Author Archive for Agatha

Best of 2017

As always I read so many great books, it was hard to choose just 10 (so I chose 11!). In their own category are William Kent Krueger and Louise Penny, both of whom write such consistently wonderful novels I started to feel they were beyond the top 10 list! Never the less both writers turned in beautiful books this year – Krueger’s Sulfur Springs takes Cork to Arizona on the hunt for his new wife’s son in a great novel that also takes a look at immigration issues and the border wall; Penny’s Glass Houses, also typically excellent, finds Gamache back as head of the Surete and investigating matters of conscience as well as a look at the drug problems rife in Western society at the moment (adding to a number of novels I read this year addressing the drug crisis). Both of these writers, with their beloved characters, gorgeous prose, and timely themes only continue to get better. But on to the list, which includes new writers as well as old friends. Happy reading!

The Murder Book, Jane A. Adams

He was an outsider here in an even deeper sense that in the market town. He had come to realize that Elijah Hanson had called him in only for the look of things… had there been a way of taking care of this business themselves, the community would have done so. He found it unsettling – not their suspicion, which was really commonplace enough – but the sense that he was not really needed, that his version of the law was a mere veneer. Civilization applied as a thin whitewash to the village walls.

I loved this look at the countryside of 1928 Britain, where the “murder detectives” from Scotland Yard are called in to investigate a case that seems to tread on too many tricky toes for the locals to handle. Adams gives a nuanced look at both her main character – who is portrayed in the beginning as a capable officer, as observed by his coworker, as well as an arrogant presence by the townspeople he’s investigating. This is truly a slice of British life not often examined, and well worth a look.

Death in St. Petersburg, Tasha Alexander

From a distance, the crimson spray coloring the snow looked more like scattered rose petals than evidence of a grisly murder… Perhaps St. Petersburg required elegance even in death.

I love Tasha Alexander, but this may be my favorite of all her books. Lady Emily is in Russia merely as a companion to Colin as he works on a case, but after a night at the ballet and the discovery of a dead ballerina in the snow, Emily is inevitably asked to investigate. Filled with detail about ballet culture as well as depicting Tsarist Russia, this book, which even includes a “ghost ballerina” is so much fun it’s swoon-worthy.

The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne

…while I did learn to read thanks to a stack of National Geographic magazines from the 1950s and a yellowed edition of the collected poems of Robert Frost, I never went to school, never rode a bicycle, never knew electricity or running water. The only people I spoke to during those twelve years were my mother and father. That I didn’t know we were captives until we were not.

The standout, breakout novel of 2017 is certainly Dionne’s heartfelt masterpiece about a young girl, Helena, who lives in a remote spot of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where her father, it turns out, has been keeping her mother captive for years. Living without electricity of running water, the little family survives on what they make and hunt; and as the book is structured, the young girl who worships her father grows into a young woman who begins to question his cruelty and ultimately escapes his clutches. This novel is beautifully structured and beautifully written, and with the character of Helena, Dionne has created an indelible classic.

The Trickster’s Lullaby, Barbara Fradkin

The woman, and her son, needed help, and Amanda hated to turn her back. Had always hated to turn her back on need.

This novel, set during the brutal Canadian winter, is the second novel featuring former international aid worker Amanda Doucette. She’s organized a winter camping trip aiming to help acclimate marginalized high school students, many of them Muslim, to their new Canadian cultural home. When one of them disappears, the book becomes a bravura chase novel, but it’s also speaking to Fradkin’s central question of how a young person growing up in comfortable Canada becomes an extremist. Both a pure detective novel and a bravura slice of nature writing, this is also a thoughtful social novel populated with memorable characters.

The Dry, Jane Harper

The late afternoon heat draped itself around him like a blanket. He snatched open the backseat door to grab his jacket, searing his hand in the process. After the briefest hesitation, he grabbed his hat from the seat. Wide-brimmed in stiff brown canvas, it didn’t go with his funeral suit. But with skin the blue hue of skim milk and a cancerous-looking cluster of freckles the rest, Falk was prepared to risk the fashion faux-pas.

Set during a recent Australian draught, The Dry features Melbourne financial detective Aaron Falk, who has returned to his tiny hometown to attend the funeral of his best friend, who has apparently slaughtered both his family and himself. The setting, hot and relentless, informs every paragraph of this stunning and unforgettable story. Falk works lone wolf style to try and figure out if his former friend was really capable of the ultimate horror, digging up his painful backstory as he goes. You won’t be able to stop reading this incredible debut.

