This small (about 40,000-word) book encompasses commentary on the Sherlock Holmes stories; nostalgic appreciations of Doyle contemporaries G.K. Chesterton, Lord Dunsany, and (grudgingly) Sax Rohmer; an account of the Baker Street Irregulars and the whole field of Sherlockian mock scholarship, including Dirda's own example, rich in arcane allusions some of which are explained; and the influence of the Holmes canon on writers as varied as Kenneth Grahame, T.S. Eliot, and P.G. Wodehouse. But most notable is the coverage of Doyle's historical novels, science fiction, supernatural stories, literary criticism, spiritualist tracts, and other fiction encompassing virtually all genres. The tantalizing descriptions will send many readers on the trail of extra Sherlockian Doyle. Dirda's deserving Edgar nominee may be a winner by the time you read this.
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The title says it. It's an enjoyable browsing book with a hit-and-miss index and not much reference value. Features, loosely organized under the seven deadly sins, include lists of titles by topic, true-crime anecdotes, matching quizzes, first lines, lines from movies and TV, and many apt quotations from Alfred Hitchcock. Most admirable is the brief highlighting of currently undervalued past writers, e.g., Craig Rice, Cyril Hare, R. Austin Freeman, Arthur Train.
Factual quibbles: Did the Nancy Drew novels often involve murder as Hallie Ephron states in her introduction? (The Hardy Boys books certainly didn't, and they were edgier than the Drews.) Body Heat was not a remake of Double Indemnity, at least not officially, and the defendant in Twelve Angry Men was not African American.
Has any Golden Age detective novel received as close and lengthy a critical examination of its plot as this extended essay picking holes in Carr's famous 1935 novel, known in Britain as The Hollow Man? Twenty-five problems are noted, six of them pronounced major flaws. Nevertheless, Morris is a Carr enthusiast who somewhat rehabilitates The Three Coffins in his conclusion, identifying six counterbalancing virtues and giving persuasive reasons for the novel's great popularity, including Dr. Fell's famous locked-room lecture. Tony Medawar's appended essay identifies London locales that appear in the novel.
Centenarian Jacques Barzun (born 1907 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal as recently as 2011) has had a remarkable career as critic, cultural historian, teacher, university administrator, and public intellectual. With boyhood friend Wendell Hertig Taylor, he championed the detective story in A Catalogue of Crime (second edition 1989), and mystery fiction references are scattered throughout this excellent account of his life and summary of his ideas, including an amusing encounter with Rex Stout biographer John McAleer and an exchange with Barzun's Columbia University student and colleague Carolyn Heilbrun, who wrote mysteries as Amanda Cross. Many pages of endnotes add information as well as identifying sources. A full bibliography of Barzun's books and translations is included. The author is an eminent concert organist as well as a superb writer and scholar.
As in the 2003 parent volume, the emphasis is on detective fiction, concentrating on series characters and excluding the related fields of intrigue, thriller, suspense, adventure, and true crime. Series are organized in three broad categories‚ amateur, public, and private detectives‚ and subdivided into smaller groups. After an introductory definition, each subgroup is alphabetical by author. Series entries are chronological, with titles covered in the parent volume merely listed, those published since provided plot summaries, descriptive rather than critical. Some authors omitted from the parent volume have been added (e.g., John Dunning's Cliff Janeway, Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January, Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti) along with others who have debuted since (e.g., C.S. Harris' Sebastian St. Cyr, Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce, Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs). Other features include an annotated secondary bibliography and filmography and indexes by author, title, subject, character, and location.
The 92-year-old semi-official investigator Victoria Trumbull was based on the author's mother, poet Dionis Coffin Riggs, who was almost 99 and still contributing a weekly column to the Vineyard Gazette and visiting a nursing home to "read to the elderly" when she died in 1997. Interspersed among the tours and descriptions of "special places" throughout this beautifully illustrated and entertainingly written travel guide are quotes from the Trumbull novels and examples of the elder Riggs' poetry. A section on island-grown plants presents in vivid color some of the flowers that gave their names to novels in the series.
Order online or print a form to mail from Cynthia Riggs' site, click here. Or call to place your order: (508) 693-9352.
If, like me, you've been wondering what happened after King's series hero, South Florida private eye Max Freeman, and Detective Sherry escaped from a hurricane and homicidal looters in the Everglades (in 2007's Acts of Nature), this new audio fills in the blanks. The main aftermath, and one fairly unique in series fiction: Det. Richards suffered the loss of a leg, leaving her depressed, limiting her police activity, and putting her and Freeman's romance on hold. Additionally, and perhaps more to the point, when he takes on the job of protecting a whistleblower in a case of Medicare fraud, assassins emerge and Sherry's life is placed in jeopardy. Foster has narrated earlier series entries and, in this sixth, continues to do well by the author's fully dimensional creations. From Sherry's struggles with her new disability to Max's own doubts about their future together to the oddly sensitive aspects of the villain known as The Brown Man, character development is a main ingredient in both book and audio.
