Author Archive for Agatha

Michael Connelly: The Late Show

Michael Connelly has seamlessly launched a new character and series, introducing Detective Renee Ballard. Ballard works “The Late Show,” or the overnight shift, and she’s in a bit of purgatory as she’s accused her former boss of sexual harassment. When the charges went nowhere (her old partner didn’t back her up), she was booted to the Late Show, where she catches cases but isn’t able to follow them through to a conclusion. She instead turns them over to the pertinent department – homicide, robbery, etc. She’s feeling the lack of follow-through – she’s not as engaged in her job and her partner, who works the late shift to get home and care for a wife with cancer, doesn’t have the same focus she does.

Connelly sets up the character with several unique details – Ballard, a surfer girl, basically lives in her car with her dog and her surfboards, though she calls her Grandmother’s house (a good two hours away), home. This establishes her as the classic outsider/loner that Connelly so prizes in all of his characters – Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller are both rogue outsiders. The police jargon and detail is also familiar to any reader of the Bosch books, but it’s like Connelly has given himself a re-boot with a new character.

The plot centers on a nightclub shooting with the investigation being run by Ballard’s old boss. Ballard follows up on the death of a waitress who was “collateral damage” and it snags her attention. Her follow through and attention to detail draw her into the case despite the fact that she’s just supposed to turn over anything she finds to the day crew. When Ballard’s former partner is killed, it becomes truly impossible for her to keep away. She’s also following up on the brutal beating of a transvestite hooker which leads her into a very bad situation.

It was at that turn of the plot that I almost gave up on this book. A male writer writing a female character whose career is defined by sexual harassment who then puts this character into a classic type of fem-jep situation has to tread pretty carefully. Thankfully, he does, and quickly moves past this particular plot turn. When I thought about it I thought it made sense for the plot, but I still felt it was unnecessary. However, Connelly’s plotting skills and incredible skill with characters had me quickly flipping pages until the end of the novel – as I do with every Connelly novel. This is a great addition to his body of work.

A few thoughts on Agatha Christie (spoilers included)

Every couple years the “public” rediscovers Agatha. As there’s a new film of Murder on the Orient Express due in the fall, non-crime readers have been looking for that particular book. In general, however, Christie remains our bestselling author as her appeal is timeless. I was thinking about the innovations she brought to crime fiction and thought about her plots, for which she is justly famous.

She came up several tropes that are still in pretty much constant circulation: the narrator is unreliable/the killer (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd); everyone is the killer (Murder on the Orient Express); everyone is killed (And Then There Were None); or someone long dead is found to be unjustly accused, causing an uproar in the present (Murder in Retrospect). Oh, and she also wrote a very early example of psychological suspense, Endless Night (1967). Though Josephine Tey wrote earlier versions of psychological suspense (The Franchise Affair, 1948 and Brat Farrar, 1949) Tey’s clung to some remnants of traditional detection. Christie’s story is so modern it could easily find a market today and it might be written by someone like Ruth Ware or Belinda Bauer (or, earlier, Ruth Rendell).

People dismiss her as “simplistic” or “easy reading” but something as finely tuned and assembled as her stories are is neither. The actions seem to grow organically, one from the next – while some of the situations are indeed fantastic (a poison dart in an airplane, for example) they never seem forced – they seem like a natural part of the plot.

In middle school I read the books one after another and after book 25 or so my dim mind began to perceive how her brilliant one worked and I could begin to figure out where she was headed. She’s always an expert in misdirection – she gets you to focus on one thing, when the thing that’s important may sit quietly in the background and you, as a reader, overlook it.

The other thing Christie did and which has been endlessly imitated is to create Miss Marple. While I am a Poirot fan, he has his ancestors. He didn’t spring out of nowhere. The quietly subversive Miss Marple, however, is another story entirely. Miss Marple makes her first appearance in 1930 (The Murder at the Vicarage), and while Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver appeared slightly earlier (Grey Mask, 1928), the first Miss Silver book is a very far cry from her later incarnation. In the first book Miss Silver is almost a cold and ruthless figure. She only becomes the familiar Miss Silver with the publication of The Case is Closed (1937) when her knitting and innate kindness come to the fore.

