Either you like Lawrence Block’s dark, depressingly violent Matt Scudder books, or you prefer the light hearted and frequently very funny Bernie Rhodenbarr books. I confess I fall into the later category. I’ve long been a fan of Bernie’s, and having even re-read several of the early series books a few times I was more than delighted when Block brought Bernie out of hibernation. I loved The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams but was put off by The Burglar in the Library and hadn’t picked up another “Bernie” book until this one, an affectionate homage to Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Almost everyone, I think, probably remembers the first time they read The Catcher in the Rye, and in Block’s deft and clever book, everyone remembers the fictional Nobody’s Baby, written by the fictional Gulliver Fairborn. Almost every character has occasion to say, in one way or another, “That book changed my life”. Bernie is on the hunt for some letters written by the ultra reclusive and mysterious Fairborn, but when he breaks into Fairborn’s agent’s apartment to “liberate” them, the agent is dead and Bernie has to leave empty handed.Though the plots in the Burglar books are almost always insanely clever, what’s really fun about them is the setting and the very real characters that Block chooses to populate Bernie’s world. There’s Bernie himself, bookseller by day, burglar by night (and I have to say in my early years of bookselling, Bernie’s choice was starting to seem like an excellent one); there’s Carolyn, the lesbian dog groomer and Bernie’s best friend; there’s Ray, the insensitive, uneducated cop on the take, who nevertheless manages to figure out what’s going on; and of course each book has it’s own individual characters. In The Burglar in the Rye there’s a mysterious female who apparently lived for a brief time with Fairborn, and a charming retiree named Henry who wants to learn the bookselling game and who turns up out of nowhere to help out at the store just when Bernie can use it.
There’s a blurb from Loren Estleman on the jacket of this book, and I can well imagine Mr. Estleman, himself a purveyor of the delicious, well turned phrase, enjoying the beautiful language in this book. It’s so lovely, I read it slowly to enjoy the way this woman writes, because it’s unusually pleasing. On top of that (also like Estleman) she’s got a zinger of a story and a fast moving narrative to go along with it. The only novel I can compare this to is Alexander McCall Smith’s The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency because Meredith Blevins immerses the reader so totally in another culture that when you’re finished with the book it’s almost disorienting to discover that you, in fact, are not a gypsy or even related to one, like the heroine of this novel, Annie Szabo.
Even for someone who never reads anthologies (like me) this one has a bit more going for it than the usual. I’m not a big fan of the mystery short story unless they’re written by Rex Stout, but taking a look at this book, I can see I’ve been missing out. Don Bruns, himself a musician and a writer, pulled together a group of writers who also are singers and not only had them write a short story but had them record a song – the CD is included (so the price point is a complete bargain). He has an impressive list of contributors, including Jeffery Deaver, John Lescroart, Val McDermid, Rhys Bowen and Peter Robinson, and after each story there’s an interview with each author, making this book truly unique.
Our book club usually reads one of the paperback originals nominated for the Edgar – and often, we’ve been disappointed. This year’s choice, The Librarian, not only was not disappointing, I think we’re guaranteed a wonderful discussion after we’ve all read it. This isn’t a novel so much as a call to action. If you’re a big fan of George W. Bush, you should probably stay far, far away from it, but if you aren’t, you’ll probably savor the entire thing. The political polemic actually comes in the form of a really terrific, smoothly told story about a mild mannered librarian who agrees to inventory the papers of a local man who is not only extremely wealthy, but deeply involved in the behind the scenes job of re-electing the sitting Republican president. This “fictional” president was elected the first time under suspicious circumstances (Florida was the swing vote), has dealt with a terrible terrorist attack, and has initiated three wars in the Middle East (I did say this was fiction, right?)
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.