Aug 262014
 

I missed The Arnifour Affair, but The Bellingham Bloodbath is the second in what appears to be a new alphabet series (as in Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone mysteries).

Colin Pendragon is a private investigator operating in post-Ripper Victorian London; his partner, Ethan Pruitt, is also his life partner, and they share a home. I’m not convinced that this could ever have happened, but let’s just suspend that disbelief for the sake of the story. Ethan, who’s the narrator, has an interesting past, including having lived as a child in a drug den with an older woman who cared for him in every way except to provide any affection. Colin rescued the drug-addled young man from this fate, and they now work together to solve mysteries.

Pendragon is the public face of the team. He’s famous, and so when an officer in the Queen’s own guard is brutally murdered, along with his wife, Colin is retained by Her Majesty’s Home Guard, neatly cutting out Scotland Yard — whose reputation was still suffering because of the unsolved Jack the Ripper murders.

It’s not clear that anyone in the guard really wants the case solved, though, given how quickly they either become enraged or clam up upon questioning. Everyone insists that Capt. Bellingham was a wonderful man, a perfect officer, and a good friend. Yet someone tortured him without mercy before he died. Ethan finds the first clue when he learns that Bellingham and several other officers had been involved in a bar brawl with a group of Irish guardsmen in which one man had been killed.

There’s a strong element of ticking-clock investigation here, as Colin has rather rashly agreed to solve the crime in a few short days or face the London press to parrot the Guard’s official version of what happened: his perfect record in solving crimes has made him a most credible source.

The book reads quickly and easily, and Pendragon is an astute investigator who often picks up on things that his partner misses. Unlike Sherlock and Watson, though, Pruitt often unearths highly significant clues, without which the case could not be solved. The Victorian setting is given a turn by forcing the detectives to hide so much of themselves while uncovering private things about the people they investigate. It’s a different take on what is otherwise well-covered territory, and I enjoyed it.

I read an advance review copy of Gregory Harris’ The Bellingham Bloodbath provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Aug 212014
 

Austrian author Gabi Kreslehner’s Rain Girl includes an engrossing plot, well-developed characters, and a victim in whose own past the present crime is embedded.

The book begins with the death of a beautiful young woman who, staggering along the autobahn in a driving rain, is killed by a car. But when police detectives Franza (who’s carrying on an affair with a famous young actor) and Felix (who learns that his wife is expecting twins) begin to investigate, they realize that she had already been attacked and left for dead before that. They don’t even know who she is, and their primary clue is composed of a few cigarette butts left near the scene of the accident.

As they dig deeper, Franza and Felix learn the young woman’s name, Marie, and figure out that she had a troubled past but had recently begun to turn her life around: she had fallen in love, been accepted to university in Berlin, and was ready to leave the group home where she lived. That hadn’t stopped her from working as a prostitute, though, and often with the most inappropriate of men (a doctor who worked with women at the group home, for instance).

The main character, Franza, is living in a passionless marriage, and her son Ben has grown up even if he hasn’t really settled down. She begins her affair with the actor, Port, with the understanding that it was just a fling, but recently he’s come to mean more to her than she’d planned. But what does she owe her husband, Max? She’s not really sure.

Her best relationship is with her police partner, Felix, who seems to understand her better than anyone else. She finally confides her problems to him, recognizing that he’s her best friend. Together the two detectives are also training young Arthur, although at one point Franza wonders if it’s fair to bring someone into the life of homicide detection — it takes a toll.

The plot takes a sad turn when the reader learns why Marie has led such a misguided sex life, and an even sadder one when it becomes clear who kills her. But Franza and the other detectives treat her life and death with a great deal of respect and empathy, perhaps more than she was used to receiving. It makes it all a bit more human, and bearable.

I read a review copy of Rain Girl provided by the publisher.

Aug 192014
 

Although I’ve read every one of Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone mysteries, I’d never tried her husband Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective series (though I’ve read their jointly authored Quincannon and Carpenter books). Strangers is the 43rd, yes, I said forty-third, book in the series.

It feels almost pointless to review one at this point.

But, maybe you’re like me and somehow haven’t read one and actually wonder if the series is worth your time. The quick answer is yes.

In Strangers, Nameless — the lead character was apparently never named — has agreed to help a woman he hasn’t seen in 20 years help clear her son, who’s been charged with a series of rapes. She’s sure he couldn’t have done such a thing; everyone else in the small Nevada town where they live is sure he did.

