O’ Artful Death was one of the “buzz” books of the year last year – while not causing as big a sensation as Maisie Dobbs or Monkeewrench (both notable first novels), after reading all of them, I almost think Taylor’s novel is the most polished and satisfying of the three. It’s also very much a first book in terms of its verve and energy, and if, like a beautiful but newborn colt, it sometimes lumbers off into uncharted territory, it’s always charming and compelling. This is a novel for fans of Deborah Crombie and Joanne Dobson – Crombie’s graceful prose and darker themes are present here, as is Dobson’s effective use of a university setting.
It’s obvious Loren Estleman has a blast writing his new series about film archivist Valentino. If anything could be a fantasy for a massive film buff like Estleman, it would probably be a job as a “film detective”, tracking down old films so the prints can be salvaged for future generations. Even better, in this second outing, Valentino is restoring an old movie theater, although the correct term for it would be “palace”. Estleman really sparkles here. The book is filled with funny one liners that move along as quickly as an old Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell movie—sometimes you’re saying “Oh, I get it” a page later.
This is the kind of book that I know will have customers coming in and shaking me by the shoulders to either mourn or complain about what happens in it. The only other author who has that effect on readers is Elizabeth George, so it says lots that Julia Spencer-Fleming’s now five book series has the same effect. Her main characters. Claire and Russ, are so fleshed out, so tormented, so genuinely human, that you can’t help but be completely swept up in their lives whether you want to or not. Book five (and I’m not giving anything away) opens with the discovery of Russ’ wife Linda horribly butchered on the floor of their kitchen. Spencer-Fleming’s greatest gift, I think, is in the emotional details of her characters, and in her portrayal of Russ’ grief and Claire’s response to Linda’s death, she doesn’t disappoint. To catch up readers who may not have read the rest of the series, Claire Fergusson is the Episcopal priest in tiny Miller’s Kill, New York, and Russ Van Alstyne is the married police chief. Claire and Russ, while not having an actual affair, have engaged in “an affair of the heart”, and many people in town are aware of their relationship, now including (as of book four) Linda Van Alstyne. She and Russ are recently separated. Spencer-Fleming’s other gift is to take the backdrop provided by these genuinely conflicted characters, as well as Claire’s unusual occupation, and spin a clever and gripping mystery around them. In this book, of course, the mystery part is obvious – who killed Linda?
Daniels has been a very busy lady since I first met her, when her first Pepper Martin book, Don of the Dead, was published. Since then she’s written six more “Pepper” books, and started a cooking related series under the name of Miranda Bliss. This latest “Pepper” book is not only fun, it’s a terrific story, and Pepper has developed as a character since I first encountered her. If you are unfamiliar with the series, Pepper works as a tour guide in an historic Cleveland cemetery. When she starts her job in the first book, she’s distressed to discover that the pesky ghost of a dead mob boss is following her around, asking her to find out what’s happened to him. Since Pepper is the only one who can hear him, he doesn’t let up, and another career is born: investigating what’s happened to the already dead.
This is very much a St. Martin’s mystery, as I’ve come to know them. Smart, concise plot; vivid characters; interesting setting and a twist of originality. It fits in with many other St. Martin’s authors I’ve loved over the years, from K.J. Erickson to Ellen Hart to David Housewright. This is the first book by Ms. Sims, but it’s told in the assured voice of a pro. The story and set up are great—struggling actress Rita Farmer meets famous lawyer Gary Kwan at the library when she’s doing a story time performance for kids, including Kwan’s. Kwan pulls her aside and offers her a job, one so secret she has to meet him in his office to discuss it. Intrigued, she gets her best friend and working actor Daniel Clements to look after her own son, Petey, while she goes to talk with Kwan. What he wants is simple: a talented and unknown actress to coach his client in the best ways to project herself sympathetically to a jury. Rita is slightly horrified to discover that Kwan’s client is the notorious Eileen Tenaway, a recent widow who is in jail for the murder of her own toddler with an overdose of Valium. Complicating matters is the chance that Rita may just have a shot at an audition with the most revered, artistic movie director of all time, one who routinely directs actresses to Oscar winning performances and careers. He likes to work with unknowns, just like Rita. However, Kwan names an outrageous fee for Rita’s efforts, telling her that it’s an exclusive—no outside auditions while she’s working for him. Intrigued and needing money badly, Rita accepts.
There are so many serial killer novels, so little time. There are so many that I gave up reading them long ago, and yet – when I come across one that seems to have a different twist, I can’t help but pick it up. I’ve read a couple others in the past few years that offered a twist – A Curtain Falls, by Stefanie Pintoff, which used a historical perspective; and Children of the Street by Kwei Quartey, which seemed to be (and was) a commentary on the street children of Accra, Ghana, but turned out also to be a twisty serial killer story. R.J. Ellory’s joins that company, though his book is the most traditional of the three.
G.M. Malliet is obviously a devotee of the golden age of mystery – Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham – and she takes the old formula made dear to readers and applies it to the 21st century. This novel especially resembles Ngaio Marsh’s Overture to Death, where a particularly unpleasant village specimen is murdered at the piano warming up for an amateur theatrical. The vicar in Marsh’s novel is described as looking like a “Roman Coin,” while in Malliet’s, the vicar instead resembles the contemporary and dishy Hugh Grant.
Deborah Crombie’s skills as a sophisticated novelist have only increased over time. What began as a standard, though excellent, police series based in London, has evolved into a series that’s richly populated with detailed, complex characters, vivid settings, and themes. She’s neck and neck with authors like P.D. James and Elizabeth George, though she doesn’t share their sometimes completely bleak viewpoint.
Deborah Crombie also often highlights something interesting about England in each book – in this novel, she’s chosen sculling, and the Oxford University rowing culture. Her victim is a cop who had Olympic aspirations – Becca Meredith – and who has been contemplating a last shot at the Games. She’s last seen out with her boat, and her ex-husband gets worried about her.
Julie Hyzy unusually combines the skills of a cozy writer with the skills of an accomplished writer of slam bang action. The combination is irresistible. Her main character, executive White House Chef Olivia “Ollie” Parras, has been assigned the job of working closely with her nemesis, Peter Sergeant, as they plan an off site birthday party for the Secretary of State. Uneasy at working together – Sergeant has no use for Ollie’s tendency to get involved with suspicious bodies, or her tendency to think a bit outside the box – they head off to look at a final venue for the party. Unfortunately there are two bodies there ahead of them, and Ollie and sergeant are put under 24 hour guard, as both of the bodies were connected to the White House.