SYKM


2010 Reviews
January 1, 2010

Rainaldi QuartetPaul Adam
The Rainaldi Quartet (2006; APA: Sleeper 2004) introduces Gianni Castiglione, a violin maker in rural Cremona, Italy. Now widowed, the highlight of Gianni’s week is the regular gathering of friends to play string quartets. One week Tomaso Rainaldi doesn’t return home after the gathering. Gianni and cellist Antonio Guastafeste, a police detective, find Rainaldi murdered in his shop. Suspecting that the murder had something to do with a rare Stradivari violin, Guastafeste asks Gianni to help with the investigation. The two journey across Italy and to England, tracking clues and suspects and uncovering the strange history of a magnificent violin. Giann’s love for the craft of violin making suffuses the text with a warm glow, counterbalanced by his caustic comments about Italian city life. Unscrupulous dealers, obsessed collectors, complex trails of ownership, and the difficulty of distinguishing true masterpieces from fakes provide plenty of red herrings in this well-plotted and thoroughly enjoyable mystery.

Park Avenue TrampFletcher Flora
Park Avenue Tramp (1958) is a classic of minimalist existential ’50s noir. Charity McAdams Farnese walks into a bar late at night, wondering where she’s been, with whom, and what she is drinking. Yancy the bartender tells her she is a Martini, which seems to fit. Charity studies bartenders as she stumbles from bar to bar in Manhattan, finding them superior people, and better than psychiatrists. In this bar, she also finds Joe Doyle, a 5th-rate piano thumper with a bad heart. Joe’s friends don’t think he’s much to look at, but Charity thinks he’s the most beautiful guy she’s ever seen. Charity is in an “open marriage” of sorts with her idle rich husband Oliver, who follows an obsessively rigid schedule, making it simple for Charity to party and bar-hop on her own or with other dilettantes. Love for Charity has been a "corrupt" version of what she felt for her father, who died when she was a teenager. She takes up with Joe, to his detriment, for Oliver does have one talent: revenge. This unusual novel, told mostly from the interior perspectives of several characters, is a great change of pace and truly a book that’s nearly impossible to put down. As a bonus, it is currently available in a “Gold Medal Trio” edition that includes Charles Runyon’s The Prettiest Girl I Ever Killed (1965) and Dan J. Marlowe’s The Vengeance Man (1966).

While My Guitar Gently WeepsDeborah Grabien
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Minotaur 2009) finds JP Kinkaid, guitarist for a legendary British rock group, at home in San Francisco, California, playing with a local group who are scrambling to fulfill a CD contract after their founder died suddenly. The rehearsals are going well except for the egotistic and abrasive vocalist Vinny Fabiano, who seems to thrive on conflict. JP doesn’t care much for Vinny’s vocal style, but he does covet his pearl-top Zemaitis guitar, similar to one stolen from Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones. Vinny has also commissioned a new custom-made guitar from local luthier Bruno Baines. When Vinny is found dead, with his head bashed in by his new guitar, Bruno is charged with his murder since he delivered the guitar that evening. But JP can’t believe that Bruno would use his incredible creation as a murder weapon. The murder investigation at times takes a back seat to the details about guitars and their creation and the tensions and triumphs of session recording, but that doesn’t detract from the appeal of the book, ably narrated by the charming JP, still battling the symptoms of multiple sclerosis while trying to cope with the cancer diagnosis of long-time live-in girlfriend Bree.

Trust MePeter Leonard
Trust Me (Minotaur 2009) is a stand-alone caper thriller centered on retired Detroit model Karen Delaney’s struggles to retrieve $300,000 she deposited for investment with Samir, her ex-paramour. Samir is a gangster with a temper, surrounded by the usual thugs and some Arab hit-men trying to live their version of the American Dream. The scheme is set in motion when Karen co-opts some bumbling burglars who tried to rob her and restaurateur Lou Starr, her latest sugar daddy. Allegiances shift among the various factions and coincidences abound in the frantic struggles for the money. Indestructible ex-con, ex-cop O’Clair threads his way through the plot, initially working for Samir, but later focusing on his own self-interest. This is a fast-paced, rollicking tale, intricately plotted and chock full of entertaining characters, though none of them particularly admirable.

Open SeasonArcher Mayor
Open Season (1988) introduces Joe Gunther, a police detective in Brattleboro, Vermont. When a frightened widow kills a wealthy man searching for his lost poodle, Gunther suspects a set up. The only connection between the two is the fact that they served on the jury of a sensational rape/murder trial three years earlier. When two other jurors are involved in incidents, Gunther is sure that someone wants the case reopened, but his superiors and the town leaders are reluctant to bring the racial tensions of the case back into the public eye. Gunther begins a quiet investigation and becomes convinced that the black Vietnam vet serving time for the murder is not guilty, and that the police investigation was rushed and incomplete in order to bring a quick conclusion to the case. The cold and snowy Vermont setting is vividly portrayed and Gunther is a likable protagonist, dedicated to his job and determined to find the truth. This debut police procedural is a fine series start. The Price of Malice, 20th in the series, was released this fall by Minotaur Books.

Dead Men Don't SkiPatricia Moyes
Dead Men Don’t Ski (1958) introduces Henry Tibbett, a Scotland Yard Inspector. When Henry and his wife Emmy decided to take a skiing vacation, his superiors decide this is a perfect opportunity to investigate drug smuggling connected to Santa Chiara, a small village in the Italian Alps. On the train Emmy and Henry meet two groups also traveling to the Bella Vista ski hotel: Colonel Buckfast and his annoying wife, and rich young Jimmy Passendell and his friends Caro and Roger. Henry and Emmy throw themselves wholeheartedly into skiing lessons and getting to know their fellow guests until one is shot on the ski lift connecting the hotel to the village below. The local investigators unmask Henry as a fellow policeman and ask his help in translating the interviews with the English guests. Henry in turn brings Emmy in to take notes. Henry’s affable gentlemanly exterior hides a sharp mind and a nose for crime, supported by Emmy’s cheerful capability and excellent listening skills. This series opener is a thoroughly enjoyable example of the classic British detective novel enlivened with a beautifully rendered setting.

The EightKatherine Neville
The Eight (1988) is a complex thriller featuring ciphers, conspiracies, puzzles and a hunt for the Montglane Service, a chess set that has the power to change history. The book is set in two periods: 1972 with the story of Catherine Velis, a computer expert sent to Algeria to work with OPEC, and 1790 when the Abbess of Montglane digs up the legendary chess set once owned by Charlemagne, which has been hidden for 1000 years. Threatened by the French Revolution, the Abbess sends her nuns off with pieces of the chess set and flees to Russia to take shelter with her friend Empress Catherine. Mireille, a nun sent to Paris, finds herself in the midst of the Terror before Napoleon and his sister help her escape to Corsica. In 1972, Catherine is helped by her friend Lily, a chess master, and Lily’s fierce but tiny dog, as they join the “Game” and search for chess pieces while trying to solve the puzzle of the power of the chess set. Historical characters mix seamlessly with fictional ones, as this 600+ page book speeds non-stop through adventure, betrayal, espionage, and self-sacrificing loyalty in France, Algeria, Russia, and America. An astounding debut novel, this suspenseful and well-plotted novel is a compelling historical fantasy.

Broken ShorePeter Temple
The Broken Shore (2005) finds Joe Cashin, a homicide cop recovering from a life-threatening injury, working in the quiet South Australian coastal town where he grew up. Charles Bourgoyne, an elderly local millionaire is attacked and left for dead, and three aboriginal teens are identified trying to sell his watch. When two of the teens are killed by police during the arrest, the department closes the case. Cashin isn’t convinced the boys are guilty, and continues with an unauthorized investigation. Trying to stay under the radar of the racist police, Cashin pursues a thread that leads to evidence of child pornography and sexual abuse. This outstanding novel features a vivid sense of place and a flawed but sympathetic protagonist who can’t help fighting the system in defense of the oppressed.

The Ice HouseMinette Walters
The Ice House (1992) is the story of Phoebe Maybury, living with two friends in Streech Grange, her country manor. One hot afternoon, Phoebe’s gardener discovers a decomposing corpse in the overgrown ice house. Chief Inspector Walsh is convinced that the body must be Phoebe’s husband, who vanished without a trace 10 years ago. The disappearance of David Maybury was Walsh’s first big case, and it has haunted him since the lack of a body left him unable to prove his conviction that Phoebe was guilty of his murder. Sergeant Alan McLoughton, Walsh’s second in command, is immediately infected with the village dislike for the three women, who are viewed as lesbians, witches, and possible child abusers. As the investigation proceeds, McLoughton is less convinced that the body is David Maybury, but suspicious because the women refuse to answer questions openly. The slow unfolding of the various personalities and motivations is spellbinding in this beautifully written debut novel, winner of the 1992 New Blood Dagger Award.

Death Will GetY ou SoberElizabeth Zelvin
Death Will Get You Sober (Minotaur 2008) introduces alcoholic Bruce Kohler, who wakes up in detox a few days before Christmas in the Bowery in Manhattan. He forms a shaky friendship with a fellow inmate named Godfrey Brandon Kettleworth III, who calls himself God. When Godfrey dies suddenly, Bruce isn’t convinced it is a natural death. Bruce’s friends Jimmy and Barbara, hoping that mental stimulation will encourage Bruce to stay sober, encourage his compulsion to investigate Godfrey’s death. Alternating first person narration from Bruce and third person following the other characters provide a look at the struggle of a recovery alcoholic from different perspectives. Though the plot is slight, the characters are interesting, and the AA theme is handled lightly and with humor in this debut mystery.

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February 1, 2010

Trace of SmokeRebecca Cantrell
A Trace of Smoke (Forge Books 2009) introduces Hannah Vogel, a 32-year old crime reporter in 1931 Berlin. As part of her weekly routine, Hannah is examining the new photographs in the Hall of the Unnamed Dead in the Alexanderplatz police station when she is horrified to see the face of her beloved younger brother, Ernst. But Hannah is trapped in silence — she can’t identify her brother since Hannah has lent both her own and Ernst’s identity papers so that her Zionist friend Sarah and her son could flee Germany. So Hannah begins to investigate on her own by visiting the club where Ernst, a cross-dressing cabaret singer, worked. Here she meets both Ernst’s much older lover and his young Nazi boyfriend, who tells Hannah Ernst also had a secret lover high in the Nazi power structure. When a small boy named Anton, who claims she is his mother, is abandoned on her doorstep, Hannah’s life grows even more complicated and dangerous. The endearing Anton, clutching his stuffed bear for comfort, imagines himself an Indian brave from the western tales of Karl May in order to deal with his reality of hunger and pain. The portrait of Berlin’s gay community, valiantly maintaining a carefree facade while on the verge of Nazi persecution, is vivid and painful. This well-researched and unforgettable debut mystery melds an intricate plot with complex characters, and has been nominated for the Bruce Alexander Award for Best Historical Mystery.

Quieter than SleepJoanne Dobson
Quieter Than Sleep (1997) introduces Karen Pelletier, an English professor in Enfield, Massachusetts, who would like nothing more than to earn tenure. Unfortunately, the Randy Astin-Berger, the head of her department, is an insufferable bore in love with the sound of his own voice. At the faculty Christmas party, Karen tunes out Randy’s monologue about a mysterious letter he has discovered. Later, Karen opens the hall closet in search of her coat, and discovers Randy’s strangled corpse. At first Lieutenant Piotrowski suspects Karen, but soon co-opts her as a police researcher when he realizes that the motive for the murder may be based in academia. Karen throws herself into retracing Randy’s research, hoping to rediscover the letter that is perhaps the motive for his murder. Karen is a likable amateur sleuth, as skilled in her form of investigation as the police are in theirs. Interesting tidbits about Emily Dickinson’s life and work add to the charm of this enjoyable mystery, a finalist for the 1997 Agatha Award for Best First Novel.

Someone’s DeathCharles Larson
Someone’s Death (1973) is the first in a four-book series featuring Nils-Frederik Blixen, a Los Angeles TV producer who is putting a detective series together when his casting director, 23-year-old Joanna Redfern, is arrested for killing her ex-boyfriend. Blixen is quite fond of Joanna, although she’s a little young for him, but he also needs her professional services, so he becomes the amateur sleuth. The book is full of interesting show-biz types and studio goings-on. Blixen is highly professional but has a sentimental side; he concentrates by marshaling hippo figurines on his desk. Larson (1922-2006) was an experienced TV scriptwriter and producer, and fills this nicely sized book (185 pages) with the insights of an insider and a leavening of humor. Someone’s Death was a Best First Novel finalist for the 1974 Edgar Award. We are looking forward to reading Matthew’s Hand, the second book in the series, which is partly told from the perspective of a turtle.

The Blight WayPatrick F. McManus
The Blight Way (Simon & Schuster 2006) introduces Bo Tully, sheriff of Blight County, Idaho. When a dead body turns up at the ranch of the often-arrested Scragg family, Bo asks his father, former sheriff “Pap” Tully, to come along and help investigate as a 75th birthday present. Bo and Pap agree that none of the Scraggs are suspects for a change, and when three more bodies are found not far from the first, Bo fears that there is a professional killer on the loose. Bo is a wonderful character with a self-deprecating sense of humor that masks his intelligence and dedication. He doesn’t let small details like search warrants and strict adherence to the letter of the law get in the way of ferreting out the truth and enforcing justice the Blight Way. A down-home guy who fits perfectly into his eccentric backwoods environment, Bo has hidden depths: a pet Hobo spider that lives behind his filing cabinet, and a talent for painting landscapes. The restrained humor of the narration erupts into occasional laugh-out-loud moments that sneak up on you: the reaction from women to the “warm look” Bo picked up from a romance novel, and the inevitable result of shoving a gun down the front of your pants after losing 20 pounds. Highly recommended for those in search of a humorous mystery with an engaging protagonist.

BahamaramaBob Morris
Bahamarama (2004) introduces Zack Chasteen, a former Miami Dolphin linebacker, just released from serving two years in a Florida penitentiary. Unfortunately his girlfriend Barbara Pickering is not there to pick him up as planned. Zach is ambushed by two thugs working for Victor Ortiz, the Cuban boss who framed him. Ortiz insists that Zack has something that belongs to him, but Zach has no idea what he is talking about, and flees to the Bahamas to join Barbara who is working on a photo shoot. But Barbara’s ex-boyfriend and photographer is found murdered, Barbara has been kidnapped, and Zach finds himself helping Lynfield Pederson of the local police. Zack’s wry narration and the colorful local characters provide the perfect backdrop for the complex plot that twists and turns to a satisfying conclusion. This debut novel was a finalist for the 2005 Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel. Baja Florida, the 5th in the series, was just released by Minotaur.

Heat of the MoonSandra Parshall
The Heat of the Moon (Poisoned Pen 2006) introduces Rachel Goddard, a 26-year-old veterinarian living with her mother, Judith, a loving but extremely controlling psychologist, and her younger sister Michelle. When a woman and her young daughter bring an injured dog to the clinic, the child’s cries remind Rachel of an incident she had forgotten, her own younger sister crying in the rain at the age of three. Judith’s unspoken rules prohibit questions about anything that happened before the family moved to McLean, Virginia, when Rachel was five, but Rachel is consumed with curiosity about her father, who died shortly before the move. As more memories emerge, Rachel begins to suspect that her mother is hiding something about her father. Her probing questions disturb both her mother and sister, but Rachel is consumed with a need to know the truth about her past. This absorbing psychological thriller was awarded the 2006 Agatha Award for Best First Novel.

Old City HallRobert Rotenberg
Old City Hall (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2009, Picador 2010) begins when Kevin Brace, Toronto’s leading radio talk show host, greets Mr. Singh, his early morning newspaper deliveryman, with bloody hands and the words, “I killed her.” The police discover the dead body of Brace’s live-in girlfriend in the bathtub, but Brace doesn’t say another word to them, or to his lawyer, or to anyone else during the long months of the investigation and preparation for the trial. Told from alternating viewpoints of police detectives Ari Greene and Daniel Kennicott, Crown assistant prosecutor Albert Fernandez, and defense attorney Nancy Parish, this combination police procedural and courtroom drama is a complicated journey to find the truth behind what appears at first to be an open-and-shut murder case. The Toronto setting with its cosmopolitan ethnic mix, bound by a common hope that this might be the year for the Maple Leafs, provides the fitting background to the rich cast of characters. Rotenberg’s knack for language comes through in unexpectedly amusing ways: Singh’s precise and pedantic speaking style, Fernandez’s confusion about multiple ways to say the same thing in English evolving into a conviction that liars use Norman words while truth tellers use Anglo-Saxon. This well-written debut novel was a finalist for the 2009 New Blood Dagger Award.

