Apr 182014
 

I’m not generally a huge fan of the “fugitive man, wrongly accused” genre, but if you watch enough Hitchcock you can’t really avoid it. “Saboteur” (1942) puts the theme into the context of World War II, with generally good effect.

As the film begins, Barry Kane and his best friend, employee in a airplane factory in California, run up against Mr. Fry, a grumpy, standoffish fellow war worker who isn’t the least bit grateful when Barry helps him pick up some envelopes and money that he dropped on the way to their break. Only moments later, when a fire breaks out in the factory, Fry hands them a fire extinguisher which has been filled with gasoline. Barry’s best friend dies in the resulting conflagration, and when Fry disappears it looks to the police like Barry must’ve been behind the sabotage.

Barry, played by Robert Cummings, takes off to the address he saw on Fry’s envelope, the only clue he has to finding the real culprit. But his name and description are being spread all across the state because he’s a wanted man.

As he works his way across the state, and then the country, finding a ring of saboteurs and trying to foil their nefarious plot, Barry is helped by a variety of characters, even some who either knew who he was or knew he was wanted by the law, including the other main character, Pat (Priscilla Lane; you knew there had to be a beautiful blonde in an Alfred Hitchcock film). Although he’s obviously the good guy once you get to know him, this struck me as odd for its time. I suppose the fact that the police eventually come around to the right side, along with the various pro-American speeches peppered throughout, was good enough for wartime censors.

If you’re wondering if you’ve seen this before, it’s the Hitchcock film with the climactic scene on top of the Statue of Liberty. If you haven’t, it’s worth watching just for that.

Apr 172014
 

South Cove, California is the tourist trap in the first book in a series by Lynn Cahoon, Guidebook to Murder, featuring Jill Gardner, owner of Coffee, Books, and More (I love that she uses the Oxford comma in her store’s name).

Jill has lived in South Cove for about five years, investing her divorce income in the store in a small tourist town where she moved just because Miss Emily, an elderly resident of the town, convinced her it would be a good place to live. Unfortunately, Miss Emily’s rundown house is an eyesore that the town council’s been after for years, and as the book begins she’s worried sick about a new letter from a lawyer threatening to condemn the property if she doesn’t sell it.

Jill promises to help Miss Emily out, but the next thing you know, the elderly woman is found dead in her bed; Jill, though, is not fooled by the peaceful look on her face. She’s convinced Miss Emily’s been murdered.

If that’s not shocking enough, it turns out Miss Emily left her house and a sizable amount of money to Jill, telling her to get a dog and enjoy herself. Jill feels doubly horrible about Miss Emily’s demise and is determined to get to the bottom of her death, with the help or in spite of the hunky Detective Greg King.

Jill’s frantically trying to renovate the home and fix the landscaping to stave off the city council while also trying to figure out if she really owns it — didn’t Miss Emily have a son? — so she convinces her aunt to come help her run the store while she manages everything else in her life; and then her best friend, city planner and surfer Amy, disappears.

Guidebook to Murder is a light, entertaining cozy, with small-town atmosphere and enough quirky characters, plus the tourist visitors who will come through, to populate a series. Jill’s love of books will resonate with many cozy readers, and her relationship with Detective King will also be fun to watch.

I received an advance review copy of Lynn Cahoon’s Guidebook to Murder from the publisher via NetGalley.

Apr 142014
 

Don’t let the title of Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli’s Dead Little Dolly put you off — Dolly is the title character, and the series is about her, not some crazed child molester who scares children by killing dolls.

Deputy Dolly Wakowski works in a small town in Northern Michigan (the setting is key to my decision to request a review copy on Netgalley — as a child I lived in the Upper Peninsula for several years, so I was curious about how upper Lower Michigan would be portrayed), living with her recently-discovered grandmother and her infant daughter while policing Leetsville.

The story begins with Dolly visiting the grave of a sideshow freak, a bearded woman who was buried in the church graveyard, whom Dolly has adopted as an honorary mother because her own mom dumped her in foster care before taking off to join a religious cult. Dolly’s conversation with Grace is interrupted, though, when someone smashes into her parked police car. Her beautiful baby, Jane, was sleeping in the car, and fortunately she’s okay. But Dolly is going to find out why someone endangered her child, you’d better believe that.

