Tag Archives: murder mystery

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

Cain His Brother – Anne Perry

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William Monk has been busted out of the police force in Victorian London and, with no other skills but detective work, set himself up as a private eye. When Genevieve Stonefield comes to him with a desperate tale of a missing husband, he suspects a fiscal or romantic entanglement. But Angus, the missing man, seems to have been a model of rectitude and there is no mistaking his wife’s distress. She believes he went to the Limehouse section of town where his wastrel twin brother Caleb haunts the docks and alleys, a fearsome murderous criminal.

As Monk sets off to find Caleb and determine if and how Angus has met with foul play, typhoid fever sweeps through the slums and Hester Latterly and several wealthy patrons convert an old warehouse into a makeshift hospital. Hester and Monk have some history but it is as much antagonism as attraction and they spend this book sparring relentlessly. Monk has reasons to visit the typhoid shelter and Heather has emergency nursing duties for one of her helpers who succumbs to the fever. The woman is the wife of Lord Rathbone, Angus and Caleb Stonefield’s childhood guardian—the plot thickens.

So, we have Cain and Abel—er, Caleb and Angus—plenty of excuses for Monk’s and Hester’s paths to cross on a regular basis, a seedy waterfront setting and a hunt for a missing identical twin. Alas, I figured out a major, major plot point before the fever had even taken hold in the filthy back alleys of London. But Anne Perry pulls out her usual bag of tricks and surprises in Cain His Brother and suspecting what really happens does not dim the pleasure in tracking what is happening. Monk is framed by a beautiful woman who accuses him publicly of attacking her, a charge that will ruin him and make it impossible for him to work. Certain society matrons have rather colorful and extremely veiled pedigrees. Perry throws in her version of the movie car chase—a wild hunt for a vicious perp on and along the Thames, on foot and on barges.

The William Monk mysteries are reliably satisfying. The sights and sounds of Victorian London, especially its seedier environs, are vivid and convincing. Hester and Monk’s wary circling is acerbic and fun to watch. I ran out of hours trying to keep up with overscheduled life and a seriously long YA book that is also a very good read, so I jumped into the polluted Thames with Monk, who can always be counted on for a thrill ride and a complex, twisted plot. Even knowing the key to the riddle of the disappearance didn’t help me to unravel all of it. I did, however, slide into the last chapter well before midnight. Murder mysteries will probably get me through the year.

Cain His Brother: A William Monk Novel (Mortalis)   Anne Perry | Ballantine Books  2010

A River in the Sky – Elizabeth Peters

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The Emerson family, the brightest and bossiest collection of human beings to grace early 1900s archaeology, has been unleashed on another artifact-rich region. This time the delightful and troublesome Ramses is a young man—he’s an admirable young man but I love him as the hell-on-wheels six-year-old in older Egyptian adventures—and there is an adopted daughter, Nefret, whose acquisition must have been the fascinating topic of another book.

A River in the Sky tracks Amelia Peabody Emerson, her blustery, adoring and brilliant Egyptologist husband, Nefret and a motley crew of friends, servants and hangers-on to Jerusalem where a bumbling amateur intends to dig for the Ark of the Covenant at one of the holiest sites in Palestine. Ramses is already in Palestine on another dig, getting himself perilously involved in a murderous intrigue. The Germans are planning a railroad and an eventual occupation of the region. Turkish soldiers of the Ottoman Empire don’t bother with niceties when keeping order. Weird characters abound and many of them might be spies or other nefarious villains.

As ever, Amelia is brusque, intelligent, competent, attracted to the most dangerous sites and the possibilities of a dig to clear up some historical mysteries. But this time an added complication is the apparent disappearance of Ramses who has failed to show up as directed and join his parents’ dig. The Crown has set the Emersons loose in Palestine to uncover a plot to destabilize the precarious peace among conflicting religions in the tinderbox of Jerusalem. Much more than the discovery of new artifacts is at stake. Things get complicated before the expedition sets one foot out of England.