City of DragonsKelli Stanley
City of Dragons (Minotaur 2010) introduces Miranda Corbie, a former Spanish Civil War nurse, ex-escort, and now private investigator in San Francisco. During the 1940 Rice Bowl Party in Chinatown to raise money to send to China for war relief, Miranda stumbles over young Eddie Takahashi, dying of a gunshot wound. When Eddie dies in her arms, Miranda feels compelled to find his killer but everyone else seems to want to sweep the whole thing under the rug. Meanwhile, a well-paying client hires Miranda to investigate the death of her husband, presumed dead of a heart attack while enjoying the favors of a prostitute. The wife is sure her husband was murdered, and that his death has something to do with the disappearance of her drug-addicted step-daughter. Living mainly on whiskey and Chesterfields, Miranda juggles both investigations while trying to cope with her loneliness after the death of her lover in Spain. Syncopated prose echoes the jazz lyrics that punctuate Miranda’s journey from nightclub to tenement to bordello in this intense series opener.

Man with the Getaway FaceRichard Stark (Donald Westlake)
The Man with the Getaway Face (1963) [APA: The Steel Hit (1971)] is the second in the long-running series featuring Parker, a professional thief, and cold-blooded killer when he needs to be. This book finds Parker getting a new face from a plastic surgeon in Nebraska in order to evade the New York Outfit, which is out to get him after things went wrong in the first book. Parker debuts his new face with a gang hitting an armored car in New Jersey. Parker’s heist plans are brilliantly detailed, but of course, he can never be 100% sure of the human element, particularly the new people, including Alma the waitress who can’t wait to double-cross and the wild-card Stubbs, the surgeon’s chauffeur, who comes after Parker. Along with the robbery, Parker has to figure out how to protect his new identity, which was the point of getting the new face to begin with. This series should be read in order from the beginning, because later books contain spoilers, but we hadn’t found the first book when starting in on the series. The Parker books, starting seven years before Westlake’s Dortmunder series, are bloody and violent capers by comparison, with a dark humor at best, but compellingly readable.

Duty to the DeadCharles Todd
A Duty to the Dead (William Morrow 2009) introduces Bess Crawford, a British army nurse in WWI who is injured when the hospital ship Britannic is sunk in 1916. Sent back to England while her arm heals, Bess decides to fulfill a promise she made to Arthur Graham, a dying officer she was half in love with. Arthur asked Bess to deliver a message in person to his brother Jonathan, telling him that Arthur had lied to protect his mother but it must be put right. Bess travels to the Graham house in Kent, delivers the message, but has an uneasy feeling that nothing will be done to fulfill Arthur’s dying request. She discovers that Arthur’s oldest brother Peregrine was committed to an asylum for killing a girl when he was 14, and fears that the mysterious message has something to do with that tragedy. Bess is determined to discover the truth she suspects the family has been hiding for many years. An independent and tenacious young woman, Bess is an engaging protagonist, fully capable of carrying this new series of historical psychological suspense.

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March 1, 2010

Cold Light of MourningElizabeth J. Duncan
The Cold Light of Mourning (Minotaur 2009) introduces Penny Brannigan, a painter, manicurist, and expatriate Canadian living in Llanelen, Wales. After nearly 25 years in Llanelen, Penny has been accepted as one of their own by the townspeople, even though she does still talk a bit funny, and her manicure shop is the clearing house for village news. Her life is settled, perhaps a bit boring, until the day that Meg Wynne Thompson disappears on the day of her wedding, immediately after having her nails done. Penny is interviewed by Detective Chief Inspector Gareth Davies, but can’t tell him much about Meg except what she was wearing and the flowers she had chosen for the wedding. It isn’t until a picture of Meg wearing her engagement ring appears in the paper that Penny realizes that the woman who had her nails done is not the missing bride. The appearance is similar, but the hands are completely different. Davies is impressed by Penny’s observations, especially after she figures out where the body was hidden. When Meg’s fiance is charged with her murder, Penny and her friend Victoria are convinced he is innocent, and decide, in the best tradition of amateur sleuths, to prove him innocent. This light traditional mystery won the 2008 Minotaur/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel competition for unpublished authors and is a finalist for the 2009 Agatha Award for Best First Novel.

Dark PlacesGillian Flynn
Dark Places (Shaye Areheart 2009), a finalist for the 2009 Steel Dagger Award, is the story of Libby Day, whose mother and two older sisters were brutally murdered. The testimony of seven-year-old Libby was enough to send her 15-year-old brother Ben to prison for life. Libby has been living off a trust funded by donations, but after 25 years the trust is nearly exhausted and Libby is desperate for money. A lonely and embittered woman, Libby has refused to think about the case, but when offered cash by the president of the Kill Club, a gathering of true crime enthusiasts who are obsessed with notorious murders, Libby agrees to speak at a meeting. She is shocked to find that the members believe her brother is innocent, though they can’t agree on who the guilty party is. After visiting her brother in jail for the first time, Libby faces the possibility that her coached testimony may have been responsible for a miscarriage of justice. Moving seamlessly from the present to the dark places of the past as Libby’s childhood memories begin to surface, this taut thriller builds tension to a surprising conclusion. Libby’s gradual emergence from the trauma that has held her from childhood is beautifully portrayed.

Weight of SilenceHeather Gudenkauf
The Weight of Silence (Mira 2009) is the story of two small girls who go missing in the very early hours of a hot August morning in Willow Creek, Iowa. Martin and Fielda Gregory are frightened when they realize seven-year old Petra is not in her bed, or the house, and immediately head to Calli Clark’s house, hoping that she is with her best friend. But Antonia Clark discovers that Calli is also missing. Antonia isn’t too worried at first, thinking that Calli is perhaps spending some time in her beloved woods next to their house, but when Antonia realizes Calli hasn’t put on her shoes, she knows something is wrong. The Gregorys begin to suspect that Calli’s drunken father or her older brother Ben may have something to do with the vanished children. As the hours slowly tick by, and no sign is seen of the missing girls, the fear that they have fallen victim to the same predator who killed another child two years earlier begins to consume the searchers. As the tension builds, chapters from the point of view of the various characters fill in the backstory of small town life, alcoholism, thwarted love, and the weight of silence which turned Calli into a selective mute four years earlier. This gripping and well written debut novel is a finalist for the 2010 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

A Bad Day for SorrySophie Littlefield
A Bad Day for Sorry (Minotaur 2009) introduces Stella Hardesty, a 50-year-old widow who runs a sewing shop in a small town in Missouri. Stella, who killed her own abusive husband, now offers vigilante help to other abused women. Stella works hard to keep her “clients” safe and her “parolees” in line, and doesn’t argue with the inflated reputation she has built up as a woman not to be tangled with. When Chrissy Shaw hires Stella to find her nearly-ex husband, Roy Dean Shaw, who took off with Chrissy’s two-year-old son from a previous relationship, Stella doesn’t expect to find herself a target of the maybe-mafia tough guys Roy Dean is hoping to work for. Fear for her son Tucker inspires Chrissy to shake off her marshmallow persona, revealing a core of inner steel as she joins the hunt for Roy Dean and the missing toddler. Stella is a unique and engaging heroine who has no problem working outside the law, despite her mutual attraction with the local sheriff, “Goat” Jones. There is a fair amount of violence in this surprisingly humorous debut novel, a finalist for the 2010 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

The Fifth WomanHenning Mankell
The Fifth Woman (Swedish 1996, English 2000) is the 7th in the series featuring Kurt Wallander, an overworked police inspector in Ystad, Sweden. Wallander has just returned from vacation in Rome and is feeling rested and energized, until the discovery of a body impaled on sharpened bamboo stakes plunges him back into an exhausting murder investigation. When another man disappears, Wallander and his team fear they may have a sadistic serial killer targeting victims for reasons they cannot understand. During the slow and meticulous investigation, the police gradually find points of connection between the victims as they relentlessly work long hours to identify the killer. Wallander struggles with his own feelings of isolation as he closes in on a killer who is even more disconnected from society than he is. The complex plot and chilling psychological portrayal of the killer, plus the gradual development of Wallander as a character, combine to make this book an intelligent and thoroughly enjoyable addition to this dark, yet somehow hopeful, series.

Murder in MykonosJeffrey Siger
Murder in Mykonos (Poisoned Pen 2009) introduces Andreas Kaldis, a former Athens homicide detective, recently banished to the island of Mykonos to serve as the new police chief. It’s the height of the tourist season, and Mykonos is teaming with young visitors eager to enjoy the all-night partying and nude sunbathing the island is known for. Andreas is just settling into his new position when a ritually bound body is discovered in an abandoned church. Murder is rare on this tourist island, but the investigation of other abandoned churches uncovers other bodies going back for years. Neither the mayor nor the powerful tourist industry want to admit that there is a serial killer at work on Mykonos, especially since foreign tourists seem to be the target, but Andreas and local homicide detective Tassos Stamatos know the secret must come out when another young tourist goes missing. The natural beauty of the island setting is juxtaposed against the inbred acceptance of locals living slightly outside the law, and the nepotism of the local power structure, while Andreas, the outsider, struggles to find the truth and to prevent another death. This debut novel maintains the suspense until the final page. Assassins of Athens, the 2nd in the series, was released in January 2010.

Margarita NightsPhyllis Smallman
Margarita Nights (Canada 2008, US: McArthur & Company 2010) introduces Sherri Travis, a self-proclaimed "white trash" bartender in the small beach town of Jacaranda, Florida. Sherri is separated from her well connected but unreliable husband Jimmy, but hasn’t gotten around to divorcing him. When she is informed by the police that Jimmy’s boat exploded with him on it, Sherri is convinced that Jimmy is running a scam to escape yet another gambling debt. Unfortunately Sherri is the recipient of Jimmy’s life insurance, and thus the prime suspect when evidence of foul play is discovered. Sherri is a bit too inclined to suspect everyone she knows of playing a part in Jimmy’s disappearance/murder, but the self-deprecating wry humor of her narration makes this light mystery an enjoyable read. A finalist for the 2009 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel, the Florida setting is lovingly portrayed by this Canadian writer.

Death in ViennaFrank Tallis
A Death in Vienna (2006) introduces Max Liebermann, a doctor in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. Liebermann is practicing Professor Freud’s controversial new system of psychoanalysis, and a cigar-smoking joke-cracking Freud makes several cameo appearances. Valuing Liebermann’s keen observational and analytical abilities, Detective Oskar Rheinhardt asks him for help solving the case of a beautiful medium found dead on the day of her weekly seance. The woman was shot, but no gun or bullet can be found in the locked room. The mystery is interesting, but Vienna is the true star of this story. Tallis recreates a city on the edge of cultural and intellectual change and revels in the Viennese cafe scene with a seemingly limitless store of exotic coffees and pastries. This excellent historical mystery is the first in a series.

Herring Seller’s ApprenticeL.C. Tyler
The Herring Seller’s Apprentice (2007) introduces Ethelred Tressider, a mystery author in West Sussex, England, whose ex-wife Geraldine is found dead in a rental car near his home. Ethelred is suspicious of the suicide note, and the police are suspicious of Ethelred when his fingerprints are found on the note. Elsie Thirkettle, Ethelred’s chocoholic literary agent, leaps to Ethelred’s defense, dubbing herself the Herring Seller’s Apprentice, after Geraldine’s sarcastic nickname for Ethelred’s habit of strewing red herrings throughout his mysteries. Alternate chapters narrated by the wry, self-deprecating Ethelred, and the brash, over-confident Elsie (a literary device Elsie despises), reveal totally different views of Geraldine, but both agree that she was up to some sort of financial scam. The humor in this debut novel, a finalist for the 2010 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original, is clever and subtle, slyly mocking detective fiction while utilizing all the classic motifs in the best British style.

Blood DetectiveDan Waddell
The Blood Detective (Minotaur 2008) introduces Nigel Barnes, a genealogist in London. Detective Chief Inspector Grant Foster of Scotland Yard and his team are investigating a series of grisly murders. They can’t find a connection between the bodies until a series of letters and numbers is found scratched into the skin of the victims, which might be the number of a birth or death certificate. The police hire Barnes to help track down the information, and he locates the death certificate of Albert Beck, an 1879 murder victim who was killed on the same date as one of the current victims. Digging back through old newspaper archives, Barnes discovers that Beck was one of a series of five murders charged to Eke Fairbairn, and becomes convinced that Fairbairn was unjustly accused, convicted, and hanged. As more connections between the murders of 1879 and the present are discovered, Barnes and the police suspect that a modern day descendant is seeking revenge. This chilling debut novel was a finalist for both the 2009 New Blood Dagger Award and the Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

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April 1, 2010

The Last GigNorman Green
The Last Gig (Minotaur 2009) introduces Alessandra (Al) Martillo, a young woman of Puerto Rican heritage who grew up in the Brownsville projects and the streets of New York City. Rescued from the streets by Tio Bobby, Al is struggling with her Affection Deficit Disorder while working as an assistant to Marty Stiles, an ex-NYPD cop turned PI. An Irish mobster hires Al through Marty to find whoever is setting him up for a fall and Al gets interested in the death of the mobster’s son from a drug overdose. A connection between the dead son and a rock star leads Al into the music world. Al isn’t exactly sure where her investigation is leading her, but knows she must be getting close to something since she is tailed, threatened, and beaten up. Tough, smart, wary, and nearly indestructible, Al is a throwback to the hard-boiled PIs of yore. Endearing despite her lethal nature, Al is an enjoyable protagonist who will reappear in the second in the series, Sick Like That, due March 30th.

The Lord God BirdRussell Hill
The Lord God Bird (Caravel Books 2009) is the story of Jake Hamrick, who has been obsessed with birds for most of his life. In 1944, at the age of 19, Jake finds his soul-mate, Robin, who eagerly embraces his quest to head south from Chicago in search of the ivory-billed woodpecker, known locally as the Lord God Bird. In the deep woods along the Louisiana border, they find a primitive cottage and begin to search the bayous. Robin shaves most of her hair except a topknot she dyes red, and transforms herself into a woodpecker in order to entice the elusive birds. When the strange girl/bird is discovered by local hunters, violence erupts and Jake and Robin find themselves on the run. Full of dark images of the south in the late 1940s, this book explores themes of alienation, love, obsession, and loss. Written in beautifully poetic prose, this haunting novella is a finalist for the 2010 Edgar Award for Best Paperback.

The Last RefugeChris Knopf
The Last Refuge (2005) introduces Sam Acquillo, a 50-something, retired engineer, in Southampton, Long Island, New York. After Sam quits his job, his wife divorced him, his daughter stopped speaking to him, and he retreated to his parents’ old cottage on Little Peconic Bay, content to brood and drink vodka on the porch with Eddie, his canine companion. One day he realizes that his unpleasant elderly neighbor, Regina Broadhurst, hasn’t bothered him for several days. A bad smell leads Sam to her decomposing body face down in the bathtub. Sam’s engineer perspective alerts him to clues the police missed, and at local cop Joe Sullivan’s suggestion, Sam volunteers to become the executor of the estate and locate the next-of-kin. His search uncovers conflict between the local working class and the rich newcomers eager to capitalize on their investments. Sam is a prickly yet engaging protagonist, slowly reengaging with the world as he struggles to solve the mystery surrounding Regina’s death, which no one else seems to care about. Snappy dialog, a wry sense of humor, and a complex plot in a beautiful setting combine to make this debut novel something special.

Snakes Can’t RunEd Lin
Snakes Can’t Run (Minotaur 2010) is the second Robert Chow novel, following the travails of a Chinatown beat cop in 1976 New York City. The first book, This Is a Bust (2007), had a thin detective/mystery thread and a lot of fascinating local color, post-Vietnam War angst, and resentment over his status as the 5th Precinct token, condemned to a hell of attending community events to show how progressive the NYPD is. Robert wants to be a detective, but with his beer-for-breakfast routine and attitude problems, it seems unlikely he’ll ever be more than a disappointment to himself and his family. In the second book, still in 1976, Robert, born in the US and named after Robert Mitchum, is fighting the same battles, but doing better on most fronts: he’s in his third month of sobriety, he’s on the detective track paired with his former beat partner and fellow Vietnam vet, a black detective named John Vandyne, and he has a steady girlfriend. Chow and Vandyne are after the “snakehead” human smugglers after two Fukienese bodies turn up in the East River. The books is replete with smart dialogue and fascinating snippets of life in Chinatown, a complex stew of competing political cultures (Nationalist, Communist, Hong Kong) and regional/historical subgroups (Cantonese, Fukienese, Hong Kong, Shanghainese, etc.). The recurring characters are interesting and their relationships continue to develop. As the author says, this book, set in America’s bicentennial year, is not just about Chinese-Americans, but about Americans in America.