Dead Little Dolly is narrated by Emily Kincaid, a freelance journalist who’s trying to become a mystery novelist and who helps Dolly with the investigation, driving her around until she can get a new patrol car and helping her with interviews and by publishing stories to get public involved. In this book, the fifth in the series, Emily finds a publisher for her first novel, and there’s a clever moment when the publisher wants to know the titles of the next books in her series — and they turn out to be the titles in the Emily Kincaid series.

In addition to a murder, a number of weird things happen, with clues like black jellybeans, but gradually Dolly and Emily put the pieces together, only to realize someone else is in terrible danger.

The setting was a big draw for me, and it might be for you even if you never lived in Michigan. Leetsville is full of quirky characters and a restaurant called EATS. Who could ask for anything more?

Many thanks to the publisher, Beyond the Page, for a review copy of Dead Little Dolly.

Apr 102014
 

I like strong female characters, historical fiction and mysteries, so Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope series is made for me. Maggie grew up in the United States but is working as a British spy during World War II, and she’s a brave and determined spy at that.

In this third book in the series, Maggie has graduated from spy school and is being dropped into Germany with radio crystals for the resistance and a microphone to be slipped into the study of The Boss, a character whose identity is revealed in a previous book but I won’t mention here. She doesn’t realize that the Brits have a bigger mission in mind for her, knowing there’s a good chance that The Boss will recognize her and possibly make a move in return.

The book also tracks Elise Hess, a nurse who doesn’t realize where the Nazis are sending some of her young charges or why, plus a German Jew and a mysterious pilot she wants to try to help. They will all come together in a surprising scene toward the end. It’s a bit unrealistic, but I’m willing to suspend some disbelief in service of an exciting story.

The book’s most heroic character is based on a real German priest who spoke out in opposition to German eugenics, leading to the only moment that the German people ever booed Adolf Hitler. Unfortunately, it didn’t lead to any real change by the Nazis, and the German citizenry didn’t rise up as hoped. But, still, it was a moment of true courage that should be commemorated.

If you like Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series or “The Bletchley Circle” and “Foyle’s War” television programs, you’ll probably like Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope series as well.

Apr 082014
 

I read Chris Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls (not a mystery) for my book club and liked it despite/because of being challenged by a difficult setting and an ending that was hard to swallow. Bohjalian had a way of demonstrating both the desperation and strength of women in a horrible wartime situation — the Armenian genocide in Turkey during World War I.

The same can be said of The Light in the Ruins, which focuses on an Italian family’s World War II experience and its aftermath. This one is a mystery, which takes place in 1955. Homicide investigator Serafina Bettini, a battle-scarred Italian resistance survivor, and the Florence police must solve a horrific case, the murder and desecration of Francesca Rosati, a woman who had survived the wartime loss of her husband and children at the hands of occupying Nazis.

When her mother-in-law, the Marquesa, is similarly murdered, it’s clear that there’s something worse than a serial killer at work. Serafina becomes convinced that the vendetta goes back to the war.

The story flashes back to 1943-44 at the Rosati’s Tuscan manor, the Villa Chimera, describing life under Nazi alliance and then occupation, and the family’s attempts to appease the Germans by allowing them to hold parties at the villa, visiting the Etruscan tomb on the property, and sharing all the wine and fine food they have to offer.

As that story unfolds, Serafina’s investigation continues in 1955, as she works with Cristina Rosati, who was only a teenager during the war, to figure out what’s happening to her family. And gradually Serafina, a tragic figure herself, realizes that the villa figures into her own past as well.

I listened on audiobook and loved Cassandra Campbell’s narration. The only way I can describe it is to say that she caresses the words, both English and Italian, somehow evoking the grandeur of Italian nobility before it fell into ruins along with the Villa Chimera. Mark Bramhall reads the part of the killer, whose brief passages of rumination ramp up the suspense without adding graphic violence or giving anything away.

I really enjoyed The Light in the Ruins, even more than The Sandcastle Girls, and recommend it to mystery lovers, especially those who also like historical fiction.

Apr 042014
 

As an undergraduate student in movie appreciation class I fell in love with “Citizen Kane.” I loved it, thought it was the best movie ever made — and certainly the best mystery film of all time. So you’d think I’d’ve watched “The Stranger” by now (let’s just say it’s been more decades, plural, more than one, during which I’ve had the opportunity to watch it).

