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.
Loren Estleman’s stories about Valentino, the film detective, not the movie star, have been appearing in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for over ten years now. Valentino lives in an old renovated movie theater, and he makes the money he needs to continue the renovations by tracking down prints of films that are thought to be lost forever. Often there’s murder involved, and Valentino has to become another kind of sleuth. Now all the stories have been collected into one volume, Valentino: Film Detective and there’s also an introduction by Estleman, who obviously loves old movies as much as his character. If you like films and good writing, you need a copy of this book.
From Wildside Press comes Fish Tales: The Guppy Anthology, edited by Ramona DeFelice Long. For those who don’t know, the Guppies are members of Sisters in Crime’s online chapter for “the great unpublished.” Except that some of them have been published before in other genres, and some have published other crime stories and novels. Now 22 of them have been published in this anthology of stories with a watery theme. Annette Dashofy’s “A Murder Runs Through It” is about a riverside picnic spoiled by murder. Beth Groundwater is a successful mystery novelist already. Her story, “Fatal Fish Flop,” has a great opening line for an anthology like this one. Kaye George’s “The Truck Contest” proves that sometimes pickups and ice-covered lakes aren’t a good combination. All the stories are well done, and this volume is a great opportunity for you to discover some writers just beginning what are sure to be long careers.
These stories are as tough as they come, full of meth cookers and dogfights and rusty pickup trucks, populated by characters as vivid as your neighbors, except that you wouldn’t want to live next door to any of them. Bill’s career is going to take off fast, since the first three stories in the book, collectively called “The Hill Clan Trilogy,” are scheduled to appear in Playboy. Here’s a chance to read a writer who’s going to be around a long time.
The most recent anthology from the Mystery Writers of America is The Rich and the Dead, edited by Nelson DeMille, who also contributes an introduction and the first story in the book. The theme is crimes involving great wealth, and the lineup of authors is a powerhouse mix. Want to know the difference between the rich and the super rich? Read Harley Jane Kozak’s “Lamborghini Mommy.” In the mood for a dandy little revenge story? You can’t go wrong with Daniel J. Hale’s “The Precipice.” For something a little lighter, there’s Ted Bell’s very funny story of a con man, “The Pirate of Palm Beach.” It’s a great anthology, and some of the other stories are by Lee Child (stepping away from Jack Reacher for a moment), Michael Connelly (this one features Harry Bosch), S. J. Rozan, Angela Zeman, and a host of others who all provide plenty of quality entertainment. Don’t miss this one.
There aren’t a lot of mystery novels out there where philosophers’ names get tossed around like confetti (Hegel, Strindberg, Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger, Kant, et al.), but in Lawrence Douglas’ The Vices you’ll run into a baker’s dozen of them. In deeply reflective, gorgeous prose, Douglas spins the yarn of brilliant but disturbed philosopher Oliver Vice, the fictional author of Paradoxes of Self, who disappears during an ocean voyage. Was he murdered? Did he commit suicide? Or did he simply think himself into a more elevated plane of existence? Oliver’s friend, the unnamed narrator of the story, finds himself sucked into the dysfunctional Vice family dynamics when he attempts to find out what really did happen aboard that ship. The main players here are aging Hungarian beauty Francizka, Oliver’s manipulative mother; Bartholomew, Olivier’s elephantine, slow-witted brother; and a coterie of hangers-on, all of whom are hiding something.
In an adults-only flashback, we are whisked alongside Oliver into a no-holds-barred sex club. The philosopher is so jaded that although he partakes of the sexual smorgasbord, he finds it all pretty dull. In between the eyebrow-raising escapades of this peculiar cast of characters, we are treated to several pages of Oliver’s cerebral tome. Readers who are philosophically inclined will gobble it up; those who aren’t won’t. As for myself, I became so intrigued with Paradoxes of Self that I was disappointed when the author stopped quoting from it and began exploring the more mundane worlds of art forgery and blackmail. While there are mysteries galore in The Vices, it’s actually a literary novel. Or a philosophy treatise. Or an abnormal psychology monograph. Or...oh, what difference does it make? Oliver and his family and friends are so outrageously entertaining in their neurotic complexities that you’ll find yourself enjoying every perverse one of them, whatever they do or to whom they do it.
