Archive for Reviews

Laura Lippman: Sunburn

SunburnLaura Lippman’s ode to James M. Cain is masterful. As I began reading it, I thought it was going to be based on The Postman Always Rings Twice, and it is, but it’s also based on Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. Cain’s ingenious, scathing stories were pure story, punctuated with the inappropriate yet raging desires on the part of the female characters, whether it was Cora, Mildred or Phyllis, and the somewhat clueless collusion on the part of the males in their orbit. All of Cain’s females have a burning idea of how to proceed. So does Lippman’s Polly – an understatement. She’s also expert at waiting for results.

The book opens with Polly walking out on her husband and daughter and vanishing into the little town of Belleville, Deleware, where she becomes (of course) a waitress. All her careful plans go to hell when P.I. (though she thinks he’s a guy whose truck has broken down) Adam walks into the bar. While Adam is scoping out Polly, the careful Polly is scoping him out as well. A classic triangle emerges: the other waitress, Cath, has a thing for Adam too. While Cath is wily in a somewhat feral way, she’s no match for Polly, who emerges triumphant with Adam.

The first part of the book is the slow burn between Polly and Adam and their eventual raging desire for each other. Before he knows what’s happening, Adam is existing on Polly’s terms rather than the other way around. And up to this point, even with the whole prologue of Polly leaving her family, the book wasn’t grabbing me. It was well done, as Lippman’s novels always are, but it wasn’t until she jumped in with an old story of insurance scams involving Polly’s violent first husband that I was really hooked.

The other thing, of course, that makes this novel so contemporary (even though it’s set in the mid-90’s) is Polly’s awareness of how she’s treated or perceived as a woman. When she leaves her family, she thinks to herself that a man would not be so censured. He would be cut a break. She only ends up in Belleville because the old man who gave her a lift tries to put his hand up her skirt, and she demands to be let out of the car. She’s a good waitress but she doesn’t let herself really relax around her customers; she holds herself back a bit. Human interaction is a bit like a science experiment to her.

As Lippman proceeds to pull back the layers of Polly’s back story – her two husbands, her own violent past – Polly begins to come more and more into focus. Adam loves her but doesn’t trust her. At one point, another character, realizing Polly often wears yellow and looks her best in it, also thinks to himself “Still, he has to admit that yellow, the color used for warnings and caution, suits her.” She’s utterly fascinating.

Lippman is also a master, every bit as much as Cain, at plot, though she goes about it differently. The twists, when they come, are well set up but still something of a shock. I guess bad behavior is shocking. If Cain’s novels – short, brutal and honed to a fine point – were about the breathless committing of a crime, the modern crime novel, while also about committing a crime, is very much about the aftermath. Lippman is a master at aftermath.

This languorous novel, spanning Labor Day to Christmas, is in a tight time frame but unfurls like a slow fever dream. While the homage to Cain is ever present, Polly is all Lippman’s own creation. The complex plot is lightly told and clearly laid out, but chilling all the same. This story will definitely stay with you for quite awhile after you finish it.

Catriona McPherson: Scot Free

Scot FreeThis light, funny, delightful novel from Catriona McPherson introduces readers to native Scot Lexy Campbell. She’d fallen for a hunky American and ended up moving to California where they married and lived in what she describes as a “beige barn,” the type of house familiar to many Americans as a McMansion. Objections to her husband’s lifestyle choices aside, he’s also a cheater, and Lexy walks out on him on the 4th of July, moving in to the Last Ditch Motel. She’s sure this is temporary.

Lexy’s job has been to work as a marriage counselor, and on this same ill fated evening, one half of her only client couple, Clovis Bombaro, is killed by an (apparently intentional) exploding firework. Clovis’s wife, Vi, has been arrested for the crime but Lexy is sure she’s innocent and heads to the courthouse to help Vi post bail. There are plenty of people sympathetic to the plight of long time resident and business owner Mrs. Bombaro, and she is allowed to head home, Lexy at her side.

McPherson then manages to introduce a swath of totally fascinating supporting characters – many of whom live at the Last Ditch. Most memorable is the germ-obsessed Todd, who takes over Lexy’s clothing and underwear choices and redecorates her ratty motel room. At the same time, McPherson is also gently skewering American culture and shining a light on the chasm between the haves and have-nots. Oh, and I forgot to mention – Lexy is deathly afraid of fireworks, so when she’s asked by Mrs. B. to tour the fireworks factory with her she has many, many reservations.

There’s a death in this novel for sure, but it happens off canvas and as readers we don’t really know Clovis, so it’s not a tragedy. Lexy and her self-appointed helper Todd begin to unravel the strands of Clovis’ murder, but there are plenty of twists and surprises thrown in before they get to a solution.

