2008 Reviews
January 1, 2008

Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca?G.M. Ford
Who in Hell Is Wanda Fuca? (1995) is the first in the six-book series featuring Leo Waterman, a semi-hard boiled PI in Seattle with a crew of old homeless guys assisting, after a fashion, on stakeouts — who better than “invisible” street people. Leo is hired by a local gangster to find his missing, rebellious granddaughter, now into environmental causes. Good local color, energetic writing, along with a dose of humor make for an entertaining read, including the immortal line: Somebody once said that living in Seattle was like being married to a beautiful woman who was sick all the time.

Murder on a Girls' Night OutAnne George
Murder on a Girls’ Night Out (1996) introduces Patricia Anne “Mouse” Hollowell, a retired English teacher in Alabama, and her dynamic sister, Mary Alice “Sister” Crane, who has just bought a country-western club. When the previous owner is murdered in the club and Patricia Anne discovers that a former star student may be suspected, the sisters find themselves in the midst of the investigation, to the chagrin of the local sheriff. The mystery takes a back seat to the relationship and dialog between the sisters, at times laugh-out-loud funny. Recommended for all sisters who enjoy light mysteries.

Half Broken ThingsMorag Joss
Half Broken Things (2003) is a spellbinding tale of psychological suspense. Jean, a housesitter about to be age-retired, Steph, a very pregnant runaway, and Michael, a timid thief, all end up at a secluded country house for the summer through a combination of coincidence and deceit. Supported by the manor’s riches, the three lonely people begin to come out of their separate shells and bond into a family. Then an unexpected visitor arrives and the facade begins to crumble. Very well written and complex, this novel is hard to put down.

Test of WillsCharles Todd
A Test of Wills (1996) introduces Ian Rutledge, a shell-shocked World War I veteran returning to his job at Scotland Yard, in London, England. Rutledge is barely functional, tormented by the ever-present voice of the young Scott he had executed in the trenches for refusing to fight, but hopes that returning to work will help him solidify his grip on sanity. Unfortunately his first case is too close to the bone: a decorated war hero is the main suspect in the murder of a popular career colonel and the witness is a shell shock victim veering between drunkenness and madness. Rutledge’s firm rein on his emotions creates a distance between himself and the world which is slowly eroded throughout the case.


February 1, 2008

Involuntary WitnessGianrico Carofiglio
Involuntary Witness (2002) introduces Guido Guerrieri, a defense lawyer in Bari, Italy. As the book opens, Guido’s wife leaves him and he sinks into a mixture of despair and panic. He is unable to concentrate on his work until he is convinced to take on the defense of a Senegalese peddler accused of killing a young boy. Guido eventually accepts that his client is innocent and, despite the weight of police evidence, takes the unconventional step of going to trial rather than accepting a plea bargain. This court procedural is an indictment of the Italian justice system and a portrait of a lawyer rediscovering his compassion.

Mistress of the Art of DeathAriana Franklin
Mistress of the Art of Death (2007) takes place in 12th century England. When four children are brutally murdered and mutilated in Cambridge, the Catholic townspeople blame their Jewish neighbors, who are placed under the protection of King Henry II. In desperate need of the taxes from the Jewish merchants, King Henry asks his cousin the King of Sicily to send a medical examiner. The University of Salerno chooses Adelia (Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar of Salerno), a young prodigy in anatomy, trained as a “doctor for the dead.” In England Adelia faces accusations of witchcraft and of necessity pretends to be the assistant to her servant, a Saracen eunuch. This mystery provides a fascinating glimpse into the daily life and social position of Jews and women at that time.

Sleeping Car MurdersSebastien Japrisot
The 10:30 from Marseille (1962) [APA: The Sleeping Car Murders] is the French author’s first mystery, written in a whimsical and offhand manner, that can turn sudden and direct, as the perspective moves from person to person. More people die than one would expect, after a porter finds a woman’s body in a six-person overnight berth on the train from Marseille to Paris. Cops and victims each get their time in the spotlight. Detective Grazziano, called Grazzi, faces many challenges, including political pressures and the inability of people to remember his name. The book is a breezy, yet sometimes complex read; nicely compact at under 180 pages, it seems like more.

Dead Man in TriesteMichael Pearce
A Dead Man in Trieste (2004) introduces Sandor Pelczynski Seymour, reared by immigrant parents in London's working-class East End and now an officer with Special Branch. Seymour’s language skills are strong, but his geography is weak, and he's not exactly sure where Trieste is when sent to investigate the disappearance of the British consul. It’s 1906 and the political scene is dynamic, but totally incomprehensible to Seymour who has to consult the corner newspaper vender for local information. Luckily the affable Seymour is adept at interpreting people and events. He connects with the local dockworkers, artists, and socialists and soon finds the exotic environment familiar.

Mad MoneyLinda L. Richards
Mad Money (2004) introduces Madeline Carter, a stockbroker in New York. When Madeline’s fellow broker is shot at the office, she decides to change her life and moves to Los Angeles, California. Missing the adrenaline rush of her former life, Madeline becomes a day trader. An insider tip from a former lover endangers her entire savings and Madeline is soon embroiled in a quest to figure out what is going on. A mixture of humor, romance, and thriller with an engaging heroine, this book is hard to put down.

Black Water TransitCarsten Stroud
Black Water Transit (2001) is a bloody non-series police procedural, of sorts, as the central engine driving the plot involves the competition and confusion among NYPD and NY state cops, and the ATF, driven by an ambitious US attorney. On the other side in the intricate plot is the tough, but victimized, owner of the shipping company in the title, and a somewhat unbelievable superhuman paramilitary businessman and sharpshooter, along with a dose of sympathetic and unsympathetic Mafia types. While the literal police radio communications are tiresome, only making the book overlong, the characterizations and plot line are strong and compelling, and there is some humor, too. A bit of an agenda about the ATF and property seizures shows through, but it fits into the story well enough to make our cut.