Crais, who acknowledges Robert B. Parker as one of his inspirations, this time offers a Parker-size novel, which reader Daniels delivers at just under eight hours. What the book lacks in length, with Daniels' help, it makes up for in sustained energy and tension. A tale more of action-adventure than mystery, it finds private eye Elvis Cole trying to free a young couple kidnapped by ruthless Mexican bandits and getting captured himself. It's left to his relentless, ultra-efficient partner Joe Pike and an almost-asadept pal to track down the human traffickers and help Cole set things straight. Aside from being a riveting entertainment, performed with proper vigor by Daniels, Taken serves as evidence that often when it comes to suspense novels, less is more.
I could be wrong but, as I recall, Parker's original plan was to write a trilogy about gun-running on the California-Mexico border. The series, with lawman Charlie Hood as its ostensible-if-not-always-prominent lead, has run past that with no end in sight. Not a bad thing, exactly. Here, beautiful singer-songwriter Erin McKenna, wife of Hood's friend-enemy, youthful drug-andgun- smuggler Bradley Jones, is kidnapped by the homicidal leader of a Mexican cartel who's unhappy with Bradley. She becomes a sort of south-of-the-border Scheherazade, staying alive by composing a continuing ballad about the legendary exploits of her captor.
Meanwhile, her husband is fighting his way across the Yucatan trying to rescue her, and Hood is struggling against bad guys and Mother Nature to find the cartel leader to deliver the requested ransom for Erin. All well and good. But Parker continues to add a demonic presence with the amusingly benign name of Mike Finnegan to the mix. Finnegan is the devil, no less, and what he's doing in an otherwise earthbound series is anybody's guess.
Colacci delivers the goods, audio-wise, finding a number of properly accented voices for the cartel leader (gruff but wistful on occasion), his vicious, priapic son (very gruff, intense, and pretty much insane), a smarmy priest (unctuous, with a hint of sinfulness), and assorted minions and murderers. Both of the major characters sound as they should, Hood being forthright and stubborn and Bradley finally showing a bit more humility than hubris. Collaci's interpretation of Finnegan is as oddly upbeat and reasonable sounding as Parker has written him. But he is the devil and this stacks the deck against Hood in a way that makes the whole quartet, quintet. or whatever seem somewhat pointless. Wouldn't the murderous head of a cartel have been a powerful enough antagonist for a mere mortal to handle?
It's probably an act of supreme optimism to assume that, after a lengthy string of generally unreadable novels, the latest Cornwell would be an improvement. It isn't. In fact, it is so dependent on the last book (I'm guessing here, not having read the last, or even the one before that) that it would take a continuing education course on Kay Scarpetta's history for some of it to make sense. Other parts, you can figure out, either from the plot or from reader Burton's approach to the first-person, present-tense narration. Mainly, we know that Scarpetta is one shrill, angry-as-hell medical examiner. Not that she doesn't have reason for her sour disposition. As Cornwell and Burton would have it, her unemotional, monotoned husband Benton (with that name he should be living below stairs in Downton Abbey) is bloodless and aloof, her longtime associate, the growly, gruff Pete Marino, seems to have lost interest in sticking around (has Cornwell promised him a spinoff series?) and the most troublesome niece in the history of crime fiction, the ever more neurotic, waspish Lucy, has become even more insufferable since amassing untold wealth (the source of which I leave to those who have taken Scarpetta 101).
The book opens with Kay visiting a women's prison near Savannah, Georgia, for a chat with sex offender Kathleen Lawler. She apparently molested a colleague of Kay's when he was a child. He's dead now, murdered in a previous book, but they had a child together, a daughter, who maybe is now a woman who's on death row for murdering a doctor and his family (previous book?). And there's a district attorney, who used to be a romantic partner of Lucy's (previous book). Kay loathes her and is miffed that maybe Morino is going to work for her. Further, it seems that she tricked Kay into coming to Georgia to see the Lawler woman because‚ I'm not sure if we know why she did that. Anyway, she winds up eating poisoned pizza and dies, though I think Kay and Morino both eat the pizza and don't die. Anyway, it looks like Kay is being set up for the crime. Then Lucy joins the story and there's something about homeless people being murdered and terrorism and Lucy is going a little crazier because of her late lover's death and ‚ oh, the hell with it.
An ex-CIA agent now working as a private investigator in Boston, Ian Wallace is lured back to the agency when he's asked to guard an MIT professor who's being pressured by the Russian mob to return to his home country and share his research on ballistic missile defense. Wallace is reluctant, but can't resist the opportunity to exact his own brand of revenge on the ex-KGB man targeting his client, Vladimir Ivanchenko. It seems Ivanchenko tortured and murdered Wallace's fiancée years ago and Wallace has been dreaming of vengeance ever since. If Wallace does indulge his blood lust, though, he risks destroying the mission.