Give the Devil His Due, Steve Hockensmith

I believe it was the noted paranormal researcher Ray Parker Jr. who best summed up my feelings about hauntings: “I ain’t afraid of no ghost,” as he so sagely put it… I am, like him, not afraid of any ghosts. Because I don’t believe in them. Which is why, when I found myself talking to a dead man recently, I didn’t scream, didn’t faint, didn’t reach for the phone… I just tried to do a little mental recalibration.

I’ve enjoyed all Hockensmith’s novels set in a tarot reader’s store front in tiny Berdache, Arizona, as central character Alanis tries to right the wrongs of her con artist mother along with her half sister, the teenaged, blue-haired Clarice. This one is my favorite, though, as Alanis sees someone she thought was long dead and winds up in a Westlake-style caper involving a painting of Elvis on velvet, an elderly hit woman, and an assortment of suitors. In tone, style, humor, character and plot, this novel is simply perfection. 

Let Darkness Bury the Dead, Maureen Jennings

The grey November day had seemed endless, filled with trivial pieces of police officialdom: a variety of fines, numerous licenses, several detectives’ schedules. Murdoch had to sign off on all of them. On days like this he wondered if his position as senior detective was really worth it.

Maureen Jennings returns to Detective Murdoch after a 10 year hiatus, finding Murdoch older (mid-50s) and dealing with an estranged son back from the war. It’s 1917, and Jack has been gassed at the front; it’s obvious to Murdoch he is not himself. As Murdoch tries to re-adjust to his son, he’s also investigating an apparently unrelated string of murders of young men. As always, Jennings casts a wide net, and her picture of wartime Toronto is incredibly vivid; the portrait of Murdoch and his son is unforgettable. Another bravura turn from a great writer.

August Snow, Stephen Mack Jones

Of course, in our house, these poets had to share shelf space with classic noir gumshoes, who stood shoulder-to-hardbound-shoulder with the interminably boring and occasionally grotesque: weighty tomes on police procedure and criminal law… there were mysteries by Dashiell Hammett, Arthur Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler and first-edition signed copies of Rudolph Fisher and Chester Himes. And there were programs from the five August Wilson plays we had seen as a family at the Fisher Theater in downtown Detroit.

I love a great debut novel, and when it’s a P.I. novel set in Detroit, it can hardly be improved upon. August Snow is the central character in Jones’ deft private eye novel, a welcome addition to the dearth of characters of color in the mystery universe. Happily it’s also simply a great read, with former cop August re-acclimating to life in Mexican town and solving a case that reaches into the upper echelons of society. What could be more classic? August is a worthy companion to Estleman’s Amos Walker in every way, including a lovely prose style that indicates Jones’ other identity as a poet.

Fast Falls the Night, Julia Keller

It had been a strange summer. The heat never really settled in. Throughout June and July and the first two weeks of August the weather seemed to be in a sort of trance, a holding pattern, as if it was waiting for a secret signal to let loose and intensify… this year, though, things were different, temperatures remained moderate. And yet people could not quite trust this moderation.

Julia Keller goes from strength to strength, and her books are almost always informed by contemporary social issues. This novel looks at a 24-hour period in tiny Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, when the overwhelmed police department, health services, and over all community are dealing with a record number of heroin overdoses, some of them fatal. Keller crafts a tight story as well as a heartbreaking and unforgettable one, and it could not be more timely. Recommended: Kleenex at the ready.

Dying to Live, Michael Stanley

Detective Sergeant Segodi looked down at the dead Bushman and frowned. He didn’t have much time for the diminutive people of the Kalahari. Somehow they always caused trouble, whether they meant to or not, and this was a case in point.

One of the strongest entries in the enjoyable Detective Kubu series set in Botswana, this one finds Kubu investigating the death of an elderly bushman who, on examination, appears to have the organs of a young man. The trail takes him on the hunt for witch doctors selling a plant that’s supposed to grant a very long life. As always this is a nice balance of Kubu’s mostly happy home life (he’s dealing with a sick child in this outing) and a really hard edged story, while at the same time delving deeply into African culture. A bravura effort.

