Sep 302014

Four-and-a-half years ago I started How Mysterious! in response to a question posed by another public relations professor, who wanted to know how many of us who were teaching social media had ever really used it (for commercial rather than academic purposes). I decided to try, and I chose a book review blog focused on mysteries because I love to read them anyway. I added movies (and later TV shows) when I realized how hard it is to read and review more than 1-2 books a week, but expediency turned out to be lucky because of how many good mysteries/thrillers are out there.

I kept this blog going a lot longer than I had intended, because it was fun. I enjoy keeping track of what I read and interacting with other mystery readers. I love getting free books, especially when I got them earlier than everyone else(!). And I like that it encouraged me to try new authors, sub- genres, and especially countries-of-origin just to be able to share them with other people.

But, even with all of that in mind, I’ve decided it’s time to kill How Mysterious. I’ve learned what I wanted to and more, so now it’s time to put my time into other projects. (Although…I have an account on Goodreads and may review there from time to time.) Thanks to everyone who contributed to making this so much more than an academic exercise, especially Margot, Elli, Colleen, Peggy, Harvee, Dorte, Bernadette, Natalie, and Joan. It’s been so much fun interacting with you and others over books.

I thought I’d finish with a list of my most highly recommended books and movies. They’ve all been reviewed here.

From Iceland: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Arnaldur Indriðason
Funny: Spencer Quinn, Colin Cotterill, The Thin Man movies
Set in Northern England: Elly Griffiths, David Mark
Canadians you may not have heard of: Jill Edmondson, Elizabeth J. Duncan
Featuring strong women: Jacqueline Winspear, Laurie R. King, Alexander McCall Smith, Alan Bradley
Stand alones: Last Talk with Lola Faye, Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio
On TV: Wallender, The Bletchley Circle, Foyle’s War
Scandinavians: Sjöwall & Wahlöö, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Karin Fossum, Håkan Nesser
Just plain good: Benjamin Black, Louise Penny, Hitchcock movies

Happy reading!

Sep 292014

Way back in July 2010, when How Mysterious! was in its infancy, I read the first Martin Beck mystery, Roseanna, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and now here I am at the end. The Terrorists is the last in the 10-book series, published in 1975, and like the others it contains both a good mystery and some biting commentary on Swedish (and, in this case, global) culture.

As the book opens, National Commissioner of Police Martin Beck is attending the trial of a young woman who robbed a bank. It’s an open and shut case, because she doesn’t deny that she walked in, asked for money, and walked out. But her defense counsel soon shreds the prosecution, in part though the testimony of Martin Beck, and the young woman walks free. “Neither school, nor her own parents, nor the older generation in general have on the whole offered her support or encouragement. That she has not bothered to involve herself in the present system of rule cannot be blamed on her,” he tells the court.

It’s an important theme, and it along with Rebecka Lind will reappear in the book.

The main storyline focuses on ULAG, a new terrorist group that’s been assassinating political leaders around the world. With the impending visit from a famous American senator to Sweden, the whole country’s security forces are on high alert, and Martin Beck is tapped to oversee the motorcade trip from the airport to a wreath-laying ceremony in town. He gathers his team, whom we’ve gotten to know in the previous 9 books, and they pinpoint the most dangerous areas for the journey, creating a plan to thwart the terrorists.

When, just before the big moment arrives, they realize that at least one of the terrorists has made it into the country, they have to go forward anyway and hope their plans are good enough.

The unnamed American senator, clearly Barry Goldwater or a very close facsimile, provides some of the laughs that appear in every Sjöwall and Wahlöö book, as when the “tall, sunburned man with a winning smile and sparkling white teeth” raises his hat and “waved gaily at the demonstrators and policemen” despite the banners that proclaim “Yankee Go Home” and “Motherfucking Murderer.” If you’re like me you’ll be glad that when forced to shake his hand, Gunvald Larsson gripped the senator so hard that it made his hand hurt.

In the end Lennart Kollberg summarizes the series’ social commentary when he complains about the nationalization of the police force. “Violence has rushed like an avalanche throughout the whole of the Western world over the last ten years. You can’t stop or steer that avalanche on your own,” he tells Beck. “It just increases. That’s not your fault.” We’ve sunk to bad times when not even Martin Beck can save the day.


Sep 262014

“North by Northwest,” “Vertigo,” “Psycho,” and “Rear Window.” Just a few of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous and even beloved mystery/suspense films.

