The Great Catsby
Betty Webb

If you love the high-society shenanigans created by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Truman Capote, you’ll laugh your ascot off at Linda Stewart’s The Great Catsby, a Sam the Cat Mystery. This tongue-in-cheek snicker-a-thon follows Sam, the acclaimed feline detective, as he weaves his way through East Hampton mansions on the trail of a missing, probably murdered, novelist. Yes, cats talk in this book, and to add insult to possible injury, the catty carpers refer to their humans as “roommates.” But since the felines’ comments tend to be deliciously snarky double entendres, even talking-cat-phobic readers will find themselves howling with glee when they meet up with this furry cast of characters. You know you’re in for it when the opening sentence reads, “The first time I saw Catsby he was sitting atop a diving board and staring across a swimming pool at a lantern hung from a tree,” and the lantern just happens to be green. Sound familiar?

The missing writer is Rex Trout (a human), whose tell-all novel based on the real-life antics of the super-rich, is five years overdue. Yes, Trout is a dead ringer for Capote, who infamously accepted a huge advance for his own tell-all book, but never delivered the goods. We also meet a mysterious grinning cat who lives in a tree, reminding us of…well, you know who. Talking cats aside, the really odd thing about this sly, smart mystery is that it’s advertised as a children’s book, “recommended for ages nine and up.” Sure, I can see the kiddies enjoying conversations between talking cats, but for the life of me, I can’t see them snickering over all those meanly funny literary allusions. But grown-ups can—and will.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 24 September 2013 04:09

This tongue-in-cheek mystery follows Sam, acclaimed feline detective, on the trail of a missing novelist.

The Little Tokyo Informant
Sharon Magee

It’s autumn 1941 in Andrew Rosenheim’s The Little Tokyo Informant, and the United States is experiencing an uneasy peace just weeks before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor wakes the proverbial sleeping giant. Jimmy Nessheim, an FBI Special Agent of German-American heritage, is less than thrilled with his current assignment as an advisor on pro-FBI movies at a small movie studio in Los Angeles. He receives a cryptic message from his Japanese contact, Billy Osaka, saying he urgently needs to see him, but when Nessheim arrives at the meeting spot, Osaka doesn’t show. Then, FBI Assistant Director Harry Guttman calls from Washington, DC. In a clandestine meeting he’s learned the Russians are infiltrating the top levels of the US government and that $50,000 has been wired from Russian intelligence to a Japanese bank in Los Angeles. As various threads intersect, it becomes imperative that Nessheim find Osaka. The trail leads to Little Tokyo with its multitude of restaurants, fetid alleys, dark doorways, mob-run poker games, swinging parties with dangerous women, and eventually to a leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, and finally to Pearl Harbor just hours before the bombing.

This is Rosenheim’s seventh novel and the second in a series of historical thrillers (the first, Fear Itself, won uniformly good reviews). Rosenheim shows his keen eye for historical detail as he seamlessly incorporates historical figures such as J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s protégé and companion. His main characters are sharply defined and exhibit the mannerisms and language of the early 1940s. Several unnecessary minor characters clutter up an otherwise tightly woven plot, but that doesn’t distract from this raw and gritty look at America on the cusp of war. Jimmy Nessheim and Harry Guttman are sure to be back for many adventures to come.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 24 September 2013 05:09

It’s autumn 1941 in Andrew Rosenheim’s The Little Tokyo Informant, and the United States is experiencing an uneasy peace just weeks before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor wakes the proverbial sleeping giant. Jimmy Nessheim, an FBI Special Agent of German-American heritage, is less than thrilled with his current assignment as an advisor on pro-FBI movies at a small movie studio in Los Angeles. He receives a cryptic message from his Japanese contact, Billy Osaka, saying he urgently needs to see him, but when Nessheim arrives at the meeting spot, Osaka doesn’t show. Then, FBI Assistant Director Harry Guttman calls from Washington, DC. In a clandestine meeting he’s learned the Russians are infiltrating the top levels of the US government and that $50,000 has been wired from Russian intelligence to a Japanese bank in Los Angeles. As various threads intersect, it becomes imperative that Nessheim find Osaka. The trail leads to Little Tokyo with its multitude of restaurants, fetid alleys, dark doorways, mob-run poker games, swinging parties with dangerous women, and eventually to a leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, and finally to Pearl Harbor just hours before the bombing.

This is Rosenheim’s seventh novel and the second in a series of historical thrillers (the first, Fear Itself, won uniformly good reviews). Rosenheim shows his keen eye for historical detail as he seamlessly incorporates historical figures such as J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s protégé and companion. His main characters are sharply defined and exhibit the mannerisms and language of the early 1940s. Several unnecessary minor characters clutter up an otherwise tightly woven plot, but that doesn’t distract from this raw and gritty look at America on the cusp of war. Jimmy Nessheim and Harry Guttman are sure to be back for many adventures to come.

Secretariat Reborn
Sharon Magee

Twenty-five-year-old Christian Roberts is tall, blond, and beach-bum handsome in Susan Klaus’ Secretariat Reborn. Life is good. He owns a boat rental company, lives on a sloop, and his girlfriend Kate is the foxiest woman in Sarasota, Florida. When Christian receives word that his estranged father, a thoroughbred racehorse trainer, is dying of cancer, he travels to see him for the last time. Dad has a surprise for him. He wants to give him a thoroughbred colt that he says will turn the racing world upside down. But there’s a tiny, little problem: the colt is a clone of champion racehorse Secretariat. Because cloning is illegal, he would not be allowed to race, but Dad has resolved that by fraudulently registering him. And there’s a second problem. Dad still owes the cloner $250,000, which must be paid before possession can pass to Christian. After exhausting all other avenues, Christian takes out a loan from Vince Florio, a New York mobster, whom he must repay in two years at 100-percent interest. When a sheik wants to buy the animal, which would allow Christian to repay Vince, he refuses. He promised his father he would race the colt, damn the illegalities. To add to Christian’s woes, perfect girlfriend Kate is not so perfect. When Christian breaks up with her, she begins stalking him—think life-threatening obsession. He’s now in double jeopardy from Vince and Kate, as is his new girlfriend, horse trainer Allie, his parents, and grandparents.

Author Susan Klaus has bred and raced thoroughbreds and is intimately familiar with the good, the bad, and the ugly of the racing world. She’s crafted her debut thriller, which could more accurately be called a romantic suspense novel, after having written several fantasy novels. Although it’s heavy on horse racing lore and lingo, the premise and plotline will appeal to most readers, racing aficionados or not. Setting is one of Klaus’ strengths and the smells and sounds of the racetrack and the rural life of Florida come through loud and clear. Some of Christian’s problems are resolved a little too easily, but this a thoroughly enjoyable beginning to what could become a series. A sequel, Shark Fin Soup, is in the works.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 24 September 2013 05:09

Twenty-five-year-old Christian Roberts is tall, blond, and beach-bum handsome in Susan Klaus’ Secretariat Reborn. Life is good. He owns a boat rental company, lives on a sloop, and his girlfriend Kate is the foxiest woman in Sarasota, Florida. When Christian receives word that his estranged father, a thoroughbred racehorse trainer, is dying of cancer, he travels to see him for the last time. Dad has a surprise for him. He wants to give him a thoroughbred colt that he says will turn the racing world upside down. But there’s a tiny, little problem: the colt is a clone of champion racehorse Secretariat. Because cloning is illegal, he would not be allowed to race, but Dad has resolved that by fraudulently registering him. And there’s a second problem. Dad still owes the cloner $250,000, which must be paid before possession can pass to Christian. After exhausting all other avenues, Christian takes out a loan from Vince Florio, a New York mobster, whom he must repay in two years at 100-percent interest. When a sheik wants to buy the animal, which would allow Christian to repay Vince, he refuses. He promised his father he would race the colt, damn the illegalities. To add to Christian’s woes, perfect girlfriend Kate is not so perfect. When Christian breaks up with her, she begins stalking him—think life-threatening obsession. He’s now in double jeopardy from Vince and Kate, as is his new girlfriend, horse trainer Allie, his parents, and grandparents.

Author Susan Klaus has bred and raced thoroughbreds and is intimately familiar with the good, the bad, and the ugly of the racing world. She’s crafted her debut thriller, which could more accurately be called a romantic suspense novel, after having written several fantasy novels. Although it’s heavy on horse racing lore and lingo, the premise and plotline will appeal to most readers, racing aficionados or not. Setting is one of Klaus’ strengths and the smells and sounds of the racetrack and the rural life of Florida come through loud and clear. Some of Christian’s problems are resolved a little too easily, but this a thoroughly enjoyable beginning to what could become a series. A sequel, Shark Fin Soup, is in the works.