Never Let You Go, Chevy Stevens

I stared into the mirror. Tried to remember how to arrange my lips so I didn’t look so scared, softened the muscles around my eyes, rubbed at the smeared mascara. It didn’t matter how many times I told him I hadn’t been flirting with the man. I might as well have been shouting into the ocean.

Chevy Stevens is always good, frequently disturbing, and never forgettable. This novel focuses on Lindsey and her daughter, with a thread illustrating Lindsay’s life as an abused wife, and one illustrating her present life as she and her daughter live free of the abusive husband. As the novel opens he’s just gotten out of prison and wants to know his daughter better. Lindsey is terrified; her daughter, more naïve, not so much. Stevens in an incredible empath who really gets inside the heads of her characters, and this suspenseful novel is also a penetrating look at the way women are all too often treated. It’s also a twisty mystery novel with a plot turn you won’t see coming. Good luck trying to stop reading.

Also recommended: Lee Child’s knockout Reacher novel, The Midnight Line; Elly Griffiths’ excellent The Chalk Pit; the long anticipated and spectacular return of Deborah Crombie, with The Garden of Lamentations; Rhys Bowen’s too much fun On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service; Sharon Bolton’s tightly knit thriller, Dead Woman Walking, that will surely put you off hot air balloon rides; and yet another great cozy from E.J. Copperman, The Dog Dish of Death.

Authors recommend: I always like to ask authors what they enjoyed in the past year. This year we heard from Lori Rader-Day. She recommends House, Tree, Person, by Catriona McPherson and A Negro and an Ofay by Danny Gardner.

Readers recommend: Roxie Weaver, Ann Arbor: The Woman in Cabin 10, Ruth Ware; The Wrong Side of Goodbye, Michael Connelly; Redemption Road, John Hart; Camino Island, John Grisham; The Fix, David Baldacci; Sulfur Springs, William Kent Krueger; Night School, Lee Child; You Will Know Me, Megan Abbott; The Day I Died, Lori Rader-Day; and The Expats, Chris Pavone.

Joyce Simowski, Canton: Hunting Hour, Margaret Mizushima.

Linda Kimmel, Ann Arbor: Death in St. Petersburg, Tasha Alexander; A Conspiracy in Belgravia, Sherry Thomas; The Essence of Malice, Ashley Weaver; The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, Leonard Goldberg; The Case of the Counterfeit Criminals, Jordan Stafford (Young Adult); A Perilous Undertaking, Deanna Raybourn; No Living Soul, Julie Moffett and This Side of Murder, Anna Lee Huber.

Rob Weaver, Ann Arbor: The Kind Worth Killing, Peter Swanson; The Redbreast, Jo Nesbo; The Obsidian Chamber, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child; The Drifter, Nicholas Petrie; Mississippi Blood, Greg Iles; Iron Horse, John Hart; The Wrong Side of Goodbye, Michael Connelly; The Lost City of the Monkey God, Douglas Preston; The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne and A Legacy of Spies, John LeCarre.

Emily Milner, Ann Arbor: The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne,

Tori Booker, Ann Arbor: Missing, Presumed, Susie Steiner; The Drifter, Nicholas Petrie; The Girl Before, JP Delaney; Behind Her Eyes, Sarah Pinborough and Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie.

Mimi Cunningham, East Lansing: Rhys Bowen, “just fun to read”; Patricia Wentworth, Harlan Coben.

Lizzie Solway, Cincinnati: “Always Kent (Krueger)’s are at the top of my list. And his newest (Sulfur Springs) is no exception.”

Sue Trowbridge, California: The Long Firm, Jake Arnott; The Widow, Fiona Barton; Rubbernecker, Belinda Bauer; The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne; The Night Bird, Brian Freeman; The Dry, Jane Harper; Before the Fall, Noah Hawley; Celine, Peter Heller; Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz; The Secrets She Keeps, Michael Robotham.

Vicki Kondelik, Ann Arbor: Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, Alan Bradley; Buried in the Country, Carola Dunn; The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, Leonard Goldberg; The Flood, David Hewson; This Side of Murder, Anna Lee Huber; The Paris Spy, Susan Elia MacNeal; Devil’s Breath, G.M. Malliet; Glass Houses, Louise Penny; Forgotten City, Carrie Smith and Murder on Morningside Heights, Victoria Thompson.

