Successful actors make lousy detectives—they’re too busy acting—but that’s not a problem for Eddie Collins, the D-list actor in Clive Rosengren’s Red Desert. Collins’ film career has been so unsuccessful that he’s begun doing PI work for the film industry just to keep food on the table. This time out (after Murder Unscripted), he is investigating the death of a young woman killed during the theft of a movie director’s Oscar. Collins suspects the theft-turned-tragedy may be payback for a rape that occurred years earlier when the director, an old friend of Collins, was working on a film titled Red Desert. In typical Tinsel Town fashion, the rape got hushed up, and after the film wrapped, everyone went their merry way—except for the victim and the man she said raped her. At one point in the book, the murderer ups the ante by kidnapping the director’s six-year-old daughter. And by that time, we know that the killer is crazy enough to kill a child just to make a point. Because we are immediately told who the murderer/kidnapper is (several scenes are set in his point of view), Red Desert is more thriller than mystery, but it’s a twisty thriller in which motives don’t always turn out to be what they at first seemed to be. And that’s always fun. But wait, there’s more! Besides the standard pleasures of a well-plotted mystery-thriller, the Eddie Collins novels excel in delivering a giggle-fest of Hollywood history and gossip. Author Rosengren is an actor (his friend Tom Hanks actually furnished a blurb for the book), and delivers quips from Hollywood’s late and great, such as Victor Mature’s hilarious, “I’m not an actor, and I’ve got 64 pictures to prove it.”
Susan M. Boyer’s Lowcountry Boneyard is the latest in her Agatha Award-winning Liz Talbot series. One of the great pleasures of these well-crafted mysteries has been watching the South Carolina sleuth grow from a bumbling beginner in Lowcountry Boil to the seasoned PI we meet here. Liz, whose fussy Southern Belle-ish mother lives only to make certain her daughter doesn’t wear white after Labor Day, has been hired by rich Colton Heyward to find his daughter, Kent. In the South, there’s rich and then there’s rich. Kent’s mother belongs to the mega-wealthy Bounetheau family, members of old-Southern aristocracy, and they often appear more interested in keeping their skeletons in their closets than they are in finding Kent. Besides, Kent has run afoul of family tradition by involving herself with a group of artists, and—oh, the horror!—is herself considering a career as an artist. So Liz doesn’t get much help from the family. Fortunately for her, though, she is aided in her investigation by Colleen, her investigation- loving best friend. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Colleen has been dead for 17 years, and there’s a limit to the physical action an astral entity can perform. Colleen can, though, interrupt conversations by interjecting witticisms into Liz’s ear when she’s talking to suspects, though, so when Liz replies to Colleen, she looks like a loonie. No matter. There are other loonies in this deftly paced mystery, among them, Kent’s twin uncles, Peter and Payton Bounetheau. But perhaps the Bounetheau’s twins’ bizarre peculiarities are only a clever way of covering up their mysterious business interests. Like the other Lowcountry mysteries, there’s tons of humor here, but in Lowcountry Boneyard there’s a dash of darkness, too. A fun and surprisingly thought-provoking read.
This is the fourth novel in Allison Leotta’s series about US Prosecuting Attorney Anna Curtis, but it’s the first one set outside of Washington, DC, in Anna’s home state of Michigan. This one starts with a phone call from an old friend begging Anna to come home and help her sister Jody.
The story is interspersed with a first-person narrative from Jody, addressing Anna, but it’s unclear when Jody is sharing these revelations to her sister, as when Anna arrives home, Jody brushes aside her help. It quickly becomes apparent that Jody is a suspect in the death of the insanely popular “coach,” a local celebrity in their football-obsessed hometown.
Things quickly go from bad to worse when Jody and Anna arrive home to find a search warrant being executed, and everything down to Jody’s toilet and shower pipes being carted away for examination. Jody is charged with first degree murder, and, of course, Anna wrangles permission from the prosecutor’s office in DC to serve as her sister’s defense attorney.
Stepping in as “security” is old friend Cooper, an Iraq War vet and amputee, who is now part of the urban farming movement that’s one of bankrupt Detroit’s beacons of recovery. Anna and Jody leave their hometown, where Jody is now a pariah, for the relative safety of Cooper’s home in downtown Detroit.