H.N.I.C.
Sharon Magee

Pappy and Black are products of the Brooklyn streets who, along with their friends, make a living doing stickups. But Pappy wants out. He dreams of Detroit and college and working with computers. In H.N.I.C. (street slang for head n**** in charge) by Albert “Prodigy” Johnson with Steven Savile, Black, the head of the crew, talks him into just one more job—a bank heist. All they have to do, Black tells the crew, is crash through the door yelling and screaming. This will scare everyone so badly they’ll throw the money at them. But things don’t go as planned. Black, who is in it for the thrills, fires a shot into the ceiling. A guard decides to be a hero and grabs Black around the neck, ripping off his mask. Furious, Black puts three shots into the misguided man. The would-be robbers run for the door. Their take is zilch, not one red cent. Pappy has had it. A bus leaves for Detroit at 7:00 the next morning. He plans to be on it. But Black, whom Pappy is a little afraid of and doesn’t trust, lifelong friend or not, has other plans. He tells Pappy he can’t leave until he tells him he can. He owes him. And he has just one more job that will make them all rich. When it’s over, Pappy realizes there is no such thing as loyalty on the streets, and he knows what he must do to even the score.

Prodigy, who wrote this gritty, mesmerizing novella (123 pages), is one half of the multiplatinum, critically acclaimed East Coast hip-hop group, Mobb Deep. The language is raw, the violence real. But through it all runs the universal themes of love, friendship, greed, and betrayal. This is the initial street lit offering of Akashic Books’ Infamous imprint, overseen by Prodigy and his manager Marvis Johnson, which will bring stories of the streets with their stark realism to the forefront. Well worth the read.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 24 September 2013 05:09

A gritty, mesmerizing novella from Prodigy, of the hip-hop group Mobb Deep.

Death Al Dente
Lynne Maxwell
Is there a cozy lover among us who could resist a new series boasting the label "A Food Lover’s Village Mystery"? Read on if you would like to indulge in a healthy helping of Death Al Dente, Leslie Budewitz’ scrumptious new series opener introducing Erin Murphy, the newly minted manager of the family busy, a gourmet food shop in Jewel Bay, Montana. Murphy’s Mercantile—popularly known as “the Merc”—is undergoing a facelift of sorts, as Erin showcases products made in Montana, thereby providing a niche for the shop in Jewel Bay, designated “A Food Lovers’ Village.” In order to unify and promote the town, Erin decides to organize Festival di Pasta, featuring local culinary delights, including classic pasta specialties prepared by Erin’s mother, Fresca. Alas, the festival turns grim when the body of Fresca’s former employee, Claudette, turns up in a nearby alley. Since Claudette left her job without giving notice in order to run off to Vegas with another woman’s husband, suspicion falls upon Fresca. To complicate matters further, Claudette had allegedly been accusing Fresca of stealing recipes from her, a rumor that, if substantiated, would have destroyed Erin’s business. So, what’s a dutiful daughter to do? Why, investigate, of course! During the course of her sleuthing, Erin suspects the philandering husband and/or his wronged wife, discovering at last that the murderer is—but I can’t ruin the suspense. Instead, I encourage you to savor this new culinary mystery that offers a unique taste of Montana. Author Budewitz has created an engaging character, a charming town, and a whole new perspective on the state.
Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 24 September 2013 05:09
Is there a cozy lover among us who could resist a new series boasting the label "A Food Lover’s Village Mystery"? Read on if you would like to indulge in a healthy helping of Death Al Dente, Leslie Budewitz’ scrumptious new series opener introducing Erin Murphy, the newly minted manager of the family busy, a gourmet food shop in Jewel Bay, Montana. Murphy’s Mercantile—popularly known as “the Merc”—is undergoing a facelift of sorts, as Erin showcases products made in Montana, thereby providing a niche for the shop in Jewel Bay, designated “A Food Lovers’ Village.” In order to unify and promote the town, Erin decides to organize Festival di Pasta, featuring local culinary delights, including classic pasta specialties prepared by Erin’s mother, Fresca. Alas, the festival turns grim when the body of Fresca’s former employee, Claudette, turns up in a nearby alley. Since Claudette left her job without giving notice in order to run off to Vegas with another woman’s husband, suspicion falls upon Fresca. To complicate matters further, Claudette had allegedly been accusing Fresca of stealing recipes from her, a rumor that, if substantiated, would have destroyed Erin’s business. So, what’s a dutiful daughter to do? Why, investigate, of course! During the course of her sleuthing, Erin suspects the philandering husband and/or his wronged wife, discovering at last that the murderer is—but I can’t ruin the suspense. Instead, I encourage you to savor this new culinary mystery that offers a unique taste of Montana. Author Budewitz has created an engaging character, a charming town, and a whole new perspective on the state.
If Bread Could Rise to the Occasion
Lynne Maxwell

A new culinary mystery on the menu is Paige Shelton’s If Bread Could Rise to the Occasion, her third Country Cooking School Mystery. The series focuses upon Betts (short for Isabelle) Winston and her grandmother, Miz (for “Missouri”), proprietors of—yes, you guessed it—a cooking school situated in small-town Missouri. This is no run-of-the-mill cooking school, however. It is nationally renowned, which enables Betts and her grandmother Miz to be highly selective in admitting but a handful of candidates to participate in the exclusive yearlong program. Imagine their surprise, then, when Freddie O’Bannon, the first student of the year to arrive, is not one of the admitted candidates listed on their roster. Betts and Miz are perplexed and suspicious, and Freddie’s story doesn’t ring true, but this problem pales when the body of another student is discovered on the second day of class. Who could possibly have targeted the genial and talented student? After all, the semester had just begun, and there was insufficient time for animosity to have developed among the students, all apparently strangers to one another. Fans of the series will undoubtedly anticipate the other major plot thread that will ultimately tie things together, but for series newcomers, let me clue you in to the fact that Betts and Miz have talents well beyond their famed culinary skills. In fact, they see dead people—so the paranormal features prominently here, as well. A ghost from Gram’s past appears, beseeching our heroines to rectify the cover-up of his family members’ deaths in a brutal factory fire years ago. Unfortunately, a wrathful ghost also appears, threatening Betts and Miz, as they investigate crimes of yore. Lovers of the supernatural will be intrigued by the ghosts that populate the book, while lovers of symmetry will be relieved to know that all of the plot strands cleverly connect in the end. It’s a wonder that our protagonists have time to cook amidst their otherworldly adventures, but the recipes included in the book attest to the appeal of country cooking, Missouri-style.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 24 September 2013 06:09

A new culinary mystery on the menu is Paige Shelton’s If Bread Could Rise to the Occasion, her third Country Cooking School Mystery. The series focuses upon Betts (short for Isabelle) Winston and her grandmother, Miz (for “Missouri”), proprietors of—yes, you guessed it—a cooking school situated in small-town Missouri. This is no run-of-the-mill cooking school, however. It is nationally renowned, which enables Betts and her grandmother Miz to be highly selective in admitting but a handful of candidates to participate in the exclusive yearlong program. Imagine their surprise, then, when Freddie O’Bannon, the first student of the year to arrive, is not one of the admitted candidates listed on their roster. Betts and Miz are perplexed and suspicious, and Freddie’s story doesn’t ring true, but this problem pales when the body of another student is discovered on the second day of class. Who could possibly have targeted the genial and talented student? After all, the semester had just begun, and there was insufficient time for animosity to have developed among the students, all apparently strangers to one another. Fans of the series will undoubtedly anticipate the other major plot thread that will ultimately tie things together, but for series newcomers, let me clue you in to the fact that Betts and Miz have talents well beyond their famed culinary skills. In fact, they see dead people—so the paranormal features prominently here, as well. A ghost from Gram’s past appears, beseeching our heroines to rectify the cover-up of his family members’ deaths in a brutal factory fire years ago. Unfortunately, a wrathful ghost also appears, threatening Betts and Miz, as they investigate crimes of yore. Lovers of the supernatural will be intrigued by the ghosts that populate the book, while lovers of symmetry will be relieved to know that all of the plot strands cleverly connect in the end. It’s a wonder that our protagonists have time to cook amidst their otherworldly adventures, but the recipes included in the book attest to the appeal of country cooking, Missouri-style.

Remnants of Murder
Lynne Maxwell

Artistic activity awaits in Elizabeth Lynn Casey’s Remnants of Murder, her eighth entry in the Southern Sewing Circle Mysteries. Sweet Briar, South Carolina, has seen more than its share of murders, but they haven’t ended yet. Library Director Tori Sinclair faces numerous problems: library funding has been slashed, a long-term employee must be terminated—and Tori’s wedding and honeymoon must be planned. Most importantly, a murder must be solved. First, though, Tori and her sidekicks from the sewing circle must convince the lethargic authorities that the death of a curmudgeonly nonagenarian is, in fact, a homicide. Tori’s research skills come into play as she concludes that Clyde Montgomery was felled by arsenic poisoning. Eventually, after an autopsy confirms Tori’s suspicions, the police begin a formal investigation. Plenty of people had motive to kill Clyde, who refused to sell his prime property to developers, but who had sufficient ongoing contact with him to perpetrate a slow poisoning? Follow Tori as she belatedly solves the murder. Fortunately, though, she will get to the church on time!