The thing is, I’ve seen them all about a million times. But I’d never seen “The Lady Vanishes,” his 1938 film about a woman, Iris Henderson (played by Margaret Lockwood), traveling on a train and being the only person who notices or is willing to admit that a former governess named Miss Froy has disappeared.

A number of Hitchcock films feature a man falsely accused or trying to unravel a mystery but no one believes him except one beautiful (and often blond) woman. By contrast, this one features a lovely woman believed by only one man, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave). He’s determined to help her, even though everyone else insists that she only believes she saw Miss Froy because she suffered a concussion before boarding the train. But Iris is clear-headed and persistent in her claim that she spoke to and shared tea with the Englishwoman, and Gilbert decides to help her.

“The Lady Vanishes” is not as suspenseful as some of Hitchcock’s later films, but I enjoyed it because it’s classic Hitchcock that I hadn’t already seen, not even once. So my advice is to stray from the most popular mystery movies and try something new. And enjoy.

Sep 242014

Christina Freeburn’s Faith Hunter Scrap This mystery series features a protagonist with a secret, and in Embellished to Death she learns that she’s not the only one who can lie by omission.

The third book in the series, Embellished to Death takes place at a scrapbooking weekend at a resort in the mountains of West Virginia. Faith has agreed to run the on-site store for her grandmothers, but as the primary vendor at the resort, she also ends up picking up the slack for the retreat. On the way to the resort, Faith spots Marsha’s car on the side of the road, though she’s no where to be seen, and her partner Lydia doesn’t seem any better off.

If that’s not enough, she almost gets hit by a car careening through the parking lot, which struck and killed another woman after missing her. Throughout the weekend Marsha and Lydia, the two purported retreat organizers, appear and disappear, seem to be drunk, and are unable to manage the basics like doling out tables to scrapbookers who’ve paid to have a space reserved with their friends.

Faith, therefore, runs around trying to help everyone else, while supervising the store and helping her friend Bob who’s trying to catch an identity thief who’s apparently attending the retreat, too.

But even that’s not all that’s on Faith’s plate; she also brought her boyfriend Steve with her. Steve, who doesn’t know about her sordid past with an ex-husband who framed her for murder. But when she finally decides to spill the beans, she finds out that Steve also has a past to share.

Although it’s set at a scrapbooking retreat, the book doesn’t provide much guidance to scrapbookers, focusing mostly on Faith’s adventures and her relationship with Steve. If you aren’t a scrapbooker, you shouldn’t be put off by the setting, but if you are, you may be disappointed. In that case I continue to recommend Joanna Campbell Slan’s Kiki Lowenstein series.

I thought the plot in Embellished to Death was at times unnecessarily complicated, but I’m relieved that Faith’s secret is finally out — now the series can focus on her investigations, which look as though they’ll become more formal in future novels.

I read an advance review copy of Christina Freeburn’s Embellished to Death from the publisher via NetGalley.

Sep 222014

I typically have a hard time reading stories with children in danger, but Jussi Adler-Olsen‘s latest Department Q features a boy who’s so smart, and street smart, that I didn’t mind too much.

That would, of course, be Marco. He’s 15 years old, but he looks younger, which as it happens makes him a highly effective pickpocket and scam artist. It’s not that he wants to be that way, it’s that his father and uncle have forced him into the life of a clan where only the uncle, Zola, seems to profit.

But the book begins in Africa, where a group of Danes are supposed to be investing in the development of a tribe called the Baka, but instead they’re lining their own pockets. When the scheme starts to unravel, the conspirators have to try to limit the damage, and so they begin to kill people. The first Dane to die, William Stark, is a good guy who only wants to get back to his partner and her sick daughter. But instead he ends up in a shallow grave… where Marco finds him.

Once Marco realizes his clan is involved, he also realizes he has to get away, and thus begins his long attempt to escape the family while also making sure justice is served.

Department Q gets involved, as usual, because Carl Mørck’s assistant Rose has decided William Stark’s missing person case should be next on their agenda. She’s also begun doing some training, learning to go door-to-door and doing some questioning. Meanwhile, Assad’s Middle Eastern past and connections continue to be revealed. And although there’s little new evidence regarding the incident that led Mørck to be shot, it’s clear that that case also continues to haunt Carl, who has a couple of serious panic attacks, and Hardy (his police partner), whose hard work on recovery finally pays off.

Along with Louise Penny’s Three Pines Mysteries, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q books are among the very favorites I’ve discovered since blogging. They aren’t anything alike, except that in both series books take place inside a larger story arc, but I never finish a book in either series without wishing I had another.

Read this series. I beg you!

