Archive for American/Cozy – Page 2

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!

Julie Hyzy: Home of the Braised

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but for about the price (or less) of a movie ticket you can instead buy and read this blast of a book.  This is a series I look forward to without fail, and I’m joined by Hyzy’s growing number of enthusiastic readers, who love White House Executive Chef Ollie Parras.  Hyzy actually writes what I would call old fashioned adventure novels – she tells a rollicking good story, sometimes stretching credulity, but as you’re caught up in her narrative, you simply won’t care.

Home of the BraisedIn this outing Ollie is preparing for a last minute State Dinner (something that usually takes months of preparation), dealing with snarky fellow chef, Victor, who prepares the meals for the first family and who makes the entire kitchen staff miserable, as well as trying to figure out when she’ll marry her fiancé, secret service agent Gav.  She and Gav have applied for the license but have discovered they must wait eight weeks for an officiant.  (This is the credulity-stretching part – they work in the White House, and must have a little pull).

Meanwhile an old buddy of Gav’s turns up who happens to be a minister and he offers to marry them if Gav will do him a favor.  Heading to his friend’s church to find out what the favor is, Ollie and Gav instead find the man dead along with several others, and she and Gav are intercepted and separated by the Secret Service (Gav is on medical leave) to be debriefed.  This complicates matters some at the White House as the staff prepares for the dinner and they welcome a new head usher, Ollie’s old nemesis, Peter Sergeant.  Thanks to events in the last book they are now allies.

One of the strengths of Hyzy’s novels is her clear story-telling style as she weaves the many threads of her story together, and the way she truly makes you care about her characters.  I was as invested in the personal troubles of Ollie and Gav as I was in the greater world troubles of the President and the White House.

She also infuses the books with really fun detail about the White House kitchen and how it’s run as well as the general operations of the entire house behind the scenes.  It never ceases to fascinate.  As always, she includes recipes at the end, this time notated as dishes served at various inaugural luncheons through the years.  As the slam bang story winds up with a satisfying little twist, you be wiping away a tear as well as looking forward to the next installment.  More, please, Ms. Hyzy!

Ellen Hart: Taken by the Wind

In A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engel writes of “the educated heart,” a quality Ellen Hart possesses in spades.  Hart’s novels, populated with a variety of overlapping characters and a variety of life experiences, form a rich and complex tapestry where she can spin her tales.  She’s also one of the best “traditional” mystery writers at work at the moment, utilizing the format of the detective story, with clues, characters, red herrings, suspects and a driving narrative style that propels the reader forward.  To me this combination of her matrix of character and setting along with her use of the classic mystery format is an irresistible one.

taken-by-the-windIn this, her twenty-first Jane Lawless novel, Hart has lost none of her deft touch.  Jane, a Minneapolis restaurant owner with a complicated love life, is always the sensible center of any storm that might rage around her.  She’s at last gotten the private eye license that her long time friend A.J. Nolan has urged her to obtain; the wrinkle being that Nolan is now in a wheelchair and needs to be coaxed back into the world himself.   He’s a second father figure for Jane, and she’s been instrumental in his recovery process.

Jane is asked by a friend to help out when his son and his best friend (and cousin) disappear.  The families of the boys back in Winfield, Minnesota, are of course in a panic.  Andrew and Eric, Jane’s friends, are the parents of Jack; Suzanne and Branch are the parents of Gabriel.  Both boys are twelve, at the cusp of teenagehood and starting to exhibit the signs of withdrawal and separation that children of that age exhibit.

No one is sure if the boys have run away – Jack has run away before – or abducted, and the parents, with increasing panic, give the boys twenty four hours before they call the police.  Unsatisfied with the police response, they ask Jane to help locate them.  It’s her first official case as a P.I., and she needs Nolan’s help more than ever, but as he’s laid up back in the Cities, she instead takes her sidekick Cordelia Thorne with her as she heads out to Winfield.