Author Leotta is an attorney, and the legal parts of the plot are especially interesting and well done, more so than in many legal thrillers I’ve read. Many lawyers have made the leap to fiction, certainly, but Leotta is especially adept at sharing her legal knowledge without making it look like that’s what she’s doing. The courtroom scenes are fascinating.
The real heart of this story, though, is the relationship between Anna and Jody and their complicated childhood backstory, as well as the story behind “coach.” It becomes clear that the coach was a pedophile, and as his past deeds are uncovered, it’s not apparent which of his many victims might be responsible for his death. But in this light, the title, A Good Killing, begins to make perfect sense.
Leotta has an easy way of telling a story, and I was completely hooked by page one. I loved her characters, and being a Michigander, I loved her Detroit and mid-Michigan setting. After finishing this, I went out, found her first novel, and dove in. I can give no higher recommendation.
Thrilling high seas chases and a unique spin on the underworld of smugglers buoy Australian author Alex Gilly’s debut, Devil’s Harbor.
Marine Interdiction Agent Nick Finn and his partner and brother-in-law, Diego Jimenez, are on a routine patrol off the California coast when they spot a boat with its running lights off. That usually means drug smugglers, trying to hide. When the agents approach, the boat takes off at high speed, and the chase ends when Nick returns gunfire and kills a man.
While Diego supports Nick’s story, the dead man’s gun is lost in the sea and no evidence of drugs is found on board. Nick finds no support from his bosses when the victim’s family sues the government, claiming the man was a lost, unarmed fisherman from Mexico. Nick believes he is being set up and that the shootout is related to a series of dead young men recently found in the normally “quiet patch of the sea.” Nick’s off-the-books investigation leads him to Linda Blake, a fishing craft owner who is in dire financial straits, struggling to pay the massive doctors’ bills for her sick daughter.
The sea chases, each one a bit different, are one of the strongest elements in Devil’s Harbor, but too often, Gilly indulges in talky villains who stall the action with their endless conversation. Nick, however, is someone readers will want to hear more from as his character develops, trying to mend his sometimes shaky marriage and deal with his alcoholism. With this flawed hero at the helm, Gilly has the beginning of a solid series.
Resorting to Murder is an anthology of holiday mysteries edited by Martin Edwards, who provides not only a general introduction to the book but insightful and informative introductions to the 14 individual stories, which are presented in roughly chronological order. Most of the writers’ names, maybe all of them, will be familiar to readers of classic mysteries, and they include Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, R. Austin Freeman, Anthony Berkeley, and Michael Gilbert. All the stories collected here provide just what editor Edwards hopes they will, “the best kind of holiday—enjoyable and relaxing, with nice touches of the unexpected, and [offer] memories to look back on with a great deal of pleasure.”
Modern-day London is the setting for this frothy mystery that combines museums, magazines, and murder. When American art museum director Dinah Greene is offered a fellowship at the Art Museum of Great Britain, she jumps at the opportunity. Before long, however, she finds herself and her only London friend, Rachel, involved in a blackmailing scheme that includes stolen art, anti-monarchists, and murder—and Rachel is considered a potential suspect in the crimes.
Unable to cope with her unfamiliar surroundings as well as the added crime-related difficulties, Dinah is relieved when her cousin and close confidante, Coleman, arrives in London with plans to help broaden the scope of her new magazine. Unlike Dinah, Coleman is a no-nonsense problem solver who, with the help of her very wealthy and well-connected half-brother, Heyward, is instrumental in uncovering the layers of criminal activity and deceit that Dinah and Rachel have become buried in.
Although there are a number of grisly murders here, there is much more emphasis on relationships, particularly involving Dinah, Rachel, and Coleman, than there is on investigations. There’s even a romantic interlude towards the denouement between Coleman and a wealthy, good-looking suitor.
If you like romance interspersed with your murders, you’ll likely enjoy this novel, the fourth in the Coleman and Dinah Greene mysteries.
Redheaded Will Rees, a traveling weaver and sometime detective in 1796, makes his fourth appearance in Death in Salem. Will is wandering the countryside, selling his tapestries, when he stops in Salem, Massachusetts, to buy a gift of fabric from the traders for his six-months-pregnant wife. While there, he witnesses the funeral of Anstiss, the wife of wealthy shipping merchant Jacob Boothe. Anstiss has been ill for many years, so her death is no surprise, but it is shocking when her husband also dies the following day, a victim of foul play.