A robot may have committed murder in A. Scott Pearson’s Memphis-set Public Anatomy, when a medical procedure manned by a human surgeon goes fatally awry—and is seen on a live television broadcast. Before the blood is wiped off the camera lens, Dr. Liza French finds her professional reputation ruined and her hospital’s robotic surgery program in danger of being shut down. French’s personality is so abrasive that few colleagues come to her rescue, surgeon Eli Branch proves the lone exception.
Branch has his own problems. His left hand was slashed in a knife attack and he can no longer perform surgery, so to hold body and soul together—and keep his medical licence alive—he pinch-hits at various emergency rooms. Complicated though Branch’s life is, he answers the call when his friend, homicide detective Nate Lipsky, begs for help with a series of grisly murders. In each case, one of the victim’s organs was surgically removed, and a beautifully-rendered drawing of it is left near the scene. Intrigued, Branch can’t say no to either French or Lipsky, and once again (after Pearson’s debut novel, Rupture) finds himself on a murderer’s hit list.
Author Pearson is himself a Tennessee surgeon, and it’s his knowledge of medicine and medical procedures that lend credence to even the most startling plot lines. Unlike some docs who have turned to literature, his characters, especially Eli Branch, have emotional depth. They hate, love, are petty and self-sacrificing. And they carry grudges. Pearson is a dab hand at settings, too. He paints his beloved Memphis so vividly that you can almost smell the barbecue. But in the end, it’s Pearson’s ability to keep you on the edge of your seat amidst the bloodbaths that makes Public Anatomy the kind of book you’ll want to read in one sitting: it’s that good.
Those wanting to sample the fresh sea air will be drawn to Jenifer LeClair’s Maine-set mystery, Danger Sector. Brie Beaumont, a Minneapolis homicide detective suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a shooting that killed her partner, rethinks her future as she works on the Maine Wind, a windjammer that cruises around Maine’s bays and islands. While on shore leave on Sentinel Island, she discovers that a local artist is missing, maybe drowned. Since the artist’s disappearance is similar to the drowning of a famed archeologist years earlier, Brie finds herself in the middle of yet another homicide investigation.
Danger Sector moves slowly, and could easily have been trimmed back, but patient readers will be rewarded by beautiful passages describing the lure of the sea and the brave ships that sail her.
Every now and then we all love a little snark, and L.C. Tyler’s The Herring in the Library dishes it up in a generous serving. With a wink and a nod to the coy English cozies of yesteryear, Tyler delivers the laugh-intensive story of “third rate crime writer” Ethelred Tressider, and his astute, long-suffering agent Elsie Thirkettle. The death of the story duly arrives when Sir Robert “Shagger” Muntham invites Ethelred to Muntham Court for dinner. Shagger is dead by dessert, found strangled in his study, which is, of course, locked from the inside.
Whodunnit? Among the wildly eccentric characters in attendance at this deadly dinner are Lady Muntham, Shagger’s voluptuous wife (rumor has it Shagger met her in a topless bar and fell in love during a lap dance); Felicity Hooper, an acid-tongued novelist once rejected by Ethelred’s agent; and Clive Brent, the business partner Shagger involved in a dishonest deal, then abandoned to face the music alone.
Told in first person narratives by Ethelred and Elsie, the two often sound like an old married couple who loves to bicker. Ethelred is hilariously blockheaded, especially where beautiful women are concerned, but sharp-eyed Elsie sees things as they are. She’s delightfully waspish in her commentaries on the British upper class, most of whom she considers beneath contempt. In addition to these dual points of view, we also hear from Master Thomas, Ethelred’s fictional series character, who is based on the clerk in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Master Thomas is smarter than Ethelred, but not by much. The droll humor in this frothy mystery will have you snickering for days.
“I am not ashamed of anything I have done. I fought against war, Negro oppression, and social injustice. I am proud of my books. I regret that in some of my political articles I went overboard—but by and large I stand by what I wrote.”
Howard Fast testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He refused to cooperate and served jail time.
I never met the man, but I understand he enjoyed the occasional cigar, so right there, he must have been okay. The fact that Howard Fast’s life plays out much like one of his proletarian novels no doubt tickled him, and that he had a long life and produced work in various mediums is something to envy.
Born into poverty in New York City in 1914, Howard was the son of Ukrainian immigrant Barney Fast and Ida Miller, a Britisher by way of Lithuania. His mother died when he was eight and a half. Fast and his brother Jerome worked odd jobs from delivering the Bronx Home News to cleaning up in butcher shops. They discovered Poe, Twain, Karl Marx, Hawthorne and many others at the public library. In particular, Fast recounts in his autobiography, Being Red, that it was George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism that set him on the road to become a leftist.