Welles plays an escaped former Nazi who’s hidden himself in Connecticut, where he’s managed to persuade a Supreme Court justice’s daughter (Loretta Young) to agree to marry him. The government investigator tracking him, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), arrives in town knowing that he must be there, but not knowing who he is now — Professor Charles Rankin.

When Wilson identifies him, though, he has to find a way to capture him, so he enlists Noah Longstreet to help change his sister’s mind about her new husband. Mr. Wilson indulges in some Freudian psychology — reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Spellbound,
but much less heavy-handed.

Welles plays Rankin (who’s actually Franz Kindler) as a smooth schemer, who finds it easy to befriend his students and win over Mary Longstreet and her father, but who starts to fall apart as he realizes his past is catching up with him. There’s a particularly creepy dinner scene where he discusses “the German” with Mary’s family and Mr. Wilson, including this:

The German sees himself as the innocent victim of world envy and hatred, conspired against, set upon by inferior peoples, inferior nations. He cannot admit to error, much less to wrongdoing, not the German. We chose to ignore Ethiopia and Spain, but we learned from our own casualty list the price of looking the other way. Men of truth everwhere have come to know for whom the bell tolled, but not the German. No! He still follows his warrior gods marching to Wagnerian strains, his eyes still fixed upon the firey sword of Siegfried, and he knows subterranean meeting places that you don’t believe in. The German’s dream world comes alive when he takes his place in shining armor beneath the banners of the Teutonic knights. Mankind is waiting for the Messiah, but for the German, the Messiah is not the Prince of Peace. No, he’s… another Barbarossa… another Hitler. (via IMDB)

As the conversation continues, he gives himself away to Mr. Wilson over, of all things, Karl Marx, but that speech was, I thought, Rankin at his creepiest and Welles at his best.

Although “The Stranger” isn’t as good as “Citizen Kane” (I hope we’ve already established that nothing else is, either), it’s an entertaining mystery with a fine cast and a Hitchcock-esque suspenseful atmosphere, and it should’t be missed by mystery lovers.

Apr 022014
 

Sometimes when I get really busy at work only kid lit will do: I’m already reading so much that I can’t take anything deep. Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy, about a 7th grade boy facing bullies at school and family problems at home, is not a light read, but its prose and message worked for me.

As the story begins, Georges (silent S) is moving with his parents from one apartment to another in New York City; they’re downsizing because his father lost his job as an architect. For the same reason, his mother is working double shifts as a nurse at a nearby hospital, and Georges’ primary communication with her is through Scrabble-tile messages they leave for each other.

Life at school isn’t a whole lot better. His former best friend Jason is now hanging out with the popular kids, two of whom can’t think of anything more entertaining than picking on Georges.

And into all of this emptiness steps Safer, a neighbor in Georges’ new building who’s also a spy. Safer (his siblings are Candy and Pigeon, and their bohemian parents let them name themselves) uses the intercom system to watch people in the lobby, and he’s deduced that one of their neighbors is a murderer who removes body parts from his apartment in a suitcase.

Little by little Georges begins to build a group of friends — at school, the Blue Team, brought together when Georges chooses gym class losers for his Capture the Flag team, and they don’t lose; and at home, Safer and his unusual but kind family.

I don’t think Liar & Spy stands up as well as Stead’s first book, the highly acclaimed When You Reach Me, which is one of those “Sixth Sense” stories that makes you want to go back and see if you really understood it the first time around — in other words, hard to top. But it’s thought-provoking and ends well, and I’d recommend it for late elementary school kids. Georges’ ability to carve out a place in middle school would be reassuring, and the surprise ending involving Georges’ mother as well as Safer’s unusual life will definitely keep their attention.

Mar 312014
 

In the previous book in this scrapbooking/mystery series (Ready, Scrap, Shoot), our hero Kiki Lowenstein was going through a bad time. I mean a really bad time. In Picture Perfect Corpse, author Joanna Campbell Slan gets rid of the last thing that’s plagued Kiki’s happiness: namely, Chad Detweiler’s wife Brenda.

Kiki’s recovering from a gunshot wound suffered in the previous book when Brenda is murdered. Unfortunately, though, early investigation indicates that the most likely suspect is the love of Kiki’s life, Chad: bullet casings from his service gun are found near Brenda’s body.