I read an advance review copy of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Marco Effect provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Sep 192014

Louise Penny’s last book, How the Light Gets In, ended with the resignation of the homicide chief of the Sûreté du Québec, but also with the hint that he wasn’t really finished with investigation.

The Long Way Home runs with that notion.

A number of characters were killed or injured at the conclusion of that last book, but by the time this one picks up, all the main characters are healthy and happy where they should be. All but one: Peter Morrow.

Morrow’s wife Clara is a successful artist whose career suddenly and surprisingly surpassed that of her husband. His inability to enjoy or even appreciate her success led her to ask him to leave, but they decided he’d come back in a year so that they could decide what to do about their marriage. A year later, he’s failed to come back, and so she asks Armand Gamache to help her find him.

The fact that he’s no longer an inspector doesn’t really cause any problems; Gamache’s new son-in-law Jean-Guy is an officer and can access databases and so forth without any trouble. In addition, his replacement at the Sûreté is one of his most loyal officers, one who can be relied upon to help. So Gamache, Jean-Guy, Clara and her best friend/Armand’s therapist Myrna leave Three Pines in search of Peter.

As with earlier books, some of the clues lie within art and on an artist’s (or poet’s) inability to interpret clues the rest of us might miss. At times that’s a little annoying to me, someone with no artistic ability whatsoever, because I can’t see how they could deduce as much as they do from someone’s art, but maybe I’m just jealous.

The Long Way Home lacks the punch of some of Penny’s earlier books, but I suppose that’s to be expected since the last book provided the grand finale of a multiple-book story arc. I ordered the audiobook from prior to a long road trip to Alabama, and it sure made the drive a lot more entertaining.

Sep 172014

Who doesn’t love a good academic mystery? (Don’t answer that.) Marshall Jevons’ The Mystery of the Invisible Hand makes Nobel Prize-winning economist Henry Spearman a visiting professor/sleuth in San Antonio, Texas.

The setting is relevant because it’s the home of William Breit, an economist at Trinity University and half the duo, along with Kenneth Elzinga of the University of Virginia, who write as Marshall Jevons (though it seems that only Elzinga wrote this one).

It’s hard to imagine how a short, balding Nobel Prize winner from Harvard could use economic theories to help solve mysteries, but Jevons manages it, with a sense of humor and a whooooole lot of economics. In this book, Spearman has just won the Nobel and is invited to spend a semester at a small private university in San Antonio. He’s allowed to teach anything he wants, so he pioneers a new class on Art and Economics. In various scenes he gives public speeches, leads class discussions and generally lectures people on economics whether or not they’re interested. Can you say Adam Smith? Repeatedly?

It turns out that his subject matter is perfect, because just before he and his wife Pidge arrive in town, a neighbor of his guest house is robbed of his art and another neighbor, the rising star artist who painted the stolen art, commits suicide. Or… did he?

As an academic, I found the best thing about this book to be the time and resources Spearman puts into prepping for class and holding office hours. If anything, he pours more into it than you’d expect, which is not the case in most other academic mysteries I’ve read. And it’s also clear that Spearman (and his creators) are passionate about economics and the ways it can inform everyday decision-making. And by the way, this one’s even published by an academic press (Princeton UP).

As a mystery reader, the best thing is that the topic of economics is not merely window-dressing: economic theorizing really does solve the mystery. Don’t let that put you off, though; I’ve never taken an economics class but Spearman explains everything so clearly to his undergrads that I could follow along, too.

Clever, witty, educational. If you’re into academic mysteries, be sure to find a copy of The Mystery of the Invisible Hand.

I read an advance review copy provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Sep 122014

Lieutenant Abrams: You know that jockey Golez, the one who was caught throwing the fourth race yesterday? He was shot.
Nora Charles: My, they’re strict at this track!

It’s not the best of the Thin Man movies, but “Shadow of the Thin Man” has some funny moments as Nick and Nora try to solve the murder of a jockey as well as stopping organized crime involvement in gambling at the track.

The movie, fourth of six in the series, begins with the murder of the jockey; Nick (as always played by William Powell) doesn’t want to investigate, though, because he’s having too much fun. His pal Lt. Abrams convinces him to get involved anyway, and Nick’s investigation leads him beyond the track to the wrestling arena — something new for Nora (Myrna Loy) — and a restaurant in which Asta the dog sets off a massive brawl.

Don’t ask why Asta was at a restaurant. Just go with it.

