Michael Robertson: The Baker Street Translation

baker-street-translationThis charming book is one of those told by a natural storyteller. Someone who just plain wants to tell you a story – other examples of this art form would be Donald E. Westlake, Lawrence Block, Michael Bond, and Elizabeth Peters. Robertson has no agenda other than giving your brain a nice workout as you figure out the puzzle along with his characters and relating a good yarn. Success on all fronts, as far as I’m concerned.

This is the third in Robertson’s series of Holmes embroideries set in the late 90’s. I can’t call this a pastiche, really, as only Sherlock’s address and letters to him are part of the equation, though the cases are solved by good old deductive reasoning. The central characters are Nigel and Reggie Heath, whose law firm happens to occupy 221B Baker Street. Letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes are delivered there, and a condition of Reggie’s lease is that he answer them. read more

Cath Staincliffe: Dead to Me

Dead to MeMinotaur does a good job picking up and publishing British police procedurals and this is one of their latest finds – a genuine, no-holds-barred procedural with not one central female character, but three, which makes it a bit different.  The men in the book are either villains, eye candy, present or ex husbands, or sidebar co-workers.  It’s the women Staincliffe is interested in and that sets this novel apart.

It’s labeled on the cover a “Scott and Bailey” novel which gives things away a bit as the two main characters, Janet Scott and Rachel Bailey, are immediately front and center.  Janet’s boss, Gill, encounters Rachel on a crime scene and likes her enough to ask her to join her elite homicide team, which is Rachel’s dream job.  Janet is older, seasoned, experienced and irritated with Rachel, who is like an overeager puppy, charging in and acting without thinking.  Part of the novel is definitely concerned with Janet and Gill’s efforts to “train” her to act like a grown up police officer. read more

Kate Rhodes: A Killing of Angels

A killing of AngelsKate Rhodes joins a new crop of British writers featuring feisty young female heroines – either police themselves or police consultants.  I’d compare her books to those by authors like Jane Casey and S.J. Bolton, both of whom highlight young female cops as their central characters.  Rhodes writes about a psychologist who consults for the police.  Both her first novel, Crossbones Yard, and this one, A Killing of Angels, are about serial killer cases.

Rhodes’ detective is one Alice Quentin who has a troubled backstory and family but whose police cases take her into a whole other dark realm, as she profiles “serials” for the cops.  All three women write about the tricky maneuvering women have to do to function in the very male atmosphere of a police station.  It’s feminism 2.0.  These women are accomplished and willing to figure out how to function within the system but often at the cost, at the suggestion of these authors at least, of a functional personal life. read more

Pamela Branch: The Wooden Overcoat

“Cor! What a bit o’ fat! I got away with it!” – Benji Cann, on his release from prison

woodenovercoatLeave it to Rue Morgue to provide me with my read of the month; when modern mysteries aren’t grabbing me, it’s delightful to read one of the gems of the past unearthed by the Rue Morgue Press, in this case this very funny novel by Pamela Branch, written in 1951. The tone is very similar to those hilarious British comedies of the 50’s – The Lavender Hill Mob,Tight Little IslandKind Hearts and Coronets, and more recently A Fish Called Wanda, that take place in the most ordinary sorts of places but thanks to dry humor and a generous dollop of improbable plot, build the laughs until they bubble up on every page as you read (or watch, in the case of the movies) along. This book has a great starting point – a house full of murderers takes in one of their own, to give him more or less a fresh start in life. The unwary Benji Cann finds himself lodging and dining with a group of people who make him uneasy, especially after he figures out who they are. Especially delicious is the “Creaker” and his repulsive cat; so called because of his creaky wooden leg. His crimes are too disgusting to be revealed (which certainly sets the wheels of the brain turning). Benji actually lives next door in a house full of artists, and unfortunately, rats. read more

Alan Bradley: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and Patricia Wentworth: Anna, Where Are You? (also known as Death at Deep End)

sweetnessatthebottomofpieSince I grew up in a place filled with rambling old houses that had decaying and mysterious corners, and this place (Mackinac Island) is also filled with the various kinds of enchanted, woodsy paths and clearings that are found in many an English detective novel, these books have never felt a bit foreign to me. Classic British detective stories, set in rambling old houses apart from the rest of the world, feel like reading about home. As Flavia, the heroine in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, thinks as she looks out into her family’s garden early one morning: “Sparkling dew lay upon everything, and I should not have been at all surprised if a unicorn had stepped from behind a rose bush and laid its head in my lap.” Of course into this heaven a dead body is usually discovered, but somehow the enchanted spell is still difficult to break. read more

Mary Elizabeth Braddon: Lady Audley’s Secret

ladyaudleyssecretAll I can say is – delicious. Mary Elizabeth Braddon was disdained by her contemporaries as a sensationalist – but she was lapped up and read by the public. Today’s public should find her tale of the devious and complicated Lady Audley no less fascinating. In true Victorian fashion, this is a novel rife with coincidence and conspiracy, and with the fiendish but seemingly angelic Lady Audley at its center, the story is one you may not be able to put down. It opens with the proposal of Lord Audley to his neighbor’s governess – she agrees, telling him that it exceeds her wildest dreams – and thus the tale begins. read more

Margery Allingham: Sweet Danger

sweetdangerMargery Allingham is one of the authors I think of as the “Big Five” – Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey being the other four – and of the five, she is easily the most original and eccentric, Sweet Danger being a case in point. Like contemporary writer Christopher Fowler, Allingham was hewing to a traditional detective storytelling mode while at the same time pushing and twisting all the boundaries as far as she could, and few of her books show this effort more beautifully than Sweet Danger. read more

Elizabeth George: Careless in Red and Agatha Christie: Hallowe’en Party

carelessinredTwo of my favorite crime writers across the spectrum of time are Agatha Christie (we even named our store after her) and Elizabeth George. I feel my juvenile reading tastes were formed by Agatha – I had finished all of her available books half way through high school, and my adult tastes have been formed by George, an author I discovered after I opened the store. Business our first winter wasn’t so brisk and so many customers had told me how great George was that I began to read one after the other. I think like many readers of contemporary crime fiction, reading A Great Deliverance, George’s first novel, remains a signature experience. Now I await the publication of a new Lynley novel with great anticipation. It’s no secret that many of her fans found her last book (which I thought was spectacular) heavy going. Titled What Came Before He Shot Her, it’s the explication of the life of the boy that shot and killed Lynley’s beloved wife, Lady Helen Clyde. Many more readers have been eagerly awaiting Lynley’s return, an appearance he finally makes in Careless in Red. This is a late in the series book – a series George has kept fresh by various methods, one of them being her last daring novel. This one is more a return to form. read more

Agatha Christie: The Boomerang Clue (also known as Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?)

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. read more

G.M. Malliet: Pagan Spring

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.”

paganspringShe’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. read more