Miss Marple, however, springs to life as “fluffy,” the village busybody who nevertheless has a penetrating intelligence (another hallmark of Miss Silver). Both of them are often overlooked and ignored by virtue of their age and their gender. Talk about misdirection – this is as quietly subversive as it gets. While Miss Marple and Miss Silver sit knitting in a corner, they’ve figured everything out. Miss Marple famously compares everyone to the villagers in St. Mary Meade, asserting that people are types and are the same everywhere. This may be Christie’s most radical notion, and the older I get, I can’t disagree with it. Never take Agatha for granted – she’s one step ahead and she’s come up with about every plot. Any reader could do worse than spending the rest of their lives reading and re-reading Agatha Christie.

Tracy Kiely: The Nic & Nigel Books

Murder with a Twist; Killer Cocktail; and A Perfect Manhattan Murder.

Guest reviewer Angel Connors is a teacher in Grass Lake, a book club member, Nancy Drew lover, and avid mystery reader and lover of old movies.

“Only lanky redheads with wicked jaws,” quips Nigel Martini to his bemused wife, Nic. If one wants a delightful summer read and has a fondness for old movies, look no further than Tracy Kiely’s charming homage to The Thin Man. To be honest, Kiely’s books owe more to the screenplays of the classic movie series than Dashiell Hammett’s iconic crime novel that introduces us to Nick and Nora Charles. Instead of a beautiful heiress meeting and falling for a sexy and wisecracking private eye, Kiely presents an attractive NYPD detective at physical rehab falling for a charming albeit quirky wealthy playboy.

The reader must be willing to accept the central conceit that the newly retired and married detective and her (works when he feels like it) husband have unlimited funds, lead a ridiculously glamorous life complete with constant travel, endless cocktails and trip over regular obligatory corpses. There is a lot to swallow here because Nic rarely encounters serious resistance from professional police departments when she presumes to interfere with their investigations. In addition, husband Nigel breezes in and out of crime scenes and five-star hotels dragging their adopted enormous bullmastiff, Skippy (an obvious nod to Nick and Nora’s ever present terrier, Asta) with him even onto the Red Carpet when solving a Hollywood murder.

The first book, Murder with a Twist, centers around Nigel Martini’s wealthy eccentric family in New York and borrows liberally from the film plot of After the Thin Man (1936). The second book, Killer Cocktail, takes place in Hollywood and Kiely effortlessly blends the fictional characters with well-known contemporary Tinseltown elite. The third entry, A Perfect Manhattan Murder, takes Nic and Nigel back to New York into the world of Broadway. The murder plot of this book is probably the strongest of the three, but all three are enjoyable. These mysteries are not horrifically violent thrillers or intense character studies; instead, they are unapologetic escapes that allow us to spend time with sophisticated Nic and Nigel, and lest we forget, Skippy.

Louise Penny: Glass Houses

Forget retirement. Gamache is now head of the ENTIRE Surete. After the events of the last novel, Gamache has taken on corruption on a larger scale – he’s literally moved on from the academy to the world at large. Penny, as always, skillfully layers her story. In this outing, she jumps between Gamache’s testimony at a trial, a murder in Three Pines, and the Surete’s – and Gamache’s – fear of the drug crisis, specifically the opioid epidemic and how best to fight it. While Julia Keller’s new book (Fast Falls the Night) also focuses on the opioid epidemic, she goes for the personal; Penny goes for the epic. Keller’s view is far more pessimistic than Penny’s ultimately optimistic one.