Long time readers of the series know Cordelia is the flamboyant attention seeker to the calmer Jane, but they balance each other out.  Each usually has a personal issue on the table – for Cordelia, her issue is that her detested (and famous) sister Octavia is back in town; for Jane it’s figuring out if her new girlfriend, Avi, is the real deal.  But in this novel, these are side issues, as the clock keeps ticking with the boys still missing.

As the parents and Jane try and negotiate the tricky and emotional path of finding the missing boys, the pieces of their lives begin to slot into place, as do the lives of many other residents of the town of Winfield.  A harsh look at increasingly intolerant attitudes at the church where Suzanne is a pastor and the far reaching effects of the long recession, this adds a contemporary stamp to the book, making it not just a fun read but a relevant one.

Somewhat like her wonderful creation of Jane Lawless, Ellen Hart works quietly away in St. Paul, producing book after wonderful book.  If you enjoy traditional mysteries at all she’s really not an author you should miss.  The modern slant here is that the missing boys aren’t just a puzzle to be solved, you’re also seeing and feeling the real anguish of the involved adults as they try and resolve the situation.  With the educated heart of Jane Lawless at the center of the proceedings, this is a very worthwhile journey.

Julia Spencer-Fleming: Through the Evil Days

I think what makes some series writers special – or one of the things, at least – is the ability to treat each installment differently.  The characters belong to the arc, but each story is told in a specific and different way that almost makes each novel a standalone.  Julia Spencer-Fleming has this skill, and she proves herself to be spectacularly versatile in her seventh novel, delivering a pure thriller.

evil-daysIn each novel her setting of Miller’s Kill, New York, is a character in some sense.  In this novel it’s an aggressive character in the form of a horrible ice storm that never seems to end.  It makes you shiver and hope February, when it arrives, isn’t this terrible.

There’s also a story along with the weather, of course.  We join Episcopal Priest Clare and Police Chief Russ in the first couple months of their marriage, Clare newly pregnant, and Russ not so sure how he feels about it.  He’s in his early 50s as opposed to Clare’s middle 30s and had visualized grandchildren rather than children of his own at this stage in his life.

This, of course, is a great way for Spencer-Fleming to maintain the tension that made her first several novels so memorable, where Clare was a single priest and Russ a married police chief.  Any devotee of this series knows what’s happened since In the Bleak Midwinter, and Spencer-Fleming has neatly avoided the common trap of losing all tension and interest after the main characters marry.  “The course of true love never did run smooth” might be an apt description of their relationship.

Along with Clare and Russ’ story is the story of a missing little girl, an 8-year-old who is not only missing but who has had a recent kidney transplant and will die without her medication.  That gives the story a built-in drive as the tiny Miller’s Kill police force bands together to try and find her.  Clare and Russ are on their honeymoon and because of the weather, unreachable, further complicating matters.

The little girl was being fostered by a couple whose house has burned down, and her mother, a meth addict, can’t be found.  The ties to the meth culture are deep and frightening, and it’s a further complication as the cops – mainly Hadley Knox and Kevin Flynn, furiously avoiding an obvious attraction to each other – try desperately to find her.

Spencer-Fleming keeps her thriller fresh with the depth of her characterizations, from Hadley and Kevin to one of the meth heads to everyone else in between.  The ties that break your heart and the ties that bind the characters together make this novel sparkle.  The ending has both good and bad resolutions, as well as some obvious threads for the next novel to pick up on.  That can’t come soon enough for me, though I hope the next one happens in the springtime.

Sheila Connolly: Monument to the Dead

Sheila Connelly is one of the Energizer bunnies of the cozy universe, writing three series as well as a couple stand alones.  She’s one of our best selling authors.  Each series ties to an actual passion or interest of hers – this one is centers on the head of an historical museum in Philadelphia, Nell Pratt, a former fundraiser who is now in charge of things.  Since many of our customers and many mystery readers are academics and/or librarians, this particular series should have serious appeal.

monument-deadThe detective work is done through archival research and good old fashioned Sherlock Holmes-style deductive reasoning.  When one of Nell’s most generous board members dies suddenly, it’s not unexpected, just sad.  But when Nell asks her assistant, Shelby, to put together a database of city wide donors so “asks” won’t be doubled (what a great idea) they stumble across a suspicious cluster of deaths of older board members.  With the help of Nell’s FBI boyfriend James and an energetic board member named Marty, they search for connections in the deaths that may or may not exist.

