When Nevada Barr visited the store recently, I was surprised that she attracted more interest than Sara Paretsky. And Barr is definitely at her peak, while Paretsky may have crested her wave – but Barr’s debt to Paretsky is nevertheless a large and noticeable one. Her Park Ranger sleuth, Anna Pigeon, shares many of V.I. Warshawski’s loner qualities and stubborn sense of what’s right. Paretsky can write rings around Barr in terms of complex plotting, but Barr is doing something very interesting with Anna – something I enjoyed very much – she’s letting her age. In this novel, Anna is hanging out undercover as a waitress at an exclusive Yosemite resort and the twenty-somethings she’s living with are making her feel old and invisible. She gripes about turning 50, about the fact that camping isn’t her first choice for a way to spend the night anymore, about having to live in a dorm, and she’s mellowed enough to have a fiancé. These are not only good developments, they are rounding out Anna as a character and making her more believable. And Anna Pigeon is definitely what brings people to this series – that, and a chance to visit a new National Park in each novel.
Reading this book is some of the biggest fun I’ve had this summer. I was laughing aloud by the end of the first chapter, and it only got better. I had never read the five time Agatha nominee (and two time winner) Donna Andrews before her appointment to sign books here in August, but then I picked up her first Meg Lanslow novel, Murder with Peacocks, and now find myself totally hooked. She has all the plotting skills and characterization talents of the best cozy writers, layered with lots of humor and many, many eccentric characters. Using the classic small town formula – proved to be ironclad from “The Andy Griffith Show” right up through “Murder, She Wrote,” where the sane town lion is surrounded by lunatics or incompetents who aren’t quite as smart as he/she is – Andrews places her main character, Meg Lanslow, smack into the middle of one of the most eccentric families in mystery fiction.
I think one of the reasons I enjoy Figure Skating so much is that the centerpiece event of any championship – National, International or Olympic – is not the men’s final but the ladies’ final. Women rule in figure skating, and in Alina Adams’ first figure skating mystery, she naturally focuses her attention on the penultimate event, the Ladies’ Final at Worlds. In real life, of course, Michelle Kwan has dominated figure skating for over a decade – in Adam’s novel, a fresh faced American dukes it out with a more cynical Russian, and the final result ends up being a scandal – did the American or the Russian deserve to win? That’s really the central question of the novel, and the judge who gets bumped off is kind of a bonus. If you are a skating fan at all, the whole set up will remind you of the pairs uproar at the last Olympics, where the Canadians were eventually allowed to share a gold medal with the Russian pair.
This is a beautifully written, moving, horrifying book – but it also has some problems. Abel is able almost as well as James Lee Burke to take New Orleans and make it live and breathe for the reader – and he is also skilled at various violent vignettes which stay around with you for some time after finishing the book (another James Lee Burke talent). He has an interesting main character, Danny Chaisson, a former DA who left his job to be the bagman for one of the most notorious political “fixers” in Louisiana – and in Louisiana, famous for its scandalous politics, that’s saying alot. Danny has lots of interesting psychological baggage and he’s an appealing character. The plot is sort of an amorphous one – much like the hot, humid, smoky New Orleans weather, parts of this plot seem to swirl in out of nowhere on a heat wave, and then swirl right back out. The book opens with the restaurant slaughter of five people – two of whom were Danny’s friends. For Danny, this is an irresistible draw into a heartbreaking case which ends up leading to a major gun supplier. Danny is tied into it in all kinds of ways that emerge as the plot moves along.
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”.
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.
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.
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.