The murder in Three Pines comes after an especially creepy set-up. I think in an alternate universe, Penny might be a writer of gothic ghost stories, as many of her books have that kind of spooky element. In this one, there’s a figure in a black hood and a mask, standing unmoving on the green in Three Pines. He’s very unsettling, refuses to answer questions, and eventually there’s a kind of cone of silence surrounding him – kids no longer play there, there’s no activity of any kind. There’s just a kind of dreadful silence. As in the best ghost stories, you’re more creeped out by what’s in your own imagination than by what’s on the page, though that’s creepy enough.

It turns out the figure is an early incarnation of what in Spain is known as a Cobrador del Frac, a figure who dresses in top hat and tails and follows someone around who owes a debt. They usually pay up, as public shaming is a very powerful tool. The earlier incarnation was simply a “conscience” – they were out for a karmic debt to be paid, so to speak. So of course in Three Pines, everyone is wondering just whose karmic debt needs attention. The question, of course, is answered by a murder, but that’s all I can say without giving away points of this clever plot.

Penny is very concerned in this novel with conscience – there’s even a chapter (chapter 8, as another avid reader pointed out), detailing conscience and how past deeds affect various Three Pines residents. Conscience, and ultimately, justice – whether inside or outside of law – becomes the overriding theme of the book. I think this is a theme that has concerned mystery writers, with its rogue police officers, amateur sleuths, and knitting old ladies, from time immemorial. Would you work outside the set rule of law to do what adheres to the rules – or do what is just? I think we mystery readers know the answer, and mystery writers have been helping us figure it out with their clever, well told stories, from Wilkie Collins on forward.

How great that we as readers also get to enjoy a fabulous story as we ponder right and wrong. To me, that’s what makes mysteries the greatest and most enjoyable of all genres. Louise Penny adds her beautiful words and stories to this canon. The end of the novel, as all Louise Penny novels do, had me dissolved in tears, but a Penny novel offers a good cry. You feel cleansed after reading the book. That explains a great deal of her popularity, I think, but so do Gamache and Three Pines itself. Now to wait a whole other year until the next book…

Julia Keller: Fast Falls the Night

I have a real respect for writers who pull off the feat of condensing a book into the space of a single day. One of my favorite mysteries, Ngaio Marsh’s Night at the Vulcan (1951), takes place in the space of a single night, and while Ms. Keller is far removed from Ms. Marsh in time, theme, setting, and protagonist, they share a knack all good storytellers have. I think it’s a matter of pacing, the right amount of being invested in the characters, and some sort of indefinable magic. Marsh’s stories are lighter and more optimistic than Keller’s, who sets hers in a far more brutal time and place.

It’s sad to think that 21st century West Virginia is more brutal than post-WWII London, where Marsh set her novel, but there it is. Keller’s central character, prosecutor Bell Elkins, is weary: weary of her non-stop job, and weary of the opioid crisis that’s overtaken her little town of Acker’s Gap. As the novel opens, there’s an overdose in a gas station bathroom and things go from bad to worse as overdoses and fatalities pile up, apparently from heroin laced with another, even more deadly, drug.

Balancing theme with narrative impetus – something that’s aided by the short time frame – Keller’s book is never didactic or preachy. She gets her message across just fine by showing, not telling. It’s clear the overtaxed law enforcement, paramedic and medical personnel can’t respond to every crime. They have to overlook the small in favor of the big and as overdoses pile up, it’s all they can do to keep up and simply react.

Keller isn’t a storyteller without complexity, however, and within the pages of this novel are Bell’s character, working relationships, family and romantic life as well as the story of a young officer named Jake. His possible romance, his life and the way he puts the pieces of the drug stories together take on an almost epic turn within the tight confines of this well paced and constructed novel.

There’s a tight balance in this book between message – the opioid crisis, or the “Appalachian Virus”; narrative, and character. Significant events take place in Bell’s life as well as Jake’s but they are wrapped up in the story, and that’s as it should be. Novels are stories: the characters keep us invested, the prose speaks to our hearts, and the situation (in this case) breaks them. I’ve loved all of Ms. Keller’s books, but brutal as this one is, it is probably my favorite, a true achievement of style and substance.