Thriller writer and political conservative commentator MacKinnon does not shy from infusing his novel with plentiful far-right content. So if you don't like your mystery novels and politics mixing, regardless of whether you're a liberal, moderate, or conservative, you may want to steer clear of this two-fisted, Christian tough guy. Wallace frequently spends large portions of the novel ranting about his hatred of political correctness, Jimmy Carter's failed rescue mission of the Iranian hostages, and the liberal bias of publications like Time and The New York Times. Wallace claims to hate both right and left ideologies, but he particularly loathes "ultraliberals."
There's certainly a place for outright conservative protagonists in the mystery/crime genres. Conservative heroes created by writers such as Mickey Spillane, Tom Clancy, and many others are not rare in the field. What those writers knew, however, was that nothing kills suspense faster than moralizing. Wallace is a perfectly capable hero, but one wishes that MacKinnon would trust him more to take care of business with his fists rather than his gob. Recommended for readers who think Mike Hammer is a bleeding heart.
Eighty-seven-year-old Buck Schatz is nearing the end of the line and all he wants to do is while away his days watching Fox News, smoking cigarettes, and minding his own damn business. But this tough, cranky, Jewish ex-Memphis cop has a way of attracting trouble. Always did. Buck gets ensnared in a particularly nasty bit of it when an old World War II buddy tells him on his death bed that the Nazi SS officer who tortured Buck while he was a prisoner of war isn't dead as Buck always believed. When the war ended, the Nazi fled with a cache of gold, effectively getting away with his crimes. Buck, accompanied by his twentysomething law-student grandson, Tequila, wants vengeance—and that gold would be nice too. Now, if only he could master Google.
Old Buck doesn't much like you and he hopes you know it. But like most tough guys, there's a sentimental streak underneath the hardened exterior. Just don't tell Buck that got out. Friedman's debut novel introduces this perfectly realized crusty character with humor, vigor, and warmth. That's not to say Buck is always civil company. He's anything but most of the time, which becomes the foundation for much of the book's humor as the irascible old guy is forced to constantly engage with polite people during his hunt for a Nazi fugitive. His loving yet contentious relationship with his grandson, roughly 60 years his junior, adds further hilarity.
It's a pitch-perfect debut novel, expertly balancing comedy, gritty crime drama, absurdity, and genuine poignancy. It's also one of the most assured debuts in some time—the dialogue and tight, expert plotting should please fans of Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford, and Joe Lansdale. The mystery field is crammed with "colorful" amateur detectives, but you've never met anyone quite like this old bastard. You'll never forget him either. Highly recommended.
Attorney Thora Gudmundsdottir accompanies client Markus Magnusson back to his hometown on a small island off the coast of Iceland. It's a quiet region best known for a volcanic eruption in 1973 that devastated the area. For mysterious reasons, Magnusson has returned to his family home, destroyed by ash, to recover a box that an old friend, Alda, had stashed in his basement before everyone had been evacuated decades before. Inside the box? A severed head. That's nothing, however, compared to the other grim discoveries awaiting him in the basement. Markus claims to not be involved in the crimes, but the police think differently. And when his only alibi, Alda, winds up dead, even Thora begins to doubt her client's increasingly far-fetched story.
Like the best of the recent Northern European literary crime wave, Ashes to Dust has just the right mix of brooding, depressive atmosphere, lurid plot details, and a headstrong, though slightly bewildered, detective. Thora is a lawyer not a detective, but her analytical skills and intelligence serve her well. There's also a dash of humor to the otherwise grim narrative, courtesy of Thora's surly secretary Bella, who accompanies Thora on her work to clear Markus' name and winds up helping out on the case.
Passages focusing on Thora's private travails with her boyfriend are not as successful and feel clichéd in their attempt to generate some domestic realism for Thora's home life. Thankfully, those moments are short. What makes this novel fascinating is the author's skillful examination of a small community wracked by tragedy—first the volcanic eruption, then the crimes—and how such an insular community lives on knowing human monsters are within its midst. Fans of Arnaldur Indridason and Quentin Bates, as well as Scandinavian crime fiction in general, should be more than pleased.
Luna Clover's life was turned upside down when her supermodel mother was hit by a taxi in New York City's East Village. For 14-year-old Luna, her movie-director father, and her little brother, Tile, moving on is a challenge—especially when Luna begins to suspect there was more to her mother's death than what she was told.
So when, a year later, she discovers her mother's cell phone while cleaning out her studio, its seven unheard messages send Luna on a quest to unearth answers. The suspense builds as Luna listens to the voicemails one by one, and discovers things about her mother and family that she does not want to know. Shattered by the secrets her parents have been keeping, Luna struggles to come to terms with the truth. With help from Oliver, a cute boy next door she's had a crush on for years; Daria, another fashion model; and her kind Uncle Richard, Luna begins to understand that she can still love her parents, even when they've hurt her.
