more distressing as Moore’s life unravels, preys on our fears about privacy and how we expose so much of ourselves online, especially on social media sites where sharing the mundane, private details of one’s life with friends, family members, and sometimes strangers, is de rigueur. Reading Killer Move, you realize that much of our interaction online is based on trust—the trust that someone with nefarious intentions and the technical know-how won’t destroy your life with a few clicks of the mouse.

Marshall’s skills are in his characterization as much as his handling of plot. Moore, all arrogant and self-assured before his world comes crashing down, is not the most likeable of characters at first. But as his life goes haywire, he’s humbled and readers relate on a primal level to his panic and fear. Killer Move is a forceful, well-crafted nightmare for the modern age.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 08 July 2011 03:07

For the last six years, ambitious realtor Bill Moore has been making a name for himself in the Florida Keys selling condos in the once-exclusive area known as The Breakers. He loves his wife, Steph, and his career is moving in the right direction to make a financial killing and early retirement. That’s the plan, at least. But when he receives a mysterious business card with only the word “modified” printed on it, an element of chaos infiltrates his stable life: a sexually provocative book that Moore never ordered arrives at his house; without his knowing, a racist joke is sent from his email account to all of his associates; a dinner reservation is made at a restaurant for him and his wife that he doesn’t remember; and disturbing photos of a co-worker undressing are found on his home computer. Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Hunter is released from prison and is exacting methodical revenge on the people he believes sent him to jail for a crime he did not commit, and he’s circling toward Moore.

Marshall’s thriller is the perfect summer read: a high concept page-turner that is always rooted in character and the everyday despite its outlandish plot—which is why it’s so horrifying. The plot machinations that Marshall wields so effectively, and that become increasingly more distressing as Moore’s life unravels, preys on our fears about privacy and how we expose so much of ourselves online, especially on social media sites where sharing the mundane, private details of one’s life with friends, family members, and sometimes strangers, is de rigueur. Reading Killer Move, you realize that much of our interaction online is based on trust—the trust that someone with nefarious intentions and the technical know-how won’t destroy your life with a few clicks of the mouse.

Marshall’s skills are in his characterization as much as his handling of plot. Moore, all arrogant and self-assured before his world comes crashing down, is not the most likeable of characters at first. But as his life goes haywire, he’s humbled and readers relate on a primal level to his panic and fear. Killer Move is a forceful, well-crafted nightmare for the modern age.

Pigeon English
Jem Bloomfield

Stephen Kelman’s first novel, Pigeon English, is a startlingly assured piece of work. Writing about teenage knife crime in inner London requires a careful balancing of the demands of ethics and plotting, but doing so in the voice of a 12 year old asks for a level of sensitivity and craftsmanship which few crime novelists can offer. What strikes the reader all the way through is the superb control with which Kelman writes, rarely blundering into heavy-handed moralizing, sentimentality, or easy jokes above the head of his protagonist, Harrison. The latter must be a particularly difficult temptation to resist, and there are some cringing moments when he’s “explaining” things (girls, the English language, school rules) which the author and reader both know he’s got wrong, but on the whole the book gives its main character a fair deal. Like other successful child narrators (Nigel Molesworth springs to mind), Harrison has a texture to his speech which—though it probably isn’t “authentic” in a literal sense—persuades the reader far more efficiently than any amount of corroborating detail.

Pigeon English doesn’t set out to explain —or even enquire particularly—why teenagers kill each other, or to call for solutions. It doesn’t give more than a vague outline of the problems Harrison’s family find themselves grappling with, such as their debt to the gangster who arranged their passage to England. What it does provide, however, is a vivid sense of what it might feel like to live in his world. One might expect the viewpoint to constrict the narrative, but paradoxically it opens it up: we get glimpses of the story’s crimes as framed by TV programs like CSI, the gang rules of the “Dell Farm Crew” who carried out the murder, and the bystanders at the scene of the crime. With a very light touch, Kelman makes us view from a new perspective the kind of story we’re used to reading about in the newspapers. (One of the most audacious perspectives the book offers is the brief interjections by a pigeon who pontificates about the span of life and the lairyness of magpies. Some readers will find this a flight too far, but it’s hard not to admire the ambition.) Stephen Kelman is a writer to watch.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 08 July 2011 03:07

kelman_pigeonenglishAn assured debut about teenage knife crime in inner London from the voice of a 12-year-old narrator.

An African Affair
Oline H. Cogdill

A corrupt government about to implode, political intrigue, an exotic locale, and a plucky heroine combine for a multilayered plot that has something of the flavor of Christopher Koch’s famous The Year of Living Dangerously. Nina Darnton lived in Africa for five years, two of them in Lagos, and she has written for The New York Times, NPR, and Newsweek.

She makes good use of this experience in depicting the chaos and violence of rebellion-wracked Nigeria during the mid-1990s.

An African Affair is a harrowing thriller that shows how a corrupt government seeps into every aspect of a culture. American journalist Lindsay Cameron has her year of living dangerously when she joins the New York Globe’s Nigerian bureau located in Lagos in 1994. Lindsay finds no lack of events to cover as rebels protest the policies of military dictator Gen. Michael Olumide, whose new restrictive government is funded by drug runners. But doing the job is another matter. Poor telephone service, electrical blackouts, and archaic technology make filing her stories difficult. Write a story that the government dislikes and a journalist may be kicked out of the country—or never heard from again.

Lindsay knows she has to tread lightly when she lands an exclusive interview with Olumide. Shortly after she files her story, Olumide’s trusted adviser and his rival are both killed, and the general begins to backpedal on his promise to hold free elections. A burgeoning romance with art gallery owner James Duncan gives Lindsay a break from work, while her new friendship with a CIA agent may put her journalism ethics at risk. Much of An African Affair’s plot is predictable, but Darnton’s realistic approach and her knowledge of Nigeria elevate her novel. An African Affair doesn’t only focus on politics, but also reveals the nation’s culture through trips to the countryside studio of a folk artist, the emotional family gathering for a child’s funeral, and religious rituals. It is the beginning of a planned series that should take readers even deeper into this troubled country.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 08 July 2011 03:07

darnton_anafricanaffairA corrupt government about to implode, political intrigue, an exotic locale, and a plucky heroine.