Despite his family’s poverty, Fast managed to graduate from George Washington High School. In 1933 he published his first novel, Two Valleys, at the age of 19. This would be the first of more than 80 books of fiction and nonfiction he would write over nearly seven decades. Greenwich was his last published novel in 2000. And what awe and magic he pounded out in those years on the pages, and what a life he lived.
In Citizen Tom Paine, Fast portrayed the trials of writer and soldier Tom Paine who was a pamphleteer, a prairie propagandist who would one day find himself at odds with fellow insurrectionists such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin because of his atheist notions.
Paine was anti-slavery, an advocate for a constitution, social security, and a believer, to use the modern argot, in marrying theory and practice. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” he began in The Crisis, speaking of the American Revolution. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
In Freedom Road, published in 1944, his protagonist is Gideon Jackson, a black man and ex-Union soldier who finds that he must learn a new way to fight to ensure advancement for the freed slaves during Reconstruction. But Fast, who joined the Communist Party while writing Citizen Tom Paine, also suffused the novel with a class analysis.
“And the plantation kings, the men behind the war, the men who had engineered it, made it, and plunged their hands elbow-deep in blood that their great empires of cotton, rice and sugar and tobacco might endure, saw the impossible happen, the slaves emancipated, millions and millions and millions of dollars of capital they once owned taken from them and overnight dissolved into thin air.”
A bit didactic? Yep. But that was Fast. Two weeks after Pearl Harbor was bombed, he was working for the Office of War Information spinning propaganda for Voice of America broadcasts. In 1945, Fast was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was ordered to identify people who contributed to build a hospital in France for anti-fascist fighters from the Abraham Lincoln Brigades. He refused and served three months in jail for contempt. Citizen Tom Paine was banned in high school libraries in New York. Fast was not deterred. He wrote for the Daily Worker and ran unsuccessfully for congress on the American Labor Party ticket.
In the '50s, blacklisted, with publishers intimidated by the FBI, Fast self-published Spartacus, arguably his most famous novel, about a revolt led by a Roman slave. It was a story he was inspired to write while in jail. He was awarded the Stalin International Peace Prize in 1954. And when the monstrosity of Stalin was finally and irrefutably revealed in Khrushchev’s so-called secret speech in 1957, he broke with the Communist Party, but never named names. He would write mystery novels about a Japanese-American detective with the Beverly Hills Police Department as E.V. Cunningham, and see several of his books, April Morning, The Immigrants, Freedom Road, Citizen Tom Paine, and Spartacus, turned into films, plays, and TV shows.
Howard Fast truly lived the writer’s life.
“I am not ashamed of anything I have done. I fought against war, Negro oppression, and social injustice. I am proud of my books. I regret that in some of my political articles I went overboard—but by and large I stand by what I wrote.”
Gary Phillips’ latest book is The Underbelly from PM Press.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #80.
And Justice for All
A brief on current legal thrillers sure to delight fans of courtroom drama.
by Jon L. Breen
Livia J. Washburn
Humor, appealing characters, small-town charm, and the occasional romance make this author’s several series cozy favorites.
by Brett Weiss
A fascinating TV series about the 18th-century barrister dubbed “The Robin Hood of the courts.”
by Jon L. Breen
Early misfortune only spurred this author to work harder—and today it still enriches his work.
by Oline H. Cogdill
Gifts for Mystery Lovers
Make yourself popular this holiday season with these surefire hits.
by Kevin Burton Smith
On being friends with your PI, sending messages to readers, and the immortality of books.
by Oline H. Cogdill
John C. Boland
What if evolution presented mankind with present-day competition?
by Ethan Cross
Protecting Your Book Collection
by Nate Pedersen
The Murders in Memory Lane: Scott Meredith, Part II
Meredith ran his agency like a pirate ship, as one former cabin boy recalls.
by Lawrence Block
What’s Happening with Peter Bowen?