With mystery, humor, and honesty, You Have Seven Messages explores the complications of family life and first loves. The story will carry along readers as they sympathize with Luna, see the world through her eyes, and get to know her: She dislikes Hannah Montana and being called a tween, prefers the New York Times and Shakespearean sonnets. All the characters are interesting, while the plot is intriguing as Luna rebuilds her life after her mother's death. This story is truly a wonderful lesson for all ages about forgiveness and loving someone despite their flaws.
The Stolen Bride is an Arthurian mystery that pits King Arthur's chief advisor, Malgwyn ap Cuneglas, against warring tribes and brutal savagery in the service of his king. When Arthur travels to negotiate peace among tribes in the west, he and Malgwyn encounter a village that has been slaughtered. Upon reaching their destination they find their neighbor, King Doged, barely holding on to his kingdom. When King Doged is murdered shortly thereafter, his young wife implores Arthur to find his killer. But Arthur must travel to see his ailing mother and leaves the young queen‚Äîand critical negotiations for the minerals and gold of her kingdom‚Äîin Malgwyn's capable hands. Arthur's power is still tenuous in the area and he needs Doged's wealth to help finance the pursuits of his kingdom. Malgwyn is charged with not only figuring out who slaughtered the villagers, but also who killed King Doged before the Saxons or the other young nobles vying for the kingdom take over.
Tony Hays' fourth novel in the Arthurian Mystery series, The Stolen Bride, is a excellent blend of history and mystery. The author engages the reader with bits and pieces of Arthurian legend mixed with vivid description and well-placed historical details to create a riveting tale. Fans of both genres will find Hays' characters to be authentic as well as intriguing. Arthur is a strong presence in the book, though not the main character. This falls to his advisor, Malgwyn, whose knowledge of battle techniques, as well as his uncanny insight in the minds of people, serves him exceedingly well.
When wounded US soldiers bring a super- virus back from the battlefields of Afghanistan, the bug threatens to annihilate America's armed forces within days, before moving on to attack the civilian population. Luckily, the government has been preparing for such an eventuality, seeking out the next generation of antibiotics to combat the ever-evolving threat of viral menace. Unluckily, the key to producing an effective counter measure lies miles underground in a Mexican cave. A crack team of experts, led by microbiologist Hallie Leland, is assembled to enter the cave and bring the biomass in question to the surface; the odds stacked against them are formidable, but they have no choice.
The elements of The Deep Zone are certainly familiar, among them a tough, whipsmart heroine, a desperate race against time, high-tech gadgetry, a Judas in the shadows, and a super-villain with a decidedly Bondian pedigree. But Tabor makes it all seem fresh in his debut outing, mainly by getting out of the way (no distracting, writerly flourishes here, folks) and letting his tense narrative rapidly unfold, leaving out, as Elmore Leonard might say, "the boring parts." Thrillers have been taking anxious readers into caves for centuries (Tabor joins the likes of Homer, Mark Twain, Jules Verne, and David Morrell in doing so), but rarely have they proved as scary and memorable as Mexico's awesome Cueva de Luz, said, by the people who live nearby, to be alive, and possessed by the spirit they refer to in whispers as Chi Con Gui-Jao, guardian of the underworld. By book's end, you might just buy into that theory yourself.
The Mysterium is the 17th book in P.C. Doherty's Medieval Mystery series following the adventures of Sir Hugh Corbett. This mystery takes place in 1304 London, where the chief justice of Edward I's court, Walter Evesham, has been murdered. Evesham had been accused of everything from bribery to political corruption and when he ends up dead in his cell at Abbey of Sion, Sir Hugh Corbett is called in to investigate. This murder, along with a series of other murders in London, is eerily similar to the crimes of a serial killer known as The Mysterium. It's up to Corbett to figure out if The Mysterium has returned or if he is dealing with a copycat.
Sir Hugh Corbett is an intriguing character. His sharp wit and curiosity sometimes place him in serious danger, but he is always able to put his sleuthing skills to good use for king and country. In this atmospheric story, readers will hear the bells of London's churches and smell the damp misty air coming from the Thames. Doherty is likewise adept at plotting, alluding to the possibility that the murderer is the infamous Mysterium, but keeping readers off balance with Corbett's other theories as well. Together, these admirable qualities make for an engaging mystery that explores the mind of a serial killer set in medieval times.
When a cave diver finds a corpse wearing an ancient ankh and surrounded by ominous inscriptions about the gates of hell in an abandoned Swedish mine, religious artifacts expert Don Titelman is called in. Unfortunately, when he arrives, the diver has been murdered and Titelman is fingered for the crime.