The lady love of Will’s old war buddy Twig has been arrested for the crime. Twig begs Will to find the real murderer. After Jacob’s son and heir, William, agrees to pay Will the outlandish sum of $15, he agrees. Family secrets stymie his progress: Boothe’s daughter Peggy is upset that her father did not leave her the family business, her sister Betsy’s only concern is making a good marriage, and their wastrel brother Mattie overspends and hangs out with actors or at the Black Cat, the local bordello. And then there’s Anstiss’ family, who are certain Jacob killed her so he could wed another.
When a sailor is killed in the same manner as Jacob, Will realizes he will more than earn his $15 as he attempts to unravel all the knots holding this mystery together.
Eleanor Kuhns has an interesting protagonist in Will, and she effortlessly blends the 1796 history and lifestyle of Salem into the plot. The story begs a “hold it,” though, when Will sends Twig to fetch the pregnant Lydia in all haste from Maine. Granted, Lydia is a big part of Will’s adventures, but in her condition, it’s unlikely she would travel for many miles in a bumpy cart at fast speeds over rutted roads. Other than this glitch, Kuhns has written a book that holds the reader’s attention until its Sherlock Holmes-ish reveal.
Desserts abound in Ellie Alexander (aka Kate Dyer-Seeley)'s A Batter of Life and Death, second in her Bakeshop Mysteries. Featuring Juliet (Jules) Montague Capshaw, lovelorn former cruise-line pastry chef, this delectable series transports readers to Ashland, Oregon, Jules’ Shakespeare-obsessed hometown. Ashland is the site of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a summerlong event that draws hordes of tourists to town, and to Torte, the Capshaw family bakeshop. Jules brings her baking talent to the shop while she decides how to spend the remainder of her life since her marriage dissolved. Certainly, there is a place for her in the bakery, and her expertise adds to the menu. In the meantime, though, the Pastry Channel decides to bring Take the Cake, its reality road-show competition, to Ashland. While the $25,000 prize is enticing, ultimately, the price is too high. When Juliet discovers the body of one of the competition’s celebrity chefs, the battle becomes ugly, and the contestants struggle to bury their secrets. A vegan chef cheats by adding butter to her desserts in an effort to make them more flavorful. Another contestant is having an affair that she wants to conceal. And the French chef isn’t French at all. Fortunately, Jules is able to enlist Thomas, her old high-school boyfriend, who is now training to become a detective, to help solve the crime. I highly recommend this series to readers who enjoy clever plots, likable characters, and good food. Knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays is purely optional.
The 11th novel in Max Allan Collins’ series about a Vietnam vet turned hit man, Quarry’s Choice is set in the early days of his illicit career as Quarry travels to Biloxi, Mississippi, to investigate an attempted hit on his employer, the man known only as “The Broker.” To do so, Quarry needs to infiltrate the local crime syndicate, an organization where the chief way to get ahead is to ruthlessly eliminate your competition. Fortunately, Quarry’s quarry happens to be in someone else’s gun sights also, providing the killer with ample cover. Collins is in fine form here, exploring his protagonist’s early days with panache and aplomb, placing Quarry in one tight situation after another, with only his wits and his reflexes standing between him and sudden death. The humor is black, the tone is dark, and the outlook is bleak, but the novel is ultimately uplifting, as you quickly find yourself rooting for this very bad, very violent man. Although Quarry’s Choice demonstrates that there’s truly very little honor among thieves, Quarry does seem to have some, relying on his own code to guide him through the numerous professional and moral dilemmas he faces.
When Jennifer Young and her son, four-year-old Milo, move into a house across the pond from 90-year-old Margaret Riley, the older woman decides to find out more about them, just like the detectives in the mysteries she reads. But Jennifer, who is running from her past, doesn’t want to share her secrets with anyone—even though she’s not the only one in the neighborhood hiding things.
There are many things to like about this book by award-winning author Leah Stewart. The writing is beautiful, and she does an impressive job of giving the reader a sense of place. The Tennessee mountaintop where both women live is isolated and dangerous, and it is the perfect backdrop for two women whose regrettable choices have driven them away from friends and family.