Andrew Gross: The Saboteur

While not as emotionally engrossing a novel as last year’s The One Man, and not even really a crime novel, this story really can’t be beat. As most of it is true, unbelievably enough, what Gross has done is to tell the story of some incredible WWII heroes while giving it an emotional center in his main character, Kurt Nordstrum, apparently based on the actual historical figure of Kurt Haukelid. Gross adds some romantic and personal elements to give depth to the character, and the story turns on his actions, but this story is so rocket powered it’s hard to stop reading, and just as hard to believe it’s true.

Set in 1943 Norway, a country occupied by the Nazis and helped by Norwegians known as Quislings (still a term for a traitor), all Kurt has to do to prove his bona fides to the like minded is to say he’s fighting for the King. When he’s asked to get a certain microfilm to the proper channels in the UK, he figures the only way to do it is to actually go to the UK (a near impossibility in wartime), so he and his friends hijack a Swedish freighter and force it across the ocean. That is unbelievable yet true incident #1 (look up the Galtesund). This spawns the central portion of the book, as the evidence smuggled across proves the Germans have an almost impregnable facility in Norway producing enough heavy water to make an atomic bomb.

Kurt and a team train for months to be airdropped into the Norwegian countryside, tasked with destroying the heavy water tanks. This mission, and their training, described in detail, form the central portion of the book. Gross has fictionalized it but again, this is an incredible slice of history, and if you aren’t rooting for this little band of brothers and maybe wiping a tear from your eye, there’s something the matter. Read the afterword as there are even certain small details that are true.

The last section concerns the bombing of a ferry carrying the store of heavy water to Germany. If you aren’t familiar with the history – I wasn’t – I won’t ruin it for you. Settle in and be amazed. Gross is also excellent in portraying the heartbreaking costs of war as well as the sheer heroism of the far from ordinary patriots fighting it. Seems like a lesson to savor for us all.

Carrie Smith: Unholy City

With her clear prose and careful gaze, Carrie Smith has quickly become one of my favorite authors. British or American, I love a police procedural, and some of my favorite authors of all time include Lillian O’Donnell, Leslie Glass, Barbara D’Amato, Lynn Hightower and Lee Martin, all authors of the American police procedural. These writers feature a female cop as the central protagonist and from O’Donnell on forward, all have encountered, in their different ways, varieties of sexism and discrimination. Unfortunately, the history line beginning with O’Donnell’s The Phone Calls in 1972 to Carrie Smith’s 2017 Unholy City hasn’t changed all that radically.

Claire Codella, Smith’s main character, is a cancer survivor who is given crap assignments by her boss through a combination of jealousy (she made a name for herself with her first big case) and a tendency to think she’s too “weak” to do her job, thanks to her illness. While the details of Codella’s work environment and relationships give the books a welcome heft, they are not the main attraction. As with all the other writers mentioned, the story is the thing, and Smith is a top-notch storyteller.

With each novel she’s taken a look inside different pockets of Manhattan – schools, the theater, ritzy old age homes – in this novel she tackles the church, in the form of a venerable old Episcopalian outpost, St. Paul’s, complete with its own crematorium, graveyard and back garden. Into every garden, unfortunately, a little rain must fall and in this novel it takes the form of the corpse of one of the parishioners. The body of one of the more outspoken vestry members is found by another parishioner after a vestry meeting, and all hell breaks loose, in the most Episcopalian sense of the word.

Good Episcopalians all, the members of the vestry and even the rector herself are hiding or holding things inside, which unfortunately, results in a spate of deaths. Because of the set-up Smith has created more or less a locked room murder, as the only people who could have done it were all at the vestry meeting or connected to the church in some way. A group of homeless men sleeping at the church for the night are quickly ruled out, and it’s up to Codella and her boyfriend Heggerty (the lead on the case) to sort things out. Smith is a brisk and clear storyteller but she also has a good grasp of character and a deft hand at portraying it. This is a very enjoyable read, both as a police novel and as a detective novel. I continue to look forward to whatever Smith comes up with next.

Jane A. Adams: The Murder Book

This book hits the ground running and invites you, as a reader, to keep up, plunge in, and take off along with it. Set in the British countryside in 1928, the setting is one I’ve rarely read about, and the characters, gypsies and the hard-working poor, ones rarely focused on. There are two threads to the story, and it took me awhile to figure out where the author was heading and what she had in mind.