The humor and satire in this book is never forced, it’s completely natural, which makes it all the more hilarious. I found myself snickering and outright laughing as I read (embarrassing in the store) and I can’t recommend this highly enough. A perfect smart escape read that made this reader very ready for another installment.

Mariah Fredericks: A Death of No Importance

A Death of No ImportanceThis kick ass book features ladies’ maid Jane Prescott, who happens to be working for the newly wealthy and somewhat clueless Benchley family when a murder explodes the family’s world. Jane has more or less taken the Benchley girls under her wing. Their mother is a feckless household manager and the girls, Charlotte, beautiful and headstrong, and Louisa, plain and shy, welcome the kind of insider society knowledge Jane possesses after working for various wealthy families. It’s 1910 and a good marriage for each girl is uppermost in their minds – and in the mind of their mother.

Jane is telling the story, and it’s clear she’s looking back in time as she remembers the incidents that so shaped the lives of the Benchley family. While Jane works for one of the wealthiest families in 1910 New York, she’s also friends with an anarchist named Anna who brings her a different view of the world and when the murder occurs, a different view of the importance of the dead person. Jane balances her loyalty and affection for the family she’s serving while hearing Anna’s voice in her head.

The other family affected owned a mine in Pennsylvania where eight children were left for dead after a collapse. This family has been receiving threatening notes from the anarchists referring to the mine tragedy. In this way, Fredericks almost gently points out the vast divide between the upper classes and everyone else, though her main character is ruled more by her heart than by principles.

Jane, at the request of Mr. Benchley, helps to investigate the murder with the help of a tenacious and bold reporter. They ably follow the threads of the mystery back to the source. Jane and her reporter buddy are tormented by the classic dilemma posed in almost every mystery novel: does a killing come down to the killer’s character or the situation? Or both?

Fredericks, a brisk and lively storyteller, takes the reader on a careening ride through the various echelons of 1910 New York society, helping the reader to be invested in Jane from page one. I found this novel extremely difficult to put down and satisfying after I’d finished reading it. This is a wonderful first foray into historical mystery fiction for Ms. Fredericks. I can’t wait to read more.

Denise Swanson: Tart of Darkness

Tart of DarknessDenise Swanson is a wonderful storyteller and one of the things she’s exceptionally good at is creating a “mean girl” character. Herself a high school social worker for many years, I’m sure Ms. Swanson knows the type, but in this outing, the first in a new series, she creates a doozy.

The set-up: central character Dani Sloan has left her HR job and has unexpectedly inherited a Victorian mansion. The mansion has not been totally rehabbed but it does contain a new chef’s kitchen, and Dani, in the middle of reinventing herself as a personal chef and caterer, takes it as a sign that she’s on the right path. When one of her former neighbors, college student Ivy, gets kicked out of her former apartment building, Dani takes Ivy and her friends in as boarders. A perfect setting for a new series.

Dani, while older than the girls and serving as more or less a de facto housemother, gets drawn into their drama. When Ivy begs her to cater a party for the super popular Regina, Dani reluctantly agrees. Regina, the mean girl of the title, is so nasty it really takes the entire book to reveal all of her misdeeds, but since she’s so outstandingly nasty it’s a pretty safe bet that her time on planet earth is limited. Indeed it is, and Dani and Ivy are immediately cast as suspects.

Making things more uncomfortable: a vengeful, spiteful detective in charge of the case. Making things more comfortable: Ivy’s hunky uncle Spencer who swoops in to help out. Dani and Spencer obviously have feelings for one another but Swanson is far too canny a writer to let things take their natural course in a first book.

One of the best definitions of a cozy I’ve ever heard comes from cozy writer Vicki Delaney: “The characters live in a very pleasant world and their goal in solving the crime is to return their community to its pleasant state.” Swanson has created here an extremely pleasant world. The reader desperately wants Dani to get back to her “normal” life. Solving the murder helps to accomplish that, but there’s obviously room left for this vivid and funny new series to continue to grow and flourish.

Nancy Herriman: Searcher of the Dead

Searcher of the Dead by Nancy HarrimanAs Nancy Herriman proved with her books set in 1860’s San Francisco, she is an able and entertaining storyteller, no matter what the era. She’s changed her setting to Elizabethan England, and given readers Bess Ellyott, a widowed herbalist living with her brother. She’s fled London after the suspicious death of her husband and finds herself attempting to comfort her distraught sister, who insists her husband is missing.