If that’s not enough, something is very, very wrong with Dodie, Kiki’s boss at the scrapbook store. A cancer survivor, Dodie’s precarious health has taken a turn, and she only feels worse when a classmate of her dead son comes into the store an announces that it was her fault that he died. Dodie begs Kiki to find out what the young woman meant, a request that’s hard to ignore under the circumstances.

As always, Slan emphasizes Kiki’s family relationships as well as her investigations. Aside from the rocky situation with Detweiler, Kiki has to deal with an injured mother-in-law, whose life she saved in the previous book, and a daughter whose best friend is going through something difficult but apparently secret.

Given all of these plot threads, it’s not surprising that scrapbooking takes a backseat, but I have to say I’m disappointed that Slan has spent the last two books promoting Zentangles, an art form only nominally related to scrapbooking, rather than something I’d actually be likely to use. I hope we can get back to scrapbooks in the next book!

Mar 272014
 

N. M. Scott’s Murder on the Santa Special is billed as a “traditional English country village whodunnit,” but that’s not exactly the case.

Set in current day Bramley, the book puts a modern twist on the English country village. Shops are closing, the buses have stopped running, and even the Post Office may close. The village’s one asset, a preserved steam railway, is in desperate need of an infusion of funds to repair a bridge that would allow the train to run to a nearby village that would attract more passengers.

That all changes when a wealthy (Mafia?) Russian buys what used to be a mental asylum and spends millions renovating it into his new estate. The mystery man is rarely seen, although an expensive helicopter zooms to and from his property, and money starts flowing into the village. Old, run-down shops are bought out and brought up to date. The hospital gets a new wing, and Stalin’s own armored train carriage along with money for bridge repairs suddenly brighten the railway’s prospects. Of course, the Russian gentleman is the benefactor, but the villagers choose not to wonder how he came into his money.

The mystery involves the death of another Russian man on the special December train run called the Santa Special. Only Miss Parrish thinks there was something beyond natural causes behind the poor man’s demise, and only she confronts the Russian oligarch (as he’s known) with her suspicions.

And that’s why I don’t really see this as a “traditional whodunnit.” Miss Parrish doesn’t follow a trail of clues or bring the suspects together for a final confrontation, and the Russian man’s death is explained rather quickly. Instead, the biggest twist comes at the very end, and Miss Parrish isn’t even aware of it.

Still, Murder on the Santa Special is an entertaining story, and the twist at the end made it different from the traditional mystery — in a good way.

My thanks to Graham Robson of Book Guild Publishing for providing a review copy of N. M. Scott’s Murder on the Santa Special.

Mar 252014
 

1. It’s pronounced “hoo-leh,” Harry Hole.
2. He’s as good as everyone says he is.

As I proclaimed with some chagrin on Twitter, I’m the last Scandinavian mystery lover to try a Jo Nesbo book. Not really sure why. The Redbreast is sitting not 5 feet away in my TBR — I gave it to my Dad, he read it and passed it back, and there is still sits.

And then I saw The Bat in the new books section at my local library, and the Sydney Opera House picture on the cover really caught my eye. When I realized it’s the first Harry Hole, I decided it was time to give Harry his due.

Glad I did.

If you’re new to the series, Harry is a guilt-stricken, alcoholic cop from Oslo, sent to Australia to observe as the Sydney police investigate the murder of a Norwegian woman, a minor television celebrity at home. Neither his own superiors nor Australian officials want him to get too involved in the investigation, but once he’s there he can’t help himself from digging.

Harry’s paired with Andrew Kensington, an Aboriginal policeman who seems to be more interested in showing him the sights than investigating the case. Along the way Harry meets a beautiful redheaded Swedish woman, and he’s instantly smitten. So he wanders around with Andrew during the day, marginally investigating the case, and spends his nights with his new girlfriend — a relationship that allows Nesbo to reveal Harry’s past including why he’s an alcoholic. There are also some funny moments, as when Harry just decides to let the Australians call him “Harry Holy” because it’s easier than teaching them Norwegian pronunciations.

The book was less suspenseful than I expected based on hearing other people talk about how much they love the series, but I think this is simply because it was the first and Nesbo had a lot of background and character building to share. Based on other reviews I’ve read, I expect to watch this series build on the foundation created in The Bat, and I’m looking forward to The Cockroaches next.

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