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 24 September 2013 06:09

Artistic activity awaits in Elizabeth Lynn Casey’s Remnants of Murder, her eighth entry in the Southern Sewing Circle Mysteries. Sweet Briar, South Carolina, has seen more than its share of murders, but they haven’t ended yet. Library Director Tori Sinclair faces numerous problems: library funding has been slashed, a long-term employee must be terminated—and Tori’s wedding and honeymoon must be planned. Most importantly, a murder must be solved. First, though, Tori and her sidekicks from the sewing circle must convince the lethargic authorities that the death of a curmudgeonly nonagenarian is, in fact, a homicide. Tori’s research skills come into play as she concludes that Clyde Montgomery was felled by arsenic poisoning. Eventually, after an autopsy confirms Tori’s suspicions, the police begin a formal investigation. Plenty of people had motive to kill Clyde, who refused to sell his prime property to developers, but who had sufficient ongoing contact with him to perpetrate a slow poisoning? Follow Tori as she belatedly solves the murder. Fortunately, though, she will get to the church on time!

Robert Barnard: a Talent to Entertain
Martin Edwards

barnard_robert_2002Mystery Scene was saddened to hear about the death of crime novelist Robert Barnard on September 19. Here is an article which we published in 2012 about this Cartier Diamond Dagger recipient.


The appearance within the past year of two brand-new books by Robert Barnard is a cause for celebration. The pleasure is tinged with a little sadness, because Bob (as everyone knows him) has indicated that, since he also recently celebrated his 75th birthday, he plans to take a very well-earned retirement from regular professional writing. But all this makes it the perfect time to review his highly successful career, and for me to reflect on a friendship with Bob and his wife Louise that has been a source of joy to me for close to a quarter of a century.

Bob Barnard is an Essex man—he was born in Burnham-on-Crouch in 1936. The same vintage year saw the arrival on the scene of two of his crime-writing colleagues, Reginald Hill and Peter Lovesey—all three of them would proceed to win the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for their sustained achievement in the crime genre. Bob was educated at a grammar school in Colchester before going on to Balliol College, Oxford. His father, whose varied career included a spell as a London police constable and also as a thatcher, became a successful writer of romantic fiction, although Bob wryly points out that he encountered some difficulties with the taxman as well.

Not long after leaving Oxford, he moved to the other side of the world, becoming a lecturer in English in New South Wales and meeting and marrying Louise, an Australian. His time there provided him with the background for his debut crime novel, Death of an Old Goat, which was published by Collins Crime Club in the UK in 1974. By that time he had—perhaps wisely, given what he had to say about Australia and its academic life—moved to Norway, first lecturing in Bergen and later becoming a professor of English at Tromso. Almost inevitably, in 1980, he proceeded to write a book set in Norway, Death in a Cold Climate.

He rapidly established himself as a distinctive talent, with a flair for skewering vanities, especially among the English middle-classes, that has never deserted him. Religion (his grandfather became a keen Jehovah’s Witness, much to his father’s chagrin) and the Royal Family regularly get a kicking in his fiction, and it is typical of him that his nothing-is-sacred stories often also take aim at Balliol men and novelists. Death in Purple Prose (1987, also known as The Cherry Blossom Corpse) pokes fun at writers of romantic fiction, while another of his titles is the self-explanatory Death of a Mystery Writer (in the UK the same book was published, in 1978, as Unruly Son). His ability to construct unusual plots, allied to a sharp wit, earned a range of accolades, including appearances on the shortlist for the Edgars, for best novel and best short story. One of his conspicuous strengths is brevity; his novels continue to defy fashion by remaining as concise as ever.

barnard_death_in_cold_climateFrom Death of an Old Goat onwards, Barnard showed an ability to make effective use of what he has learned on his travels around the world, as well as his knowledge of subjects in which he has a special interest. He is an opera buff, for instance, and Death on the High Cs, published in 1977, illustrates his enthusiasm for opera. So does The Mistress of Alderley (2002), which features an unorthodox murder weapon. His love of music also prompted him to write a couple of books in the mid-’90s under the name Bernard Bastable, featuring Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

He is also an expert on the Brontë family and their work, and co-authored with Louise A Brontë Encyclopedia (2007), although he tends to be dismissive of The Missing Brontë, a novel he produced in 1983. Five years ago, I had the privilege of visiting Haworth Parsonage with several other crime writers. We were shown around by Bob, and he gave us a memorable insight into the lives of the Brontës. (The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori, published in 1998, does not, however, focus on that extraordinary Victorian family or their home.)

Politics is another of his interests (he once worked for the Fabian Society), and crops up in several of his books, as well as in the recent short story “Political Necessity.” Political Suicide, published in 1984, was a very enjoyable novel set around a by-election although changes in the political landscape in the intervening years mean it is now a little dated. A Scandal in Belgravia (1991) also has a political backdrop, and if I were asked to name my all-time favorite Barnard novel, that would be a strong candidate, not least because of a splendid late plot twist. The same title, incidentally, was recently used for an episode of the second series of the highly popular BBC TV series Sherlock.

His first series character, the Scotland Yard man Perry Trethowan, made his debut in Death by Sheer Torture (1981). Later, he introduced Charlie Peace, a black Yorkshire cop who sometimes worked with Mike Oddie. These cops are all likeable, but perhaps not developed as fully as is the modern fashion. For Barnard, series characters tend to be a means to developing a particular story line, and arguably much of his best work dispenses with them.

Barnard is a stern judge not only of the people who appear in his fiction, but also of his own work. In fact, I struggle to think of any successful novelist I’ve gotten to know—other than the late, great Julian Symons—who is quite so critical of many of his own books. In the case of both Julian and Bob, I feel their judgments on their own work have sometimes been too harsh, but their constant quest for something new and better sets a good example for other writers.

Yet if he is an unflinching critic, Barnard is quick to lavish praise where it is due. Quite apart from his passion for the Brontës, he has a deep understanding of Dickens’ greatness, and his enthusiasm for Victorian fiction prompted one of his most underestimated books, To Die Like a Gentleman (1993). Again published under the Bastable byline, this is an epistolary novel, suggestive of the style of Wilkie Collins, yet brisk and entertaining enough to stand on its own merits rather than merely be appreciated as pastiche. The fourth book published as by Bastable, A Mansion and its Murders, appeared first in the US, and it may be fair to say that although Barnard is (despite setting his stories in various parts of the world) a very English writer, his work has sometimes seemed to be valued more highly in America than in his native country.

barnard_scandal_in_belgraviaBarnard’s critical skills are displayed in A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie. First published in 1980, this readable and perceptive work was revised and updated a decade later, with a bibliography compiled by Louise. Studies of Christie’s mysteries and life have proliferated in recent years, but along with those in a thoughtful discussion of her methods by Emma Lathen, to which he refers, and in John Curran’s two recent books exploring her private journals, Barnard’s insights are the most incisive. He does not allow his scholarship to prevent him from discussing Christie in an accessible and enjoyable way; he discusses her personal life, and a chapter is devoted to her famous disappearance of 1926, but the emphasis is properly on her writing, and her mastery of plot structure.

To my mind, his chapter about Christie’s “strategies of deception” is one of the very best short analyses of the methods of constructing tantalizing whodunit puzzles ever written. “She demanded from her reader,” he says in explaining her global appeal, “only a noticing eye and ear, and a lively grasp of the facts of everyday life.” Significantly, he draws an analogy between her approach and that of Dickens in Oliver Twist and Bleak House. Even though it is more than three decades since it was written, A Talent to Deceive remains a must-read for the Christie fan.

By the time I came across Bob in person, he and Louise had returned to England, his success having enabled him to concentrate on a life of crime. They moved to Armley in Leeds, where they still live, a choice dictated at least in part by the excellence of the city’s operatic productions. Our first encounter was at the same unforgettable inaugural lunch of the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association at which I met Reginald Hill and his wife Pat; Bob and Louise also became regular attendees at the lunches and weekends that we organized over the years. I’ve been lucky enough, for instance, to hear him lecture about Christie both at Torquay, the town of her birth, during her centenary celebrations in 1990, and at Harrogate, in the very hotel where she was discovered staying under an assumed name in 1926. I recall one skeptical, youngish crime writer back in 1990 challenging Bob about Christie’s literary merit, only to find that Bob provided a compelling account as to why she continues to be so widely read, when other, seemingly more gifted writers—as well as many “commercial” writers whose literary talents were in fact much less substantial than Christie’s—have fallen by the wayside. It was an education for those present. A special memory of Bob’s generosity concerns the time when he and Louise—knowing of my fascination with the traditions of the genre—invited me to be their guest at a Detection Club dinner at the Savoy in 1994. At that time, I was still a newcomer to the scene and never dreamed that one day I’d be joining Bob and Louise at other Detection Club dinners as a fully fledged member.

As with Christie, there is no pretension in Robert Barnard, the man or the books. He said modestly 21 years ago, “I write only to entertain.... My books are old-fashioned, though I think some of them contain more humor than most of the ‘Golden Age’ writers usually put in,” and added that, as well as Christie, he especially admired Margery Allingham, Ruth Rendell, and Margaret Millar. He might also have mentioned Christianna Brand, another brilliant plotter, who became a good friend of his, and about whom he once wrote an article for Mystery Scene.