March 1, 2008

The Blue PlaceNicola Griffith
The Blue Place (1998) introduces Aud Torvingen, a half-American, half-Norwegian lesbian ex-Atlanta cop. Now working as a self-defense teacher and part-time body guard, Aud has a disconcerting habit of automatically figuring out how many seconds it would take her to snap the neck of random people. This killing mindset is her “blue place,” where violence provides the only pleasure. Convinced to help Julia, an art dealer whose friend has been murdered, Aud is slowly drawn back into a life containing other joys.

The Spellman FilesLisa Lutz
The Spellman Files (2007) introduces Isabele “Izzy Spellman, a 28-year old sleuth working for her parents’ private investigation firm, in San Francisco, California. This book isn’t so much a mystery as an exploration of growing up in a family of detectives. The family dynamics are hilarious, and a bit frightening—in this family privacy doesn’t exist. Izzy’s mother pries full names and birthdates out of Izzy’s dates so that she can run a complete check, her uncle teaches her to pick locks as a birthday present, and her father smashes her left tail light so he can shadow her more easily after dark. When Izzy’s much younger sister Rae begins to involve herself in the family business, becoming addicted to “recreational surveillance,” Izzy begins to wonder what it would be like to be normal, and tries to extract herself from the Spellman household and agency. This book is original, funny, fast-paced, totally involving, and highly recommended.

The Skull MantraEliot Pattison
The Skull Mantra (1999) introduces Shan Tao Yun, a Chinese bureaucrat imprisoned with Buddhist monks in a Himalayan labor camp. Formerly the inspector general of the Ministry of Economy in Beijing, Shan manages to survive torture and hard labor because of the protection and spiritual support from his fellow prisoners of the 404th. When the headless body of a local Chinese official is found by the prisoners building a road through the mountains, Shan is forced by the Red Army colonel in charge of the district to conduct the investigation. Colonel Tan wants a quick resolution of the case, but Shan is determined to find the truth. Like Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko, Shan manages to retain his humanity despite the oppression of socialist bureaucracy. Rich with details of Tibetan Buddhist life, this book draws you into another reality. Highly recommended.

CypressGroveJames Sallis
Cypress Grove (2003) introduces John Turner, an ex-cop, ex-con, ex-psychotherapist who has retired to remote Cripple Creek, Tennessee. His solitude is interrupted by the local sheriff, asking for help with a murder case. Turner is drawn reluctantly into the investigation of the bizarre murder. Alternating chapters flash back into Turner’s past, building the story of what made him the man he is today. The murder plot is detailed and involving, but this is more a story of the detective than the detection. Excellent writing throughout.

Shop Till You DropElaine Viets
Shop till You Drop (2003) introduces Helen Hawthorne, who gave up her affluent lifestyle for a minimum-wage job at Juliana’s, an ultra-exclusive Florida boutique with a locked door to keep out unfashionable undesirables wearing cheap shoes. The clientele at Juliana’s are uniformly underweight, usually blond, and sculpted by injections and surgery. Helen can’t help noticing that more than size 2 clothes are sold at Juliana’s; designer drugs hidden in vintage evening purses are also a hot item. Wickedly funny, this book lampoons fashion, Florida, dating, and especially cosmetic surgery. When the Florida police find a body in a barrel in the bag, she is identified by the serial numbers on her silicon implants! Murder with Reservations (#6 in the series) has just been nominated for the 2007 Agatha Award for Best Novel.

A Small Death in LisbonRobert Wilson
A Small Death in Lisbon (1999) won the Gold Dagger for the best mystery of the year. The novel switches back and forth between two stories. In 1941, Klaus Felsen, an industrialist in Germany, who is pressured by the SS to go to Lisbon, Portugal, and oversee the smuggling of wolfram (tungsten) which is needed to produce tanks and weapons. In 1999, Lisbon detective Ze Coelho is investigating the murder of a 15-year old girl. At first the two stories seem unrelated, but as the story of Felson and his Portuguese partner moves forward, and Coelho looks back, the link is finally completed. This book is a fascinating look at Portuguese history as well as a suspenseful mystery.

April 1, 2008

Anonymous RexEric Garcia
Anonymous Rex (1999) introduces an unexpected PI, an undercover Velociraptor, but then all the 14 surviving dinosaur species are undercover in the human world. Vinny Rubio thus has a double challenge, as a standard hard-boiled PI in Los Angeles, who also has to tread the dino-humie line. Oddly enough, the book is so convincing, that the reader finds the challenges and interactions convincingly natural, and the story of bosses and gangsters and lowlifes and dames, etc., proceeds in nearly traditional noir fashion. A weird excursion in some standard cliched situations, but freshly interpreted.

Hamlet RevengeMichael Innes
Hamlet, Revenge! (1937) is the second in the Inspector Appleby series, but the first we could find, and it is just as well, with 31 suspects in an amazingly complex, erudite, academic country house murder mystery by a master, an originator of the “donnish” investigation. Inspector Appleby doesn’t arrive until page 75, but the academic lectures on Shakespeare's Hamlet keep the reader busy. In the end, the struggles are worth it, and Innes provides a towering literary mystery, rewarding the time it takes to analyze the professorial sentences. This, and presumably its series fellows, provide a depth of comfort that the language and literature has been well-served.

The CirclePeter Lovesey
The Circle (2005) tells the story of Bob Naylor, a van driver who enjoys playing with rhymes. Prodded by his daughter to get out more, Bob attends a meeting of the Chichester Writers’ Circle where the chair is taken by the police in suspicion of the arson that killed his disreputable publisher. Bob is pressured by the women in the group to help clear the chair's name, and after a second death the entire group is added to the list of suspects. Henrietta “Hen” Mallin, a police inspector on loan from West Sussex eventually arrives to take over the case, but it is the amateurs who stumble over most of the clues. Bob’s rhymes add a playful touch to this book sure to please fans of traditional mysteries. (The 2nd Hen Mallin book, The Headhunters, comes out this month.)