Blind SwitchJohn McEvoy
Blind Switch (Poisoned Pen 2004) introduces Jack Doyle, an ad-man in Chicago, Illinois, who arrives at work one day to discover that his desk and his job are gone. While sharing his tale of woe with Moe Kellman, an acquaintance at the gym, Doyle is amazed to find himself offered $25,000 to help fix a horse race. Doyle finds that working for a trainer is not as bad as he feared, and actually becomes quite fond of the horses. A month later, the fix completed, Doyle is robbed of both the race-fixing payoff and his betting wins on his way home from the racetrack. Again unemployed, broke, and feeling soiled by his experience, Doyle receives a visit from two FBI agents, who offer to forget about his crime if he helps them identify those responsible for maiming and killing racehorses for their insurance value. Realizing he has no choice, Doyle takes a job on the estate of Harvey Rexroth, an eccentric and ruthless media mogul who has entered the world of horse racing. Doyle is an appealing protagonist as he struggles with his own less-than-perfect nature in order to protect the horses in his charge and the fellow workers he comes to respect. The Significant Seven, 3rd in the series, was released April 1st.

The Devil’s WhisperMiyuki Miyabe
The Devil’s Whisper (2007) [translation of Majutsu wa sasayaku] is a non-series novel from 1989 by “Japan’s #1 Bestselling Mystery Writer” which follows teenager Mamoru Kusaka as he tries to exonerate his uncle Taizo, a Tokyo taxi driver being held for running over and killing a young woman late one night. In spare and unrelenting prose, the author weaves several threads together, as links are discovered between the deaths of several other young women originally classed as suicides. Mamoru has turned out quite well, considering the ostracism he suffered as a child when his father disappeared with embezzled public funds. After his mother died in rural Japan, Mamoru came to Tokyo to live with his Aunt Yoriko, but his past leads to abuse in school, while helping make him independent and resourceful. Miyabe builds the suspense from multiple first-person accounts and skillfully hints at forces unimagined by the young protagonist. This is the earliest Miyabe novel to appear in English, and well-worth reading, particularly for a change of pace. The Sleeping Dragon (2010) [translation of Ryu wa nemuru (1991)] is the 5th and most recent Miyabe title translated into English.

In the Shadow of GothamStefanie Pintoff
In the Shadow of Gotham (Minotaur 2009) introduces Simon Ziele, a police detective who lost his fiancee and the full use of his right arm in the 1904 wreck of the steamship General Slocum. Ziele has relocated from New York City to the town of Dobson, hoping for a quieter existence and time to recover from his loss, but the brutal and bloody murder of young mathematics student Sarah Wingate shatters his peaceful retreat. The investigation has barely begun when Ziele receives a communication from Alistair Sinclair, a professor at Columbia University, claiming to know the identity of the killer. Sinclair has created a new department to study the emerging science of criminology based on the controversial theories of Dr. Hans Gross, and fears that Michael Fromley, a former research subject with violent tendencies, may have acted on his fantasies of killing young blond women. Excellent historical details, vivid characters, and a strong plot enliven this combination of police procedural and the beginnings of forensic science. This debut novel is a finalist for both the Agatha and Edgar Awards for Best First Novel, and won the first Minotaur Books/MWA Best First Crime Novel Award.

Living the Vida LolaMisa Ramirez
Living the Vida Lola (Minotaur 2009) introduces Lola Cruz, a budding private investigator at Camacho and Associates, in Sacramento, California. Lola, who shares a flat with her brother Antonio above the restaurant and living quarters of her parents and grandfather, loves her close-knit family but longs for more freedom, especially after reconnecting with Jack Callaghan, her unrequited lust from high school. Lola’s family isn’t crazy about her job as a private investigator, and her mother firmly believes Lola should be concentrating on more important tasks, like helping prepare for her cousin’s quinceañera. But Lola has finally earned the right to run the investigation of her first case, the disappearance of 42-year old Emily Diga, who left her 6-year old son stranded at school. Before long, Emily’s body turns up in the river and Lola’s life has been threatened. Lola spends as much time obsessing about the sex she isn’t having as she does investigating her case, but her sassy narration enlivens this debut novel. Hasta la Vista, Lola!, the 2nd in the series, was released in February.

One for SorrowMary Reed and Eric Mayer
One for Sorrow (Poisoned Pen 1999) introduces John the Eunuch, Lord Chamberlain to the Emperor Justinian in Byzantium (Constantinople), capitol of the 6th century Roman Empire. When Leukos, the palace Keeper of the Plate, is found murdered in an alley, the emperor asks John to investigate. Leukos had consulted a traveling soothsayer the night of his death, and John is convinced that his death is more than a random mugging. Thomas, a knight from the court of King Arthur, has traveled to Constantinople in search of the Holy Grail, an unknown object that might be a cup or platter or stone. A guest at the same inn inhabited by the soothsayer, Thomas may be the last to have spoken to Leukos. Though the court is officially Christian, John continues to worship Mythras, the god of the soldier, and Thomas seems to also be a Mythran. Interesting characters, court intrigue, the conflict of religious beliefs, and a vivid historical setting provide a fascinating backdrop to the mystery and the unfolding of John’s own personal history. Eight for Eternity, the 8th in the series was released April 1st.

Cut ShortLeigh Russell
Cut Short (No Exit Press 2009) introduces Geraldine Steel, a detective inspector who relocates from London to the small town of Woolsmarsh, England, after the unhappy end of a long-term relationship. Hoping for a fresh start, Geraldine buys a flat and settles into her new job and her first case: the brutal murder of a young woman in the local park. A second murder of another young girl in the same park ups the ante as everyone confronts the realization that there may be a serial killer preying on young blond women. Geraldine’s investigative strengths are her instinct and her ability to remember all the facts, so she throws herself into long hours of poring over all the evidence. Meanwhile, the disturbed killer, growing increasingly less balanced and more violent, prowls the park. Geraldine is a complex and compelling protagonist, totally devoted to her job yet wanting more out of life. This well written debut psychological thriller maintains the suspense to the final chapter.

April Word Cloud

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May 1, 2010

AwakeningS.J. Bolton
Awakening (Minotaur 2009) is the story of Clara Benning, a wild animal vet with a disfiguring facial scar. Clara has taken a job at the Little Order of St. Francis wildlife rescue center in a small village in Dorset, England, hoping the isolated spot will provide the privacy she craves. A frantic neighbor calls Clara for help when she discovers a snake in her baby’s crib. Clara rescues the baby from the adder and quickly retreats to her surgery. The next night Clara wakens to screaming — a village house is overrun by snakes. Clara isn’t too concerned at first since they seem to be harmless grass snakes, and begins capturing them for later release. Everything changes when Clara spots a large snake she fears may be an Australian taipan, one of the deadliest snakes in the world. With the help of Matt Hoare, the Assistant Chief Constable, Clara captures the taipan, and delivers it to Sean North, an eccentric herpetologist with a popular TV show, who identifies it as an even more deadly variety native to Papua New Guinea. When two elderly villagers die from snake bite, Clara finds herself a person of interest to the police since she was the last to visit them. Throwing herself into an investigation to clear her name, Clara begins to untangle a web of secrets going back for generations. This deliciously creepy gothic suspense novel won the 2010 Mary Higgins Clark Award.

The Girl She Used to BeDavid Cristofano
The Girl She Used To Be (Grand Central 2009) is the story of Melody Grace McCartney, a witness with her parents to a mob hit by Tony Bovaro when she was six years old. After 20 years in the Federal Witness Protection Program, living under eight different aliases, Melody no longer knows who she really is. Alone since her parents were killed 12 years earlier, Melody craves connection and stability, but knows she is doomed to living under a series of forgettable aliases in unmemorable small towns across the country. The only comfort Melody has is her love for the certainty of mathematics, and her powerful baby monitor receiver that picks up the sound of a family she will never have. Bored with her current persona, Melody pretends to get a threatening phone call in order to connect with her caseworker, her only constant in the last 20 years. But retirement has given her a new bodyguard, US Deputy Marshall Sean Douglas. During their journey from Maryland to Wisconsin, Melody, now renamed Melissa, shares her life story with Sean, revealing the girl she used to be and never can be again. Then Tony Bovaro’s son Jonathan tracks her down and offers a future she never imagined. This compulsively readable debut novel was a finalist for the 2010 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Never Tell a LieHallie Ephron
Never Tell a Lie (William Morrow 2009) is the story of Ivy Rose, who is inspired by the final month of her pregnancy to clear out everything left behind by the previous owners of their Victorian house in Brush Hills, Massachusetts. Ivy, whose previous pregnancy ended in a late-term miscarriage, is consumed with worries about delivering a healthy baby. As Ivy and her husband David are busy at their yard sale, a very pregnant woman identifies herself as Melinda White, a former high school classmate. Ivy vaguely remembers Melinda as an unpopular outcast and is uncomfortable with her increasingly personal questions about pregnancy and the house, which Melinda says she often visited as a child. Relieved when David takes Melinda inside for a tour, Ivy forgets all about her until the police appear several days later investigating Melinda’s disappearance. The yard sale is the last place Melinda was seen, and David is soon the prime suspect. As the evidence mounts against David, Ivy begins to wonder if their perfect romance has a solid foundation after all, and is drawn into doing some investigation of her own to find out the truth. This quick-moving and suspenseful novel was a finalist for the 2010 Mary Higgins Clark Award.

Death RitesAlicia Giménez-Bartlett
Death Rites (Europa 2008) [Ritos de muerte (Spain 1996), translated by Jonathan Dunne] introduces Petra Delicado, a police inspector in Barcelona, Spain. Petra, a former lawyer now admired for her organizational skills in the admistration department, is assigned to a rape case since the department is short-handed. Petra’s partner on the case is Fermín Garzón, a recently transferred sergeant approaching retirement age. Petra has just moved into a tiny house with a garden after a divorce from her young husband Pepe, who often appears without warning on her doorstop offering to help with chores. Petra is also in the process of freeing herself from the last tie with her first husband Hugo, a successful lawyer in the firm Petra deserted when she left Hugo. Unused to the demands of a police investigation, Petra at first resents the case intruding upon the peace and quiet she expected from her new home and single status, but a second rape with similar characteristics stimulates her interest. The developing relationship between the compliant and courteous Garzón and the prickly yet philosophical Petra is the true heart of this debut police procedural.

Case of the Missing ServantTarquin Hall
The Case of the Missing Servant (Simon & Schuster 2009) introduces Vish Puri, the portly Punjabi founder of Most Private Investigators Ltd., a detective agency in Delhi, India. Puri’s current case is the disappearance of a maid named Mary from the household of Ajay Kasliwal, a lawyer who targets corrupt government officials. A rumor is circulating that Kasliwal killed the maid after getting her pregnant, and Kasliwal is convince the smear campaign is retribution for his campaign against corruption. The only way to clear his name is to find the missing maid. But finding Mary won’t be easy, since Kasliwal’s wife wasn’t interested enough in a mere servant to find out her last name or her home village. The observant Puri is called “The Sherlock Holmes of India,” a compliment that irritates him since he believes Holmes’s deductive techniques were based on those established by Chanakya in India thousands of years earlier. Puri combines these traditional methods with modern techniques, supported by his understanding of human nature and a vast network of friends and relations. Puri, “Boss” to his employees and “Chubby” to his family and friends, is a thoroughly likable protagonist, cleverly ferreting out information while secretly consuming the greasy Indian snacks forbidden by his anxious wife. Puri’s often bumbling undercover operatives plus his widowed mother who is determined to do some sleuthing of her own, add to the fun in this humorous debut mystery set in the hustle and bustle of modern Delhi, full of vivid colors and the mouth-watering scents of spicy dishes.

Last ChildJohn Hart
The Last Child (Minotaur 2009) is the story of a North Carolina family’s anguish after the disappearance of a child. A year ago 13-year-old Johnny Merrimon had a happy life with his twin sister Alyssa and his loving parents. But then Alyssa vanished on her way home, last seen being pulled into a white van. Johnny’s mother blamed his father since he had forgotten to pick her up, and his father deserted the family and disappeared a few weeks after Alyssa. Now Johnny’s mother has retreated into the oblivion provided by alcohol and drugs, and Johnny is unable to protect her or himself from Ken, his father’s former boss and now his mother’s abusive lover. But Johnny hasn’t given up the search for his sister, and often skips out of school to continue his meticulous house-to-house search and his watch on the local registered sex offenders. Detective Clyde Hunt hasn’t given up the search either, though his obsession with the missing girl has cost him his marriage and nearly destroyed his relationship with his own son. Then another young girl goes missing, and the entire community experiences the loss of a child all over again. This powerful and emotionally wrenching novel full of multi-layered characters struggling with love, loss, obsession, and betrayal was awarded the 2009 Steel Dagger Award and the 2010 Edgar Award for Best Mystery.

A Load of Old BonesSuzette A. Hill
A Load of Old Bones (2005) introduces the Reverend Francis Oughterard, vicar of Molehill, in 1950s Surrey, England. Exhausted by his efforts to be the hearty and dynamic leader the Bishop favors, Francis is relieved to find that his banishment to the sleepy village of Molehill may actually suit him perfectly. There are only two parishioners the vicar finds difficult: the predatory widow Elizabeth Fotherington who has decided to pursue him, and the banker Reginald Bowler who views him as a rival. Francis finds them both extremely tiresome and often resorts to solitary rambles in the woods. The morning his vacation begins, Francis is distressed to find that Elizabeth has followed him into the woods and insists on making conversation. Overcome by an uncontrollable impulse, Francis strangles her with her own scarf and flees. Upon his return, Francis finds that Elizabeth’s supercilious cat Maurice has moved in, and that he has become a person of interest to the police. Then Reginald absconds with the bank’s funds, leaving his bone-obsessed dog Bouncer homeless. Bouncer also inserts himself into the vicar’s household and joins forces with Maurice to protect the bumbling Francis from incriminating himself, so that they can continue to enjoy their comfortable new home. Luckily for the absent-minded vicar, Maurice and Bouncer are far shrewder than he is. Narrated in alternate chapters by the vicar, Maurice, and Bouncer, this dryly humorous debut mystery cleverly presents three distinct perspectives on the same reality.

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of DeathCharlie Huston
The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death (Ballantine 2009) is the very strange story of former Los Angeles elementary school teacher Web Goodhue. For reasons that become clear later, we meet Web in his total slacker phase, leeching off his friend Chev, who runs a tattoo parlor, and the occasional donations from his hippie mother, who grows blackberries and marijuana in Oregon. Just as Chev reaches the end of his generosity, Po Sin, owner of a crime scene cleanup business, offers Web a job. Web’s first experience as a member of the Clean Team is the home of a old man who was dead for far too long before his body was discovered, followed by that of a man who blew his brains all over the room with a large caliber gun. Web’s monologue to himself while cleaning the bathroom startles the man’s daughter, Soledad, into shocked laughter. The two trade sort-of-friendly insults until Po Sin hauls Web back to the serious business of learning the mystic arts of erasing all signs of death. When Soledad calls Web later asking for help cleaning up a hotel room covered with blood, Web finds himself in the midst of a tangled mess of smuggling and kidnapping. Told mainly in amazing realistic dialog, Web’s narration slowly reveals the secrets of his past as he struggles to get a handle on the present. The supporting cast includes some scary yet amusing bad guys and Soledad’s astoundingly dim-witted brother. This unsettling, morbidly funny, surprisingly hopeful, and very original book was a finalist for the 2010 Edgar Award for Best Novel.

Real WorldNatsuo Kirino
Real World (Knopf 2008) [Riaru warudo (Japan 2003), translated by Philip Gabriel] explores the teenage wasteland from the viewpoint of four girls and one boy, all high school seniors during midsummer vacation in Tokyo. For most of them, life revolves around cram school to get into college, and finding air conditioned refuge from the stifling heat. Toshi’s neighbor, a boy she’s nicknamed Worm, has committed a terrible crime and is now on the run. But this is the age of cell phones and text messaging, so the girls keep track of Worm and one another as events unfold. Each of the five kids alternatively tells part of the story. The book moves along with trendy dialog in this smart translation, and the characters feel authentic -- admittedly based on what one thinks one knows about Japanese teenage girls at the millennium. Kirino creates a convincing world where teenagers reign supreme, where parents and other adults are just shadowy figures or recurring annoyances. The girls slot into several types, the ordinary and obedient one, the serious student, the chronically depressed, the incipient lesbian. The plot moves along typically through one or two innocuous whims, and a failure to answer a harmless question can set a course to more serious consequences. This short, contemporary teen-noir is a fascinating read, and we hope more of Kirino’s works will be translated into English.

The Fourth AssassinMatt Beynon Rees
The Fourth Assassin (Soho 2010) is the fourth book in the series featuring Omar Yussef Sirhan, a 50-something teacher at a United Nations school in a Palestinian refugee camp. This book is a change of pace, however, as we find Omar Yussef traveling to New York for a conference at the UN, as well as to visit his youngest son Ala, who is living in the “Little Palestine” community of Brooklyn. His trip away from the violence of Palestine, explored so well in the first three books, gets off to a rocky start when Omar Yussef discovers the decapitated body of one of his son’s roommates. Ala is arrested and refuses to provide an alibi, so as not to shame his girlfriend. Omar Yussef is particularly close to the situation, since he had known and taught the young men when they were boys back home; and he remembers their then-harmless boys’ club, called The Assassins, which now takes on more ominous tones. Nor can the tensions and rivalries of Palestine be left behind, as Omar Yussef soon discovers at the UN, where we also meet up with his old friend, Khamis Zeydan, the police chief of Bethlehem, serving as chief of security for the Palestinian president. Despite some over-the-top thriller aspects, readers following the ever-challenging exploits of Omar Yussef will again want to come along for the ride.