I’m not sure if all the Nameless books have as much of a Western feel as this one. He’s usually based in San Francisco, but the Nevada setting allows Pronzini to capitalize on many of the typical elements of a Wild West story. There’s a hermit, for example, and a sheriff who brooks no nonsense, and even, it turns out, a town whore. In the end, though, Nameless discovers that what seemed obvious doesn’t turn out that way, and the town is not as stereotypical as it first seemed.

OK, and now the shocker, or at least I was shocked: his old flame calls him by name. What?! I thought the whole point was that he’s nameless. Well, I’m not going to give it away in case a long-time series reader sees this.

At any rate, the book was a quick, entertaining read with unexpected twists yet a mystery that a reader can solve with the clues provided. I don’t know that I have it in me to go back and read the first 42, but I’d definitely read others in this series.

I read an advance review copy of Bill Pronzini’s Strangers, provided by Desirae Friesen of Forge Publicity.

Aug 082014
 

I watched “Ministry of Fear,” directed by Fritz Lang, in direct counterpoint to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent,” the last movie I reviewed. They didn’t turn out to be as different as I’d expected.

Here’s the story: Ray Milland plays Stephen Neale, a man newly released from a mental asylum and trying to head home. While waiting for the train, he stops at a village fete, where the fortune teller gives him the proper code to win a cake. He shrugs this strange sequence of events off, until an old man on the train starts crumbling a piece of the cake as if looking for something, and then, when the train is stopped because of bombing, he steals the rest of the cake and runs away, shooting at Neale. Unfortunately for him, though, a Nazi bomb hits his shelter and the old man dies.

Neale has no idea what to think about all this. He makes it to London, but keeps stumbling into other odd situations, like a seance in which a man is killed and everyone thinks he did it, and a beautiful Austrian refugee (Marjorie Reynolds) who seems to want to help him. Obviously it’s hard for Neale to figure out whom to trust, but it’s also difficult for the viewer to know if Neale can be trusted, at least until we find out why he was in the sanitarium.

In the feature that goes along with “Ministry,” an expert on Lang’s films suggested that “Ministry” is a more complex film than “Foreign Correspondent,” which has a black-and-white, who’s good and who’s bad plot, whereas Lang’s films make it harder to figure out who to cheer for. For instance, a police officer in “Ministry” is filmed as a scary shadow coming up the stairs, which is normally the signal of a bad guy. Although I agree that it’s hard to untangle the plot and characters in “Ministry,” I think the Lang expert short-changed “Foreign Correspondent,” which also has some who-can-be-trusted moments, including a beautiful blonde who may or may not be in love with the main character.

At any rate, “Ministry of Fear” is a very good World War II espionage/anti-Nazi film, one that pairs well with “Foreign Correspondent.” If that’s what you’re in the mood for, make it a double feature.

Aug 072014
 

Wow. Mollie Cox Bryan’s scrapbooking mystery series took a turn that I didn’t see coming. And I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

Scrapped is the second in the Cumberland Creek series, focused around a group of women who scrapbook together every weekend and occasionally team up to solve a mystery. In the first book a neighbor was killed; in this one it’s a new but beloved member of the scrapbooking group.

Cookie is witch. That is to say, she believes in a new age-y, earth mother sort of witchcraft; her project is a Scrapbook of Shadows full of not family pictures as most scrapbooks portray, but herbs and nature and a fairy that seems to have thrown glitter into one member’s eyes. She’s also a yoga teacher. Yet no one really seems to know Cookie

When not one but two red-headed women from a Mennonite community on the mountain turn up dead, with unusual runes carved into their bodies, Cookie becomes the sheriff’s chief suspect, in part because she understands the runes, but also in part because (unbeknownst to her scrapbooking friends) Cookie’s caught the attention of the FBI on previous occasions.

My favorite part about this series is that it develops a variety of the characters’ personal lives. In addition to Cookie, for example, there’s 81-year-old Beatrice, who made a love connection in Paris, and her daughter Vera doesn’t love but sure likes being with New Yorker Tony, although her ex-husband wants her and their young daughter back. If there is a main character it’s Annie Chamovitz, a reporter who’s constantly dogging the steps of Lt. Bryant, and a Jew who feels threatened by some of the local characters whose religious beliefs don’t extend to tolerance.