Skinny DippingClaire Matturo
Skinny-Dipping (2004) introduces Lilly Belle Rose Cleary, a junior partner in a prestigious law firm in Sarasota, Florida. Lilly, a vegetarian who frets that her fruit might be treated with pesticides or germ-laden, is just finishing a kayak whiplash case when two medical malpractice suits get dumped on her desk. Obsessive-compulsive by nature, Lilly notices that the neatly aligned paper clips on the files in her office are no longer parallel—someone has been rummaging through her papers. Then one of her clients is murdered, Lilly is attacked, and the investigation is off and running. Lilly is a wonderful narrator—funny, witty, and smart as a whip.

The HunterAsa Nonami
The Hunter (1996) is the first English translation in the Takako Otomichi series, following police procedural detail, as well as Japanese proto-feminist internal dialog, as homicide detective and also elite motorcycle cop Takako works in the rigid old boys’ police network to solve a bizarre immolation murder. This is one that operates not-so-subtly on several levels, and is rewarding in terms of cultural factors, gender politics in modern Japan, and, not the least, a tight murder story, notwithstanding a bit of extraneous wolf-stuff. One of the best Japanese mysteries to arrive in English, in a wonderfully accessible translation.

Big Red TequilaRick Riordan
Big Red Tequila (1996) introduces Jackson “Tres” Navarre, who left San Antonio, Texas, after he witnessed the murder of his sheriff father. Ten years later, responding to letters from his high school sweetheart, Tres returns to San Antonio armed with a PhD in English, a mastery of Tai Chi, investigative skills learned working for a San Francisco law firm, and an enchilada-eating cat. Tres decides to tackle the unsolved homicide of his father, but then his old girlfriend disappears, and things quickly move from bad to worse. Lively narration, vivid characters, snappy dialog, and a wry sense of humor make this book a winner.


May 1, 2008

Missing WitnessGordon Campbell
Missing Witness (2007) tells the story of Doug McKenzie who returns in 1973 to his home town of Phoenix, Arizona to work with legendary defense lawyer Dan Morgan. The case seems clear: a rich rancher’s son has been shot by either his beautiful wife, Rita, or emotionally disturbed 12-year old daughter, Miranda. When Miranda slips into a catatonic state, the murdered man’s father hires Morgan to defend his daughter-in-law. Nominated for the Edgar for Best First Novel, this powerful courtroom drama has a twisty plot and finely drawn portraits of two very different lawyers.

In the WoodsTana French
In the Woods (2007) is narrated by Dublin detective Rob Ryan, whose two childhood friends disappeared in the woods 20 years earlier. Only his partner, Cassie Maddox, knows that Ryan was the third child, found with no memory of the event. When Ryan and Maddox begin to investigate the murder of a 12-year-old girl whose body is found at a local archeological dig near the same woods, the past and present collide. Ryan knows he should remove himself from the investigation, but the chilling similarities between the two cases give him hope of laying old ghosts to rest. Ryan and Maddox are complex and empathetic characters, and their relationship gives this police procedural thriller unexpected emotional depth. This impressive debut novel is a finalist for the 2008 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Motherless BrooklynJonathan Lethem
Motherless Brooklyn (1999) narrates the exploits of Lionel Essrog and a crew of high-school dropout orphans, who are borrowed from an orphanage to do some heavy lifting of a dubious nature for Frank Minna. The group graduates into the “Minna Men” operating a private limo service and detective agency in Brooklyn. The kicker in all this is that Lionel is an intelligent and heartwarming sufferer of Tourette’s Syndrome, although Lionel accepts and even glories in his condition. The 2000 Gold Dagger winner takes on Lionel’s personal rhythm of wordplay, outbursts, tics, and physical exhibitions, integrating with a complex story of murder, cults, and mafiosi. One of the most amazing and rewarding books we’ve recently read.

Head GamesCraig McDonald
Head Games (2007) tells the story of Hector Lassiter (aging crime writer), Bud Fiske (a young poet sent by True Magazine in 1957 to interview Lassiter), and the stolen head of Mexican general Pancho Villa. Lassiter embodies the pulp fiction he writes, tearing through the desert from Mexico to LA with a trunkful of heads while fighting off Mexican nationalists as well as creepy members of Yale University’s Skull & Bones Fraternity with his trusty 1873 Colt Pacemaker. Full of history and legends, this fun wild ride of a first novel is nominated for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Silent in the GraveDeanna Raybourn
Silent in the Grave (2007) introduces Lady Julia Grey, whose husband Edmond dies suddenly of heart disease at a dinner party in their London townhouse. Over her husband’s body, Julia meets Nicholas Brisbane, a mysterious private detective who suspects murder since he is working for Edmond to find the source of threatening letters. In 1880s London, England, it’s not easy to be a widow, especially in the first year of deep mourning, and it is over a year before Julia finds an indication that Brisbane might be right. A pitch-perfect historical, this is an impressive first novel with an interesting heroine, a disturbing but attractive detective, and a slightly eccentric cast of supporting characters. The themes are dark for a traditional mystery, but Julia’s sprightly narration and optimism provide the balance to earn a nomination for an Agatha Best First Mystery.

Prime TimeHank Phillippi Ryan
Prime Time (2007) introduces Charlotte “Charlie” McNally, a TV investigative reporter, in Boston, Massachusetts. At age 46, workaholic Charlie, whose strongest relationship seems to be with her Emmy Award, worries that her news director is about to replace her with a younger model. Charlie is sent to interview the wife of a man killed in an auto accident and learns that the dead man recently emailed her about some mysterious papers. While searching through her SPAM, Charlie finds some intriguing messages that she hopes will result in a block buster news story just in time for Sweeps Week. Charlie meets the first man who has interested her in ages, but her instinct to investigate everything cause her to suspect he may not be one of the good guys. This debut novel won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel.

