Category Archives: Mysteries

Scandal on Rincon Hill – Shirley Tallman

Scandal on Rincon Hill is a period murder mystery but I wouldn’t call it a legal thriller as one book review did. Shirley Tallman creates a heroine who is an anomaly in nineteenth century San Francisco, a young woman fervently dedicated to her profession as an attorney with the support of her family, more or less. The “less” is her mother’s heartfelt desire to see her married and settled. But Sarah Woolson has determined that, as married women are the property of their husbands (legally, really!) and not free to develop their own careers, marriage is a state she can never afford. Nonetheless, she is ardently pursued by two very attractive and persistent polar opposites throughout her adventures.

Sarah seems to be operating a one-woman legal services clinic–her clients are prostitutes and indigent Chinese laborers, fresh off the boat. She moves without too much propriety through the seedier back alleys of San Francisco, popping in and out of upscale bawdy houses, disreputable newspaper offices and murder scenes at will. When a scientist is brutally murdered just blocks from her home in a “good” neighborhood, the tabloids go berserk. Then another, similar murder happens and the police are hellbent to pin the crimes on someone and stop the public panic. The two murders appear to be related, although no one can connect them to a killer. And then two young Chinese immigrants are arrested and framed for the crime.

Meanwhile Sarah gets involved with a beautiful “kept” woman who has been dumped on the street by her prominent married lover, despite a signed contract that he will support her. She and her cherubic infant take up residence in the city’s fanciest bordello and she approaches Sarah to represent her in a suit against the ex-lover. The boss of the Chinese tong, well-known to Sarah, takes an interest in the fate of the Chinese suspects who seem destined for a lynch mob. Sarah is spotted going into the bordello by an unscrupulous reporter who writes about her indiscretion in a lurid tabloid. A slick, besotted shipping magnate, a hunk naturally, returns from Hong Kong to pursue Sarah. Her former colleague–less smooth, equally besotted–lurks around, scowling. Her beloved brother is still pretending to be a law clerk but really establishing a major reputation as a fearless crime reporter, unbeknownst to their father, the judge. It’s complicated. And the murders aren’t over yet.

Pretty good light reading–some nice historical detail and some conversational ticks that seem a bit mannered. Sarah is extremely aware of acceptable convention and rather pushy and that isn’t always believable in her corseted society.  The characters aren’t too deeply imagined but the stereotypes hold up if you don’t expect too much. The resolution is sudden and neater than I could cheer about–can’t really see it coming, even after it happens. But decent escapist mystery, no real thrills, characters to follow but not really root for. Pure genre, not high art but not bad.

Scandal on Rincon Hill: A Sarah Woolson Mystery (Sarah Woolson Mysteries)   Shirley Tallman | St. Martin’s Press   2010

The Twelfth Enchantment – David Liss

Very odd mystery story, this. The Twelfth Enchantment is a conflict of magic and machinery in England on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. David Liss has created a very vivid heroine, Lucy Derrick, impoverished after the death of her father, living at the mercy of a distant relation who despises her, promised to a mill owner she doesn’t want to marry but out of options. At sixteen Lucy ran away with a man much older than she was and her father came after her and brought her home. In the four days she was away, her father’s favorite, her sister Emily, died. Lucy has struggled with a damaged reputation and horrible guilt ever since.

Then a bizarre encounter with Lord Byron sets tongues wagging again and starts a series of inexplicable coincidences and encounters that change Lucy’s life–and put her and her remaining sister in grave danger. It’s complicated. You have to hang on in the beginning for a good long while because no one in this story is what they seem. Even Lucy isn’t who she always thought she was. But she is enormously clever and sharp with a retort and seems to be the one everyone wants. Not everyone who wants her is on her side. In fact, it gets harder and harder for her to find anyone on her side.

The alchemical magic and ancient enchantments are thick on the page. Liss has woven the dark and darker threads of magic into his world-building so well that it feels entirely believable.  There’s a touch of Philip Pullman in this twisted English countryside and smoky, grimy London. Demons (not daemons) abound. Evil lives. Books hold powerful magic. The Twelfth Enchantment is a romance but just barely. It’s much more a mystery and adventure tale with shapeshifters, hordes of undead who are not zombies or vampires, a changeling and some political intrigue for good measure. In the end, the people are stronger than the magic–but the magic is powerful enough to spark mayhem and madness and keep you turning pages.

