Archive for the ‘Mystery’ Category

swizz vendettaYou know the old adage “Never judge a book by its cover?” Well, it was far from top of mind when I spotted this beauty buried in the Mystery section at Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago. Hadn’t heard of the author. Wasn’t discounted. Set in Switzerland. But the cover! It called to me. So, I bought it.

What I found was a first-in-a-series, gently meandering but totally clever whodunit featuring the completely likable Inspector Agnes Luthi, charming aristocrat Julien Vallotton, and a cast of memorable characters.

We meet Agnes as she negotiates rapidly deteriorating roads, attempting to reach the grand Chateau Vallotton in the middle of the worst snow & ice storm Lausanne, Switzerland has seen in decades. The body of a young woman has been found outside the chateau, and Agnes is called to investigate her first case in the Violent Crimes Unit of the Lausanne Police Department. She manages to reach the chateau, where she finds herself snowed in with two fellow detectives, members of the Vallotton family, and assorted other characters, one of whom is most definitely a murderer. Even while she is neck deep in the murder, we find that Agnes is also wrestling with some personal tragedy. Her investigation becomes her own catharsis, leading to a very satisfying ending.

The author manages to weave Agnes’ personal tragedy into the story, so that the reader begins to know Agnes at the same time Agnes begins to know her suspects. Agnes herself is a welcome female protagonist, a professional woman who is also a mother trying to do the best she can and not always succeeding. This is one of those unusual mysteries that ride the rails between “cozy” and “hardboiled” detective fiction, which is a niche in which I will happily hide. In some ways, Agnes reminded me a bit of Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury, if that character had been female. I was delighted to find out that this is, indeed, the first in a series. The second in the series, A Well-Timed Murder, is scheduled for release in February 2018. Here’s hoping to finding an advanced reading copy!

Highly recommended.

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IMG_0097Anthropologist Ruth Galloway is back in the latest from Elly Griffiths, The Chalk Pit. As usual, there’s a lot going on in King’s Lynn.

This time, we find Ruth preparing to head underground to examine human remains uncovered during a routine soil sampling process. At the same time, Ruth’s quasi partner DCI Harry Nelson and his police squad are dealing with several incidents: a hungover student reporting a man who appeared and disappeared in front of her car in the middle of the night, a homeless man reporting the disappearance of a fellow street dweller, and a sink hole that suddenly opened in the middle of a busy road.

It’s typical of Griffiths to introduce several story strands in the first couple of chapters, so it’s no surprise when all of those stories come together into a single fat braid. Griffiths skillfully blends in well-researched pieces of history and interesting facts about the King’s Lynn-Norwich area to her books, with the Chalk Tunnels being the star here. The chalk mining tunnels take center stage, as Ruth searches for the answer to the human remains, which appear to have been boiled, while Nelson and his team pursue a villain who has kidnapped three women and “taken them underground.” Wrapping around all the mystery is the continuing unrequited relationship between Ruth and Nelson. Clearly they want to be with each other, but both have misgivings or other commitments. And, as if their already complicated personal situation wasn’t complex enough, Griffiths introduces two major life experiences here – a death and an impending birth. As usual, their relationship ups and downs drive the story forward.

This is the 9th entry in the Ruth Galloway series, and they just keep getting better. Very often, a series has a single focus – it’s a mystery, it’s a thriller, etc. – and the author excels at the genre, but isn’t always able to build a convincing world for their characters. Griffiths does that masterfully in the Galloway series. The mystery is a part of the world, something to be handled and managed and solved, but the core of the story is always the characters and their relationships with one another. While Ruth and Nelson are the apex characters, Griffiths has spent a good deal of time fleshing out the supporting characters, which makes them and their world real.

At the end of this, I am left impatiently waiting for the next entry, and pondering the question, “Who’s the father?” If you haven’t read the previous 8 books, go get them, binge read 1-9, and then grab up #10 as soon as it comes out.

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IMG_0083When I requested this book from NetGalley, I vaguely thought it would somehow be about Jack the Ripper. What I found, though, was an intricate, unique, if somewhat wordy story revolving around William Pinkerton of the American Pinkerton Detectives and Swell Mob Prince Adam Foole. Pinkerton and Foole collide over the death of Charlotte Reckitt, one of them hunting her and one loving her. What begins as a seemingly simple story takes many twists and turns throughout to an ending that leaves room for a sequel.

Pinkerton has traveled to London to find Charlotte Reckitt, who he thinks has information about the mysterious Edward Shade, a man who apparently obsessed Pinkerton’s late father. Just as Pinkerton closes in on Reckitt, she jumps off a bridge. Days later, her mutilated body, minus its legs, shows up in pieces. At the same time, Foole returns to London from the U.S. after receiving a letter from Charlotte asking for his help. Despite her betrayal of him years before, he responds.