The book opens with the murder of little Ruby Fields, whose mother is a prostitute. When she hears sounds that don’t seem right she breaks into her mother’s room and is killed as more or less collateral damage. Ruby’s mother is killed too, as is a third man whose identity is not disclosed until about halfway through the book. The local police, sure there’s a mess afoot as some of Mrs. Fields’ customers were of the propertied class, call in the “murder detectives” from Scotland Yard.

The two Scotland Yard men, Henry Johnstone and his assistant Mickey, arrive and take control of the investigation, starting with the bodies, who have been found in a shallow grave in the back yard of the building where Ruby and her mother lived. As I read, I kept forgetting it was set in 1928 – it seems at times to have been set in 1828 – but then the detectives gather evidence like hairs, bloodstains, and fingerprints, and pass a woman in a cloche hat on the street, and I remembered.

The other thread concerns the community of gypsies, specifically Ethan, Helen and Frank. Frank and Helen have long been promised to one another by their families; but love finds Ethan and Helen and as the two men work on the same farm, and the community is tiny, feelings run high. When a tragedy occurs on the farm the murder detectives are called in to that case as well, though the farmer and landowner doesn’t exactly hold with out-of-towners stepping in to resolve matters best handled by themselves.

There are two halves of the book. The first part mostly concerns the investigation into Ruby’s and her mother’s deaths, and this half showcases the careful and intelligent detective work of Henry and Mickey. Henry seems careful, methodical, and responsible. When they are working, Mickey has to remind Henry to eat, and that serves to make him more human. Throughout, we get a look at Henry’s own “murder book,” notes he keeps during each case. They help the reader to know how his mind works.

The second half of the novel, concerning the crime at the farm and detailing the lives of the incredibly hard working poor who made things work, showcases Henry as arrogant, thorough, and only out for a solution, little caring about the people involved. He gets his man in the case of Ruby and her mother; the ending of the other thread, while in no way ambiguous, is incredibly heartbreaking.

The uncomfortable meeting of the present and the ways of the past – in place for generations – is beautifully described toward the end of the novel: “He was an outsider here in an even deeper sense that in the market town. He had come to realize that Elijah Hanson had called him in only for the look of things… had there been a way of taking care of this business themselves, the community would have done so. He found it unsettling – not their suspicion, which was really commonplace enough – but the sense that he was not really needed, that his version of the law was a mere veneer. Civilization applied as a thin whitewash to the village walls.”

That’s the essence of this book. The law, in the form of London murder detectives, had come to the countryside, but the country dwellers are resisting change and the ways of the past have such a strong pull. I’ve seldom read a novel that was more unsentimentally heartbreaking, and the illumination of the British countryside in 1928 was totally fascinating. This is a lovely little murder book.

Peter Robinson: Sleeping in the Ground

It’s been awhile since I checked in with Inspector Banks, but he’s still the mellow, food, wine and music loving guy he’s always been, if a bit more consumed by melancholy and examining the past. As the book opens he’s just attended the funeral of a long-ago girlfriend, and he’s called in when a sniper shoots up a wedding party, killing the bridal couple and several others. The shooting is realistic enough and ripped from the headlines enough to be disturbing, though the British cops in this book mention that shootings of this type are practically an American epidemic.

While this isn’t a book about gun laws or gun control (that would be an earlier novel, Bad Boy), reading between the lines doesn’t take much. The shooting is horrific enough and speaks for itself.

The crime itself is spectacular, and early on, Banks and crew appear to find their man, an apparent suicide. To Banks, though, something seems like it’s not quite right and he’s sure the man had at the very least an accomplice. As he goes delving into the past lives of the wedding party looking for clues, he’s also looking at his own past life and meeting a new possible love interest, Jenny Fuller, back from the past. Longtime readers of this series will certainly remember this attractive profiler who left early on. Her return (for me) is a welcome one, and it seems it is for Banks as well.

These novels are the very definition of British Police procedural, and if that’s your taste (it happens to be mine) there really can never be enough Inspector Banks novels to suit me. The police work winds its way to a conclusion with a pleasantly surprising windup. While the story is pleasantly surprising, the aftermath for the characters in the drama is not, and Robinson leaves you thinking, as he does in all his novels, about the aftermath of crime. As I feel aftermath is the main topic of the modern detective novel, these books couldn’t be more on point. This is a series and a detective not to be missed.