Fred Vargas: A Climate of Fear

Fred Vargas is an interesting combination of very traditional and very – untraditional. Her set-up is traditional – Parisian Commissaire Adamsberg has a homicide squad that breaks down in traditional police novel form, with each character in the squad adding something to the story. But Adamsberg himself is extremely untraditional, with deductive methods that border on magical realism. In this novel, the story opens with an elderly woman struggling to the mailbox to mail a letter. Alas, she collapses before she can mail it, but a good Samaritan who helped her until an ambulance arrives later finds the letter in her pocket and mails it.

“Adamsberg put down his fork with care, acting cautiously as he did whenever a barely formed idea, the embryo of an idea, a tadpole of an idea, began slowly swimming up to the surface of his consciousness. At moments like this, he knew, you should not make a sound, because a tadpole will take fright and dive down to disappear forever.” A Climate of Fear, Fred Vargas

A few days later the good Samaritan reads in the paper that the elderly woman has died and she’s disturbed enough to go and tell the police that she’s mailed the letter. The police, especially Adamsberg, aren’t quite convinced that the woman’s death is the suicide it appears to be, especially as they find a curious symbol written near the body, so they seize on the clue offered them by the woman, who remembers the address on the letter. As more bodies begin to appear with the same symbol written nearby, the case of the apparent suicide turns into a full-fledged murder investigation.

There are two threads to the story – an expedition to Iceland several years back which went horribly wrong – and the discovery of a Society for Robespierre, where the hundreds of members dress in revolutionary garb and recreate the speeches of the time. Adamsberg’s investigation style is not linear. He’s guided by feelings, small signs and his reading of human nature as he attempts to untangle what he thinks of to himself as a giant piece of seaweed with many tangled threads.

His squad are frequently confused by his investigative style but go along with is it as he gets results. The case takes him to the French countryside (where he meets, among others, an old lady who smokes a pipe and lives with a wild boar), Iceland, and deep into the Robespierre group as the police interview many of the members who all assume the personalities of the particular historical figure they portray. As an interesting aside, the members of the society are made to change parties now and then so they don’t become entrenched in their viewpoints – not a bad idea, it seems to me.

While this meticulous plot requires a great deal of set-up, the pay-off is well worth it, with the complex threads tying together nicely at the end. While the writing is lovely, I think the main joy of this particular series is Commissaire Adamsberg – a quirky, original mind who works in mysterious ways.

Andrew Michael Hurley: The Loney

One of the things that make England such a haunted place is its sheer antiquity. The great ghost story writers of that country are often possessed by the fear that the spirits of the old, pre-Christian ways will manifest themselves darkly in our bright modern world. Such is the slowly dawning terror of Andrew Michael Hurley’s magnificent new chiller The Loney:

I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn’t leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along. It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way.

“There” in this case is the Loney, a wild and barely habited stretch of coastline in Lancashire where the narrator, his family, his parish priest and a few other members of the congregation would travel at Easter.

It was our week of penitence and prayer in which we would make our confessions, visit Saint Anne’s shrine, and look for God in the emerging springtime, that, when it came, was hardly a spring at all; nothing so vibrant and effusive. It was more the soggy afterbirth of winter.

The novel begins with the narrator (we never learn his real first name) hearing the news of a landslide in the area that caused an old house to slide down the cliff, and more disturbingly, of the baby’s skeleton found in the wreckage. Thus the story begins, revolving around a single still supernatural point, switching from the past history leading up to it and the present moment where it still reverberates.

