Set on the South Carolina island of Stella Maris, Susan M. Boyer’s Lowcountry Bonfire gets off to a hot start when Tammy Sue Lyerly sets fire to her husband’s classic 1959 Mustang convertible. Why? Because Tammy Sue discovered the wretch had been cheating on her, and Southern gals don’t put up with that. But Tammy Sue’s blazing moment of triumph is doused when the island’s volunteer firefighters discover a dead body in the trunk. Alas, the body is that of Zeke Lyerly, Tammy Sue’s cheating husband. Since the town is too small to have a full-fledged police force, the job of finding Zeke’s killer falls to husband-wife PIs Nate Andrews and Liz Talbot, the police chief’s sister. Author Boyer’s Liz Talbot mysteries (after Lowcountry Boil, Lowcountry Bordello, etc.) are a laugh riot, and at times even a little spooky, thanks to Colleen, Liz’s childhood friend. Since Colleen has been dead for 18 years, she is technically a ghost, but along the way she has learned how to “solidify” herself in order to mingle with the living, upon whom she loves to play tricks. Got a house that needs haunting? Colleen’s your gal. Got an ex-boyfriend you want to make miserable? Colleen will be happy to terrify him. One of the benefits of living in a small town is that everyone knows everyone; that’s also one of the drawbacks. When Liz begins to question suspects, she quickly realizes that Zeke’s killer might be one of her own friends, but she soldiers on. The list of suspects grows when a tall tale once told by the dead man of being a CIA spy turns out to be true. Zeke was a spy. As much fun as this ripsnorter of a mystery is—and there’s tons of fun in these giddy pages—the plot gets muddied every now and then by an overabundance of suspects. But anyone who is looking for a vacation from the grim and the grisly can’t do better than to cozy up with Liz Talbot and her ghostly sidekick Colleen.
Carrie Doyle’s witty Death On West End Road approaches murder with a light touch, but there are dark moments mixed in with the smiles. When unpleasant pharmaceutical heiress Pauline Framingham seeks out Antonia Bingham for help in clearing her name of murder, the Long Island innkeeper/sleuth discovers that Pauline is every bit as nasty as her reputation. She is cold, arrogant, and spoiled—but swears she’s not the murderess she’s reputed to be. More than two decades earlier, she was the chief suspect in the killing of Susie Whitaker, supposedly her best friend. Because of Pauline’s expensive attorneys, the authorities’ efforts to bring her to justice failed, and the obviously sociopathic heiress was allowed to continue on her coldhearted way. However, no amount of Framingham money stops gossip, which is why—according to Pauline, anyway—she offers Antonia scads of money to find the real killer. Innkeeper Antonia makes a marvelous protagonist, although she is admittedly more interested in keeping the Windmill Inn afloat than she is in solving Pauline Framingham’s image issues. But in order to keep her century-and-a-half-old inn in repair, she signs on for the hunt, interviewing people who might have had a reason for killing long-dead Susie. Cold case files are always interesting, yet the most pleasurable parts of this book come with author Doyle’s descriptions of the day-to-day challenges of running a historical inn. Persnickety guests, squabbling chefs, and torn-apart lovers—Doyle handles them all with her usual adroitness (after Death on Windmill Way, etc.). Not quite so adroit is the solution to Susie Whitaker’s murder. This is partially because of Pauline’s continuing bad behavior. As she is written, the heiress’ psychology is so questionable—sociopaths usually don’t care what people think about them—that readers might wonder why she bothered to hire Antonia in the first place.