Titelman's only clue is a postcard. He and his attorney, Eva Strand, follow the slim lead it provides to discover amazing secrets about the ankh and a matching star-shaped piece that a mysterious foundation will stop at nothing to obtain. Meanwhile, the killer, a child psychic sold by her mother to the foundation and trained by them to be a fighter, discovers she's a pawn in a scheme that may grow beyond her ability to control.
This debut novel introduces readers to Titelman, a troubled soul who was drawn into his field by his grandmother's tragic past as a Holocaust survivor, and who seeks solace in his work assisted by the soothing effect of pharmaceuticals.
The deft combination of fully realized characters, fluid prose, a multilayered plot, and cross-genre writing that touches on mysticism, high-concept thriller, and adventure tale, makes Strindberg's Star read like a cross between Dan Brown and Clive Cussler. It satisfies right through the story's climax at the Arctic Circle, where all parties rush toward an opening in the ice pack which literally leads to the gates of hell.
Detective Augie Boyer finds himself far from his home state of Minnesota in his latest adventure, having traveled to California's Russian River Valley to help his ex-partner Bobby Sabbatini celebrate the opening of his new poetry tavern and karaoke bar, Ginsberg's Gallery. Augie doesn't know quite what to make of his friend's new lifestyle, but decides he will make the attempt to enjoy himself.
His resolution is spoiled by the murder of a local named Ruthie Rosenberg, a woman who could have been killed by any number of people for any number of reasons. Augie is asked by the local police to assist in the investigation, and reluctantly agrees. He soon finds himself with more questions than answers, feeling like he's fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole. During his investigation, he's almost shot with an arrow, narrowly avoids being poisoned, and takes a roundhouse punch squarely on the nose. He also falls in love, falls out of love, and provokes lethal responses from the murderer.
Readers will enjoy the antics of Augie, Bobby Sabbatini, and the colorful denizens of Sonoma County, who give the eccentric characters of the old television show Northern Exposure a run for their money. They'll also find themselves with an urge to seek out the works of any number of talented poets, as Bobby Sabbatini dexterously dishes out snippets of poetry. It's something that could have easily become forced and tedious, but Schneider makes it work, and work well.
In Blues in the Night, Dick Lochte ditches Al Roker, his weatherman coauthor of the Billy Blessing series (at least for a while), and delivers a first-rate new—or at least newish—hero: Dave "Mace" Mason, a tough, take-no-crap ex-con with a slow-burn temper who gets roped into flying cross country from his Louisiana stomping grounds to Los Angeles to do a little surveillance for his old Army buddy Paulie Lacotta, who's "connected."
Mace thinks he's just keeping tabs on art appraiser Angela Lowell, one of Paulie's numerous ex-girlfriends, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. The bayou boy is soon butting heads with arms dealers, the CIA, porn stars (including a hit man who looks like Elvis and likes to play dress up), mob power struggles, Hollywood party people, Russian thugs with detachable accents, a pimp called Honest Abe (who isn't), a femme fatale or two, and a valuable coin that Mace finds in a dead man's mouth. It doesn't help that Paulie has saddled Mace with an impulsive, inexperienced partner, a "grinning young idiot" with green hair and a garish serpent tattoo crawling up his neck—or that almost everyone Mace talks to is lying to him.
I say "newish hero" because Mace actually made his debut in a 2001 short story, "In the City of Angels," but like Raymond Chandler, Lochte has done a formidable job of "cannibalizing" his short fiction, reworking it into a novel-length debut that already feels like one of the year's best. Mace is the real deal, a hardboiled, no-nonsense pro who knows how to handle himself, and yet is selfaware enough to know he has some serious chinks in his armor. But it's his snappy, sardonic Chandleresque take on La La Land—and the changes society and technology have gone through while he was in the joint—hat really seal the deal. More please, Mr. Lochte.
The multitalented and prolific Simon Brett received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2012 Malice Domestic Convention. An acknowledged master of the modern whodunit, he is also the current president of the prestigious Detection Club in the UK.
Photo: Christian Doyle
Among the avenues, side streets, and dark alleys in the crime fiction community, where is Main Street? If it’s the pure whodunit, centered on a mysterious crime (usually murder) with a variety of possible suspects and solved by a detective (amateur or professional, brilliant or just persistent), a form that allows for any amount of lively prose, intriguing characters, specialized background, social observation, humor, and at least occasionally fair-play clues, Simon Brett is one of the best merchants currently doing business there.
