2011 Reviews
January 1, 2011

Stork Raving MAdDonna Andrews
Stork Raving Mad (Minotaur 2010) finds Meg, heavily pregnant with twins, and her husband Michael hosting a swarm of Caerphilly College students who are temporarily homeless because of a failure of the college heating system. One of the resident students is Ramon Soto, a student of Michael’s consumed with planning a performance of his dissertation topic, a play by Ignacio Mendoza, a minor Spanish playwright. Unfortunately Mendoza is closer to the Benny Hill than the Shakespeare of Spain, and Dr. Jean Wright, the head of the English department responsible for Michael’s tenure decision, shows up with the news that the performance has been cancelled because she considers the content offensive and unsuitable. The arrival of the elderly playwright himself, reeking of tobacco and clutching a guitar, adds to the chaos and confusion. While Mendoza is whipping up a batch of paella full of the crustaceans that Meg is allergic to in the kitchen, the students are swarming through the house protesting censorship, and Meg is searching for a quiet spot for a power nap, someone murders Dr. Wright by bashing her over the head with a spectacularly ugly stature of Tawaret, the Egyptian hippopotamus goddess who protects women during pregnancy and childbirth. Chief Burke arrives with the erroneous supposition that the set of suspects will be easy to interview since they were all in the house when the murder took place, and is horrified to find that Meg’s list has over 50 names. But Meg refuses to let the imminent arrival of the twins stop her from helping to solve the crime and save Michael’s tenure, along with Ramon’s dissertation, in this hilarious 12th entry in the series.

The Bone FireChristine Barber
The Bone Fire (Minotaur 2010) finds newspaper editor Lucy Newroe struggling to balance her job and her passion for volunteering as an Emergency Medical Technician in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The discovery of a small skull in the ashes left behind after the burning of Zozobra, Old Man Gloom, at the Fiesta de Santa Fe, prompts Detective Sergeant Gilbert Montoya to re-open the cold case of the disappearance of toddler Brianna Rodriguez, believed to have drowned in a flash flood over a year earlier. The lead detective in the Brianna investigation had committed suicide six months ago, so Gil decides to go through all the paperwork from the investigation himself. When displays of human bones begin appearing at religious sites around the city, Gil goes to Lucy to see if she can provide any clues from the files at the paper. Lucy is drinking too much, trying to deal with her guilt over the death of a woman in the last case she worked with Gil, and is reluctant to get involved. But when a disturbed neighbor of Brianna’s family is arrested, Lucy is sure he can’t be responsible. Lucy is a difficult person to like, but as pieces of her past gradually emerge, she grows into a more sympathetic character. The unique culture and atmosphere of Santa Fe provides a vivid background to this intriguing mystery.

Blood MenPaul Cleave
Blood Men (Atria 2010) is a stand-alone psychological thriller told from the perspective of Edward Hunter, the son of an infamous serial killer in New Zealand. Edward is understandably estranged from his father, who has been in prison for the past 20 years for murdering 11 prostitutes. Edward has seemingly emerged from the shadow over his family, and leads a successful, happy life with his wife Jodie, both of them accountants, and their daughter Sam. Unfortunately, a routine trip to the bank at the beginning of Christmas vacation results in tragic violence that destroys Edward’s happy life. As Edward seeks revenge, he discovers he has things in common with his father, just as he’d feared, and now he needs his father’s help. This book does not have a lot of local color, and it’s clear Cleave isn’t working for the Christchurch tourist board — this is New Zealand noir. The writing is compelling, with multiple layers of interior dialog from the protagonist’s first person voice, and the story of Detective Inspector Schroeder’s investigations told in the third person. As the title suggests, this is a bloody tale, but a very well-written one; the first of the author’s four novels to be released in the US.

Pericles CommissionGary Corby
The Pericles Commission (Minotaur 2010) introduces Nicolaos, the son of a sculptor, who is minding his own business when a dead man falls from the sky. As Nicolaos examines the dead man, killed with an arrow through the heart, Pericles comes running down the road. At first suspicious of each other, the two establish a rapport that results in Pericles hiring Nicolaos to find the assassin of Ephialtes, who created the world’s first democracy in Athens a few days earlier. Pericles is afraid that the murder of Ephialtes will lead to civil unrest and works to smooth the waters and keep the peace as Nicolaos questions everyone who might benefit by the death. Unfortunately one of the main suspects is Xanthippus, a leading conservative and the father of Pericles. As the investigation turns dangerous, Nicolaos tries to fend off two volunteers who are eager to help him: Diotima, a virgin priestess of Artemis and vengeful daughter of Ephialtes and his mistress, and Nicolaos’s annoying little brother Socrates, who is full of extremely perceptive suggestions that Nicolaos wishes he had thought of himself. Corby brings ancient Athens to vivid life in this humorous debut mystery full of suspense and intrigue.

The CageKenzo Kitakata
The Cage (Japanese 1983, English 2006) opens with seemingly mild-mannered Kazuya Takino taking a young tough for a ride and beating him up. Takino runs a small “supermarket” in a Tokyo suburb, with his wife’s coffee shop upstairs. The gang punks have sabotaged the milk and put rats in the freezer, as part of a turf war. As a former yakuza himself, Takino is made of sterner stuff, and the punk barely makes it out alive, losing his gang badge in the process. Takino’s life starts to unravel; the store bores him, his marriage is empty, and his mistress isn’t helping. Takino starts the slide into his old life, as he tries to help an old yakuza friend. Enter Old Dog Takagi, the best detective in the Tokyo police department, who smokes Gauloises cigarettes, reads modern poetry, and carves briar pipes for relaxation. The story is effectively told from the alternating perspectives of the two main characters. This complex Japanese noir from the 1980s also benefits from a fine translation by Paul Warham.

Liar, LiarK.J. Larsen
Liar, Liar (Poisoned Pen 2010) introduces Cat DeLuca, a private investigator operating the Pants On Fire Detective Agency, specializing in cheating spouses, in Chicago. Cat is tailing Chance Savino, a suspected cheating spouse, when she sees him entering a building, which explodes and injures Cat. The body found inside the building is identified as Chance, and Cat breaks the news to her client. But things aren’t quite so simple: the FBI says the building exploded because of a gas leak instead of a bomb, Cat’s client turns out to be a newspaper reporter instead of a betrayed wife, and Cat is sure Chance is not dead, though she seems to be the only one who sees him. Nor is Cat’s family much help since her overly concerned mother is convinced Cat’s head injury is causing her to see ghosts, her policemen relatives keep trying to protect her, Cat is sure someone is trying to kill her. Worst of all, her 30th birthday is right around the corner and she doesn’t have a date. Fueled by cannelloni and aided by her trusty sausage-eating beagle, Cat sets out to solve the mystery and perhaps find a new boyfriend in this debut comic mystery.

Our Kind of TraitorJohn le Carré
Our Kind of Traitor (Viking 2010) illustrates one way to spice up a vacation in Antigua. Thirty-year-old Peregrine (Perry) Makepiece, an ex-tutor in English literature at Oxford, now trying to find meaning in life, and his longtime girlfriend Gail Perkins, an upcoming London barrister, meet Russian businessman Dmitri (Dima) Krasnov on the tennis courts. The over-achieving Perry is a dominant amateur tennis player, but the stout Russian makes a game of it. Dima and his extended family group take a shine to Perry and Gail, and their lives become entwined in the small physical and cultural world of Antigua. It becomes clear that Dima is not simply a businessman, and that there are mysterious reasons for his family’s presence on Antigua. After a complicated courtship, Dima enlists the English couple into his quest for asylum, and Perry and Gail are dragged into the criss-cross world of MI-6, money laundering, safe houses, and international intrigue. Le Carré’s writing is masterful and evenly paced, with the tension building slowly through the book, as the amateur spies, highly competent in their own worlds of academia and law, run up against forces that can overwhelm even the best. Our Kind of Traitor is a worthy addition to le Carré’s Cold War books that captured our imagination decades ago.

The Huckleberry MurdersPatrick F. McManus
The Huckleberry Murders (Simon & Schuster 2010) finds Bo Tully, sheriff of Blight County, Idaho, picking huckleberries at his favorite remote spot in the hills. His solitude is disturbed by the screams of several women who have stumbled across three bodies in a nearby huckleberry patch. The three young men, who look like farmers with their calloused hands and old clothing, have all been shot in the back of the head, execution style. Bo finds faint traces of a possible 4th victim who fled, and calls in his friend Dave, an expert tracker, to see if he can pick up the trail. Meanwhile, Marge Poulson keeps dropping by the office, insisting that caretaker Ray Crockett has killed her ex-husband. Bo can’t find any evidence against Crockett, but he suspects there may be a connection between him and the three murdered men. FBI agent Angela Phelps arrives to help with the investigation, and Bo takes her deep into the swamp to try and discover what the murderers were trying to hide. Amusing banter, quirky characters, and Bo’s unorthodox yet effective investigative style enliven this funny 4th in the series.

The Insane TrainSheldon Russell
The Insane Train (Minotaur 2010), set at the end of WWII, finds one-armed railroad security agent Hook Runyon banished to Barstow after leaving a company truck parked on the rails while pursuing a thief. When the Baldwin Insane Asylum is burned, killing 30 inmates, Hook is given the task of moving the rest of the patients to Oklahoma. Hook’s observations of the insane asylum and its patients reveal the inadequate treatment and limited understanding of mental illness in the 1940s. The low-security women and men aren’t much of a problem, but the secure ward for the criminally insane contains some very scary psychopaths, including a sexual sadist and a pyromaniac. Only four of the staff members are willing to relocate to Oklahoma, so Hook rounds up some homeless WWII vets and a railroad hooker to fill in. Hook suspects that the fire may have been arson, and when a patient is murdered on the train he is convinced that someone has a grudge against the asylum. The lingering effects of the Great Depression plus the psychological and physical effects of the war on the returning soldiers provide a background of quiet desperation that highlights Hook’s own tendency to make the best of a bad situation.

The Demon’s ParchmentJeri Westerson
The Demon’s Parchment (Minotaur 2010) finds disgraced knight Crispin Guest in debt and desperate for a client in the cold of winter in 1384 London. The Sheriff of London promises Crispin a reward if he can help track down whoever is strangling, sodomizing, and eviscerating young boys. Then Jacob of Provencal, a court physician, offers Crispin a hefty purse for the recovery of some stolen documents. The Jews were expelled from England a century earlier, but Jacob and his son have special dispensation to provide medical care for the Queen. Crispin advises Jacob to go to the authorities for help, but when Jacob hints that the stolen parchments may have something to do with the murders, Crispin overcomes his distrust of Jews and foreigners to take the case. Crispin suspects that the missing documents may have been used to create a Golem, a demon with a taste for blood molded from clay. The news that the Guest ancestral home has finally been sold intensifies Crispin’s sense of loss and despair, and he vacillates between bouts of drunkenness and throwing himself headlong into the investigation. Determined to find the serial killer before he can strike again, Crispin reluctantly accepts the help of his apprentice Jack Tucker and John Rykener, a cross-dressing male prostitute. Unbelievable as it seems, both John Rykener, who used the name Eleanor while dressed as a woman, and the blood-thirsty serial killer are based on historical characters, adding an extra dimension to this intense historical mystery.

January Word Cloud

February 1, 2011

Night of Long KnivesRebecca Cantrell
A Night of Long Knives (Forge 2010) finds reporter Hannah Vogel and her adopted son Anton aboard the Graf Zeppelin on route from South America to Switzerland in June 1934. Three years earlier Hannah stole Anton away from Ernest Röhm, who claimed to be the child’s father, and escaped from Berlin. Feeling a bit safer after three uneventful years in South America, Hannah accepts an assignment to write about the zeppelin journey in order to visit her lover, but is horrified to discover that the zeppelin is being diverted to Munich for repairs. Sure that Röhm’s men will be waiting when the passengers disembark, Hannah and Anton descend on a rope, but are soon caught and separated. Hannah is taken to Röhm, who plans to raise Anton as a Nazi and to marry Hannah to put rumors of his homosexuality to rest. As Hannah is freshening up in the bathroom, Hitler and his men arrive to arrest Röhm and his followers. Hannah follows Röhm to Stadelheim, but is unable to discover where he has hidden Anton before Röhm and his followers are executed. As Hannah searches for Anton, she encounters hundreds of other women searching for their husbands, sons, brothers, and lovers who also vanished on the Night of Long Knives. This compelling thriller is a finalist for the 2011 Bruce Alexander Memorial Mystery Award.

Spy by NatureCharles Cumming
A Spy by Nature (2001) tells the story of Alec Milius, a young college graduate working at a dead-end job for a small London company selling ads to Central and Eastern European businesses. When Alex is recruited by British intelligence (MI-6) he is sure his life has finally turned around. But MI-6 rejects him. Alec is then offered an assignment as a support agent with a British oil company, tasked with selling false information to American agents working for an American oil company. Loosely based on Cumming’s own experience, this spy thriller exposes the underbelly of industrial espionage while also examining the price in human relationships that spies must pay.

MedicusRuth Downie
Medicus (2007, APA: Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls) introduces Gaius Petreius Ruso, a Roman army physician in second century Roman Britain, who has transfered to the 20th Legion in the remote Britannia port of Deva (now Chester, England) to start over after a divorce and the death of his father have left him with a huge pile of debts. When a dish of bad oysters disables one of the other doctors, Ruso works a two-day shift at the hospital, including an examination of a young woman’s body pulled from the river, and then visits a tavern for a large glass of wine to help him unwind, where he hears about a missing dancing girl. While staggering home, Ruso comes across Tilla, an injured Britain slave girl, rescues her from her abusive owner, surgically restores her shattered arm bones, and takes advantage of an empty room at the hospital to let her recover. The return of the vacationing hospital administrator, Priscus, upsets this arrangement, and Ruso finds himself owning a slave who won’t speak and can’t cook. As Tilla recovers her health and regains her beauty, Priscus convinces Ruso to use her as collateral for his loan, which he plans to collect at the first opportunity. Meanwhile, Ruso’s questions about the dead woman and the missing dancing girl have precipitated a rumor that the new medicus cares enough to investigate crimes against the Britain slaves, causing Ruso no end of problems with the military and the tavern keeper. Tilla, courageous yet terrified of mice, gradually comes to trust Ruso, forensically brilliant yet social inept, but neither believe they have a future together. Life in Roman Britain is brought to vivid life in this wryly humorous series opener.

Crooked LetterTom Franklin
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (William Morrow 2010) is the story of two men who were once boyhood friends. When Silas Jones was 14, his mother brought him back to her hometown of Chabot, moving into a rustic cabin owned by Larry Ott’s father. In the late 1970s in rural Mississippi, the two boys can’t be school friends since Silas is black and Larry is white, but they secretly meet to hunt, fish, and hang out together. Larry, who was a childhood stutterer and asthmatic, was never accepted at school, but Silas’s baseball talent earns him friends and the nickname “32” for the number on his jersey. When his beautiful neighbor asks Larry to take her to the drive-in movie, he is stunned and grateful, but realizes his luck hasn’t changed after all when she asks Larry to drop her off to meet the boyfriend her parents won’t allow her to date. The girl never returns home. There isn’t any evidence linking Larry to a crime, but the town is convinced he killed her and ostracizes him. Twenty years later, when Silas returns to Chabot to take a job as police constable, he tries to ignore Larry’s existence despite Larry’s fumbling efforts to re-connect. Then another girl goes missing, and the town is convinced Larry is responsible. The stories of both the past and the present slowly converge in this atmospheric mystery, a finalist for the 2011 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel.

If the Dead Rise NotPhilip Kerr
If the Dead Rise Not (UK 2009, Putman 2010), finds Bernie Gunther working as a hotel detective in Berlin in 1934, after leaving the police force because of the growing intolerance precipitated by the emerging Nazi party. The seemingly routine theft of a Chinese box from a German-American hotel guest visiting from New York becomes more complex as Bernie investigates and discovers it was recently stolen from a museum. When Bernie uncovers a link between the theft and the German campaign to forestall an American boycott of the 1936 Olympics to be held in Berlin, the investigation becomes dangerous. Meanwhile, as a favor to a police friend, Bernie helps a young officer examine a body at a crime scene, coming to the conclusion that the dead man was probably a boxer, and definitely Jewish. In the current climate, the police are uninterested in investigating Jewish deaths, so Bernie begins a private investigation with the support of Noreen Eisner, a beautiful Jewish American journalist hoping to expose Nazi anti-Jewish behavior. The second half of the book is set in Havana 20 years later, where Bernie unexpectedly encounters several important characters from 1934 Berlin, along with some famous American Jewish gangsters. This excellent 6th in the series was awarded the 2009 Historical Dagger Award and the 2010 Barry Award for Best Crime Novel published in the UK.

Death at the Alma MaterG.M. Malliet
Death at the Alma Mater (Midnight Ink 2010) takes place at St. Michael’s, a deteriorating college at the University of Cambridge. In the hope of encouraging donations, seven wealthy alumni have been invited back for an Open Weekend. The group, who all attended St. Mike’s during the same time period nearly two decades earlier, includes a TV reporter, a socialite, an author, an academic, a millionaire, and a financier. Lexy Laurant, the socialite, was married for a short period to Sir James Bassett, knighted for his contributions to literature, who divorced her to marry India Burrows while they were all at St. Mike’s. Still pining over Gerald after all these years, Lexy has brought along her current boyfriend, playboy Geraldo Valentiano. When Lexy is found murdered, Detective Chief Inspector Arthur St. Just, with Sergeant Fear in tow, is called in to investigate. Luckily St. Just’s observant inamorata, Portia De’Ath, is resident at St. Mike’s, officially working on her dissertation while writing her next murder mystery. This subtly humorous 3rd in the series, reminiscent of Golden Age mysteries, is quite satisfying.