Connolly is able to get across a real feel of Philadelphia upper crust, the way non profits function, and the interconnectedness of high society, using the character of Marty as a perfect illustration.  Marty is on the older side with time on her hands, smarts, and lots of energy.  She’s also related to almost everyone in Philadelphia, including James (who she calls “Jimmy”), and she often proves to be Nell’s ace in the hole.

One of the interesting bits of this novel is the collection held by the museum of a famous 19th century actor, Edwin Forrest.  I was sure he was a figment of Connelly’s imagination, but he was a real person, and his story and his connection to the museum prove to be fascinating.  I always like to learn a little something with my mystery reading.

The novel is a crisp read and as it turns out to be actually the fourth novel in this series, there are some developments between Nell and James that I imagine Connelly has been laying out since the first book.  I won’t spoil things for readers who haven’t gotten to this installment yet, but I will say Connelly has a deft hand with her characters, making you care about them and believe in them.  They felt real.  This is a pleasant, brisk read, and I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys a little archival detection.

Denise Swanson: Murder of a Stacked Librarian

This is the book Swanson fans have been waiting for – for fifteen books now, Swanson has resisted matching up her wonderful creation of Skye Dennison with a particular man.  In this one (spoiler alert) Skye and Wally are finally getting ready to walk down the aisle.  If you are a Facebook fan of Swanson or have read all the books, this won’t come as a surprise.  Swanson has always been an interactive author, arriving at her very first signing at our store with her mother in tow and giving the entire audience a personality test.  For this novel, she posted photos of possible wedding gown, shoe, cake and flower choices online.

stackedlibrarianHer particular blend of her actual life skill – she worked as a school psychologist, just as Skye does – with humor and great plotting skills as well as a way with characters have made her books one of the most enjoyable cozy series around.  These feel like they are someone’s passion, not someone’s assignment.  That’s always a happy mixture.  That the telling of the stories seems so effortless is a tribute to her skill as a writer.

This particular installment involves Skye’s wedding, of course, but there’s also a murder to kick things off.  As Skye is sitting in the library trying to write her wedding vows, she witnesses an altercation between the (yes) stacked librarian and a too-persistent would-be suitor, who the librarian manages to dispatch very efficiently (and somewhat painfully).  She and Skye have a chat about the line between right and wrong, and then Skye is on her way.  The next thing she knows, the librarian has been found dead.

The initial thinking is that her death was an accident, but this is a murder mystery and of course it isn’t.  Wally, the town police chief, has added Skye to the police roster as a psychological consultant, giving her a reason to sit in his investigations.  This was a wonderful brainwave, as after fifteen books it’s a stretch to think that school psychologist Skye keeps ending up involved in murders.

As Skye and Wally attempt to plan their wedding while also trying to solve the murder before the ceremony takes place (so they can have a worry free honeymoon), the other parts of the book that make this series such a stand out come to the forefront.  The cast of characters Denise has created through all her books are strong and she’s really created a believable and interesting community for Skye.  They add spice to every story, as do different members of Skye’s family, who can serve as a help or a hindrance, or both, in the exasperating manner of actual family members.

There are several red herrings and dead ends before Skye and Wally figure out whodunit, but the real nail biter in this book was whether Skye and Wally would make it down the aisle in a timely fashion.  I’m happy to report, they do!

Alyse Carlson: The Azalea Assault

A smooth fit with Berkley’s line of cozy “themed” mysteries, The Azalea Assault features a PR pro from Roanoke, Va. who works with the local garden society. This book hits on a lot of fronts — there’s gardening, there’s a little cooking, and there are three pretty interesting women at the center of the story.

The main character, Camellia Harris, lives with her more free and easy BFF, Annie. While Camellia is more rule oriented and super organized, Annie is more of a free spirit in peasant skirts to Camellia’s Talbot’s slacks, getting things done by the skin of her teeth. They are a well matched pair and their living arrangement — same house, each with her own apartment — suits them perfectly.