The story begins to get all twisty once Foole and Pinkerton have the same goal – find out who murdered Charlotte Reckitt. Betrayal, deceit, and loyalty all drive the major passions of this story, which neatly ties up all the loose ends around Charlotte Reckitt, Adam Foole, William Pinkerton, and Edward Shade. For now.

Price does a fine job of drawing compelling characters, and his story is fresh. I was reminded of Caleb Carr’s classic The Alienist a few times while reading this one. Pinkerton, while totally driven to catch the bad guys, is also smart and has a sensitive side. Foole, the slick con man, also has a conscience and loves deeply. The secondary characters, Molly and Fludd, are appealing for their devotion and loyalty to Foole. I want to read more stories about all of these characters! My only quibble with this was the length. As I was reading an Advanced Reading Copy, I expect there is room for some editing. My issue here, though, was only my impatience to get on with the story because it was so good. I do suggest that the reader keep a dictionary of 19th century slang handy, because there’s lots of it here.

By Gaslight is a fine entry into the 19th century crime fiction class, and Pinkerton & Foole have the potential to become a Holmes and Moriarty should the author choose to write more about them. I hope he does. Highly recommended.

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IMG_0082Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series has been one of my go-to’s for years, both for my own reading and for recommending to others.

Until, however, the 11th entry.

A Dangerous Place completely put me off the series because of the horrifying (and, in my opinion, unnecessary) tragedy our heroine experienced right at the beginning. I can’t remember being so shocked at a twist in a series. So, I put Maisie away for awhile.

Then In This Grave Hour was published this year, and I thought I’d get reacquainted with the series. I found an older and wiser Maisie, to be sure, but also a woman who has experienced tremendous grief and is only just recovering some semblance of “normal” life. She has returned to London and restarted her detective agency with the ever trustworthy Billy. She has the means to live comfortably, and she does, even if alone and lonely. Then, England goes to war with Germany, which changes everything…and nothing.

Finding the mysterious Francesca Thomas in her garden late one afternoon, Maisie is once again plunged into a mystery. Thomas, a secretive and powerful attache with the Belgian Embassy, asks Maisie to investigate the death of a former Belgian refugee who was found executed outside his place of work. While Maisie takes the job, she knows that Thomas has not been entirely truthful with her. As Maisie delves deeper into the investigation, she uncovers a web of deceit stretching back to the First War. This part of the story seemed incidental to the bigger story of Maisie herself. The plot here was a little muddied and not terribly compelling. The real story here is Maisie.

While the Thomas investigation gives us the professional side of Maisie Dobbs, the declaration of war reveals the unsteady and somewhat raw personal side. Maisie must cope with the possibility of her beloved “nephews,” the offspring of best pal Priscilla, going off to war and never coming home. She is also drawn back to Surrey, where her father, stepmother, and mother-in-law are coping with children from London being resettled to the country. Maisie is particularly taken with a small girl who doesn’t speak and doesn’t seem to belong anywhere. Though both father and stepmother warn her not to get too attached to the child, Maisie can’t help herself.

In This Grave Hour is a watershed moment for Maisie. She has restored her career, she appears to have made as much peace as possible with her losses from A Dangerous Place, she is tentatively reconnecting with an old male friend, and I am predicting that the introduction of Anna, the displaced child, foreshadows a shift from Maisie the Student to Maisie the Teacher. She is slowly stepping into Maurice’s shoes (for those of you who haven’t read Maisie, Maurice was her mentor), bringing the series full circle. Winspear has won me back, and I am once again eagerly anticipating the next entry in the Maisie Dobbs series. Highly recommended.

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gatherI have written before of my love for Alex Bledsoe’s Tufa books. I swear, I become more enamored with Cloud County and the Tufa with every entry in this series. Bledsoe’s latest, Gather Her Round, does not disappoint. My favorite characters are back – Bliss Overbay, Bronwyn Hyatt Chess, and Mandalay Harris – plus some new folks who show great promise. In this instance, Bledsoe begins with a horrific accident when Kera Rogers is attacked and killed by a wild pig. Kera’s death reveals a love triangle that becomes deadly when one boy who loved her finds out she was seeing his best friend. Soon after, the scorned lover becomes responsible for the death of his friend, also killed by a wild pig, which sets in motion a deadly hunt and plenty of human emotion.