Author Interview: Maureen Jennings

Maureen JenningsMaureen Jennings is very well known as the creator of Inspector Murdoch, with the popular television series spreading Murdoch and Victorian Toronto far and wide. But of course, before the Murdoch television show, there were the books, which are remarkable. Jennings is great at creating a setting and an atmosphere – Victorian Toronto is brought to life in her words as well as in any television depiction. Her depth of characterization, her lovely prose, and her attention to what was happening in the world at the time she’s writing about all make this series a standout. She returns Murdoch to the printed page after a ten year hiatus with Let Darkness Bury the Dead.

Q: You’ve been away from Murdoch for 10 years.  Why have you come back to him?

A: I think he started nagging me—they have a way of doing that, these characters. Just seemed like a good time to pick up on that world.

Q: At this point, how much research is needed as you write about turn of the century Toronto?  Do you kind of have a reference library in your head?

A: This new book is set in 1917 and I had to do the usual… newspapers, street directories, primary source material. I love that aspect of writing.

Q: All the Murdoch books (and all your books, really) have a hook that’s related to a social issue – abortion, child pornography, slavery, the poor and mentally ill, to name a few.  I was part of a discussion recently where someone pointed out that there used to be “social novels,” by Upton Sinclair, for example, or going further back, Elizabeth Gaskell and even Dickens – do you think mysteries are the new version of the social novel?  And if yes, is that important to you?

A: VERY important. I loved the (Per) Wahlöö books and I know they set out to deal with Swedish social issues in the mystery genre. In this book, I wanted to write about WWI hopefully in a fresh way. How did people at home cope? What were they thinking? What were some of the worst things about the war that might not be so well known.

Q: What’s your “way in” as you start to write an historical novel?  How do you re-create a past world so convincingly?  Your novels all make it seem to real – you can practically smell what Murdoch is smelling.

A: I start reading primary sources and cast a wide net, noting down any particular things that grab me. For instance, I have a book published by the Canadian Bank of Commerce which is a record of letters from their employees who were overseas. (They paid the wages of the young men who signed up.) I have replicas of tracts handed to the young officers about how to lead their troops. Utterly fascinating. I still walk the streets to get a feeling of the time even though much has gone, I can still commune with those folks.

Q: You’ve put poor Murdoch through a lot – he fled an abusive parent, when we meet him he’s grieving his fiancée, and in this new book, he’s lost his wife and daughter and is attempting to make up with his son, who was gassed in WWI.  I guess what I’m asking is, did you have an arc in mind for Murdoch as you were writing, or did it develop?  Did you mean to make him suffer so?  He’s such a nice guy!

A: I think it developed. Unfortunately, it’s a little inconvenient to deal with a wife, not to mention children and a dog, i.e. when does he go home? So he’s back to being single again. As for suffering I think I must have a melancholic streak that I’ve passed onto him. Hopefully it makes Murdoch seem more vulnerable than a tough guy although I think for decades now, writers have moved away from that model…if it even existed.

Q: In this new book there’s obviously been a time lapse between the last one (Journeyman to Grief) and this one, and you’ve brought Murdoch up to WWI.  What made you want to write about WWI?  You could have kept him back in 1910 or so in that little golden bubble before the war.

A: I’ve been fascinated with WWI forever. As I said above I wanted to try to show something about it that was fresh, perhaps not as well known i.e. the presence of dogs and cats on the front line; the use of sports and competitions to keep the soldiers entertained even within earshot of the guns.

Q: Many of your recent books are set during wars – the Tom Tyler series, which I love, are British home front WWII novels – is writing a book set during wartime more or less challenging?  Does it someone ramp up interest and tension more than a peacetime story might?

A: For a long time I resisted both reading and writing books set during wartime… homicide seemed so incidental to the massacres happening daily on the front. Now with more time elapsed I think I (we) can set books during that time. The war hovers there but there are still crimes to deal with, some of them serious.

Q: Now that you have had such a long writing career, what are you hoping to still attempt with your mysteries?  What writing frontiers are you still hoping to explore?

A: I am excited by beginning work on a new book set in 1936. I want to capture Murdoch’s world. Same city, some of the same people show up. As I delve more into that period I’m finding it so fascinating. Such a dark dark time actually. Talk about social issues to bring in—depression time, injustice… Hitler just starting his rise to power. Also my protagonist is a female P.I. and I can use the first person narrative, which is loads of fun.