A chat with the author of the Gabriel Du Pré mysteries set in Montana.
by Brian Skupin
by Kate Stine
by Louis Phillips
Hints & Allegations
Anthony Awards, Shamus Awards, Ned Kelly Awards, CWA Daggers, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Fashion
Zero Cool by John Lange, Mike Resnick
by Ed Gorman
Mysterious Activities on Facebook, Twitter, eNews, Blog & Website
First Lines That Caught Our Attention
A Season for Murder Crossword
by Verna Suit
When Worlds Collide
by Margaret Maron
Who Defines Normal?
by Dennis Palumbo
by Sparkle Abbey
by Mary Fremont Schoenecker
Small Press Reviews: Covering the Independents
by Betty Webb
Short & Sweet: Short Stories Considered
by Bill Crider
Very Original: Paperback Originals Reviewed
by Lynne Maxwell
What About Murder? Reference Books Reviewed
by Jon L. Breen
Sounds of Suspense: Audiobooks Reviewed
by Dick Lochte
Mystery Scene Reviews
The writers we talk to in this issue couldn’t be more different, but each of them has spun literary gold from the real-life straw of their circumstances and experiences.
Stephen Hunter is a case in point. His lifelong interest in guns and the military are front and center in the hard-hitting Bob Lee Swagger novels (Point of Impact, Dead Zero) and other thrillers. But the father and son dynamic is the real engine of his storytelling and Hunter traces that to his own abusive father. “I seem to have gotten a lot more out of my imagination than I ever suspected was there by investigating those issues of good fathers and bad fathers.” Be sure not to miss this fascinating profile.
Small town charm, good humor, and warm friendships characterize Livia J. Washburn’s increasingly popular Fresh-Baked Mysteries and Literary Tour Mysteries. Her career began as a volunteer typist for her husband, the writer James Reasoner. “I kept telling him of other ways his stories could have gone until he finally suggested that I try to write my own,” she recalls. Good advice! John Boland has had many different jobs—journalist, hedge fund manager, small press publisher. His books and short stories are just as varied, including his new, highly praised thriller Hominid, which draws on provocative issues of evolution, genetics, and archaeology. Our reviewer loved the book and I think you’ll enjoy our interview.
Marcia Muller has an unusual hobby: creating dollhouses and miniature rooms based on her popular Sharon McCone private eye novels. “They help me visualize certain scenes, so these do feed into my work,” she says. “Some rooms I created and then wrote into the books; others, like the kitchen of the All Souls Co-op (shown on page 35), came from the books.” Muller, of course, has had a long and distinguished career, and is generally credited with pioneering the female private eye novel in the 1970s. Particularly amusing in this interview are her thoughts on putting “social messages” in novels.
This year the “Gift Guide for Mystery Lovers” offers some real gems. I’ve already bought a pair of the stylish Sherlock-Watson earrings and have my eyes on the Detective Montalbano and Commissario Brunetti DVDs... And if you often loan out your books, then the “Stolen From” Bookplates might come in handy.
Sticky-fingered friends aren’t the only threats to your personal library. Nate Pedersen describes a multitude of ills that can afflict your books—pets, dust, tape, improper shelving—and offers solutions. As he notes, “A first edition of the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, commands over $50,000 with a fine dust jacket, but less than $4,000 without one.”
The next issue of Mystery Scene will arrive in February 2012. Over the next few months, 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.
All of us here at Mystery Scene wish you a merry holiday season and a wonderful 2012. Happy reading!
“Dido Hoare, the world-famous soft-touch antiquarian book dealer,” is how Marianne Macdonald’s sleuth introduces herself in Death’s Autograph, the first entry of a delightful bibliomystery series.
Marianne Macdonald. Photo: Carol Latimer.
Dido makes her living in the book trade but it’s the human interest stories that follow the books as they move from owner to owner over decades or centuries that really grab her interest. Getting involved in those stories sometimes threatens her life—and makes for compelling reading.
Dido, The Woman
Dido was named, as she tells it in Ghost Walk, for “the Queen of Carthage whom Aeneas had abandoned on his way to more important masculine pursuits like founding the city of Rome.” Hoare, pronounced in one syllable, is a venerable English name that author Marianne Macdonald may have chosen to be mischievous.
Dido herself is immediately likeable. She speaks her mind, drinks her share, and has chronically poor judgement when it comes to attractive men.
The reason she’s a store owner in the first place is because she couldn’t resist the charm and good looks of her ex-husband Davey. Davey dealt in antique prints and Dido worked in the book business, so when they married, her father Barnabas thought it appropriate to set them up with their own shop as a wedding present. Davey soon departed and the sign above the door was changed to read simply, “Dido Hoare Antiquarian Books and Prints”.
Like her creator, Dido went to Oxford. According to Marianne Macdonald, after Dido finished her studies she went to New York with a friend and worked in the publishing business for a couple of years, returning to England after her mother died to keep an eye on her aging father, who was a bibliophile himself. Dido learned about rare books over the next two years working at a big Charing Cross Road bookshop specializing in 19th and 20th century titles.