Stewart is also quite masterful at building suspense, unveiling each woman’s past bit by bit. In alternating perspectives, the reader learns about the tragic and mysterious death of Jennifer’s husband, as well as what happened to Margaret as a nurse serving overseas in WWII. Through these passages, we see that the women have much in common, though their inability to trust in each other prevents them from truly opening up.
Despite the fine writing, it was difficult to empathize with either woman. While I wanted to like these characters, I found that Jennifer’s guardedness, and Margaret’s cantankerousness, made it almost impossible for me to form a bond with them as a reader. Quite frankly, as I’m sure both women would understand, I was glad to be alone again when their story concluded.
Daniel Palmer taps into the fears that we all carry in some way—the fear that we will lose a loved one, a career, our health. In his sixth, highly entertaining thriller, Palmer delves into the psyche of a man who has just about lost everything. Jake Dent was nearly a major league pitcher with a bright future until he shattered his elbow in a car accident while driving drunk. His marriage broke up and now Jake is raising his son, Andy, who has diabetes. Jake has found unusual comfort being a “doomsday prepper,” honing his survivalist skills and preparing for the end of the world. He has taught those same skills to Andy, and, along with the stockpile of weapons supplies, Jake believes he and his son can survive just about anything.
Those skills are put to the test when terrorists target Andy and his fellow students at the prestigious Pepperell Academy in Winston, Massachusetts, where Jake now works as the head custodian. But this is no random hostage attack. Under the cover of their computer club, six students have been moving money from the wealthy to the needy. Their “redistribution of wealth” backfires when the students hack a violent drug cartel, who wants its money back, with vengeance. To save his son, and as many of Andy’s friends as possible, Jake hides in the school’s forgotten tunnels, and launches his own counterattack.
Constant Fear moves briskly, launching surprise after surprise with believable twists. Palmer uses precise action to drive the plot, while embracing well-sculpted characters. Jake emerges as an action hero, but Palmer is careful to keep him realistic. It’s a thriller with a new spin on the heist mystery, and it doesn’t get much better than this.
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If there’s one thing veteran mystery readers know, it’s that the Nordic countries excel in producing extremely dark thrillers. Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Hummingbird is no exception. Ably translated from the Finnish by David Hackston, racial and religious prejudices play an important part in this book. Author Hiekkapelto’s police detective is Anna Fekete, a Muslim from the Yugoslavian region, whose parents fled first to Turkey then to Finland to escape ethnic violence. Anna’s transition into Finnish life has been rough, and now it’s about to get rougher. After a young woman is found shotgunned to death on a jogging trail, Anna is partnered with Esko, a native Finn and flagrant bigot. These wildly mismatched detectives are forced to put aside their differences to stop a series of cult-like murders (the image of a mythical Aztec god is found at each crime scene). As the cult murders grow in number, Anna also starts investigating the disappearance of a young Muslim teen. This goes against the wishes of her superiors, who believe the teen’s disappearance is just another instance of immigrants behaving badly. I found Anna to be one of the most fascinating protagonists to come along in years. A stranger in a strange land, the detective is haunted by nightmares of her years in Serbia, she is prone to anxiety attacks, and suffers from a host of conflicted loyalties. What is she first—a Muslim, a Hungarian, a Serb, a Turk? A Finn? Even if there were no murders in The Hummingbird (but there are several, all messy), Anna’s interior struggles are so unique that she could easily provide the cornerstone for an excellent literary novel. But that genre’s loss is the mystery lover’s gain. Hiekkapelto is to be congratulated for producing a beautifully written and many-layered mystery novel that illuminates the dangers of prejudice, while still providing a major thrill ride for all us adrenaline junkies.
Dark City Lights: New York Stories, an anthology edited by Lawrence Block, contains 23 stories set in New York, and all but two are original to this book. Not all of them are dark, as Block says in his introduction, but most are. The two reprints are by Robert Silverberg and Block himself. Block’s story is “Keller the Dogkiller,” and if you’ve read it before, it, like all of Block’s stories, is worth reading again. So is Silverberg’s story, “Hannibal’s Elephants.” Although, as it was published in a science-fiction magazine, readers of this column are less likely to have spotted it. Published in the ’80s, it’s about an alien invasion of New York in 2003. The future that Silverberg imagines here is a bit different from the 2003 we got. Jill Block is present with “The Lady Upstairs,” a haunting tale with mystery but no real crime. There’s even another dog story, “Wet Dog on a Rainy Day” by S.J. Rozan. This one is dark all right, and told with Rozan’s usual skill.