May Word Cloud

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June 1, 2010

The Broken TeaglassEmily Arsenault
The Broken Teaglass (Delacorte 2009) is the story of a secret hidden in the citation files of the Samuelson Company, a respected dictionary publisher in Claxton, Massachusetts. Billy Webb, a recent graduate with a degree in philosophy, takes a job as a lexicographer-in-training at Samuelson as a last resort. Mona Minot takes pity on Billy and helps him navigate the intricacies of preparing for the next dictionary edition, including answering letters from the public about words, and maintaining the citation files: clippings from books, magazines, and newspapers that demonstrate the usage of words and provide the basis for including new words or new usages of old words in the next edition. As Mona is showing Billy the citation files for “editrix” in order to answer a letter inquiring about the proper plural form of the word, they stumble across a citation from a book called The Broken Teaglass, by Dolores Beekmin, that seems odd to Billy. It is much longer that the normal citation and mentions citations, cubicles, and editors. In fact, it seems to take place at Samuelson, or another dictionary company. The two quickly discover that no such book exists, but stumble across more citations, which begin to read like a confession by a former employee of involvement in a deadly secret, perhaps a murder. This quirky debut mystery, full of fascinating insights into the constantly changing meaning of words and the lexicographers who define them, is also a coming-of-age novel featuring complex characters whose story is told with wit and humor.

Elegy for AprilBenjamin Black (John Banville)
Elegy for April (Henry Holt 2010) is the third in the Quirke series, following the ups and downs and indeterminate investigations of a Dublin pathologist in the mid-1950s. Quirke was sober for most of the second book, but now, some months later, he is drying out at St. John’s Hospital. Things are still rocky with his 23-year-old daughter Phoebe, who thought most of her life that Malachy and Sarah Griffin were her parents, only to find out that when Quirke’s wife died in childbirth she was given to her aunt and uncle. Phoebe and Quirke meet for lunch once a week, where Quirke permits himself just a dash of chablis, and carry on their fractured father-daughter relationship. Now Phoebe’s friend, the “young doctor” April Latimer (black sheep of the prominent Latimers) has gone missing, and the “little band” of five close friends, including the actress Isabell, newsman Jimmy, and another young doctor, Patrick Okumwe a Nigerian, are potentially involved. Complications arise when Quirke tries to get information from the dysfunctional Latimer family, and secrets begin to emerge. Hackett, the shabby Garda inspector, again is enlisted in a semi-official role as Quirke tenaciously pursues the investigation. The characters are interesting, and the novel is suffused with a noirish Dublin and its weather. The writing is brilliant — Black-Banville’s sentences are crafted with care, and enlivened with quirky language on every page. All is not noir, as we find Quirke deciding to buy a hand-crafted luxury car and finally learn how to drive.

Bad Things HappenHarry Dolan
Bad Things Happen (Putnam 2009) is the story of a man who calls himself David Loogan, in the college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Loogan is escaping from some unknown violence in his past and lives an aimless solitary life until picking up a short story magazine called Gray Streets. Bitten by the writing bug, Loogan composes a short story about a man with a fear of parking lots and anonymously pushes a copy through the mail slot at the magazine office. Several days later, Loogan revises his story and again pushes it through the slot. The third time he is surprised to find the magazine’s owner, Tom Kristoll, waiting on the other side of the mail slot. Kristoll offers Loogan a job as an editor, and the two become friends. Loogan comes out of his shell a bit, mixing with other writers and beginning an affair with Tom’s wife Laura. When Kristoll asks Loogan to help him bury a body, bad things begin to happen, and Loogan finds himself the main suspect when Tom is murdered. Loogan is an amazing character — smart, cynical, mysterious, and loyal to a fault. Elizabeth Waishkey, the detective assigned to the murder, isn’t sure what to make of Loogan, and he isn’t sure that he can trust her to find the truth on her own. The two establish an uneasy truce, sharing carefully selected facts with each other while conducting parallel investigations. Perfectly nuanced dialog, a multi-layered twisting plot, clever literary references, and beautiful prose make this debut novel a standout.

In the WindBarbara Fister
In the Wind (Minotaur 2008) introduces Anni Koskinen, who left her beloved job on the Chicago police force after being ostracized following her testimony against a fellow cop for brutality. Anni spends most of her time wondering what to do with her life and renovating her house, but takes an occasional job as a private detective, mainly tracking down 17-year-old Sophie, the bipolar daughter of her oldest friend, FBI agent Jim Tilquist, who often hits the streets during a manic phase. When the local priest asks Anni to take Rosa Saenz, one of his community volunteers, to Minnesota, Anni agrees. Unfortunately, the FBI believes that Rosa has been in hiding for thirty years after killing an FBI agent in 1972 while she was a member of Ishkode, a militant splinter group of the American Indian Movement. After discovering that the murdered FBI agent was Jim Tilquist’s father, Anni wants nothing to do with the investigation, though the evidence suggests that Rosa was not the killer. But Sophie, convinced that Rosa is a martyr, leaps to her defense, and Jim tells Anni he needs to know the truth about his father’s death. Anni begins to go through the old evidence, putting herself and those she loves in danger. Anni is an engaging and complicated character: prickly, independent, and loyal to a fault. Solid supporting characters, an intricate plot, and uncomfortable parallels between post-9/11 and Vietnam-era civil liberty issues cause this well-written novel to linger after the final page.

The Bellini CardJason Goodwin
The Bellini Card (2008), 3rd in the Yashim Togalu series, takes place in 1840. The young Turkish sultan Abdülmecid tells Yashim, the court eunuch who helped his father get to the truth in many palace intrigues, that a portrait by Bellini of Abdülmecid’s ancestor, Mehmet the Conqueror, which vanished from Istanbul many years ago, has resurfaced in Venice. Abdülmecid orders Yashim to Venice to find the portrait, but his vizier Resid strongly counsels Yashim to stay home. Yashim disguises his friend Stanislaw Palewski, the Polish ambassador to Istanbul, as an American art collector and sends him to Venice in his stead. After discovering the body of a murdered art dealer in a canal upon his arrival in Venice, Palewski is soon out-maneuvered by various Venetian schemers and becomes a person of interest to the police. Yashim comes to the rescue and matches wits with the plotters, fights a heroic battle with his kitchen knife, rescues the innocent, and cooks a magnificent Turkish feast for his host family in this humorous and highly engaging historical mystery, recently released in paperback by Picador.

The Silent HourMichael Koryta
The Silent Hour (Minotaur 2009) finds Cleveland PI Lincoln Perry trying to adjust to life without his partner Joe Pritchard, who is spending the winter in Florida and talking about retiring. Lincoln doesn’t have much of a caseload, but the letters he receives from Parker Harrison, a convicted murder who has served his time, go straight into the trash. Then Parker appears at the office door, and convinces the distrustful Lincoln to search for Alexandra Cantrell, who disappeared with her husband Joshua 12 years ago. The Cantrells gave Parker a job as a gardener when he was paroled, and the sight of the beautiful house abandoned to the elements captures Lincoln’s interest. When Joshua’s bones are found buried in the woods and Alexandra is revealed to be the sister of a notorious mobster, Lincoln fears that he may be again exposing those he loves to danger. The plot is intricate and compelling, but Lincoln is the true star of this book, the 4th in the series, as he struggles to balance his need for the stimulation of investigative work with his compulsion to protect his friends.

The Sex ClubL.J. Sellers
The Sex Club (Spellbinder 2007) opens during the examination of a young girl at a birth control clinic in Eugene, Oregon, by nurse Kera Kollmorgan. Jessie says she is 16, but Kera suspects she is younger and tries to determine if the sex is consensual. In her hurry to leave, Jessie leaves her phone behind, right before a pipe bomb explodes, leaving Kera with minor injuries and another client with serious ones. Wade Jackson, a homicide detective between cases, is assigned to the bombing. When Jessie’s body is found in a dumpster the next day, Jackson is horrified to identify her as a friend of his own daughter. Kera, conflicted by the client confidentiality policy that prevents her from talking to the police, uses information on Jessie’s phone to begin her own investigation, and discovers that the Teen Talk Bible Club Jessie belonged to may actually be a weekly sex club. Autopsy information leads Jackson to the clinic with an official request for Jessie’s file, and Kera is able to turn over Jessie’s phone and help Jackson search for the truth. When Jackson finds a possible link to the mayor, he has to fight power politics and put his career on the line to pursue the investigation. Meanwhile, the clinic bomber continues her plan to destroy the building and staff that she sees as a threat to her children, and the children of others in her church. This debut police procedural exposing the dangers of removing sex education from middle schools is a compelling suspense story featuring fully-realized characters.

The Dope ThiefDennis Tafoya
Dope Thief (Minotaur 2009) is the story of Ray, who has a great scam going with Manny, his best friend since they met in juvie 20 years earlier. With the help of some fake badges and a couple of DEA windbreakers from the second-hand store, Ray and Manny rip off small-time drug dealers by posing as federal agents. All goes well until the day they score far more cash than they’ve ever seen in their lives. In their haste to escape the scene, Ray drops a walkie-talkie and the cold threatening voice that emerges from Ray’s pocket scares the two into almost deciding to return the money. But the discovery that a hit man is already on their trail convinces them that compliance isn’t an option; it’s kill or be killed. Ray and Manny are completely out of their league; these are serious bad guys. Worried about the safety of anyone close to them, Ray tries to transform himself into a hunter rather than prey. As he struggles to deal with the situation, Ray’s past is slowly revealed: the death of the girl he loved and lost, and the difficulty of escaping from the entanglements of a criminal environment. Sustained by dreams of a relationship with a woman working at a bookstore, Ray decides to reinvent himself if he can somehow escape being murdered. Complex characters, a dark sense of humor, and an action-packed plot make this well-written debut thriller something special.

Serpent in the ThornsJeri Westerson
Serpent in the Thorns (Minotaur 2009) is the 2nd in the series featuring Crispin Guest, a disgraced knight in 1384 London, now known as Tracker for his ability to find the truth. A simple-minded girl working at a tavern comes to Crispin confessing to a murder of an unknown man. In her room Crispin discovers the body of a man killed with a crossbow, but the confused girl insists she must have killed him since no one else was there. With the body Crispin finds a golden box containing a crown of thorns, a holy relic sent to King Richard from the French king as a peace offering. Sure that returning the relic along with the identity of the assassin will convince the king to restore his lands and title, Crispin hides it in his room and sets out in search of the killer. Unfortunately Crispin’s prime suspect is Miles Aleyn, the king’s Captain of the Archers, a powerful man above the reach of a disgraced knight without definite proof. Assisting Crispin is young Jack, a thief Crispin has rescued from the streets. Jack can’t quite leave his thieving ways behind, but he is determined to help his master find the truth. Crispin’s struggle to adapt to his new circumstances is enhanced by his developing relationships with lower class people like Jack and friends who own a tavern, people below the notice of a titled knight, people who like him for the person he is rather than what he owns. This action-packed mystery was a finalist for the 2010 Bruce Alexander Award for Best Historical Mystery.

Last RitualsYrsa Sigurdardottir
Last Rituals (William Morrow 2007) introduces Thóra Gudmundsdottir, a lawyer in Reykjavik, Iceland. When the body of a young German student, Harald Guntlieb, is found, his eyes have been gouged out and strange symbols have been carved into his chest. The police make an arrest, but the student’s family isn’t sure they have arrested the right man, and ask Thóra, who studied in Germany with a friend of the family, to go over the case again. Thóra isn’t sure she’s the right person for the job, but as a struggling single parent she can’t say no to the money. The Guntlieb family sends Matthew Reich, an experienced Munich investigator, to Iceland to help Thóra with the investigation. Thóra and Matthew discover that Harald came to Iceland to study witch hunts, which in Iceland targeted men rather than women for torture and execution. They are soon convinced that Harold’s murder has more to do with his research than a drug deal gone bad. Thora is an appealing protagonist, successfully juggling her family obligations as she gets caught up in the intricacies of the investigation. The Icelandic setting is well portrayed: a cold and bleak landscape that Thóra finds beautiful and Matthew a bit frightening, and the ingrown relationships in a closed society with a small population, where Thóra knows she can’t escape running into an old boyfriend or two. Despite the gruesome descriptions of medieval torture, this debut mystery has a light touch.

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July 1, 2010

A Quiet Belief in AngelsR.J. Ellory
A Quiet Belief in Angels (UK 2007, US Overlook 2009) is the story of Joseph Calvin Vaughn, who is 12 years old in 1939 when his classmate is raped and murdered in the small town of Augusta Falls, Georgia. Joseph, a sensitive and observant boy who lives alone with his mother after his father’s death, is encouraged by his teacher to pursue his dream of being a writer. In 1942, after the fourth girl is killed, Joseph gathers together a small group of classmates who decide to make secret patrols with the mission of guarding the young girls. They call themselves The Guardians, but are unable to prevent the next murder, and Joseph himself finds the body. Against the background of the war in Europe, Joseph obsesses about his inability to protect the innocent, even after the murders eventually cease to happen. In time, Joseph moves to Brooklyn, which he sees as a mecca for writers, to pursue his dream, but is unable to shake off the dark cloud of despair and helplessness that marred his childhood. Returning to Georgia when his mother is on her deathbed, Joseph realizes that the murders are still happening, that young girls have been raped and murdered for over 30 years. This compelling story of an artistic and sensitive nature bruised and battered by grim reality was a finalist for the 2008 Barry Award for Best British Crime Novel and the 2009 Dilys Award. Perhaps more a novel than a mystery, this beautifully written book is not to be missed.

The MissingTim Gautreaux
The Missing (2009) is the story of Sam Simoneaux, who returns from WWI hoping for a peaceful life. Sam loves his job as a floorwalker in the biggest department store in New Orleans until the day that the three-year-old daughter of two entertainers on a Mississippi steamboat goes missing. Sam is blamed for the lost child and loses his job. On the promise that he can have the job back if he finds the child, Sam joins Elsie and Tom Weller on the riverboat, sure that the kidnapping was planned by someone who saw the child during a performance. As the steamboat meanders down the river, Sam searches for clues while confronting demons from his own past and learning new ways to think about music from the talented Tom Weller and the black musicians playing jazz at the nightly parties. Sam’s investigations off the boat reveal the lawlessness of the backwoods along the Mississippi, where ruthless clannish families rule through violence and fear. Themes of loss, abandonment, belonging, and revenge are explored throughout this rich and lyrical novel full of complex and memorable characters. Though not primarily a mystery, this beautifully written historical novel was a finalist for the 2010 Edgar Award for Best Mystery.

My Lady JudgeCora Harrison
My Lady Judge (Minotaur 2007) introduces Mara, the only female judge appointed by King Turlough Donn O’Brien, in 1509 Ireland. At the age of 36, Mara is content with her responsibilities training law students and serving as the Brehon (judge) for the kingdom of Burren on the west coast of Ireland. When the whole village climbs the limestone terraces of Mullaghmore Mountain to celebrate the great May Day festival, lighting a bonfire and then singing and dancing through the night, Mara and her guest the king return early. The next morning all of Mara’s law students have returned except Colman, a former student serving as her assistant. When his murdered body is found and no one comes forward to confess and pay the death fine, Mara knows she must find the guilty party to preserve peace in the kingdom. Each chapter of this well-researched novel is prefaced by a bit of fascinating Brehon law, a complicated mix of custom and common sense that assigns value to each person and crime. Mara is an engaging protagonist: fiercely independent, clever in both book learning and people sense, and determined to arrive at a just conclusion to each case. Though at times overloaded by the trivia of medieval Irish dress and custom, the relatively slow-moving pace suits the story perfectly in this satisfying debut historical mystery.

Where Armadillos Go To DieJames Hime
Where Armadillos Go To Die (Minotaur 2009) opens with retired Texas Ranger Jeremiah Spur and his wife Martha dining at Bourré, home of the best catfish in Brenham, Texas. Jeremiah is looking forward to fried food, a treat not part of the healthy diet Martha has him on, but he isn’t allowed to partake until owner Sylvester Bradshaw shows off his invention, a contraption that takes the muddy taste from catfish. Martha starts feeling ill in the middle of the meal, and grows worse overnight. A visit to the hospital confirms an E. coli infection, and Jeremiah shares the hospital waiting room with an anxious father whose little girl is fighting the same infection. When Bradshaw’s daughter tracks Jeremiah down to ask for his help locating her missing father, he is reluctant to leave Martha’s side, but the ransacked restaurant and missing invention convince Jeremiah that the incompetent local law enforcement team truly needs his help. After learning that several venture capitalists have been trying to buy the rights to Bradshaw’s invention, Jeremiah has plenty of candidates for suspicion including Bradshaw’s own family and the ultra-rich former NFL star ex-deputy Clyde Thomas is working for. Hime’s confident mix of humor and suspense shines in this third book in the series featuring an engagingly mellow protagonist firmly set in a typical Texas small town.