Who Is Conrad HirstKevin Wignall
Who Is Conrad Hirst? (2007) is the story of a hit man who decides to retire. Knowing that a retired hit man is a liability to the organization, Conrad decides to kill the four men who know who he is and what he does. He is slightly worried when the first victim tells him that everything he has been told is a lie. When the face of the German crime boss he believes he has been working for does not match the face of the man who hired him, Conrad realizes he has no idea how to extricate himself from the situation. Conrad kills with no emotion, yet somehow becomes a sympathetic character as he tries to unravel his present and past. (Nominee for 2008 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original)


June 1, 2008

QueenpinMegan Abbott
Queenpin (2007) is the story of a young woman working as a bookkeeper at a small-time nightclub. Gloria Denton, an infamous and glamorous mob-insider, takes our unnamed narrator on as a protégée, her assistant in an intoxicating world of late-night casinos, race tracks, and betting parlors in a unspecified time and place that feels like the 40s. The relationships in this noir tale are complex and compelling, the action swift, the spiraling climax inevitable yet fresh. This hard-boiled stunner won the 2008 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.

Hit ManLawrence Block
Hit Man (1998) a series of linked short stories, introduces John Paul Keller, a hit-man based in New York City. As he works on his various assignments, Keller’s active imagination searches for a place for himself in the new environment: he could buy a house and settle in a small town; he could be the cowboy who rides into town to dispense justice. Considering his occupation, Keller is an amazingly sympathetic character. Keller is a mass of contradictions: a compassionate killer, a loner craving companionship. Keller’s wry ironic narration makes the reader care about this criminal. Hit and Run, the fourth book in the Keller series, is due this month.

Moonlight DownsAdrian Hyland
Moonlight Downs (2008) is an amazing debut novel, the story of Emily Tempest, a feisty half-white half-aboriginal 26-year old, returning to the Outback blackfeller camp of Moonlight Downs after 14 years in the whitefeller world. Just after she arrives, the respected community leader is murdered in a manner implicating the local sorcerer. Ambivalent about her place in the world, and her relationship with Hazel, the daughter of the murdered man and her best friend from the past, Emily begins searching for answers about the murder, her community, and herself. Rich in details of Australian life and culture, this beautifully written book is a gem. First published in Australia as Diamond Dove (2006), this book won the 2007 Ned Kelly Award for best first novel.

Blue BloodSusan McBride
Blue Blood (2004) introduces Andrea “Andy” Kendricks, a 30-something webmaster who chose art school in Chicago over her debutante ball. Andrea has returned to Dallas, Texas, and mother Cissy still has hopes of marrying her daughter off to someone in the right social strata. Andy prefers her independence, but calls on her mother for help when her old friend Molly O’Brien is arrested for murdering her sleazy boss. To her mother’s dismay, Andy goes undercover at “Jugs” in hot pants, padded jog bra, and big hair to search for evidence to clear Molly. This novel earned the Lefty Award for Best Humorous Mystery of 2004 and a nomination for the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original.

Hunt for Sonya DufretteR.T. Raichev
The Hunt for Sonya Dufrette (2006) begins with the disappearance and presumed drowning of a small girl during a house party on the day of the royal wedding in 1981. Twenty years later, Antonia Darcy, now a grandmother, librarian at the Military and Naval Club in London, and aspiring mystery writer, finds the detailed account she wrote at the time. Convinced that something was missed during the long-ago investigation, Antonia, assisted by her new admirer Major Hugh Payne, returns to the country house to search for clues. This solid traditional mystery features an engaging protagonist, a supporting cast of wonderfully eccentric characters, and an intriguing trail of clues and red herrings.

Open and ShutDavid Rosenfelt
Open and Shut (2002) introduces Andy Carpenter, an irreverent defense attorney in Paterson, New Jersey who will do just about anything to win a case. Andy has a girlfriend, an almost-ex-wife, and a golden retriever he adores. When his father, a legendary ex-D.A. dies unexpectedly, he leaves Andy an unexpected fortune and an un-winnable case. Bits of the past and the present collide with unpredictable results that change the nature of the case and Andy himself. Luckily his sense of the absurd and biting wit are untouched.


July 1, 2008

Through a Glass, DeadlySarah Atwell
Through a Glass, Deadly (2008) introduces Emmeline (Em) Dowell, an artist with a weakness for strays, which is why she has two short-legged dogs that have to be carried up and down the stairs of the apartment above her glassblowing studio and shop in Tucson, Arizona. When the hesitant Allison McBride expresses interest in learning about glass, Em offers her a part-time job and her spare bedroom. That night Allison’s husband is murdered in the studio and Em finds herself chasing down clues to prove her new friend's innocence. Em is funny and unpretentious—the recipe included in the back of the book is for her specialty: Mac & Cheese with Hotdogs. This light mystery will appeal to those interested in crafts; the glassblowing techniques are fascinating, and each chapter begins with a glass vocabulary definition

The GuardsKen Bruen
The Guards (2001) introduces Jack Taylor, recently dismissed from the Garda Siochana (Irish police) for drinking, now “finding things” for people in Galway, Ireland, since “private eye” sounds too much like “informer” to the Irish. Hired by a woman who is sure her daughter did not commit suicide, Jack battles the garda and the drink to find the truth. A complex mix of violence, wit, despair, determination, and compassion, Jack Taylor is a compelling and unforgettable character. Bruen’s writing is literate and lyrical throughout: this novel won the 2004 Shamus Award and was a finalist for the Edgar and the Macavity.

A Cold Day in ParadiseSteve Hamilton
A Cold Day in Paradise (1998) introduces Alex McKnight, a former Detroit cop now running a hunting camp built by his late father, in Paradise, Michigan, on the shore of Lake Superior. Still wrestling with the aftereffects of a shooting that killed his partner and left a bullet next to his heart, Alex is reluctantly drawn into protecting a local millionaire. The past events are skillfully woven into the fast pace of the present as Alex becomes convinced that the man who shot him 14 years ago is behind the current murders even though he is still behind maximum security bars. As the clever plot twists and turns, Alex faces his own demons. Though it reads like a stand-alone, there are six more in the series. An amazing debut novel, this book was awarded the 1999 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

The SinnerPetra Hammesfahr
The Sinner (1999) [English 2007], the German author’s English debut, is a highly competent and engaging psychological exploration and police procedural. Cora Bender, a young mother who stabs an apparent stranger to death at the beach, has a loose grip on reality, or perhaps a firm grip on many shifting realities, providing a major challenge to Grovian, the police commissioner who persists in following all the threads. Cora has major family issues, involving her religiously fanatic mother, strange father, and frail sister, and the way the book progresses by gradually peeling off layers to expose new truths is fascinating. The author effectively shifts first-person perspectives and third-person description. We hope there will be more Hammesfahr translations.

