Archive for American/Cozy

Vicki Delany: Elementary, She Read

This is a charming book, and Vicki Delany is a total pro at telling a story. Brisk, entertaining, and memorable – the whole package. As far as cozies go, she’s top of the line. The set-up is great. Main character Gemma Doyle lives on Cape Cod and owns a Sherlock Holmes themed bookshop and teashop along with her uncle, who is the real Holmes buff but more of a silent partner as he’s off on collecting trips. I’ve read books about bookstores before that I found pretty unrealistic, but Cape Cod is a tourist area and because Gemma’s shop sells more than books, I could believe that she was briskly selling lots of decks of Sherlock playing cards, figurines and other tchotchkes.

As the book opens, the shop is busy with a bridge group on a tour, who swarm the tearoom and the shop. Gemma notices a woman who doesn’t seem to belong come in and then loses sight of her as she waits on customers. The woman disappears but when the crowd clears, Gemma finds a bag with an apparently almost priceless copy of a 19th century magazine with an original Sherlock story in it. She locks it in her safe and from there her troubles begin.

Gemma, who has the deductive reasoning powers of our hero, figures out where the mystery woman must be and tracks her to a local motel, but when she finds her, the woman is dead. Gemma becomes prime suspect #1 and the main investigator is a former boyfriend. Things go from bad to worse as Gemma’s house is trashed, the police continue to show up at her home and business for questioning, and she feels she’s being followed. When her ex is taken off the case and the officer in charge clearly thinks Gemma is the guilty party, Gemma takes things into her own hands.

She repeatedly says to herself that the police have greater resources than she does but she can’t help herself and finds her way nimbly through a thicket of clues. The story, the surrounding characters, and the Cape Cod setting all make this a more than delightful read. It feels like a set up to a nice long-lived series, and I hope it is.

Con Lehane: Murder at the 42nd Street Library

Murder at the 42nd Street LibraryThis is a noir novel coiled inside the confines of a cozy one, as Lehane explicates layers of family ties and splits. He opens the book with a gruesome shooting inside the actual library. Libraries are one of the last remaining sacred spaces in American culture, and it was with a real sense of outrage that I read this passage. Of course, my eagerness to discover whodunnit was all the greater, which is the mark of a clever writer.

Lehane’s main character, Ray Ambler, works at the enormous New York library as the curator of the crime fiction collection. The man who was killed, James Donnelly, was a writer, stopping by the library to talk to Harry, the director of special collections.

The NYPD is already familiar with Ray and willing to let him nose around and ask questions which, in the tried and true manner of amateur detectives, he is able to do thanks to being on the spot and knowing the people involved.

One of the keys to the story is an elderly crime writer named Nelson Yates. The library has just finagled his papers with the help of a generous and anonymous donor, though Ray’s friend Adele, who works in special collections, drops a hint that leads Ray to the correct source. As Ray and Adele’s friendship begins to blossom (though Ray seems a bit clueless in the romance department), he and Adele become interested in Yates’ long lost daughter, Emily.

At around the same time Adele, a newly minted resident of Manhattan, also takes a liking to an obviously neglected eight year old, Johnny, who shines shoes on the street. She starts making a habit of going by his neighborhood to get her shoes shined, and to look out for him as he disappears into a sketchy looking building.

As she reaches out tentative tendrils of friendship to Johnny and to Ray, Ray goes on investigating the murder of James Donnelly and when another shocking murder happens – this time in a nearby park – he’s hot on the trail of a tangled mess that stretches far back into the dead men’s past, which were apparently not unrelated.

I thought Lehane’s book worked best when he navigated the working of the library, right down (or up?) to the fundraising galas that are part of the job, and at explicating different relationships. Adele’s loss of her mother in the beginning of the novel, her growing attachment to Johnny, and her tentative friendship with Johnny’s mother are all very nicely done.

I found some of the relationships surprising and the denouement heartbreaking. Lehane’s book comes far too close to an examination of psychological darkness to be an actual cozy, despite the library setting. I loved the feel of New York City that the author so beautifully provides, and I was left thinking about several of the characters after I closed the book. What more, really, can a reader ask for?

Libby Fischer Hellmann: Jump Cut

JumpCutThis book marks the welcome return of Hellman’s original series character, filmmaker Ellie Foreman. While it’s been a good long while since Ellie’s debut, there haven’t been enough books about her as the prolific Hellman has chosen to explore other characters and other times and places along with writing about her signature character. I was more than glad to rejoin Ellie in suburban Chicago, as she’s hard at work on a project for a company that makes all kinds of aircraft. They are trying to appeal to the wider public and Ellie’s videos, meant to be posted on social media, are supposed to be a kind of a friendly gateway for their customers.