Bledsoe has created a remarkable world within a world in Cloud County, and keeps adding fascinating characters. I am so intrigued by how Mandalay’s story is unfolding and am eagerly awaiting how Bledsoe will resolve the tension between her and Junior Damo. Two new characters who I hope to see in future stories are Janet, the musical prodigy, and Flick, Junior’s dangerous protector. If you haven’t read the Tufa stories, don’t start with this one. Go get The Hum and the Shiver and start from there. You’ll thank me!

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img_1289Sometimes it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie, or dead writers stay dead. Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah, writing as Agatha Christie, is a good example of the latter. When I found myself unable to get through more than one chapter at time before starting to yawn, I should have realized it wasn’t me. The more I read, the less I liked this story. Hannah can write, there’s no question there, so I imagine that trying to channel the great Christie really put a crimp in her style.

The plot, briefly: famous author Athelinda Playford invites Poirot and Edward Catchpool (the detective from the first Hannah/Christie effort, The Monogram Murders) to her estate in Ireland to witness her announcement that she has changed her will, leaving everything to her secretary, Joseph Scotcher. Predictably, her family reacts badly, and Poirot and Catchpool very soon find themselves looking for a murderer.

I found nothing engaging here. The plot was a jumbled mess, and really didn’t make much sense, even at the end. The characters were cardboard cariacatures of the worst of the “usual suspects” in Christie novels, and were almost universally unlikable. The only exception is Athelinda Playford, who Hannah got right. As a lifelong Christie fan with a special affection for Hercule Poirot, I was less than amused to find him insipid and even bumbling along as this story progressed. Christie’s Poirot would never overlook the obvious clue at the murder scene, which became part of the solution.

I enjoyed The Monogram Murders, and had looked forward to Closed Casket, so was fairly disappointed. Will this keep me from reading future entries in the series? Probably not. As I said, Sophie Hannah can write. Let’s call this one a fluke.

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img_1236Reading an ARC is always a crapshoot. The reader has to be flexible and overlook things like excessive description, disjointed story arcs & grammatical errors and concentrate on the story. In Sharyn McCrumb’s The Unquiet Grave, scheduled for publication in June 2017, there’s none of the negative and ALL of the story.

I’ve read McCrumb’s work for years and remain a true fan of her Ballad novels featuring Nora Bonesteel, but also admire her ability to weave folklore and history into compelling stories. In Unquiet Grave, McCrumb tells the story of the “Greenbrier Ghost,” where we meet Zona Heaster Shue, murdered by her no-account husband “Trout” Shue, whose dirty deed is uncovered only after Zona’s mama Mary Jane Heaster claims to be visited by Zona’s ghost, who tells her what happened on the day she died.

McCrumb has taken an old story from the hills of West Virginia and put flesh on its bones through meticulous genealogical and history research. That approach to storytelling can sometimes fall flat if the author is not skilled at character development. There are no worries about that here, though, as McCrumb creates characters that pop off the page. We have Zona Heaster Shue, the beautiful “Greenbrier Ghost,” her swine of a husband, Erasmus “Trout” Shue, and Zona’s Mama, Mary Jane Heaster, who form the triangle that results in Trout Shue’s trial. Truth be told, I didn’t much like Zona or Trout, but Mary Jane? Oh my! Her dislike of Trout Shue leapt off the page, and I *felt* her cold rage when she was given the news of Zona’s death. McCrumb skillfully conveys Mary Jane’s helplessness, rage, and grief as she copes with the loss of the only beautiful thing in her life.

The companion story to the Heaster-Shue murder introduces attorney James P.D. Gardner and Dr. James Boozer. Gardner served as Second Chair in the Greenbrier Ghost trial, and lived a seemingly fulfilling and successful life and career. We find him at a crossroads, having lost his second wife and not seeing any point in continuing to live. After a suicide attempt, Gardner is committed to an asylum, where he meets Dr. Boozer, who attempts to understand Gardner and get him well through conversation. Gardner tells the story of the legal side of the Greenbrier Ghost, lending insight into 19th century law and the concept of “justice” in a small, mountain community.

By juxtaposing the two stories, McCrumb communicates the emotion of the situation through Zona, Trout, and especially Mary Jane. Gardner’s story provides the factual side of things, with the lead lawyer Mr. Rucker grasping at every straw possible to save his client. We get some insight to the tactics used by lawyers to get their clients off, as well as a quick peek at “mountain justice.”

There are one or two places throughout the story that could use some editing for length, such as the pages devoted to describing Rucker’s exploits in the Civil War, but on the whole, The Unquiet Grave is remarkable. I will be buying this in hardcover when it comes out in June. Recommended.

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