Havana BlueLeonardo Padura
Havana Blue (1991) [English 2007], is the first of the Cuban author’s Four Seasons Quartet set in Havana in 1989—called the Havana Quartet in the English edition. Police lieutenant Mario Conde, known as the Count, investigates the disappearance of an up-and-coming government trade official, who also happens to be an old classmate, married to Tamara, a girl Conde and his friends fantasized about back in high school. The rich characterizations and bittersweet remembrances of old times 20 years ago play as great a role in the book as the investigation. Havana and Cuban politics are effectively woven into the story, as part of the atmosphere. Conde is a bit of a loner, with a goldfish named Rufino, and who hums “Strawberry Fields Forever” when he needs a lift out of depression. The second book in the series, Havana Gold (1994), has just been published in English, to complete the Quartet.

Love Is MurderLinda Palmer
Love Is Murder (2004) introduces Morgan Tyler, a 30-year-old widow and the head writer of the daytime drama “Love of My Life” in New York City. Morgan continually creates scenes in her head, both for the characters on her show and for her own life. When Morgan’s boss, the VP of Daytime Programming, is murdered, real life becomes as compelling as fiction. Morgan manages to stumble over a body or two, and her unusual expertise about guns and wills, research for past stories in her show, promote her to prime suspect status. So Morgan decides to solve the crime by doing what a soap opera writer does best—examining the story lines of everyone involved until the logical motive emerges. This traditional mystery is witty and fun.


August 1, 2008

Lost AngelMike Doogan
Lost Angel (2006) introduces Nik Kane, a 55-year old ex-cop and soon to be ex-husband, in Anchorage, Alaska. Nik has just been released from prison after serving all but three months of a 7-year prison term resulting from a false conviction. Nik finds readjusting to the outside world difficult, and when asked by his former boss to look for a missing woman from a Christian community in the icy interior, Nik agrees to help. As the case grows more complex, Nik discovers that reviving his dormant investigative skills may be the key to reawakening his interest in life. An engaging detective and fascinating setting combine to make this book something special.

Death of an Obnioxious TouristMaria Hudgins
Death of an Obnoxious Tourist (2006) introduces Dotsy Lamb, a recently divorced empty nester from Virginia, traveling with her friend Lettie in Italy. The tour group includes a very annoying woman who manages to alienate everyone in the group, including her two sisters, by the second day. When she is murdered in Florence, Dotsy and Lettie decide to help find the killer. They form a perfect amateur team: Dotsy is logical and persistent while the scatterbrained Lettie has a near photographic memory. The suspect list quickly narrows down to the eclectic tour group. which includes a Canadian dairy farmer who carries pictures of his favorite cows and an Englishman who speaks in incomprehensible bursts. Traditional mystery fans will enjoy this humorous book.

Jade Lady BurningMartin Limón
Jade Lady Burning (1994) introduces George Sueno and Ernie Bascom of the Eighth Army Criminal Investigations Division in 1960s Seoul, South Korea. Seoul is full of American GIs with too much money and Korean “business girls” trying to make a living. When Miss Pak is brutally murdered, George and Ernie are assigned to investigate since and American GI had submitted marriage papers for her. The Army wants a quick solution to kill the bad press, George and Ernie want to return to their usual life of hanging around the bars, but the Korean cops and underworld are taking an interest. George has a fondness for business girls and decides to actually solve a case for a change. The desperate reality of Korean women struggling to survive is presented with compassion.

The Harper's QuinePat McIntosh
The Harper’s Quine (2004), introduces Gil Cunningham in 15th century Glasgow, Scotland, who stumbles over the murdered body of a woman. Gil is trained as a lawyer, and is expected to enter the priesthood since he has no other means of support. Gil is asked to investigate and he soon identifies the corpse as a noblewoman who has left her husband to become the harper’s mistress. Assisted by the French master mason who is constructing a building where the body was found, Gil examines forensic clues while also using his intuition. The mason’s lively daughter decides to help solve the puzzle, and Gil finds himself wondering if there are alternatives to the priesthood. The realism of the historical setting is impressive and the characters true to life. Medieval mystery fans will love this series.

The Case of the Missing BooksIan Sansom
The Case of the Missing Books (2006) introduces Israel Armstrong, a Jewish vegetarian from London, who is hired as head librarian by the village of Tumdrum, Northern Ireland. When Ian arrives in the small damp village he discovers that the library has been closed and that his accommodations are a drafty chicken coop complete with resident chickens. The council provides him with an ancient mobile library—an empty bus with no shelves or books. Ian's hilarious struggles to comprehend the local variety of English and avoid eating pork products while navigating the unnamed maze of back roads in search of the missing 15,000 library books make this traditional mystery a fun read.

Publish and PerishSally Wright
Publish and Perish (1997) introduces Ben Reese, a 1960s archivist at a small private college in Ohio. When Richard West, head of the English department, dies of heart failure immediately after telling Ben on the phone that he has discovered an act of treachery, Ben wonders if there has been foul play. A former intelligence agent and commando in World War II, and a friend of the local chief of police, Ben soon finds himself actively involved in the murder investigation. The characters and the insights into campus life carry this traditional mystery.


September 1, 2008

Trouble of FoolsLinda Barnes
A Trouble of Fools (1987) introduces Carlotta Carlyle, an ex-cop and now fledging private investigator, in Boston, Massachusetts. An elderly Irish woman hires Carlotta to find her missing brother, who drives a cab at the taxi company Carlotta used to work for. When the woman is attacked and her house searched, Carlotta finds a pile of money and begins to suspect the missing brother and his cabbie friends are involved with the IRA so the six-foot red-haired detective goes undercover as a cab driver. Carlotta’s wit and humanity sparkle throughout, whether she is on the case, trying to figure an angle for collecting the prize her cat Thomas C. Carlyle has won, or protecting her “little sister” Paolina from the drug dealer who has set up shop near her school.