As Bess and her brother try to calm their sister Dorothie, they must wait to look for him, as there’s not only a curfew in place, it’s very foggy. When morning comes and her brother-in-law is nowhere to be found, her brother Robert, Dorothie and Bess all set out to search and unfortunately find the man hanging from a tree. A ruling of suicide was devastating; not only could the body not be buried in a church graveyard, all the property of the dead person was confiscated by the crown, and as suicide (or felo-de-se) is in fact the verdict of the coroner, Dorothie sets down to a glum watch as her household is dismantled.

Like any detective worth her salt, however, Bess is not only certain she saw something proving murder on the dead man’s neck, she’s willing to break curfew and dig him up to prove her point. She’s helped out by the local constable (who seems to be sweet on her) and together they set out to prove that the death was murder, not suicide. She’s undertaking all of her investigations while her brother is out of town, and she’s in charge of the household.

Suspicion seems to fall on a local Catholic family, especially as there seems to be some kind of mysterious Jesuit lurking in their woods, and when Bess is called to attend to an injury suffered by one of their servants, she is able to do a little detecting while she’s binding a cut. Her volatile sister is little help, and her niece, infatuated with the scion of the Catholic house, is torn, but Bess and the constable work well together to piece together a solution.

Part of the interest and charm of this novel comes from the time period, and from Herriman’s exploration of customs and mores different from our own. She’s also adept at creating a vivid setting and then in filling that setting with interesting, believable and fleshed-out characters, something that adds depth to any novel, and it certainly does to this one. Moreover she sets a brisk pace for herself with lots of action and twists of the plot. This is an excellent start to a new series.

Laura Joh Rowland: A Mortal Likeness

A Mortal LikenessThe second novel in Laura Joh Rowland’s Sarah Bain series, this one has no need to establish character and setting. It just takes off. Sarah, a photographer, is now working with her friend Lord Hugh as a private detective with a minimal amount of success so far. As the book opens, the two are on the trail of an adulterer, who they follow to the Crystal Palace in hopes of catching and photographing him in a compromising situation. This part of their scheme goes well, and the two take off when the man spots them and chases them off.

When Sarah goes home to develop the photographs, they have clear evidence of wrongdoing for the man’s wife to take to court, but Sarah notices a man in the background who appears to be her long-lost father. She can’t help but return to the Crystal Palace the next day to look for him, but when she gets there she finds the couple has not only been murdered, but they seem to be somehow tied to the kidnapping of baby Robin Mariner, the son of the powerful Sir Gerald Mariner.

Sarah and Hugh decide to take their information to Sir Gerald rather than the police (a sticky wicket, as Sarah’s beau is a policeman) and Sir Gerald hires them on the spot to come to his home and see if they can solve the crime. He suspects a family member, not an outsider, despite the evidence of a ladder outside the nursery window the night of the disappearance.

The two are also required to sign a confidentiality agreement, so Sarah leaves for Sir Gerald’s without telling her policeman boyfriend where she’s headed. She just tells him she’s “visiting a friend.” They also leave in the lurch young Mick, a homeless boy who has recently moved in with them. They give Hugh’s valet with instructions only that Mick should continue to attend school.

To say Sir Gerald’s household is dysfunctional is an understatement, as it’s filled with resentful adult children from other marriages as well as his new young wife (mother of Robin) and her sister, Tabitha, as well as a psychic Lady Alexandra keeps around to help her communicate with Robin. Sarah and Hugh are resented by Sir Gerald’s butler who is loath to give them any inside track on the inner workings of the household.

As they begin their investigation they are hampered in their efforts by a serious fire in their rooms and the death of a member of the household. Rowland is adept at creating a setting, and she’s created some very sturdy and interesting characters to center her series on. Mick of course shows up halfway through the proceedings.

The family dynamics of this story make this very much a psychological mystery, and the resolution is both surprising and creepy. Rowland also left a nice fat juicy thread to pursue in the next book – Sarah still has not found her missing father. There is plenty to discover and relish in this very enjoyable book.

Deanna Raybourn: A Treacherous Curse

The third novel in Deanna Raybourn’s delightful Veronica Speedwell series finds Veronica busily at work with her buddy, Stoker, sorting donated artifacts for a proposed new museum sponsored by their patron Lord Rosmorran. They live on his estate and Veronica is also able to pursue her own passion, butterflies. Set in 1888 London, the whole country is in the grip of Egyptology, as fabulous artifacts and tombs were frequently being unearthed by wealthy British who brought them back to England for display and sale.