I admire Bob Barnard’s short stories, and for the past two decades, his has been one of the first names to spring to mind when I have been looking for contributions to anthologies. I have fond memories of a Saturday back in 1992, when Bob, Val McDermid, Chaz Brenchley, and I met at the house of Ann Cleeves, herself a future CWA Gold Dagger winner, to discuss the first anthology of work by Northern Chapter members, Northern Blood. Since then it has been my privilege to read a good many of Bob’s manuscripts (and they are manuscripts—he doesn’t do email!). The most recent is “Just Popped In,” which appeared in the 2011 CWA collection, Guilty Consciences. Naturally it gave me a special thrill when “Sins of Scarlet,” a story of dark deeds in the Vatican, which he contributed to I.D.: Crimes of Identity, won the CWA Short Story Dagger.

barnard_habit_of_widowhoodBarnard’s skill at the short form has been recognized over the years, not only with nominations and awards, but also by publishers who have brought out no fewer than three collections of his work. Quite an achievement in this day and age, when single-author story collections are widely and depressingly seen as uncommercial. The latest gathering is Rogue’s Gallery, which includes “Sins of Scarlet” as well as stories taking potshots at a range of targets. They include Conservative politicians and their wives, the doomed marriage of the Prince and late Princess of Wales, incompatible married couples, Mozart again, and parents who take it for granted that their own mother or father will put their lives aside to look after their grandchildren.

His latest, and perhaps final novel, just published in the US but not yet available in the UK, is A Charitable Body, which sees Charlie Peace’s wife Felicity becoming embroiled with a charitable trust overseeing Walbrook Manor, an 18th-century mansion. This is emphatically a work of fiction, but I would hazard a guess that Bob’s knowledge of the ways of the charitable world is informed by his long involvement with the Brontë Society.

Both books are pleasing reminders not only of Barnard’s talents as a crime writer, but also of his multifaceted life and interests. Even if he keeps to his resolve to put away his pen, he has given mystery fans a vast amount of entertainment for close on 40 years. Anyone who appreciates a crisp, agreeable crime story with a touch of both originality and humor, and has yet to read Robert Barnard’s work, has much fun in store.

A ROBERT BARNARD READING LIST

Death of an Old Goat (1977)
A Little Local Murder (1983)
Death on the High Cs (1978)
Blood Brotherhood (1978)
Unruly Son (1979), aka Death of a Mystery Writer
Posthumous Papers (1980), aka Death of a Literary Widow
Death in a Cold Climate (1981)
Mother's Boys (1981), aka Death of a Perfect Mother
Little Victims (1984), aka School for Murder
A Corpse in a Gilded Cage (1984)
Out of the Blackout (1985)
The Disposal of the Living (1985), aka Fete Fatale
Political Suicide (1986)
The Skeleton in the Grass (1988)
At Death's Door (1988)
A City of Strangers (1990)
A Scandal in Belgravia (1991)
The Masters of the House (1994)
Touched by the Dead (1999)
The Mistress of Alderley (2003)
A Cry From the Dark (2003)
The Graveyard Position (2005)
Dying Flames (2006)
Last Post (2008)
A Stranger in the Family (2010)

CHARLIE PEACE NOVELS
Death and the Chaste Apprentice (1989)
A Fatal Attachment (1992)
A Hovering of Vultures (1993)
The Bad Samaritan (1995)
No Place of Safety (1998)
The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori (1999)
Unholy Dying (2001)
The Bones in the Attic (2002)
A Fall From Grace (2007)
The Killings on Jubilee Terrace (2009)
A Charitable Body (2012)

PERRY TRETHOWAN NOVELS
Death by Sheer Torture (1981)
Death and the Princess (1982)
The Case of the Missing Brontë (1983), aka The Missing Brontë
Bodies (1986)
Death in Purple Prose (1987), aka The Cherry Blossom Corpse

NOVELS AS BERNARD BASTABLE
To Die Like a Gentleman (1993)
Dead, Mr. Mozart (1995)
Too Many Notes, Mr. Mozart (1996)
A Mansion and Its Murder (1998)

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
Death of a Salesperson: And Other Untimely Exits (1989)
The Habit of Widowhood: And Other Murderous Proclivities (1996)
Rogue's Gallery (2011)

NONFICTION
Imagery and Theme in the Novels of Dickens (1971)
A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie (1980)
A Short History of English Literature (1984)
Emily Brontë (British Library Writers' lives series) (2000)
A Brontë Encyclopedia (with Louise Barnard) (2007)

Dates are US publication

Martin Edwards has published 15 novels, most recently The Hanging Wood (Poisoned Pen Press). He has also edited 20 anthologies and published eight nonfiction books.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #126.

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 25 September 2013 07:09

barnard_robertA 2012 piece about crime novelist Robert Barnard, who passed away September 19, 2013.

Scorpion Deception
Hank Wagner

After highly sensitive intelligence information is stolen from the US Embassy in Switzerland, Nick Curry, aka the legendary ex-CIA agent “Scorpion,” finds himself on a short list of operatives throughout the world who are targeted for death by an organization run by a mysterious Iranian power broker known in espionage circles as “the Gardener.” Although loathe to work with the Agency again, it’s kill or be killed, so the Scorpion embarks on an international adventure in search of the Gardener, and his agent, Scale (named after the saw-scaled viper, the most venomous serpent in the Middle East). Whether he can do so before the ranks of America’s intelligence agencies are decimated remains to be seen, as his adversaries always seem to be one step ahead.

Although the elements of Andrew Kaplan’s Scorpion Deception may seem familiar to seasoned thriller readers, the book rises above mere formula due to its lean prose, convincing action, and frenetic pacing—readers get a real sense that the stakes are high, because that’s how Kaplan’s point-of-view character, the Scorpion, sees and experiences it. The book relentlessly hurtles forward toward an explosive climax, dragging its audience in its tailwind. Think The Bourne Ultimatum-style film action convincingly rendered on the printed page and you’ll get some idea of how well Kaplan handles things with the Scorpion, who enters his second quarter century in fine form.

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 25 September 2013 09:09

After highly sensitive intelligence information is stolen from the US Embassy in Switzerland, Nick Curry, aka the legendary ex-CIA agent “Scorpion,” finds himself on a short list of operatives throughout the world who are targeted for death by an organization run by a mysterious Iranian power broker known in espionage circles as “the Gardener.” Although loathe to work with the Agency again, it’s kill or be killed, so the Scorpion embarks on an international adventure in search of the Gardener, and his agent, Scale (named after the saw-scaled viper, the most venomous serpent in the Middle East). Whether he can do so before the ranks of America’s intelligence agencies are decimated remains to be seen, as his adversaries always seem to be one step ahead.

Although the elements of Andrew Kaplan’s Scorpion Deception may seem familiar to seasoned thriller readers, the book rises above mere formula due to its lean prose, convincing action, and frenetic pacing—readers get a real sense that the stakes are high, because that’s how Kaplan’s point-of-view character, the Scorpion, sees and experiences it. The book relentlessly hurtles forward toward an explosive climax, dragging its audience in its tailwind. Think The Bourne Ultimatum-style film action convincingly rendered on the printed page and you’ll get some idea of how well Kaplan handles things with the Scorpion, who enters his second quarter century in fine form.

The Proteus Cure
Hank Wagner

F. Paul Wilson and Tracy L. Carbone's collaboration The Proteus Cure recalls such fine efforts from Wilson as The Select, Implant, and Deep as the Marrow. The Proteus Cure deals with the fallout from a new medical treatment for cancer, which, though successful in conquering the deadly disease, has some truly stunning side effects on those it cures. When those side effects come to the attention of the book’s heroine, oncologist Sheila Takamura, she unknowingly finds herself in the sights of the VecGen corporation, run by her mentor, Doctor Bill Gilchrist. Sheila quickly morphs from friend to threat as she digs deeper into the phenomena, threatening VecGen’s grandiose plans to change the world.

Wilson and Carbone take their premise in unexpected directions, resulting in a compelling and thought-provoking read, possibly evoking memories of the fun you had reading medical thrillers back in the day when they were a relatively new subgenre—you’ll likely find yourself thinking (positively) of Robin Cook’s classic Coma more than once. The book is also notable for its antagonists, who rise above the standard “villain out to rule the world” stereotype—they all register as individuals, complex human beings with unique, understandable, and most importantly relatable, motivations, rather than the standard “madmen with a plan” types who often play this role in other novels.

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 25 September 2013 09:09

F. Paul Wilson and Tracy L. Carbone's collaboration The Proteus Cure recalls such fine efforts from Wilson as The Select, Implant, and Deep as the Marrow. The Proteus Cure deals with the fallout from a new medical treatment for cancer, which, though successful in conquering the deadly disease, has some truly stunning side effects on those it cures. When those side effects come to the attention of the book’s heroine, oncologist Sheila Takamura, she unknowingly finds herself in the sights of the VecGen corporation, run by her mentor, Doctor Bill Gilchrist. Sheila quickly morphs from friend to threat as she digs deeper into the phenomena, threatening VecGen’s grandiose plans to change the world.