Dido Hoare Antiquarian Books and Prints occupies the first floor of a two-story Georgian cottage in Islington, “an up and coming area of North London.” Her stock fills overflowing floor-to-ceiling shelves that leave only narrow aisles for maneuvering.
For anyone interested in the book business, the day-to-day details that Macdonald incorporates into the stories make fascinating reading. In Death’s Autograph, Smoke Screen, and Three Monkeys, for instance, the reader accompanies Dido to private homes to inspect libraries for sale, and learns first-hand her process for appraising a collection and making a bid. There are also the logistical problems of storing boxes of books until she has time to deal with them, and what to do with the excess when she buys too much. She attends book auctions, and uses catalogs from other dealers to look for good deals and to help price her own stock.
Dido sells books both to customers who come into the store and to attendees at the periodic book fairs she participates in, such as the regular monthly book fair on Russell Square. But the bulk of her sales come through the mail. A constant in the series is the necessity of working on her own catalog, which she issues four to five times a year mostly for the benefit of the British and foreign university libraries which form the backbone of her customer list. In Smoke Screen Dido finally gets online and enters the world of internet sales. By Road Kill she has her own website.
Psalmista monasticum, Courtesy Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense
Dido’s ex-husband Davey only appears in the first book, Death’s Autograph. He works his way back into Dido’s life, causes mischief, then suddenly departs again leaving her to try to make sense of the considerable muddle he has created.
Besides leaving Dido with a bookstore, Davey also leaves her with a cat, called Mr. Spock, and a baby on the way. Baby Ben makes his first appearance in Ghost Walk. By Smoke Screen he’s ten months old and by Road Kill he’s started to walk and talk. The character of Ben helps MacDonald mark the passage of time by the stages of his development. He also serves as an admirable asset in her investigations: an excuse for Dido to end an interview and get home, a reason to grab the diaper bag (which holds her cellphone) and conveniently disappear into the bathroom, or simply as a way to attract attention and get people talking to her. Ben also deepens the story through Dido’s new understanding of love and commitment and the complications of her life as a single mother.
Dido’s father, Barnabas, is the co-star of the series and serves as sage advisor, business partner, and sometimes cohort in crime. Professor Barnabas Hoare held an Oxford chair in English. After retirement, and especially after his wife died, he found himself at loose ends. As Dido’s business and personal life grew more demanding, he stepped in to help.
The interplay between Dido and Barnabas is one of the great pleasures of Macdonald’s series. They live apart—he in a flat in a converted mid-Victorian villa, she in an apartment above the store—but they keep close tabs on one another. Barnabas is four months past a heart attack when we first meet him and Dido is concerned about his health.
Dido’s family is rounded out by her older sister Pat, respectable and married with a house and family in the suburbs. Pat tends to be overprotective but she can be counted on to “be there” when needed.
Despite her busy schedule, Dido also has her share of romantic entanglements. She first encounters Detective Inspector Paul Grant in Death’s Autograph and he continues in her life in an on-again-off-again relationship “similar to the one he has with his wife.” Investigative journalist Chris Kennedy first trifles with her affections in Die Once and makes a return appearance in Three Monkeys.
With each book Dido enlarges her circle, with characters reappearing as needed and sometimes providing stories’ central complications. Babysitter Phyllis, a no-nonsense Australian, regularly looks after Ben and frees up Dido to run her book business and chase down killers. College student Ernie, born in Sierra Leone and “built like a tank,” is directed to Dido when she has need of a computer guru.
Marianne Macdonald had her first book published when she was 16 years old. A native of Canada, she studied at McGill University and Oxford, and then spent years as a university instructor before returning to writing with the Dido books. The first in the series, Death’s Autograph, came out in 1996, and the eighth, Faking It, is coming out from Severn House this fall.
In the front pages of one of the novels, Macdonald gives the candid caveat that “all the characters in my books are purely autobiographical.” One can only guess at how much of Dido comes from Macdonald herself, and at the sources of her other characters. Surely Barnabas and his colleagues had their inspiration in Macdonald’s days studying at Oxford and teaching at various British universities. Macdonald credits her now-former husband, antiquarian bookdealer Eric Korn of ME Korn Books, with advising her on bookselling practices, and being the mother of sons undoubtedly contributed to Macdonald’s endearing characterization of Ben.