Q: Can you name a book that was transformational for you – one that set you on the path to being a reader and/or a writer?

A: So many. I can hardly remember when I first started to read. They all affected me. Black Beauty. Little Women, all of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Dickens. I wanted to be a citizen of that magic world.

Q: Finally, what’s next for you?

A: The Tom Tyler books have been optioned for TV and I would love to see that happen. I have strong opinions about how I’d like to see it. The new book I mentioned in question 8 is most exciting. It’s called The Paradise Cafe. I suppose I’m always excited to start a new book but I seem to be particularly loving this one. I get to be a bit funnier than usual.

Thank you, Maureen!

Victoria Thompson: Murder on Morningside Heights

It’s been awhile since I checked in with Thompson’s midwife character, Sarah, and I was a bit surprised to find her married, wealthy, and an unwilling lady of leisure. Like her sister character Molly Murphy, the leisured life is not going to suit her for too long, and she’s in on Frank Malloy’s first case as a private detective. This series is set in turn of the century New York. Malloy had been a policeman; at the time, the police were far more likely to investigate a case involving a reward. Malloy, knowing the ins and outs of the police department, is almost a step ahead as he works on his own.

As the book opens, he meets the grieving parents of a young woman killed at the Normal College in Manhattan, where she had been a teacher. There is no apparent motive for the crime – the young woman had been stabbed to death in a gazebo on the peaceful campus – and everyone is agreed that the dead Abigail was exceptional in every way. Undeterred, Malloy heads to the school determined to interview Abigail’s students, colleagues and the two lady professors she shared a house with. Helping him to unwind things is Sarah, who some of the ladies are more willing to talk to than they are to the gruff Malloy. The two ladies Abigail had lived with – Miss Winters and Miss Billingsly – seem to be divided on their view of Abigail: one liked her (Miss Winters) and one disliked her (Miss Billingsly). Helping to clarify matters is the maid Bathsheba, successfully approached by Malloy on a wash day.

One of the things highlighted by a novel set in the past is the different way people were treated at different times – at the time, it was puzzling to many of Abigail’s friends that she preferred to work and study rather than marry (married teachers could not get jobs).

It was also considered odd and slightly scandalous for single women to room together. The attitude toward pay is also different: women were paid far less than men because it was felt they did not need to support a family (sadly, still an attitude in The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 70’s). Somehow Thompson never makes the discovery and description of these differences tedious, she instead makes them interesting.

Thompson is a vivid and brisk storyteller; I had forgotten how quickly I breezed through her books and found reading this one to be every bit as satisfying as the first several I devoured. I did miss Sarah’s job as a midwife, but it looks like that skill may be making a return. The mystery part is tricky and I didn’t figure out the motive – there’s a giant red herring used to great effect. Thompson remains one of the more enjoyable reads in mystery fiction.

E.J. Copperman: Dog Dish of Doom

E.J. Copperman – I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again – is one of the best cozy writers working at the moment. This is the introduction of yet another series from this talented writer, this one about an “Agent to the Paws,” i.e. a showbiz agent who works with animals. Kay Powell lives in New Jersey, sometimes with her aging vaudevillian parents (who are, happily for this reader, en residence in this novel). As the book opens she’s trying to snare a gig for agreeable shaggy dog Bruno to play Sandy in an Annie revival on Broadway. She thinks the audition might be a disaster, thanks to loud remarks made by Bruno’s owner about the ineptness of the director casting the part.

So there’s a good and bad outcome: Bruno gets the part, but unfortunately, his owner is not so lucky. He’s found dead with his face planted in Bruno’s water bowl the day after the audition. Kay makes no pretense to being a detective but she is naturally nosy and loves to gossip, and she’s smitten with Bruno, who, she feels, is not being properly looked after by his owner’s grieving widow. Asked by the police to use her showbiz “in” and report back to her, Kay reluctantly goes undercover.

Thanks to a series of miscommunications, Kay ends up with Bruno sharing her home and taking him to auditions, with his loopy remaining owner alternatively insisting Kay has kidnapped him and agreeing that she can take care of him for the moment. Copperman is expert at creating an entire universe – here, the one of backstage showbiz, infighting, and happy dog ownership. Kay’s parents are really icing on the cupcake – their gigs on cruise ships are starting to dry up and they’re trying to figure out what’s next for them while also being very inappropriately involved in Kay’s life. They’re pretty hilarious and also seem pretty realistically parental.