The Witch Doctor’s WifeTamar Myers
The Witch Doctor’s Wife (Avon 2009) introduces Amanda Brown, a young missionary who comes to the small Belgian Congo diamond mining community of Belle Vue in 1958. The small plane Amanda is traveling one has to make a crash landing, but luckily no one is seriously hurt. However, the tall Nigerian passenger who carries Amanda from the burning plane vanishes into the bush, which confuses Captain Pierre Jardin of the local Belgian Colonial Police. The pampered Europeans, waited upon by the natives while stripping the country of diamonds, have little interest in befriending a poor missionary and worry that their time of power is coming to an end. Amanda is proud of her ability to speak Tshiluba, the local Congolese language, but finds communicating with the native people harder than she expected. When the local witch doctor’s first wife arrives at her doorstep looking for a job, Amanda resists calling the woman "Cripple" though she insists it is her name. Cripple dubs Amanda “Ugly Eyes” because of the pale blue color. When the witch doctor discovers his youngest son, Baby Boy, teething on a huge uncut diamond, greed and violence erupt in the usually peaceful community. The contrasting world views of Amanda and Cripple are beautifully portrayed, though Cripple’s determined no-nonsense personality tends to overwhelm Amanda’s. Myers was born and raised by missionary parents in the Belgian Congo, and presents the historical and environmental background for her story in vivid detail in this intriguing series opener.

To Fetch a ThiefSpencer Quinn (Peter Abrahams)
To Fetch a Thief (Atria 2010) finds private detective Bernie Little and his faithful companion Chet the dog doing surveillance outside a motel, watching the possibly errant wife of a new client. Chet is relieved that there will soon be money coming in; the failed investment in Hawaiian pants hasn’t helped their financial situation. But Bernie is less concerned about money than doing the right thing, especially when he realizes that ex-wife’s new love interest is the man his client’s cheating wife is meeting at a motel. A gift of tickets takes Chet, Bernie, and Bernie’s son Charlie to the the Drummond Family Traveling Circus, which is unfortunately closed. Peanut, the elephant star, and her trainer Uri DeLeath have both seemingly vanished into thin air. Popo the clown, Uri’s partner, is convinced that Uri wouldn’t have stolen the elephant, and joins Charlie in convincing Bernie to take the case. With few clues to follow, Bernie has to rely on Chet’s amazing nose to lead them in the right direction. The local police don’t view the disappearance as a serious crime until Uri is found dead in the desert from the bite of an illegal African puff adder. Chet’s expertise in reading body language and following faint scent trails is balanced against his short attention span and inability to communicate all he knows to Bernie, who has plenty of skills of his own but doesn’t always make the connections Chet does. Chet’s dryly humorous narration carries this 3rd in a captivating series, a finalist for the Left Coast Crime Watson Award.

Gone Til NovemberWallace Stroby
Gone ’til November (Minotaur 2010) begins when Florida Deputy Sheriff Sara Cross arrives at what should have been a routine traffic stop to find that a young black man has been shot and killed by a fellow deputy, former lover Billy Flynn. Flynn swears that the man fled the scene and then pulled a gun on him, and a cache of arms is found in the trunk. A single parent whose young son is battling leukemia, Sara struggles against her continued attraction to Flynn and her growing conviction that something isn’t right with the shooting. Meanwhile, Nathaniel Morgan, an enforcer for a New Jersey drug boss, is dispatched to Florida to find out what happened to the money sent to pay for a drug shipment from the new Jamaican connection. Morgan, an aging contract killer who has just been diagnosed with goblet cell cancer, hopes he can finish up this job quickly, take his payment, schedule his surgery, and vanish from the life. He tells his doctor he will be gone until November. As both stories gradually converge, Sara and Morgan struggle to balance what their respective jobs require them to do, and what they know is the right thing. Morgan is an incredible character — smart, capable, and ruthless, yet with a strong sense of humanity. The beautiful and usually peaceful Florida Everglades setting provides the background for the racism, greed, and violence that erupts in this excellent noir thriller.

Truly MadlyHeather Webber
Truly, Madly (St. Martin’s Press 2010) introduces Lucy Valentine, the only member of the psychic matchmaking Valentine family not able to see the colored auras that identify perfect couples. Unfortunately, the Valentine matchmaking talent doesn’t work within the family — no Valentines have yet managed a lasting relationship. When Lucy’s father is caught with another woman, her parents decide they must take a romantic vacation together to convince the press that their marriage isn’t a sham, leaving the woefully unprepared Lucy in charge of the family business, Valentine, Inc. Lucy does have one secret talent: the lightning strike that destroyed her ability to see auras did give her the ability to find lost inanimate objects. When a client tells Lucy that he feels he will never replace his lost love from high school, Lucy sees a vision of the engagement ring his girlfriend never returned — on the hand of a skeleton buried in a shallow grave. Worried that her client might be a murderer, Lucy hires a sexy private detective to track down the missing girlfriend. One thing leads to another and Lucy is soon trying to figure out how to explain to the police why she just happened to dig up a body in the woods. This clever series opener featuring a very appealing amateur sleuth is quite entertaining.

February Word Cloud

March 1, 2011

Wild PennaceSandi Ault
Wild Penance (Berkley 2010), finds Jamaica, a resource-protection agent for the Bureau of Land Management in northern New Mexico, jogging at dawn near the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge when she sees two figures tossing a body tied to a cross off the bridge. When the body is recovered, the evidence suggests a connection to Los Penitentes, an old Catholic sect that practices self-flagellation and reenacts the crucifixion of Jesus as part of their extreme penance. Jamaica know a lot about the Penitentes since she has been keeping a journal of sketches and notes about local Penitente shrines known as moradas. When the sketchbook is stolen from Jamaica’s truck and her life is threatened, Jamaica worries that someone knows she was a witness to the murder. Momma Anna, Jamaica’s medicine teacher, helps her make a connection between the penance-seeking Penitentes, and Jamaica’s own life. In this prequel, a finalist for the 2011 Mary Higgins Clark and Left Coast Crime Hillerman Sky awards, Jamaica meets Forest Service ranger Kerry Reed while doing night patrols, the old curandera Tecolote who gives her mysterious healing drinks, and eventually a wolf cub.

Rogue IslandBruce DeSilva
Rogue Island (Forge 2010) introduces Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter born and raised in the Mount Hope section of Providence, Rhode Island. A series of fires in his old neighbor that have resulted in several deaths, including five-year-old twins, prompts Mulligan to begin an investigation. When it becomes likely that most of the fires have been started deliberately, Mulligan begins searching for a connection between the properties, hoping to uncover a motive. It’s not long before Mulligan is threatened, beaten, arrested, and suspended from the newspaper, proof positive that there is something big hiding behind the fires. Mulligan’s affection for his home town and state doesn’t blind him to its faults — he notes that graft is Rhode Island’s leading service industry yet is fiercely loyal to the inhabitants of his old neighborhood on both sides of the law. An engaging narrator, Mulligan juggles a bitter nearly-ex-wife who has taken his record collection and beloved dog, an ambitious new court reporter girlfriend, and the eager new intern who is the son of the newspaper’s owner. This entertaining debut novel is a finalist for the 2011 Barry and Edgar Awards for Best First Novel.

Swift JusticeLaura DiSilverio
Swift Justice (Minotaur 2010) introduces Charlotte "Charlie" Swift, a former Air Force investigator, now working as a private investigator in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Charlie’s newest client is Melissa Lloyd, who wants Charlie to find the mother of the baby left in a basket on her doorstep. The baby is Melissa’s granddaughter, confirmed through DNA testing. Melissa explains that she was a teen abuse survivor who gave her baby up for adoption, and that she had no interest in ever seeing her daughter again. In fact, she never even told her husband that she had a child. So Melissa needs Charlie to find the missing mother ASAP, and definitely before her husband comes home from his business trip. As Charlie begins her investigation, Gigi Goldman appears on her doorstep. The wife of Charlie’s silent partner, Gigi’s husband cleaned out their bank accounts and fled the country, leaving Gigi with two children to raise, a pile of bills, and half interest in the detective agency. Determined to become a useful partner, Gigi decorates the office with kittens and ducklings. Equally determined to convince Gigi that she’s not cut out to be a PI, Charlie convinces her to accept an undercover assignment as the bison mascot for a burger chain. This debut novel, a finalist for the 2011 Lefty Award, is a deft mix of humorous situations, light banter, and the serious investigation into the abandonment of a child by a teen mother.

The Quiller MemorandumAdam Hall
The Quiller Memorandum (1965, APA: The Berlin Memorandum) introduces Quiller, a British agent working in Berlin. After an undercover assignment in a death camp during the war, Quiller has been working with the Z Commission, a department of the German police devoted to the prosecution of war criminals. Now 20 years after the end of the war, Quiller is tired and ready to return to England when he is recruited for one last Berlin mission, exposing a secret organization working to bring back the Third Reich. Quiller’s first person narration reveals his continual analysis of every situation, seeking motives behind each action, alternative interpretations of each event. Though introverted and introspective, Quiller is also driven by his emotions, especially his memories of the war. Quiller is physically tough, but it’s his intellect and will power that make him such a successful spy. His ability to withstand drug-based torture is amazing, and he lets the reader follow every step of the logic that keeps him sane. This fast moving thriller, which won the 1966 Edgar Award for Best Novel, features fascinating details of cold war era spy craft, an intricate plot, and an iconic espionage agent.

Deadly DescentCharlotte Hinger
Deadly Descent (Poisoned Pen 2009) introduces historian Lottie Albright. When Lottie moved to a small town in western Kansas to marry a man with grown children older than she is, her twin sister Josie said she would never be happy there. But Lottie has found a job she loves as the editor of a series of county history books and has learned to fit in by talking about the weather. Then Fiona Hadley, the mother of the youngest state senator, arrives and demands that Lottie destroy the family history memoir submitted by her sister Zelda St. John. Lottie, who won’t allow editing except by the submitter, refuses, but does show the memoir to Fiona. When Zelda is murdered later that night, her daughter Judy insists that her aunt Fiona had something to do with her mother’s death. Feeling responsible, Lottie responds to Sheriff Sam Abbot’s request for a part-time deputy in order to have legitimacy for asking questions. Sam give Lottie a cold case to practice on, and both are surprised at how much new information Lottie comes up with using her historical research skills. When Lottie begins receiving anonymous threatening letters from an obviously unbalanced person, Josie, a clinical psychologist, comes to lend her assistance. Though somewhat impeded by some awkward plotting, this debut mystery by a Kansas historian introduces an original protagonist with a unique skill set for investigating mysteries. Lethal Lineage, the 2nd in the series, was released today.

Junkyard DogsCraig Johnson
Junkyard Dogs (Viking 2010) begins with the discovery of a severed thumb in a discarded cooler at the dump outside Durant, Wyoming. Sheriff Walt Longmire and his deputies Victoria Moretti and Santiago Saizarbitoria brave a February blizzard to check the junkyard for clues. Along with the thumb, they discover that George Stewart, the cantankerous owner of the dump, has been nearly killed after being dragged behind the family car along the road by the wife of the old man’s grandson. The granddaughter-in-law explains that she didn’t know that George was using the car as ballast while cleaning the chimney, but no one is really sure what the truth is behind the Stewart family dynamics. Saizarbitoria is suffering from “bullet fever” after being shot and nearly killed, so Walt uses the severed thumb as a hook to keep him interested in detective work. With the help of his faithful dog, Dog, and lifelong friend Henry Standing Bear, Walt ambles through a strange case that just keeps getting stranger. This excellent 6th in the series is a finalist for the Left Coast Crime 2011 Watson Award for the mystery with the best sidekick.

Old DogsDonna Moore
Old Dogs (Busted Flush Press 2010) is the tale of Letty and Dora, two ex-hookers now in their 70s, posing as La Contessa Letitzia di Ponzo and Signora Teodora Grisiola, rich Italians visiting Glasgow, Scotland. As they run their classic share-of-a-racehorse scam, the two con artists read about a pair of solid gold, jewel-encrusted Tibetan shih tzu dog statuettes on loan to the local museum and decide that one final heist will set them up to enjoy their golden years in style. Unfortunately have their eyes on the same prize: a pair of local thugs on work-release at a crematorium, the former museum director ousted by the current one, a young innocent who wants to return the sacred dogs to a Tibetan temple, and an Australian hitman. When the former museum director manages to intercept the delivery of the dogs and substitute copies, things get even more confusing as both sets of dogs are stolen and re-stolen and various characters are kidnapped and re-kidnapped. Letty and Dora are vividly drawn quirky characters, but the two Glasgow thugs nearly steal the show in this funny caper novel, a finalist for the 2011 Lefty Award for best humorous novel.

Wife of the GodsKwei Quartey
Wife of the Gods (Random House 2009) introduces Darko Dawson, an independent-minded CID inspector in Accra, Ghana. Because he is fluent in Ewe, the language spoken in remote Ketanu, Darko is sent to investigate the death of Gladys Mensah, a volunteer with an AIDS prevention group found dead in the nearby forest. Darko hasn’t been back to Ketanu since his own mother disappeared after visiting her sister there. Darko still suffers through nightmares about his mother’s fate, and he is reluctant to leave his wife and young son, who suffers from congenital heart disease. The body was discovered by Efia, who was given by her family to Togbe Adzima, the village priest, after her family suffered a run of bad luck. As a trokosi, a wife of the gods, Efia is virtually a slave. Darko discovers that Gladys campaigned against the ancient custom of trokosi, and hoped to establish a safe house for escaped trokosi and their children. Darko is an engaging protagonist, likable but with enough flaws to make him interesting. Intuitive, clever, and methodical, Darko is impatient with old beliefs in witchcraft and curses and tends to let his temper get away from him. Haunted by the mysterious disappearance of his mother, Darko is unable to stop investigating the murder, even after the local police settle upon a suitable local troublemaker as the culprit. The unique setting adds to the appeal of this debut mystery.

Snow AngelsJames Thompson
Snow Angels (Putman 2010) introduces Kari Vaara, police chief in the town of Kittilä, in Finnish Lapland, 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Kari’s pregnant wife Kate manages the Levi Center, the biggest ski resort in Finland, but it’s -40° Celsius, cold enough to close down the ski runs. So Kari is hanging out in the Hullu Poro (Crazy Reindeer) bar watching over Kate as she fires an embezzling employee. The Levi Center owners convinced Kate to leave Aspen 18 months earlier to take over the expansion of the Center, but her Finnish is still rudimentary and the constant dark of late December is beginning to wear on her. When a beautiful Somali immigrant is found dead in a snowfield on a reindeer farm, her body mutilated and a racial slur carved into her belly, Kari resists the idea of calling in outside help. A former hero cop who retreated to his hometown after being injured, Kari hopes that solving this case will prove his competence. Kari isn’t sure if the potentially explosive murder was sexually or racially motivated, but knows he has to solve it quickly before the press gets hold of it. His investigation exposes secrets from his past that he hasn’t shared with his wife, and Kari worries that his marriage may not survive Kate’s struggles to deal with the Finnish culture of silence, isolation, and alcoholism, as well as the unforgiving Arctic cold and dark. The bleak environment is as menacing as the killer in this excellent debut novel, a finalist for the 2011 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

the Mapping of Love and DeathJacqueline Winspear
The Mapping of Love and Death (Harper Collins 2010), set in 1932, begins with the discovery of a collapsed French dugout from WWI that contains the preserved bodies of a cartography team and their equipment. The American parents of cartographer Michael Clifton hire inquiry agent Maisie Dobbs to find the woman who wrote the love letters found with their son, signed only “the English Nurse.” While examining the medical report, Maisie realizes that Michael had been murdered before the shelling that killed the others in the trench. Hours after their meeting with Maisie, the Cliftons are attacked and beaten nearly to death. Maisie suspects that the attack has something to do with the murder of Michael years earlier, or perhaps the attacker was searching for the documents that were delivered to his parents and handed over to Maisie. With the help of her assistant Billy, Maisie begins her usual careful and deliberate investigation, despite the difficulties in her personal life that at times make it difficult for her to concentrate on the case. This engaging 6th in the series, based on a real life discovery in France, is a finalist for the 2011 Bruce Alexander Memorial Award for best historical mystery.

March Word Cloud

April 1, 2011

Blood HarvestS.J. Bolton
Blood Harvest (Minotaur 2010) is the story of the Fletcher family, which moves from America to the small town of Heptonclough, England, building a new home between two churches next to a moor. Heptonclough is not a welcoming community, keeping to old ways like the fall blood harvest, when so many farm animals are slaughtered for winter meat that the street runs red with blood. While playing in the graveyard, Tom (10) and Joe (6) often see a strange girl watching them from the shadows. Joe won’t talk about the girl, but Tom is afraid of her and tells his parents. Everyone assumes that it’s just the local boys hazing the new family, but when two-year-old Millie’s life is threatened, Harry Laycock, the new vicar, begins to worry that there may be a connection to other little girls who have died in suspicious circumstances. Dr. Evi Oliver, a psychiatrist who is treating the young mother of a toddler who died in a fire, is asked to counsel Tom, but since no one else seems to be able to see the strange girl, Tom has begun to doubt his own sanity and clams up. This deliciously creepy gothic suspense thriller is a finalist for the Barry Award for Best British Crime Novel, the Gold Dagger Award, and the Mary Higgins Clark Award.

Guilt by AssociationMarcia Clark
Guilt by Association (Mulholland 2011) is the fiction debut of the former Los Angeles prosecutor, featuring Rachel Knight, a 30-something deputy DA in the elite Special Trials Unit in LA. Rachel lives in the old downtown Biltmore Hotel, within walking distance to her office. She is committed to her job, and is very good at it. She becomes personally involved when Jake Pahlmeyer, her prosecutor colleague and close friend, is found dead in a grungy motel crime scene. Rachel takes over Jake’s current case, but also tenaciously investigates Jake’s death and the mysterious circumstances surrounding it. This is not the type of DA who sits in an office reviewing papers while occasionally appearing in court; Rachel combines her legal work with a decidedly hands-on investigatory style. Who needs cops? There is that little problem with her tiny, unregistered Beretta .22, but she has little time for legal technicalities. The book is quite entertaining, energetic, full of wise-cracking humor, gal-pal good times, and characterization and detail solidly built on the author’s experience, albeit with some exaggerated near-super heroism on Rachel’s part.

