Archive for Reviews

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.

Michael Stanley: Dying to Live

This wonderful series only continues to get better. Weirdly, I also think it may be one of the more realistic police procedural series around, as the careful, detail oriented work carried out by Detective Kubu and his fellow officers seems like what painstaking police work may actually resemble. Detective Kubu is also immensely appealing – his happy family life, his love of food and wine, and his leaps of deduction that come while napping (very Nero Wolfe of him) make him one of my favorite characters in mystery fiction at the moment.

Set in Bostwana, Kubu’s work often involves customs that to Western eyes may seem very strange and the connections between traditional western perception and the African culture is one beautifully bridged by Stan Trollip and Michael Sears, who write together as Michael Stanley. The book opens with the death of a bushman, who, when autopsied, appears to have the organs of a much younger man. The man himself appears from the outside to be quite elderly. He even has white hair, which is apparently unusual for bushmen.

The death of the bushman and the subsequent disappearance of his corpse leads Kubu on a complex investigation that involves the search for plants in the Kalahari that promise a longer life. The trade that goes on for muti, as the potions prescribed by African witch doctors are called, seems to involve secrecy, conspiracy and a good amount of danger. The malls described in the book have storefronts operated by the witch doctors, who have higher up clients that use their services discretely.

While Kubu is himself skeptical, his own wife pleads with him at one point to obtain muti for their adopted daughter who is HIV positive and suffering from possible AIDS symptoms as the story progresses. At one point, Kubu thinks to himself: “Was Mabuku suggesting there might be something in the black magic of these abominable witch doctors? But then he realized Mabuku was thinking about belief. No one knew what people carry in their heads from childhood.” This thought is a guide and compass for Kubu as he negotiates this case which has far reaching tendrils. As always this is a thoughtful, entertaining read that had me thinking long after I finished the book.

David Bell: Bring Her Home

Bring Her HomeIn suspense fiction the setup is crucial, and, as one of its finest practitioners, David Bell knows how to start his tale with a bang big enough to energize the compelling universe that follows. His latest superior work, Bring Her Home, begins with a man rushing into a hospital trying to find his daughter, frantic but at the same time desperately trying to keep himself together in midst of the bureaucratic chaos. While many other suspense writers feature impossibly virtuous supermen or bland mannequins whose features are obscured by a blinding fog of plot, Bell brings a regular but not quotidian protagonist to his tale, a guy thrust into the middle of life and death events way over his head, but who is determined to find justice for those closest to him in the best way he can.

He felt control slipping away as the angry part of him asserted itself, almost like another man who lived inside of him and jumped out in situations like this.

Bell’s central character, Bill Price, had been having a rough time of it even before he hit the hospital. A year and a half ago his wife died in a seemingly random accident, and since then his fifteen-year-old daughter has retreated into the unknown, close-mouthed world of adolescence. When she and best friend Haley disappear and then are found in a city park, one badly beaten and the other dead, he is almost completely consumed by his effort to unravel what happened.

But like so much of modern life, the real question is one of identity, spiraling into smaller and smaller circles—how well do you know your neighbors, your loved ones and ultimately yourself? Are you really aware of who they are, what they do when you’re not with them, what they will they do in the future, and, more, importantly, how you will react when they defy your expectations?

It’s Bell’s sensitivity to character and exploration of the most profound themes of family and personality that give his masterfully intricate plot its heft. It takes real skill to craft the kind of twists and jaw-dropping yet credible turns and reversals that he pulls off, but to make the people propelled through the maelstrom living creations rather than game pieces designed to trick the reader demonstrates a truly rare talent.

Non-series suspense novels are very popular right now, and their advantages are many in that they feature characters that, like most readers, are not at home in the crime-ridden universe they suddenly encounter. Because no character has to survive the book, any one of them can be killed, or indeed, be the killer. It’s not as easy to trick crime fiction aficionados, however, and many of the most popular practitioners resort to highly improbable coincidences, implausible psychology, or even that most overused of devices, the unreliable narrator. But there’s no cheating in David Bell and that’s what makes Bring Her Home and all his other books such satisfyingly compulsive reads. (Jamie)

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.

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.