Mike Lawson: The Inside Ring

The Inside RingIt’s always been a puzzle to me why the talented Mike Lawson isn’t a superstar, and his first book, The Inside Ring, is so good it really begs the question. I’m always in the mood for a thriller this time of year, and went to the Lawson part of the alphabet and grabbed this one on Christmas Eve. I’ve read others in the series but never the first, and it joins my ongoing mental list of terrific first novels that hit every mark out of the gate.

Lawson’s series character, Joe DeMarco, is a “fixer” for the Speaker of the House and works very much under the radar. His office is even in the basement of the House of Representatives alongside the janitorial staff. Whenever the speaker – long-time pol Mahoney – needs a task done that can’t see the light of day, it’s DeMarco he puts into motion. This gives DeMarco a lot of power and not quite enough as his official title and credentials are slightly nebulous. Because of DeMarco’s family background – his father was in the mob – he doesn’t carry a gun and tries to avoid violence. It often finds him anyway, though. read more

David Bell: The Forgotten Girl & J. Sheridan Le Fanu: Wylder’s Hand

WyldersHandI generally read one book at home and a different one at work. Recently the home book was an old one, Wylder’s Hand, the 1864 “sensation novel” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, and the store book was brand new, David Bell’s The Forgotten Girl. Strangely enough, I didn’t get very far in either of them before I realized that despite a span of 150 years, they had the same basic plot. I call it “the mysterious disappearance,” and even though it’s an ancient story, going back at least as far as Persephone, perhaps the original Gone Girl, it’s very much in the air these days, especially since we’re all about to ask where the heck the warm weather went to. read more

Gwendoline Butler: A Dark Coffin

Gwendoline Butler had a long and prolific career, writing 32 John Coffin novels, 19 Charmian Daniels novels under the pseudonym of Jennie Melville, as well having a successful career as a romance novelist.  I’ve always been aware of her and we usually have some of her series under both her names on our shelves, but recently I was searching for a new (to me) British Detective Inspector and I thought I’d give a Coffin novel a try.

A Dark CoffinThis one, published in 1995, is 26th in the series, so the characters and setting are well established.  I found that I didn’t feel any need to have read any of the other books though I was a bit curious about the relationship between Coffin and his well known actress wife, Stella Pinero.  Butler is definitely of the “old school” of crime writing – i.e., she’s done telling her brisk tale in a mere 250 pages – so this is a novel, like an Agatha Christie and a Ngaio Marsh, that with the right comfy chair you could finish in an evening.  Sometimes there’s nothing better. read more

Patricia D. Cornwell: Postmortem

postmortemMy 13 year old son was spending lots of time reading graphic novels – he’s a bit past the YA novels available – and wondering how to get him into reading actual books, I gave him a copy of Mystic River for Christmas. He devoured it, even going into his room and shutting the door to read in peace. Since then he’s also become a giant Harlan Coben fan (he’s reading The Woods right now), but he seems to like serial killer novels, having also enjoyed Connelly’s The Poet. So, bad mother that I am (what kind of mom gives her 13 year old a copy of a Dennis Lehane novel, after all?) I of course thought he might as well read one of the true classics of the serial killer genre, Patricia Cornwell’s Postmortem. Well, that was another close the door and leave me alone read for him, and when he had finished it, it was of course lying around the house, so I thought I would re-read it, wondering if I would enjoy it as much as I did in 1990, when it was first published. 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