Wilson and Carbone take their premise in unexpected directions, resulting in a compelling and thought-provoking read, possibly evoking memories of the fun you had reading medical thrillers back in the day when they were a relatively new subgenre—you’ll likely find yourself thinking (positively) of Robin Cook’s classic Coma more than once. The book is also notable for its antagonists, who rise above the standard “villain out to rule the world” stereotype—they all register as individuals, complex human beings with unique, understandable, and most importantly relatable, motivations, rather than the standard “madmen with a plan” types who often play this role in other novels.

Unspeakable
Hank Wagner

When it comes to villains, Wade Grinnell, the vicious killer featured in Kevin O’Brien’s Unspeakable, certainly stands out, primarily because his spirit seems to inhabit the body of former child movie star Collin Cox. He’s not in control, however, as, at first, he only emerges after Collin has been hypnotized, and even then, only when certain techniques are used. But, as the days go by, he seems to be coming out to play whenever Collin sleeps, targeting his friends, indulging in murder and arson. As the body count mounts, Collin tries to divine Wade’s motives, which, seem to have something to do with a series of brutal crimes committed a half century earlier, coincident with the Seattle World’s Fair.

Unspeakable is a pure adrenaline rush, a thriller that earns that label on each and every page. Collin is a sympathetic hero, a young man totally bewildered by what’s transpiring, yet clever and diligent enough to pursue the strange truths driving the heinous events happening all around him. Readers suffer right along with the young man, feeling a palpable sense of relief as O’Brien slowly begins to reveal the secrets behind the secrets. That it all ties together, and in such a convincing and satisfying (and not so obvious) way, is tribute to the power of O’Brien’s oft-proved (this is his 13th novel) storytelling and plotting skills.

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 25 September 2013 09:09

When it comes to villains, Wade Grinnell, the vicious killer featured in Kevin O’Brien’s Unspeakable, certainly stands out, primarily because his spirit seems to inhabit the body of former child movie star Collin Cox. He’s not in control, however, as, at first, he only emerges after Collin has been hypnotized, and even then, only when certain techniques are used. But, as the days go by, he seems to be coming out to play whenever Collin sleeps, targeting his friends, indulging in murder and arson. As the body count mounts, Collin tries to divine Wade’s motives, which, seem to have something to do with a series of brutal crimes committed a half century earlier, coincident with the Seattle World’s Fair.

Unspeakable is a pure adrenaline rush, a thriller that earns that label on each and every page. Collin is a sympathetic hero, a young man totally bewildered by what’s transpiring, yet clever and diligent enough to pursue the strange truths driving the heinous events happening all around him. Readers suffer right along with the young man, feeling a palpable sense of relief as O’Brien slowly begins to reveal the secrets behind the secrets. That it all ties together, and in such a convincing and satisfying (and not so obvious) way, is tribute to the power of O’Brien’s oft-proved (this is his 13th novel) storytelling and plotting skills.

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories From the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense
Jon L. Breen

Fourteen women writers, all but one American or Canadian, are represented in this important anthology: Patricia Highsmith, Nedra Tyre, Shirley Jackson, Barbara Callahan, Vera Caspary, Helen Nielsen, Dorothy B. Hughes, Joyce Harrington, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, Charlotte Armstrong, Dorothy Salisbury Davis (the only living inclusion), Margaret Millar, Miriam Allen deFord, and Celia Fremlin. An informative introduction and outstanding notes on the authors give the book reference value. Most peaked in the 1940s through 1960s and were honored and successful in their time. While a few have stayed in print and maintained a consistent reputation, as a group they have been woefully neglected by academic scholars and fans ignorant of genre history. Why? Weinman believes it was the lack of an editorial champion like Barry Gifford, whose Black Lizard reprinted many hardboiled male writers of the period. Another theory: the mid-century prominence of American women among authors and critics, along with their virtual dominance of the editorial ranks, contradicts the conventional wisdom that American women mystery writers were a downtrodden underclass until rescued by the feminist wave of the ’70s and ’80s.

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 25 September 2013 09:09
::cck::4610
Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century
Jon L. Breen

The bludgeoning of Honora Parker by her teenage daughter Pauline and her daughter’s friend Juliet Hulme was one of the most notorious 20th-century murder cases long before it was revealed that Hulme later in life became bestselling mystery writer Anne Perry. Since that news first broke in the early 1990s, it’s surprising that this book, originally published in New Zealand in 2011 as So Brilliantly Clever: Parker, Hulme and the Murder That Shocked the World, far from the sleazy exploitation one might fear, is the first full-length account of the case to be published in the United States. Drawing on primary sources, including the girls’ own writings and contemporary press accounts, barrister Graham does an excellent job of outlining their very different family backgrounds, the development of their friendship (including the early 1950s Hollywood films that fed their fantasy world and their mutual adoration of James Mason), the planning and commission of their crime, their trial and separate incarceration, and what is known of their later lives, understandably more on Perry/Hulme than the more reclusive Parker.

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 25 September 2013 09:09

The bludgeoning of Honora Parker by her teenage daughter Pauline and her daughter’s friend Juliet Hulme was one of the most notorious 20th-century murder cases long before it was revealed that Hulme later in life became bestselling mystery writer Anne Perry. Since that news first broke in the early 1990s, it’s surprising that this book, originally published in New Zealand in 2011 as So Brilliantly Clever: Parker, Hulme and the Murder That Shocked the World, far from the sleazy exploitation one might fear, is the first full-length account of the case to be published in the United States. Drawing on primary sources, including the girls’ own writings and contemporary press accounts, barrister Graham does an excellent job of outlining their very different family backgrounds, the development of their friendship (including the early 1950s Hollywood films that fed their fantasy world and their mutual adoration of James Mason), the planning and commission of their crime, their trial and separate incarceration, and what is known of their later lives, understandably more on Perry/Hulme than the more reclusive Parker.

Daphne Du Maurier at Home
Jon L. Breen

Similar to the author’s 2009 coffee-table book Agatha Christie at Home, this one provides a brief but informative biography of the author of Rebecca with an emphasis on her various homes, in her signature Cornwall and elsewhere. The writing and inspiration of her major books is discussed. Copious illustrations on nearly every page include beautiful color shots of the houses, interior and exterior, and their locales; family photographs, book jackets, and movie posters. The final chapter describes events and tourist attractions related to Du Maurier, followed by a brief bibliography and list of other sources, many with websites given. Du Maurier’s three children contribute separately to a foreword. All in all, a commendable job.

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 25 September 2013 10:09

A Mysterious Something in the Light: the Life of Raymond Chandler
Jon L. Breen

All three previous Raymond Chandler biographies, by Frank McShane (1976), Tom Hiney (1997), and Judith Freeman (2007), have their merits, but this newest effort should, at least for now, become the standard life. With its details of World War I, Los Angeles political corruption, and other historical events that affected Chandler, it’s more of a “life and times” than its predecessors. Often drawing on previously unpublished letters, the English author gives greater emphasis to Chandler’s early years in Britain and also offers more on the years following the death of his wife Cissy. All his works are described and analyzed, with the early pulp magazine stories better covered than in most other sources. His screenwriting career, including difficult collaborative relationships with Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock, gets a fresh and entertaining recounting. Many readers will want to drop everything else and immerse themselves in reading or rereading Chandler. (Reviewed from an advance proof copy. Illustrations were not seen, and I’m assured the non-functional index in the proof copy will be “completely corrected” in the final version.)

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 25 September 2013 10:09

All three previous Raymond Chandler biographies, by Frank McShane (1976), Tom Hiney (1997), and Judith Freeman (2007), have their merits, but this newest effort should, at least for now, become the standard life. With its details of World War I, Los Angeles political corruption, and other historical events that affected Chandler, it’s more of a “life and times” than its predecessors. Often drawing on previously unpublished letters, the English author gives greater emphasis to Chandler’s early years in Britain and also offers more on the years following the death of his wife Cissy. All his works are described and analyzed, with the early pulp magazine stories better covered than in most other sources. His screenwriting career, including difficult collaborative relationships with Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock, gets a fresh and entertaining recounting. Many readers will want to drop everything else and immerse themselves in reading or rereading Chandler. (Reviewed from an advance proof copy. Illustrations were not seen, and I’m assured the non-functional index in the proof copy will be “completely corrected” in the final version.)

William Gillette, America’s Sherlock Holmes
Jon L. Breen

William Gillette (1853-1937) wrote the play Sherlock Holmes and played the role on stage for decades, but his other contributions to American theatre are even more significant. As a low-key realistic actor, he sought the illusion of speaking the words for the first time rather than reciting a set speech, a goal which seems obvious now but was novel then. His 1895 Civil War espionage melodrama Secret Service was a better play than Sherlock Holmes and a greater contribution to the stage thriller. (For proof, see the TV presentation of the 1977 Broadway production with Meryl Streep and John Lithgow, available on DVD.)