The Dido Hoare series borders on being a “cozy” because of the continuing cast of regular characters, and the homey scenes of daily life in Dido’s little flat although the tone and the world view are darker than one might expect. The bookstore milieu is certainly comfortable and pleasant. The stories unfold at a pace befitting the antiquarian book trade and if plots tend to ramble and loose ends get left dangling—well, life is like that.
Ideally, one should start reading this series with the first book, but it’s by no means a necessity. For a full appreciation, it does help to have an interest in books and the book business. But then, you wouldn’t have read this far if you didn’t already have that, would you?
The Dido Hoare Novels
Verna Suit reviews mysteries, writes occasional short fiction, and constructs crossword puzzles professionally.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #96.
According to MWA, "The Grand Master Award represents the pinnacle of achievement in mystery writing and was established to acknowledge important contributions to this genre, as well as a body of work that is both significant and of consistent high quality."
I'd say that about sums up Grimes and her work, as well as the work by the previous Grand Masters.
Grimes will be presented her Grand Master award during the Edgar Awards Banquet, which will be held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City on Thursday, April 26, 2012.
In addition to the Richard Jury series, Grimes also writes the Andi Olivier and Emma Graham series. She is also the author of several novels outside the mystery genre.
She has published a book (sometimes two) every year for the past 25 years.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Martha Grimes began as a poet, but then turned to mystery novels.
Previous Grand Masters include Sara Paretsky, Dorothy Gilman, James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, Bill Pronzini, Stephen King, Marcia Muller, Dick Francis, Mary Higgins Clark, Lawrence Block, P.D. James, Ellery Queen, Daphne du Maurier, Alfred Hitchcock, Graham Greene, and Agatha Christie.
Like I said, all deserving authors.
Each year in this stimulating series, Otto Penzler’s introduction notes that “many people regard a ‘mystery’ as a detective story,” which he believes is actually “one subgenre of a much bigger genre, which [he] define[s] as any short work of fiction in which a crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or the plot.” This is something of a straw man, since no one seriously confines the mystery (or more accurately crime story) to pure detection. The argument some of us have with the annual selection is that it is too often overbalanced toward mainstream literary pretentions and away from the features that make the mystery a unique genre. This year’s first selection (by alphabetical accident) provides a striking illustration: Brock Adams’ “Audacious,” from the Sewanee Review, is a very good short story, but it is not a mystery even by Penzler’s elastic definition. True, one of the main characters is a pickpocket, but her crimes or potential crimes are not really central to the plot or theme.
The rest of the stories at least meet the lenient criteria, and as always, there are some gems among them, highlighted by three extraordinary pieces of writing drawn from original anthologies: David Corbett and Luis Alberto Urrea’s “Who Stole My Monkey?” from Lone Star Noir (Akashic), about the theft of a band bus containing a Cajun musician’s prized accordion and the challenge to write a song for a Mexican patron’s ugly girlfriend, written in eloquent, colorful prose, with genuine elements of crime/mystery/detective fiction; Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Stars are Falling,” from Stories (Morrow), a beautifully written and heartbreaking variation on the old story of the returning soldier (from World War I in this case) whose wife believed him to be dead and found another love; and Charles McCarry’s spy-novel-in-miniature “The End of the String,” from Agents of Treachery (Vintage/Black Lizard), about a plot to overthrow the president-for-life of an African republic, believably drawing on the author’s own experiences as an American agent in the 1950s.
Other notable stories combine solid plotting with writing chops that would grace any genre magazine or literary journal: Brendan DuBois’ “Ride-Along,” about a journalist out for a night with a veteran cop, a gem of mystery craftsmanship; Loren D. Estleman’s “Sometimes a Hyena,” in which one of the greatest fictional private eyes, Detroit’s Amos Walker, looks into a possible accidental police shooting; Ed Gorman’s “Flying Solo,” a unique and unforgettable tale of cancer-patient vigilantes; Richard Lange’s “Baby Killer,” in which a deeply sympathetic East Los Angeles grandmother, who already has enough problems, witnesses the killing of a child by a gang member; and Andrew Riconda’s darkly satirical (and maybe sneakily religious?) variation on the old one-last-job ploy in “Heart Like a Balloon,” which the author appropriately recommends to the shade of Charles Willeford.