It’s a hypnotic, richly realized work, with many strong ingredients. The narrator’s hyper-religious mother, obsessed with finding a miraculous cure for his mute older brother, is the propulsive force that pushes them into a return to the Loney, dragging along the new parish priest who has replaced the longstanding old one who died under mysterious circumstances. As in any good Gothic, the bleak and ancient landscape is itself a character, one with a dark tide that pulls toward oblivion as strongly as the stormy waves on the beach. The locals are sullen and threatening, their traditional customs strange and unsettling, and the weather awful as the modern world seems more and more distant.

The book has a slow and powerful sweep powered by the finely fashioned prose, creeping evermore creepily, much more like the classic Victorian and Edwardian writers Sheridan Le Fanu, Wilkie Collins or M. R. James than modern shocksters like Stephen King. The denouement is also very old school, with no exploding heads or rubber monsters, but a much more sinister sense of doom and discomfort, which in the end is far more effective.

It’s hard to categorize “The Loney,” to pigeonhole it as a Gothic, Ghost or Horror story, because it’s all that and more. What’s easy to say is that it’s a remarkable debut, a real dream of a nightmare that will haunt long after the last page. (Jamie)

Ingrid Thoft: Loyalty

I have heard the buzz about Ingrid Thoft for awhile now and finally got around to picking up this first novel in her series, and boy, is the hype justified. The central character, a female P.I. who works for the family law firm, bears some similarity to the kick-ass Kalinda on The Good Wife, one of my all time favorite TV characters. Josefina “Fina” Ludlow also has a passing resemblance to Spenser, and as this series is set in Boston, that seems only right. The family law firm is run with an iron fist by her father Carl and staffed by her high powered brothers. While Fina found the law wasn’t for her, she found investigative work was. It’s very much put to the test in this first outing. She runs a business “separate” from the family law firm, but they bring her most of her clients.

Unfortunately, her skills are needed when her sister-in-law disappears, and while her brother seems not that troubled by her disappearance, Fina increasingly is, and the outcome (this is a mystery novel, after all) is predictably tragic. When her brother becomes the prime suspect in what’s pretty clear is a homicide, Fina is also trying to help out her now-grieving teenaged niece who is resisting all attempts at either help or emotional support.

“The next hour of canvassing was like a greatest hits tour for the worried well. Yoga, Pilates, massage, energy healing, and Rolfing specialists occupied space next to an optometrist, nutritionist, and a variety of MDs. You could have your aura checked, get your spine realigned, and have a colonoscopy, all without moving your car.”
― Loyalty, Ingrid Thoft

There’s a parallel story involving a businesswoman whose business, it becomes clear, is that of a high class madam. The madam is dealing with an incapacitated husband and a son who has moved back home because of a trauma that’s only identified later in the novel.

Thoft’s brisk, entertaining, matter of fact and frequently humorous storytelling style makes this novel a great read. Her skill at weaving together disparate plot threads is indeed reminiscent of the great Robert B. Parker. She also grounds and creates her character and the entire Ludlow family, setting the stage nicely for future installments, of which I hope there are many. This is a fantastic series.

Theresa Schwegel: The Lies We Tell

Theresa Schwegel is a brilliant and underappreciated writer (despite an Edgar win for her first novel, Officer Down). She is a difficult writer, though, and refuses to sugarcoat anything. She also writes her novels in first person, present tense, which some people find off-putting. That said, she’s one of the more original and vivid writers in mystery fiction. Everything she writes is memorable and worth a look, and this novel, her sixth, is no exception.

Most of her novels concern female police officers, and so does this one, though with the twist that the officer in question, Gina Simonetti, is dealing with the beginnings of MS and hiding it from her employer. Schwegel tackles health care as a central theme and it’s deftly woven through her plot, touching on Gina’s health, the case Gina becomes invested in, and the thread of easy access to and misuse of prescription drugs.

As an opening salvo, Gina chases down one Johnny Marble, who has apparently beaten his elderly mother when he shows up to visit her in the hospital. During the course of the chase, Gina’s MS prevents her from doing anything but falling on top of Marble, who takes her gun and escapes. For this reason, Gina becomes desperate to find him and find a way to neutralize his testimony, so that the “Job” will not discover her debilitating illness.