Veronica and Stoker are not immune to an interest in Egyptology, and when Stoker’s former wife appears to be at the center of a controversy with a missing husband as well as the missing diadem of an Egyptian princess, Veronica is keen to solve the puzzle and save Stoker’s reputation, which has only recently recovered from a beating. Their queries take them first to the leader of the expedition, Sir Leicester Tiverton and his family – his second wife, his difficult adolescent daughter, Figgy, and a family hanger on, Patrick Fairbrother, an assistant to Sir Leicester in their expedition.

The luckiness of Sir Leicester’s find – an Egyptian princess in a sarcophagus – is his crowning achievement; the missing diadem, a sour note. Also a sour note is an apparent curse – the god Anubis “appeared” on the dig, driving out the workers, and “causing” the death of one of the expedition’s members as well as the disappearance of another. only giving grist to the curse. As Veronica and Stoker pursue their enquiries and “Anubis” continues to appear, the curse appears to have followed the Tivertons to London as they prepare for an exhibit of their excavations.

Raybourn is a pro, and she populates her novel with an array of delightful, memorable characters and she’s aces at putting together a good plot. One of the stand out parts of the book is Veronica herself, an intrepid adventuress who lives outside the bounds of Victorian convention.

While presently this seems to be the year of the empowered woman, mystery novels have offered the empowered woman a home from the start – beginning with Christie’s Miss Marple through Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone to Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan. The thread in historical mysteries is especially strong. Characters like Amelia Peabody, Hester Monk, Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily, Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy – these are all intelligent and fearless women. They may often have male companions but they are perfectly well able to get the job done themselves. Veronica Speedwell fits in nicely with this company.

Along with Veronica herself, the book is a total blast. The story is nimble and interesting and full of adventure – a fire! A balloon! a trek through a sewer! – and through it all Veronica and Stoker live to investigate another day. I enjoyed the denouement and was sorry to close the cover, and really, what more can you ask for in a good read? I await more adventures with great anticipation.

Ragnar Jonasson: Nightblind

The follow up to the excellent Snowblind, Nightblind finds Jonasson’s main character, detective Ari Thor, married with a one year old son and in line, after five years, to the top spot at the police department. Set in the Icelandic town of Siglufjorour, a former herring capital, the town is enduring leaner times and is in general quiet. Just like St. Mary Meade (or Cabot Cove)… the comparison is apt, because while these novels are set in Iceland, the structure is that of the classic detective novel, and Jonasson, the translator of 17 Christie books into Icelandic, has obviously been greatly influenced by the Queen of Crime.

Snowblind was almost a locked room mystery as the tiny town was cut off completely from the rest of the world by an endless blizzard; in this novel, it’s the darkness that’s emphasized as, with the winter solstice, Iceland endures weeks with daylight lasting only from around 11 a.m. to 3 or 4 p.m. The darkness preys on the characters in different ways, but ultimately, it’s the darkness of the soul that Jonasson is more concerned with.

As the book opens, Ari Thor’s superior officer, Herjolur, has been shot for no apparent reason outside of a house where drug deals are known to happen. With Herjolur out of the picture, Ari Thor’s old superior officer, Tomas, comes back to town to help with the investigation. The two have a comfortable working relationship and set to work interviewing Herjolur’s family and various other town denizens, one of them a cousin of Tomas’, long drug involved, who helps point them in the right direction.

Ari Thor’s marriage to Kristin is uncomfortable and with a one year old at home, both of them working full time, exhaustion and time never seem to come together to allow the two to discuss their problems. Ari Thor senses something is amiss (and indeed Kristin is pondering an affair with a fellow doctor) but he’s not sure quite what it is. This general sense of unease and malaise (he’s recovering from the flu) pervades the novel. Ari Thor’s complicated family situation is just a part of the picture.

As the investigation tightens, taking the two detectives in surprising directions, the author also laces through the story excerpts from a journal written by an inmate at a mental hospital. It’s unclear who this person is, but Jonasson is a skillful writer who tends neatly to all of his story threads. This book is as delightful as the first, with its tight plotting, memorable setting and characters, and heartbreaking moments. Jonasson is truly a new writer to treasure.

Emily Littlejohn: A Season to Lie

I read many, many, mysteries, in the neighborhood of two a week, enjoying many of them and loving fewer. When I pick up a novel like this one by Emily Littlejohn, I am forcibly and joyfully reminded of the reasons I love this genre so much. This is simply a wonderful mystery, and even better, it reminded me of another series by another favorite writer of mine, Julia Spencer-Fleming.

