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.
Jo Bannister has had a spotty publishing career stateside – she was a steady seller for us when she was published in paperback by Worldwide. She’s since been picked up by Minotaur and published exclusively in hardcover, but the cash outlay is well worth it. She’s one of the quiet secrets of mystery writing – not that well known, but incredibly talented and multi-faceted. Her closest “kin” as a writer may be Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, as she shares Harrod-Eagles’ mix of dry wit and gritty realism as well as her splendid plotting skills.
There’s a popular nostalgic myth concerning the idyllic nature of small town life in the fifties, back when everybody knew their place and civility and godliness ruled. Of course the truth is considerably more complicated – it’s not always a great thing when everybody knows everybody, and hatred and passion seem to grow more virulently in enclosed places.
Nobody knows better that there are secrets festering behind even the most proper façade of their small Scottish town than the staff of the local newspaper The Highland Gazette, but even they are shocked when one of their own, quiet, efficient, reserved office manager Mrs. Smart, is murdered, that shock compounded when another staff member, well liked editor Don McLeod, is arrested for the crime, which was evidently motived by a long standing relationship their co-workers knew nothing about.
We had a surprise break-out hit last fall with Malliet’s Wicked Autumn. It really shouldn’t have been a surprise, though, because Wicked Autumn, just like A Fatal Winter, is a well crafted British traditional mystery, the kind the Brits themselves no longer seem interested in writing. (Malliet, like Elizabeth George, Martha Grimes, and Deborah Crombie, is American). But the appetite for this kind of book and storytelling is ravenous.
Malliet, referencing both Father Brown and Hercule Poirot in her series centering on Anglican priest Max Tudor (he resembles Hugh Grant), in fact reminds me more of Ngaio Marsh. Her central character, like Marsh’s Alleyn, is self-deprecatingly handsome, and though he’s not secretly titled, like Allyn (or Mr. Campion, come to that) he does have the secret of being a former member of the MI5. This adds to his dash.
If this isn’t one of the best Christmas reads ever, I don’t know what is (maybe Tied Up in Tinsel, by Ngaio Marsh?). This is a light, funny reissue of a series written in the 40’s about an extremely ditzy socialite who marries a vicar and finds herself very much a fish out of water when she ends up in the English countryside. Imagine her dilemma when the curate is murdered on Christmas Eve – luckily two of her most amusing London pals are on hand to help her solve the crime. There’s more to “Lady Loops” than this precis suggests, though, all of it enjoyable and somewhat indescribable.
Rue Morgue released Joan Coggin’s charming first mystery, Who Killed the Curate?, a few years ago, and has now satisfied Lady Lupin enthusiasts with the second volume, The Mystery at Orchard House. After reading the first book I was an instant convert. Lady Lupin Hastings, a young socialite who marries an older vicar, settles down to life in the country interspersed with visits from her city friends. Like many another gentle British humor classic – Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate and E.F. Benson’s Lucia series spring to mind – the humor is almost organic and after a buildup, hysterically funny. I was worried that after the delights of the first book the second one would be a let down, but this is far from the case. It may even be funnier.