As the first full-scale biography of an important figure, this excellent book should have been taken up by a major publisher. Zecher, covering all aspects of his subject in great detail, is unfailingly readable and only occasionally succumbs to antiquarianism or tangents of limited relevance to the subject. The Sherlockian material is thoroughly and knowledgeably covered, including Gillette’s relationship with A. Conan Doyle and how his stage portrayal influenced the image of Holmes for years thereafter, including being the model for the illustrations of Frederic Dorr Steele. Architecture and building buffs will enjoy the description of Gillette’s homes, especially his idiosyncratic retirement abode, Gillette Castle, still a leading tourist attraction in Connecticut. The account of Gillette’s support of Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party candidacy in the election of 1912 offers an interesting summary of the political and social inequities of the time, not so different from today. Quotes from Gillette’s letters and speeches display a satirical sense of humor reminiscent of his friend Mark Twain. Based on his one mystery novel, The Astounding Crime on Torrington Road (1927), Zecher puts the mechanically minded author closer to John Dickson Carr than to Christie or Gardner. The author does not mention that Gillette was the model for detective Drury Lane in four early-’30s novels by the Ellery Queen team writing as Barnaby Ross. (Reviewed from the ebook edition, both economical and fine for reading the text, but the many source notes are extremely difficult to trace in that format, and the illustrations, though very sharp, are reduced to postage-stamp size. The unexamined print edition is presumably better for these purposes.)

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 25 September 2013 10:09

The first full-scale biography of the Sherlock playwright and actor is an excellent read.

Scott Turow on Reading: Catching the Book Bug
Scott Turow

Scott_Turow_credit_Jeremy_Lawson_Photography_-_RegOne boy's feverish love for Alexandre Dumas

Photo: Jeremy Lawson Photography

The pivotal reading experience of my life occurred when I was ten years old. I was in fifth grade, and a serious malingerer. I suffered from seriously inflamed tonsils and was frequently home sick, but during these absences, I’d discovered that not going to school was quite agreeable to me. It was better than school anyway, where I had to stay in my seat, refrain from talking to my classmates, and do assignments, rather than thinking my own thoughts.

So I often claimed that I was "coming down with something" which I could feel broiling in my throat. I guess my tonsils were chronically affected, so that my dad, a doctor, couldn't easily dismiss my claims. But my mother was a former grade school teacher who quickly established rules for my stays at home. No TV, no radio, no games. If I was sick, I needed to stay in bed. The only permitted activities were finishing homework or reading.

Reading was not so bad. I enjoyed it, although I sometimes found it hard to keep my mind in place. My favorite experience of books was having my mother read to my younger sister and me. I was captivated by Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, which my mom read aloud to us in nightly installments when I was about six years old. (When people ask me if I think less of them if they listen to my books, rather than reading them, I always answer, emphatically, "No." For most readers, listening was their initial experience of literature, and probably the one from which their love of books stems.)

IDENTICAL_CoverMy mom had been a French major in college, and it was she who put The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (the father) in my hands. I can recall the heavy, worn old volume and the ochreish, brittle pages, which smelled of library dust. But all of that was quickly secondary to the vividness of the book. I was transported from the beginning. I stayed up late at night to read and continued as soon as I was awake. The truth—if memory is at all accurate—is that this was one of the occasions when I actually was sick, because I remember how my fever exaggerated the airborne state of near-delirium in which I read. The deep injustice of Edmond Dantés' imprisonment and the intricate revenge he exacted decades later jet-fueled my heart.

And somehow the thought came to me that if it was this exciting to read a book, then it had to be even more thrilling to write one, to live the experience for months instead of days, and to feel the whole adventure come to life within you. My determination to be a novelist was born almost simultaneously with my discovery of the profound excitement of being a reader.

Scott Turow's latest book is Identical (Grand Central Publishing, October 2013).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews October 2013 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
Thursday, 26 September 2013 11:09

Scott_Turow_credit_Jeremy_Lawson_Photography_-_RegOne boy's feverish love for Alexandre Dumas

Compound Fractures
Jackie Houchin

It’s good to know from the beginning that Compound Fractures is the final installment to Stephen White’s Dr. Alan Gregory series. It gives readers a chance to say good-bye to the characters they’ve enjoyed over the past 20 years. And while the book’s occasional introspective feel reveals the author’s understandable reluctance to end the series, the intricate plotting and mounting suspense are pure Stephen White thriller. Compound Fractures is actually part two of the conclusion, which began in the previous book, Line of Fire. And while White gives plenty of information for the reader to enjoy this book as a standalone, I would recommend reading the two books in succession.

Rumors that an old case is being reopened, one in which psychologist Alan Gregory and his police detective friend, Sam Purdy, were deeply involved, has the pair in a panic. Certain facts, if they were brought to light, could end one or both of their careers. When Lauren, Gregory’s Deputy District Attorney wife, confronts him with a piece of evidence pointing positively to him as a suspect, he breaks down and confesses. He pleads for her understanding, but realizes her job will require her to expose him. Before he can ask if the DA has also seen the evidence, Diane, his business partner and best friend, barges in and opens fire on them, wounding Gregory and putting Lauren at death’s door.

Shell-shocked by the events, Gregory enters therapy, choosing a young, inexperienced psychologist he believes he can manipulate. Delilah Travis is unable to help answer the questions he asks about his grief and fear and eventually her unease at his growing paranoia and the unusual restrictions he places on their sessions causes her to question her ethical position on confidentiality.

As the DA’s investigation closes around him, Gregory frantically tries to find some way out. Lying becomes easy and patient privilege is broken. We see the good doctor Travis sinking into a mire of crime with less and less to lose, and we wonder if the series will end with Alan Gregory as an anti-hero. Fear for his children is the only thing keeping him sane.

An astonishing bit of information discovered by Sam Purdy and researched by his techie son Jonas is Gregory’s only weapon against being arrested for three murders. Will it be enough? And will justice be served? The complicated and taut conclusion will leave readers reeling and perhaps not quite believing.

Teri Duerr
Thursday, 26 September 2013 12:09

white_compoundfracturesThe final installment in the 20-year Dr. Alan Gregory series combines deft plotting, a little introspection, and pure thrills.

The Hanging of Samuel Ash
Sheila M. Merritt

The Hanging of Samuel Ash is a period mystery with a railroad setting. Hook Runyon, an amputee, is a railroad bull in post-World War II America. His job is to protect railroad property from theft and damage and he has been known to wield his prosthetic arm as a weapon against assailants. Hook is a cynical scoffer, accustomed to seeing the shoddy side of society: pickpockets, hobos, unscrupulous employers, and violence-prone union workers are part of everyday life for him. Booze and books—he’s a bibliophile and collector—take some of the sting out of work as does his canine pal, Mixer.

While tracking a ring of wily pickpockets, who have twice nicked his badge, Hook is diverted to another assignment. He’s called upon to investigate a malfunctioning railroad signal. What he finds swinging from the signal is shocking: a young man, dead from hanging. The only identifying clue a war hero’s medal around the corpse’s neck. The name engraved on the medal is Samuel Ash and Runyon is determined to find Ash’s kin. With the casket bearing the deceased, Hook embarks on an odyssey from Carlsbad, New Mexico, to Carmen, Oklahoma.

The inhabitants of Carmen deny knowing anyone named Samuel Ash. Hook tries to wade through small-town gossip with the help of Junior Monroe, a green trainee from a privileged background. The two men’s mentor-apprentice relationship is presented with much humor. Junior has metaphorically fallen off the turnip truck, and keeps literally falling off the trains he tries to hop on the run. He is summed up thus: “The boy had a knack for trouble, which probably meant he’d either wind up in jail or become governor of the state.”

The socioeconomic upheaval of the postwar era is handled with aplomb. Hook is profoundly aware of having to straddle uneasy issues and maintain a demeanor of diplomacy. Neutrality laced with a bit of appeasement serve him well: “In this business, he had no choice but to walk the line between the company and the union, so it had to be about the law and nothing else. If either side perceived him as partial, his effectiveness was shot to hell.” Although shrewd and savvy, Hook has a soft spot for children as well as for the ladies. He gives pretty Jackie, who works as a diversion for a band of elusive pickpockets, a reprieve from jail time. And he gets involved with Bet, an orphan child. The kid provides an “out of the mouth of babes” moment when she observes the casket and asks how one can be certain of the identity of the person inside. Hook is also intrigued by Celia, a woman who works at Bet's orphanage, and who unearths disturbing information about the institution’s administration.

The plot is far from linear, as Hook travels to different locales and chats with many people en route to his destination. Colorful locals spice up the clever dialogue and give the narrative plenty of zest. The Hanging of Samuel Ash is the fourth in the Hook Runyon series and more adventures are eagerly awaited.

Teri Duerr
Thursday, 26 September 2013 12:09

russell_hangingofsamuelashCynical and tough, Hook Runyon returns for more adventures on the great American railroad.

Eva’s Eye
Hank Wagner

Last year’s The Caller was this reviewer’s first exposure to Karin Fossum’s world-famous Inspector Sejer series, and it was a most memorable experience. This new translation of Eva’s Eye allows English-language readers to finally experience the Inspector’s first published case.

Less dark than The Caller, Eva’s Eye is no less satisfying a read. The book opens with the discovery of a body in a river. The remains belong to one Egil Einarsson, an employee of a local brewery, who went missing some six months before. It’s obvious that he’s been murdered, as his body bears multiple stab wounds. Sejer is initially at a loss for leads, until he associates Einarsson’s death with the killing of prostitute Maja Durban a few days before Einarsson’s disappearance. Once he’s made that link, he focuses on one suspect: Eva Marie Magnus, a local artist who seems to be on the periphery of both cases. The reasons behind that linkage are, to say the least, unique.