It’s with Beatrice that Scrapped took an unexpected and maybe even unwelcome turn. Bea is a quantum physicist who believes in time travel, and through both conversation and actions Cookie seems to confirm her belief. It’s not an entirely implausible storyline: I’m as big a “Star Trek” fan as any (well, almost any). It just doesn’t seem to belong in a scrapbooking mystery series.

My skepticism aside, I do like the characters that Mollie Cox Bryan has begun to develop in the Cumberland Creek series, and for that reason I will read #3, maybe just to find out what happens with this surprising development!

Aug 052014
 

Bridgette RussellI’ve loved Spencer Quinn’s Chet and Bernie series from the first book, but now that I’ve got a dog myself I can appreciate #7, Paw and Order, even more.

Honesty compels me to report that the mysteries aren’t the best part of this series, and Paw and Order is no different. Because the books are narrated by Chet the dog, it’s hard to get the full story, in this case involving Russian sleepers operating in Washington, D.C. Chet’s usually thinking about food, naps or his adoration of Bernie.

Paw and Order picks up right after the previous book, set in the Louisiana bayou, ends. Already on the east coast, Bernie decides to go visit Suzie, who left Arizona for a reporting job at the Washington Post. She’s onto a hot story, although she’s not entirely sure what it’s going to be about, when her prime source is murdered. Bernie is set up for the crime, but the police quickly realize it couldn’t have been him, and they not only turn him loose but give him permission to operate as a private investigator in Virginia.

Bernie’s not happy about being part of the setup, and Suzie wants to find out what the source’s story was going to be, so they team up to investigate. Sounds like a great idea, until Chet realizes that Suzie’s going to take his seat riding shotgun in the Porsche and he’ll be stuck riding on the little shelf by the back window. Suzie’s sharp enough to recognize that Chet is starting to resent her; but it doesn’t matter, because soon enough Bernie’s acting like a stupid male again, so he and Suzie go independent.

Moving to D.C. allows Chet to experience new things: he takes a real shine to the Washington Monument, and the unusual red-eyed bird that keeps hanging around outside Suzie’s house is something different entirely.

So if it’s a hard-core whodunnit you’re after, this isn’t your book. But if you’ve got a love of dogs (that’s our mutt above), you won’t be able to resist this series.

I read an advance review copy of Spencer Quinn’s Paw and Order courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

Jul 312014
 

Lynn Cahoon’s second Tourist Trap mystery, Mission to Murder, continues to develop into light, fun series that cozy lovers will enjoy.

Following the events of Guidebook to Murder, coffee/bookshop owner Jill Gardner finds herself involved in another mystery involving the home she inherited from the elderly Miss Emily in the tourist town of South Cove, California. The old stone wall discovered on her property in the previous book is under review to determine if it might be the site of the old mission. Although she’d rather hang a hammock in her backyard, Jill wants to see the site get its proper due. However, the unpleasant owner of the town’s other historic site, The Castle, is doing anything he can to block her petition.

Naturally, Craig Thomas turns up dead. After a very public fight with Jill.

On the bright side, Jill’s new boyfriend Greg is a police detective, and he knows she didn’t do it. Still, everyone else is gossiping about Jill, and she wants to put an end to it.

As in the previous book, a good part of the fun in Mission to Murder is the cast of quirky characters populating South Cove. Esmerelda the psychic keeps sending messages to Jill; Jill’s best friend Amy has a boyfriend who doesn’t deserve her; Aunt Jackie has a secret marketing plot to promote the bookstore that involves Jill signing blank checks; and Toby the cop/barista has his own way of bringing in business.

I have to say that the multitudes of long, deep kisses between Jill and Greg got on my nerves, but I’ll give it a pass since their relationship is new, and after all, Lynn Cahoon does bill herself as a romance writer in addition to this series’ mystery angle.

Mission to Murder is a quick, entertaining read with a plausible mystery, and I recommend this series for people who like romantic, cozy mysteries.

Jul 292014
 

The Red Road is Denise Mina’s fourth Alex Morrow mystery, set in Glasgow and featuring a young mother who’s a police detective and the sister of a well-known criminal. In this book, she’s going to have to deal with the latter.

As in her other books, Mina (pronounced like mynah bird, not meena as I’d thought) doesn’t shy from the graphic violence that frames Alex’s world. This one starts with a young girl, a 14-year-old prostitute who snaps and commits not one but two murders on a dark night in Glasgow’s back streets. Thus the reader knows who Rose is and how she’s involved with some of the major characters long before the police do.