As the story opens, Cam is nervously awaiting the arrival of famed French photographer Jean-Jacques Georges, who has been talked into photographing a famous Roanoke garden for the well known magazine Garden Delights (which is surely a riff on House and Garden.) The garden described sounds so breathtaking it seems hard to believe photographers wouldn’t be falling all over themselves to photograph it, but the loving description of the plants and greenhouses supplies enough “garden porn” for a gardening enthusiast to get him or her interested in the rest of the story.

As Cam walks through the space with Jean-Jacques assistants, she begins to feel nervous — why is so much prep necessary? When she meets the great man, her worst fears are confirmed — he’s a dismissive jerk who is putting the whole of Roanoke down before even laying eyes on the fabulous gardens of La Fontaine.

La Fontaine is owned by Neil Patrick and his younger wife, a former Miss Virginia, Evangaline. Add in the rest of the Garden Society to fill out the cast, and the author easily supplies a varied and rich group of folks to draw her suspects from when Jean-Jacques is, of course, murdered.

Why would Cam get involved in the crime? Well, her sister Petunia’s man, Nick, is arrested, and she’s sure of his innocence. She’s on a tear, and she drags along Annie, who is pegged as the replacement photographer, and her reporter boyfriend Rob.

The story turns out to have a satisfying number of twists, and while supposedly in America there is no class system, one of the things cozy mysteries are best at is deconstructing it. In this case, the author turns a very sensitive eye to girls who were born, as my mother would say, “advantaged,” and are struggling with their various discomfort levels and even guilt stemming from their privilege. And of course a garden society offers a great cross section of the middle and upper classes.

All in all, Carlson has given her fledgling series a great start, with strong characters, good story sense and sense of place, as well as a sly sense of humor that I hope will come even more to the forefront as the series progresses. The gardening is a great bonus, but as a reader, you’ll stay tuned for the mystery.

Julie Hyzy: Fonduing Fathers

Julie Hyzy has quickly become one of the big kahunas in the cozy universe, with her delightful and sparkling Olivia Parras White House chef mysteries being more and more eagerly snapped up with each installment. She’s established herself as not only a very capable cozy writer, but she’s also quite good with suspense and plot, sometimes surprisingly good. The ending of her last Olivia novel, Affairs of Steak, had an extremely skillful action sequence – one that sits comfortably alongside anything Robert Crais or Michael Connelly might dish out.

It’s the balance that’s delicious – the White House setting is almost hypnotically interesting, and the zest Hyzy brings to her storytelling only makes the whole mixture more memorable. In this novel she veers a little closer to the action side and a bit far from my beloved White House, but the kitchen and the First Family are still a big part of the story.

This story, however, mostly concerns Olivia’s personal life. It starts with a revelation from Olivia’s mother, and it sketches in the details of Olivia’s deepening relationship with Gav. Starting around her own kitchen table, rather than the one in the White House, Olivia’s mother reveals that while her father is buried in Arlington, there is some question about whether he belonged there. Olivia passionately believes in her father’s honor and that he’s resting right where he belongs, and she sets out to prove it.

All she has is a shoebox given to her by her mother and the name of the firm where her father worked after leaving the army. Gav agrees to help and they set out using their considerable resources to find out anything they can about her father’s past and his long ago death.

Along the way Ollie encounters folks that have surprising and in some cases hidden ties and allegiances to her father, Gav and herself. She’s in and out of the White House Kitchen, mainly interacting with the present and inefficient Head Usher; her one time nemesis and new ally, Peter Sergeant; as well as continuing to forge a friendship with the President’s young son, Josh. There’s a scene where several of the characters go undercover that is pretty priceless.

Six books into the series, I have enough affection and interest in Olivia to want to know her family history and her father’s background. Her mother has been enough of a presence in the books to make me invested as a reader in the outcome for her, as well. The denouement was satisfying and even moving, as is the increasing commitment between Olivia and Gav. Next outing, though, I hope Olivia is once agin back behind one the world’s most famous kitchen counters.