The book’s narration is arresting—whether that’s a tribute to Fossum’s original Norwegian prose, or to the special skill of her translator, James Anderson, or both, is hard to say. But what makes the book so compelling is Sejer himself—his humanity, and his way with family, colleagues, and, of course, suspects. It’s fun to be in his presence, so much so that you miss him when Fossum is compelled to tell the story from another character’s viewpoint. It’s easy to see why Fossum has been so suc- cessful telling stories about the preternaturally patient Sejer—he’s a detective character for the ages.

Teri Duerr
Thursday, 26 September 2013 12:09

fossum_evaseyeFossum's world-famous Inspector Sejer series continues in English translation with Eva's Eye.

Speak of the Devil
Vanessa Orr

When federal sex-crime prosecutor Anna Curtis gets engaged to Jack Bailey, it should be the happiest night of her life; instead, she finds herself pulled into an investigation of MS-13, one of America’s most brutal street gangs. As the case grows, it begins to affect her personal life in ways in which she and the reader don’t expect.

As a former federal sex-crimes prosecutor, Allison Leotta knows the ins and outs of the federal justice system as well as the reasons why young people join gangs and how difficult it can be for them to get out. Leotta gives the reader an insider’s view of the gang’s hierarchy and disturbing traditions as they follow their motto to kill, rape, and control. She also illustrates the lengths that police and prosecutors go to in order to put criminals in jail, often with little support from those who suffer most from gang violence.

The gang in this case is led by Diablo, the Devil, a vicious psychopath covered in tattooed hieroglyphs who has teeth sharpened to points, and two fleshy horns protruding from his head. His menace is palpable; those who are unlucky enough to cross him, including members of his own gang, suffer for it. Even his second-in-command, Gato, is terrified of what Diablo can do. While Diablo is a caricature of evil, Leotta does a nice job of humanizing Gato as a man who feels loyal to his gang but is second-guessing his way of life.

The case leads Anna to learn more about the death of her fiancé’s former wife, an undercover policewoman who was supposedly killed in a drug buy that went bad. Rumor has it that she was actually killed by M-13, a theory strengthened by the fact that her picture is found in the pocket of one of its gang members. As Anna begins to unravel the tale, she finds out things that will forever affect her relationship with Jack and his six-year-old daughter, Olivia.

Anna is a strong protagonist and Leotta’s weaving together of the prosecutor’s professional and personal life is seamless, even as the two worlds begin to collide. A surprise twist midway through the book will make you turn the pages even faster; not only to see what happens to the Devil, but to all those whom his evil has touched along the way. While at times the subject matter is dark, it’s almost impossible to put this book down before its satisfying, and unexpected, conclusion.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 27 September 2013 11:09

When federal sex-crime prosecutor Anna Curtis gets engaged to Jack Bailey, it should be the happiest night of her life; instead, she finds herself pulled into an investigation of MS-13, one of America’s most brutal street gangs. As the case grows, it begins to affect her personal life in ways in which she and the reader don’t expect.

As a former federal sex-crimes prosecutor, Allison Leotta knows the ins and outs of the federal justice system as well as the reasons why young people join gangs and how difficult it can be for them to get out. Leotta gives the reader an insider’s view of the gang’s hierarchy and disturbing traditions as they follow their motto to kill, rape, and control. She also illustrates the lengths that police and prosecutors go to in order to put criminals in jail, often with little support from those who suffer most from gang violence.

The gang in this case is led by Diablo, the Devil, a vicious psychopath covered in tattooed hieroglyphs who has teeth sharpened to points, and two fleshy horns protruding from his head. His menace is palpable; those who are unlucky enough to cross him, including members of his own gang, suffer for it. Even his second-in-command, Gato, is terrified of what Diablo can do. While Diablo is a caricature of evil, Leotta does a nice job of humanizing Gato as a man who feels loyal to his gang but is second-guessing his way of life.

The case leads Anna to learn more about the death of her fiancé’s former wife, an undercover policewoman who was supposedly killed in a drug buy that went bad. Rumor has it that she was actually killed by M-13, a theory strengthened by the fact that her picture is found in the pocket of one of its gang members. As Anna begins to unravel the tale, she finds out things that will forever affect her relationship with Jack and his six-year-old daughter, Olivia.

Anna is a strong protagonist and Leotta’s weaving together of the prosecutor’s professional and personal life is seamless, even as the two worlds begin to collide. A surprise twist midway through the book will make you turn the pages even faster; not only to see what happens to the Devil, but to all those whom his evil has touched along the way. While at times the subject matter is dark, it’s almost impossible to put this book down before its satisfying, and unexpected, conclusion.

Others of My Kind
Kevin Burton Smith

Those expecting another short, bleak blast of crime from acclaimed novelist James Sallis—something along the lines of his Lew Griffin private investigator series, or his compact, brooding novel Drive, brought to the silver screen in all its twitchy fatalism last year with Ryan Gosling in the lead—better brace themselves. Yes, there is crime here, some truly wrenching stuff, but it’s little more than a jumping-off point. No, what this ruminative little parable really offers is an examination of identity, of possibility, and of how we adapt—or choose not to adapt—to the most horrific things life can dump on us.

When she was a little girl, Jenny Rowan was kidnapped and held hostage for years in a wooden box kept beneath her abductor’s bed, from which he would regularly roll her out to “play” with, like a captive doll. Eventually, Jenny escaped, and lived “off the land” (such as it was) at the local mall for another few years, a true wild child, before being captured again and thrown into the child welfare system. Ultimately she sued for legal emancipation at the ripe old age of 16—and won.

But that’s not quite what this fierce and oddly disquieting novella is about, either. For the grown up Jenny, now a successful TV news film editor in a dysfunctional but recognizable future writhing with political and social unrest, her choice to live life on her own terms has left her with an eerie certainty and a spooky detachment; she’s become a surprising pillar of strength and wisdom for the few who know her whole story. Like Detective Jack Collins who comes asking for Jenny’s help with Cheryl, a recently rescued woman (“twenty going on twelve”) who, like Jenny, was abducted as a child.

Jenny reluctantly agrees, beginning a chain of events that suggest nothing so much as modern fairy tales such as The World According to Garp or Forrest Gump, albeit rendered in miniature, with the darkness cranked up. Emotionally bruising at times, but ultimately strangely triumphant, the hardfought victory of this novel lies more in its open-ended optimism and generosity than in any real narrative closure. And yet for those willing to dive into the depths of this odd little tale, Jenny’s simple declaration that “We make do” will echo long after you’ve closed the covers. Powerful stuff.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 27 September 2013 11:09

sallis_othersofmykindA moving examination of the most horrific things life can dump on us.

Gone With the Woof
Sheila M. Merritt

Dog breeding and good breeding don’t necessarily go hand-in-paw. In Laurien Berenson’s novel Gone With the Woof, Edward March, an elder statesman of the dog show world, decides it’s time to write his memoirs. Entitled Puppy Love, the reminiscences will emphasize carnal conquests rather than canine competition. Professional and personal reputations are at stake, nicely establishing a motive for murder. An untimely demise indeed occurs. Melanie Travis, enlisted to assist Edward in assembling the book, sets out to find the perpetrator of the crime. This 16th “canine mystery” starring amateur sleuth Travis also happily marks the return of author Berenson from a five-year writing hiatus.

First-person narrator Melanie had agreed to help Edward before realizing he’s composing a tell-all that highlights his considerable sexual prowess. Compounding the moral dilemma is a nasty visit from March’s son, Andrew, who angrily tells Melanie to abandon the assignment. Andrew possesses character traits similar to his father: an inflated ego, a quick temper, and a knack for bedding a slew of women. Neither March male is terribly admirable and when one of them becomes the victim of foul play, it almost seems like justifiable homicide.

Melanie navigates her way through the array of likely culprits, many of whom are involved in the dog show circuit. Although her area of expertise is standard poodles (there are several in her household) she is knowledgeable about the maintenance and exhibiting of other breeds. At dog shows and competitions, people are known by the canine company they keep. And while furry companions are apt to be accessible and amiable, the people in their pack may be less so. Such discrepancies between dog and human conduct are frequently brought up in the novel.

When assessing a person’s attitude, Melanie sometimes resorts to canine analogies. Describing her indomitable Aunt Peg, for example, Melanie says: “Attempting to modify Aunt Peg’s behavior was like trying to reason with an Afghan hound. Nothing changed, and everyone ended up frustrated.” Each of Melanie’s poodles is described as having a unique personality and are part of the family along with two sons of widely differing ages, and a second husband.