The Midnight ChoirGene Kerrigan
The Midnight Choir (2006) is the story of Harry Synnott, a detective inspector in Dublin, Ireland. Synnott is ostracized by many of his colleagues because of his exposure of Garda (police) brutality against the suspect in the murder of a young Garda during a bank robbery twenty years earlier, but his reputation as a man who tells the truth at all costs makes him a powerful witness in court. With detective Rose Cheney, Synnott is investigating a rape case against the son of a powerful lawyer, and hoping for a break in the case of a jewelry store robbery. Then Synnott’s informant Dixie Peyton, an addict desperate to convince social services she is capable of looking after her young son, gives Synnott a bad tip about a bootleg DVD warehouse, which makes him look bad right at the time he is being considered for a promotion. Meanwhile, in Galway, policeman Joe Mills talks a suicide off a rooftop. The man is covered in dried blood, and Mills discovers two bodies, but not the woman the man talks of killing. Kerrigan masterfully gathers all these threads together in this powerful Irish noir that explores the moral dilemmas faced by the police, as well as the nature of truth.

Death and the Lit ChickG.M. Malliet
Death and the Lit Chick (Midnight Ink 2009) takes place at Dalmorton Castle, where crime writers, publishers, and agents are staying while attending a crime writers’ conference in nearby Edinburgh. When Kimberlee Kalder, rising star of the "chick lit" mystery genre, is found dead, Detective Chief Inspector Arthur St. Just is called in to handle the investigation. Since a power outage made it impossible to lower the drawbridge over the castle’s moat the night Kimberlee was killed, it is clear, in the best Agatha Christie style, that the person who left her broken body in the dungeon is either a guest or a staff member. Motive isn’t in short supply since everyone has a reason for despising Kimberlee, and the interrogations with the writers, who can’t seem to stop using their imaginations while describing their movements on the night of the crime, muddy the field of opportunity. St. Just suspects everyone, except perhaps Portia De’Ath, who has captured his heart. Malliet has a great time lampooning the mystery writing industry (Why do serial killers always think in italics?) as St. Just struggles to unravel the complex maze of clues and red herrings. This witty traditional mystery, second in the series, is a finalist for the 2010 Anthony Award for Best Paperback.

A Darker DomainVal McDermid
A Darker Domain (2008) features Detective Inspector Karen Pirie, the newly appointed head of the Cold Case squad in Fife, Scotland. Karen isn’t good at sitting behind her desk, which is where her boss expects her to be, and can’t resist taking on the investigation of a man who disappeared during the 1984 miners’ strike. Everyone assumed that Mick Prentice went with a group scabbing to Nottingham, but when his daughter decides to track him down nearly 25 years later, the group insists Mick didn’t leave with them. Knowing her boss won’t approve the investigation, Karen works quietly behind the scenes until investigative journalist Bel Richmond finds new evidence in the 1985 kidnapping by anarchists of the daughter of Sir Broderick Maclennan Grant’s daughter Catriona and infant grandson Adam. Catriona was killed in the ransom exchange, but no sign was ever found of baby Adam. Cleverly shunting funds for the missing miner investigation from that of the wealthy heir, Karen’s dual investigations slowly converge toward a surprising conclusion. Juxtaposition of the police resources available to the poor and the rich against the background of the suffering endured by the miners and their families during the strike add to the interest of this well-written thriller.

The Shanghai MoonS.J. Rozan
The Shanghai Moon (Minotaur 2009) finds New York private eye Lydia Chin on her own since her partner Bill Smith is recovering from the emotional repercussions of their last case. Lydia’s former mentor Joel Pilarsky hires Lydia to help on a case with ties to the Chinese community. Alice Fairchild, a Swiss lawyer specializing in the recovery of Holocaust assets, believes that a corrupt Chinese official has stolen a recently unearthed jewel box and is trying to sell the jewels in New York’s Chinatown. The jewels belonged to Rosalie Gilder, who fled Austria in 1938 for Shanghai. Discovering a collection of letters from Rosalie to her mother, who didn’t make it out of Austria, Lydia becomes obsessed with the story of Rosalie’s life. Rumors that a fabulous jewel worth millions, the Shanghai Moon, was part of Rosalie’s collection add to the mystery. Bill reappears to help Lydia with the investigation, and the two uncover hints of betrayal both during the Japanese invasion of Shanghai sixty years earlier and in the present. Suspenseful, multi-layered, and deeply satisfying, this 9th book in the series is a finalist for the 2010 Anthony, Barry, and Macavity Awards for Best Novel.

Le CrimePeter Steiner
Le Crime (2008) [originally published as A French Country Murder (2003)] opens with Louis Morgon finding a dead body on the doorstep of his refuge in a rural French village. He quickly determines it is a message that it will be harder to escape his past than he’d thought. Morgon was a brilliant and rising young thinker in the US State Department, eventually liaison with the CIA, and an operative in the Middle East. Two decades before, when his rapid rise was terminated without good cause, and as his marriage and family fell apart, Morgon headed to France to sort things out. While following an old pilgrimage route, he stumbles on the small village whose environment and people captivate him: neighbors Solesmne, a graceful, intriguing woman with a spinal deformity, and Renard, the local gendarme, and his family. As events develop, Morgon’s past sweeps his new friends into his world of intrigue, lies, and death. Steiner’s writing is careful and concise, with unexpected philosophical ruminations and complex character development. Travelogue is balanced with spy stuff, and Morgon, the gentle, philosophical, amateur painter, shows he still has the skills of a master CIA operative. The books in the series need to be read in order: L’Assassin (2008) continues the story of Morgon’s attempts to find peace in rural France, followed by the third book in the series — The Terrorist — which was released in late May. (We will be giving away three signed copies of this book in our next Newsletter.)

Among the MadJacqueline Winspear
Among the Mad (Henry Holt 2009) begins on Christmas Eve 1931 when Masie Dobbs, a private investigator and psychologist in London, walks by an ex-soldier missing a leg. Sensing the man is desperate, Masie reaches out to him, but he detonates a grenade and kills himself. The next day the Prime Minister receives a letter threatening violence unless the government does something to help the impoverished, especially unemployed veterans. Since the letter mentions Masie by name, Inspector Stratton of Scotland Yard request her help with the investigation. Masie suspects that the threat comes from a man haunted by experiences in the war, who feels abandoned rather than supported by society upon his return home. A former war nurse, Masie has great sympathy for the veterans suffering emotional damage who are ineligible for the pensions, services, and benefits provided for physically injured veterans. Some of the darkest images in this historical mystery come from Masie’s visits to insane asylums, as she learns about the uncertain outcomes of the treatments provided to patients. Contrasting Masie’s exploration of the psychological trauma of war is the story of her assistant Billy’s wife, who is unable to escape the melancholia that overcame her at the death of their youngest child. Masie continues to confront her own war ghosts in this mesmerizing 6th in the series, a finalist for the 2010 Macavity Award for Best Historical Novel.

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August 1, 2010

The Coffin TrailMartin Edwards
The Coffin Trail (Poisoned Pen 2004) introduces Daniel Kind, an Oxford historian who buys a cottage in the Lake District of England, and Detective Chief Inspector Hannah Scarlett of the Cold Case Squad. Daniel is attracted to the cottage since Barrie Gilpin, a friend made during a happy childhood vacation, lived there. Barrie, who had Asperger’s syndrome, was later accused of the brutal rape and murder of a young woman. Since Barrie fell to his death immediately after the crime, it was assumed he was guilty. Hannah Scarlett, recently assigned to the Cold Case Squad, receives an anonymous phone call suggesting that Barrie was innocent, probably stirred up by Daniel’s questions about the past, and decides to re-open the investigation. Moving from different directions, Daniel and Hannah’s investigations eventually intersect, sparking some personal interest during the exchange of information. Though Daniel has moved to the country with Miranda, his new love, it soon becomes apparent that Miranda isn’t as enamored of country life as Daniel is, leaving open the possibility that Daniel may stay in the Lake District to assist Hannah with yet more Cold Cases. (The Serpent Pool, 4th in the series, was released earlier this year.)

Siren of the WatersMichael Genelin
Siren of the Waters (Soho 2008) introduces Jana Matinova, a police commander in Bratislava, Slovakia. Called to investigate a car crash and fire that leaves seven bodies scattered in pieces in the snow, Jana wonders if it was really an accident. When her clueless assistant discovers a ledger containing a mysterious code taped under the couch of the apartment of the dead driver, Jana is sure the deaths were planned. After discovering that the dead women were prostitutes imported from Russia, Jana travels to Kiev, and learns of Ivan “Koba” Makine, a ruthless criminal mastermind. Since Koba was believed to have been killed at least twice before the car crash in Bratislava, Jana is sure that he is still alive, perhaps searching for the hidden ledger. Taking advantage of an invitation to speak about the case at an EU sex trafficking convention in Strasbourg, Jana follows the threads of her case to Vienna and Nice. Neatly woven through the investigation is Jana’s backstory — her marriage to an actor and life under the Communist regime that destroyed her husband, her marriage, and her relationship with her daughter — as she tries to reconnect with her daughter and baby granddaughter. Vivid descriptions of the shadows of the past hanging over the present — even the massive furniture hulks about in a grim way— highlight the reality of modern Slovakia. A strong and likable protagonist, Jana more than compensates for the occasional plot weaknesses.

The War Against Miss WinterKathryn Miller Haines
The War Against Miss Winter (2007) introduces Rosie Winter, a struggling actress working as a secretary for private detective Jim McCain in New York City. On New Year’s Eve 1942, Rosie discovers Jim’s body hanging in the closet of his office. An unsympathetic cop is eager to rule the death a suicide, but Rosie is convinced Jim was killed. When a mysterious client appears asking for news of his missing papers Rosie agrees to look through the files and soon discovers that the missing papers may be a stolen script by a famous and recently murdered playwright. With the help of her best friend Jayne, a tiny and high-voiced actress dubbed America’s Squeakheart, Rosie finds herself mixing with high society and mobsters in search of the missing script. Rosie’s world isn’t easy, what with food rationing, frequent blackouts, worries about the rent, and a boyfriend who hasn’t written since he was sent overseas immediately after a quarrel. But Rosie is more than capable of dealing with the cut-throat world of the theater, and isn’t about to let a few threats on her life get between her and her goal to succeed as an actress in this pitch-perfect historical debut mystery.

Breathing WaterTimothy Hallinan
Breathing Water (William Morrow 2009), the 3rd in the Poke Rafferty series, finds Poke in the middle of a poker game where he wins the chance to write a biography of Khun Pan, a major player in the Bangkok underworld. Poke doesn’t trust Pan, but his Thai wife Rose sees Pan as a hero who gives generously to the poor. Threatened by a couple of thugs who warn Poke to write the book based only on interviews with those opposed to Pan, and pressured by Pan’s minions to write a flattering one, Poke fears that Rose and their adopted daughter Miaow have become pawns in a dangerous power struggle. Meanwhile, Da, a poverty-stricken village girl is given a baby to use as a begging tool on the streets of the city. Concerned for her own safety and frightened that the baby will be taken away, Da decides to trust Boo, a street child who offers to help her escape, and the trio end up at Poke’s asking for protection from the baby smugglers. The last thing Poke needs is another battle to fight, but he can’t say no, especially since Boo watched over Miaow during her time as a street child. Poke stays amazingly calm in the midst of the turmoil swirling around him as he tries to figure out a way to protect his family and find some sort of justice for the innocent. This beautifully written thriller exposes the corruption and unrest in modern Thailand while celebrating its unique culture and people.

Blood HinaNaomi Hirahara
Blood Hina (Minotaur 2010), the 4th in the Mas Arai series, finds the elderly gardener reluctantly preparing to act as best man for his friend and fellow Hiroshima survivor Harou Mukai. A recovering gambler, Harou met Spoon Hayakawa, the widow he plans to marry, at the Los Angeles flower market where they both work. But the wedding is suddenly called off when a pair of antique Japanese Girls’ Day hina dolls are stolen from Spoon’s home. Harou is blamed for the theft, and even Mas begins to wonder if his friend is guilty when rumors surface that Harou has returned to gambling. Mas suspects that Spoon’s daughter Dee, a recovering addict, may be involved in the theft, but Dee seems unexpectedly eager to help Mas track down the thief. Mas follows the history of the hina dolls which takes him on a tangled trail back through the Japanese internment camps of WWII, an old murder, the drug trade, and submerged memories that many would like to keep buried. Throughout the book Mas struggles with his own desire yet inability to connect to those around him. Harou comes to stay for an unspecified time, which drives Mas crazy until Harou disappears. Dee reminds Mas too much of his own estranged daughter, and Mas can’t figure out if a female acquaintance is interested in him or in his gardening skills. Mas is an unconventional amateur sleuth, constantly seeking to escape the spotlight and avoid trouble, yet unable to drop his investigation until he comes to the end of the thread.

Rizzo’s WarLou Manfredo
Rizzo’s War (Minotaur 2009) is the story of a year in the life of Joe Rizzo, a veteran NYPD detective, and his ambitious young partner Mike McQueen, newly promoted to detective after saving the roommate of the mayor’s daughter from a rape attempt. McQueen isn’t too sure about his new partner, especially after Rizzo tells McQueen that he is under investigation by Internal Affairs because his former partner is believed to have betrayed a police mole in a local gangster’s organization. McQueen sees everything in black-and-white, but to Rizzo it’s all shades of gray: “There’s no wrong, there’s no right, there just is.” Rizzo and McQueen are given the task of finding the runaway daughter of Bill Daley, a city councilman up for re-election. The daughter is manic-depressive, and Daley insists that the investigation be off the record to protect his political image. Rizzo and McQueen suspect that Daley is more worried about something his daughter may have taken, but her mother insists she may be suicidal since she left without her meds. This isn’t the only case the two take on throughout the course of the book, but it is the defining one, as McQueen is forced to come to a decision about what kind of cop he is going to be. Despite some awkward pacing, this solid debut police procedural creates a realistic environment for an exploration of the importance of the small decisions cops make every day.

The Ghosts of BelfastStuart Neville
The Ghosts of Belfast (Soho 2009; APA The Twelve) is the story of Gerry Fegan, an IRA hit man recently released from prison, who is haunted by the ghosts of 12 innocent people he killed. Though Fegan tries to numb himself with alcohol, he becomes convinced that the only way he can be free of the ghosts is to assassinate the men who gave the orders for each death. The IRA militant underworld pays Fegan a monthly salary in recompense for the 12 years he served in prison, but otherwise ignores the babbling drunk he has become. But when Fegan is the last to be seen with highly placed IRA men who turn up dead, the IRA political organization begins to worry that Fegan has gone rogue. Campbell, an agent for British intelligence who has been working undercover for years, is ordered to neutralize Fegan before the tenuous peace after eighty-odd years of conflict is destroyed. Desperate to atone for his past crimes, the anguished Fegan clings to the hope of a new beginning with Marie McKenna, the niece of one of his victims, and her young daughter. Fegan is an incredible character, and this debut novel, a finalist for the Anthony, Barry, Dilys, and Macavity Awards, is so well-written that redemption through murder becomes a believable premise.

Air TimeHank Phillippi Ryan
Air Time (Mira 2009) finds Boston’s TV investigative reporter Charlie (Charlotte) McNally hot on the trail of a ring of high-fashion counterfeit purse distributors. While stranded in the Baltimore airport, Charlie helps an ultra fashionable woman heave an expensive designer suitcase off the conveyor belt. In thanks, the woman gives Charlie an invitation to a "Designer Doubles" party, where fake purses can be bought for a fraction of the price of the real thing. With producer Franklin, Charlie interviews the FBI team about “Operation Knockoff,” which is trying to uncover the distribution system for fake purses. Off the record, the FBI agents reveal that two FBI agents have been killed while investigating the international smuggling of purses. Sure that this story will win her another Emmy, Charlie goes undercover at the purse party. Her determination to stick with the story despite the danger threatens Charlie’s relationship with her boyfriend Josh, but Charlie can’t let go of the investigation. Third in the series, this clever mix of mystery, humor, and romance is a finalist for the 2009 Agatha Award for Best Novel and the Anthony Award for Best Paperback.