Gina, along with being a strong, kick-ass woman, is also a stubborn one, who is resisting her new health reality while trying to work full time as well as take care of her brother’s 2-year-old, who has now lived with Gina long enough to call her “mama.” The complex plot weaves together a heartbreaking story of the elderly woman in the hospital, Gina’s struggles managing her single mom status along with her hopes of retaining custody, and her attempt to lead an investigation under the radar as her search for Johnny Marble intensifies.

She has some under the radar helpers, and stubbornly resists that help, but in the end, she’s forced to take it. As the novel is told from Gina’s point of view, the picture of Gina that an outsider might glean is only absorbed slowly. When a story is being related in the first person, the reader sometimes second guesses behaviors and actions the character takes, and has to form their own opinion of that character. That’s the difficult part of Schwegel’s writing, and it’s also the brilliant part as the reader is forced to assume an almost active role in the story she’s telling.

The references and social concerns are up to the minute, and health care, while not a sexy topic, is certainly an important one. The casual use of pills and applications of prescription drugs is troubling, but realistic. Fortunately for the lucky reader, these concerns are wrapped in the package of a hard to put down thriller. I can’t recommend checking out this author more highly.

Rhys Bowen: On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service

Note: if you aren’t completely up to date on the Lady Georgie series, this review does contain some spoilers. If you skip it, rest assured this installment is just as much fun as all the others.

Rhys Bowen’s Lady Georgie series is about the most fun you can have “between the covers.” Ever since the publication of Her Royal Spyness (2007), Bowen has trod the delicate line between humor, character development and great plotting to provide one of the more completely enjoyable series in the mysterious universe. Lady Georgie, for the uninitiated, lives in 1930’s London and is 34th in line to the throne. She’s impoverished but does get assignments from the Queen to do a little “family” spying – at the time, Queen Mary’s greatest worry was the Prince of Wales’ relationship with Wallis Simpson.

By this installment, Georgie is engaged to the dashing Darcy and happily spending time with him at the family castle in Ireland when he’s called away on a mission (he is a spy). At loose ends, her troubles are apparently over when she gets a pleading message from her dear friend Belinda who is waiting out an unwanted pregnancy in Italy. She stops by the Palace on her way to Italy to have tea with Queen Mary and request a release from the line of succession so she can marry Darcy (he’s a Catholic and he’s Irish). When the Queen finds out where she’s going, she quickly asks Georgie to join a house party at a villa near her friend. The Prince and Wallis will be attending, and the Queen wants to know if Wallis has obtained a divorce.

A good bit of the humor in the books comes from Georgie’s troubles with her maid, Queenie, who is hopeless at ironing, hair, make-up – all the things a ladies’ maid at the time was supposed to be an expert at. But there’s something endearing about Queenie. She’s found a berth with a cousin of Darcy’s in the kitchen and it seems to be suiting her, so Georgie takes off, maid-less and unchaperoned (to the Queen’s horror) to the continent.

Arriving in Italy, it takes some time for her to track down Belinda, who has taken up residence in a Swiss clinic. Georgie eventually makes her reluctant way to the house party, which is hosted by an old boarding school friend who has married really well. The house party appears to be made up of wildly disparate people, including several German officers (it’s 1935 and Hitler is in power), as well as Georgie’s mother. Never very maternal, her mother is nevertheless strangely delighted to see Georgie and asks her to help her out of a spot of blackmail.

Of course, there’s a murder as well as a frighteningly efficient ladies’ maid named Gerda who is on loan from the mistress of the villa. The light tone is kept throughout and as is usual with a Lady Georgie book, I was often laughing aloud as I read. All is resolved at the end and it seems we happy fans have a wedding to look forward to in the next installment, and possibly three of them. If you want to know who the other two weddings belong to, you’ll have to read the book!