Gone With the Woof is a fun ride. It also is insightful. Imprinting from parent onto child is adroitly addressed, and complications inherent in relationships are evaluated with sagacity and wit. Author Laurien Berenson’s return is heartily welcomed. Akin to the tail-wagging response of those beloved dogs featured so prominently in her novels, it’s a happy homecoming.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 27 September 2013 11:09

Dog breeding and good breeding don’t necessarily go hand-in-paw. In Laurien Berenson’s novel Gone With the Woof, Edward March, an elder statesman of the dog show world, decides it’s time to write his memoirs. Entitled Puppy Love, the reminiscences will emphasize carnal conquests rather than canine competition. Professional and personal reputations are at stake, nicely establishing a motive for murder. An untimely demise indeed occurs. Melanie Travis, enlisted to assist Edward in assembling the book, sets out to find the perpetrator of the crime. This 16th “canine mystery” starring amateur sleuth Travis also happily marks the return of author Berenson from a five-year writing hiatus.

First-person narrator Melanie had agreed to help Edward before realizing he’s composing a tell-all that highlights his considerable sexual prowess. Compounding the moral dilemma is a nasty visit from March’s son, Andrew, who angrily tells Melanie to abandon the assignment. Andrew possesses character traits similar to his father: an inflated ego, a quick temper, and a knack for bedding a slew of women. Neither March male is terribly admirable and when one of them becomes the victim of foul play, it almost seems like justifiable homicide.

Melanie navigates her way through the array of likely culprits, many of whom are involved in the dog show circuit. Although her area of expertise is standard poodles (there are several in her household) she is knowledgeable about the maintenance and exhibiting of other breeds. At dog shows and competitions, people are known by the canine company they keep. And while furry companions are apt to be accessible and amiable, the people in their pack may be less so. Such discrepancies between dog and human conduct are frequently brought up in the novel.

When assessing a person’s attitude, Melanie sometimes resorts to canine analogies. Describing her indomitable Aunt Peg, for example, Melanie says: “Attempting to modify Aunt Peg’s behavior was like trying to reason with an Afghan hound. Nothing changed, and everyone ended up frustrated.” Each of Melanie’s poodles is described as having a unique personality and are part of the family along with two sons of widely differing ages, and a second husband.

Gone With the Woof is a fun ride. It also is insightful. Imprinting from parent onto child is adroitly addressed, and complications inherent in relationships are evaluated with sagacity and wit. Author Laurien Berenson’s return is heartily welcomed. Akin to the tail-wagging response of those beloved dogs featured so prominently in her novels, it’s a happy homecoming.

The Thicket
Vanessa Orr

A good novel hooks the reader with the first line. And in the case of The Thicket, this couldn’t be more true: “I didn’t suspect the day Grandfather came out and got me and my sister, Lula, and hauled us off toward the ferry, that I’d soon end up with worse things happening than had already come upon us, or that I’d take up with a gun-shooting dwarf, the son of a slave and a big angry hog, let alone find true love and kill someone, but that’s exactly how it was.”

Narrated by 16-year-old Jack Parker, the story is a coming-of-age tale set in turn-of-the-century East Texas. Raised in a religious household, Jack finds his ideals challenged as he and a ragtag bunch of comrades—including a tightly-wound dwarf, a feisty former prostitute, a sobriety-challenged grave digger, and yes, a big, angry hog—chase a band of bank robbers who killed his grandfather and kidnapped his sister.

True to the book’s time and place, the language is rough and the violence graphic. Every word rings true, however, and the book is surprisingly funny—much of it black humor—despite its premise. It is an addictive read, pulling the reader along on Jack’s journey as he and his crew approach the big thicket where revenge, and perhaps redemption, await. Watching Jack mature from a God-fearing child to a man who has to make tough decisions when faced with harsh realities is eye-opening, both for him and for the reader; sharing his growing pains as he learns about sex, family, human frailty, religion, morality, and mortality is at turns heartbreaking and hilarious. Jack learns a lot of life lessons along the way, including the fact that everyone is fallible, and that even the most righteous among us don’t always follow the lessons they teach.

While the subject matter is just as gritty as the East Texas landscape, Joe Lansdale’s writing is lyrical, and at times, poetic, adding beauty to what could have been just another shoot-’em-up Western. “Lula actually smiled,” says Jack of the first time he sees his sister after her ordeal. “It seemed to be a smile borrowed from someone else; it didn’t quite fit her face. But it was a smile. It melted like frost on a warm window pane.”

I’d never read any of Lansdale’s work before, but there is no doubt that my reading list will now include selections from his more than a dozen award-winning novels.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 27 September 2013 11:09

A good novel hooks the reader with the first line. And in the case of The Thicket, this couldn’t be more true: “I didn’t suspect the day Grandfather came out and got me and my sister, Lula, and hauled us off toward the ferry, that I’d soon end up with worse things happening than had already come upon us, or that I’d take up with a gun-shooting dwarf, the son of a slave and a big angry hog, let alone find true love and kill someone, but that’s exactly how it was.”

Narrated by 16-year-old Jack Parker, the story is a coming-of-age tale set in turn-of-the-century East Texas. Raised in a religious household, Jack finds his ideals challenged as he and a ragtag bunch of comrades—including a tightly-wound dwarf, a feisty former prostitute, a sobriety-challenged grave digger, and yes, a big, angry hog—chase a band of bank robbers who killed his grandfather and kidnapped his sister.

True to the book’s time and place, the language is rough and the violence graphic. Every word rings true, however, and the book is surprisingly funny—much of it black humor—despite its premise. It is an addictive read, pulling the reader along on Jack’s journey as he and his crew approach the big thicket where revenge, and perhaps redemption, await. Watching Jack mature from a God-fearing child to a man who has to make tough decisions when faced with harsh realities is eye-opening, both for him and for the reader; sharing his growing pains as he learns about sex, family, human frailty, religion, morality, and mortality is at turns heartbreaking and hilarious. Jack learns a lot of life lessons along the way, including the fact that everyone is fallible, and that even the most righteous among us don’t always follow the lessons they teach.

While the subject matter is just as gritty as the East Texas landscape, Joe Lansdale’s writing is lyrical, and at times, poetic, adding beauty to what could have been just another shoot-’em-up Western. “Lula actually smiled,” says Jack of the first time he sees his sister after her ordeal. “It seemed to be a smile borrowed from someone else; it didn’t quite fit her face. But it was a smile. It melted like frost on a warm window pane.”

I’d never read any of Lansdale’s work before, but there is no doubt that my reading list will now include selections from his more than a dozen award-winning novels.

The Wrong Girl
Hilary Daninhirsch

An adoption agency is the epicenter of the action in this uniquely styled mystery by Hank Phillippi Ryan. When adopted newscaster Tucker “Tuck” Cameron becomes convinced that she has been reunited with the wrong birth mother, she enlists the help of her former colleague, Jane Ryland (introduced in 2012’s The Other Woman), to look into the Brannigan Children Services agency.

A Brannigan employee, Ella, is dismayed by the mismatched mother-daughter reunion and begins secretly snooping into the agency’s files. Soon, several employees of the adoption agency die under suspicious circumstances, and Jane begins receiving threatening phone calls to back off.

In the meantime, a foster mother’s murder leaves two young children homeless. When Jake Brogan, a detective with the Boston PD, investigates the murder, he notices an empty crib, leading him to wonder if a third child was kidnapped from the scene of the crime. The question becomes, is the foster mother’s murder connected to the adoption agency’s secrets?

Tuck, Jane, and Jake start digging for answers that reveal Tuck’s mistaken reunion was not an isolated incident.

Setting the mystery around an adoption agency provides an emotional element that is a welcome change of pace from traditional murder mysteries. Tuck is less well-developed than Jane and Jake, whose romantic tension adds appeal to the story and depth to their characters. The two would like nothing more than to pursue their relationship, but their respective jobs often conflict, creating an ethical conundrum explored deftly by the author. Ryan keeps the reader guessing throughout, making this a fun whirlwind of a read.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 27 September 2013 11:09

An adoption agency is the epicenter of the action in this uniquely styled mystery by Hank Phillippi Ryan. When adopted newscaster Tucker “Tuck” Cameron becomes convinced that she has been reunited with the wrong birth mother, she enlists the help of her former colleague, Jane Ryland (introduced in 2012’s The Other Woman), to look into the Brannigan Children Services agency.

A Brannigan employee, Ella, is dismayed by the mismatched mother-daughter reunion and begins secretly snooping into the agency’s files. Soon, several employees of the adoption agency die under suspicious circumstances, and Jane begins receiving threatening phone calls to back off.

In the meantime, a foster mother’s murder leaves two young children homeless. When Jake Brogan, a detective with the Boston PD, investigates the murder, he notices an empty crib, leading him to wonder if a third child was kidnapped from the scene of the crime. The question becomes, is the foster mother’s murder connected to the adoption agency’s secrets?

Tuck, Jane, and Jake start digging for answers that reveal Tuck’s mistaken reunion was not an isolated incident.

Setting the mystery around an adoption agency provides an emotional element that is a welcome change of pace from traditional murder mysteries. Tuck is less well-developed than Jane and Jake, whose romantic tension adds appeal to the story and depth to their characters. The two would like nothing more than to pursue their relationship, but their respective jobs often conflict, creating an ethical conundrum explored deftly by the author. Ryan keeps the reader guessing throughout, making this a fun whirlwind of a read.