The Twelfth Enchantment: A Novel   David Liss | Random House   2011

Angels Dining at the Ritz – John Gardner

Once you get in the rhythm of the 1940s British vernacular–and it takes some serious getting used to–John Gardner’s Angels Dining at the Ritz is a ripping good tale of deceit, perversion, B-17 bombing raids, wartime romance and , of course, murder. Vile. violent, cold-blooded, twisted, self-serving murder. Ancient grudges, obsessive love, hidden-away children, serious gore. Quite a lot happens.

When three members of the same family–mother, father and eight-year-old son–have their faces blasted off by a twelve-bore, double-barrelled shotgun in their country home, Detective Chief Superintendent the Honorable Tommy Livermore and his subordinate Suzie Mountford get the case. Not only do they work together, they sleep together but that’s their little secret. The few cops who know about them pretend they don’t. The murdered family is prominent, a respected barrister from an ice cream and confections empire–Italians many generations in England who immediately close ranks and leave out some key details of their genetics and relations.

Meanwhile, adjacent to the murder scene, an air base for Flying Fortresses regularly rips open the silent peace of the rural village. The local girls don’t mind a bit and the dashing American pilots and crews spend time off-base when they aren’t making runs over occupied France. That’s how one of them stumbles across a murder scene that he is desperate not to disclose. There is excellent description of the flights and the horrors that happen when the planes are hit. And throughout the book, there is a clear picture of the nasty food available, for the Brits but not so much the Yanks, during wartime–very graphic.

Good read. I waded through the slang and shorthand as best I could. (“Ropey do”–what is that supposed to mean?)  Wasn’t always successful but caught most of it. Figured out what might have been up before the puzzle pieces were dropped in but didn’t quite connect the two murder plots in the story. They did make for some nail-biting reading though. A lot of gruesome dying happens and we are spared none of the details. The sleuthing was pretty engaging and I’d have to rate this one both jaunty and grim but a decent historical crime novel.

Angels Dining at the Ritz   John Gardner | Severn House   2004

Grey Matters – Clea Simon

An academic mystery about a dissertation in danger, the ghost of a psychic cat, a professor on the edge of dementia, rare books and forgeries and a very dead graduate student on the front walk should be interesting. I thought it was, for a while. But all the dialog sounds like the same person, even the feline ghost’s. And the protagonist is an amateur sleuth for no especially compelling reason. Everyone is endlessly solicitous as she was the one to find the corpse outside her faculty adviser’s home. And a BIG mystery about her too-busy-to-see-her boyfriend is so transparent that it is annoying to keep being hammered over the head with hints about it.

Grey Matters is a sequel to another Harvard murder mystery written by Clea Simon–same Dulcie Schwartz, doctoral candidate; same dangers lurking in the stacks, same boyfriend. The Cassandra-like grey cat was alive in the earlier book. It’s replacement in this book is a cute but annoying kitten which does not deliver pronouncements in stentorian tones to warn our heroine of extreme peril. I stayed in it for the biblio mystery–who wrote the anonymous Gothic fragment? Forgery or the kind of gold that makes an academic reputation?  I never got invested in any of the characters, even the murder victim. They seemed like stereotypes. The wicked kitten was pretty good, though.

Grey Matters (Dulcie Schwartz Mystery)   Clea Simon | Severn House    2009

When Maidens Mourn – C. S. Harris

When Maidens Mourn sets Sebastian St. Cyr and his enigmatic and rather frosty new wife, Hero Jarvis, loose in Regency London and its outskirts on separate trails to solve the same murder. C. S. Harris puts more layers than a trifle in this tale of a lady archaeologist and historical scholar and the discovery of her body in a crumbling rowboat in Camlet Moat. Gabrielle Tennyson was a close friend of Hero’s and Sebastian, Viscount Devlin, is called upon to help resolve the puzzling murder. Complicating matters are the facts that the dead woman’s two young nephews have gone missing and Sebastian’s father-in-law and mortal enemy may have something to do with the crime.

