Category Archives: Crime

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

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

Reckless Pleasures – Tori Carrington

For some reason which now escapes me, I checked out a bunch of romances from the library the other day. I haven’t read very much in the genre and I suppose I figured I might as well learn something about it. So far, it’s a little thin but probably safely true to form. Reckless Pleasures is a slightly graphic love/sex story that involves a longtime love affair between an ex-marine and an activated reserve (really, that wasn’t supposed to be an awful pun), a triangle with a best friend, topical references to Afghanistan and Iraq, a private security firm, an improbable search for a missing child in the Florida swamps and a ton of body heat, regret, guilt, heartbreak, etc., etc.

Tori Carrington is a duo with a number of hot paperback romances to their credit so I think this story line was created for a real demographic and likely appeals to its intended audience perfectly. Girl and guy have fabulous sex before he ships out. They can’t stand being away from each other. All kinds of love and heartbreak between two tough characters who wear their protective shells like Kevlar vests. They also wear Kevlar vests. Super-dramatic small-child-goes-missing-along-with-her-pink-bike event. Private security firm of ex-marines to the rescue. Some casual sex to relieve tension. Dude returns from service wounded. Uh oh.

There is more to the story than erotica but not much more. There is a lot of angst instead of sex for long stretches. The resolution leaves everyone sadder but wiser and throws in some revelations about families of origin that are meant to enlighten. If you like nearly perfect physical specimens getting it on with some actual story wrapped around the clinches, Reckless Pleasures works fine. Some of the other romances I grabbed are variations on the genre so I’m reserving judgment until I read a few more.

Reckless Pleasures (Harlequin Blaze)   Tori Carrington |  Harlequin   2011

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

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

Monument to Murder – Margaret Truman

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Monument to Murder is (probably) the last in Margaret Truman’s Capital Crimes novels. Part of the mystery is determining who actually wrote the book. The 2011 copyright is held by Truman’s estate and she died in 2008. I know I read one of her mysteries years ago and I felt as if this one wasn’t as taut or dishy–and most of it isn’t set in Washington–so it’s possible the text was at least partly produced by a ghost. Still a good read though, if not as polished as I expected. 

Savannah, Georgia P.I. Robert Brixton is contemplating the bottom of his bank account when he is asked to take on a twenty year old murder case. Louise Watkins was a troubled teen drug addict who took the rap for a homicide in the alley behind a bar and was gunned down shortly after she was released from prison.  Her mother comes to Brixton with the claim that Louise told her she was paid to confess and that she directed the money to be paid to her mother. It was. And now her mother wants to know what really happened and to clear her daughter’s name.

Not so simple. This is Savannah. Louise was poor and black. Brixton starts to uncover cover-ups of a cover-up. Savannah society is involved. And so is Washington–its most prominent hostess may be a witness, her family implicated in the false confession, her best friend tied to events that long ago night that could bring down an administration now. The best friend is the first lady. And, soon enough, threats and break-ins and more bodies complicate the investigation. A CIA deep cover assassin surfaces, someone close to Brixton is reporting on his findings. He gets mugged and warned away and misdirected. Waste of time. The guy was an excellent cop and he is a relentless and pretty well-connected private investigator.  

The helpful couple who get Brixton close to the truth in DC are protagonists in Truman’s other Capital Crimes books but minor characters in this one. The story does reflect Truman’s insider knowledge of Washington–she grew up in the White House and her successful series always fused DC’s arcane ways and dirty little secrets with the headlines and policy decisions of the day. That still makes Monument to Murder fun to read, although the insider stuff doesn’t seem too insider and the contemporary touches post-date Truman’s death. Astute editing or something more? No idea.

But reading this book did remind me that I enjoyed a previous one so I might search for some of the older books to see how they hold up. I did not find Washington a very convivial place to live when I was there–kind of backward, crime-ridden and soulless actually, although I understand the shopping has improved vastly since my day. Still, it’s amusing to read about the (un)hallowed halls and the unholy goings on in and around them. Savannah is almighty slippery in the morals and truth department, too. 

Monument to Murder: A Capital Crimes Novel   Margaret Truman | Tom Doherty Associates   2011

Adrift on St. John – Rebecca M. Hale

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There are more than 225,000 words in the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and about a quarter of them are adjectives.* Rebecca M. Hale has tried to cram every one into Adrift on St. John, set on a resort island in the Caribbean. It was like slogging through shifting sand dunes to try and get through it. Every paragraph–every sentence–fat with description and not much happening. No sailing, either. You lose me when you leave off the sailing. There is a reason sailors refer to motorboats as “stinkpots.” 

A failed lawyer takes a manila envelope from an obese, sweaty stranger in the Miami Airport and leaves her malpractice-addled life–and name–behind. She becomes a hands-off manager in a mediocre St. John resort hotel, delegating anything that even vaguely resembles work to her assistant, a grumpy Bahamian woman with a young child. The assistant manager runs things and supports her kid. The lawyer living under an assumed name becomes, or remains  (never clear) a daily drunk. A rather thin plot is painfully dragged out, with much use of the pluperfect, for more than 300 pages. A lizard named Fred is the hung-over manager’s confidante. Alternating chapters tell the fictitious story of a slave princess who haunts the island. Developers threaten. Hurricanes threaten. Yawn.

I might have enjoyed the ride if there had been some sailing. There was rum in plastic go-cups and one wack-job regular tourist from Brooklyn imported his own reefer. Jimmy Buffet he was not. There are many days when reading a book a day seems like–and is–a lunatic idea. But this one was seriously depressing. I could have been reading about Giordano Bruno, or Arthur in a retelling of Sir Thomas Malory. Or sleeping. Which I think I will do now. The author has written some mysteries featuring cats that are alleged to be New York Times bestsellers. I will not be reading them.

Adrift on St. John   Rebecca M. Hale | Berkley Prime Crime   2012

*Source:  http://oxforddictionaries.com/words/how-many-words-are-there-in-the-english-language