CaughtHarlan Coben
Caught (Dutton 2010) is the story of Wendy Tynes, a television reporter for the show “Caught in the Act” that traps and films the arrest of sexual predators. Dan Mercer, a social worker who helps troubled teens, is Wendy’s latest catch, but Wendy is uneasy about his arrest. Though she has plenty of evidence, she has a gut feeling that Dan may be innocent after all. When the charges against Dan are dropped by the judge, partially because of Wendy’s entrapment, Wendy is fired. Determined to find the truth, and hopefully regain her job, Wendy begins an investigation that becomes more complicated the deeper she digs. When Wendy becomes the target of a smear campaign, she is forced to confront the damage she has done to all of the targets of her television show, as she realizes how difficult it will be to rebuild her reputation even if she is able to prove that she is not guilty of the insinuations. This complex and fast-moving thriller is a finalist for the 2011 Edgar Award for Best Mystery.

The Poacher’s SonPaul Doiron
The Poacher’s Son (Minotaur 2010) introduces Mike Bowditch, a game warden in the wilds of Maine. Coming home to his lonely cabin in the woods one night, Mike finds a cryptic message from his father, Jack, the first he’s heard from him in two years. Mike’s mother left his father when Mike was a boy, unable to cope any longer with Jack’s womanizing and brutal alcoholism. Mike’s decision to become a game warden was in part a reaction against his father’s poaching lifestyle, and in part a desire to live in the wild as his father always has. Mike learns that his father was arrested during a protest against a timber company who threatens to evict those who have lived in remote cabins for generations. During the trip back to town, Jack escaped. When the bodies of the cop and timber executive are discovered, Jack is the prime suspect. Mike has no illusions about his father’s violent nature, but can’t believe he is actually capable of murder. Putting his future as a game warden on the line, Mike ignores instructions to stay out of the murder investigation, convinced that the police won’t find the real killer while focusing on chasing his father. Vivid wilderness scenes often trump the action in this debut thriller, a finalist for the 2011 Barry and Edgar Awards for Best First Novel.

City of VeilsZoë Ferraris
City of Veils (Little Brown 2010) finds Katya Hijazi, one of the few female forensic scientists in the Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, medical examiner’s office, eager to move from the lab to a greater involvement in investigation. The discovery of the body of a young woman gives Katya her chance. Convinced that the woman is not just another housemaid killed by her employer, Katya calls on her friend Nayir Sharqi, a Palestinian-Bedouin desert guide, for help in identifying the woman. Nayir is attracted to Katya, but finds it difficult to reconcile her need to work outside the home with his religious beliefs. The two discover that the murdered woman was a filmmaker whose secret project was an exposé of the dark secrets of Jeddah: prostitution, violence, and exploitation. When one of the few female investigators is fired for pretending to be married, Katya, who also lies about her single status, gets her chance to partner with a male officer. Taking a female investigator along for interviews is a necessary evil the male officers reluctantly endure, since men are not allowed to speak with the wives and daughters of the suspects. The investigation is suspenseful and interesting, but the heart of this book is the sensitive examination of the religious and cultural veils that separate Muslim women from the rapidly changing world around them.

Faithful PlaceTana French
Faithful Place (Viking 2010) is the story of Frank Mackey, a divorced Dublin undercover cop called back to his old neighborhood by the discovery of a suitcase in an abandoned building. Twenty-two years earlier, when Frank was 19, he and Rosie Daly were all set to run off to London and escape their certain fate of unemployment or dead-end factory work The plan was to meet just after midnight at the top of Faithful Place, but Rosie never appeared. Finding a note implying that Rosie decided to go off on her own, Frank left as well, hoping all these years that he would run across her again someday. The discovery of Rosie’s suitcase brings Frank back to the alcoholic father, difficult mother, and three siblings he hasn’t seen for 22 years. As the last person who admits to seeing Rosie that night, Frank finds himself under suspicion and begins his own secret investigation, reconnecting with old friends and enemies. Complicating Frank’s work is his nine-year-old daughter Holly, who objects to giving up their precious weekend time together, and who wants to get to know the Mackey relatives Frank has been shielding her from. This emotionally gripping suspense novel is a finalist for the 2011 Edgar Award for Best Mystery.

The SerialistDavid Gordon
The Serialist (Simon & Schuster 2010) is the story of Harry Bloch, a pulp writer of pseudonymous serial novels: the Zorg science fiction series, an urban black Jewish detective series, and a vampire series. Harry cranks out the pages of his various books to eke out a living, only occasionally regretting his youthful literary ambitions. Then he gets a request from Darian Clay, a convicted serial killer on death row who offers Harry the chance to write his life story, including where he concealed the heads of his female victims. It seems that Darian is a long-time fan of Harry’s advice column for Raunchy magazine, Slut Whisperer, and is willing to trade a chapter of his life story in exchange for pornographic pieces on the women who write him erotic letters. Chapters from Harry’s various novels are interwoven with his visits to Darian and the letter writers, casting a pulpy glow over Harry’s boring life. Unexpected events propel Harry into emulating his fictional detective in order to extricate himself from a sticky situation. This darkly humorous thriller is a finalist for the 2011 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

The Crossing PlacesElly Griffiths
The Crossing Places (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009) introduces Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist, contentedly living a quiet life in the Saltmarsh area near Norfolk, England. When Detective Inspector Harry Nelson is informed of the discovery of bones on a desolate part of the marsh, he is sure he’s finally found the remains of Lucy Downey, a five-year-old child who went missing 10 years earlier. But Ruth determines that the bones are a ritual burial from the Iron Age, disappointing Nelson who had hoped to close the case which has haunted him for a decade. Ruth discovers a torque, an Iron Age necklace near the bones, and begins planning an excavation of the henge she is sure hides under the marsh. When another child goes missing, Ruth’s knowledge of ritual killings prompts him to share the letters he received about Lucy Downey, taunting him about not being able to translate the clues and find the girl. The letter writer seems to have archaeological knowledge mixed with Norse and literary references, tantalizing Ruth into the task of figuring out if the letters really will lead to the missing children. Ruth is an unusual protagonist, an overweight loner content to have little contact with her neighbors or colleagues, yet fiercely intelligent and determined to solve the mystery of the letters in order to help Nelson catch the writer. This captivating debut novel is a finalist for the 2011 Mary Higgins Clark Award.

Once A SpyKeith Thomson
Once a Spy (Doubleday 2010) introduces Drummond Clark, a 64-year-old retired CIA operative with Alzheimer’s, and his estranged son Charlie Clark, a gambler in hock to Russian loan sharks. Charlie is in the process of investigating long-term care for his father when he gets a call from the senior center that Drummond has started to wander off. Meanwhile, the CIA decides that Drummond has become a liability now that his memory shifts on and off, and nearly kills both father and son by rigging Drummond’s house to explode. Drummond’s unexpected ability to hot-wire a car and evade the assassins makes Charlie suspicious that his father was not a boring career washing machine salesman. The two have never been close, but their non-stop journey to evade both the CIA assassins and the loan-shark’s thugs begins to finally build a bond between father and son. Drummond drifts in and out of reality, but luckily his muscle memory is strong, enabling him to defend Charlie with an amazing number of fighting skills. This non-stop debut thriller is a finalist for the Barry Award for Best First Novel and the Dilys Award.

The Bayou TrilogyDaniel Woodrell
Under the Bright Lights (1986) begins the Bayou Trilogy, an eccentric literary, yet conversational, hometown police investigation series starring Rene Shade in the Louisiana river country north of New Orleans, where folks seem mostly unconscious of the cities up or down river. Hailing from the “Frogtown” section of fictional Saint Bruno in the Mississippi delta, Rene could have gone good or bad, but after a minor boxing career, he became a cop. He lives on the second floor of his mother’s pool hall, in the center of life in his hometown. The local criminal element has become agitated as outsiders try to muscle in on St. Bruno’s action, and somewhat reluctantly, Rene and his crew become involved. Mr. B is really in charge, having driven out the upriver (St. Louis) Mafia and the downriver (New Orleans) gang. But now the old understanding seems to be unraveling, with Jewel Coss and his bunch and some unknown associates committing murder here and there. Woodrell’s writing is brilliant and rewarding beyond the fairly simple plot, which is entertaining but not the reason to read this book. There are a few writers that we stumble on, and know we should have know about, and Daniel Woodrell is in that class. These books are simply brilliant, and should not be limited by their genre. This trilogy has some of the best, densest, literary gumbo you’re likely to find. The Bayou Trilogy is due for reissue by Mulholland in late April — if you want finely crafted, uniquely local noir writing, don’t miss these!

April Word Cloud

May 1, 2011

Mark of the LionSuzanne Arruda
Mark of the Lion (2006) introduces Jade del Cameron, an American ambulance driver in WWI who promises David Worthy, a dying British pilot, she will track down his brother and pass on a ring. But when Jade visits Mrs. Worthy in 1919, she is told that David was an only child. Jade guesses that the missing brother was born to another woman when David’s father Gil Worthy was exploring in East Africa. The Worthy family solicitor confirms that Gil had two rings made, one for each of his sons, and that Gil returned to Africa in 1915 to try and track down his other son, dying in suspicious circumstances in a Nairobi hotel room before he could complete his search. With the solicitor’s support, Jade accepts a job as a writer and photographer for The Traveler magazine, and requests an assignment in Nairobi, taking a crash course in Swahili during the trip. Jade’s upbringing on a ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico, proves to be good preparation for life in colonial Africa since she is a crack shot and used to roughing it. While searching for David’s brother Jade manages to kill a hyena, attract the attentions of a witch, and both charm and offend the colonial elite who find it difficult to accept that their time of power is drawing to an end. This debut novel is highly entertaining.

Long Time ComingRobert Goddard
Long Time Coming (Bantam 2010) is the story of Stephen Swan, who is shocked to discover in 1976 that his uncle Eldritch was not killed in the Blitz but has instead spent the last 36 years in a prison in Ireland for reasons he has sworn never to talk about. Now 68, Eldrich recruits Stephen’s help to earn enough money to die in comfort, telling a fabulous story of the summer of 1940 when he served as secretary for Isaac Meridor, an unscrupulous Antwerp diamond merchant. Eldrich believed he would accompany Meridor to America, but at the last minute he is sent off the ship with Meridor’s collection of Picasso nudes for safekeeping in the safe of a London art dealer. Eldrich admits his involvement in a plot to replace the Picassos with copies, but swears he never saw a penny of the money since he was framed in Dublin for unspecified offenses against the state. Now he’s been offered a small fortune to prove the recently displayed Picasso collection really does belong to Meridor’s heirs. Narrated from the 1976 point of view by Stephen and from 1940 by Eldrich, the fascinating tale of theft and betrayal from the past slowly becomes evident in the repercussions of the present. This complex thriller just won the 2011 Edgar Award for Best Paperback.

Rolling ThunderChris Grabenstein
Rolling Thunder (Pegasus 2010) finds cops John Ceepak and Danny Boyle patrolling the opening of the new Rolling Thunder roller coaster on the boardwalk of Sea Haven, New Jersey. Straight-arrow Ceepak is explaining to a mother that putting her little girl in high heels won’t get her around the height limitation when the first car containing owner Paddy O’Malley and his family, plus the mayor and the chamber of commerce, begins the ascent. Just after the first rattling descent, Paddy O’Malley shouts that his wife is having a heart attack and pulls the emergency cord. Despite Ceepak and Boyle’s valiant rescue attempts, she is dead before the ambulance arrives. Except for son Skippy, the O’Malley children seem pleased by their mother’s death, but the autopsy doesn’t reveal anything suspicious. The discovery of a dismembered beach beauty, body parts packed neatly into suitcases, outside a party house with connections to O’Malley causes Ceepak and Boyle to wonder if there is a connection between the two deaths. Their investigation uncovers some uncomfortable facts about the leading lights in the seedy little beach town, including an unsavory fellow cop. Ceepak and Boyle are as enjoyable as ever, Boyle’s smart-aleck narration balancing Ceepak’s never-tell-a-lie code of conduct, earning this 6th in the series a nomination for the 2011 Left Coast Crime Watson Award for Best Sidekick.

The Queen of PatpongTimothy Hallinan
The Queen of Patpong (2010) finds Poke Rafferty and his wife Rose, a former bar girl, dealing with adopted daughter Miaow’s struggles to fit in with the privileged children at her school, as Poke works with her teacher to condense “The Tempest.” A former street child, Miaow has decided to rename herself Mia, dye her hair blond to fit her role as Ariel, and ignore the past. But the sudden appearance of a dangerous man Rose believed she had killed many years ago makes that impossible. Eventually Rose tells Poke and Miaow the story of her life. A poor village girl, she ran away at the age of 17 to escape her father’s plan to sell her into a life of brutal prostitution. Befriended by a more experienced bar girl, she became a dancer in Bangkok, slowly transforming from a naive country girl into a beautiful bar girl. Then she succumbed to the charms of Howard Horner, a rich American who bought her services for weeks at a time. By the time she realized he was a sadistic predator, it was almost too late. Realizing that Horner is back stalking bar girls, Poke assembles a group of friends to protect Rose and deal with Horner permanently. Rose’s story is told with honesty and compassion. Her decision to choose the least repugnant option open to her represents all the smiling and compliant bar girls working in Thailand’s sex trade while supporting their village families. This powerful and satisfying thriller, 4th in the series, was a finalist for the 2011 Edgar Award for Best Mystery.

A Thousand CutsSimon Lelic
A Thousand Cuts (Viking 2010, APA: Rupture) begins with a school shooting in London where Samuel Szajkowski, a new history teacher, shot two students and another teacher at a school assembly before killing himself. Detective Inspector Lucia May is in charge of what should be an open-and-shut investigation, but she finds herself unable to accept that Szajkowski was simply a psychopath beyond help. Lucia discovers that Szajkowski was subjected to cruel student pranks that escalated to physical violence, which were tolerated and perhaps even encouraged by the headmaster who seems unable to see the progression from pranks to bullying to persecution. The only woman in her department, Lucia finds herself beginning to sympathize with Szajkowski, especially when she becomes the target of increasingly hostile sexual harassment from her colleagues. Pressured by her supervisor to close the case, Lucia continues to investigate a possible connection between the brutal beating of a student by other students, and Szajkowski’s rampage. Narrated through transcripts of witness statements by students, teachers, and parents interwoven with Lucia’s perspective, this powerful debut novel, a finalist for the 2010 New Blood Dagger Award, exposes a tradition that accepts school cruelty as a natural part of life.

Death AassemblageSusan Cummins Miller
Death Assemblage (2002) introduces Frankie MacFarlane, a geologist trying to finish the fieldwork for her dissertation in the hills near Pair-a-Dice, Nevada. Frankie has has mapped the Paleozoic and Mesozoic sedimentary rocks of the range for the past three summers, searching for the final key to her research: a limestone marker bed, known as a death assemblage, of fossil ammonoids. Caught in a thunderstorm, Frankie is horrified to see Bill Anderson, a hard-drinker whose advances she rejected, hot-wiring her Jeep and driving it away. During the long walk back to town, Frankie takes a rest in a secluded spot and discovers a high-button shoe, a glass button, and a human tooth. Spooked by the discovery, she almost doesn’t take the offer of a lift back to town from a stranger wearing faded fatigues named Killeen. He spooks her even more by warning that it is dangerous for a woman to be out alone since the Utah strangler has just dumped the body of a second woman near I-80. Then the town schoolteacher/hooker is murdered, the manuscript Frankie has been reading for her vanishes, and Frankie is sure something isn’t right in Pair-a-Dice. The problem is knowing which of the eccentrics inhabiting the town she can trust, especially after several near-fatal accidents convince Frankie that someone is after her as well. This debut thriller features vivid descriptions of the geology of the desert mountains, edgy insights into the people who chose to live there, and a protagonist with a unique viewpoint.

Bury Your DeadLouise Penny
Bury Your Dead (Minotaur 2010) finds Armand Gamache in Quebec City, recovering from the physical and emotional trauma of a recent case. While staying with his mentor, retired Superintendent Émile Comeau, Gamache spends his days researching the Battle of Quebec in the Literary and Historical Society library, which houses the books and papers of the English of Quebec. When the body of Augustin Renaud, an eccentric archaeologist who devoted his life to the search for the remains of Samuel de Champlain, Québec’s founder, is found in the basement of the library, Gamache is reluctantly drawn into the investigation as a translator between the French speaking police and English speaking library staff and board. The mistrust and animosity between Quebec’s dominant French majority and shrinking English minority is deftly portrayed, and becomes an important element in the investigation. Meanwhile, Gabri’s constant letters from Three Pines insisting that while Oliver was a thief, he was not a murderer, have created a tiny flame of doubt in Gamache, and he sends Jean Guy Beauvoir back to Three Pines to poke around a bit. Without Gamache there, Beauvoir is reluctantly forced to drop his professional detachment and actually interact with the quirky inhabitants, with surprising results. Weaving through those two investigations are flashbacks of the trauma that caused Gamache to take a leave of absence for the winter. This powerful 6th in the series was just awarded the Dilys Award and is a finalist for the Agatha Award and Barry Awards for Best Novel.

Knit One, Kill TwoMaggie Sefton
Knit One, Kill Two (2005) introduces Kelly Flynn, a corporate accountant from Washington DC, who returns to her childhood home of Ft. Connor, Colorado, to wrap up the affairs of her beloved aunt Helen, who has just been killed by an intruder. Mimi, who runs the knitting shop House of Lambspun next door, and the community of knitters who gather there, help Kelly clean Helen’s house and organize her paperwork. To distract Kelly from her troubles, the knitters help her learn to knit and welcome her into their circle. Kelly welcomes the distraction, but attacks the task of learning to knit with the same ferocity she devotes to her financial investigations. Kelly has been handling Helen’s financial affairs for years, and is shocked to find out that Helen recently signed a ruinous 2nd mortgage, and withdrew $20,000 in cash the day she was killed. Helen’s heirloom quilt, constructed with scraps of fabric from her whole life, is also missing. Convinced that the homeless drifter the police have arrested for the murder would not have been able to dispose of the money and the quilt, Kelly begins her own investigation with the help of the knitters and a retired police officer who spins wool to lower his blood pressure. The coffee-addicted Kelly is a believable amateur sleuth, and the story of her gradual adjustment to the slower pace of small town life is as involving as the murder investigation in this series opener, a finalist for the 2005 Agatha Award for Best First Novel.

