To establish the mystery writing credentials of Mark Twain, there’s no need to dig into Tom Sawyer, Detective, A Double-Barreled Detective Story, or Pudd’nhead Wilson. Look no further than the Great American Novel itself, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is full of crime (mostly confidence games), suspense, menace, pursuit, impersonation, and genuine detective work by various characters. Admittedly, there’s not much related to mystery fiction in this unexpurgated edition of Twain’s autobiography, which was banned from complete publication until a century after his death. But anyone with an interest in Twain, the writing life, the evolution of American humor, or American literature of the 19th and early 20th century will be captivated by this first of three projected volumes. Illustrations include photographs and manuscript pages. An introduction and meticulous editorial notes make up over a third of the page count. Literary scholarship was never more entertaining.
For an offbeat light read, consider Liz Lipperman’s Liver Let Die, a series opener that features Jordan McAllister, an accidental food critic for the Ranchero Globe. This small-town Texas paper is quite a step down for Jordan, who was accustomed to higher profile gigs in Austin. Still, she has managed to create physical distance from her longstanding, but two-timing, boyfriend, Brett. Dreaming of a career as sportswriter and having trained for it in college, she finds herself in a seemingly dead-end job writing personals. Thus, when her editor summons Jordan to his office, she never guesses that she is about to receive a “promotion,” of sorts, to temporary food editor. While this assignment might seem like a dream job for most of us, Jordan is terrified because she has no familiarity with fine food, and she certainly has no stockpile of recipes for publication in her column. Fine dining, however, becomes dangerous as she ignorantly orders foie gras, hates it and becomes fodder for some deadly characters, indeed. In a fast-paced mystery that moves in unexpected directions, illegal diamond trafficking brings Jordan into close relationships with her beloved, motley crew of friends and a stunning new love interest.
Claim of Innocence, Laura Caldwell’s latest, returns series heroine Izzy McNeil to her original career as an attorney. Back from her hiatus as a private investigator, Izzy is enlisted by her closest friend to participate in a complicated criminal trial. While this is a challenging lure back to lawyerdom, there is a major problem: Izzy’s experience has been in the radically different realm of civil litigation. Author Caldwell, a former civil litigator and current law professor, knows whereof she writes when she throws Izzy into a high profile case involving an accusation of murder by poisoning, an illicit love affair, and massive deceit all around. Izzy learns by immersion that clients don’t necessarily tell the truth, and, at times, it behooves attorneys to steer clear of examination of innocence. At any rate, Izzy assumes the case and takes on additional investigative responsibility in this cleverly plotted novel. Not only does Caldwell do a particularly good job in developing the character of Izzy, but, not surprisingly, she is also spot-on in her presentation of matters pertaining to the law. She’s not so bad on the conflicting love interests, either. Forget John Grisham; Laura Caldwell is the real deal.
If you’re like me, you will heartily embrace the new series by Allison Kingsley, inaugurated by Mind Over Murder, the first Raven’s Nest mystery. Introducing series protagonist Clara Quinn, and deviating from the usual mystery bookshop setting, Kingsley creates a new twist on the bookshop subgenre—i.e., the Raven’s Nest, the bookstore in question, houses an eclectic mix of new age and occult books, along with an extensive selection of cookbooks. Clara, cousin of the owner of the Raven’s Nest, is a recent refugee from New York and failed love. When she returns to her quaint Maine hometown, her cousin Stephanie strong-arms her into helping out in the store. Shortly after her arrival, the body of Ana, the nasty busybody from the adjoining shop, is discovered in the basement of the Raven’s Nest. Unfortunately, bookshop employee Molly becomes the prime suspect since she closed the store on the night in question and, even worse, made an untimely comment the previous day out of exasperation with Ana. In order to prove Molly innocent, Stephanie convinces Clara to use the Quinn Sense, a potent psychic power, to discover the true murderer from a pool of viable suspects. What follows is a skillful amalgam of mystery new age and romantic plot strands, certain to appeal to fans of these genres—and to numerous others, as well. Kingsley and her heroine Clara Quinn will return soon—but not soon enough—to continue the saga set in the happy, yet hapless, bookshop. And with the demise of the big-box bookstores, we wish the Raven’s Nest and its ilk all the luck—albeit fraught with murder and mayhem—in the world.
Black Dog Books has just published a collection of 13 stories by Sax Rohmer, best known for the creation of the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. The Green Spider and Other Forgotten Tales of Mystery and Suspense represents Rohmer at the beginning of his career, and four of the stories it includes have never before appeared in print in the US. For me the high point is “The Zayat Kiss,” the very first story to feature Dr. Fu Manchu. The story, which forms a portion of the first novel about the evil doctor, was originally published almost 100 years ago. “The Six Gates of Joyful Wisdom” stands on its own, though it’s a selection from the second Fu Manchu novel. Fine, creepy stuff.