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.
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.
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.