Archive for American/Cozy

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.

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.

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.

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.

E.J. Copperman: Written Off

E.J. Copperman, Jeffrey Cohen’s alter ego, has written, as either Copperman or Cohen (or both) now five series (with a sixth to debut in August of this year), all of them well crafted and enjoyable, and two of them, his Asperger’s detective series and this one, ranking among the very best cozy series ever, in this humble reviewer’s opinion. For me the apex of cozy begins with Charlotte MacLeod, spreads quickly to Sharyn McCrumb’s peerless Elizabeth McPherson series, and trickles down to include writers like Dorothy Cannell and Donna Andrews and continues onward from there. There are many contemporary cozy series I both admire and enjoy, but Cohen/Copperman is top of the pile.

Like Cohen’s Asperger’s detective series, this one – he’s calling it the “Mysterious Detective” series – has an insanely great set-up. The main character, Rachel Goldman, writes cozy mysteries featuring a detective named Duffy Madison, who works as a consultant to a prosecutor’s office. One night, as Rachel is at a book signing, a man turns up who says he is Duffy Madison. Not only does this Duffy Madison hold the job Rachel created for him in her books, but he appears to have sprung into existence four years ago – the same time Rachel’s first book was published. Rachel (and her bookstore friends) thinks he’s nuts, but he insists he has an important case he needs to discuss with her, and reluctantly, she agrees.

The case involves two dead mystery writers and one missing one, and ever so reluctantly Rachel is drawn into the story, especially as it seems she might be next on the killer’s list. Cohen/Copperman, after so many books and series, is really top of his game as a pure mystery writer – plot, setup, clues, suspects – all expertly and enjoyably handled. Oh, yeah, he’s also very funny, which in a cozy series, is seriously important. Sure, it’s a bit meta to have the main character be a mystery writer and the detective a character she’s actually created, but this book has a lovely energy, focus and narrative drive that just can’t be beat. And like the very best mystery stories, this one ends with a little cliffhanger for the next book. Seriously, if you love cozies or just funny, well written mystery novels, don’t pass this one up.

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.