Elizabeth Peters delivers her razor-sharp, contentious, funny and historically-lavish typical Amelia Peabody mystery. The repartee between the Emersons is quick and clever. The plots and subplots twist into a satisfying tangle. You can’t entirely guess at the resolution but you are happy to be led to it, enjoying the adventure along the way. There are no false notes in these stories. The times, the trickery and the players all make sense in a believable world. My only regret was the absence of De Cat Bastet and that wicked little boy who bedevils everyone and saves the day hilariously in earlier books.

A River in the Sky: An Amelia Peabody Novel of Suspense   Elizabeth Peters | HarperCollins   2010

Tigerlily’s Orchids – Ruth Rendell

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Ruth Rendell’s Tigerlily’s Orchids was a disappointment. The story wanders around the apartments in one building in a neighborhood outside central London—the novel is half-over before anyone dies and you don’t much care when they do. The flats are occupied by a motley bunch of losers, students, suicidal alcoholics, pedophiles, hapless naifs and hippies way past their primes. (Sigh.)

The intrigue isn’t very intriguing, the crimes are pedestrian and sort of grimy—murder excepted. But the main victim fails to elicit much sympathy, the second corpse has already taken too long to die by the time it’s toes-up, much about the lives of the inhabitants is sordid or just relentlessly banal. None of the large cast seems to have much future—or much present, for that matter.

I was bored. But I did learn something–I figured out why some books work for me and some don’t, even in the same genre and even when the authors are well-regarded. When I don’t like a book it is often because the characters are unappealing, do stupid things that will cause them foreseeable problems and don’t have anything I would find interesting to look forward to. I just can’t care about dull-witted characters. Personal failure of imagination, no doubt.

So, Ruth Rendell may be a genius of crime novels but Tigerlily’s Orchids had no orchids, no Tigerlily, a flaccid plot and a double-decker busload of forgettable people. I’ve read books that are really bad and this wasn’t one. But I wouldn’t have pushed through it if I’d had time to crack another novel and finish by day’s end.   

Tigerlily’s Orchids: A Novel   Ruth Rendell | Scribner   2011

Soul Murder – Andrew Nugent

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Soul Murder by Andrew Nugent follows the typical plot outline of a murder mystery but doesn’t satisfy—either in characterization or style. The setting is an Irish boarding school, a castle repeatedly compared to Hogwarts in Harry Potter. That gets irritating quickly. The language is stilted in the manner of an old-fashioned potboiler but, Irish colloquialisms aside, there is too much contemporary reference to take this as a period piece.

It takes a long time to get going—a lot of detail about some illicit youthful outing that isn’t very interesting although it is germane to the first crime. The entire story is told, all personalities and plot developments described, nothing for the reader to experience or empathize with. A fifteen-year-old student central to the plot is consistently referred to as a “little guy,” which gives the impression that he is about 8 years old and not a contemporary of his peers. The Garda—the police—are very sloppy about interrogating people and securing scenes and suspects. Motives for murder range from pederasty to international terrorism and seem arbitrarily applied, not organic arising from a richly imagined world. And the resolution, delivered second-hand in the revelations of an old correspondence, is surprisingly prurient, given the exceedingly dry and superficial portrait of life in a boys’ boarding school—it just doesn’t feel earned.

So I have to conclude that this author and this book do not work for me at all. The writer, a Benedictine monk, has several works of fiction to his credit and the book jacket boasts positive reviews for earlier books. Maybe I just didn’t connect with this one. It seemed amateur to me, like a good first effort in need of a rigorous editor. Soul Murder doubtless has its audience but I am not an enthusiastic member.