Alex enters the scene when she’s testifying against a weapons dealer. After she leaves the court room, though, she finds out that Michael Brown’s fingerprints have been identified at another crime scene — a murder that took place when he was in jail awaiting trial. She asks to take his prints again, and he refuses. What?

If only anyone but Alex had to deal with the problem. She’s an unpopular member of the force for having turned in a crooked cop; her team has been disbanded and there are very few people she can trust. And now she understands that either the current case or Brown’s previous conviction was, simply, wrong. More bad policing to uncover.

There are all sorts of side stories: Alex’s deteriorating relationship with her brother, Rose’s efforts to keep her adoptive family together, the unraveling life of an attractive older attorney Alex meets in the courtroom.

I listened to the audiobook, as I did with the second (The End of the Wasp Season), and for whatever reason I prefer that with this series, even with a different narrator, Cathleen McCarron. Hearing the story with a Scottish accent somehow serves to remind me of the setting more than anything Mina writes.

The Alex Morrow series is bleak, and yet I never leave the books without thinking that things are going to get better. Perhaps it’s just the complicated Alex’s willingness to keep going even when some people would prefer she didn’t, or her need to do the right thing when doing something else would be so much easier. As long as there’s one good cop, there’s hope for Glasgow.

Jul 232014
 

In Oliver and the Seawigs, Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre have crafted a charming children’s story in which young Oliver saves his explorer parents with the help of a mermaid, an albatross and a rambling island named Cliff.

Oliver and his parents, having finally explored everything there is to explore, arrive home, only to discover a bunch of new islands where there shouldn’t be any. Naturally, his parents hop into a boat to check them out. When they don’t come back, though, Oliver realizes he’s got to go find them.

He takes his own inflatable dinghy and lands on one of the islands, only to realize it’s actually alive, and not just because there’s an albatross named Mr. Culpepper. The island is one of the Rambling Isles which can move at will and are all on their way to the Hallowed Shallows for the once-every-seven-year competition to see who has the best seawig — the artfully arranged decorations on top of their heads (which is the part of the island that usually shows above water).

The unfortunate Cliff, however, has not much more than Mr. Culpepper’s nest, and he knows that he’s not going to win. Again. But at Oliver’s insistence and the assistance of the near-sighted mermaid Iris, Cliff is crowned by a wrecked submarine, making him a possible contender.

But then a nasty old rambling isle named the Thurlstone steals the wreck, and Oliver spies another treasure in its seawig: his own parents! The rest of the story concerns his efforts to get them back while also helping Cliff in his quest.

More adventure than mystery, Oliver and the Seawigs is delightfully illustrated, in a way that helps the reader see what’s happening without being too scary. Young chapter book readers with big imaginations will enjoy both story and pictures — maybe as much as I did.

I read an advance review copy of Oliver and the Seawigs provided by the publisher.

Jul 212014
 

One of my favorite crime fiction bloggers, Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen, turns out to be a very fine crime fiction writer, as proven by her book Anna Märklin’s Family Chronicles.

The book contains the stories of two characters; first, a young woman named Anna Jensen, whose intriguing neighbor Karin gets into a number of interesting and perhaps dangerous situations, and second, Anna’s farmor (father’s mother), Anna Märklin. Current day Anna doesn’t know much about her farmor and, despite her father becoming quite ill, no one seems willing to talk about her. REcognizing there’s a family secret buried here, Anna decides to investigate.

She begins with a trip to Småland with her boyfriend Lars — a man who is not entirely what he seems — where she learns that her farmor’s brother had been murdered. Obviously she was right: something deep and dark lurked in her family’s past. Later, when she finds some family papers, Anna begins to read her farmor’s life story in her own words and illustrations. What begins as a charming story of a pre-World War II childhood, however, begins to turn with the arrival of an older half brother and his friend, home from the university for vacation.

In the meantime, Anna’s neighbor Karin disappears, is featured in a scandalous news story, and reappears, only to disappear again. Like Lars, Karin is not all that she first appears, in both instances because Anna chooses to see and think of them in particular ways. Unwinding the story of her grandmother and eventually figuring out what happened to Karin gives her the strength to face what she’s kept hidden from herself. Although she goes through several difficult situations, Anna emerges a stronger and better person at the end of the book.

Finding a good book is always fun, but finding one written by someone you know (even if it’s just virtually) is even better. You can find Dorte’s e-book on Amazon.com.

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