As Sebastian and Hero struggle with competing loyalties, suspects pile up like quail on a hunt. The drama cuts across classes and takes our hero and heroine far afield, from bawdy houses, to legendary holy wells to the British Museum to a gypsy encampment on the river. I was concerned at the top of the story that several perfectly logical explanations for the crime seemed apparent but, thankfully, none of them survived the tumultuous events of city and countryside. Lots of political intrigue, family secrets, old and new loves, brigands, forgers, smugglers, Napoleonic plots and moneyed aristocracy to muck things up. Very satisfying, although the end result was foreshadowed but completely unpredictable and not as inventive as I would have liked.

Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries are probably worth checking into. The history is part-fact and part-fiction and well stitched together. The characters are interesting. I wasn’t enamored of the cool relationship of the newlywed Devlins but maybe they behave more like an actual team in other books. They might make better partners than antagonists. Alas, in this book, the wrong people die but the right people sort it out and salvage something important from the wreckage. There are six novels so far in this series. I would read another one.

When Maidens Mourn: A Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery   C. S. Harris | Obsidian  2012

The Stolen Bride – Tony Hays

Tony Hays has pulled off a trick of alchemy with his Arthurian murder mystery, The Stolen Bride. It’s a very decent mystery–lots of clues, a few red herrings, plot convolutions, a fair amount at stake. Murder in Camelot–no fairytale here but the whole thing works. It’s set in the middle of power struggles in Arthur’s Wild West Britain in which lords and kings and leiges and usurpers and every manner of ambitious armed warrior is set on treachery. Into this rough and dirty world marches Malgwyn, Arthur’s one-armed counselor, an honest and perceptive soldier and advisor who is frequently at odds with his boss and wants nothing more than to be home with his daughter and very pregnant wife.

Home is a long way away when Malgwyn and his companions, riding to meet Arthur, stumble across the savage butchery of an entire village, women and children mercilessly slaughtered and the place in flames. One survivor, a young woman, could not place the invaders who spoke a strange language. Malgwyn takes her with them, vowing to avenge the massacre of her family and village. And, when he arrives at the castle of King Doged to help negotiate a truce among several warring tribes, Doged is murdered in his chambers, his young wife widowed and every power-hungry noble sets out with an army to try to seize the spoils.

The regicide is complicated and Arthur tasks Malgwyn with solving it. Doged’s widow is determined to hold onto his kingdom and she may be carrying the old king’s child.  Mordred, Malgwyn’s bitter enemy, is arrested for the crime but Malgwyn senses a larger and more ominous conspiracy and villains afoot. Vast mineral treasure is discovered on Doged’s land and control of the rich seaports and the mines is too tempting a prize for anything less than a score of deadly plots. Daron, the lone survivor of the massacre, is a tougher, more central player than she first seems. Malgwyn is playing a dangerous game and his own life could be forfeit.

Merlin and Igraine have major roles in the plot resolution. Arthur’s relentless work to hold his kingdom together and secure a just and lasting peace is threatened at every turn. Hays creates a real world with tremendous attention to details of arms, terrain, food, battle strategies, court protocols and ancient law. His characters are the best part–these are flawed, sweaty, smart, exhausted, furious, funny people. Betrayal is a byword. Trickery is commonplace, and some of it is wickedly clever. A few times the narrative felt a bit modern but the lapses weren’t so jarring that I lost the story or the sense of place. Even though the epilogue-like ending was just slightly cute, I’d have to say pretty good book overall. I’d read another one, although not right away. The events and the battles are bloody and desperate and, while I was satisfied at the main plot resolution, I wouldn’t want to live in that messy world. Occasional escape to it would be fine.