Girl with the Long Green HeartLawrence Block
The Girl With the Long Green Heart (1965) is the story of a long-term con. Evvie Stone is millionaire Wallace J. Gunderman’s secretary and mistress. When Gunderman’s wife finally dies and he refuses to make good on his promise to marry her, Evvie connects with Doug Rance and John Hayden, experienced con-artists. Doug's charm is balanced by John's sincerity, making them the perfect team to help Evvie get her revenge along with a pile of money. Written from John's point of view, the con starts slowly and then begins to snowball toward the unexpected conclusion. Block is a mesmerizing storyteller and this book is a real page-turner.

Pushing Up DaisiesRosemary Harris
Pushing Up Daisies (2008) introduces Paula Holliday, who has left her documentary filmmaking job in New York City for a quieter life in Springfield, Connecticut. To jumpstart her new gardening business, Paula talks her way into the job of renovating the gardens at an estate just willed to the historical society. Digging for soil samples the first day on the job, Paula uncovers the body of a baby that has clearly been buried for some time. When her friend and employee is arrested for the crime, Paula begins her own investigation into the past where she is sure the motive lies. Soon she is juggling a growing attraction for the local detective and a sexy Mexican laborer on top of garden chores. Gardeners will enjoy this fast-paced mystery full of garden lore.

State of the OnionJulie Hyzy
State of the Onion (2008) introduces Olivia (Ollie) Paras, White House assistant chef in Washington DC. Henry, the top-chef, is about to retire, and Ollie is competing for the job against a self-absorbed TV celebrity chef. The president is negotiating a major peace plan in the Middle East, and the White House kitchen has to plan an elaborate state dinner in half the usual time. When Ollie stuns an intruder on the White House grounds with the gift she is bringing to Henry—an engraved skillet—things really start to fall apart. Ollie is a compelling narrator, and the insights into life in the White House kitchen are fascinating in this fast-paced light thriller. The appendix at the end is an added bonus with recipes and tidbits. Did you know FDR insisted on serving hot dogs to the King of England?

DissolutionC.J. Sansom
Dissolution (2003) introduces Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer in Tudor England. It’s 1537, and Shardlake has been sent to the Benedictine monastery at Scarnsea, Sussex, by Lord Cromwell to investigate the murder of a king's commissioner. Using reports from the monastery inspection two years early, Cromwell hoped the commissioner could convince the abbott to voluntarily dissolve the monastery. Shardlake soon discovers evidence of sexual misconduct, embezzlement, and treason. Sansom brings the Reformation to life with plenty of atmosphere and a clever plot. Shardlake is a hunchback, but his brilliant intellect more than compensate for his physical limitations. He is compassionate and committed to the ideals of Cromwell’s reforms, but is growing increasingly wary of the motives of his fellow reformers as the book progresses.

Midnight RamblerJames Swain
Midnight Rambler (2007) is the story of an ex-cop whose career was destroyed by his violence against a serial killer who used a Rolling Stones song while torturing his victims. Jack ran the Missing Persons Division in Broward County Florida before leaving the force, and continues privately in that field while still trying to figure out what Simon Skell, the Midnight Rambler, did with the bodies of his victims. Then the body of one of the victims is discovered, and forensic evidence suggests that the wrong man may have been jailed. With his faithful dog, Buster, at his side, Jack races against the clock to gather new evidence to keep Skell behind bars. This thriller leaves much of the violence off-stage while keeping all of the tension front and center. Jack is a sympathetic protagonist, empathetic yet tough, and unlike most ex-cops in crime fiction, Jack does not struggle with alcohol addiction!


October 1, 2008

Raven BlackAnn Cleeves
Raven Black (2006) is set in the Shetland Islands, north of Scotland. When the murdered body of a high school girl is found on a snowy hillside, the village and the police immediately suspect Magnus Tait, a mentally challenged old man who lives alone with a caged raven. The last to see the murdered girl, Marcus was also the prime suspect in the disappearance of another young girl eight years before. Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez isn’t convinced that Magnus is guilty and begins to unravel a web of deceit and lies. Told from various viewpoints, the cast of characters comes vividly to life. This atmospheric thriller won the 2006 Gold Dagger (Duncan Lawrie) Award and is the first in a planned quartet.

Death On DemandCarolyn Hart
Death on Demand (1987) introduces Annie Laurance, who has just inherited her uncle’s mystery book store, Death on Demand, in Broward’s Rock, South Carolina. During an evening gathering of local mystery writers, the lights suddenly go out and author Elliot Morgan is murdered in classic locked room style. Not only did the murder take place in a closed shop, the island itself is closed to outsiders except through two monitored access points. Luckily Annie’s boyfriend, Max Darling, has come to visit and help her investigate since Annie is the prime suspect. Written from the perspective of a mystery reader, this novel is full of allusions to classic mystery writers and their characters, and had me scribbling notes about other authors to investigate.

Lonely HeartsJohn Harvey
Lonely Hearts (1989) introduces Charlie Resnick, a divorced, untidy, middle-aged police detective in Nottingham, England. Resnick is a protagonist we want to spend time with—compassionate and intuitive, he loves food, American jazz, his cats, and his job. The murder of first one and then a second lonely woman leads Resnick to a killer who stalks his victims through the Lonely Hearts column. The compelling supporting cast of cops, criminals, and social workers gives this complex police procedural depth and heart.

The Wrong Kind of BloodDeclan Hughes
In The Wrong Kind of Blood (2006) Ed Loy returns to his hometown of Dublin, Ireland for his mother's funeral. Loy left home over 20 years ago, following the disappearance of his father, finally ending up in Los Angeles, working as a private investigator. At the funeral, an old friend asks Loy to find her missing husband, and he discovers another old friend brandishing a gun in this mother’s garden. Loy soon finds himself tangled in a web of extortion, drugs, and murder, orchestrated by the notorious Halligan brothers. The present is connected to the past in unexpected ways, and Loy’s own personal demons are finally laid to rest as he slowly unravels the mystery. Hughes’s distinctive voice shines in this moving thriller.