Soul Murder   Andrew Nugent | Minotaur Books 2008

Sweet Revenge – Andrea Penrose

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I liked The Cocoa Conspiracy so much that I reserved Andrea Penrose’s Sweet Revenge and settled in with it as soon as it arrived at the library. More intriguing chocolate recipes to copy—and more homicidal Regency nobility to unmask. The first book in the series was as delectable as the sequel so I am now officially a fan. The Regency period was certainly rife with conspiracy and malfeasance—this tale includes the kind of high-level financial shenanigans that characterize life in the 21st century.

The New World is still very new to Europe and ripe for major exploitation when Arianna Hadley’s profligate and beloved father is murdered in the Indies. Her journey back to Europe to seek revenge lands her in disguise as the French chef to a salon hostess—she masquerades as a mustached man with a French accent and the talent to produce marvels of cocoa-based confections. But then a guest—the Prince Regent–is poisoned with the first taste of one of those desserts and the chef is in danger.

Enter a wounded and rough-edged nobleman who boasts both a high position and mixed parentage, making him both insider and outsider in London’s Byzantine social strata. Before he became a decorated soldier, Lord Saybrook studied botany and his rare expertise in all matters concerning chocolate gets him assigned to sort out the attempted murder. Arianna’s disguise has fooled everyone else but it takes almost no time for Saybrook to see through it. As her quest to find and kill her father’s killers and Saybrook’s mission to solve the crime intersect, lethal plots swirl around them.

Arianna is set up as a wealthy widow in fashionable silks and a fine townhouse at Saybrook’s expense and she begins to stalk her prey at the most elegant fêtes in London.  Saybrook hides most of what he suspects about a web of international trade intrigue from Arianna.  There is no trust lost between them, a situation that leads to some disastrous consequences. Both of them have at each other in verbal duels in which neither side is willing to cede a centimeter of advantage. The rich environs of Regency society provide a sharp contrast to the seedier parts of town and remote reaches of the Empire. Events are harrowing and every chapter opens with a dollop of chocolate trivia and a mouthwatering recipe, courtesy of Lord Saybrook’s grandmother’s journal. Do not read this book if you are on a diet, thinking about a diet or in any way susceptible to the lure of chocolate in any form. All forms are presented and each mention is more irresistible than the last.

Andrea Penrose has a winning combination in this mystery format. The sweet tidbits offset the verbal sparring and the malevolent threats. The pace produces suitable tension and the characters are more than spirited and agreeably intelligent. The puzzles are composed of real pieces of history, and lots of real chocolate lore, and seem entirely plausible. Loved it, loved the chocolate, will content myself with making some Chocolate Chipotle Shortbread while I wait impatiently for the next Lady Arianna adventure.

Sweet Revenge: A Lady Arianna Regency Mystery (Lady Arianna Hadley Mystery)   Andrea Penrose | Obsidian  2011

See related post:  The Cocoa Conspiracy

Secret of the White Rose – Stefanie Pintoff

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Stefanie Pintoff writes the kind of historical New York puzzle that is a delight for those of us who live here to read. Secret of the White Rose is an incredibly pedestrian title for a book that winds through the filthy streets and dire deeds of Manhattan in 1906 in a classic police procedural. There are hero-detectives, corpses with interesting clues, forensic science, psychological criminal profiling, chases and races against time, political favors and cop-shop politics, broader social issues and red herrings—along with some oddly placed Bibles and white roses invariably stained red. The title makes it sound like a Nancy Drew book but all the women in this novel are pretty tough cookies and a number of them operate according to their own laws.

You can visit the back streets of Little Italy and Chinatown, the legendary Dakota apartment building on Central Park West, Gramercy Park—the keyed greensward and a bordering mansion—Barnard College, NYPD headquarters and the Tombs, its notorious jail. Check out ethnic eateries in the Village and on the Upper West Side, travel up and down Broadway by horse carriage and motor cab, see a shabbier Times Square and generally glimpse the city tourists never see—a century ago. And take these self-guided Gotham History Walks while you’re sifting clues about murdered judges, murderous anarchists, cold-hearted capitalists, boot-strapping immigrants, privileged intellectuals and a deadly code delivered in scraps of music.