Live To TellWendy Corsi Staub
Live To Tell (Avon 2010) is the story of Lauren Walsh, who believed her husband leaving her for a younger woman was the worst thing that could happen. Then her youngest daughter Sadie loses a stuffed pink rabbit named Fred during a trip to New York City. Sadie, who has been clingy since her father left, is disconsolate, so Lauren asks her ex-husband Nick to check the lost and found at Grand Central Station. Nick reluctantly makes time for the errand and picks up the wrong pink stuffed animal, which a blackmailer has temporarily left for safekeeping. Sadie is unhappy that Fred is still lost, and all three children are crushed when their father doesn’t appear for a scheduled weekend outing. By the time Lauren realizes that Nick is missing, her family is being watched by the blackmailer, waiting for the perfect moment to swoop in and reclaim the stuffed animal hiding the incriminating pictures. This suspenseful thriller was a finalist for the 2011 Mary Higgins Clark Award.

Vienna SecretsFrank Tallis
Vienna Secrets (Random House 2010, APA: Darkness Rising) finds Max Liebermann, a psychoanalyst protégée of Freud, assisting his friend Detective Inspector Oskar Reinhardt in the investigation of two brutal murders, corpses with the heads apparently torn from the bodies and left by statues commemorating the heroes of the plague. Max and Oskar are amazed that the murders took place in such public places with no notice, and puzzled by the sticky mud at the scenes. When both victims are linked to an anti-Semitic group, Max, a non-observant Jew, visits a charismatic Hasidic rabbi who sends him off to Prague to learn about Rabbi Loew’s fabled golem, the defender of the Jews of Prague. Meanwhile, Max finds his career threatened when he offends a priest at the hospital, who contacts the hospital board and asks for Max’s removal. The food and music of 1903 Vienna provide a rich background to the period details of forensic investigation, while the tendrils of anti-Semitism slowly spread and threaten to destroy Max’s beloved way of life. This gripping 4th in the series was a finalist for the 2011 Edgar Award for Best Paperback.

May Word Cloud

June 1, 2011

The Thief Who Couldn’t SleepLawrence Block
The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep (1966) introduces Evan Tanner, who hasn’t slept for 16 years, ever since a war injury destroyed the sleep center in his brain. Tanner receives 112 dollars a month in disability and supports himself by writing doctoral dissertations and master’s theses, along with an occasional examination. Tanner uses his extra time to read, learn languages, and amuses himself by joining hundreds of international organizations like the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Macedonian Friendship League. This quiet life is disturbed when Tanner is convinced by a new friend to come and talk with her grandmother, who rarely gets the chance to converse in Armenian. The grandmother tells Tanner a fantastic tale of a huge cache of Armenian gold, hidden from the Turks in a cellar in Balikesir. The city was destroyed by the Turks, and, as far as Tanner can discover, the gold was never found. Unfortunately Tanner is arrested in Istanbul, accused of being a CIA agent (because of his membership in several subversive organizations) and deported. Escaping from his Turkish escort in the Shannon airport, Tanner uses his contacts from his lost cause organizations to flee across Europe back to Turkey. This clever comic caper novel is the first in a series of eight books.

Nights of the Red MoonMilton T. Burton
Nights of the Red Moon (Minotaur 2010) introduces Beauregard (Bo) Handel, a 30-year veteran sheriff of rural Caddo County, Texas. Bo is used to a fairly quiet small town work routine, but that all changes when the body of Amanda Twiller is dumped in front of her husband’s church. Bo is sure Reverend Bobby Joe Twiller isn’t the killer, and that the murder took place elsewhere. Leaving her body on the church lawn must be some kind of message since Amanda, who was addicted to prescription drugs, left her husband several months earlier. Two FBI agents unexpectedly appear at the scene and inform Bo that Amanda was having an affair with Emmet Zorn, the owner of a local liquor store. The FBI agents suspect that Zorn has something to do with drug running and may be connected to a Houston mobster. But no one has a clue where Amanda fits in or who killed her, though Bo certainly likes Zorn for the role. Bo is an engaging and complex protagonist, a crack shot with a quick wit and a tendency to run his investigation a fair bit outside the rule book. The east Texas setting, featuring the red moon of late summer and the dust of a three-month drought, provides a vivid background for this mystery, hopefully first in a series.

The Red Velvet TurnshoeCassandra Clark
The Red Velvet Turnshoe (Minotaur 2009) finds Sister Hildegard on her way to Italy on a secret mission in search of a precious relic, the cross of Constantine, which is believed to hold great power. Disguised as a pilgrim, Hildegard begins her journey with a guarded shipment of wool from Yorkshire. When the ship docks in Flanders, the decomposing body of a clerk is found hidden in a bale of wool. Pierrekyn, the clerk’s protegée and the last person seen in his company, is suspected of the murder, and Hildegard takes him with her to escape the mob clamoring for his head. Protected by a tournament knight, who works as a body guard in the off season, Hildegard and Pierrekyn begin an arduous trek across the Alps in the dead of winter in search of the cross. It’s dangerous in 1383: murderous thieves prey on travelers, England is in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War, Europe is divided between rival popes, and the Black Death is claiming new victims every day. The political intrigue leaves Hildegard unsure whom she can trust, especially after someone tries to kill her, but she is determined to complete her quest and clear Pierrekyn’s name. This compelling historical mystery is the 2nd in the series.

Earthly DelightsKerry Greenwood
Earthly Delights (Australia 2004, Poisoned Pen 2007) introduces Corrina Chapman, a former banker now running a bakery called Earthly Delights on the ground floor of an eccentric building in Melbourne, Australia. The 8-story 16-apartment building, called the Insula, is built on the Roman model with a shared roof garden and lobby fish pond. Fellow Insula inhabitants are Meroe, a witch with a shop called The Sibyl’s Cave; two anorexic would-be soap opera stars who help Corrina in the bakery; Dionysius Monk, a retired classics professor; and Mistress Dread, a dominatrix of uncertain gender who runs a leather shop. At dawn one morning, when Corrina lets the Mouse Patrol cats out the back door, she discovers a young woman nearly dead from a drug overdose. Daniel Cohen, the handsome driver of the soup van serving the homeless, helps calm the girl down after the paramedics administer Narcan to neutralize the heroin and then charms Corrina into donating bread. When more addicts fall victim to overdoses in the next few days, Daniel convinces Corrina to help him infiltrate a Goth/Vampire Club that is preying on the homeless community. This engaging series opener was a finalist for the 2004 Ned Kelly Award for Best Novel.

These Things HiddenHeather Gudenkauf
These Things Hidden (Mira 2011) opens with the release of Allison Glenn from prison to a half-way house in her hometown of Linden Falls, Iowa. Now 21, Allison has served five years of a 10-year sentence for a crime so horrible that neither her parents nor younger sister will speak to her. Formerly the family’s “golden girl,” both a star student and athlete with a bright future ahead, Allison is now penniless and alone, except for the support of her lawyer and the woman running the half-way house. Allison finds the burden of her past and her family’s rejection almost too much to bear until Claire, the owner of a bookstore who gives her a job, welcomes her with kindness. There Allison meets Claire’s adopted five-year-old son Joshua and the past explodes into the present. This chilling yet compassionate story of love and loss is narrated from four different viewpoints: Allison, her sister Brynn, Claire, and Charm, a nurse-in-training who cares for her dying step-father and once cared for Joshua. The events that led to Allison’s conviction five years earlier are revealed with tantalizing leisure in this beautifully written novel of psychological suspense.

After the Armistice BallCatriona McPherson
After the Armistice Ball (2005) introduces Dandy (Dandelion) Gilver, a well-to-do woman in 1922 Scotland. Dandy is at loose ends with her two boys away at school, so when a friend asks Dandy to help figure out what happened to the Duffy diamonds, which Lena Duffy insists went missing at the annual Armistice Ball at Daisy Esslemont’s country estate, Dandy leaps at the chance to add some excitement to her life. Lena Duffy is adamant that the heirloom diamonds were replaced with paste copies at the Ball, and demands compensation from the Esslemonts, threatening a public scandal to the dismay of the extremely proper Silas Esslemont. Then the Duffy’s youngest daughter dies in a fire at their seaside cottage, forcing Dandy to the realization that the investigation is more serious than she expected. Dandy is a natural sleuth, able to weasel information out of the most prickly witnesses without spooking them, reading nuances and spotting evasions easily, and pursuing her investigation with single-minded determination. The leisurely pace of the novel allows plenty of time to enjoy Dandy’s narration as she gradually puts all the pieces together. This light-hearted and lively debut novel was a finalist for the 2005 Historical Dagger Award.

The SherlockianGraham Moore
The Sherlockian (Twelve 2010, APA: The Holmes Affair) begins in 1893 with Arthur Conan Doyle trying to decide how to kill off Sherlock Holmes, the character who has taken over his life. The next chapter moves to 2010, where Harold White, a researcher who gathers evidence to defend Hollywood studios against copyright infringement, is being inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars at their annual gathering in New York City. The highlight of the event is to be the presentation by scholar Alex Cale, who has discovered the long lost 1900 diary of Arthur Conan Doyle. But Cole is murdered before his presentation, the diary is missing, and clues in the hotel room point to someone with a thorough knowledge of the Sherlock Holmes canon. Meanwhile, in 1900, seven years after Arthur killed Holmes, he receives a letter bomb and begins an investigation, with the help of Bram Stoker serving as his loyal Watson, which leads Arthur to believe there may be a killer preying on young women. The police allow Arthur to view the crime scenes, treating him as if he has his character’s powers of observation, while the populace at large still mourns the death of Holmes. Back in the present, Doyle’s great-grandson hires Harold to solve the murder and find the missing diary, following clues that lead him to London with a spritely reporter named Sarah acting as his Watson. This clever and captivating debut mystery is a finalist for the 2011 Anthony and Barry awards for Best First Novel.

Bruno, Chief of PoliceMartin Walker
Bruno, Chief of Police (2008) introduces Benoît “Bruno” Courrèges, Chief of Police of St. Denis, in the Périgord region of southwestern France. A former soldier, Bruno has settled into small town life in his restored cottage. Bruno has a gun but leaves it in his car, instead visiting the weekly market, brewing the local walnut wine called vin de noix, and giving tennis lessons to children. Bruno’s biggest challenge is preventing the European Union food inspectors from arresting locals from selling unapproved homemade food and drink. This bucolic life is disturbed when an old Algerian man who fought in the French army is murdered, a swastika carved into his chest. Police from Paris arrive to take over the investigation, focusing on militants from the anti-immigrant National Front, but Bruno’s local knowledge and connections prove vital in uncovering the truth. Bruno’s investigation proceeds at the relaxed pace he lives his life, with frequent breaks to enjoy food and drink and friends, in this enjoyable series opener, a finalist for the 2009 Barry Award for Best British Crime Novel.

Naming the BonesLouise Welsh
Naming the Bones (Felony & Mayhem 2011) is the story of Murray Watson, a Glasgow English professor on a year-long sabbatical to write the book he’s been longing to write for most of his life, the biography of little-known poet Archie Lunan. The discovery at the age of 16 of a slim volume of Lunan’s poems in a second-hand bookstore precipitated Murray’s enchantment with the poet. But since Lunan only published one volume of poems before dying in a sailing accident, he never achieved the fame Murray believes he deserves. Murray’s life hasn’t been too successful either. He’s been drinking too much, is estranged from his only brother, and Rachel, the wife of his department chair Fergus Baine, has just ended their rather sordid affair. Murray hopes that his biography of Lunan will resurrect both Lunan’s reputation and his own, but Fergus thinks Murray is wasting his time, that one volume of Lunan poems was more than enough. Murray travels to the island of Lismore, where Lunan met his death, hoping that Lunan’s reclusive wife Christie will agree to see him, and that she can supplement the meager cardboard box of Lunan’s scraps of paper that forms the entire basis for the book. Unfortunately, Christie refuses to meet with Murray, and his life begins to disintegrate even further into depression and hopelessness. Beautifully written, this literary thriller gradually unveils the truth of Lunan’s life as it explores the relationship between the life of an artist and the art itself.

Damnation FallsEdward Wright
Damnation Falls (Minotaur 2007) is the story of Randall Wilkes, a disgraced Chicago newspaper columnist who returns to his hometown of Pilgrim’s Rest, Tennessee, to ghost write the autobiography of Sonny McMahon, the former governor and his boyhood friend. Randall suspects that Sonny, now organizing an investment group, is poised to re-enter politics, but is convinced by a fat paycheck to take the job. In Pilgrim’s Rest, Randall discovers that his father, Forrest Wilkes, a famous Civil War scholar, has been chosen by Sonny to curate the proposed Cumberland Memorial Park and Civil War Study Center. Enthusiasm for the Center has been building since the recent discovery of two Civil War era skeletons, lending credence to the mysterious town “Burning” legend. Randall begins his interviews with Sonny’s mother Faye, who fades in and out of coherence. Faye rambles about her husband, who disappeared years earlier, and bones buried in the wrong place. That night Faye and her caregiver are murdered, causing Randall to suspect that Faye’s talk of old crimes may be true after all. Randall’s own past emerges as he traces threads from the present back through the history of Pilgrim’s Rest in this powerful novel, finalist for a 2008 Barry Award.

June Word Cloud

July 1, 2011

Hotel BosphorusEsmahan Aykol
Hotel Bosphorus (Bitter Lemon 2011) introduces Kati Hirschel, the 30-something German owner of the only crime bookshop in Istanbul, Turkey. Kati spent the first seven and last 13 years of her life in Istanbul, is almost accepted as a native, and can’t imagine living anywhere else. She has her groceries delivered to her apartment via a basket lowered from the window, and isn’t ready to face the day before three or four cups of Turkish coffee leisurely consumed on the balcony. When her old school friend Petra, a star of the German cinema, phones to say she will be filming in Istanbul, Kati is delighted to act as tour guide. Then the director of the film is murdered in his hotel room and Petra is the prime suspect. Kati can’t restrain herself from starting her own investigation based on the tricks and tips she has picked up by reading crime fiction. Kati is a delightful narrator: enthusiastic, independent, witty, and always on the lookout for a handsome man. Brimming with a humorous perspective on Turkish culture, politics, corruption, and prejudices against foreigners, this first in a series, published in 2001 in Turkey, is the debut novel by a young Turkish journalist who divides her time between Istanbul and Berlin.

The Damage DoneHilary Davidson
The Damage Done (Forge 2010) introduces Lily Moore, a travel journalist who has been working on travel guides in Spain for the past year. Lilly is called back to New York City when the body of her younger sister Claudia, a recovering heroin addict who has been living in Lily’s apartment, is found drowned in the bathtub on the anniversary of their mother’s suicide. Lily can’t believe that Claudia killed herself and tries to convince the police on the way to the morgue to identify the body. When she discovers that the body doesn’t have Claudia’s tattoos and heroin tracks, Lily is convinced that it isn’t Claudia, that a look-alike has been impersonating her sister for months. Ashamed of her own inability to live with her sister, and worried that the NYPD detectives assigned to the case don’t believe the body isn’t Claudia, Lily begins her own investigation into her sister’s disappearance. Her prime suspects are Tariq Lawrence, Claudia’s wealthy ex-lover and best friend; Martin Sklar, a real-estate magnate and Lily’s own ex-fiancé; or perhaps one of Claudia’s drug contacts. This twisty-plotted suspense thriller paints a compelling portrait of dysfunctional family love, and is a finalist for the Arthur Ellis, Anthony, and Macavity awards for Best First Novel.

The Other Side of the DoorNicci French
The Other Side of the Door (Minotaur 2010, APA Complicit 2009) is the story of Bonnie Graham, a music teacher in London. The novel opens with Bonnie confronting a dead body in her friend Liza’s apartment. She calls her friend Sonia for help, and the two decide to dispose of the body and remove all traces of the murder from the apartment. But Bonnie can’t find her leather satchel and other items she remembers leaving behind on her last visit to the apartment. Has someone else also tried to remove evidence from the crime scene? Interspersed with this “After” narration is Bonnie’s “Before” narration, telling the story of that hot summer she spent gathering old and new acquaintances together to form a band to play for a wedding. The most interesting band member to Bonnie is Hayden, a professional musician whose talent outstrips the rest of the band. Hayden charms Bonnie into a summer fling while offending the rest of the band by criticizing their musicality. The two timelines converge with tantalizing hints of lies and deception in this mesmerizing psychological thriller.

The Hanging TreeBryan Gruley
The Hanging Tree (2010) finds disgraced Detroit reporter Gus Carpenter determined to get some real reporting into the weekly Starvation Lake newspaper, to the dismay of Philo Beech, nephew of the new owner. Gus is sure there is something fishy about Laird Haskell’s offer to build a new hockey rink for the town’s beloved River Rats team, but neither the town nor Gus’s boss want to hear anything negative. Haskell relocated to Starvation Lake so that his son Taylor could become the star goalie, but Gus fears that Haskell is overextended and the town will end up on the hook for the new rink. Then Gus’s wild and crazy cousin Gracie McBride, recently returned from 18 years in Detroit, is found hanging in the shoe tree. Gracie invented the tradition of tossing two shoes tied together into the tree back in high school, and now the tree is full of mismatched pairs marking romantic commitments. Gus never got along well with Gracie and hasn’t seen much of her for years, but he’s sure she wouldn’t commit suicide. Plus Gracie was the best friend of Gus’s girlfriend, deputy Darlene Esper, and was dating his oldest friend and hockey teammate Soupy Campbell. Convinced that whatever happened to Gracie is linked to the time she spent in away from Starvation Lake, Gus returns to Detroit where he discovers that Gracie’s secrets are linked to some very powerful and dangerous men. While Gus continues to try to find his place in his old home town, Philo Beech makes a slow transformation from a prissy ad salesmen to the verge of becoming a real journalist. The importance of old friends, family, and especially hockey in a town that doesn’t have much else is deftly portrayed in this second in the series, a finalist for the 2011 Anthony and Barry Awards for Best Paperback Original.

