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.

Sep 012014

Mystery lovers can find plenty of good series to choose from, but if you haven’t tried Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q books I really must insist that you should.

I was waiting for my local library to get The Purity of Vengeance, which for some reason was taking forever, when I realized that next week #5, The Marco Effect will be released. I bought the Kindle version: to heck with the book budget!

And Adler-Olsen didn’t disappoint.

If you aren’t familiar with it, Department Q is a cold case police division in Copenhagen. Its leader, Carl Mørck, was involved in a horrible incident in which one of his fellow officers was killed, a second badly injured, and he himself was shot. The series keeps dropping hints about what might have caused that incident, and this book is no exception: a body is found with evidence linking to Carl and Anker, the officer who had been killed when Carl was shot. This storyline will continue in further books.

In the meantime Department Q (Carl, his assistant Assad, and administrative assistant Rose) has decided to tackle a missing persons case, Rita Nielson, a brothel owner from Copenhagen who went missing in 1987. They quickly identify several others who went missing right around the same time, none of whom were ever found. And there also seems to be a connection between some of those people and a despicable human being named Curt Wad, a doctor whose belief in eugenics forms the basis for a new political party that has a chance of actually winning representation in Parliament.

The story jumps around from 2010 to 1987, when the people disappeared, and back to the ’50s and ’60s, when an important character meets many of those who later disappeared. Yet it’s always clear what time period it is and which characters are involved. It’s a mark of good writing when an author can pull that off.

I really can’t recommend this series enough for mystery lovers. The main characters are quirky and appealing, even if it’s not clear that they’re all sane, the mysteries are well-plotted, and the overarching storyline of the mystery of Carl’s shooting makes it difficult to wait for the next book in the series.

Luckily, that’ll be next week. :D

Aug 302014

In “Fast and Loose” (1939) Rosalind Russell and Robert Montgomery play wisecracking Nick-and-Nora detectives desperate to find a missing, priceless scrap of paper from a Shakespeare folio. Because Montgomery’s character, rare book dealer/private investigator Joel Sloane, was trying to buy the manuscript for a client, he’s under suspicion, so he and his wife Garda (Russell) must solve the case.

It’s a bit more complicated than that, though. The company that insures the manuscript thinks that its owner, millionaire Nicholas Torrent, is up to something, and it hired Joel to investigate. He and Garda are actually visiting the mansion when the piece is stolen from Torrent’s broker. Sloane immediately suspects Torrent’s son, but when Torrent is murdered the case takes an even more sinister turn.

“Fast and Loose” is not as witty as a Thin Man movie, but it’s cut from the same cloth, with a detective and his beautiful wife, quick dialogue and the peek it provides into an easy, glamorous life during the Depression. If you’ve already seen the entire Thin Man series and need a substitute, you might enjoy “Fast and Loose.”

Interestingly, like the Thin Man movies, “Fast and Loose” is part of a series — the first movie, which I haven’t seen, is called “Fast Company” — but the actors were different in each film. I’m linking below to the trilogy.

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.

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