With competition this strong, the rest pale a bit by comparison, but most of the others have their points of interest. Chris F. Holm, a specialist in the offbeat, introduces an unconventional hired assassin in “The Hitter.” S.J. Rozan’s “Chin Yong-Yun Takes a Case” is told by the traditional Chinese mother of her series private eye Lydia Chin. “A Long Time Dead,” like all of Max Allan Collins’ posthumous collaborations with Mickey Spillane, an improvement on the original, will delight those who share Penzler’s exalted view of Mike Hammer’s creator. Lawrence Block’s “Clean Slate,” the case history of a female serial killer, has his usual smooth readability though it’s not one of his best. Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin’s “What His Hands Had Been Waiting For” uses its background of the 1927 Mississippi River flood effectively, but the situation of two otherwise-occupied guys finding an inconvenient baby is overly familiar. James Grady’s “Destiny City,” about an anti-terrorist double agent in Washington, DC, has a good central situation but clunky development that suggests action-movie treatment more than short story. Harry Hunsicker’s “West of Nowhere” is a pretty good crook story, though I can’t believe it was the best of the year from the criminally under-utilized Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Dennis McFadden’s “Diamond Alley,” about the murder of a small-town Pennsylvania high school girl in the year of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ dramatic World Series win, begins well with its evocation of the joys of baseball and early-1960s adolescent life but fizzles as a whodunit. Still McFadden wins the prize for canny self-promotion in his author note, luring the reader to Hart’s Grove (Colgate University Press), the collection in which the tale first appeared, for the real solution.
My fellow statistical buffs will want to know the points of origin. Five of the twenty stories come from literary journals, including Adams’ ringer and three by Eric Barnes, Ernest J. Finney, and Christopher Merkner that missed the mark for me. Four were drawn from mystery genre magazines, three from single-author collections, and eight from original anthologies, which provided the most as well as the three best. On balance, this is a worthwhile collection but not as strong as the 2010 volume, edited by Lee Child, or the 2008 volume, edited by George Pelecanos.
Katelyn Berkley was found dead in her home in Port Gamble shortly before Christmas. Only a few people know whether it was accident, suicide, or murder—and they’re not telling. But twin sisters Hayley and Taylor Ryan, estranged friends of Katelyn, suspect there is more to the story than what they’ve heard. Helped by their mysterious psychic abilities, the girls begin to investigate. They are soon swept up in a whirlwind of lies, secrets, and hatred. Their sleuthing is further complicated by popular but nasty Starla Larsen, scoop-hungry reporter Moira Windsor, and sleazy Jake Damon. As Hayley and Taylor struggle to find the truth, they risk exposing their psychic abilities to the world.
Told from multiple points of view, Envy—the first in a proposed Empty Coffin series—is a hard look at the effects of cyberbullying and exclusion. The action is engaging, the tone dark, and the characters’ personalities realistic. In his debut YA mystery, Gregg Olsen (an award-winning true-crime writer, adult thriller author, and father of twin girls) also draws readers in with relentless twists and turns—including mysterious email messages, a secret video, and the coroner’s take on events. Hayley and Taylor’s psychic talents enhance the plot, allowing them to learn facts no one else could. The deceptions that lie behind closed doors in this small town will leave the reader thinking hard about their own actions and consequences for a long time to come.
As Sue Grafton winds down her alphabet series, it couldn’t be more popular with fans who eagerly await each book. Happily for us readers, she isn’t resting on her laurels. V is for Vengeance may be her best so far. The case begins when Kinsey alerts department store security to a woman she sees shoplifting item after item at her local Nordstrom. The woman, Audrey Vance, is arrested and a few days later she is found dead, seemingly a suicide. Audrey’s fiancé doesn’t believe it though, and hires Kinsey to find out what really happened.
This is a fast-paced private detective procedural, for sure, but also a novel rich with interesting, complex characters: Phillip Lanahan is a rich kid in over his head with gambling debts; pretty Nora Vogelsang is married to a hotshot Hollywood attorney who is cheating on her; and Audrey Vance was leading a double life as a professional thief. All of them have one person in common, Lorenzo Dante, a loan shark who has grown weary of the business. Dante, in fact, is at the heart of the book. Like that other famous Dante, he is hoping to escape his own personal hell.
Of course, the regular cast is back as well. Private investigator Kinsey Millhone turns 38 in this book, but she has not changed much. She still likes her Quarter Pounders and has one black dress she can wear in a pinch. Also returning is her octogenarian landlord and neighbor Henry; police detective Cheney Phillips; and Diana Alvarez, an intrusive reporter from U is for Undertow.