Fortunately, many of the well-to-do characters have pianos in their parlors and eye-witnesses are rather chatty when Detective Simon Ziele and his amateur sleuth lady friend Isabella Sinclair are asking the questions. Ziele is convinced that the obvious motive isn’t the homicidal motive and the criminologist who involves him in the murders encourages this line of thinking—until he suddenly goes mum and then removes himself from the scene.

An anarchist’s bomb that was supposed to destroy a wedding party in Turtle Bay that included Andrew Carnegie is motive enough for the police commissioner. The bomb detonated early and killed passersby—a four-year-old boy among the victims has inspired volatile public outrage. But the real story is far older than the recent high-profile crime. The fact that the first judge to die is about to rule on the bombing case is cover for the real killer.

Secret of the White Rose is well-plotted, well-researched, and well-written. It’s a very good book and a fascinating history lesson. The story might remind you of Caleb Carr’s popular The Alienist. It’s in the same vein of historical murder mysteries in which the city that never sleeps only reluctantly gives up its secrets about the victims of its most insidious crimes.

Secret of the White Rose   Stefanie Pintoff | Minotaur Books 2011

Murder in the Abstract – Susan C. Shea

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Murder in the Abstract takes place in the museum and gallery worlds of San Francisco and Santa Fe—locations can be a good enough reason to read a book. Susan C. Shea worked in fundraising for education and arts organizations before turning her talents to writing fiction so she gets the role of development director for a museum just right. There is some product name-dropping at the start, to create bona fides for a wealthy milieu, I suppose. That is such a tired tactic that it stands out. But events and motives quickly overtake the ads and a suicide at an art museum exhibit opening moves front and center.

The suicide is really a homicide—an artist who pitched himself, or was pushed, from the fifth floor window of the museum’s development director. She is flabbergasted and freaked out—apparently the artist had a letter, signed by her and on museum stationery, inviting him to meet her in her office. OK, she didn’t send it but Dani O’Rourke has history with the splattered artist. Their brief relationship ended in a very public disagreement and now she is a suspect. She gives a first-person account of events–the voice is competently managed. And the cast is studded with artists, museum directors, collectors, gallery owners and cute cops. Hmmm.

Dani’s ex (husband, not the now-abstract boyfriend) is a charming and exceptionally wealthy playboy who can’t resist coming to her rescue, invited or not. Her best friend is an artist who is somehow endangered by events and nearly ends up dead herself. A development assistant is too flirtatious and invites suspicion. Dani’s boss, the museum director, owns a very risky secret.  A collusion to hoard and market a new kind of forgery shadows events from the background as Dani takes a break from tense doings in San Francisco and steps into a lethal mix of treacherous media in charming Santa Fe.  Museums are not sanctuaries in this mystery and galleries are perilous repositories of experimental paintings and unsentimental perps.

Murder in the Abstract is really a lot of fun. People do die—not the amusing parts—but the heroine’s voice is a kind of sophisticated Bridget Jones Diary persona and the tension is pretty low-key. The art world is ripe for cruising and the insider knowledge about nefarious collecting practices adds to the appeal. The book was a fast, light read and a reprieve from the longer daily volumes that inevitably cost me sleep. I need to look for a few more of those to vary this marathon. I’d read another book by Susan Shea, if she sticks to the volatile intersection of greed and art with all the trappings to lure an armchair voyeur.

Murder in the Abstract   Susan C. Shea | Avalon Books  2010

Blood Orange Brewing – Laura Childs

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Cruising right along the mystery shelves at the St. Agnes library I couldn’t resist pulling out Blood Orange Brewing by Laura Childs. Not a single Agatha Christie to be found but Childs’ book had a tempting title, was set in historic Charleston, stars the owner of a fancy little tea shop and looked like the American equivalent of a British cozy.