I’ve known Marv Lachman for close to 40 years, and I regard him as one of the foremost authorities on short crime fiction. So when he says that Phyllis Bentley’s stories about Miss Phipps are “some of the best detective stories published in the second half of the 20th century,” as he does in his introduction to Chain of Witnesses: The Cases of Miss Phipps, then I take notice. Lachman has chosen 16 stories for this volume, beginning with “Author in Search of a Character,” which was the first about Miss Phipps to be published in EQMM, where all the stories in the collection were either reprinted or first published. Each is elegantly told in the best fair-play tradition, and it’s a pleasure to watch Miss Phipps at work. This book will be of special interest to those who like authors as characters, as Miss Phipps is a novelist and appears to be based on Bentley herself.
Fiction River: Alchemy & Steam is “an original anthology magazine” in the form of a trade paperback. Series editors are Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, with this volume being edited by Kerrie L. Hughes, who provides introductions to each of the 13 stories. While these stories might not appeal to all mystery fans, readers who like mysterious carnivals, alternate worlds, chocolate, alchemy, and steampunk in general will find the stories a lot of fun. There are crimes, too, and mysteries of various kinds. Well worth a look if you’re in the mood for something different.
Jim Harrison’s protagonist, retired Upper Peninsula cop and occasional private detective Sunderson, made his debut in the author’s first “faux mystery,” The Great Leader (2011). In that one, the aging moralist-debaucher was involved with, among other things, the search for the missing leader of a cult. But the novel was really about Sunderson’s attempt to figure out how to live in a world that makes it too easy for him to overdo food, drink, and sex, and too hard to avoid violence and death. The new, equally faux mystery, is more of the same. More rumination, more food, drink, sex, and violence, as Sunderson keeps tabs on an ultra-dysfunctional neighboring UP family whose members are being bumped off. One of the main suspects is a 17-year-old beauty who is quick to seduce the sixtysomething sleuth and who joins him on a boozy, foodie trip to Vera Cruz, during which they check off several of the seven deadly sins referenced by the title. Reader Jim Meskimen, an excellent impressionist as well as actor (Big Bang Theory, Parks and Recreation), adds a general tone of bemusement to Sunderson’s speech that accurately reflects the character’s usual reaction to nearly everything, be it news of murder or incest or a killer who spends his days bird-watching. There are angry flare-ups, mainly when the detective confronts men who mistreat women, as well as moments of bliss, especially when he is fishing, dining and sharing the joys of sexual delight with, as the author would have it, every woman he meets.
While major network radio drama gradually died out in the United States through the 1950s, the British never stopped taking the medium seriously. In this wittily titled volume, previously published in much shorter form in the UK, the principal writer for a complete dramatization of all the Sherlock Holmes stories describes his experiences in entertaining fashion with some especially interesting points, illustrated by script examples, on the process of adaptation. The series ran from 1989 to 1998 with the Baker Street duo played by Clive Merrison, who strongly resembles Holmes as drawn by Sidney Paget, and Michael Williams. Fifteen additional programs, drawn from the untold cases, were broadcast between 2002 and 2010, with Andrew Sachs taking over as Watson after the death of Williams. The script for one of these new cases, “The Abergavenny Murder,” is published in its entirety in an appendix.
Dates and credits for all the episodes reveal that many performers familiar to viewers of British TV and films worked in the series, among them Brian Blessed, Patrick Malahide, Peter Sallis, Dennis Quilley, Desmond Llewelyn, Edward Petherbridge, Harriet Walter, Timothy West, Eleanor Bron, Tom Baker, Lindsay Duncan, Susannah Corbett, Hugh Bonneville, and (in a surprise one-shot as Mrs. Hudson) Judi Dench, who was the wife of Michael Williams.
Completist collectors of mystery cookbooks, of which there must be a whole shelf-full by now, will probably want to add this selection of recipes, with some fictional excerpts, from Berkley’s lineup of cozy writers, even if it seems better cast as a convention promotional giveaway than something offered for sale. A small-print notice on the front cover notes that the book “contains previously published material.” Among the better-known contributors are Laura Childs, Cleo Coyle, and Julie Hyzy.
