Reviewing several contemporary cozies at the same time led me back to the original “cozy” writer, Agatha herself, whose novels and characters have proved an inspiration for generations of writers to follow. This one, published in 1933, is an especially crisp and clever stand alone, a pleasure to read as well as delivering a memorable story. It opens with young Robert “Bobby” Jones coming across a man who has fallen over a cliff – (or has he?) – and he sits with the man while his companion goes for help. He’s with the unknown man as he takes his last breath, and as he utters his final phrase, “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” Bobby feels he’s done his duty after testifying at the inquest, though he’s unsettled by the sister and brother who turn up to identify the man’s body. They feel “off” to him.
I enjoyed the first two books in this series featuring vicar Max Tudor very much. The first, Wicked Autumn, was a pitch perfect tongue in cheek send up of a British Village mystery; the second, Fatal Winter, adjusted the tone somewhat so that the book read slightly darker than the first. In this third novel, just like Goldilocks on her third try, Malliet seems to have gotten things “just right.”
She’s set her cast of characters in the village of Nether Monkslip, and much like the characters in Louise Penny’s beloved Three Pines novels, each character is distinct, though none are as interesting to the reader (and I think, to the author) as the central character of Max, the dishy vicar who resembles Hugh Grant and who used to be an agent for the MI5. Max has lately taken up with the village’s resident pagan goddess, Awena, who if anything is even more secure in her belief system than Max himself. In any case Awena is off canvas for much of this novel, though she’s never far from Max’s thoughts, as he goes through life in a newly happy daze.
Bolton’s reputation and popularity has been a slow burn, but she’s catching on more and more with readers and if you like her – boy – do you like her. Lately she’s focused on a series rather than the amazing stand alone novels which began her career (Sacrifice, Awakening), but her series is wonderful as well. Her Lacey Flint books began with the outstanding Jack the Ripper thriller, Now You See Me, and she followed it up with the ultra creepy Dead Scared.
Well, she’s put Lacey through the wringer and this novel seems to be the one where she’s trying to set Lacey back to rights. It’s certainly original to have the main series character be both so troubled and so actually physically tormented just by way of doing her job. Lacey is part of the police force, ending up on a big case in the first novel by virtue of having a victim literally die in her arms; in the second, she’s undercover, and becomes the victim herself; in the third, she’s literally, as the title suggests, “lost.” She’s not the only lost one here, of course, but it becomes a theme of the book.
With her wry sense of humor, British writer Jane Casey most closely resembles her fellow country woman Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. Slightly gritty, her police stories are still tempered by some humor and interaction between the central characters that lightens the heavy load of the stories she tells. This fourth outing deals with the grisly murder of a mother and daughter. They’re discovered by the surviving daughter – a twin. The father is a well known barrister.
Called on to the case are Maeve Kerrigan and her brash partner Josh Derwent. Refreshingly, they aren’t romantically interested in each other – they just work together. Maeve is involved with a fellow officer, Rob, who has transferred divisions so they can continue to see each other.
You know how back in the 30’s and 40’s there was a famous “Detection Club”, with members like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh? That was the so-called “golden age” of detective fiction. I think the U.K. now needs a new club for writers – “The Creepy British Women Mystery Writers Club.” Either it’s something in the water over there or a national predilection, but it can’t be a coincidence that writers like S.J. Bolton, Sophie Hannah, Jane Casey, Denise Mina, Mo Hayder, Tana French, Val McDermid (and I’m sure there are others) are producing such genuinely disturbing books that they almost make you flinch to open them. All of these women are the direct descendants of the great Ruth Rendell, who could teach just about any of them the meaning of the words “concise, yet creepy.”
Deborah Crombie’s new novel explores the world of music and the limits of friendship. Set in the neighborhood of London known as the “Crystal Palace,” after the legendary and long ago burned down icon of Victorian progress, the neighborhood itself is not so legendary. It’s instead a bit gritty, and in the past it’s home to a miserable 13 year old boy who is looking out for his alcoholic mother, learning to play the guitar, and being befriended by his next door neighbor, an “older” woman who seems exotic to him. The woman, Nadine, often shares her dinner with him, sensing he’s hungry; it’s the first time an adult has looked out for him.
When books by Erin Hart, Deborah Crombie and Elly Griffiths come out all at once it’s almost an embarrassment of riches. To my mind, the three women have some similarities (and some differences), but enough similarities of the soul that reading three in a row, one by each, is a soul encompassing experience. Elly Griffiths’ was the last one I picked up of the triumvirate, and it was like slipping into pages written by an old friend.
Ruth Galloway, Griffiths’ main character, remains unapologetically herself – and readers love her for it. She’s a bit over weight, she doesn’t care about her clothes, she loves her job, and she’s passionate about her toddler, Kate. Because Kate’s father is Nelson, a married police detective, Ruth’s life is nothing if not a complicated web of relationships. Playing with this theme, Ruth hears first of the death of an old university friend, and then she receives a letter from him asking for her help.
This lovely book is a kind of spiritual meshing of Agatha Christie – for plot –and P.D. James, in that the setting and characters are as richly captured as any in a James novel. The fourth in Hart’s fine Nora Gavin series, The Book of Killowen finds Nora and Cormac back in Ireland and back in another bog, this time on the trail of an ancient bog man as well as a much more recent one.
Like the bogs of Ireland that Hart chooses to write about, her stories are richly layered creations, right down to two, not one, bodies found on top of one another in the trunk of a car dug up by a peat scavenger at the beginning of the book. As the threads of Hart’s story begin to coalesce, we meet the victim, Benedict Kavanaugh, a TV host who delighted in humiliating his guests, and his wife, one Mairead Broome, who connects the story back to an Artist’s colony in Killowen.
Ostensibly refreshed after last year’s standalone novel, Before the Poison, Peter Robinson returns to his much loved Inspector Banks series, slipping back into his familiar character like a comfortable old shoe. Banks has mellowed, gotten used to his divorce, resolved his love life issues for the time being, and is enjoying his red wine and his music. The case he’s called in to handle involves the death of a colleague at a police rehab center, where the unfortunate Bill Quinn had gone to recuperate.
Bleed for Me is an interesting mix of very early Jonathan Kellerman (the good stuff) and Tana French. Robotham has French’s writing chops and a way with prose – but he has Kellerman’s knack for suspense, some of it down and dirty. His central character is Joseph O’Loughlin, a psychologist and sometime police confidant and consultant. While Kellerman’s Alex Deleware is always specifically called in on a case, O’Loughlin’s ties seem more tenuous, though he certainly has friends on the force.