Ellie is feeling very positively about the work she’s producing and excited to show it off when she’s asked to do so at a company board meeting; but she’s stunned when the VP, Charlotte Hollander, trashes the video and fires her on the spot. Her reaction is both anger and a burning curiosity to find out why. As a good detective, curiosity is one of Ellie’s salient characteristics, and she’s almost compelled to take the path she ends up taking.

She feels she’s being followed – or is she being paranoid? She’s smart enough to know something is up, and her protective, sweet boyfriend wants her to have nothing more to do with the company that fired her. However, when Ellie sets up a meeting with one of the guys who was hanging around while she was filming and arrives in time for her to see his accidental death under the wheels of a commuter train, she’s about ready to walk away when she finds a flash drive in a cigarette box that she’s sure belonged to he dead man. She takes it with her and begins to look into the flash drive on her own.

Her investigation leads her into a tangled web of espionage, counter spies and more deaths before the solution is found. As a main character, Ellie is so appealing I am almost willing to read about her as she goes about her daily life – the extra stuff is more or less a bonus. When Hellman ramps up the action at the end and makes it all very personal for Ellie, she’s at her very best as a writer; you’re completely on Ellie’s side and ready to find out what the heck is going on. This is the very welcome return of a beloved character.

Loren D. Estleman: Shoot

ShootWhen you think about Loren D. Estleman, you probably associate him with the Amos Walker novels. He is, after all, the premier living exponent of the traditional P.I. novel in all its hardboiled glory. But more than that, he’s simply a very, very good writer, and like one of the progenitors of the genre, Dashiell Hammett, who wrote both The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, Loren is quite capable of distinct variations in tone.

It would be a little facile to say that Estleman’s Valentino series is his take on the “cozy” novel, but in the beginning of the fourth installment, Shoot, Valentino is looking at rug samples. Similarly, the alcohol and violence levels are low, the sunshine and frivolity are high, and the one night stands with endangered Femme Fatales are replaced by long term committed relationships and wedding planning. Valentino even has a smart phone. The detectives are alike in some ways, though, because as Walker is often a seeker after missing persons, film detective Valentino goes down the mean boulevards of Los Angeles in search of the movies of the past that are considered lost and gone forever. And I’m sure it will surprise no one that the sharks of Hollywood are just as rapacious and morally compromised as those of Detroit.

Each Valentino novel tends to revolve around a particular film genre, and in this case it’s the Western. He’s summoned by the aged white-hatted hero Red Montana to locate a stag film that his on-screen and real life love interest, Dixie Day, made before she joined him in the squeaky clean big time. He’s being blackmailed by whoever has it, and as a fee he offers Sixgun Sonata, the considered lost first pair-up of Red and Dixie. If Valentino can’t bring home the celluloid, not so straight shooter Red will torch the film.

The typically brilliant set-up propels the reader through the book, along with other elements such as Valentino’s ongoing attempts to refurbish the Oracle, the run down, money pit movie palace he’s trying to return to former glory, his search for enough surviving friends to populate the bachelor party for his aging boss and mentor, and generous satirical gems about life in La La Land. Although, like the typical Western, I prefer a little shoot out to sort things out in the end, Loren effectively wraps things up cozy style with no visible wounds, and a wicked demonstration that the action in the boardroom can get pretty cutthroat as well.

There’s thematic seriousness at play too, the operative lesson being that even though the humans that acted out the onscreen Western heroes may be fallible, and the history they inhabited more like fantasy, the moral code they personified may yet have some meaning in this crazy world.  (Jamie)

Ellen Hart: The Grave Soul

TheGraveSoulEllen Hart is simply one of the very best traditional mystery writers in the business, and if you like a well crafted, thoughtful, traditional mystery and you don’t read Ellen Hart’s Jane Lawless series, you are really missing a bet. Jane, a Minneapolis restauranteur who also holds a P.I. license, is always the calm center of the storm. Except when she’s not.

One of Hart’s gifts is to slightly change things up with each book (and as this is her 23rd Jane Lawless outing, I imagine that’s not such an easy task) and in this one the opening sequence is nothing short of spectacular. We are introduced to a woman who has been beaten, finds brief sanctuary, and is thrust back into the snow. We’re given a Wisconsin setting, so we know it’s cold.