You well may ask, do we need another book like this? No, not really, but it’s a handsome coffee-table volume, most notable for its many well-produced illustrations. Interviews with actors who have played Holmes (Roger Llewellyn, Douglas Wilmer) or Watson (David Burke, Edward Hardwicke, Philip Franks), with writers who have adapted them for books or TV (Caleb Carr, Bert Coules, Mark Gattiss), and with a Holmes scholar and museum curator (Catherine Cooke) provide some fresh viewpoints. Most of the other contents are familiar: story synopses, profiles of major characters, Doyle biography, history of media adaptations, etc.
The chapter putting Holmes in the context of detective-fiction history repeats the usual reductive generalizations about Golden Age detectives and makes the absurd statement that 50 years after Anna Katharine (here misspelled Catherine) Green’s debut in 1878, “the genre would be dominated by women.” After discussing the contribution of Wilkie Collins, can one really say that Doyle and Holmes brought respectability to the genre? And surely Sexton Blake was never more famous than Sherlock Holmes, even in Britain, let alone anywhere else in the world. Caleb Carr’s contention that Harry Potter has now overtaken Holmes is also highly dubious. A few years ago, some might have made such a claim for James Bond, but I doubt many would today.
The development of television police series is traced chronologically from Dragnet (premiered in 1951) to Justified (2010). Nineteen shows get full-chapter treatment, including recommended episodes and guides to further reading, while a 20th chapter considers dozens of others in a paragraph each. The subjects are well chosen, among them Highway Patrol, Naked City, Hawaii Five-O, Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and The Wire. The summaries of the programs, their style, characters, social or political slant, and historical significance are efficiently done and mostly free of academic jargon. Though three of the five authors are British, coverage is limited to American product.
In the principal author’s generally excellent discussion of Columbo, some of the history gets scrambled: the pilot, which appeared as a TV movie in 1968, was not part of a revolving NBC Mystery Movie lineup; that series was inaugurated in September 1971 with the third Columbo case, “Murder by the Book.” And surely the contribution of Dial M for Murder to the popularity of inverted detection is attributable to Frederick Knott’s play and Hitchcock’s film more than to a later BBC TV series.
Target Utopia, the 14th installment of Dale Brown and Jim DeFelice’s Dreamland series, finds team Whiplash dealing with an apparent theft of technology when several unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) appear unexpectedly during military operations near Malaysia. Besides the outrageousness of their sheer existence, it also rankles the team that the design of the UAVs seems to incorporate supposedly top-secret Whiplash technology. Thus begins a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek, as the team attempts to draw their mysterious enemy out of hiding. There are severe repercussions for the United States, the president, and Whiplash itself, as they come to realize that a new and powerful player has entered the geopolitical fray.
Fast-paced and exciting, Team Utopia can be enjoyed by fans of the series and newbies alike. This particular installment represents a nice jumping-on point for those not familiar with Whiplash’s backstory; though knowledge of the events depicted in previous books adds a certain richness to the reading experience. Brown and DeFelice also plant some intriguing seeds in this installment, which should bear interesting fruit in subsequent adventures.
When it’s time to relax, there is no better place to begin than by reading a book about books. Laura DiSilverio presents The Readaholics and the Falcon Fiasco, the inaugural novel in her Book Club Mystery series. You don’t need to be a super sleuth to guess that the “Falcon Fiasco” must have some tangential relationship to Dashiell Hammett’s classic, The Maltese Falcon; however, you will need to immerse yourself in this excellent book to discover how the connection plays out. DiSilverio introduces series protagonist Amy-Faye Johnson, a wedding planner in Heaven, Colorado, a small town nestled in the Rocky Mountains. Amy-Faye is a busy woman with a bustling career in event planning. Nonetheless, she remains closely connected to a circle of old friends who meet regularly as the Readaholics, a mystery book club. As fate would have it, one of the book club members dies suddenly. While the police and the victim’s brother declare the death a suicide, Amy-Faye and the Readaholics have known their friend for years, and are certain that she would never have killed herself. So who killed her? Amy-Faye decides that she should determine who would benefit from the death and follow the money to track down the killer. This isn’t the only item on Amy-Faye’s plate, though. She has also been hired, unwittingly, to plan the wedding of her ex-boyfriend. The past reasserts itself, raising long-buried passions. This promising series is addictive!