Drink the TeaThomas Kaufman
Drink the Tea (Minotaur 2010) introduces Willis Gidney, a smart-mouthed former foster child and scam-artist, now trying to establish himself as a private investigator in Washington, DC. Steps Jackson, a jazz saxophonist, asks Willis to find the grown daughter he just discovered existed. The only clue is that someone overheard someone mentioning that he went to school with Steps Jackson’s daughter. Willis doesn’t even have a name, but Steps is fairly sure when the child would have been conceived 25 years earlier, so Willis agrees to take on what he fears will be a futile search. The investigation soon attracts the attention of an ambitious right-wing politician and the thugs working at his private security firm. The politician tries to buy Willis off, and the thugs try to scare him off, but Willis is determined to see the search through for his old friend Steps. With the help of a beautiful hacker, Willis discovers connections between the congressman and a ruthless international corporation only too willing to dispose of anyone who might endanger their profitable and illegal business. Willis’s past as an abandoned child, and his relationship with police captain Shadrack Davies who helped mold his ethics, is slowly revealed throughout this fast-paced debut novel, a finalist for the 2011 Thriller Award for Best First Novel.

The Good SonRussel D. McLean
The Good Son (2008) introduces J. McNee, a former cop now working as a private investigator in Dundee, Scotland. McNee is tortured by the death of his wife and estranged from her father who blames him for the car accident that killed his daughter a year earlier. McNee’s injured leg has never recovered, though the doctors can find no physical reason for his continued limp and pain. McNee reluctantly takes up an investigation for local farmer James Robertson, whose brother Daniel returned home for the first time in 30 years to hang himself from a tree. James tells McNee that he needs to understand his brother’s motivation, and McNee discovers that Daniel has been working as an enforcer for Gordon Egg, a London gangster turned club owner. The combination of McNee’s personal demons and the violence he incites by provoking Egg’s thugs makes for an exciting debut noir novel, a finalist for the 2010 Shamus Award for Best First Novel. The Lost Sister, 2nd in the series, was recently released in the US.

the Baker Street LettersMichael Robertson
The Baker Street Letters (Minotaur 2009) introduces Reggie Heath, a high-powered London solicitor whose new suite of rooms includes 221B Baker Street. A clause in the lease requires the tenant to answer all letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes with a form response. Reggie’s younger brother Nigel, recently released from a “health and recreation center” is given the task of responding to the letters while waiting for a hearing about restoring his solicitor’s license. In the process, Nigel discovers a letter written 20 years earlier by 8-year-old Mara Ramiriz from Los Angeles, asking Sherlock Holmes to find her missing father. Two recent letters, supposedly from the same author, request the return of documents enclosed with the original letter. Nigel, using his burgeoning Sherlockian powers of observation, notices that the signature is exactly the same as the first letter, strangely without the normal changes two decades makes in a signature. When Nigel doesn’t show up for his hearing as expected, Reggie discovers that Nigel has departed for Los Angeles, leaving a dead body in his ransacked office. The file of letters to Sherlock Holmes is also missing. Reggie follows Nigel to California, and discovers that a series of current crimes may be linked to the letter Mara wrote to Sherlock Holmes 20 years before. This light-hearted debut novel is a promising series start, followed by The Brothers of Baker Street, released in March.

The Rhetoric of DeathJudith Rock
The Rhetoric of Death (Berkley 2010) introduces Charles Matthieu Beuvron du Luc, on the path to become a Jesuit priest after a shoulder wound ended his army career. Louis XIV has revoked the Edict of Nantes, denying freedom from persecution to French Protestants, known as Huguenots, and declaring those who help them guilty of treason. When his cousin, the Bishop of Marseilles, learns that Charles has helped his Huguenot cousin Pernelle escape to Geneva, the bishop sends Charles from Provençal to Paris to serve as a teacher of rhetoric at the Jesuit College of Louis le Grand. In 1868 France, the study of rhetoric, the art of communication, included instruction in Latin and French as well as in ballet, and Charles arrives at the school a mere two weeks before the annual ballet and tragedy production. He is quickly caught up in the production, a ballet based on the The Labors of Hercules in which Hercules (representing King Louis XIV) subdues the evil Huguenots. During the rehearsal, Père Joseph Jouvancy squabbles with ballet director Pierre Beauchamps over a chiming clock headdress that threatens to topple the dancer, and student Philippe Douté vanishes through the window. Charles chases the fleeing boy, but can’t catch him. The next day, Philippe’s younger brother Antoine is nearly killed by a man on a horse, and Charles suspects that someone is targeting the family. While trying to protect Antoine, Charles struggles with his vocation, his forbidden love for Pernelle, and fights against rumors that Charles is both a heretic and a murderer spread by Guise, a powerful Jesuit and confessor to the royal family. This fascinating historical thriller is a finalist for the 2011 Barry Award for Best Paperback Original.

Expiration DateDuane Swierczynski
Expiration Date (Minotaur 2010) is the story of Mickey Wade, a recently unemployed journalist who moves into his grandfather’s apartment in the old Philadelphia neighborhood where Mickey grew up, the very place he was so eager to escape from. Mickey’s grandpop is in the hospital, so the rundown apartment is available and free, an important factor to Mickey, who has only enough money to afford peanut butter, apples, and very cheap beer. After too much to drink one night, Mickey gulps down some pills from an old Tylenol bottle, and wakes up to find himself back in 1972, the year of his birth, in a doctor’s office that he realizes will become his grandfather’s apartment. After some experimentation, Mickey figures out that he is mostly invisible, and sets off in search of his father, who was killed when Mickey was a young child. The one person who is able to see Mickey is a 12-year-old neglected boy in the ground floor apartment. Eventually Mickey decides to try and change the past to prevent his father’s early death, with unexpected ripples of change through time. This noir fantasy thriller, finalist for the Edgar and Anthony awards for Best Paperback Original, is compulsively readable.

Murder on Astor PlaceVictoria Thompson
Murder on Astor Place (1999) introduces Sarah Brandt, a young widow estranged from her wealthy family and working as a midwife. While trying to visit one of her patients, Sarah discovers that a young boarder at the rooming house has been murdered. Sergeant Frank Malloy, annoyed by her persistence, asks Sarah to help examine the young woman’s clothing for clues to her identity. Sarah discovers a medical implement used by abortionists as well as the girl’s name, Alicia VanDamm, embroidered inside a garment. It’s 1895, and Teddy Roosevelt has recently been appointed president of the board of New York City Police Commissioners, tasked with reforming the most corrupt police force in the country. Knowing that the police won’t investigate the murder without a reward, Sarah visits the VanDamms to encourage them to post one, and is surprised that neither the father nor Alicia’s older sister Mina show any signs of grief, though they are concerned about the missing jewelry Alicia took when she ran away from home. Convinced that no one else cares, Sarah decides to bring Alicia’s killer to justice herself, and begins asking questions and reporting her findings to Malloy, who reluctantly begins his own investigation. Then Cornelius VanDamm, concerned about protecting the family reputation, demands that the investigation be closed and Malloy is taken off the case. By this time Malloy is hooked, and joins forces with Sarah to uncover the truth, swayed by her insistence that Roosevelt will reward honest policemen. The plight of women and the poor in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City is presented with sensitivity in this absorbing debut historical mystery. Murder on Sisters’ Row, 13th in the series, was released in June.

July Word Cloud

August 1, 2011

The Darling DahliasSusan Wittig Albert
The Darling Dahlias and the Cucumber Tree (Berkley 2010) introduces the ladies of the Darling Dahlias Garden Club in fictional Darling, Alabama. It’s 1930, and the club has just inherited an old estate to use as their clubhouse. The garden of the estate includes a possibly haunted cucumber tree (a type of magnolia with fruit resembling tiny red cucumbers) and perhaps a treasure buried during the Civil War. The Dahlias are dedicated to beautifying their town and sharing tips to help each other survive the hard economic times. When a friend disappears after a prison break, they worry that the two incidents are connected. Then rumors about trouble at the bank begin to circulate and one of the club members, a teller at the bank, is accused of embezzlement. Lizzy Lacy, club president and legal secretary, Verna Tidwell, club treasurer and secretary to the county probate clerk, and Ophelia Snow, club vice president and wife of the mayor, join forces to find the missing girl and figure out what is really happening at the bank. Narrated from all three perspectives, this cozy mystery, first in a new series, weaves period details seamlessly into the story of three delightful amateur sleuths and fanatic gardeners.

Gutshot StraightLou Berney
Gutshot Straight (William Morrow 2010) is the story of 42-year-old Shake Bouchon, a professional wheelman who walks out of prison after a three-year sentence for grand theft auto determined to change his life and become a chef. Then Alexandra “Lexy” Ilandryan, a powerful Armenian mob boss in Los Angeles, offers him a simple errand, driving a car to Las Vegas and flying back with a briefcase, and a hefty stake toward opening his restaurant. Shake can’t resist and all goes well until thumping from the trunk of the car alerts him to the fact that he is really delivering a trussed young woman to the very unpleasant Las Vegas gambling kingpin Dick “The Whale” Moby. Shake impulsively decides to releases Gina Clement, who claims to be a Mormon stay-at-home mom married to a gambler who can’t pay his debts, and everything spins wildly out of control. Totally confused whether Gina is a friend or foe, Shake is soon on the run from Moby’s dangerous former pro-football enforcer and Lexy’s even scarier Armenian thug, who is crazed by erectile super-function. This action-packed humorous caper novel, packed with vivid characters, snappy dialog, sexual tension, and a twisty plot, is a finalist for the 2011 Barry Award for Best First Novel.

Out of the Dawn LightAlys Clare
Out of the Dawn Light (Severn House 2009) introduces Lassair, a 14-year-old girl in a Fenland village in 1087 England. Lassair has the gift of finding lost objects and dowsing for water, and is in training with her aunt to be a healer. But Lassair has more important things on her mind — will her friend Sibert ask her to dance even though her womanly shape refuses to emerge? William Rufus has just taken the throne after the death of William the Conqueror, and the common people are not happy with the harsh new regime. Lassair’s father is hard pressed to support his large family and comply with the demands of the Norman overlord. When Lassair’s older sister Goda, who delights in making everyone miserable, becomes pregnant with her first child, Lassair is sent to care for her. Sneaking out for the Midsummer Night festival, Lassair meets Romain, an attractive and wealthy stranger, who convinces her to set off on a quest with Sibert to find a mysterious object on the coast. Eager to escape Goda’s demands for a few days, and to finally see the ocean, Lassair agrees, though neither Romain nor Sibert will tell her anything about the object they are searching for. Treachery, murder, and the clash between the pagan gods and Christianity enliven this first in a series.

The Worst ThingAaron Elkins
The Worst Thing (Berkley 2011) is the story of Brian Bennett, a successful designer of hostage negotiation programs. Brian was abducted as a five-year-old child, and imprisoned in appalling conditions for nearly two months. Though he suffers from claustrophobia, Brian is able to live a fairly normal life with the help of Xanax to control his panic attacks and nightmares. After an intense panic attack in the midst of a hostage negotiation, Brian retired from field work and began creating training programs for other negotiators. Then his boss asks him to fly to Reykjavik, Iceland, to teach his kidnapping seminar at GlobalSeas Fisheries, and sweetens the deal by offering to pay for his wife Lori a marine biologist, to accompany him. Brian hasn’t been on a plane in years, even cars make him nervous, but he reluctantly agrees for Lori’s sake. Before leaving, he consults a psychologist who tells him that the only way to break the panic attack cycle is to confront his fears head-on, without the support of Xanax. Brian agrees to begin as soon as he returns from Iceland. But when the CEO of GlobalSeas is kidnapped, Brian finds himself back in the hostage negotiating hot seat, unsure of his ability to handle the pressure. An engaging protagonist, Brian’s first-person narration makes his panic attacks all too real. This fast-paced psychological thriller, marred slightly by an unnecessary final plot twist, is a compelling look at abduction and the confrontation of terror on a very personal level.

The Ninth DaughterBarbara Hamilton (Barbara Hambly pseudonym)
The Ninth Daughter (Berkley 2009) introduces Abigail Adams, the future first lady, who discovers a body covered with blood in the home of her friend Rebecca Malvern, who is missing. When Abigail finds papers linking Rebecca with the Sons of Liberty, a secret organization opposing the Crown, she calls in Sam Adams and Paul Revere to remove any incriminating evidence. Unfortunately they also clean up the murder scene, making identification of the killer difficult. When official suspicion falls on Abigail’s husband John, she sets out to clear his name, and to find Rebecca. In 1773 Boston opposition to the English crown is growing, and it is dangerous for the English investigators to enter certain parts of town. Abigail agrees to question those who won’t talk to the English soldiers, hoping that she can uncover the truth. This fascinating historical mystery featuring the rebels of Massachusetts Colony, takes place against the background of the hard and never-ending daily work done by colonial women. What with keeping the children from falling into the fire, doing the daily marketing, cleaning, and cooking, Abigail is hard pressed to find the time to find her friend and clear her husband’s name.

Front Page TeaserRosemary Herbert
Front Page Teaser (Down East Books 2010) introduces Liz Higgins, a reporter for The Beantown Banner, a tabloid in Boston, Massachusetts. Liz longs to be a hard news reporter, but is assigned to features like rating seven mall Santas by 8-year-old Veronica Johansson. It’s late December 2000, and while Liz is covering the mayor’s attempt to connect to Jewish voters at Christmastime, Veronica runs from her nearby house screaming that her kitchen is covered with blood. Liz and a policeman, who believes Liz is a family friend, take Veronica home and discover that Veronica’s mother Ellen is missing. While the police investigate the bloody kitchen, Liz calms Veronica down by taking notes on her memories of her mother in recent days. Veronica tells Liz that her mother was excited about her recent visit to New York City, where she met an Israeli pen pal from childhood for lunch at the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. Liz promises Veronica she will find her mother, and follows the advice of author Mary Higgins Clark to look for the domestic details the police might miss. With the help of a Banner photographer and Dr. Cormac Kinnaird, a forensic pathologist and wannabe banjo player, Liz pursues the story of the missing housewife and her dream of finally making the front page of the paper. A puzzling list of Ellen’s library books suggests that Ellen may have left voluntarily, but Liz can’t believe she would have deserted her daughter. Then a taxi receipt leads to a New York City taxi driver of middle eastern extraction, who went missing around the same time as Ellen. The looming date of 9/11 adds tension to this entertaining debut mystery.

Mind’s EyeHåkan Nesser
Mind’s Eye (English 2008, Swedish 1993) introduces Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, a veteran of 30 years of police work, in a country that resembles Sweden. Van Veeteren is working on a case that seems open-and-shut. Janek Mitter is charged with the murder of his wife, who he found dead one morning, facedown in the bathtub of their locked apartment. Mitter admits he was in an alcoholic coma the night before and can’t remember much, but he’s pretty sure he didn’t murder his wife. Unfortunately he clearly remembers the door being locked when he woke up in the morning, and there are no other suspects. Van Veeteren has doubts, but Mitter is convicted and imprisoned in a mental institution. When Mitter later is murdered himself, Van Veeteren is sure he was innocent of the earlier crime, and re-opens the investigation. Van Veeteren is an engaging protagonist, humble about the intuition that has allowed him to solve so many cases, and fanatical about triumphing over his colleague Münster at badminton. Subtle humor enlivens this debut police procedural, awarded the 1993 Swedish Crime Writers’ Prize for new authors.

To Sketch a ThiefSharon Pape
To Sketch a Thief (Berkley Prime Crime 2011) finds Rory (Aurora) McCain, a former police sketch artist and now a private detective, adjusting to sharing a house in Huntington, Long Island, New York, with the ghost of Federal Marshal Zeke (Ezekiel) Drummond, who died in her Victorian house in 1878. Zeke is determined to find out who killed him, and why, and Rory is willing to help, though she wishes the lawman would stop giving her so much advice about her own cases. While returning a lovable stray mutt named Hobo to the address on his tags, Rory discovers the murdered body of his owner, Brenda Hartley. The only thing missing from the house is Tootsie, Brenda’s show quality Maltese. Sure that Tootsie is a victim of a dognapping ring that snatched two of her own dogs, Tina Kovack, the dog breeder who sold Tootsie to Brenda, hires Rory to find the missing dog. Unwilling to give Hobo over to the animal shelter, Rory takes him home, to the dismay of Zeke, who isn’t fond of dogs, and Hobo himself, who reacts to the ghost with horror. Occasional flashbacks to Zeke’s pursuit of a man killing young girls in 1878, are interspersed with the current investigation. Zeke is determined to learn to materialize outside the house in order to be of more help to Rory, which spooks Hobo even more. The good natured squabbling between Zeke and Rory, who are equally strong willed and convinced of the rightness of their own opinions, adds spice to this cosy mystery, the 2nd in the Portrait of Crime series.

Three SecondsRoslund-Hellström
Three Seconds (Silveroak 2010, Swedish 2009) is the 5th in the series featuring Ewert Grens, a detective inspector in Stockholm, Sweden. Grens is mourning the recent death of Anni, the love of his life, who has been institutionalized after an accident for many years. The news that a drug dealer has been executed is a welcome distraction from his depression. What Grens doesn’t know is that Piet Hoffmann, an informer for the police, was present at the murder. Piet’s handler Erik Wilson, whose office is right down the hall from Grens, is preparing Piet to infiltrate the Swedish prison system and break the control of Wojtec, an Eastern European mafia group poised to take over the prison drug supply. Piet, who was recruited during his last prison sentence, now has a wife and two young sons and hopes that completing this undercover mission will free him from his obligation to Wilson. Meanwhile, Grens can’t figure out why he can’t get anywhere with his murder investigation, and why his superiors are so anxious to close the investigation. Told from both the perspective of Piet and the police, this dark and compelling thriller just won the International Dagger Award and is a finalist for a Barry Award.

