The femme fatale is a stock figure in our culture, enough of a cliche that a culture luminary like Britney Spears pasted the phrase on her latest piece of product. Some feminist scholars maintain that the concept itself is nothing but a social construct, the result of fin de siecle anxieties about the emancipation of women. I invite any savant who thinks that femme fatales are imaginary bogeywomen to make the acquaintance of Sarah Pender, the central figure of Steve Miller’s riveting new true crime book Girl, Wanted: The Chase For Sarah Pender – it’s a lot easier than learning the truth at the wrong end of a shot gun.
I was knocked out by Quartey’s debut, Wife of the Gods, and I’m happy to report that this second novel is just as excellent. Quartey’s series character, Darko Dawson, is really a classic who seems as though he’s been solving mysteries “between the covers” for decades, not just two novels. He’s such a completely realized and compelling character that he’s a wonderful lynchpin for the books, though there is more to them even than Darko himself. Darko works for the CID in Ghana in the capitol city of Accra, where he lives with his wife and his son Hosiah, who suffers from a heart defect. There is surgery to cure it, but the Dawsons cannot afford it. Darko’s worry for his son is an underlying thread of anxiety that Quartey skillfully pulls through the novel.
Sarah Zettel, a prolific writer of science fiction under various pseudonyms, is obviously comfortable creating an entire alternate world for her story and characters. A Taste of the Nightlife is subtitled “A Vampire Chef Mystery”, and no, the chef is not a vampire, but she’s surrounded by them. The chef in question, Charlotte Caine, owns a restaurant called “A Taste of the Nightlife”, that caters to all kinds of folk, vampires, werewolves, witches, etc. Vampires are the main focus, though there’s also a werewolf involved, and a werewolf works as Charlotte’s sous chef – she tells him on the way home “hello to the cubs”.
Stefanie Pintoff has very quickly established her series about Simon Ziele, set in 1906 New York City, as one of the most enjoyable and compelling historical mystery series around. This third book in the series is as complex and enjoyable as the first two, though it’s slightly different as it uses politics rather than a more personal intertwining of relationships (family in the first one, theater in the second). But it’s all personal, as things turn out, and while the story begins with anarchists, it ends in a completely different place.
Maureen Jennings, well known and respected for her wonderful Inspector Murdoch novels set in Victorian Toronto, has changed things up and moved ahead in time to WWII. Her new novel is set not in Canada, but in Jennings’ native Britain. The setting is a tiny town in Shropshire, the time is just after the “Phoney War”, as Britain teeters on the edge of an apocalypse. Within the town is an interment camp for Germans living in Britain, who have been rounded up as a “precaution.”
This is one of my favorite outings in the Cork O’Connor series, a series that’s managed to continually surprise, captivate and compel a reader to continue to find out what’s happening in Northern Minnesota. As Cork’s family continues to heal after the death of his wife, Jo, in Heaven’s Keep, they are all enjoying a family vacation on a houseboat in the waters of the northern most point of the continental United States along with Cork’s sister in law Rose and her husband. Things are happy and serene–on the first six pages. Then all hell breaks loose.
It’s hardly necessary to write a review of a Louise Penny book – if you’re a devotee, you’re going to pick this book up no matter what I say – but as all her novels are of a piece but still stand separate from each other, at least in terms of tone, they are well worth discussing individually. She wrapped up one thread with her last masterful novel, Bury Your Dead, and she’s changed tone somewhat and taken a new direction with this novel. Bury Your Dead was an intense, deep novel that wrapped up some emotional threads in a bravura manner. This new novel is a bit less intense but still has plenty to say.
Sometimes a great first novel is no guarantee of a terrific second novel. I’m happy to report that Elly Griffith’s sophomore outing, The Janus Stone, is more than a match for her wonderful debut, The Crossing Places. Her central character, archeologist Ruth Galloway, is still living on the edge of a salt marsh in Norfolk, a setting rich in archeological history dating back to the Iron Age. In this novel, the remains are slightly more recent: they are Roman, and some of the uncovered bones are more recent still.
With the passing of Robert B. Parker, the Private Eye (P.I.) genre took a big hit. There is Loren Estleman, of course, whose work only continues to mature and deepen, and the heir to Parker, Robert Crais, but other than that the P.I. genre is filled with talented flash in the pan writers who come and go. Happily, if you don’t want to turn to your tattered copy of Chandler’s The Big Sleep, there’s also S.J. Rozan, now 11 books in to her series alternating between the voices of Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. This is a Lydia entry, Lydia being the Chinese- American daughter of a traditional Chinese mother who completely disapproves of her career choice. Also, she and her mother live together.
“She could smell it in the pillow as she pulled it closer. On the sheets as she rolled over in the darkness and searched out cool spots that were not there. Murder Season. She was floating, drifting. Cruising through an open seam between sleep and consciousness.”
If there is a writer to resemble, it might be a good idea to resemble Michael Connelly. It is no disrespect to say that Robert Ellis’ tightly plotted police procedurals set in LA and featuring homicide detective Lena Gamble resemble Connelly’s Harrry Bosch novels. However, the gender change up makes the whole enterprise fresh. Ellis happily also shares Connelly’s sharp plotting and ability to give the reader a twist that has been fairly laid out for the reader, yet is still a surprise.