We don’t know who the woman is and if you hate, hate, hate spoilers look away, but it turns out to be Jane. From there Hart turns back the clock so we can discover just what it is Jane has been up to that’s led to a beating. It’s an incredibly effective opening, and if you’re like me, 23 books in, you’re pretty fond of Jane. You want to find out what happened to her.

From there Hart constructs a plot that finds a former employee of Jane’s asking for help with his girlfriend who has “disappeared” into the folds of her family in New Dresden, Wisconsin. He has met them but doesn’t know them well and is worried when his girlfriend won’t return his calls. He’s sure something is up.

So now there are two things the reader almost desperately wants to know: what happened to Jane, and what the heck is up with Kira Adler, the young man’s girlfriend. As Jane begins to explicate the Adler family she uncovers a number of secrets, one of them the mysterious death of Kira’s mother when Kira was only five. She’d begun having nightmares about her mother’s death and that leads her down the rabbit hole.

Now, there are two schools of thought on Jane’s loud, over the top best friend, Cordelia. Some people hate her so much they won’t read the books; I personally think she’s a hoot and love reading about her. She always provides some comic relief while at the same time being completely loyal to Jane in every way. Cordelia joins in early on and pops up throughout, so if you’re not a Cordelia fan, this book may annoy you.

As Jane puzzles out just what’s happened to Kira and what’s going on in her family, and the book comes full circle back to the opening sequence, you won’t be able to turn pages fast enough. Hart never writes too long, her pacing is great, and her characters are wonderful. Even smaller characters are memorable and serve their purpose. These novels are a master class on how to write a well constructed mystery. The Grave Soul is one of Hart’s best, and that’s saying a lot.

Julie Hyzy: All the President’s Menus

presidents-menusIt’s no secret that I’m a giant Julie Hyzy fan, whose White House Chef series just about reads like an episode of “The West Wing” only set in the kitchen. In the last book, to sort some personal stuff out, Chef Ollie Paras has to – gasp – leave the kitchen. Well, I understand. She had a lot on her plate and (spoiler if you haven’t yet read Home of the Braised) she got married to her Secret Service sweetie, Gav.

OK. She’s married, Gav is on medical leave, but she’s – yay – back in the kitchen. There’s a gentle jab from Hyzy aimed at the government sequester (it’s forced Ollie’s prized assistant, Cyan, on leave) and the lack of activity as state dinners have pretty much shut down. Ollie is just wishin’ and hopin’ for a little more of a lively time when word comes down that there will be a team of visiting chefs from the country of Saardisca, and they’ll be working with Ollie’s team to create a dinner for a Saardiscan Presidential candidate, to be held across the street at Blair House.

Ollie prepares for the visit, unsure of what to expect. Apparently Saardican men, for one thing, are uncomfortable with the idea of a woman in charge, and look to Ollie’s assistant, Bucky, for guidance. They also frequently lapse into Saardiscan, and Ollie wants to know what they are discussing, especially after a series of accidents leaves the White House pastry chef and then one of the Saardiscan chefs incapacitated. Ollie has a hard time convincing the Secret Service of the budgetary need for a translator.

In true Ollie fashion, the action ratchets up and the plot thickens, even as the dinner for the Saardiscan candidate is planned and prepared by a rotating team of chefs. Since Gav is on leave she doesn’t have him to turn to but this far along she can take matters into her own hands and be trusted by the powers that be.

Hyzy’s delicious combination of White House protocol, a little dab of cooking, and her real genius – character development and interaction, along with a rousing good story – had me flipping the pages faster and faster until the end. There’s always an item prepared in the course of the story I wish I could actually see (you can Google the White House kitchen and Blair House, though) and she even includes a kick ass granola recipe in the recipe section at the end. If there’s a better way to spend $8 I’m not sure what it might be.

Eva Gates: By Book or By Crook

ByBookorByCrookBerkley reliably cranks out an entire line of cozies, hitting many specialized areas of interest for readers. This one hits several of the cozy tropes – there’s a lighthouse, a library in the lighthouse, a cat, a young heroine, two suitors, and for an extra fillip, Jane Austen. All familiar tropes and yet, Gates brings something a little more kick ass to the cozy table. A little extra verve, and a brisk, hard to put down way of telling a story that will have you flipping pages.

Gates is the pen name of Canadian Vicki Delany, who has a long series featuring Constable Molly Smith, several books set in the Klondike, as well as several stand alones. She’s a real pro and it shows in her narrative chops. She knows how to pace and she knows how to end each chapter making you want to read on to the next one (I finished this is a day and a half, a real inhale of a read).

