Emily Littlejohn: Lost Lake

Three books into her series about Detective Gemma Monroe, I am already so smitten that this series belongs alongside favorite series of mine by Sarah Stewart Taylor, Elly Griffiths, Ellen Hart and Julia Spencer-Fleming.  All of these writers – including Littlejohn – create a rich setting, and populate their unique settings or occupations with even richer characters and stories.  All of them feature extremely strong women as their core characters.

Gemma lives in a smallish Colorado Mountain town – but still big enough to have some skiing and some cultural life – and her life is complicated.  Like a real person’s life is complicated.  She has beloved grandparents who raised her, but her grandmother suffers from dementia; she has a baby she loves and is engaged to the baby’s father, but she’s conflicted about him because of a past affair; and her relationship with her partner, Finn, can be prickly. Oh, and the police department is dealing with a leaker. read more

Lynne Truss: A Shot in the Dark

While I was hesitant to pick up this novel – Truss is best known for her grammar book Eats, Shoots and Leaves – I was smitten by her introduction where she confessed her goal of becoming a member of the Detection Club.  After reading that, I was all in, and the book took me the rest of the way on its own.  This is the kind of funny, dry, intelligent humor the Brits do so well, and the set up is delicious.

The novel is set in Brighton in 1957, and makes frequent reference to Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, a classic novel about gangs.  Truss’s Brighton, while also beset by gangs, is a slightly less ominous place.  The story opens as Inspector Steine is greeted by a new and enthusiastic recruit, Constable Twitten.  Steine is pretty oblivious and only interested in resting on his past laurels – where two rival gangs took themselves out under his watch – he now insists, Stalin-like, that there is no more crime in Brighton. read more

Stephanie Gayle: Idyll Hands

The third in a series about small town police chief Thomas Lynch, Gayle’s novel manages to be both charming and a straight up police procedural.  It’s set apart a bit from the norm (and I haven’t read the other two in the series, Idyll Threats and Idyll Fears), so I don’t know if the same parameters apply in the other two novels, but the narrators switch back and forth between chapters.

While the central character, as proclaimed on the cover, is Chief Tom Lynch, the other central character, a far as this novel goes, is Detective Michael Finnegan.  The story involves a cold case involving a human bone found in the woods 20 plus years ago; the case and the bone are affectionately known as “Colleen” and a local ghost story has sprung up around her.  When the rest of her bones are discovered early on, the detectives begin their hunt for the real Colleen. read more

Louise Penny: Kingdom of the Blind

All good writers have themes they like to re-explore and think through in many of their books. In Kingdom of the Blind Louise Penny returns to a theme that has long been of interest to her, that of the unreliability of mere appearances. The pleasant facade masking rot within. As she focuses thematically on the yin and yang of her characters and thoughts – at one point, Gamache thinks to himself “that conversation had gone both well and badly. Was comforting and nauseating. Successful and humiliating”, she forces the reader to examine his or her own preconceptions. read more

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. read more

Carrie Smith: Unholy City

With her clear prose and careful gaze, Carrie Smith has quickly become one of my favorite authors. British or American, I love a police procedural, and some of my favorite authors of all time include Lillian O’Donnell, Leslie Glass, Barbara D’Amato, Lynn Hightower and Lee Martin, all authors of the American police procedural. These writers feature a female cop as the central protagonist and from O’Donnell on forward, all have encountered, in their different ways, varieties of sexism and discrimination. Unfortunately, the history line beginning with O’Donnell’s The Phone Calls in 1972 to Carrie Smith’s 2017 Unholy City hasn’t changed all that radically. read more

Michael Connelly: The Late Show

Michael Connelly has seamlessly launched a new character and series, introducing Detective Renee Ballard. Ballard works “The Late Show,” or the overnight shift, and she’s in a bit of purgatory as she’s accused her former boss of sexual harassment. When the charges went nowhere (her old partner didn’t back her up), she was booted to the Late Show, where she catches cases but isn’t able to follow them through to a conclusion. She instead turns them over to the pertinent department – homicide, robbery, etc. She’s feeling the lack of follow-through – she’s not as engaged in her job and her partner, who works the late shift to get home and care for a wife with cancer, doesn’t have the same focus she does. read more

Louise Penny: Glass Houses

Forget retirement. Gamache is now head of the ENTIRE Surete. After the events of the last novel, Gamache has taken on corruption on a larger scale – he’s literally moved on from the academy to the world at large. Penny, as always, skillfully layers her story. In this outing, she jumps between Gamache’s testimony at a trial, a murder in Three Pines, and the Surete’s – and Gamache’s – fear of the drug crisis, specifically the opioid epidemic and how best to fight it. While Julia Keller’s new book (Fast Falls the Night) also focuses on the opioid epidemic, she goes for the personal; Penny goes for the epic. Keller’s view is far more pessimistic than Penny’s ultimately optimistic one. read more

Theresa Schwegel: The Lies We Tell

Theresa Schwegel is a brilliant and underappreciated writer (despite an Edgar win for her first novel, Officer Down). She is a difficult writer, though, and refuses to sugarcoat anything. She also writes her novels in first person, present tense, which some people find off-putting. That said, she’s one of the more original and vivid writers in mystery fiction. Everything she writes is memorable and worth a look, and this novel, her sixth, is no exception.

Most of her novels concern female police officers, and so does this one, though with the twist that the officer in question, Gina Simonetti, is dealing with the beginnings of MS and hiding it from her employer. Schwegel tackles health care as a central theme and it’s deftly woven through her plot, touching on Gina’s health, the case Gina becomes invested in, and the thread of easy access to and misuse of prescription drugs. read more

Jonathan Moore: The Dark Room

I like starting a new year with a new discovery. I read an advance reading copy of this novel, which I plucked from the giant slush pile we have of such books. Sometimes one will call to me, and this one did. It feels very much like a series book though it apparently is not (that would be my one objection). Set in San Francisco, we meet homicide cop Gavin Cain, who is called in by the mayor after the mayor receives some compromising photographs with a request from the anonymous sender that the mayor do the world a favor and kill himself. When Gavin has his initial meeting with him, the mayor denies knowing anything about the photographs, which show a woman handcuffed, then undressed and obviously drugged. read more