The Holy ThiefWilliam Ryan
The Holy Thief (Minotaur 2010) introduces Captain Alexei Korolev of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Militia. It’s 1936, and Korolev’s successful case resolution record has earned him his own room in a shared apartment and a feeling of security. Then the mutilated body of a young woman is found in the former sacristy of a deconsecrated church. Korolev is asked to investigate, but when he discovers that the dead woman was an American citizen, the NKVD, the feared state security department, begins to scrutinize his every move. Korolev knows that even a slight misstep or hint of disloyalty will result in his banishment to the Zone, the often fatal camp and prison system for criminal and political offenders. The discovery of a second tortured body bearing distinctive prison tattoos, leads Korolev to Count Kolya, the head of the Thieves who run Moscow’s underworld. Their uneasy alliance provides Korolev with information about a missing and very valuable icon, and the suspicion that someone very powerful is involved with the theft. Unsure who he can trust, Korolev pursues the trail of the icon and endangers his own life and career. A secret believer, Korolev hides his Bible under the floorboard of his room and struggles with the conflict between his conscience and his loyalty to the party. This compelling historical debut novel is a finalist for the Barry Award for Best First Novel and the New Blood Dagger Award.

August Word Cloud

September 1, 2011

Open SeasonC.J. Box
Open Season (Putnam 2001) introduces Joe Pickett, the new game warden of Twelve Sleep County in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. Joe loves his job, but supporting a pregnant wife and two children on a warden’s salary is difficult. Joe is also struggling to live up to the reputation of the previous warden, his mentor Vern Dunnegan, who has retired and taken a high paying job with a natural gas company constructing a pipeline through Wyoming. And Joe is prone to boneheaded mistakes, like ticketing the governor for fishing without a license and letting a poacher grab the sidearm right off his hip. When that same poacher gallops into Joe’s cabin late one night, and dies in the woodpile from bullet wounds, the Pickett family’s peaceful life changes. Joe finds an empty cooler next to the body, and the fur and scat inside lead him to believe the poacher was transporting an animal. Joe’s seven-year-old daughter Sheridan spies the creature in the woodpile, long and tan and lightning fast, and decides to adopt it as her secret pet. Joe’s investigation into the death of the poacher and the identity of the missing animal antagonizes all sorts of powerful people and puts his job and family in jeopardy. Despite his occasional bumbling, Joe is intelligent and determined, and his innate integrity won’t allow him to let things alone, despite some powerful inducements to do so. This compelling debut thriller won the 2002 Anthony and Barry Awards for Best First Novel, and was a finalist for the Edgar and Macavity Awards.

Killed at the Whim of a HatColin Cotterill
Killed at the Whim of a Hat (Minotaur 2011) introduces Jimm Juree, an ambitious young crime reporter for the Thailand Chiang Mai Daily Mail. Jimm is sure she is going to be promoted to senior crime writer any moment now, and is content living with her family in the home they’ve had for generations, running a small shop next to the university. But then her mother, perhaps suffering from early dementia, suddenly sells the house and shop and tells the family she has invested in a lovely resort hotel in the rural south. Jimm’s older sister Sissi (formerly her older brother Somkiet), refuses to leave her computer consulting business, but the rest of the family — Jimm’s monosyllabic grandfather and body-building brother — feel they have no choice but to relocate and try to make a go of the run-down bed and breakfast in Pak Nam. Jimm is sure her career is over, until the discovery of a VW van buried in a local farmer’s palm field and containing the skeletal remains of a young couple gives her something to investigate. While working on that story, a visiting abbot at the local Buddhist temple is murdered, and Jimm is convinced she can use the death to make it back into the reporting business. Working with Police Lieutenant Chompu, Thailand’s gayest policeman, Jimm is determined to prove that the temple’s monk and nun are innocent of the crime. Jimm is a hilarious narrator, giving a running commentary on her lack of love life and making snarky comments about the locals, while trying to come to terms with her new rural existence. While at university, Jimm was assigned the speeches of George W. Bush to analyze, and each chapter begins with a quote that almost makes sense: “And free societies will be allies against these hateful few who have no conscience, who kill at the whim of a hat.” This subtly absurd series debut is a winner.

The Merlot MurdersEllen Crosby
The Merlot Murders (Scribner 2006) introduces Lucie Montgomery, returning to her family’s winery in Virginia after the sudden death of her father. Leland Montgomery was killed in a hunting accident, and some believe it might have been suicide because of his debts. But Lucie’s godfather Fitzhugh Pico, a partner in the winery, is convinced that it was murder. Lucie has been recuperating from a car accident for a year in France, and is finally able to walk again, but only with the support of a cane. Lucie is determined to keep the land and winery in the family, as it has been for over 200 years, but Lucie’s two siblings are eager to sell the family home and winery. Her brother Eli is obsessed with supporting his pregnant wife in high style, and her rebellious younger sister Mia has no interest in tradition. Quinn Santori, the new winemaker and viticulturist, isn’t thrilled to have Lucie interfering in the fall harvest, and her friends and family are doubtful that Lucie can handle the physical effort of running a winery, but Lucie won’t be swayed. Then another accidental death, that just might be murder, makes Lucie suspect that someone close to her is willing to do just about anything to compel the family to sell their 500 acres. Who knew a winery was such a dangerous place? This absorbing debut novel, featuring a prickly yet endearing protagonist, is full of fascinating details about wine-making and the history of viticulture in Virginia. The Sauvignon Secret, 6th in the series, was just released.

MisteriosoArne Dahl
Misterioso (Pantheon 2011; translated by Tiina Nunnally from 1999 Swedish original) is the first in Dahl’s 10-book “Intercrime” series published in English. While it is the second book published in Swedish, it is first story-wise, detailing the creation of a special national police team — the A-Unit — to investigate violent crimes of an international nature. Misterioso opens with the experienced and world-weary detective Paul Hjelm short-circuiting a difficult hostage situation in Stockholm by taking direct action outside approved police procedure. This gets Hjelm entangled in an Internal Affairs investigation that could end his career, but his common sense and initiative have come to the attention of the National Criminal Police commissioner, who is assembling the six-person A-Unit to find an apparent serial killer targeting captains of Swedish business and finance. The killer has an unusual approach — waiting in the homes of his intended victims, shooting them twice in the head, and then digging the bullets out of the wall. Woven into the story is the title’s reference to a song by Thelonious Monk that the killer plays in the victims’ homes. The crack six-member A-Unit — five men and one woman drawn from around the country — are all fleshed out characters, although the focus in this book is on Hjelm and his unlikely young partner Jorge Chavez. Perhaps atypical of Nordic crime fiction, Misterioso has quite a bit of humor, both subtle and laugh out loud. With engaging characters and brilliant writing, we are looking forward to future installments, and grateful to have a new series in translation start at the beginning.

Claire DeWitt and the City of the DeadSara Gran
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011) introduces Claire DeWitt, the self-declared world’s foremost private investigator. Claire moved to New Orleans to work for Constance Darling, who taught her five-coin I Ching interpretation, the esoteric art of reading fingerprints, and the French detective Jacques Stillete’s esoteric method of detection. After Constance was killed, Claire left New Orleans, returning reluctantly post-Katrina to search for Vic Willing, a well-liked District Attorney who went missing during the storm, though his French Quarter apartment escaped the flooding. Claire’s intuitive investigation, guided by dreams as much as her off-beat application of traditional methods, leads her to Andray Fairview, a young black criminal she dubs “Suicide Boy” for his bleak demeanor. The tattooed pot-smoking Claire has an uncanny ability to connect with other misfits, and she gradually teases out the truth while revealing glimpses of her own past as a girl detective in 1980s Brooklyn. Haunted by the disappearance of her best friend from a subway station during their rebellious teen years, Claire can’t let go of the mystery of the missing DA, which she calls The Case of the Green Parrot, even when her client fires her. Claire’s unique voice makes this series opener a standout.

Thirteen HoursDeon Meyer
Thirteen Hours (Atlantic Monthly Press 2010, Afrikaans 2008) finds Benny Griessel, a detective inspector in Capetown, South Africa, assigned as “mentor” to five young police officers as he fights his alcoholism. Now 156 days sober, Benny is looking forward to the end of his six-month exile from his wife, though also coming to treasure his new independent life. Benny wakes on the 157th day to a call informing him that an American teenaged girl has been found with her throat slashed, a PR nightmare for the developing tourist industry. The police soon learn that Rachel Anderson, the dead girl’s friend, is running for her life from a mixed race gang of young men. While advising Vusi Ndabeni, the young black policeman in charge of the case of the dead girl, Benny is called away to the scene of another murder. A music executive has been shot dead, and his alcoholic wife has been found in a drunken stupor next to the body. Fransman Dekker, the young coloured detective in charge, resents Benny’s presence, and only reluctantly allows him to interview the wife. When Rachel manages to call her father in Indiana, telling him she can’t trust the police, Benny is called back to the first case. The pressure to find the missing girl intensifies, and Mbali Kakeni, a young female Zulu officer who is also assigned to Benny, is called in to assist. The complex relationships between the Benny, who is white, and the other police officers range from antagonism to excessive politeness, often impeding the investigation. Despite Benny’s personal problems and the intense pressure to solve both cases quickly, a faint sense of optimism drifts through this non-stop thriller. This 2nd in the series is a finalist for the Barry, International Dagger, and Macavity Awards.

Drive TimeHank Phillippi Ryan
Drive Time (Mira 2010) finds Charlotte “Charlie” McNally, a 40-something TV investigative reporter in Boston, trying to balance the pressures of her job with her desire to spend time with new fiancé Josh and almost-stepdaughter Penny. Since Penny’s mother is in California with her new husband, nine-year old Penny is living full time with her father, and about to enter the second term at Bexter, the exclusive private school where Josh teaches. When Josh tells Charlie that Dorothy Whit, the Head’s assistant, has been receiving anonymous phone threats, he swears her to secrecy, making it difficult for Charlie to do what she does best: investigate the situation. Charlie is good at keeping secrets, but as she looks into the Bexter situation, more people tell her private stories in confidence. Then Charlie’s boss tells her secretly that he is accepting a job offer in New York, and that he wants Charlie to come with him as his senior investigative reporter. Charlie hates not sharing her inability to decide whether to stay or go with her producer Franklin, and throws herself into their sweeps week story: a possible expose of a ring of air bag and car thefts. Ryan’s insider view of television reporting makes Charlie’s suspenseful investigation all too real. This satisfying 4th in the series is a finalist for Agatha and Anthony Awards.

Small Death in the Great GlenA.D. Scott
A Small Death in the Great Glen (Atria 2010) centers on the employees in the offices of the Highland Gazette, a local weekly paper in the Highlands of Scotland, in 1956. When a small boy is found dead in a canal lock, Joanne Ross, a part-time typist at the Gazette, asks her two daughters if they knew the boy. They tell a fanciful tale of a hoodie crow who carried Jamie away during the walk home from school, but Joanne doesn’t take the story seriously. It’s not until the Polish fiancé of Joanne’s best friend is arrested for the crime that Joanne and the journalists she works with decide to do some actual investigating themselves. Joanne’s abusive husband isn’t too keen on her working at all, but he reluctantly allows her to continue to earn some extra money since his construction business is in a slump. John McAllister, the new editor-in-chief, wants to revamp the newspaper to include real news, and the story of the dead child fits in perfectly with his plans. Don McLeod, the seasoned sub-editor, Rob McLean, an ambitious young journalist, and Joanne all join in the quest to find the truth before the insular community pins the crime on an innocent outsider. This debut historical mystery, a finalist for the 2011 Barry Award for Best Paperback, moves at a leisurely pace as the characters slowly grapple with the crime that threatens the security of their safe little town.

The Fifth ServantKenneth Wishnia
The Fifth Servant (William Morrow 2010) is the story of Benyamin Ben-Akiva, a young Polish Talmudic scholar who follows his wife to her hometown of Prague in 1592. Ruled by Emperor Rudolph II, Prague is a relatively safe refuge for Jews, who live within the gated walls of the city’s ghetto. On the eve of Passover, the body of a young Christian girl is found in a Jewish shop. Her throat has been cut, and blood is everywhere. The shopkeeper and his family are arrested, charged with blood libel, the superstition that Jews use the blood of Christians for unspeakable rites. Benyamin, who happens to be visiting the shop, is sure of the shopkeeper’s innocence, and convinces the sheriff to give him three days to uncover the real killer. The Holy Inquisitor from Rome, intent on rooting out witchcraft at any cost, knows that the blood libel is nonsense, but is too intent on pursuing witches to help. Benyamin manages to capture the emperor’s interest in investigating clues with his new microscope, but holding back the rabid mob, intent on avenging the death of a Christian and plundering the gold they are sure is hidden in the ghetto, becomes more problematic with every passing hour. Aiding Benyamin are Anya, the daughter of a Christian butcher working as a Sabbath maid in the ghetto; Judah Loew, the reformist rabbi at odds with the more traditional Jews; and the legendary golem of Prague. Fascinating historical details are seamlessly woven into this enthralling mystery, a finalist for the 2011 Macavity Award for Best Historical Novel.

A Taste of the NightlifeSarah Zettel
A Taste of the Nightlife (Obsidian 2011) introduces Charlotte Caine, head chef in the new restaurant Nightlight, serving the undead in New York City. It’s been 10 years since the Equal Humanity Acts recognized vampires, werewolves, and other paranormals as equal citizens, and Nightlight is just beginning to make its mark in the world of "haute noir" cuisine when restaurant critic Anatole Sevarin appears late one night. Flustered by the famous food reviewer, Charlotte is horrified when a glamorous guest makes a fuss over a were-hair in her soup. As Charlotte tries to sooth the woman, a drunken warlock appears and tosses fireballs at the woman’s vampire date, setting off the sprinklers and shutting down the restaurant for the night. By the time Charlotte and her crew have finished cleaning up the mess it’s very late, and she is startled when a warlock appears at the door. Explaining that the woman who started the catastrophe was his cousin Dylan, Brendan Maddox offers to pay for the damage. When Charlotte returns to the restaurant early the next morning, she stumbles over the dead body of Dylan Maddox, who has wounds in his neck and appears to have been drained. Charlotte doesn’t think things can get any worse, but they do when her younger brother Chet, who joined the undead several years earlier, becomes the prime suspect. With the help of warlock Brendan Maddox and vampire Anatole Sevarin, Charlotte sets out to clear Chet’s name and hopefully reopen her restaurant before she runs out of money. This humorous paranormal mystery is the first in the Vampire Chef series.

September Word Cloud

October 1, 2011

Following PollyKaren Bergreen
Following Polly (St. Martin’s 2010) introduces Alice Teakle, a 32-year old dysfunctional New Yorker just fired from her job as casting assistant to a very unpleasant woman. Alice’s mother convinces her to begin therapy, and Dr. Dawn tells Alice she needs to find a focus for her life, to identify her lifelong dream. While wandering about the city aimlessly, Alice spots Polly Dawson, a despised Harvard classmate, and begins following her. Polly, who barely noticed Alice in college, is everything Alice is not — glamorous, the owner of a successful lingerie company, and married to a dashing movie director. Intrigued by Polly’s uncharacteristic use of the subway, Alice continues stalking Polly, hoping to discover an embarrassing secret. When Alice stumbles over Polly’s dead body, the police discover that Alice has been trailing her and bring her in for questioning. Alice overhears the police talking about charging her for the murder, and slips unnoticed from the station. Unable to contact her family and friends for fear the police are watching them, Alice begins a vigil outside the apartment of Charlie, a young lawyer she has secretly loved since college. Charlie rescues Alice from living on the street, and agrees to help her if she uses her ability to melt into the background to help save his father from a charge of consorting with prostitutes. Alice is a hilarious narrator, endearing and often clueless about reality, though totally focused upon her current obsession. This light-hearted and witty debut mystery, written by a lawyer turned stand-up comedian, is crammed with eccentric characters and great fun.

One Man’s ParadiseDouglas Corleone
One Man’s Paradise (Minotaur 2010) introduces Kevin Corvelli, a Manhattan criminal defense lawyer who moves to Honolulu, Hawaii, after a career-ending murder trial. Kevin blames himself for the death of his wrongfully convicted client, who died in prison, and vows never to defend a capital crime again. But he can’t resist the $50,000 retainer for defending Joseph Ginaforte, a law student accused of following his ex-girlfriend to Hawaii and killing her on Waikiki Beach. Kevin suspects that Joseph may be innocent, despite the mound of evidence against him, and begins searching for reasonable doubt in the form of another suspect. While following Joseph’s trail on the night of the murder, Kevin falls for a Hawaiian bartender, Nikole Kapua, whose family has been destroyed by an addiction to ice, the smokeable form of crystal methamphetamine. Determined to change his life, Kevin tries to make the time to finally have a real relationship that doesn’t take a back seat to his career, but the discovery that his client is linked to the mob doesn’t help his relaxation attempts. Slowing his New York pace down to something compatible with the Hawaiian lifestyle is especially important in the courtroom, where the judge is not amused by Kevin’s sarcastic sense of humor. This debut legal thriller, the winner of the 2009 Minotaur Books/MWA First Crime Novel Award, was also a finalist for the 2011 Shamus Award for Best First Novel.