Anyway, I loved the idea of a library in a lighthouse – this one set on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The apartment occupied by heroine and assistant librarian Lucy will probably make you drool, as will the special exhibit of Jane Austen first editions in the library lobby. Thanks to Jane Austen, the library is slammed with patrons, and it’s all hands on deck, with things becoming complicated when the president of the library board is murdered the night of the party for the opening of the Austen exhibit.

The death of the board president of course complicates matters in many ways, one of them being bringing to the forefront a contingent of new board members who aren’t sure continuing to fund the library is such a great idea. Then when the Austen books begin to disappear one by one (starting with Pride and Predjudice, natch) suspicion is heaped not only on Lucy’s boss, Bertie, but on Lucy herself.

Lucy is distracted by the attentions of both the mayor – a teenage love re-ignited – and one of the detectives, Butch. Gates ably populates her story with a variety of interesting characters, none perhaps more memorable than librarian wanna be Louise Jane, who insinuates herself wherever possible and does achieve her dream of being hired on temporarily while the staff deals with the Austen related frenzy.

As Louise Jane paints a vivid picture of the many ghosts inhabiting the lighthouse and their tragic backstories, she also wonders aloud, and frequently, why there’s a need to hire a “trained” librarian from the outside when she, of an old Outer Banks family, could so easily fill Lucy’s shoes. It makes for a nice bit of tension, which, happily, is not without humor.

As things wrap up, appropriately, on a dark and stormy night, you’ll feel real affection for Lucy and Bertie as well as for Lucy’s suitors, and you should be more than satisfied with the denouement. This light, zippy, first in a series book is not only enjoyable, it’s a real promise of more installments to come. I hope there are many.

E.J. Copperman/Jeff Cohen: The Question of the Missing Head

missingheadThis absolutely charming, totally enjoyable book is one of the reads of the year from E.J. Copperman/Jeff Cohen, a writer with a long and solid history in the cozy mystery genre. His earliest books featured a parent with an Asperger’s child; in this one he’s streamlined his concept and given the main character Asperger’s, something that enhances his skills as a detective. Cohen, the real life parent of an Asperger’s child, illuminates the condition for the reader in the best possible way: by showing, not telling.

His central character, Samuel Hoenig, has opened a storefront he calls “Questions Answered” where anyone can call or come in and ask him absolutely any question and he will figure out the answer. Of course, to do that in this story, he uses skills many of us are familiar with in any detective story – he goes to the location of the crime, asks questions, collects evidence, and forms a solution based on what he’s found.

Because he has Asperger’s he is extremely thorough, something which quite naturally makes him an excellent detective. He also takes nothing for granted and is quite literal, as well as being unclouded by emotion; it really makes him good at his job. Our story begins when a Dr. Ackerman comes in to ask him to find a missing head – one that’s been cryogenically frozen at his institute, where people are frozen in perpetuity, awaiting the cure for whatever caused them to die in the first place. The missing head in question belonged to one Rita Masters-Powell.

As luck would have it, a woman named Ms. Washburn (Janet to us) has come in with a question for Samuel and is there when the doctor shows up. She agrees to drive Samuel over to Ackerman’s institute and tags along as he goes in to gather evidence. Unfortunately, they stumble across a dead body in the chamber where the head had been located, complicating matters.

At all plot turns, Samuel’s point of view is honored, and he’s kept in the realm of social acceptability by the gentle prodding and reminding of Ms. Washburn, who quickly proves herself invaluable. The detective on the scene, dealing with his first homicide, asks Samuel for help and the three of them form a team as they search for both the missing head and try to figure out who killed the woman in the lab, two incidents Samuel is certain are connected. Of course they are.

Samuel and the television detective Monk have some striking similarities (referred to by the author); though they have different disorders, they have some similar behaviors, but both characters are so gently and completely humanized its impossible not to feel both a strong affection for them as well as a bit moved by their situations.

At every point, Cohen beautifully illustrates the reason Asperger’s folks behave as they do; as he describes it you begin to really understand that it’s simply a different way of interpreting the world. He doesn’t really sugarcoat it either, as Samuel has several occasions during the story where he’s rendered unable to function by various circumstances, but in general he is simply a curious mind hard at work. Cohen adds an extra soupcon of character to Samuel by making him a Beatles fan – he asks everyone he meets which is their favorite song, and is then able to assign character traits to them based on their choice. To him, a clever coping mechanism; to the reader, a delightful sleight of hand that will have you wondering what your own favorite Beatles song says about you.