The Vanished ChildSarah Smith
The Vanished Child (1992) is the story of Baron Alexander von Reisden, a young Austrian biochemist, who is still recovering from the death of his beloved wife in a car accident. Reisden, who was driving the car, is haunted by the image of his wife’s broken and bloody body. Though absorbed by his research into the chemistry of muscle movement, Reisden finds himself unable to get on with his life. At a busy train station, a stranger believes he recognizes Reisden as Richard Knight, a young boy who was kidnapped and never seen again after the murder of his wealthy grandfather, William Knight, in 1887. William left his entire estate to Richard, and Gilbert Knight, William’s brother who would inherit after Richard, can’t believe that Richard is dead and refuses to start the legal proceedings to establish death. When one of Gilbert’s lawyers notices the family resemblance in Reisden, they hatch a plot to introduce Reisden to Gilbert, hoping that realizing Reisden is not Richard will convince Gilbert to accept that he is really dead. Reisden comes to stay with Gilbert, and finds himself attracted to Perdita Halley, Gilbert’s niece, but strangely uncomfortable on the Knight estate. Beautifully written with complex and compelling characters, this debut novel of psychological suspense is the first in a trilogy.

MonkeewrenchP.J. Tracy
Monkeewrench (2003) introduces Grace MacBride, the reclusive founder of a game software company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The five co-owners of Monkeewrench are piloting their new Serial Killer Detective game online and are horrified when they read about a murder that is staged to look like the second murder in their game. When they inform the police, the detectives realize that another killing was based on the first murder in the game, which unfortunately has 20 murders in all. The Monkeewrench owners offer to help the police, but the police become suspicious when they discover that Grace and her friends created new identities for themselves ten years earlier. Meanwhile, an elderly couple is killed in a church in Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin sheriff begins an investigation that eventually intersects with the killings in Minnesota. This engaging thriller combines elements of a police procedural with technological investigation plus some very human and interesting characters who enjoy lively banter. Written by a mother-daughter team, this debut novel was awarded both the Anthony and Barry Awards for Best First Novel.

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September 1, 2010

HypothermiaArnaldur Indridason
Hypothermia (Icelandic 2007, English 2009, US release 9/14/10), the 8th in the Erlendur series (6th in English), was a finalist for the 2010 International Dagger Award. Things are not too busy around the station in Reykjavik, Iceland, because Erlendur is acting mostly on his own this time, as he continues investigating a suicide everyone else thinks is wrapped up, and also revives some 30-year-old cold case files (and in Iceland cold cases can be very cold). We read the italicized thoughts of Maria, the eventual suicide, who had witnessed her father’s death by drowning in the lake at their summer cabin when she was 10, and has been bereft following the recent death of her mother Leonora from cancer. Maria was devoted to, and controlled by, her mother, and her husband Baldvin, a doctor, can do little to help her. Maria has turned to seances and spiritualism, and has gotten signs from the other side. There is enough here to trigger Erlendur’s trademark nibbling investigation; persistent and apologetic, he is unrelenting in his search for the truth. Erlendur is distracted, once again, by his semi-estranged children, with daughter Eva Lind insisting on a rapprochement with his ex-wife Halldora. Woven with these elements is the search for young people who disappeared in a blizzard long ago, which readers of this series know will trigger Erlendur’s obsession with the snowy disappearance of his 8-year-old brother, which shattered Erlendur’s childhood and his family. Hypothermia, so appropriately titled in English, is another brilliant installment, replete with the steady, solemn, and droll writing we’ve come to expect from Arnaldur.

BlacklandsBelinda Bauer
Blacklands (Simon & Schuster 2010) is the story of a family still experiencing the repercussions of the disappearance of a child 18 years earlier. When 11-year-old Billy vanished and was never found, his mother went into shock and never recovered, waiting by the door for him to return every day and keeping his room unchanged. Fourteen-year old Lettie lost her brother and all but the shell of her mother at one stroke. A year later Arnold Avery was arrested and convicted of killing six other children and burying their bodies on the desolate moor near Billy’s village, but Billy’s body was never found. The year he turns 12, Lettie’s love-starved son Steven decides to dig up the moor and find the body of his uncle Billy, hoping that will convince his grandmother that Billy is really dead, transforming her into the Nan of his dreams, full of affection for her grandson and daughter. After months of fruitless digging, a letter writing lesson in school inspires Steven to write to Avery in prison, asking for help finding the body in a way only Avery will understand. Avery, consumed by prison boredom, sends an enigmatic reply, and the two begin a cautious correspondence of subtle hints that must be carefully puzzled out. The slow progress of the exchange of letters, highlighting Steven’s naivety and Avery’s predatory nature, is painful, terrifying, and totally riveting. This debut suspense novel, nominated for the Gold Dagger Award, is beautifully written, and very unsettling.

Deadly AppearancesGail Bowen
Deadly Appearances (1990) introduces Joanne Kilbourne, a speech writer and organizer for her good friend Andy Boychuk, a successful politician in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Joanne is still recovering from the death of her husband three years earlier, and Andy’s sudden death at the end-of-summer political celebration hits her hard, especially when she learns Andy was murdered. To help herself through the grieving, Joanne decides to write Andy’s biography and begins interviewing his family and friends with the help of Rick Spenser, another old friend of Andy’s, now a TV news star. As Joanne begins to uncover secrets from Andy’s past, she succumbs to a mysterious illness. The doctors can’t find anything physically wrong with her, and suggest that her symptoms may be a reaction to the stress of Andy’s death. Joanne is a sympathetic protagonist, an everyday sort of person with normal self-doubts, three believable kids, and the people skills needed to convince people to tell her more than they may have intended to. The Canadian prairie setting and insights into the workings of Canadian politics add to the enjoyment of this debut novel. The Nesting Dolls, 12th in the series, was released in August.

Devil’s TrillGerald Elias
Devil’s Trill (Minotaur 2009) introduces Daniel Jacobus, a blind, reclusive, crotchety violin teacher living in self-imposed exile in rural New England. Jacobus emerges from his seclusion to attend the Grimsley Competition at Carnegie Hall in New York City, held every 13 years to select the best violinist age 13 or younger. The violinist chosen by the Grimsley Competition wins the honor of performing a concert on the Piccolino Stradivarius, a 3/4 size violin with a long and unfortunate history. Jacobus, a former competitor, firmly believes that the Grimsley Competition is destructive to young violinists, harmful to both their development as artists and to their mental well-being. When the Piccolino Stradivarius is stolen during the competition, Jacobus, who made no secret of his distaste for the competition, is the prime suspect. With the help of friend Nathaniel Williams and student Yumi Shinagawa, Jacobus begins a search for the missing violin through a maze of self-serving philanthropists, shady musical instrument dealers, competitive music teachers, ruthless parents, and fragile students. Fascinating insights into the world of violin players and the destructive industry of producing child prodigies enliven this debut mystery. Danse Macabre, the second in the series, was just released.

The Hidden ManDavid Ellis
The Hidden Man (Putnam 2009) introduces Jason Kolarich, a grief-stricken lawyer in Chicago, Illinois. Jason is struggling to get his life back on track after losing his wife and baby daughter in a car accident four months ago, when a man who calls himself “Mr. Smith” presents him with a briefcase full of cash to take on the defense of Sam Cutler. Jason and Sammy were best friends as children and through high school, when football and a college scholarship for Jason separated them. Sam is now in jail, accused of killing Griffin Perlini, the pedophile suspected of kidnapping Sam’s two-year old sister Audrey nearly 30 years earlier. While searching for someone else with a motive against Perlini, Jason uncovers new evidence of Perlini’s crimes against children, but nothing to tie him to Audrey’s disappearance. Mr. Smith provides a witness who is willing to testify he saw someone else fleeing the murder scene, and pushes Jason to expedite the trial as much as possible, making Jason wonder if it is possible that Sammy didn’t murder Perlini after all. Jason is an engaging protagonist, desperately trying to pull himself out of his emotional coma in order to help his boyhood friend. Layers of the past are slowly stripped away, revealing uncomfortable truths in this compelling and complex legal thriller, a finalist for the 2010 Barry Award for Best Novel.

The Seduction of WaterCarol Goodman
The Seduction of Water (2003) is the story of Iris Greenfeder, a 36-year old barely published writer now teaching English in New York City. Iris’s life is stagnant: she can’t finish her dissertation, the relationship with her boyfriend of 10 years has fallen into a regular and unsatisfying pattern, and she can’t find the motivation to write. Everything changes the day Iris decides to ask the mainly immigrant students one of her classes to write about a favorite childhood fairy tale. As a model, Iris writes about the selkie (half-seal, half-woman) story she was told by her mother, Kay, every night until her mother’s death when Iris was 10. The assignment is so successful that Iris repeats it with her other two classes — one at the prison, one at an art college — and finds that all of her students are touched by the assignment in deeply personal ways. Iris is so pleased with her own piece that she offers it to a magazine, where it is accepted with an option to write further memoirs about her mother. Inspired to write again, Iris realizes how little she knows about her mother’s life before she began working as a maid at the Equinox, the Catskills hotel where Iris grew up. Returning to the Equinox for the summer, Iris searches for the missing third book in her mother’s fantasy trilogy while slowly uncovering clues about her mother’s past. The selkie myth interwoven into Kay’s novels also weaves through Iris’s story in this romantic suspense novel, which was awarded the 2003 Hammett Prize.

The Taking of Libbie SDDavid Housewright
The Taking of Libbie, SD (Minotaur 2010) is the 7th Rushmore McKenzie title, taking place mostly in South Dakota. McKenzie, the former St. Paul, Minnesota, cop and lucky millionaire, has been kidnapped from his home by two brutal bounty hunters hired by folks in Libbie who were hornswoggled by a mall developer using McKenzie’s name. Although the impostor resembles McKenzie, the Libbie-ites soon realize their mistake, and they join forces to find the con man and the misappropriated city funds. In the process, some local scores get settled, with McKenzie in the middle. McKenzie has a few scuffles with local bullies, and indulges in some undesirable vigilante tendencies. Still, this is another highly readable installment in the unlicensed PI’s adventures. Housewright again shows his talent for writing local color, this time focused on small town life miles from anywhere in the northern Great Plains. Poor McKenzie seems to get battered more than he needs, but the book is full of breezy writing laced with the author’s usual dry wit.

I’d Know You AnywhereLaura Lippman
I’d Know You Anywhere (William Morrow 2010) examines the life of a woman who was kidnapped in 1985 at age 15 (then Elizabeth Lerner), and held for nearly six weeks by Walter Bowman, now on death row in Virginia for the rape and murder of Holly, his final victim. Now Eliza Benedict has fashioned a comfortable, relatively trouble-free life as a homemaker in Maryland, with her supportive husband Peter, challenging 13-year-old daughter Iso (NOT Isobel!), and endearing 8-year-old son Albie. Walter’s execution date is drawing near, after 22 years on death row, and with some outside help he has tracked Eliza down and wants her help. This is most unwelcome to Eliza, but reminiscent of her behavior when she was kidnapped, she seems almost unable to resist communicating with Walter. Why didn’t she escape? And could she have saved Holly? The story alternates between 1985 and the present, and we see things from Eliza’s and Walter’s perspectives, as well as other characters. Lippman tells a compelling story, building unrelentingly step by step. As one would expect, the writing is superb, and even though we’ve grown tired of serial killer books, this one is an exception and not to be missed.

The Brutal TellingLouise Penny
The Brutal Telling (Minotaur 2009) finds Armand Gamache and his homicide team from the Sûreté du Québec back in the village of Three Pines, Quebec, after the murdered body of an unknown man is found in Olivier’s Bistro. Olivier denies all knowledge of the man, though he knew him as The Hermit, and delivered groceries to his secluded cabin every two weeks. When the cabin is eventually discovered by the police, Gamache finds that the man was using priceless antiques as furniture and tableware, reading signed first editions, decorating with European treasures that disappeared during WWII, and using money to seal cracks in the walls. The cabin also contains two incredible carvings made from cedar, which at first appear joyful but gradually fill the viewer with a feeling of dread. As usual, the inhabitants of Three Pines are nearly as important as the investigation: Clara struggles through the process of producing the first show of her paintings, Ruth dresses her duck in infant clothing and torments Inspector Beauvior with scraps of poetry, newcomers Marc and Dominique Gilbert work to transform the old Hadley house (site of two murders) into an upscale hotel and spa. Red herrings abound in this compelling fifth in the series, which received the 2009 Agatha Award for Best Novel and is a finalist for the Anthony and Macavity Awards for Best Mystery Novel.

Dog On ItSpencer Quinn (Peter Abrahams)
Dog on It (Atria 2009) introduces Bernie Little, a former cop, in this mystery narrated in a beautifully dead-pan tone by his dog Chet. Recently divorced and missing his young son, Bernie is just making ends meet when Cynthia Chambliss hires him to find her 15-year-old daughter Madison, who didn’t come home from school. Each partner of the Little Detective Agency brings distinct skills to the investigation: Chet, who failed K-9 school for a reason he can’t quite remember, has a superb sense of smell and can see in the dark, and Bernie can read maps and talk to the clients. While Bernie and Chet are investigating Madison’s room, she reappears with a dubious explanation for her absence. When Madison disappears for the second time within a week, her father, a real estate developer who smells strongly of cat, insists she has run away again, but Bernie is sure something is fishy. Chet has the soul of a classic detective (superb observational skills, loyalty to his partner, determination to solve the case at all costs), while remaining totally true to his doggy nature (addiction to wind-blown scents, short attention span, eager to snack on anything he can find). The deft balance of humor and mystery, plus two highly enjoyable characters, make this first in a series not to be missed.

September Word Cloud

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October 1, 2010

Cambridge BlueAlison Bruce
Cambridge Blue (Soho 2008) introduces Gary Goodhew, a recently promoted detective constable at Parkside Station, in Cambridge, England. Goodhew is the first on the scene when the body of a young woman is discovered in a heap of trash bags on Midsummer Common, and is given the chance to work on his first murder investigation. Detective Inspector Marks isn’t sure about his new DC. Since Goodhew arrived at Parkside, several anonymous tips have appeared on Marks’s desk. The tips have all paid off, but Marks is dubious about trusting an officer who gathers evidence outside the rules. But the workaholic Goodhew is determined to get to the bottom of the murder of the woman, identified as Lorna Spence. Though warned by Marks to keep him informed of the investigation, Goodhew follows his hunches and conducts unauthorized inquiries. Psychologically incapable of waiting for instructions and following procedure, Goodhew lurches through the investigation using a combination of intuition and clever reasoning, and Marks can’t decide if he should take Goodhew off the case, or hope that his unauthorized persistence will bring results. Goodhew is an intriguing protagonist, and his developing relationship with DI Marks enlivens this debut police procedural. The Siren, 2nd in the series, was just released in the US.

Loser’s TownDaniel Depp
Loser’s Town (Simon & Schuster 2009) introduces David Spandau, a former movie stuntman and rodeo cowboy, now a private investigator who specializes in serving Hollywood’s elite. Just back from vacation, Spandau isn’t sure he’s ready for a new case, especially after meeting movie star Bobby Dye’s pushy agent who can’t get out a sentence without at least one swear word. But Bobby does seem truly frightened by the threatening note he received and Spandau takes the job of protecting him. He soon discovers that Bobby is being blackmailed by Richie Stella, a devious mob underling who owns a Hollywood nightclub and deals drugs. Stella wants to be a producer, and is pressuring Bobby to star in a film Stella believes will be his ticket into the movie business. Spandau has a good line of banter, wears cowboy books with his Armani suits, and has little patience with self-important Hollywood insiders. The supporting cast of characters are so good that they threaten to upstage Spandau, especially Potts, a murderous thug with a strong internal voice searching for a good woman to redeem him from a life of crime. This amusing debut novel which brilliantly satirizes the ambitions that permeate Hollywood, is a finalist for the 2010 Shamus Award for Best First Novel.