Carte BlanceJeffery Deaver
Carte Blanche (Simon & Schuster 2011) is the latest James Bond pastiche authorized by Ian Fleming Productions, bringing a 30-something Bond into the post-9/11 world of international terrorism threatening British interests. The story begins with a train wreck in Serbia, where Bond first encounters the villainous Irishman Niall Dunne, and moves quickly in short chapters as Bond races against the clock to determine the nature of the threat and neutralize it. Bond is aided by his ravishing co-agent Ophelia “Philly” Maidenstone and CIA operative Felix Leiter, through Britain and Dubai, and on to South Africa where the good guys battle Green Way International, a thuggish and diabolical international recycling enterprise run by Dutchman Severan Hydt, assisted by the brilliant Niall Dunne. Bond’s mission is hampered by Percy Osborne-Smith, the overbearing Deputy Senior Director of Field Operations in MI-5, who reads the intelligence quite differently from Bond. While Carte Blanche is necessarily promoted as part of the James Bond tradition, the book may be best appreciated on its own terms. This is not the Cold Warrior MI-6 agent created by Ian Fleming in the early 1950s; this Bond is an Afghanistan war veteran working for a new independent covert agency — ODG (Overseas Development Group) under the direction of “M”. Most of the standard Bond trappings of fast cars, womanizing, clever gadgets provided by “Q”, and the finer things of life are present and accounted for, but in a more introspective and understated way. This 21st century Bond doesn’t smoke and keeps his drinking to a minimum. Deaver’s book is a fast-paced, workmanlike story that can stand on its own, and even provides a glossary to assist the reader in unraveling the “alphabet soup” of various security agencies around the world.

The October KillingsWessel Ebersohn
The October Killings (South Africa 2009, US 2011) introduces Abigail Bukula, director of the gender desk at South Africa’s justice department. Twenty years earlier, when she was 15, Abigail survived a raid on an African National Congress house in Lesotho due to the intervention of Leon Lourens, a young white soldier. Abigail has tried to put the past behind her, but Leon suddenly appears explaining that he fears his life is in danger, since others who participated in the raid have been dying each year on the anniversary of the raid. Abigail feels compelled to investigate, asking veteran prison psychologist Yudel Gordon to help her gain access to Marinus van Jaarsveld, the leader of the raid now held in a high-security prison. Abigail fears that Michael Bishop, a secretive and brutal white assassin who supported the anti-apartheid forces, is responsible for the yearly killings. Their investigation is hampered by the complexities of South African government, now ten years after the end of white rule and still coming to grips with the violence committed by the heroes of the revolution. This powerful political thriller is the first in a new series featuring the unlikely duo of Abigail and Yudel Gorden, the star of a previous series set in the 1980s.

The Good SonMichael Gruber
The Good Son (Henry Holt 2010) tells the story of Sonia Laghari, a Pakistani-American writer and psychologist coordinating a conference on peace in Kashmir. The small group of pacifists is captured by jihadis, who may be secretly manufacturing nuclear weapons, and told that one of their company will be beheaded each time one of the Muslim faithful is harmed by infidels. Unfortunately there is a fatwa out on Sonia, a relic from her early marriage when she disguised herself as a boy and went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, to the horror of her husband’s respected Lahore family. But Sonia, who was raised in the circus and later trained as a Jungian psychologist, has amazing language skills and a talent for reading people. Using her gift of dream interpretation, she sets out to enlighten her captors, nudging them toward the realization that their mission is not holy. Meanwhile, Sonia’s son Theo, once a mujahedeen boy hero warrior in Afghanistan and now with the US Tactical Intelligence Support Detachment, decides it’s up to him to rescue his mother and orchestrates a fake nuclear threat to inveigle a US rescue of the hostages. Flashbacks gradually fill in the back story in Pakistan of Sonia, Theo, and Wazir, the son of the Pashtun bodyguard who “adopted” Theo when he was nine. This standout thriller, a finalist for the 2011 Steel Dagger Award, includes incredible characters, a plot that twists through time, and an intimate look at modern jihadism and the US war.

White HeatM.J. McGrath
White Heat (Viking 2011) introduces Edie Kiglatuk, a former polar bear hunter and the best guide in her isolated Inuit community in the Canadian Arctic. The elders aren’t too sure about allowing a woman to perform a traditional male role, but grudgingly admit that she has the skills to do the job. During a routine hunting expedition, one of the men she is guiding is shot and dies. Edie is convinced that the other hunter, Andy Taylor, didn’t kill his companion, but can’t convince the elders to report the death as a murder. Worried about endangering the tourist trade, they give a verdict of accidental death, and Edie is coerced into signing a statement in order to keep her guiding license. But the incident eats away at her conscience until she finally shares her concerns with police sergeant Derek Palliser, who is too caught up in an obsession with his ground-breaking lemming research to take her seriously. Then Andy Taylor returns with Bill Fairfax, who has recently discovered the diary of his ancestor, explorer Sir James Fairfax. The diary suggests that the explorer followed a beluga migration to Craig Island, and Bill Fairfax hopes he can find Sir James’s final resting place. Edie’s stepson Joe is hired as guide for Taylor, but returns alone, having lost Taylor in a blizzard. Edie is convinced that Taylor had some other purpose for returning to the site of the murder, and sets out to hunt down the truth. Divorced and working part-time as a teacher, Edie struggles with alcoholism, occasionally losing the battle, but her hunter mindset won’t let her stray too far from the trail. This engrossing debut mystery, a finalist for the 2011 Gold Dagger Award, presents a unique protagonist in an utterly fascinating setting.

The Attenbury EmeraldsJill Paton Walsh
The Attenbury Emeralds (Minotaur 2011) continues the story of Lord Peter Wimsey and his wife Harriet Vane in the early 1950s, in an England still experiencing post-war rationing and adjusting to a more equal relationship between the social classes. Back in 1921, when Peter was recovering from shell-shock, the task of recovering the missing Attenbury emeralds helped pull Peter from his nervous breakdown and established him as a solver of puzzles. Thirty years later, the current Lord Attenbury has decided that selling the emerald kingstone is the only way out of his family’s financial difficulties, but Nandine Osmanthus, an emissary from the Maharaja of Sinorabad, challenges the Attenbury claim to ownership of the emeralds. In fact, Osmanthus claims that Peter recovered the wrong set of jewels all those years ago, and that the inscription of a Persian verse on the back side proves his claim to the huge emerald. The investigation into the true ownership of the jewels is a complex undertaking involving historical research as well as flashbacks into Peter’s past. Walsh completed an unfinished Lord Peter novel at the request of the Dorothy Sayers estate (Thrones, Dominations), and then a second inspired by letters written by Dorothy Sayers depicting Peter Wimsey during WWII (A Presumption of Death). This third novel, the first that is entirely written by Walsh, successfully captures the tone and personalities of Sayers’s characters while plausibly moving them forward in time.

Sweet RevengeAndrea Penrose
Sweet Revenge (Obsidian 2011) introduces Lady Arianna Hadley, posing as a French chef in an aristocratic household in 1813 London. Ariana’s father retreated to the Caribbean after being accused of cheating at cards, and Arianna learned the art of cooking from a servant after her mother died. When her father was murdered, Arianna returned to London, hoping to discover and take revenge on the culprits. Unfortunately, the Prince Regent falls ill after eating her special chocolate dessert, bringing an official scrutiny that Arianna fears her disguise will not survive. Alessandro De Quincy, the Earl of Saybrook, is selected to head the investigation into the possibility of poison because of the interest in chocolate he inherited from his grandmother, and when he sees through Arianna’s masquerade she convinces him that she is both innocent of the crime and capable of assisting him in finding the murderer. Lord Saybrook introduces Arianna to London society as a distant relative, and she takes full advantage of her new contacts to investigate both the poisoning of the Prince Regent and the murder of her father. Fascinating excerpts from Dona Maria Castellano’s chocolate notebooks, complete with recipes, tell of the introduction of chocolate to Europe. This intriguing debut historical with a strong romantic streak is the first in a series.

The InformationistTaylor Stevens
The Informationist (Crown 2011) introduces Vanessa Michael Munroe, an “informationist” specializing in research on developing countries for corporations, heads of state, private clients, and anyone else willing to pay for her unique brand of very expensive and reliable expertise. Just back to her home base in Dallas, Texas, from a job in Turkey, Munroe is looking forward to some down time when she receives a lucrative job offer via her best friend and financial consultant Kate Breeden. Miles Bradford, security consultant for Houston oilman Richard Burbank has decided that Munroe is their only chance of finding out what happened to Burbank’s adopted daughter Emily, who disappeared while vacationing in Namibia four years earlier. Previous attempts to track down Emily have proved futile, and Bradford believes that Munroe is the only hope of tracking down the truth on the cold trail. Swayed by both the money and the opportunity to return to Africa, Munroe takes the case even though she is saddled with Bradford as a bodyguard, the last thing she needs. Munroe, born to missionary parents in lawless central Africa, cast her lot with an infamous gunrunner and his mercenary crew at the age of 14, earning their respect until the events that sent her running from Cameroon a year later. This action-packed debut thriller features a loner protagonist with enough depth to begin a series. With a natural affinity for languages, a chameleon-like ability to blend in, scary martial arts abilities, and a talent for distilling information, Monroe faces the dangers of the jungle of Equatorial Guinea while fighting her own demons from the past.

Think of a NumberJohn Verdon
Think of a Number (Crown 2010) introduces Dave Gurney, a recently retired top homicide detective from New York City. Now living with his wife Madeleine in rural upstate New York, Dave is struggling to adjust to the much slower pace of life. When an acquaintance from his college days asks for his help with some puzzling letters he’s received, Dave is seduced by the intellectual stimulation. The first letter Mark Mellory received asked him to think of a number between one and a thousand before opening a little envelope. When Mellory discovered the very number he had imagined inside the envelope, he was curious enough to send a check to the enclosed address for more information. The poems he receives in reply become more and more threatening, prompting Mellory to contact the only policeman he knows. Dave suspects that the letter writer may be dangerous, and tries to convince Mellory to report the threats to the police, but Mellory, who runs an exclusive retreat, is worried about negative publicity and refuses. Then Dave realizes that Mellory is not the only target, and fears that there is a serial killer stalking a series of victims through threatening rhymes. This mesmerizing debut thriller is a finalist for the 2011 Nero Award.

October Word Cloud

November 1, 2011

The Ionia SanctionGary Corby
The Ionia Sanction (Minotaur 2011) finds Nicolaos, the only investigating agent in ancient Athens, examining the supposed suicide of Thorion, the proxenos (agent) for Ephesus, a Greek city within the Persian empire. Thorion sent a note to Pericles admitting to betraying Athens and promising news of a threat. But the scroll Thorion received before his death is missing, probably stolen by Araxes, his last visitor and probable murderer. Nicolaos comes up with a brilliant plan for capturing Araxes and retrieving the missing scroll, but unfortunately Araxes escapes in an even more brilliant manner to Pericles’s utter dismay. Hoping to save his job, Nicolaos tracks down the slave girl Araxes sold before visiting Thorion, and buys her for an astonishingly high price. The slave tells Nicolas that she is Asia, the kidnapped daughter of Themistocles, an Athenian condemned to death for treason and now the Satrap of Magnesia for the Great King of Persia. When Pericles recovers from the shock of the slave price, he sends Nicolaos to Magnesia to return Asia, stopping in Ephesus along the way to consult with the proxenos for Athens and retrieve the missing scroll containing information about the plot against Athens. In Ephesus, Nicolaos finds Diotima, the daughter of a prostitute and a priestess of Artemis, who is still angry over his father’s refusal to approve their marriage, and less than thrilled to find Nicolaos served by a very attractive slave girl. Concerned about her missing friend Briom, the very man Nicolaos is searching for, Diotima agrees to accompany Nicolaos and Asia to the court of Themistocles, where they are immediately plunged into a morass of suspicion, betrayal, torture, and incredible food. This humorous historical mystery is rollicking good fun.

The Lerouge CaseÉmile Gaboriau
The Lerouge Case, an 1881 translation of L’affaire Lerouge (1866) (APA: The Widow Lerouge (1873) & The Lerouge Affair (1908)), is Gaboriau’s seminal first police detective novel. Along with Poe, we look back to Gaboriau as the great founder of the police procedural. His main series character, the detective Monsieur Lecoq, is introduced in this book, but only as a minor character; he blossoms in the second novel, Le crime d’Orcival (1867), first translated as The Mystery of Orcival in 1871. The Victorian translations are a tad stodgy, but overall quite readable and entertaining — a wonderful change of pace — and the brilliance of the originals can’t help but shine through. The Lerouge Case centers on the investigation by Old Tabaret, a brilliant sleuth engaged by the authorities on recommendation of Lecoq, into the murder of a rural widow, who lived well, if quietly. The connections build as Tabaret and the police investigate and debate the details, and a fantastic switched-at-birth scenario takes center stage. Think Paris CSI: 1862, as recent technological advances (photography, telegraph, railroads) give the police great advantages over their predecessors in the fight against crime. The novel includes a wealth of interesting social commentary, e.g., on the aristocracy and inherited wealth contrasting with the peasants, workers, and rising professional classes. And where else would an overanxious detective stop off to have his blood let to calm himself? You probably won’t find this in your local library, although there are several versions in print. We downloaded the 1881 translation from the Gutenberg site and read it on an iPod Touch. Scanned copies of the original French and three English translations can be found on the Internet.

Speaking of Lecoq, we have Vidocq —

The First DetectiveJames Morton
The First Detective: The Life and Revolutionary Times of Vidocq: Criminal, Spy, and Private Eye(2004; Overlook Press 2011) is an entertaining biography of the inspiration for both Gaboriau’s Lecoq and Poe’s Dupin. Eugene-François Vidocq (1775-1857) led an amazingly complicated life. His adventurous “career” began with ripping off his parents and going on the lam, although his mother repeatedly bailed him out and followed him around France. Vidocq enlisted in the French army at an early age, where he engaged in many a fencing duel before deserting. His military career was typified by repeated enlistments and desertions. Frequently imprisoned, he demonstrated his innate abilities by quickly adapting to the prison power structure, while also acting as a snitch. Vidocq was also a talented escape artist; when the authorities managed to catch him, they had a difficult time holding onto him. When Vidocq tried to go straight, he had to fend off his former associates, but also found jobs for many of them as police or private detectives. Ultimately, his fame rests on his dual role as founder of the Brigade de Sûreté (undercover police detective force) in 1811 and as creator of the first private detective agency (Bureau des Renseignements) in 1833, as well as inspiring Poe, Gaboriau, and other authors. His 1827 ghost-written autobiography and other memoirs are unreliable, but Morton has sorted through the historical records and provides a densely detailed account, with interesting asides reminding us of the wild and crazy criminality and chaos of Vidocq’s time. Footnotes abound in this relatively brief and highly readable biography.

V Is for VengeanceSue Grafton
V Is for Vengeance (Putnam 2011) finds private detective Kinsey Millhone shopping for underwear when she spots an older woman dropping some expensive lingerie into an oversized handbag. Kinsey reports the shoplifter to store security, and watches as the woman is detained. Later, Kinsey runs into the security guard later, and learns that the woman, who was identified as Audrey Vance, broke down in tears when she was taken away by the police. When a death notice appears in the paper a few days later, Kinsey is startled to see that Audrey’s body was found under a bridge, an apparent suicide. Coerced by a funeral-addict friend into attending the service, Kinsey meets Marvin Striker, Audrey’s fiancé, who hires her to find Audrey’s family and maybe even figure out why Audrey would want to commit suicide. Unfortunately Kinsey discovers that Audrey was a professional shoplifter, perhaps connected with a ring responsible for millions of dollars of stolen goods, not what Marvin was hoping to learn. But by the time he fires Kinsey, she is too immersed in the investigation to let go, despite the dangerous connection with organized crime. All of which results in Kinsey celebrating her 38th birthday with two black eyes and a broken nose.

Damage ControlDenise Hamilton
Damage Control (Scribner 2011) is the story of Maggie Silver, who has just landed a job at the Blair Company, the top crisis-management firm in Los Angeles. When the young female aide to Senator Henry Paxton is found murdered, the senator hires the Blair Company to protect his image. Paxton hopes to be a candidate for vice president in the next election, and fears that even a whiff of scandal may destroy his political future. Maggie has mixed feelings about being assigned to the senator’s case, since his daughter Anabelle was her best friend in high school before unexplained events severed their connection. But her boss loves the personal connection and refuses to assign her to another project. With a steep mortgage payment and a huge stack of medical bills to pay for her cancer-survivor mother, Maggie sticks with the assignment even though she realizes her obsession with the Paxtons may outweigh her dedication to her job. The events of the past are slowly revealed as Maggie struggles to spin present events to cast a good light upon Senator Paxton and those close to him. Fascinated by fragrance, Maggie uses exotic scents to escape from the pressures of her daily life and is often pulled back into a memory of the past by an elusive smell. As negative facts about the Paxton family and the senator’s staff keep emerging, Maggie begins to suspect that the Blair Company is using more that PR to keep the lid from blowing off a scandal that may destroy the senator. Maggie is an expert at damage control for her clients, but the Paxton case forces her to confront the demons of her own past and make some hard decisions about her present.

The Boy in the SuitcaseLene Kaaberbøl & Agnete Friis
The Boy in the Suitcase (Soho 2011, Danish 2008) introduces Nina Borg, a nurse working for the Danish Red Cross Center in Copenhagen. Nina also belongs to a secret network providing medical care to illegal immigrants. Though she has difficulty coping with her everyday life as a wife and mother of two children, Nina thrives on the stresses of volunteer nursing in disaster zones. When Nina gets a call from Karin, an old friend who desperately needs a favor, Nina agrees to retrieve a suitcase from a locker in the railway station. Karin insists that only Nina will know what to do, and warns her not to open the suitcase in public. Inside the suitcase Nina finds a small naked boy, drugged but alive. Fearing that the boy is a victim of the sex trade, Nina is reluctant to turn him over to the authorities, especially when Karin vanishes and Nina realizes she is being followed. Parallel narratives tell the story of the boy’s mother in Lithuania, the kidnappers who failed to deliver the child, and the rich Danish buyer who refuses to pay without delivery. Unable to communicate with the child, Nina begins a frantic quest to discover where the boy comes from and who is hunting him down. Tightly plotted, this debut thriller tells a gripping story of ordinary people suffering the consequences of bad decisions and buried secrets.