This is literally an almost perfect novel set within the confines of the traditional mystery. It’s a clever detective story; the characters are interesting and realistic as well as entertaining; the solution to the crime is smart and well laid out; and the confines of the cryogenics lab add a nice locked room aspect to the whole affair. All the parts of the story work together seamlessly – the whole novel sparkles with Cohen’s light touch and sure hand. Bravo.

Jane Haddam: Fighting Chance

Fighting ChanceWhile much of the attention in publishing is focused on dazzling, huge best sellers, it’s the old reliables, steadily publishing year after year, who keep the engine of publishing moving along.  Jane Haddam can now boast 28 novels in her long running Gregor Demarkian series.  While there are some series entries I disliked it would almost be more surprising if there weren’t.  When Jane Haddam is “on,” she’s one of the best, and this turned out to be a favorite of mine in her long series.

As she uses the tropes laid out so long ago by Agatha Christie, even referring to Gregor Demarkian as the “Armenian American Hercule Poirot,” she makes them fresh and still incredibly enjoyable.  Demarkian, for the uninitiated, is a former FBI agent (which gives him all kinds of connections), now working on his own as a consultant.  Like Poirot, he is a “world famous detective.”  Poirot reveled in his fame; Demarkian despises it.  They do share a mustache, though I feel certain Demarkian’s is un-waxed.

After so long it would be easy for Haddam to write in a kind of self-referential shorthand regarding her setting and recurring characters, but she avoids it and somehow manages to balance a bit of explanation with the story at hand.  You could pick this one up and be as comfortable as if you were starting with the terrific first in the series, Not a Creature Was Stirring.  She does use long established characters as main players in her drama in this novel, making it one of her strongest, most deeply felt books.

Gregor lives in an Armenian enclave in Philadelphia, and it’s here he’s brought his Main Line wife, Bennis, who has adapted and adopted her new neighborhood with enthusiasm.  One of the keystone personalities of the neighborhood is Father Tibor Kasparian, best friends with Gregor, and now accused of murder.  Father Tibor was found, covered in blood, in the chambers of a judge well known for giving juvenile offenders long, harsh sentences.  The circumstantial evidence, including a damning phone video of Tibor, send him to jail where he is refusing to talk.  To anyone.

Haddam often – or always – has an issue she’s interested in exploring; in this novel, it’s the juvenile justice system.  In her best novels, the issue doesn’t overpower the story, and that’s the case here.  It’s the connections between the characters, long established and lovingly created, that provide the true depth to her story.

As I was reading I also sent Haddam a mental thank you note – this novel, packed with plot, drama, characters and even a vivid setting, still clocks in at a brisk 311 pages.  Old school indeed.  This is one of the very best traditional mystery series being written; each installment, if not a joy, is thought provoking and engaging.  I would be delighted to read 28 more books about Gregor Demarkian, and if the “Very Old Ladies” could also be a part of things, that would be another gift.

Denise Swanson: Murder of a Needled Knitter

Murder of a needled KnitterDenise Swanson, 17 books into her Scumble River series featuring school psychologist Skye Denison, has at last married Skye off to her sweetheart, Wally, and sent them off on their honeymoon aboard a cruise ship.  Guess who else turns out to be aboard?  Skye’s best pal, Trixie, on a cruise with her own husband, and her parents.  

Swanson pretty much could have left her plot at that:  your parents on your honeymoon?  Anyone’s nightmare.  But she’s never been a lazy writer and she’s not about to start now, as she also arranges for there to be a group of knitters on board (hence Skye’s mother, May), complete with an obnoxious group leader, hated by all.  It’s not long before the much hated Guinevere is a goner and the entire knitting group including especially Skye’s mother, who had public words with her, are suspects.

While the knitting group is comfortably familiar to anyone who has a passion – a book club, a needlepoint group, a painter’s group – the specifics of the knitters themselves, who also make for a well rounded suspect list, add spice to the story, as does Wally, Skye, and Trixie’s investigation into the murder as laws aboard a cruise ship are a little more lax than they are onshore.

But what I really enjoyed about this book was the cruise itself – I felt like I was on one, so well does Swanson depict the ship, the food, the nightlife and activities, and the ports of call.  It was fun for this reader to see Skye out of her usual element and I ended up the book both satisfied with another great story and  – hungry!  People on cruise ships apparently do nothing but eat and it all sounds delicious.  More, please, Ms. Swanson!