Born in Surrey in 1945, Brett was educated at Dulwich College and Oxford, where he was heavily involved in student theatrics, becoming President of the Oxford University Dramatic Society and writing, directing, and appearing in revues in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, an experience that led to a job as a writer and producer at BBC Radio. There he met his future wife, Lucy, worked on a wide variety of programs—music, satire, panel games, drama, and shepherded the radio pilot of Douglas Adams’ A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Adapting Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey stories piqued his ambition to write detective fiction. A shorter stint at London Weekend Television proved less satisfying. He confesses on his website, “I spent most of the two years I was at London Weekend poring over a calculator, trying to work out whether I could afford to write full time.” He made the break in 1979 and in 1981 moved with his wife and three small children from suburban London to a West Sussex village and moved into “one of those organic houses; the earliest parts date from 1783 and since then it’s been added to by various owners (including the writer John Cowper Powys—and us).” He and Lucy still reside there with three cats named Geoffrey, Castor, and Pollux. British readers won’t be surprised, but Americans might, at Brett’s prolific output apart from adult crime fiction: scripts for stage, radio, and television; volumes of humor (How to Be a Little Sod was a bestseller in Britain); children’s mysteries; and several anthologies in the “Faber Book of” series.
CHARLES PARIS, ENTER STAGE LEFT
Although he has written standalone crime novels, Brett is best known for four series centered on amateur sleuths. First came journeyman actor Charles Paris, featured in 16 novels from Cast, in Order of Disappearance (1976) to Dead Room Farce (1998), and one short story, “The Haunted Actress,” from the collection Tickled to Death (1985; UK title A Bag of Tricks). Unhappily separated from his wife, Paris is a heavy drinker but not (by his own definition) an alcoholic. Though presumably a decent actor to get as much stage and TV work as he does, he has apparently collected more wittily denigrating reviews than anyone in theatrical annals. Not a Great Detective but a determined one, Charles routinely accuses or at least suspects the wrong person before finding the truth. Though essentially humorous and satirical, the saga takes on a slightly darker mood as the problem drinking becomes more obvious.
Paris enters virtually every corner of British acting: a one-man show at the Edinburgh Festival in So Much Blood (1977), a West End musical in Star Trap (1978), BBC radio drama in The Dead Side of the Mike (1980), a TV sitcom in Situation Tragedy (1982), a TV detective show in A Series of Murders (1989), reality-based TV crime in A Reconstructed Corpse (1994), and an industrial video in Corporate Bodies (1992). In Dead Room Farce, he reads for audiobooks, first of an insipid romance, then of a thesaurus.
Purely as a theatrical novel, Sicken and So Die (1997) may be the best in the series, one of the great novels about putting on a play. Charles’ performance of a dream role, Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, is threatened by a trendy director who believes in reimagining the classics. One hilarious example of this fashion is a Richard III production in which Richard was “handsome and upright, while all the other characters had been played with various disabilities.” Among Brett’s best puzzle plots is Not Dead, Only Resting (1984), in which Charles never gets an acting job but is employed redecorating a trendy restaurant.
MRS. PARGETER, MARRIED TO CRIME
Charles Paris fans may have unfairly resented Brett’s attention to his second series sleuth. Melita Pargeter, the late-60s widow of an accomplished professional criminal whose success left her wealthy and whose underworld contacts aid her amateur sleuthing, appears in six books from A Nice Class of Corpse (1987) to Mrs. Pargeter’s Point of Honour (1999). A passage in Mrs. Pargeter’s Package (1991) illustrates the lady’s willful ignorance of her late husband’s criminal career when shady travel agent Hamish Ramon Enriques (known as H.R.H.) asks her if she remembers a vacation to Crete he once arranged for the Pargeters.
“Certainly. We had a wonderful time. I didn’t know you arranged that.”…
“It was my privilege. Quite tricky at the time, actually. They were looking out for him at the airports.”
“‘Really?” It did explain something, though. “Is that why he went on the plane dressed as a bishop?”
H.R.H.’s unconventional travel business provides some of Brett’s funniest set-pieces when Mrs. Pargeter overhears his employees on the phone dealing with clients.
The Pargeter series seems determined to recycle some of the most time-honored situations and plot elements in detective fiction. See for example the method of smoking out the killer in Mrs., Presumed Dead (1989), set in an upscale housing development. As for Mrs. Pargeter, while she is certainly entertaining, she is less believable or appealing than Charles Paris or the protagonists of Brett’s next series.
FETHERING, A COZY COMMUNITY
The Body on the Beach (2000) introduces the odd-couple sleuthing team of Carole Seddon, staid and proper, prematurely retired home office functionary, and her free-spirited alternative-healer friend Jude Nichols, inhabitants of the seaside community of Fethering. Carole’s uneasy relations with her ex-husband and son provide the soap-opera subplots required by the cozy market, and Jude’s air of mystery allows for any number of surprises about her colorful past. Like the Paris saga, the Fethering series began in a fairly comic mode—we learn in the first entry that a neighboring community is called Tarring—and grew more serious in later books.