Littlejohn’s novel is set in a little Colorado town—one that’s on the “B” ski resort list (unlike the “A” list Vail or Aspen), and happy with that status. The setting, as in Spencer-Fleming’s novels set in upstate New York, is practically a character, as Detective Gemma Monroe drives along the treacherous mountain roads, hemmed in by trees and snow.

Gemma is just back from maternity leave when she and her partner (she’s on the graveyard shift) get called out to the local private school on a suspicious prowler call. The Valley Academy, remote and gated, requires the two cops to split up in a raging blizzard and look for anything out of place on the quiet campus. They find something: a dead man, stabbed in the gut, out in a blizzard with no coat. He turns out to be a famous author who has been teaching a few classes at the academy incognito.

Preserving the crime scene as much as possible in a blizzard, the two find a note stuffed in the dead man’s mouth: “This is only the beginning.” They think they may be looking for a serial killer. As they begin to unravel the man’s life, they get drawn into the culture of the school where other things seem to be happening, one of them a form of bullying so cruel and so sneaky that the kids affected are completely traumatized by it.

The underlying theme seems to be fairy tales—the bully at the school is known as “Grimm” and the cottage where the dead man’s best friend lives seems like a witch’s stone house at the edge of the forest. Gemma even encounters a local construction guy, who may have mob ties, quoting Yeats’ poem The Stolen Child to her while she’s at lunch:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand 

While this all sounds creepily fey, Littlejohn has grounded her clever mystery in the details of ordinary life. While Gemma is delighted to be back at work, she still misses and loves her baby, and her boss has set aside a room for her to pump breast milk. I can’t imagine another genre of writing where such a telling detail of a woman’s life would be included, and that’s just another reason I love mystery novels. They tend to illuminate woman’s lives incredibly well.

Along with fairy tales, Gemma is herself struggling with what it means to be a grown up, embracing what’s beautiful in life along with the other parts of life that aren’t so lovely: distrust, fear, aging relatives, murder. It gives the book a real heft.

With the rich array of believable and interesting, fleshed out characters, a memorable setting, a clever mystery, and an underlying theme that adds a creepy intensity to the whole novel, this book and this new series is a real stand out.

C.M. Gleason: Murder in the Lincoln White House

C.M. Gleason is well known as Colleen Gleason, the writer of the Gardella Vampire Chronicles, as well as some romance and some mystery themed novels featuring vampires. As C.M. Gleason she’s veering into straight up mystery territory, but her long experience as an ink-stained wretch (my term for a professional writer who works all the time) has commented her skills in terms of narrative and character development. While she’s new to the mystery genre, she’s not new to writing, and it certainly shows in this assured first mystery.

She’s also not new to writing historicals as some of her other books have been set during the regency and Victorian periods (among others) so her way of setting the stage is also assured. This novel opens at the inaugural ball of Abraham Lincoln, and Gleason is able to get across the feeling of crowded Washington at the time, full of both southerners and Unionists. The uncertain tenor of the time is illustrated by Lincoln’s having to sneak into town for his inaugural to avoid an assignation plot, and the assassination threats from the start meant he had a Pinkerton agent with him at all times.

While Lincoln is a character in the novel, the main character is Adam Quinn, the nephew of Lincoln’s great friend Joshua Speed, and a boy whom Lincoln has known since babyhood. Because of that comfort level, it’s Adam Lincoln turns to when there’s a murder during the inaugural ball. While Gleason may be new to mysteries she’s certainly adept at setting up a classic situation where all of Adam’s deductive reasoning skills come to the fore as he investigates the crime.

This is certainly a set up for a series as Adam is quickly surrounded with an able cohort – a black Doctor who steps up and does an autopsy; a penniless Irish boy Adam takes under his wing, and who comes in useful as a messenger; and a reporter discovered at the crime scene. The reporter later turns out to be a woman in disguise, and to add to her interest, she lives at the Smithsonian with her uncle, the first Smithsonian “secretary.”

Adam himself has lost an arm in an altercation with pro-slavers back home on the plains, so it’s clear where his sympathies lie. (They are somewhat sorely tested by an attractive Southern belle he meets at the inaugural ball.) One of his most interesting characteristics, though, is his skill as a tracker, learned from a Native American back home. He translates these tracking skills to investigating murder, with great result as he employs his observation of footprints, dirt smudges, and information gleaned from the autopsy of the dead man, a well known Abolitionist. I thought that was a great hook and a believable one. I hope Gleason makes even more use of it in future novels.

This is a well told story, engaging in its setting and characters, and a fun read. I also loved this detail, unknown to me: our great president Lincoln was also the one who began calling the president’s mansion “the White House.” I look forward to more of Adam’s adventures in the lively and unsettled world of 1861 Washington, D.C.