Dog Eats DogIain Levison
Dog Eats Dog (Bitter Lemon Press 2008) is the story of Phil Dixon, a wounded bank robber who flees New Jersey for Canada, and ends up in Tiburn, New Hampshire. Dixon takes up residence in the basement of history professor Elias White, who is convinced by Dixon’s gun, the threat of exposure of his affair with his teenaged neighbor, and the promise of a share in the loot, to hide Dixon while he heals. Elias trades grades for sexual favors with his female students while fantasizing about the fame he expects after publication of his current research paper, based on a box of journals written by Nazi soldiers, marked “trash”, that he discovered while trying to look up the skirt of a girl in a library in Heidelberg. Dixon’s equally unlikely dream of becoming a farmer in Alberta, Canada, was hatched while doing research in the prison library, where he discovered that alpaca are a kind of vicious sheep that thrive in cold climates. Meanwhile, FBI agent Denise Lupo, bitter about her lack of promotion to profiler and wanting a break from her monotonous routine, follows a faint clue and ends up in the same small New Hampshire town with her eager trainee. The individual self-interest of each character keeps them so focused on what they hope will happen (or are afraid is happening) that they are blinded to reality, with surprising results in this satirical caper novel.

Square Root of MurderAda Madison (Camille Minichino pseudonym)
The Square Root of Murder (Berkley 2011) introduces Sophie Knowles, a math professor at Henley College in Massachusetts. The math and science professors and students are celebrating the promotion of Hal Bartholomew to assistant professor, and the talk turns to unpopular chemistry professor Keith Appleton, who isn’t in attendance. The loudest negative comments come from Rachel Wheeler, Sophie’s teaching assistant, whose thesis has just been panned by Dr. Appleton. Embarrassed by her own rudeness, Rachel offers to take a plate of cake up to Dr. Appleton’s office. When he is found poisoned the next day, Rachel is the prime suspect, but Sophie is convinced Rachel is innocent and sets out to prove it. Despite conflicts with her immediate administrator, Sophie is happy with her job helping students make sense of mathematics, writing peer-reviewed articles, and creating puzzles and brain-teasers for relaxation and publication. A keen observer, Sophie is a natural puzzle-solver, and dives into the murder investigation with enthusiasm, to the dismay of her dean and the lead detective. Sophie is a delightfully well-adjusted narrator, secure in her teaching ability, and content with her boyfriend, a helicopter pilot for a medical evacuation and transfer group, yet with enough quirks and foibles to carry this new series.

Nothing but the TruthJarkko Sipilä
Nothing but the Truth (Ice Cold Crime 2011, Finnish 2006) is the sixth book, and earliest in English, in the 12-title Violent Crimes Unit series set in Helsinki, Finland, and marketed in English as Helsinki Homicide. Kari Takamäki, the supervising detective in the Violent Crimes Unit, is the main voice in this police procedural series, with an ensemble cast typical of the sub-genre. A minor cocaine dealer has been killed at his apartment in Helsinki, and the police quickly arrest the hit man, but he won’t rat out the driver who was waiting outside the building. Crime boss Risto Korpi is soon fingered as the driver when Mari Lehtonen, an eyewitness with a nearly photographic memory comes forward to fulfill her civic duty, with a description of the driver, along with the car model and license number. As suggested by the title, the story moves from the crime to the travails of the crucial witness, a divorced mother with a young daughter, and the struggles of the police to protect her while fending off voracious crime reporters. Lieutenant Takamäki faces the usual problems of front-line detectives suffering under constant political and bureaucratic demands and budget problems. The investigations of the VCU are aided by Suhonen, an experienced, edgy undercover cop, with his stable of informers, who figures he could have been a great philosopher with all the time he has had for contemplation while on stake-out duty. Peter Ylitalo Leppa’s translation is easy to read and conveys what we assume is the casual, self-deprecating style of the original. This edition includes a character list to assist in gaining familiarity with Finnish names. We look forward to reading more in this series — two other titles (#8 & #9) have been printed in English, and more translations are planned.

Before I Go to SleepS.J. Watson
Before I Go To Sleep (Harper 2011) is the story of Christine Lucas, who wakes up every morning sleeping next to a stranger in a strange house. Shocked by the age of the face looking back at her from the mirror, which happens to be surrounded by pictures of herself and the strange man in the bed, Christine realizes she has lost decades of her life. Her husband Ben explains that Christine lost her memory in an accident, and that most of the photos from their past together were lost in a fire. After Ben leaves for work, Christine receives a phone call from Dr. Nash, who prompts her to locate her pocket diary where she finds a note confirming their appointment and a warning to keep the meeting secret from Ben. Dr. Nash returns Christine’s journal which she had given him to read, and tells her that she has been keeping the journal in order to remember her past since her amnesia causes her to forget each day’s events as she sleeps. Christine is shocked to read the words "Don’t trust Ben!" in the front of the journal, and begins to read the entries describing the month of November. She learns that Dr. Nash suggested she begin keeping the journal as an attempt to bring her submerged memories to the surface, and slowly begins to reassemble the fragments of her past. A phone call from Dr. Nash each morning reminds her where the journal is hidden, and Christine endures the trauma of realizing how much she has lost each and every day, desperately struggling to identify the truth about her own past and present. This stunning debut psychological suspense thriller was just awarded the 2011 New Blood Dagger Award.

November Word Cloud

December 1, 2011

In Search of the Rose NotesEmily Arsenault
In Search of the Rose Notes (William Morrow 2011) is the story of Nora, who never quite coped with the disappearance of her babysitter from the small town of Waverly, Connecticut, when Nora was eleven. Rose, a cool high school student, who is in charge of Nora and her best friend Charlotte after school. The summer after 6th grade, Charlotte discovered a series of Time-Life books her older brother was discarding. Fascinated by the paranormal focus of the books, Charlotte and Nora tested their psychic powers with Rose’s help. Then one day Rose disappeared on the way home from Charlotte’s house, leaving Nora with the dubious distinction of “last known witness.” For the rest of the summer, Charlotte, with Nora’s reluctant help, tried to discover what happened to Rose using techniques from the books. But Nora eventually rebelled and the two girls drifted apart until Rose’s bones are discovered 15 years later. Charlotte convinces Nora to return to the small town she fled after high school, hoping that the two can try again to discover the truth. Told from both Nora’s naive preteen perspective in 1990 and her grownup 2006 viewpoint, this mesmerizing novel explores themes of friendship, grief, and the power of secrets, as Nora finally finds the courage to try and understand the events that molded her past.

The Gilded ShroudElizabeth Bailey
The Gilded Shroud (Berkley 2011) introduces Ottilia Draycott, a young widow recently hired as a temporary companion to Dowager Lady Polbrook in 1789 England. When Lady Polbrook’s daughter-in-law Emily is strangled in the middle of the night, and her husband Randal, the Marquis of Polbrook, departs mysteriously at the crack of dawn, Lady Polbrook and Ottilia come to stay in the London house. Worried about the effect of uncertainty on Lady Polbrook’s health, Ottilia offers to help talk to the servants and discovers that a valuable jeweled heirloom fan is missing from Emily’s bedroom. Impressed by Ottilia’s powers of observation and intuitive leaps, younger son Lord Francis Fanshawe asks her to join him in the search to discover Randal’s whereabouts just as the police begin to focus on the missing husband as the prime suspect. The two quickly uncover some unsavory truths about Emily, which unfortunately provide Randal with a strong motive for murdering his wife. The police are unexpectedly supportive of Ottilia’s participation in the investigation, perhaps an indication of their inability to penetrate the social barrier and coax information from the privileged class and their servants. As the investigation continues, the attraction between Francis and Ottilia grows stronger, giving this debut historical mystery a strong romantic streak.

The Dogs of RomeConor Fitzgerald
The Dogs of Rome (Bloomsbury 2010) introduces Alec Blume, a police commissioner in Rome. The son of two art historians from Seattle who were killed in a bank robbery on Via Cristoforo Colombo when he was a teenager, Alec has lived in Rome for 22 years but is still viewed as an outsider. Grateful to the police who cared for him as he struggled to make his way after the death of his parents, Alec chose to become a policeman, despite the endemic corruption of the force. The murder of Arturo Clemente, an animal rights activist working on exposing a dog-fighting ring and the husband of an important politician, forces Alec to navigate through the treacherous networks of both political and police powers. Clemente’s mistress, who left his apartment shortly before his murder, is the daughter of a powerful mob boss, adding another layer of complexity to the investigation. But Alec takes it all in stride as he pursues his investigation despite attempts by those above him to pin the murder on a variety of handy targets. Uncertain whom he can trust and how much he can bend before compromising his integrity, Alec sets some dangerous negotiations in play with powerful players on both sides of the law. A wry sense of humor permeates this gritty debut police procedural, a finalist for the 2011 New Blood Dagger Award.

Field GrayPhilip Kerr
Field Gray (Putnam 2011, UK 2010) finds Bernie Gunther in Cuba in 1954, reluctantly doing a few jobs for underworld boss Meyer Lansky. While enjoying an outing on his boat, Bernie is picked up by the US Navy and transported to the communal drunk tank in Guantánamo. After three weeks of overly close contact with a succession of drunken GIs, Bernie is taken to Castle Williams, a military prison in New York where he is grilled by the FBI before being moved to Landsberg Prison in Berlin, to the very cell Adolph Hitler inhabited in 1923. Unfortunately Bernie is still wanted for murder in Berlin, so the Americans have the upper hand as they try to pump Bernie about Erhard Milch, a communist Bernie first met in 1931 when he rescued Milch from a beating by Nazi storm troopers. Eventually the Americans give Bernie over to the French, who would love to try him as a Nazi war criminal unless he helps finger members of the French Gestapo. Bernie is forced to remember bits of his life he would rather forget as his various interrogators pressure him to tell his stories of events ranging from 1931 Berlin, 1940 France, 1941 Minsk, 1945 Russia, and 1946 Germany, in war zones, death camps, and a hard labor uranium mine. Somehow Bernie manages to hold on to his wry sense of humor as he struggles to preserve his sense of humanity while also staying alive long enough to enjoy it. This powerful novel is the 7th in this excellent series.

A Trick of the LightLouise Penny
A Trick of the Light (Macmillan 2011), finds Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec, attending the opening of Clara Morrow’s solo show at the Museé d’Art Contemporain in Montréal. Gamache falls into a conversation with François Marois, a powerful art dealer, who wonders if one of Clara’s portraits, Still Life, is truly great art, or if it is just a trick of the light. Still feeling awkward about arresting Three Pines bistro owner Olivier for a murder he didn’t commit, Gamache doesn’t attend the party afterwards at Clara and Peter’s home in Three Pines. The next morning Clara finds the body of a murdered woman in her garden, and Gamache and his team move back into their usual headquarters in the old train station. The woman is identified as Lillian Dyson, a childhood friend of Clara’s who cruelly betrayed her when they attended art college. Lillian went on to become an art critic, known for her keen eye and occasional devastatingly brutal reviews. “He’s a natural, producing art like it’s a bodily function.” And since most of the art world attended Clara’s party, Gamache has plenty of motives, like envy and revenge, and plenty of suspects, with Clara and Peter at the top of the list. Penny’s books just keep getting better as she continues to explore threads from earlier books. The residents of Three Pines struggle to forgive Olivier for his greed and dishonesty; Jean-Guy Beauvoir and Gamache try to cope with the after effects of their wounds and the deaths in the abandoned factory; Ruth waits for Rosa the duck to return; and Clara and Peter finally face the reality of their disintegrating marriage. This engrossing 7th in the series is highly recommended.

The Butcher’s BoyThomas Perry
The Butcher’s Boy (1982) introduces a hit-man who calls himself Michael Schaeffer, known as the Butcher’s Boy by his clients. After completing two contract hits for an unknown client, Schaeffer returns to Las Vegas to relax, recuperate, and collect his payment. Mob lawyer Harry Orloff, the middleman responsible for payment, is upset that Schaeffer has arrived two days early, but agrees to collect his money quickly. When Orloff is killed, Schaeffer realizes that his mob client has decided Schaeffer himself is a liability, and that a hit is out on the hit man. Schaeffer prefers to know nothing about his clients, but now sets out to identify exactly which mob kingpin would prefer he wasn’t around. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Waring, an inexperienced yet brilliant analyst for the Justice Department, begins to make connections between Schaeffer’s two murders and the motive behind them. Schaeffer is a cold-blooded killer, but the dedication that compels him to take huge risks in order to complete his assignments makes him an unexpectedly sympathetic protagonist. This compelling debut novel was a finalist for the New Blood Dagger and won the 1983 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. This excellent series includes two more books: Sleeping Dogs (1992) and The Informant (2011).

The Anatomy of GhostsAndrew Taylor
The Anatomy of Ghosts (Hyperion 2011, UK 2010) is the story of John Holdsworth, a London bookseller whose small son Georgie drowns in the Thames in 1785. Holdsworth’s grief-stricken wife Maria began to visit with a woman who claimed to be able to contact Georgie’s spirit and spent hours visiting the site of his death, eventually drowning herself. Holdsworth writes a monograph debunking the existence of ghosts but sinks into depression himself, eventually losing his bookshop. Holdsworth is hired by Lady Anne Oldershaw to catalog her recently deceased husband’s library before she donates it to Cambridge University. But there is one task Lady Oldershaw requests be done first: contacting her son Frank who has been committed to a mental institution after claiming to see the ghost of the murdered Sylvia Whichcote at Jerusalem College, Cambridge. Under the pretext of examining the college library, Holdsworth lodges with Dr. Carbury, the Master of Jerusalem College, and his young wife Elinor, and begins an investigation into the events that led to the murder of Sylvia Whichcote, which he is convinced has something to do with Frank Oldershaw’s delusion of seeing a ghost that same night. Holdsworth’s questions lead him to a secret club where Jerusalem College’s richest students are provided the opportunity to drink, dine, gamble, and worse. As Holdsworth attempts to penetrate the closed academic society, his attraction to Elinor Carbury pushes him to finally try to put the ghosts of his own wife and son behind him. This richly layered atmospheric mystery was a finalist for the 2010 Historical Dagger Award.

Super in the CityDaphne Uviller
Super in the City (Bantam 2009) introduces Zephyr Zuckerman, an indecisive 27-year old New Yorker who has dropped out of both med school and law school and is obsessed with fantasies about her ex-boyfriend. Zephyr lives in an apartment in her parents’ Greenwich Village building and crashes fancy parties with her best friends, the Sterling girls, fellow survivors of the snooty Sterling School. When James, the super of the building, is arrested for embezzling, Zephyr’s parents come up with the brilliant idea of giving the job to Zephyr, just until she decides what to do with her life. Zephyr is totally unprepared for the task, but revels in the opportunity to unleash her inner sleuth and meddle in the private lives of the other tenants, especially the sexy Frenchwoman who receives mysterious visitors at all hours. When the exterminator arrives for his monthly spray job, Zephyr is attracted to his rugged handsomeness, amused by the fact that he is named Gregory Samson, and overjoyed to have the opportunity to use the huge bunch of keys they find in James’s apartment to open the doors of all the apartments. The discovery of a secret pink staircase inside James’s apartment leads to unexpected surprises. Zephyr is a hilarious narrator, and this fast-paced debut mystery, full of literary references, is great fun from start to finish.

An Ordinary Decent CriminalMichael Van Rooy
An Ordinary Decent Criminal (Canada 2005, US 2010) introduces Monty Haaviko, who used to be a very bad guy — a career criminal and drug addict. But things have changed: Monty has gone straight and just moved with his wife Claire, baby son, dog, and pet mouse to Winnipeg, looking for a new start. The boxes aren’t even unpacked when three young thugs attempt a robbery in the middle of the night. Though unarmed, Monty manages to kill or fatally wound all three intruders and is arrested. In the 10 hours it takes Claire to get a lawyer, Monty is beaten nearly to death by two cops under the direction of Sergeant Enzio Walsh. When his lawyer finally gets Monty to the hospital, he is nearly killed by the hired help of local crime boss Robillard, whose nephew was one of the intruders Monty killed. Monty is willing to make a deal, but both Walsh and Robillard seem determined to run him out of town, or worse, and neither Monty nor Claire are willing to give up their fledging attempt to build a new life together. When Monty’s struggles to find an honest job are sabotaged, and nasty notes appear daily on their front door, even Claire admits that Monty may need to use some of his street-wise skills to fight back, but makes him promise not to kill anyone. This off beat debut novel, narrated by a fast-thinking and big-hearted tough guy, is a comic masterpiece.

The Innocent SpyLaura Wilson
The Innocent Spy (Minotaur 2009, APA: Stratton’s War 2008) introduces Ted Stratton, a detective inspector in 1940 London. When an aging silent screen star falls to her death, the evidence suggests suicide, but Stratton suspects the woman was pushed. Stratton is ordered to accept the suicide verdict, but can’t help pursuing a secret investigation. Meanwhile, Diana Calthrop, a young society belle trapped into a loveless marriage, takes a job as a secretary while her husband is overseas. Diana is recruited by MI-5 to infiltrate a fascist group called the Right Club and to spy on Sir Neville Apse, a War Office official suspected to have fascist connections. When a body is found at a construction site, Stratton finds a connection to Apse, but is informed that Aspe is above suspicion. Diana’s boss disagrees, and arranges to have Stratton assigned to the War Office to help with the Apse investigation. Solidly placed in 1940 London, this historical mystery manages to make war-time reality seem normal. The impeccably dressed Diana casually stuffs a gas mask in her handbag before heading out for the day, Stratton works on his vegetable plot while fretting about his children sent to live with strangers in the country, and everyone dutifully prepares for bed each night in their bomb shelters. First in a series, this excellent novel was awarded the 2008 Historical Dagger Award.

December Word Cloud

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


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