Although there are plenty of jokes about alcohol (along with a scene of Nick drinking milk), “Shadow of the Thin Man” seemed weightier than some of the films. Released just a few weeks before Pearl Harbor, perhaps the war in Europe is the real shadow cast over this film. I’d be more inclined to blame Nicky, who’s old enough to keep Nick and Nora from some of the fun I’d rather watch.

Nonetheless, it’s still light and enjoyable, with lots of glamorous clothing for Nora and questionable characters who all seem to know Nick, and you can count on Asta to uncover a most significant clue. Watch it next time you need a giggle and a mystery that no one but Nick could solve.

Sep 082014

Charles Todd’s usually reliable Bess Crawford series missed a step with 2014’s An Unwilling Accomplice, but it’s still a favorite of mine.

I liked the book’s premise: Bess, a World War I nurse, is asked to escort a wounded soldier to receive a medal from the King. That night, the soldier leaves his hotel room, never to return. Shortly thereafter, he’s accused of murdering another soldier on extended leave.

The only question from the point of view of Bess’s superiors is whether she was an active participant in the man’s plot or just an unwitting, and unwilling, accomplice. Either way, she’s disgraced the service by letting a decorated war hero disappear only hours after meeting the monarch. Bess, of course, wants to clear her name, and she uses her unwanted leave to begin an investigation.

That part got my attention. What intrigued me far less was the way Bess and Simon (is she ever going to notice that her father’s right-hand man loves her beyond words?) drive around unfamiliar countryside following a string of ridiculous clues (they happen to overhear that a lost horse had returned and instantly realize the deserter had taken it) through a series of villages where they can’t contact the police but somehow manage to figure out where he must’ve gone. Then they keep driving back and forth through three Dysoes (upper, middle and lower) peppering people with questions and ignoring requests that they leave, occasionally getting shot at, until they solve the mystery.

Bess is a wonderful character, and I hope her series continues after the war, which is slowly winding down in the autumn of 1918. But I hope future books aren’t based on such tenuous clues and leaps to conclusions that somehow manage to be right (or almost right). I kept finding myself thinking, “Really? Really!?!” which is not the mood I like to bring to a mystery.

Sep 042014

As a child in the ’70s I frequently visited Toledo, Ohio, where my grandparents lived, and once they off-handedly mentioned that the woman who wrote in the local paper, Margaret Wirt Benson, was the author of Nancy Drew. Shocked and somewhat devastated, I insisted that Carolyn Keene was the author.

Of course my grandparents were right; Margaret Wirt Benson was Carolyn Keene. But she was only the first. Melanie Rehak’s Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her explains the various roles people played in the creation of one of America’s most beloved children’s series.

I won’t try to recount the whole story, but instead will point out that the person who first dreamed Nancy up wasn’t Carolyn Keene or Margaret Wirt Benson or even a woman. Instead, it was “children’s book mogul Edward Stratemeyer,” whose 1929 memo called for a series of 224-page “Stella Strong Stories” focusing on a 16-year-old girl being raised by her father, a district attorney, and getting involved in her own mysteries. (Fortunately, she was renamed Nancy Drew.) Stratemeyer hired Margaret, a graduate student at the University of Iowa, who wrote the first seven books (as well as many of the later ones). When Stratemeyer died, his daughter Harriet took over and eventually she also wrote many of the series.

Stratemeyer provided an outline for the first Nancy Drews, but Mildred created her character. “Underneath her matching sweater sets,” Rehak says, “Nancy, as her decisive last name implies, was a force unto herself from the first, all action, and it prevented her from being an unredeemable goody-goody.”

Rehak believes that her missing mother (who died when Nancy was just 3 years old) is the key to Nancy’s success. “The absence of that role model  is not only sympathetic but serves her well in some senses. There was no one to nag her about chores or clothes or to worry about her gallivanting around; her brilliant, charismatic father dotes on her.” And, unlike other popular girls’ series of the time, Nancy didn’t have a mother pushing her to get married (which ruined the series for girls who wanted adventure rather than romance).

Unless you’re studying the history of children’s literature, if you don’t love Nancy you may not enjoy Girl Sleuth. But I was fascinated to learn the backstory of a childhood heroine.

And now my 9-year-old has read the two books in the series — Margaret’s The Secret of the Old Clock and The Hidden Staircase. When she saw Rehak’s Girl Sleuth and I mentioned that it was about the people who created Nancy Drew, she too tried to insist that the author was Carolyn Keene, until she finally said, “Well, I’m just going to think it’s Carolyn Keene.” In the end, though, I’m convinced that Margaret Wirt Benson is the true creator of Nancy Drew — if not the series, than the character.

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