The novel moves quickly, alternating between Kinsey and the other characters, with a twist thrown in toward the end. But it’s the slow reveal of the characters, and the turns that their lives take, that keeps us in its grip. V may be for vengeance, but it’s also for very, very good.
Taciturn Green Mountain natives and an invasion of “flatlanders” who venture to higher elevations for the foliage season are not the only surprises awaiting Stella and Nick Buckley when they ditch big-city living for rural Vermont. Before they can enjoy a romantic evening in their newly purchased farmhouse, water from a spigot runs red and a body is discovered in their well.
Sheriff Charlie Mills, a burly softy with a yen for Alma Deville, the sultry, divorced owner of a local bakery and coffee shop, quickly discovers three bullet holes in the victim, a wealthy wheeler-dealer who had cultivated a lot of animosity by sticking his fingers in several business pies. Meanwhile, the Buckleys have had to abandon their home for a primitive one-room dwelling deep in the woods, since the scattered motels in the Green Mountains are crowded with “leaf peepers.” The couple once again find themselves at the center of the investigation though, when Bunny, the aging receptionist for the Buckleys’ realtor, is gunned down with a hunting rifle. Mixed into the plot is a missing painting, believed to be of great value, which was stolen from the home of the eccentric Maggie Lawson, a lady who is handy with a gun.
Quaint characters and settings abound in this outing by New Yorker-turned-Vermonter Amy Patricia Meade. Meade peppers her scenic mystery with a variety of well-developed characters. Although Vermonters may not care for their sometimes unflattering depictions of the Vermont cast, the pleasures of this cozy procedural and its rustic setting remain undiminished. Meade, whose trademarks are mysteries spiced with both sly humor and a wisp of history, is also the author of the Marjorie McClelland mysteries set in the 1930s. She is presently working on a new series featuring Rosie the Riveter.
It’s reassuring to pick up the latest book in a long-running series, especially when it’s Michael Connelly’s newest Harry Bosch. If you’ve been following a character’s exploits for any significant period of time, it’s like checking in with an old acquaintance, and getting an update on what’s happening in their corner of the world.
That’s certainly the case with The Drop, the chief plot points of which can be illuminated through a discussion of the title itself. There’s the literal drop/fall of an apparent suicide, which triggers much of the main action. There’s also the Deferred Retirement Option Plan, through which Bosch hopes to extend his tenure in the Open/Unsolved unit of the LAPD. Further, Bosch is falling more deeply in paternal love with his young daughter by the day, and may be falling in romantic love with one Dr. Hannah Stone, whom he meets after a surprising DNA match provides a new lead in a decades old cold case. Finally, there’s the drop down the metaphoric rabbit hole, as Bosch deals with the surreal nature of the world he inhabits, from the oddities of police bureaucracy to the horrors and sudden violence he confronts on the job.
Readers will vicariously experience similar feelings and emotions, as Connelly successfully strives to keep them off balance throughout. The sensation is only temporary, however, as the author’s sure-footed and psychologically incisive writing provides yet another solid, satisfying example of suspenseful and agile storytelling, delivered with his trademark tight style and craftsmanship.
Amateur sleuth and Silver Queen Saloon proprietress Inez Stannert returns in Ann Parker’s fourth novel in her award winning Silver Rush historical mystery series. It is August of 1880 and Leadville, Colorado, is a perfect example of the Wild West.
Inez and her photographer friend Susan are on their way to Manitou, a famed resort spa town, to reunite with Inez’s young son and her sister Harmony, but en route to the upscale Mountain Springs House, their fellow passenger Edward Pace dies suddenly of heart failure in front of his wife and children. The distraught Pace widow refuses to believe the diagnosis though, and begs Inez to help find the true cause of his death.
Inez soon welcomes the investigation as a distraction from her own troubles, including a difficult reunion with her toddler son William, who no longer recognizes her, and the sudden reappearance of her husband who has been missing for past 18 months. Her plan for a simple divorce on the grounds of abandonment is quashed, as well as a budding romance.
As Inez delves into the world of popular health spas for desperate people seeking a cure for tuberculosis, she unearths an industry peopled with charlatans and profiteers—and a growing body count.
Parker portrays a richly detailed world that describes a time when travel was an ordeal, not a luxury; health care utilized barbaric treatments with potions and practices that would horrify today’s patients and doctors alike; and women’s roles were strictly dictated by the men in their lives. This compelling historical mystery is a fascinating read.