My pick for best of the series is Murder in the Museum (2003), set at a stately home once occupied by a semi-famous World War I poet. The recreation of documents from that period gives the novel an extra resonance, and the prickly family relationships and satire of academic scholarship are beautifully done. Another good one is The Stabbing in the Stables (2006), a twisty and fairly clued whodunit that includes a visit to a small racecourse jump meeting and Jude’s effort to use her healing powers on a horse. The series’ 12th entry, Bones Under the Beach Hut (2011), in which Carole does most of the sleuthing with Jude relatively subdued and often offstage, is one of the lesser Fethering books, but all are worth reading.
BLOTTO & TWINKS
Only in his newest series does Brett essay a flat-out comic novel. The Right Honourable Devereux Lyminster, familiarly known as Blotto, is a cross between Bertie Wooster and Bulldog Drummond though much stupider than either. His sister Twinks, the beautiful and profoundly accomplished Lady Honoria Lyminster, plays Holmes to Blotto’s sub-Captain-Hastings-caliber Watson. Their slang-filled dialogue suggests a Roaring Twenties British equivalent of Robert Leslie Bellem’s hardboiled pulp narratives. All three of their adventures to date begin as parodies of Golden Age detection, making James Anderson’s Inspector Wilkins novels look like gritty police procedurals, then make a midway course correction to become zany international thrillers.
In Blotto, Twinks, and the Ex-King’s Daughter (Felony & Mayhem, 2011, $14.95), murder strikes during a visit to Tawcester (pronounced Taster) Towers by the deposed King Sigismund of Mitteleuropia and his retinue. Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess (Felony & Mayhem, 2012, $14.95) concerns the country-house-party murder of an upper-crust woman whose unattractive daughter envisions herself as the bride of Blotto. Troubadour Bligh, a “know-it-all polymathic amateur sleuth” of the sort common to such occasions, climaxes his gathering of the suspects by pointing his finger at the Lyminster family chauffeur. Twinks has deduced the real culprit, and she and Blotto spend the rest of the book trying to clear their servant while battling the sinister League of the Crimson Hand, led by the mysterious Crimson Thumb. In Blotto, Twinks and the Rodents of the Riviera (not yet in US book form but available as an ebook), the sleuthing siblings travel to France to retrieve two stolen portraits. The wild ending in a master criminal’s lair is like something out of a James Bond spoof. Much punning fun is had with the French language and personalities of Paris in the '20s, including a couple of rival American novelists based on Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
Be warned that Blotto and Twinks are best taken in small doses. Reading a whole novel at a stretch is like overeating a rich dessert. It’s easy to imagine their adventures as a relentlessly silly British sitcom along the lines of ‘Allo ‘Allo, and that may be how broadcasting veteran Brett visualized them.
Two of Simon Brett’s series have the legs to last indefinitely, two others less apparent durability, but everything he writes offers interesting characters, engaging prose, acute social observations, and unfailing humor. Even the least of his books rewards the reader.
NOTE: Dates given are for first US publication. Publication in the UK is usually a year or two earlier.
A SELECTED SIMON BRETT READING LIST
Cast, in Order of Disappearance (1975)
So Much Blood (1976)
Star Trap (1977)
An Amateur Corpse (1978)
A Comedian Dies (1979)
The Dead Side of the Mike (1980)
Situation Tragedy (1981)
Murder Unprompted (1982)
Murder in the Title (1983)
Not Dead, Only Resting (1984)
Dead Giveaway (1985)
What Bloody Man Is That? (1987)
A Series of Murders (1989)
Corporate Bodies (1991)
A Reconstructed Corpse (1993)
Sicken and So Die (1995)
Dead Room Farce (1997)
A Nice Class of Corpse (1986)
Mrs., Presumed Dead (1988)
Mrs. Pargeter's Package (1990)
Mrs. Pargeter's Pound of Flesh (1992)
Mrs. Pargeter's Plot (1996)
Mrs. Pargeter's Point of Honour (1998)
The Body on the Beach (2000)
Death on the Downs (2001)
The Torso in the Town (2002)
Murder in the Museum (2003)
The Hanging in the Hotel (2004)
The Witness at the Wedding (2005)
The Stabbing in the Stables (2006)
Death Under the Dryer (2007)
Blood at the Bookies (2008)
The Poisoning at the Pub (2009)
The Shooting in the Shop (2010)
Bones Under the Beach Hut (2011)
Guns in the Gallery (2011)
BLOTTO & TWINKS
Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King’s Daughter (2009)
Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess (2010)
Blotto, Twinks and the Rodents of the Riviera (2011)
STANDALONE CRIME NOVELS
A Shock to the System (1984)
Dead Romantic (1985)
The Christmas Crimes at Puzzel Manor (1991)
Singled Out (1995)
SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
A Box of Tricks (1985)
Tickled to Death: And Other Stories Crime Writers and Other Animals (1985)
A Crime in Rhyme: and Other Mysterious Fragments (2000)
Murder in Play (1994)
Mr. Quigley's Revenge (1995)
A Bad Dream (2005)
A Small Family Murder (2008)
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #123.