Final Jeopardy’Linda Fairstein
Final Jeopardy (1996) introduces Alex (Alexandra) Cooper, Assistant District Attorney in the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit of Manhattan. When movie star Isabella Lascar is shot at Alex’s vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard, the police at first identify the body as Alex since Isabella was driving a car rented in Alex’s name. When the identity is sorted out, the police still aren’t sure if Isabella or Alex was the intended target. NYPD homicide detective Mike Chapman, Alex’s friend and avid Jeopardy opponent, is assigned as Alex’s bodyguard, helping her search through the back files of cases she has prosecuted for a possible motive. Chaffing under the protection restriction, Alex tries to do her bit to move the investigation along, especially after her boyfriend becomes a suspect. The bantering relationship between Alex and Mike brings out Alex’s human side, which otherwise tends to be overwhelmed by her passion for her job. Fairstein, who ran the Sex Crimes Unit herself for over 20 years, gives an inside look at the challenges and rewards of Alex’s job, including the inevitable tasteless jokes she is subjected to by the clueless FBI liaison. This debut novel, the first of a 12-book series, was a finalist for the 1997 Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

Running from the DevilJamie Freveletti
Running from the Devil (William Morrow 2009) introduces Emma Caldridge, a chemist and ultramarathon runner, who is traveling from Miami to Bogota when her plane is hijacked and crashes in the jungle near the Venezuelan border. Emma is thrown clear of the wreckage, and hides while watching guerrillas take the other passengers hostage and march them off into the jungle. Unable to find her own way without a compass, Emma sends a text message before her phone dies, and follows the group. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense asks Edward Banner of the Darkview security company to lead a task force to rescue the hostages with the help of troops already in Colombia guarding an oil pipeline. Emma uses her knowledge of plant chemistry to help a passenger suffering from heart disease and another with a machete wound while evading the guerrillas and their crazed leader. Covered with mud to ward off mosquitoes, Emma’s bizarre appearance convinces the superstitious guerrillas that she is El Chupacabra, a scaly mythical creature that sucks the blood from its prey. Improbable escapes and plot twists pull this debut thriller out of the believable realm, but the non-stop action and surprising survival skills of a cosmetic scientist result in a fast-paced read, nominated for the Barry Award for Best Thriller and the Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

Mystic RiverDennis Lehane
Mystic River (2001) opens with three 11-year old boys playing together on a Boston street. Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus are Saturday friends because their fathers work and drink together, though Sean’s father is a manager and owns a house in the Point while Jimmy’s father is a laborer and rents in the Flats. Dave Boyle also lives in the Flats, and tags along with Jimmy whenever he can. On the fateful afternoon, Jimmy proposes they steal a car and go joyriding, and when Sean refuses a fight breaks out. Two men the boys think are cops break up the fight and pull Dave into their car to deliver him back to his mother in the Flats. But the men aren’t cops, and Dave is missing for four days before he manages to escape. Dave is never the same, and the boys drift apart. Twenty-five years later Sean is a cop whose wife has recently left him, Jimmy is a reformed thief turned family man with a corner store and connections to the mob, and Dave is trying to keep his demons under control. The night that Jimmy’s 19-year-old daughter Katie is brutally murdered, Dave comes home covered with blood and tells his wife a story about fighting back after being attacked by a mugger, with possible fatal consequences for the mugger. Sean and his partner are assigned the case of Katie’s murder, and the three are thrown together again as investigator, victim, and suspect. Tense and emotionally riveting, this suspenseful novel explores friendship, loyalty, love, and guilt. Currently a finalist for the 2010 Barry Award for Best Novel of the Decade, Mystic River won the Anthony, Barry, and Dilys Awards in 2002 and was a finalist for the Hammett Prize and Macavity Award.

Where the Dead LayDavid Levien
Where the Dead Lay (2009), a finalist 2010 Shamus Award for Best Novel, continues the story of Frank Behr, who lost his job with the Indianapolis police after an extended period of drunken depression when his young son was killed. Now working as a private investigator, Frank finds his early morning Brazilian Jiu-jitsu sessions with Aurelio Santos help him stay in shape and manage his rage. When Frank discovers Aurelio’s brutally beaten body, he figures it took at least three men. After calling the police, Frank palms Aurelio’s address book, figuring that he has a better chance of tracking down the killers that the overworked police detectives. When Frank is offered a large fee to find two missing private detectives, he nearly refuses the case, until Police Captain Pomeroy, his old boss, asks Frank to take the case and also find the gang that is hitting lottery-style betting parlors, known as pea-shake houses. The police have been staking out the pea-shake houses, but the bodies keep turning up in ones that aren’t being watched, making Pomeroy suspicious that there may be a leak in the department. Pomeroy tells Frank that he is on his own, there won’t be department backup and Frank can’t contact him through official channels, but hints that his gratitude may extend to returning to the force if the investigation is successful. Meanwhile, Frank’s girlfriend discovers she is pregnant, triggering a gut-wrenching fear of the pain of another loss. Frank’s emotional coldness makes him a difficult character to warm to, but there is a hint of reawakening, a faint hope that Frank will eventually reestablish a loving connection with another person.

How to Murder a MillionaireNancy Martin
How To Murder a Millionaire (2002) introduces Nora Blackbird, a thirty-something Philadelphia socialite whose tax-evading parents have fled to the Cayman Islands, leaving Emma the art collection, Libby the furniture, and Nora the property and a two million dollar tax bill. Rory Penderghast, an old friend of the family who owns a newspaper, takes pity on Nora and offers her a job helping to write the society column. Desperate for money, Nora sells five acres of the property to Michael "The Mick" Abruzzo, a handsome thug who, to the horror of her sisters, opens Mick’s Muscle Cars on Nora’s doorstop. Raiding her grandmother’s collection of Parisian couture, Nora heads off to a party Rory is throwing to celebrate the paper’s 150th anniversary. When Nora takes a glass of champagne up to Rory, who is hiding out in his room, she discovers his dead body. Discovering that the socialites are a closed group that won’t talk to outsiders, the local police ask Nora to help figure out who was where at the time of the death. Subject to fainting spells without notice, Nora is an unlikely sleuth, but her innate sense of curiosity more than makes up for her lack of experience. This light romantic mystery full of eccentric characters is a fun read.

Still MidnightDenise Mina
Still Midnight (Little Brown 2009) introduces Alex Morrow, a female detective inspector in Glasgow, Scotland, verging on a psychological breakdown for reasons that don’t become clear until near the end of the book. When Aamir Anwar, the elderly owner of a convenience store is kidnapped by two masked armed men shouting for "Bob" and demanding a million in ransom, the police assume they snatched their victim from the wrong house. Alex hopes to be put in charge of the case, but assuming that the immigrant family will be more comfortable with a man in charge, the case is given to her rival Grant Bannerman, who tries to take credit for everyone else’s work. But it is Alex who uncovers the only leads in the case, resulting in an uneasy truce between the two. Pat, one of the kidnappers, wounds Aleesha, the teenaged daughter, during the kidnap, and is haunted throughout the rest of the book by the comforting smell of toast in a cosy home and the daydream of establishing a relationship with Aleesha. Throughout his kidnapping, Aamir relives the rape of his mother as they fled Uganda many years ago, reaching out to her memory for forgiveness. Meanwhile, Alex must navigate the complexities of police force politics, the dark streets of Glasgow, and the secrets of her own past as she focuses all of her energies on solving the case. This dark and compelling first in a series is a finalist for the 2010 Barry Award for Best British Crime Novel and the 2010 Gold Dagger Award.

Faces of the GoneBrad Parks
Faces of the Gone (Minotaur 2009) introduces Carter Ross, a 31-year-old investigative reporter for the Eagle-Examiner, in Newark, New Jersey. When four bodies are found in a vacant lot, shot execution style in the back of the head, Carter is dispatched to the scene. The police float a theory that they have been killed in revenge for a bar holdup, but Carter isn’t convinced. The victims come from different parts of the city, and there seem to be no links at all between them: the exotic dancer, the drug dealer, the small-time hustler, and the lay-about living with his mother. With the help of Tommy Hernandez, a gay Cuban intern who dispenses fashion advice, and Tina Thompson, a city editor whose biological clock is ticking loudly, Carter sets out to find the real story. A suburban white boy, Carter is surprisingly able to communicate with the mixed-bag of urban types, forming alliances based on his willingness to listen openly and sympathetically. At times he enters in a bit too enthusiastically, as illustrated by the hilarious encounters with the Brick City Browns gang. Interspersed with Carter’s snappy narration are musings from The Director, the megalomaniac behind the killings, who is determined to protect the purity of his product from the dealers who insist on cutting The Stuff. The humorous tone seems a bit forced at times, but the supporting street characters are portrayed with realistic compassion, and Carter is an engaging protagonist, easily capable of carrying future books in the series. This entertaining debut is a finalist for the 2010 Nero Award and Shamus Award for Best First Novel.

Chinatown AngelA.E. Roman
Chinatown Angel (Minotaur 2009) introduces Chico Santana, a private investigator in the Bronx, who hasn’t worked since his wife left him six months earlier. Emerging from his seclusion, Chico runs into his old friend Albert Garcia, a filmmaker working as a waiter at Chinatown Angel, a restaurant owned by Kirk Atlas (the stage name of Marcos Rivera), an actor currently starring in a low budget science fiction movie directed by Albert. Learning that Chico is a PI, Atlas hires him to locate his cousin Tiffany, a half Asian, half Cuban violin student who left Julliard and seems to be in hiding. Tiffany has sent the family postcards saying she is fine, but the family is worried since there is no return address. Chico drives Pilar Menendez home that night, hoping for information, but Pilar offers him $10,000 not to find Tiffany. After Chico leaves, Pilar falls to her death from the rooftop of her apartment building. Though it looks like a suicide, Chico is sure he saw a shadowy figure on the roof as Pilar fell to her death. Hannibal Rivera, Atlas’s creepy father, sends two thugs to strong-arm Chico into coming for an interview, and demands the videotape Pilar was using as blackmail. Chico is haunted by the image of the very young Asian girl dressed up in heels and makeup with Rivera, and finds himself unable to give up the investigation even after being offered large sums of money to forget about it and serious bodily harm if he doesn’t. Chico is an endearing protagonist, wisecracking his way through danger while concealing a soft heart which prompts him to adopt Pilar’s chihuahua despite his distaste for the breed. This engaging debut novel is a finalist for the 2010 Shamus Award for Best First Novel.

October Word Cloud

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November 1, 2010

MartyrRory Clements
Martyr (2009) introduces John Shakespeare, assistant secretary and investigator for Sir Francis Walsingham, Principal Secretary of State and spymaster. Walsingham’s code breakers have recently exposed a plot to murder Queen Elizabeth, who is tormented by the need to proclaim a death sentence for her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. Sir Richard Topcliffe, the Queen’s Servant and chief torturer, is actively searching for Catholic priests and sympathizers. When Shakespeare is called to investigate the violent death of a high-born lady, he discovers anti-Elizabeth literature with the bloody corpse, which he recognizes as the daughter of a wealthy Catholic family. Shakespeare destroys most of the papers before Topcliffe arrives, proclaiming the investigation is his. Fearing that Topcliffe will torture and kill the witnesses before they can be interrogated, Shakespeare defies him. While reporting to Walsingham, Shakespeare is given a new task: protecting Sir Francis Drake since evidence of an assassin hired by Spain to kill the feared mariner before he sets sail again has just been discovered. Clements makes the desperate climate of 1587 England frighteningly real. The Spanish Armada is poised to strike, and the atrocities committed in Naarden and Antwerp have convinced the Protestant “heretics” in England that they will also suffer torture and execution if the Spanish succeed. This fear has made it possible for Topcliffe and his men to legally perform similar acts against English Catholics. Against this backdrop of terror and chaos, Shakespeare’s reason and humanity, and his growing affection for a Catholic governess, highlight the plight of ordinary people who live in extraordinary times. Shakespeare’s younger brother Will makes a cameo appearance, joining a lively supporting cast in this fascinating historical thriller, a finalist for the 2010 New Blood Dagger Award.

Various Haunts of MenSusan Hill
The Various Haunts of Men (2004) centers on police detective Freya Graffham, a recent transfer from London to the small cathedral town of Lafferton, England. Celebrating her escape from a dominating husband, Freya joins the cathedral choir, buys some brighter clothing, and begins to make new friends. At work Freya becomes fixated on the seemingly routine missing persons report of a lonely middle-aged spinster, last seen heading out for her morning jog on “The Hill,” a wild area just outside town. With no evidence of foul play, Freya is asked to help with a drug case instead, but can’t let the missing persons case go. With the help of Nathan Coates, Freya searches though old cases, hoping to find a similar disappearance. They find a report of a young male mountain biker, who also disappeared from the Hill, but can discover no other connection between the two missing people. Then a young woman doesn’t return from a morning walk to the same spot, and the enigmatic Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler joins in the investigation, reluctantly agreeing that a serial killer may be preying on visitors to the Hill. Beautifully written, this literary psychological thriller includes a thoughtful reflection on alternative medicine and is sure to appeal to fans of P.D. James and Ruth Rendell.

Random ViolenceJassy Mackenzie
Random Violence (Soho 2008) introduces Jade de Jong, a private investigator returning home to Johannesburg, South Africa, 10 years after her police commissioner father was killed. The man she believes killed her father is about to be released from prison, after serving time for another crime, and Jade plans to kill him in revenge with the help of her underworld friend Robbie. Police superintendent David Patel, an old friend of Jade’s and a protege of her father, asks Jade to help with the investigation of Annette Botha, shot while getting out of her car to open a malfunctioning automatic gate. Jade and David discover that Annette had recently hired a private detective, but the detective seems to have disappeared. Post-apartheid Johannesburg is a frightening place. The city is becoming integrated, but violence is everywhere. Those who can afford to are buying into new gated communities protected by armed guards and razor wire topped walls. David, of Indian descent, is able to earn promotion in the integrated police department, but the web of corruption goes deep. Jade’s friendships with the amoral and practical Robbie, a gun dealer prepared to do almost anything for a price, and with David, prepared to sacrifice his career to do the right thin, highlight her own struggle to choose a path through the pressures of family honor and achieving vigilante justice for past crimes. This intelligent and gripping debut novel is highly recommended.

Gallows LaneBrian McGilloway
Gallows Lane (2008, Minotaur 2009), is the 2nd book featuring Benedict Devlin, a Garda detective inspector in the borderlands of Ireland. This compelling police procedural features a humane protagonist fighting the temptation to work outside the system in order to bring criminals to justice. Devlin is asked by Superintendent Costillo to persuade recently released convict James Kerr to return to the other side of the border. Kerr convinces Devlin that he isn’t after revenge or planning another robbery, he just wants to atone for his past sins. When a young woman is found beaten to death at a building site, Devlin gets caught up in the investigation and forgets about Kerr until Kerr’s crucified body is found nailed to a tree. Then Devlin begins to search for the rest of the gang who left Kerr, recruited as a get-away driver, to take the rap for a death that occurred during the robbery. Devlin figures that Kerr’s quest to forgive them may have stirred up old wounds, but unfortunately the other three men wore masks and were never identified. Strained relations with another police officer, who Devlin suspects of planting evidence in order to further his career, complicates Devlin’s work relations, especially after Devlin begins receiving letters threatening his family if he doesn’t back off. But Devlin doesn’t know which investigation has sparked the threats, and he begins to suffer debilitating panic attacks as he struggles to balance his compulsion to pursue the truth with his need to protect his family.

DismantledJennifer McMahon
Dismantled (Harper 2009) is the story Henry and Tess, unhappily married artists with a nine-year-old daughter named Emma. Worried that her parents are drifting further and further apart, Emma finds an old address book with contact information for their college friends, and sends off some enigmatic postcards, hoping a reconnection with their happy past will bring her parents back together. The arrival of the postcard causes one recipient to commit suicide, and his parents hire a private detective to trace the sender. While Emma confides in her imaginary friend Danner, her parents slowly begin to disintegrate, crushed by the weight of guilt from something that happened 10 years earlier during the summer after college graduation, when four college friends lived in a remote cabin in Vermont. In college Henry, Tess, Winnie, and Suz had formed a subversive art group called the Compassionate Dismantlers, inspired by Suz’s flamboyant destruction of a huge sculpture. During that fateful summer, the four commit increasingly violent acts of “meaningful” vandalism culminating with a death, after which the group disbands. Worried that the detective will uncover secrets from the past, Henry and Tess are frightened by strange messages, while objects disappear and reappear, leading them to believe they are being stalked by someone from the past. The mounting sense of dread and helplessness is revealed from the viewpoints of both Henry and Tess, but especially from the perspective of their highly imaginative daughter Emma. This atmospheric and frightening tale maintains suspense to the final pages.

The Forgotten GardenKate Morton
The Forgotten Garden (Australia 2008, US 2009) is the story of a small girl abandoned on a ship sailing from England to Australia in 1913 with only a small suitcase holding a few clothes and a beautifully illustrated book of fairy tales. A fever suffered onboard has nearly erased the child’s memory, but she does remember a woman she calls “The Authoress” telling her to hide behind a barrel. Adopted by the dockmaster and his wife, the child is named Nell, and knows nothing of her history until her 21st birthday. The news of her early abandonment shatters Nell’s sense of self and it’s not until 45 years later that she finally gathers the courage to journey from Australia to England in search of her past. This journey is repeated by Nell’s granddaughter Cassandra, who is left the deed to a cottage in Cornwall in her grandmother’s will as well as the book of fairy tales. Convinced that the magically sinister fairy tales written by Eliza Makepeace are fictionalized emotions and events that have a bearing on her grandmother’s heritage, Cassandra searches for traces of the elusive Authoress. Told from the perspectives of three generations of women from 1900 to 2005, this beautifully written gothic has a mystery at its heart: why was Nell abandoned? Both Nell and Cassandra discover the hidden garden at the cottage on the grounds of Blackhurst Manor on the Cornish coast, but the secrets of the Mountrachet family are harder to unravel. Spellbinding and old-fashioned, this sprawling and imaginative novel pays homage to Enid Blyton, Frances Hodgson Burnett, the Brontë sisters, and the Brothers Grimm, while creating unforgettably original and complex characters.