Carte BlancheCarlo Lucarelli
Carte Blanche (Italian 1990, English 2006) introduces Commissario De Luca in the final days of Mussolini’s Italy. Public order teeters on the brink of collapse, while various police and military units, as well as partisan and German Gestapo forces, struggle for power. The criss-cross of authority, miscommunication, manipulation, and anarchy in the face of the Allied advance from the south, are almost farcical, were the subject not so grim. De Luca is determined to do proper police work to find the murderer of Vittorio, a Fascist playboy and drug dealer, notwithstanding chaos, danger, and death at every corner. This novella (108 pp.) weaves the police procedural elements with the historical reality, and tumbles toward an ambiguous conclusion, sometimes leaving the reader breathless. The remaining books in the trilogy are now in print in English.

O'Brien's DeskOna Russell
O’Brien's Desk (2004) introduces Sarah Kaufman who handles probate and family law matters for Judge O'Brien O’Donnell, “Obee” to his friends, in 1920s Toledo, Ohio. This historical mystery, based on actual events and characters, presents more history than mystery, but the writing maintains a high interest level nevertheless. Judge O'Donnell, a crusader for social improvements and active in local politics, faces a serious blackmail threat resulting in a mental breakdown. Sarah, a Jewish “spinster,” faces issues of anti-semitism and sexism typical of the time and place, while struggling to help (or save from himself) her friend, boss, and mentor. The book includes fascinating montages of newspaper clippings that inspired the book. The characters are well-developed and the historical-political descriptions are more interesting and significant to a general audience than Toledo, Ohio, might at first suggest.


November 1, 2008

Billy BoyleJames R. Benn
Billy Boyle (2006) begins the saga of Billy’s army career in World War II. A distant cousin of General Eisenhower, the reluctant soldier Billy is assigned to investigate a potential spy in Operation Juniper, intended to take back Norway from the German invaders. The Norwegian government in exile, including King Haakan play their roles, along with Polish ex-patriots and an enchanting female English driver. There is a bit of the English country house feel to the mystery, but one of the major strengths is the author's detailed knowledge of WWII history. There are a few too many gee-whiz references to oddities like the English driving on the wrong side of the road and calling elevators “lifts,” but the plot and interesting detail overcome the weaknesses to make this a promising debut of what is now a three-book series.

Some Like It Hot-ButteredJeffrey Cohen
Some Like It Hot-Buttered (2007) introduces Elliot Freed, a recently divorced writer who has just re-opened an old movie theater in New Jersey. Elliot shows nightly double features at Comedy Tonight: a classic comedy followed by a new one. When a patron is killed with a box of poisoned popcorn during Young Frankenstein, and the young projectionist/film student disappears, Elliot decides to help investigate. The characters are unique and presented with sympathetic humor. Elliot, who prefers wit over jokes, is continually working on his snappy comebacks, and Sophie the snack/ticket girl tries to be Goth but can't quite pull it off. Loaded with classic movie references, this clever and funny book is a winner.

Good Thief's Guide to AmsterdamChris Ewan
The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam (2007) introduces Charlie Howard, a professional thief who writes a mystery series about a professional thief. While in Amsterdam trying to wrap up the loose ends of his latest mystery (he can’t figure out how to get a briefcase containing a severed hand to the right place), Charlie is hired by a mysterious American to steal two small monkey figurines. Then the American is killed, and Charlie is a suspect. This light-hearted caper novel is full of classic elements: a beautiful girl in distress, menacing thugs, stolen diamonds, and a group unveiling of the solution to the mystery.

Dying to Be ThinKathryn Lilley
Dying to Be Thin (2007) introduces Kate Gallagher, a TV producer who would like to move in front of the camera. Kate has been told she has the face for TV, but a bit too much body, so she checks into the exclusive Hoffman Clinic, in Durham, North Carolina, Diet Capital of the World. Armed with The Little Book of Fat Busters, a collection of tips from her friend Mimi, Kate is determined to lose enough weight to fit comfortably again into her tiny vintage sportscar. She finds work with the local TV station covering her own weight loss, but soon finds herself investigating the sudden death of the director of the clinic. This humorous traditional mystery is fast-paced and great fun.

Wine of ViolencePriscilla Royal
Wine of Violence (2004) introduces Eleanor of Wynethorpe, who is appointed Prioress of Tyndal in East Anglia, England, as a political favor to her father despite her youth and inexperience. It is summer of 1270, and the monks and nuns of the Order of Fontevraud are not thriving as they should. Revenues are down and the garden is not producing enough to last through the coming winter. Eleanor is faced with the challenge of gaining the trust of both the nuns, whose own choice of prioress was rejected, and the monks, who have grown accustomed to the virtual rule of one of their own during the tenure of the last prioress. A brutally murdered monk in the cloister gardens trumps all other problems and Eleanor finds herself investigating a murder. While remaining strongly rooted in history, this mystery explores themes of love, lust, envy, and ambition.

Seeking Whom He May DevourFred Vargas
Seeking Whom He May Devour (French 1999, English 2004) is set in the French Alps. The villagers at first believe a rogue wolf is responsible for some sheep savagings, but when a woman is killed in the same manner, rumors of a werewolf begin to circulate. Soliman, the woman’s young adopted son, Watchee, her ancient head shepherd, and Camille, a young musician recruited to drive the sheep lorry, head out in pursuit of a loner who disappears immediately after the murder. When the trio realize they are in over their heads, Camille contacts her old friend Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg for assistance. The solution of the mystery is clever and unexpected, but the true charm of this book is the eccentric road trip which brings together four vivid and unique personalities: Soliman creates fables to explain reality, Camille reads “The A to Z of Tools for Trade and Craft” for relaxation, Watchee lives and breathes sheep, and Adamsberg floats in a cloud of intuition, waiting for the facts to settle into an understandable pattern.