Genre catalogists will have their jobs cut out for them in listing Daryl Gregory’s study of the Amazing Telemachus Family. Taking it from the top, it’s a three-generational, dysfunctional family novel. Grandfather Teddy is a world-class con man. His long-deceased wife, Maureen, was a genuine psychic. Their eldest offspring, son Frankie, moves objects with his mind, middle child Irene is “the human lie detector,” while their youngest, Buddy, is, like his mom, a precog. Irene’s young son, Matty, is capable of astral projection. For various reasons, none of them is happy about being gifted. In one of the book’s frequent use of flashbacks, Teddy and Maureen meet cute while taking ESP tests for federal employment, he believing her to be a fake, she believing him to be a real seer. While this leads not only to a charming love story and marriage, it also adds a spy element to the plot, with a persistent CIA agent named Smalls who’s constantly seeking the use of their “talents.” And, not to ignore a serious crime component, there’s a hotheaded, sociopathic mob boss whose hatred of the family increases past the boiling point when Frankie steals his most valued possession, and the widowed Teddy romances his daughter-in-law. The mobster’s unleashed fury leads to a marvelous confrontation scene, with nearly all the characters present, that manages to be both violent and hilarious. Reader Ari Fliakos, a member of The Wooster Group, seems as fond as Gregory is of his unusual creations, clearly relishing their quirks, their roller-coaster moods and their irrepressible charm.
All of our thoughts have been focused on Texas and Louisiana in the last few weeks as those states slowly start to emerge from the disastrous floods of Hurricane Harvey. Our cover author, Attica Locke, was born and raised in Houston, with family strung along the small towns of Highway 59 in East Texas. Read her work to get a sense of the complexity, strength, and resilience of a singular part of our country.
You probably don’t think of Mark Twain as a mystery writer but the literary giant dabbled in the genre—in humorous parodies to be sure, but also in a serious novel. In fact, the first use of fingerprints as a crime-solving device in fiction came in Pudd’nhead Wilson in 1894. Michael Mallory takes a look at the criminal career of this American icon, in-cluding the raucous A Double-Barrelled Detective Story and Tom Sawyer, Detective.
Speaking of older mysteries, there’s been a striking renaissance of Golden Age crime classics over the past few years. Martin Edwards discusses some of the obscure treasures that have recently come back into the limelight in this issue.
It’s been 70 years since Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer burned up the silver screen in Out of the Past. Jake Hinkson takes a look at the legacy of what some consider the great-est noir film ever made.
James R. Benn’s canvas is a whole world at war in his Billy Boyle WWII novels. In his acclaimed 12 book series his goal is to create “characters who are true to their time and yet speak to us today.” John B. Valeri interviews Benn in this issue.
Kwei Quartey was born in Ghana, although he left there as a teenager for a life in the United States and a career as a doctor. Now he has returned to Ghana with a series of vividly written novels starring Inspector Darko Dawson. Oline Cogdill talks to Quartey about the two worlds he inhabits.
Separately and together, Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller are at the forefront of the mystery genre. We’re delighted to welcome them as our newest columnists in Double Takes, a column devoted to book collecting, overlooked movies, ephemera, and any other topic that strikes their fancy.
Many of these informative and insightful essays originally introduced Stark House reprints of paperback fiction writers. Shorter connective pieces are original to this volume, including “Untold Stories,” which argues for more biographies of crime writers, focusing on the very prolific Harry Whittington. Ollerman does for hardboiled and noir writers of the late 20th century what Curtis Evans has done for rediscovered Golden Age classicists. Covered at greatest length are Peter Rabe (43 pages), Charles Williams (38), and Ed Gorman (28), thorough and excellent on the latter, whose work I know very well, and tantalizing on the other two whom I’ve read only a little (Rabe) or sad to admit not at all (Williams). Other subjects include Wade Miller (the collaborative pseudonym of Robert Wade and Bill Miller, who had contrasting methods to the Ellery Queen team of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee and got along much better), James Hadley Chase, W.R. Burnett, Andrew Coburn, Malcolm Braly, and the less prolific and familiar John Trinian and Jada N. Davis.
Ollerman is clearly a gifted writer, with a lively and readable style, but the quality of the prose varies widely. A substantial piece on Lionel White is excellent for its critical and informational content, including a survey of White’s work as adapted to film and a discussion of his level of political correctness in the current cultural climate. But the writing is meandering, repetitious, and way undercopyedited.