The Yard DogSheldon Russell
The Yard Dog (Minotaur 2009) introduces Walter “Hook” Runyon, a railroad detective (yard dog) based in Waynoka, Oklahoma, near the end of WWII. Known as Hook for the appliance he wears in place of his missing hand, Runyon lives in a caboose, collects books, and drinks far too much moonshine. When the body of Spark Dugan, a harmless homeless man who kept Hook supplied with coal gleaned from the tracks, is found in pieces at the yard, everyone except Hook is convinced it is an accident. Hook is sure that Spark was far too crafty to go to sleep under a refrigerated car being iced, and discovers a possible black market link between Spark and the nearby German POW Camp Alva. Runt Wallace, Hook’s moonshine supplier who is too small to be accepted into the army, gets a job at the POW camp in order to help feed his family. He is amazed at how well-supplied the camp is, and forms a friendship with a young German cook. Dr. Reina Kaplan, a professor hired by the Special Projects Division to subtly woo the intelligent German prisoners to democracy through literature, is sent to Camp Alva to teach English and start a library. She soon realizes that Major Foreman, supposedly in charge of Camp Alva, has given over control of the prisoners to Colonel Hoffmann, who keeps his men prepared to support the Fuhrer at a moment’s notice. Hook, Runt, and Reina join forces to investigate the circumstances of Spark’s death, which looks less like an accident with each passing day. The characters are unique and interesting, but it is the historical setting and perspective that make this mystery something special. The Insane Train, 2nd in the series, comes out this month.

Crow in Stolen ColorsMarcia Simpson
Crow in Stolen Colors (2000) introduces Liza Romero, a former librarian who drifted north to Wrangell, Alaska, after her policeman husband was killed in a drug raid. Now running a combination freight delivery and “book-mo-boat,” the Salmon Eye, serving the isolated little communities on the islands south of Juneau, Liza has settled into a comfortable life as a semi-loner with a faithful companion in Sam the dog. All that changes when Liza and Sam pull James, a 7-year-old Tlingit boy, from the freezing water. The boy is terrified of the two men who killed his uncle, and won’t tell Liza or the police who he is or where he lives. When Liza’s boat is sabotaged and shot at, she realizes that James is in real danger. This debut novel, nominated for both an Edgar and Macavity award, features a prickly yet endearing heroine, a beautifully portrayed setting, and an intriguing plot involving stolen Tlingit artifacts.

The Feng Shui DectectiveNury Vittachi
The Feng Shui Detective (US rev. ed. 2004) introduces feng shui master C.F. Wong in Singapore. The elderly Wong would prefer to spend his time quietly working on his book of Chinese wisdom, but has to cope with Winnie, his bossy office manager who does as little work as possible, and Joyce McQuinnie, his British-Australian teenage intern who speaks a mixed slang that Wong rarely understands. Wong investigates a ghost inhabiting a dentist’s office, a kidnapped teenager whose mother appears unconcerned, and the disappearance of a Chinese girl whose Malaysian witch doctor boyfriend is sure will die within the week. Wong is aided by the Singapore Union of Industrial Mystics, which includes a hilarious pair of psychics continually trying to out-predict each other. Though total opposites, Wong and Joyce manage to establish a tentative working relationship based on respect for the other’s unique skills. This light-hearted mystery pokes gentle fun at the mixed nationalities of Singapore and their various philosophies and presents the Sydney Opera House with the “Worst Feng Shui Building in the World” award.

The Blind Man of SevilleRobert Wilson
The Blind Man of Seville (2003) introduces Javier Falcón, a lonely detective inspector in Seville, Spain, with an aversion to milk and a penchant for tailing his ex-wife. During Semana Santa (Holy Week), the body of Raúl Jiménez, a wealthy restaurant owner, is found strapped to a chair facing a video screen. Falcón experiences an inexplicable fear while examining the body, the first sign of the panic attacks that stalk him throughout the investigation. In a box of old photographs, Falcón discovers a picture of his own father, Francisco Falcón, who died two years earlier. Famous for painting four abstract nudes during the 1960s in Tangier, Francisco Falcón produced only landscapes after that. Though living in his father’s house, Javier has been unable to enter the locked studio and complete his father’s instructions to burn the contents. The photograph provides the impetus to unlock the door, and Javier discovers the secret journals his father began writing in 1932, when he joined the Legion. Javier becomes obsessed with the journals, which frankly portray his father’s brutality during the Spanish Civil War and his hedonistic life in North Africa after the war, hoping to finally clarify his own unreliable memories of the past. The journal entries are interspersed with the murder investigation, which intensifies when a second victim is found, and the two narrative threads slowly converge. This dense and compelling psychological thriller, the first in a series, was a finalist for the 2003 Gold Dagger Award.

November Word Cloud

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December 1, 2010

A Free Man of ColorBarbara Hambly
A Free Man of Color (1997) introduces Ben January, a man of mixed blood in 1833 New Orleans, Louisiana. Though fully qualified as a surgeon in Paris, Ben can’t practice medicine at home and is working as a piano player at the Salle d’Orleans. At the Blue Ribbon Ball during Mardi Gras, wealthy white men attend one ball with their wives and children, and then slip through a corridor to dance with their quadroon mistresses at another. When Ben discovers Madeleine Trepagier, one of his old piano pupils and a recent widow, sneaking into the ball, he promises to deliver a message to Angelique Crozat and sends her home. Delivering the message, Ben learns that Angelique was Trepagier’s mistress and has no intention of returning the valuables taken from Madeleine. When Angelique is murdered, Ben becomes the prime suspect since he was the last to be seen with Angelique. Abishag Shaw, the policeman investigating the murder, is an American, and Ben worries that he is as racist as the other Americans who have arrived in New Orleans during the time Ben lived in France. Navigating the Code Noir caste rules of New Orleans is a complicated maze, but the realities of slavery outside the French Quarter are frightening. In New Orleans Ben has rights as a free man of color, but outside he is in constant danger. The fascinating historical details at times overwhelm the story in this series opener, but Ben is a strong character with plenty of hidden depths to explore in future books.

The Lock ArtistSteve Hamilton
The Lock Artist (Minotaur 2010) is the story of Michael Smith, a young safecracker currently serving a prison sentence. A traumatic experience at the age of eight left Mike mute; he hasn’t spoken a single word since the day he earned the nickname “Miracle Boy.” But the long years in prison have given Mike time to look back at his life, and to break his silence by telling his story through writing. Raised by his Uncle Lido, Michael was a lonely child. To keep himself amused, he drew and played with locks. When Michael entered high school his drawing talent earned him his first friend, but his talent opening locks was exploited by some prankster football players, who involved him in a crime that brought him to the attention of some very scary men. Moving back and forth between several story lines, Michael slowly reveals the events and relationships that molded him. Michael’s narrative voice is enthralling, a stark contrast with his inability to communicate in person. This unusual and poignant thriller told from a unique point of view is highly recommended.

Cut, Paste, KillMarshall Karp
Cut, Paste, Kill (Minotaur 2010) finds Mike Lomax and Terry Biggs, police detectives in Los Angeles, assigned to the murder of Eleanor Bellingham-Crump, the wife of a British diplomat who used diplomatic immunity to evade charges of killing a 10-year-old boy while driving drunk. An exquisitely composed scrapbook left by the body documents the brief life and sudden death of young Brandon Cooper and the lack of punishment for his killer. Lomax and Biggs are soon contacted by the FBI, who are already investigating similar vigilante murders of two men who also escaped justice for their crimes, as explained in the scrapbooks left by their bodies. Meanwhile, Mike’s father, larger-than-life Big Jim, has convinced Terry to help him write a screenplay featuring retired cops turned truckers who travel around the country investigating crimes and dealing out "Semi-Justice." While not working on his movie, Big Jim has been pressuring Mike and girlfriend Diana to think about having a family, and is thrilled when the two take over the care of precocious seven-year-old Sophie, whose mother has to make an emergency trip to China. Sophie can nearly match Terry in the comic-quip category, and it doesn’t seem to matter that the clever dialog tends to push the crime investigation to the background. This hard-boiled and very funny scrap-booking mystery is the 4th in this unique series.

DjiboutiElmore Leonard
Djibouti (William Morrow 2010) follows the fearless duo of Dara Barr, a white 36-year-old documentary filmmaker, and her sidekick and cameraman, Xavier LeBo, a very tall 72-year-old black man. Dara has made award-winning movies about women in Bosnia, white supremacists, and the Katrina aftermath in New Orleans, where she hooked up with Xavier. He has spent much of his life as a seaman, and his 40+ tours around the Horn of Africa come in handy as they head for Djibouti to film the Somali pirates. Looking for her next project, Dara had been inspired by a story in the New Orleans paper: “Somali Pirates Are Heroes to Villagers.” Well, we’ll see about that. In the inimitable Elmore Leonard style, much of the story proceeds by way of wisecracking conversation. The pirates are humanized, though still shown as greedy and violent bad guys, not the Robin Hoods Dara may have thought. An interesting cast of characters assembles, including Billy Wynn, a rich Texan oil man and amateur (?) spy, who is auditioning a fashion model for the position of his next wife; Harry Bakar, an Oxford-educated Saudi who may or may not be who he claims; and Jama Raisuli, an American ex-con Al Qaeda type who is interested in blowing up a natural gas transport ship. Not everything makes sense in this book, but then, that’s life. This is a crazy, convoluted story, told from multiple viewpoints by larger-than-life characters, in flashbacks as they converge on Djibouti. But even when the reader wonders “now what?!”, Leonard’s masterful writing carries the story along, and you are reminded that this is really all about Dara and Xavier making another movie.

The Spellmans Strike AgainLisa Lutz
The Spellmans Strike Again (Simon & Schuster 2010) rejoins the detecting Spellman family in usual full-chaos mode. Izzy has finally agreed to take over the family detective business, though her mother doesn’t believe Izzy has quite reached adult status despite the recent celebration of her 32nd birthday. Not thrilled with Izzy’s bar-tending boyfriend, her mother blackmails Izzy (with threats of revealing Prom Night 1994) into blind dates with single lawyers twice a month. Forced to tape record the dates to prove they occurred, Izzy implements the “Ten Things You Shouldn’t Do on a First Date” article her father kindly gave her. Meanwhile, sister Rae has found a cause during her internship researching pro bono legal cases and insists that everyone wear homemade T-shirts emblazoned with “Free Schmidt” and requires regular “Rae Extractions” when she refuses to leave the law offices at close of business. Izzy is still on the hunt for evidence against the shady ex-cop PI Rick Hartley and missing her best friend Morty, the 85-year-old lawyer now living in Florida. New family rules keep appearing on the whiteboard of the Spellman office/homestead (Rule #31: Vacate Residence Every Wednesday), and doorknobs and light fixtures disappear on a regular basis. This laugh-out-loud 4th in the series wraps up several ongoing threads in a thoroughly satisfying manner, and feels like it may be the final book.

The Pot Thief Who Studied EinsteinJ. Michael Orenduff
The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein (Oak Tree Press 2010) opens with Hubert Schuze, a pot hunter and owner of a shop selling Native American pottery in Albuquerque, New Mexico, riding blindfolded over a bumpy road on his way to perform an appraisal for a reclusive collector. Hubert knows he should be counting seconds between turns in order to retrace his route later, but instead spends his time puzzling out the last time he was blindfolded. While examining the ancient pottery, Hubert is startled to realize that three are replicas of Anasazi pots he made himself. After being delivered back home, Hubert discovers that the envelope containing his appraisal downpayment of $2500 is no longer in his pocket. Over their usual evening margaritas, Hubert’s friend Susannah (a huge fan of Lawrence Block’s burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr) offers to help him retrace his route and recoup his fee. Armed with the address of the man who commissioned the replicas and an illegal electronic device constructed by his nephew Tristan, the two car-nap the Cadillac from the garage, planning to hold it hostage until the cash is returned. But when he is asked to identify a body in the morgue, which turns out to be the collector, Hubert has more to worry about than his missing money. Third in the series, this humorous mystery featuring the sights, scents, and tastes of Northern New Mexico, is great fun.

HeresyS.J. Parris
Heresy (Doubleday 2010) features Giordano Bruno, an Italian monk who is excommunicated for fleeing from his monastery in Naples after being caught reading Erasmus in the privy. An independent thinker, Bruno was convinced that Copernicus, who favored a Sun-centric theory over Aristotle’s Earth-centric theory, was also misguided. Bruno believed that the universe doesn’t have a center and that the numerous stars in the sky are also suns. Hungry for knowledge, Bruno spends seven years wandering around Europe, hiding from the Inquisition while searching for a lost book of the Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus. Befriended by Sir Philip Sydney, Bruno escapes to a more tolerant climate in Protestant England, where he is recruited by Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster Francis Walsingham to travel to Oxford and help uncover a Catholic plot against the throne. The pretext for Bruno’s visit is a debate with John Underhill, who was elevated to Rector of Lincoln College by the powerful Earl of Leicester, about the true nature of the cosmos. During his visit, two Oxford fellows are brutally murdered, and Underhill, impressed by Bruno’s ability to reason logically, asks him to help find the killer. Attracted to Underhill’s well-educated daughter Sophia, Bruno is unable to maintain the necessary emotional distance from the investigation, and soon finds his own life threatened. Based on the life of the real Giordano Bruno, a humanist and scientist dangerously ahead of the accepted world view of his time, this well-researched and suspenseful historical thriller was a finalist for the 2010 Historical Dagger Award.

Cut to the QuickKate Ross
Cut to the Quick (1993) introduces Julian Kestrel, a suave and elegant dandy in 1820s London, England. At a gaming house in London, Kestrel rescues the young and very drunken Hugh Fontclair from serious losses at the gambling table. Hugh embarrasses Kestrel with his gratitude, and surprises him a few weeks later with the invitation to be a groomsman at his wedding. Feeling the need to escape the expenses of London for awhile, Kestrel accepts the invitation to spend a fortnight at the family estate in Cambridgeshire. Upon arrival, he is worried by the hostility between the bride’s father and the groom’s family, and realizes that Hugh and the heiress Maud Craddock are being forced to marry to prevent some mysterious misfortune to the Fontclairs. Before he can figure out how to help the miserable young couple, the body of a beautiful young woman is discovered in Kestrel’s room. Luckily Kestrel has a cast iron alibi, but his manservant Dipper, a reformed Cockney pickpocket, does not. When Sir Robert Fontclair, the local magistrate, settles on Dipper as the murderer, Kestrel decides he must solve the case himself, since Sir Robert isn’t likely to consider a member of his own household capable of the crime. As the investigation proceeds, Kestrel discovers that he has a knack for noticing details and making connections. In fact, despite the reality of a dead girl, he is enjoying himself more than he has in years. Hiding his compassion behind a quick tongue and elegant demeanor, Kestrel uses logic and instinct to peel away the masks the wealthy hide behind, in order to find the truth and clear his servant’s name. First in a series of four mysteries, this debut historical novel is very satisfying.

FarthingJo Walton
Farthing (2006) is set in 1949 England, in an alternative history where England signed a truce with Hitler in 1941 to end World War II, leaving Hitler control of the European continent. In Europe, Jews are required to wear identifying stars at all times, but not in England. Lucy has been pressured by her mother, Lady Eversley, to come for a weekend party at the family’s country residence, Castle Farthing, with her husband David Kahn. Hoping that this signals a waning of her mother’s disapproval of her marriage to a Jew, Lucy agrees. On the first night, a major politician is found murdered, with a yellow Star of David pinned to his chest with a dagger. Scotland Yard Inspector Peter Carmichael is sent to investigate, and quickly determines that the murder was not done by a Bolshevik terrorist, as urged by the powerful house guests, members of the fascist Farthing Set. Lucy and Carmichael independently come to the conclusion that David is being set up as the murderer, and Lucy fears that her mother may have something to do with the plot. Told in alternating chapters from Lucy’s and Carmichael’s perspectives, this gripping novel is a frightening portrayal of a country’s gradual slide into homophobia, anti-Semitism, and fascism.

Buy BackBrian M. Wiprud
Buy Back (Minotaur 2010) features Tommy Davin, a Brooklyn insurance investigator who specializes in recovering stolen art, finding and returning the art to the insurance company for a sizable finder’s fee. What most people don’t know is that Tommy occasionally commissions the art theft, making recovery simple and providing a tidy profit on both sides of the law. Despite his profitable business, Tommy has money troubles since his Las Vegas dancer ex-girlfriend fled town leaving him with a huge debt to a dangerous loan shark, as well as four high-maintenance cats. At six foot six, Tommy looks dangerous, but he refuses to carry a gun, practices tantric yoga, and frets about his karma. Tommy hopes his latest managed theft of three paintings from the Whitbread Museum will enable him to pay off the loan shark, but someone steals the paintings from his hired crew. Both the cops and the mob think Tommy is up to something, but no one know exactly what. Then someone steals his ex-girlfriend’s cats, leaving a note behind in Russian, and Tommy’s life gets seriously weird. This comic caper novel with an unusual protagonist is highly entertaining.


December Word Cloud

Disclosure: Some of these books were received free from publishers.

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