December 1, 2008

One Good TurnKate Atkinson
One Good Turn (2006) finds Jackson Brodie, the former cop and recently-retired private investigator at loose ends in Edinburgh, attending the summer festival with Julia, his theatrically-minded female companion. A car accident and road-rage incident sets things in motion, and a cloud of intriguing characters going about their seemingly random business eventually coalesce into a plot, as in Atkinson’s first Brodie book, Case Histories (2004). A hit man, an attractive female Edinburgh police detective, a shady real estate developer and his wife, a wimpy pseudonymous mystery writer, some Russian housemaids and escorts, and other well-crafted characters, interesting in their own right, swarm through the book on their way to a fitting conclusion. Atkinson’s writing is delightful, compelling, rich, and humorous.

Oscar WildeGyles Brandreth
Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance (2008) introduces an unusually observant amateur sleuth: Oscar Wilde, poet, wit, and playwright. When Wilde discovers the murdered body of a beautiful young man, he enlists his friends Robert Sherard, great-grandson of Wordsworth, and Arthur Conan Doyle, who has just published his first Sherlock Holmes story, to help him examine the scene of the crime. However, the body has vanished, the room has been cleaned, and the police seem uninterested in pursuing the case, so Wilde and Sherard begin their own investigation. Elegant dialogue and rich atmospheric details of Victorian England, plus a mesmerizing detective who can out-Sherlock Holmes himself! (APA: Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders)

Christmas Is MurderC.S. Challinor
Christmas Is Murder (2008) introduces Rex Graves, a Scottish barrister, who plans to spend Christmas in Swanmere Manor in the English countryside. The manor, now an exclusive hotel, is owned by an old friend of Rex’s mother. Remembering many pleasant boyhood activities at the manor, Rex brings his sports equipment, but the manor is snowed in and he has to resort to turning his tennis rackets into temporary snowshoes to get from the station. He is greeted by the news that one of the elderly guests died the night before. Another guest suspects cyanide poisoning and convinces Rex to investigate since the police can't get to the manor until the snow melts. The following two days bring two more deaths. This traditional novel has all the classic elements—a closed set of suspects, a quick-witted amateur sleuth, a hint of romance—and would be the perfect choice for the Christie fan on your gift list.

Breaking GlassPaul Charles
I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass (1997) introduces Christy Kennedy, the Irish-born Detective Inspector of Camden CID in North London, England. Kennedy’s girl friend ann rea, a journalist who has adopted the k.d. lang/ee cummings name spelling style, asks him to look into the disappearance of a record producer who eventually turns up dead. Rock promoter Charles knows the music industry inside out, and presents a convincing and complex picture of corrupt schemes and cutthroat deals. Musical quotes from a wide variety of artists introduce each chapter; the title is from a Nick Lowe song. Kennedy is a humane and likable protagonist, always on the search for his next cup of tea. A combination of police procedural and classic whodunit, this clever novel will appeal to traditional mystery fans, especially those who enjoy Lovesey’s Peter Diamond books.

Corpse in the KoryoJames Church
A Corpse in the Koryo (2006) introduces Inspector O, a state police officer, in North Korea. After an odd assignment to photograph a car speeding through the mountains at dawn, Inspector O realizes he and his superior, Pak, have become involved in a power struggle between rival military and intelligence forces. In this closed society, everyone is spying on everyone else, selling information or buying it. O writes the shortest reports possible, knowing that details invite questions, but always “forgets” to wear his lapel portrait of the Leader. Though Inspector O searches for justice in an ever-shifting reality, cases are rarely solved in his world. In constant pursuit of an ever-elusive cup of tea, O worries chips of hardwood, smoothing the edges to get to the heart of the wood, and dreams of someday building a bookcase. This is an excellent first novel, beautifully written in an unique voice that brings an unfamiliar world to life.

The Telling of LiesTimothy Findley
The Telling of Lies (1986) is ostensibly a journal written by a jaded lady, Vanessa Van Horn, who is depressed by her upcoming 60th birthday. Since 1926, she has summered at a venerable resort hotel on the coast of Maine, along with socialites in her mother’s generation, who spend the season in their “cottages” and other resorts. Nessa’s life and outlook have been profoundly affected by her family’s incarceration by the Japanese in Java during WWII. The mysterious death of an aged pharmaceutical magnate on the beach one day provides for a major break in the routine of the rich, famous, and fading social set. Nessa, a skilled photographer, has accidentally taken some interesting pictures, which draw her into political intrigue. Findley’s style is episodic, with flashbacks and reflections on the modern condition and decline in the 20th century. This non-series book by the Canadian author won the 1989 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.

A Carrion DeathMichael Stanley
A Carrion Death (2008) introduces assistant superintendent David Bengu of the Botswana Police Department, known as Kubu (hippopotamus) for his bulk. When rangers find a body at a watering hole on a game reserve, there isn't much left of it. The scavengers have done their part, but the fact that all the teeth have been knocked out makes Kubu suspect someone was trying to hide the identity of the victim. As Kubu investigates, he keeps running across links to Botswana Cattle and Mining, the country’s largest diamond company. Kubu is a compelling protagonist; usually wondering when his next meal will appear, he loves singing along with the baritone part of his favorite operas. Clever and determined, he pursues the threads of his case with a single-minded passion that still leaves time for his wife and parents. Stanley (joint pseudonym of South Africans Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip) creates a mesmerizing sense of place and an unforgettable protagonist.

Gainsborough BrownClarissa Watson
The Fourth Stage of Gainsborough Brown (1977) introduces Persis Willum, an artist and art gallery assistant in Long Island, New York. When Gainsborough Brown, an artist Persis represents, is found dead at a party thrown by her beloved Aunt Lydie, the inquisitive Persis is sure foul play is at work and is soon busily ferreting out clues. Persis is firmly entrenched in the New York art gallery scene, affectionate yet able to judge with an ironic eye, giving the reader an insider’s view. This cozy seems old-fashioned for the late 1970s, the characters comfortable in a much earlier decade—a perfect escape from the grim reality of the modern world.

Disclosure: Some of these books were received free from publishers, some were discovered in Left Coast Crime and Bouchercon Book Bags, and many were checked out from our local public library. Our thanks to all who support our passion for reading!


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