Well, yes and no. Maybe you have to be in the British Isles for a real cozy. This book features a slightly in-bred society of nice, sort of bland people who are extremely dedicated to home-baked scones, afternoon tea, historic preservation, antique linens and energetic snooping. They have names like Drayton, Haley, Pookie, Corky and Theodosia. Theo is the tea lady and the incorrigible snoop.

Many blends of tea are lovingly chronicled. Many scones and other delectables are produced and consumed in the tea shop. The recipes are included in the back of the book. Old Charleston Victorian houses have spooky hidden passages and old Charleston blue blood families have spooky hidden business operations. A well-respected member of the community dies rather theatrically at a fundraising tea. The widow enlists Theodosia to poke around and find out who offed her husband. The local sheriff tells Theodosia to butt out. Theo does not butt out.

The Civil War is part of the action; a smart, friendly mutt becomes a hostage; exotic animals turn up in the wrong places; another murder complicates things and the tea cakes and crepes just keep on rolling. Childs’ writing style is not unobtrusively fluent but it’s readable. Blood Orange Brewing is a sweet murder mystery with low stakes—my biggest safety concern throughout was for a dog. You can’t really guess the plot resolution—a platter of red herrings is served up along with tea.

In truth, I started Swamplandia!, got massively depressed reading it after about an hour or so and switched to lighter fare. Now that I’ve had my sugar hit, I’ll probably revisit Swamplandia! in the morning.  

Blood Orange Brewing (A Tea Shop Mystery)   Laura Childs | BerkleyPrime Crime   2006

The Ice Maiden – Edna Buchanan

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Whenever I arrived at the scene of a Miami homicide with my camera crew and saw Edna Buchanan there I knew I was beat. And she was almost always there first. Edna was a tenacious newspaper reporter, brilliant writer, buddy of cops, detectives, medical examiners and other helpful news sources with first response status on big stories. It would never have occurred to me to compete with her on her own turf or even grudge her her many scoops—she was that good.

So I read her early Britt Montero mysteries with pleasure. Buchanan does what Carl Hiaasen does—takes the wacky, bizarre, horrific and utterly original true crime stories from the streets of Miami, Miami Beach, Coral Gables and the completely crazy South Florida local news and builds stories around them. All these many years later I still feel the shock of recognition reading The Ice Maiden, Buchanan’s post-911 cold case murder mystery with Britt Montero and a brace of local constables collecting clues and infuriating just about everyone. The events are real–only the story is a pastiche with a neatly resolved plot.

A brutal crime that was never solved resurfaces with a growing cast of suspects and fresh, threatening incidents. The murder of a teen and the assault of his first-time date who was left for dead has wrecked a score of lives and no one has ever paid. Britt’s buddies on the squad want to re-open the case, their superior orders it closed, Britt pokes around and digs up new leads and the madness is on.

Florida’s farm fields, persistent slums, volatile Black-Cuban antipathy, tendency to lawlessness, gated communities hiding ugly secrets, newsroom rivalries and tabloid homicides are all on display and the action never flags. Britt has a jones for an old flame who is in Manhattan on search & rescue at the World Trade Towers. The young survivor of the attempted double homicide is now an adult artist who makes ice sculptures and is estranged from her family. A burglary gone horribly wrong triggers memories of the old case and the plot spins out like a line expertly cast over the bonefish flats by a seasoned guide.

Buchanan is still a damn good writer and her white hats and bad guys follow a taut script. The Ice Maiden is well-constructed, tense, packed with treacherous byways, shades of gray and dodgy characters and delivers a classic climax with a violent finish. Unfortunately, you could see the worst of it heading straight for Montero who does not escape unscathed into a great story for the morning paper. But she does survive to keep tracking clues and criminals in Miami’s mean streets another day.

The Ice Maiden : A Novel (Britt Montero Mysteries)  Edna Buchanan | HarperCollins   2002