The Stolen Bride   Tony Hays | Forge  2012

The Heretic’s Apprentice – Ellis Peters

Brother Cadfael mysteries are the best.  I have yet to read all of them and there are only reference copies in the library but I came across one recently in a box of books and happily devoured it. The Heretic’s Apprentice sets the rigid Roman Catholic clerics of the Middle Ages–power-mad, dour and unyielding–against the humane monks and bishops who respect the marvel of divine mystery and the frailty of the humans who try to apprehend it.  A young man returns to Shrewsbury after seven years on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with his master. The master has died on the return trip and Elave, the apprentice and travel companion, brings his body to the abbey to bury and his bequest to his ward as a dowry. The dowry is a locked carved box, exquisitely beautiful, and the ward, Fortunata, is more taken with Elave than with the gift he brings.

The box is set aside for the return of the present master of the house, who is away on trade, and a lively discussion among Elave and the members of his former household ends with him expressing some original and thoughtful views about Church teachings. And the next day, one of the participants in the contentious chat denounces Elave as a heretic to a visiting bishop at the abbey–one of the dour and self-righteous ones–and a murderous plot is set in motion.

Cadfael is his usual observant and worldy-wise self, mixing potions for headache and ague, tending his herb garden, silently assessing motive and means at every turn in the tale. He welcomes visits from his friend, the congenial and brilliant Sheriff Hugh Beringer, uncovers untimely corpse and alibi, and eventually pieces together a trail of events gone horribly wrong. There is every danger that he understands what he is dealing with too late and that tragedy will follow. And all the while, a reader is treated to rich details of life in a twelfth-century Benedictine monastery on the Welsh border, the healing properties of herbs, the devotion of the faithful to their saints and relics, the maneuvering of political clergy and a love story unfolding.

Pay attention and you will learn about Vespers, illuminated manuscripts, the many uses of sheep skins and the currents of rivers. Catch a glimpse into Cadfael’s mind as he prays to St. Winifred and pieces together the puzzle of a homicide. Revel in the well-drawn characters and a portrait of medieval life as cinematic as a movie. Ellis Peters was a genius, I wish I had the entire collection of her Brother Cadfael books.

Heretic’s Apprentice (Brother Cadfael Mysteries)   Ellis Peters | The Mysterious Press   1990

The Messenger of Athens – Anne Zouroudi

Hermes Diaktoros wears white canvas sneakers, not winged sandals. But I suspect he is a Greek god anyway. In Anne Zouroudi’s contemporary mysteries set in the inbred cultures of Greek islands, her oversize sleuth is fanatic about keeping his shoes pristine with the help of white liquid polish, and about cleaning up the messes humans make with original and unofficial retribution. The Messenger of Athens introduces Diaktoros, the fat man, and spins a convoluted tale of love, lust, passion, rage, greed, duplicity, and misguided tradition.

A woman’s body is found at the bottom of a rocky cliff on the isolated island of Thiminos. She is labelled a suicide, case closed, and then the fat man arrives on the ferry. He is an amazingly self-contained character–unflappable, all-knowing, no-bullshit, and don’t try to give him any. He deals with human foibles like a being who has seen it all before and can’t be blindsided or diverted from his mission. His mission, as he tells everyone who will listen, is to find out who killed Irini Asimakopoulos. This isn’t a question anyone wants asked–or answered.

But the fat man knows a terrific amount of dirt about the players in this local drama and he doesn’t hesitate to use it. He’s a relaxed and persistent sleuth. He does wicked little things like hide nasty insects in matchboxes and leave them behind for people he is displeased with to find. He pokes into everyone’s business. He claims to be an investigator from a higher authority than the Metropolitan Police, although he doesn’t deny that he comes from Athens.  A few people confide in him, a few more are afraid of him. In alternating chapters, the reader sees inside the mind of Irini before she dies and portraits of lives and marriages in a stifling culture come into focus.

I liked the second book in this series slightly better but the delicious karmic reckonings in The Messenger of Athens are both satisfying and entertaining. Zouroudi pulls back the curtain on a Greece the casual tourist will never see and the adventures of her sleuth seem like chapters in an Homeric epic. Lots of symbolism and subtle (sometimes not subtle) references to classics–just a really good series. I hope she is a fast writer because Hermes Diaktoros is intriguing enough to want to follow as he rights wrongs and deflates hubris without running out of clean shirts or muddying up his blinding white shoes.

