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.
Having owned a bookstore for almost 20 years, the number of authors I’ve seen go in and out of print are a number almost too high to count. Often, talent and skill have little to do with publishing success, as the number of out of print authors that I personally feel are excellent writers is also a high number. Jeanne Dams is one of these. She’s the author of the popular (for our customers, anyway) Dorothy Martin mysteries, that were dropped long ago by her publisher, but she was writing another series at the same time, featuring a Swedish maid in 1905 South Bend, Indiana. This series, too, was dropped, but found another home with Perseverance Press, which could be another word for Jeanne’s tenacious writing career. While the Dorothy books had a larger audience, I’ve always been a big fan both of Jeanne and of her series set in South Bend.
Like his first novel, The Detroit Electric Scheme, D.E. Johnson’s second novel featuring the troubled Will Anderson is a richly layered portrait of Detroit in 1911. Poised at the dawn of the burgeoning auto industry, Will’s family owns the Detroit Electric Company, a producer of electric cars. The pricey electrics, quiet and easy to start, were driven mainly by wealthy women, but gasoline cars, cheaper and faster than electrics, are starting to overtake the market, despite the difficulty in starting them. And Henry Ford, with his ceaseless march toward efficiency in the workplace, is overtaking the electric in that way as well. His moving assembly line concept is miles ahead of the way electrics were produced, one bit at a time, carted between workstations.
Ellen Hart is the best writer you’ve never heard of. This is her 26th book, the 18th in her fine Jane Lawless series. Jane is a Minneapolis restaurant owner who solves murders in her spare time – thus, she’s the very definition of amateur detective. She’s gay and since the death of her partner Christine, she’s drifted from relationship to relationship. Jane is also the calm center of the storm in every novel; while everyone around her reacts to events, Jane deducts and analyzes.
Like the other similarly cleverly named books by Spencer Quinn, Dog on It and Thereby Hangs a Tail, this book is narrated by Chet the dog, whose human partner, Bernie, is the owner of the Little Detective Agency. There are few enough twists left to give the standard private eye novel, but this is a new slant entirely, and it’s an entirely charming one. You may not enjoy this as much if you don’t own a dog (or have ever owned and loved a dog), but that caveat will no doubt cover many, many readers.
Carrie Bebris’ charming series following Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett and her Mr. Darcy after their marriage also patterns itself on Austen’s novels. The latest installment is based on Persuasion, and the delightful Anne Elliott from that novel makes an appearance here. What Bebris really utilizes, however, is the setting of Lyme and it’s naval background for her story.
In Austen’s time, of course, England was the top sea power in the world, at a time when ships and shipping were the only way of moving goods overseas. Being a naval officer was an important and respected job, and when one turns up with his eye on Darcy’s sister, Georgiana, in this novel, it’s no surprise either that Georgiana responds to the handsome officer’s friendly overtures, or that her protective brother looks at him askance.
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.