Wendy Sand Eckel’s Murder at Barclay Meadow is the tale of Rosalie Hart, a woman who tries to rekindle her relationship with her husband after finally emptying their nest only to discover he’s taken a mistress. Unable to sleep in the bed where he betrayed her, Rosalie decamps to a farm she inherited on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She plans to lick her wounds in private while pondering her future, but instead becomes fixated on Megan Johnston, a young college student whose body washes up on her property. The police rule the death an accident, but Rosalie remains unconvinced and launches an inquiry of her own.
Rosalie isn’t your typical traditional mystery heroine. At 45, she’s older than we’ve come to expect from the genre, but at the same time, the shelter of a long marriage has left her somewhat prudish and naive. Her profession doesn’t define her; in fact, she hasn’t held a job in quite some time. Rather than choosing a plucky sidekick or a potential love interest to help her crack the case, she assembles a Scooby Gang comprising the members of her memoir-writing class—none of whom are exactly cozy-novel archetypes themselves. Her motivation to concern herself with Megan’s murder is unique, as well. Rosalie tells herself she’s seeking justice for a victim who reminds her of her daughter, but while that’s true, she’s mostly just desperate for the diversion. When we meet her, she’s in pain and adrift, fumbling her way through the dissolution of her marriage and grieving the end of the life she once led. Her investigation lends purpose to her daily existence and distracts from her pain long enough for it to begin to fade.
Murder at Barclay Meadow is Eckel’s debut novel, and it’s a mildly paced but thoroughly engaging read. The plot is solid, and while I wouldn’t exactly call the mystery fair play, Eckel offers up enough suspects and red herrings to lend that illusion. The prose is atmospheric and intelligent; the author vividly describes the sights, scents, sounds, and sensations that make up Rosalie’s world. And the relationships Eckel’s crafts between characters are realistic and nuanced. Eckel’s training as a psychotherapist shines through; the book’s quietest moments are by far its most compelling, and she uses them to offer some shockingly insightful observations on divorce and its aftermath.
My only real criticism of Murder at Barclay Meadow is that Eckel doesn’t do nearly enough to develop her antagonists; they read like cartoon villains. The town sheriff is perhaps the worst offender, bullying Rosalie so aggressively and single-mindedly that their confrontations border on parody, sapping the story of tension and authenticity. The mystery may be the engine that drives the plot, but at its heart, it is a story about love, loss, and finding oneself. It’s entertainment and self-help wrapped up in a single murderous package, and it’s a refreshing change from the cozy norm.
This is the first book I’ve read in Victoria Houston’s long-lived Loon Lake series, and it’s a pure delight. The characters have an ease accrued over a long series, and I felt comfortable with them right away. There is Police Chief Llewellyn Ferris (Lew to you), and her lover and sometime helper, retired dentist Doc Osborne (who even Lew refers to as Doc).
Wealthy widow Rudd Tomlinson has been shoved in front of an oncoming truck and killed. When Rudd’s best friend Judith shows up on the scene where the two were scheduled to meet, she explicates the complicated and unpleasant Tomlinson family for the chief and the doc, and the three form an alliance, determined to find Rudd’s killer.
Rudd was the late-in-life second wife to the wealthy Philip Tomlinson; and as Judith tells it, it was a true love match after a long and unhappy first marriage for him. Two of his children were openly hostile to Rudd in life; the third and youngest, Kenzie, embraced Rudd and the happiness she brought to her father. None are happy to discover that Judith is the executor of the estate, and that she’s moving forward with plans to construct a museum on the vast Tomlinson property. If the killer isn’t found, all three children will be left without a penny.
Houston has a brisk and enjoyable storytelling style, punctuating her narrative with tales of fly and ice fishing, and with a wonderful, if brief, ice fishing scene. While I was easily able to figure out whodunit, I really enjoyed each and every character and the way Houston told her story. This is also a great book to read during the summer, as its set during a brutal Wisconsin winter. Houston’s also able to make you feel every bit of the freezing Wisconsin winter.
Sometimes, I don’t require anything more than a good story, well told. Houston delivers this in spades. And while the killer’s identity wasn’t a surprise, there’s a suspenseful and exciting piece at the end of the novel. Like fellow Wisconsinite Mary Logue, this is a writer to savor, even if the concise storytelling style of both authors make that enjoyable experience all too brief.
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