I think Copperman’s special talent is balancing this kind of normal life with a look at a more specialized environment (here it’s working animals). While there’s a fair amount of caper-ish goings on and of course the death that launches the story, none of it is too upsetting and Bruno is such a sweetie you’ll want to find out his ultimate fate. Great first in a series, and I’m looking forward to more.

Barbara Fradkin: The Trickster’s Lullaby

This is a terrifically exciting novel by the always interesting Barbara Fradkin. The second in a series featuring traumatized international aid worker Amanda Doucette, the book opens as Amanda is planning a trek into the Canadian wilderness in the dead of winter, taking along “marginalized” students struggling to acclimate to Canadian culture after fleeing violent situations in their homelands. While the requirement is not that the students be foreign, merely struggling, most of them are from other countries with many Muslims being represented. Amanda’s idea is to build bridges one at a time while sharing a common experience.

As the book opens, she’s unexpectedly cornered by the mother of a student who had applied but was rejected by Amanda’s “gatekeeper” – and Amanda is so moved by the mother’s story about a boy both struggling with addiction and struggling to recover (bringing this to five mystery novels I’ve read so far this year concerning drug abuse), that she goes to her gatekeeper to make his case. Despite being told that he’s trouble, Amanda is willing to give the boy a chance and the group sets off into the wilderness.

She’s delighted to find that the boy, Luc, is a good sport, willing to help out with chores as they make camp. All this changes when Luc disappears a couple days into the trip and Amanda and the guides are afraid of where he’s gone and what might have happened to him. This is like getting two novels in one: the first section is a bravura Nevada Barr style slice of nature writing (and no matter how beautiful the writing, a winter camping trip sounds pretty uncomfortable) and the second, a look at what makes a comfortable Canadian born citizen turn to outside influences for validation. In this case, ISIS.

Fradkin is a great pure mystery writer so she proceeds to set up a pretty complicated scenario, and then brings to it the element of the suspenseful chase. Amanda and her dog Kaylee make good tent poles for this active, involving story, and I was hard pressed to stop reading as I got toward the end. When asked her favorite thing about this book, author Fradkin said “the ending”, and it is a dandy. The sting is in the tail, as they say, and this novel has a terrific beginning, middle and end.

Tasha Alexander: Death in St. Petersburg

I love Tasha Alexander – her books are all so delicious in every way, but this one may be my absolute favorite. Lady Emily accompanies her husband (who is on an espionage mission) to Russia, where she is just supposed to be enjoying herself and having a little vacation. Ha! The book opens with a dead ballerina in the snow. Lady Emily is present at the discovery of the body, and of course, she’s drawn into the investigation.

I’ll say up front I’m a freak for Nicholas and Alexandra, ballet, Swan Lake and Faberge eggs – all converge in chapter one and I couldn’t have been more happily sucked in to this story. It follows the rise of the dead dancer, Nemesteva, and her best friend, Katenka, as they begin ballet school at the Imperial Theatre school as young girls.

For Nemesteva everything comes more easily; for shy Katenka – a technical expert who has a hard time expressing her emotion on the stage – not so much, but the two girls are the stars of their group. Threaded into the story (at a far remove) are real life figures like Carl Faberge and choreographers Petipa and Ceccheti. They make the whole more believable in a way they would not have if they had been up front, involved in the plot, characters.

Emily is asked to look into the dancer’s death by a clearly grieving Prince who was obviously having an affair with Nemesteva and wants her killer avenged. Emily agrees somewhat reluctantly – she has few Russian contacts – but in her typical fashion she tracks down Nemesteva’s friends and colleagues and begins to piece her life together.

The two strands of the story draw slowly together – the story of the ballerinas begins slightly in the past (the main story is happening in 1900) and as they converge and the strands of the mystery become clearer, the suspense amps up as well.

Complicating matters is a “ghost ballerina” who appears in different locations and then instantly disappears, causing everyone in St. Petersburg to assume that it’s Nemesteva’s ghost, seeking revenge. I mean, swoon! A ghost ballerina! I could not have loved this book more and was so sorry when I finished it. Lady Emily of course saves the day in her inimitable way, and I am already eagerly anticipating her next adventure.