The Messenger of Athens: A Novel (Seven Deadly Sins Mysteries)   Anne Zouroudi | Little, Brown and Company   2007

See related post: The Taint of Midas

Falconer and the Ritual of Death – Ian Morson

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Ian Morson writes a series about amateur sleuth, Oxford don William Falconer who has a 13th-century jones for solving murders. 1271 A.D. is rough times in Falconer and the Ritual of Death and there are any number of murders to be solved. A body is discovered in the walls of a house, abutting the Jewish quarter of Oxford, that is being torn down. A serving girl’s suicide isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Old murders and a ritual killing that sparked a mob re-surface with chilling resonance in present-day crimes. Templars are involved. The early days of the university, before the magnificent buildings, at the time when sewage ran right down the middle of the street, are described in fascinating architectural and quotidian detail.

Despite the grisly killings and the gutsy forensics carried out clandestinely in the religious and superstitious town, the book was larded with name upon name of new character to remember and it read a little drily. But still a compelling historical crime novel, reminiscent of the Brother Cadfael mysteries of Ellis Peters. I liked those when I read them and I liked this book. Just my thing– a celibate professor who wears the vow very very loosely and keeps a snowy owl in his manuscript-strewn lodgings. Several attractive and ultimately unavailable but interested women–bright and beautiful, we can deal with that. Some creepy plots and a terrific old blind rabbi. Layers of prevarication that threaten longstanding friendships. An exposition of the status of Jews in the Oxford ghetto. Falconer and the Ritual of Death was the sort of introduction that will make me hunt for other books in the series whenever I need a rest from too much modern.

Falconer and the Ritual of Death (William Falconer)   Ian Morson | Severn House   2008

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

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Gone Girl is an extremely well-written crime story about seriously sick people. Gillian Flynn twists contemporary life into a mad, grinning parody of itself–her protagonists (who speak in alternating chapters) suffer the slings and arrows of sudden and permanent job loss, shocking financial free-fall, abrasive encounters with the criminal justice system and even more jagged brushes with the media. Alzheimer’s, domestic abuse, psychological warping, false personas and lives, hidden indiscretions and dark, slimy secrets, too much alcohol, too little resilience and no salvation at all–for anyone–it’s all nicely described in a tale of two people and one unravelling marriage that reads like a tabloid shocker.

Girl meets boy who loses her number but finds her again and they marry. Her wealthy parents buy them a Brooklyn brownstone, probably next door to Norman Mailer as they are writers of a sort. Jobs disappear, money disappears, they disappear to his hometown in Missouri where she disappears. Suspicion, searching, angst, more suspicion, her diary, his doubts, who did what to whom? Short version–no spoilers.

I have to say that Flynn is a brilliant wordsmith and that I found the account depressing. I figured out fairly quickly who was off the rails and what was up–just not the fine points of what really happened. And I’m never anxious to spend hours inside screwed-up heads–life being screwed-up enough so I don’t miss that. All of which caused me to skim chunks of the story, gleaning enough facts to piece together the unfolding picture. IOW, I did not savor the reading of it, even for the very good writing. Maybe it’s a personal failing to find my preferred escapes in mysteries from gaslight Manhattan or Edwardian England or the time of the French Cathars.

When I was a reporter, I covered a lot of dramatic crime, being based in a region where that was daily fare. I learned the ins and outs of the modern iterations of homicidal behavior and unimaginable cruelty and sicko perversion. I met a few sociopaths, some were behind bars and some never would be. A mob hitman used to send me mash notes and red roses from prison after I interviewed him. Pretty young girls and cute kids vanished and their bodies were found sooner or later, just dead or in pieces. Weird stuff went down all the time. I got tired of it. Twisted is not an irresistible hook for me and Gone Girl is predictably askew.  

This is an amazing book in every sense of that word. It’s a very very well-done novel. I could recommend it without hesitation. I did anticipate diving into it with great pleasure. But I didn’t like Gone Girl and I didn’t get that lovely calm space reading confers from reading it. There’s a highly-recommended YA fantasy waiting for me, and a fat dishy book about Marilyn Monroe. I can go there. Pedestrian reader that I am, I’m looking forward to it.

Gone Girl: A Novel   Gillian Flynn | Crown  2012