Berlin police detective Bernie Gunther is suicidal after he returns home from the grisly events in Belorussia, where he witnessed and was forced to participate in Nazi executions. Wracked with guilt, he trudges on like most everyone else in the city, doing whatever it takes to survive. If you want to survive in Nazi Germany, you learn to turn a blind eye to corruption. Bernie's job, though, is to solve murders, and there's plenty of bloodshed to go around.
When a horribly mangled body is found on the railroad tracks, it appears to be clearcut case of suicide. That man simply jumped in front of the train. Then a Czech national (possibly with terrorist connections) is found murdered in a park, and Bernie learns that the two seemingly unrelated cases may be connected to a terrorist attack being plotted. His life gets considerably more complicated when the monstrous head of the Nazi Sicherheitsdienst in Czechoslovakia, Reinhard Heydrich, summons Bernie to his Czech villa to become his private bodyguard. Despite Bernie not being a Nazi party member and loathing Heydrich, the Reichsprotector trusts him. Bernie is once again caught between doing his duty and maintaining his humanity.
Kerr's sardonic realist, Bernie, has been one of crime fiction's most intriguing detectives ever since his first appearance in the late 1980s in the Berlin trilogy—March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem. Our protagonist is certainly no angel, but his moral core has always been clearly defined in contrast to the vile political machine that has grown stronger and vaster around him with each book. One of the major themes throughout Kerr's superb series has always been, how does one combat criminality when it's being committed as political policy all around you? Prague Fatale continues this theme, but complicates the issues with Bernie agreeing to protect the infamous Heydrich.
Events also get precarious with the arrival of the lovely Arianne into his life, a bar girl Bernie doesn't necessarily trust, but whom he can't refuse either. Surprisingly, the novel incorporates an Agatha Christie influence into the proceedings, once a murder occurs at Heydrich's villa and Bernie ferrets out the perp amongst a small group of trusted friends of the Nazi officer. Prague Fatale is another splendid entry in an already excellent series, and very highly recommended.
When it comes to portraying life on the street from a cop's perspective, no one tells it with more authenticity and flair than former L.A. Police Detective Joseph Wambaugh. Harbor Nocturne, the fifth in his Hollywood Station series, is proof positive that the master hasn't lost his touch. This highly entertaining book, possibly his best fiction since The Choirboys, has it all: action, love, suspense, pathos, realism, quirky characters and especially humor—the dark, sarcastic, hilarious humor of cops trying to cope with the weirdness that is human nature. What a tale he tells, or rather what a series of tales, as each tour of duty is filled with incidents that are short stories in themselves. Many of the cops from the previous four books are back and as loveably loony as ever (Britney Small, surfer cops "Flotsam" and "Jetsam," handsome "Hollywood Nate" Weiss), but with new and zany civilians to perk up or ruin their nights.
Wambaugh isn't just relating a series of vignettes in the daily life of these men and women in blue, he has written a fully developed crime novel dealing with the sex and drug culture of present-day California. The action alternates between Hollywood and San Pedro, one of the harbor areas of Los Angeles. A young longshoreman, Dinko Babich, falls in love with Lita Medina, an illegal Mexican immigrant he helps after she witnesses a murder and is hunted by violent thugs. The contrasts between the longshoreman's Croatian family background and the girl's Mexican one are beautifully drawn and their love affair so gently portrayed that the reader can't help but root for them. How these star-crossed lovers and the cops of Hollywood Division intertwine makes for one unforgettable, delightful reading experience.
Rural Vermont is the setting for this psychological thriller, and author Olshan portrays it so picturesquely that readers just might want to move there. The story opens at the start of the spring thaw when former investigative reporter Catherine Winslow discovers the body of a young woman who went missing three months earlier just as a major blizzard covered the area with snow. The killing is the latest in what appears to be a serial killer's rampage and it draws Catherine deeply into the investigation. Readers learn the killer is likely someone Catherine knows, and as the story unfolds it seems that many of her acquaintances have deep psychological scars in their background that makes each of them suspect: even Catherine herself. She had previously been dropped from a university for having an affair with a postgraduate student 15 years her junior; she broke it off when he became too possessive. Catherine must fight her own personal demons in the search for the truth: confronting her feelings for the young student, her acceptance of her daughter's lesbian affair, and her increasing fear and distrust of her neighbors and friends.
The tension builds slowly, but steadily, and when another woman is murdered suspicion falls on Catherine's young lover, who has returned from what he claims were two years abroad, but which the police prove is a lie. Has he returned to kill her or is the killer someone else who wants her dead? A little-known rare book by Wilkie Collins provides mysterious clues to the solution. A startling, and unexpected, ending will leave readers thinking about Cloudland long after.
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