Tag Archives: murder

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

Shine Shine Shine — Lydia Netzer

Shine Shine Shine — Lydia Netzer — completely original and really really good. I had low expectations for this novel–a book about autism, congenital baldness and a space accident was unappealing enough to make me wonder why I brought it home to read in the first place. Glad I didn’t waste too much time meandering down that track. This story is unexpected, touching, funny (sort of), twisting and turning like a river silvered in the light. Sunny is one of the best characters I’ve met in ages. Her “maybe evolution isn’t over” math-genius aspie husband Maxon is utterly engaging. So is the highly-medicated on-the-spectrum-in-a-big-way son, Bubber.

You so root for this family–the extremely pregnant Sunny, born in an eclipse in Burma and raised by Emma who does whatever it takes to protect and adore her. Bright baby with no hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, and all the confidence in the world. Until she and Maxon, inseparable since childhood in some backwater farm community in Pennsylvania, decide to have Bubber. And Sunny gets a wig. And then, one day, when Maxon is almost at the moon and Emma is in ICU dying and Sunny, who might give birth into this chaos at any moment, has withdrawn Bubber from his expensive drugs and his expensive special school, Sunny and Bubber are a fender-bender and her wig flies off. And that is the beginning of the unraveling.

You should read Shine Shine Shine and savor the delectable writing and the hooks-you-and-doesn’t-let-up story. The Nobelist husband, the perfect house, the perfect wife, mother–perfect Sunny.  Hah! Perfection is something else entirely. When a meteor hits the space ship, what happens is perfect. Just like every ragged, slicked-over bit of Sunny’s life. Read this book. It’s nearly perfect.

Shine Shine Shine   Lydia Netzer | St. Martin’s Press   2012

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

The Taint of Midas – Anne Zouroudi

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Anne Zouroudi has a couple of novels with the fat man, her enigmatic, Buddha-like detective Hermes Diaktoros, calmly righting life’s little and large wrongs without creasing his bespoke linen jacket or messing up his meticulously maintained white canvas sneakers. The Taint of Midas is about greed–and murder, of course, and corruption and a sleepy village on the Greek island of Arcadia. It read like a literary novel rather than a slick genre mystery. The descriptions of the food, the light falling on old stone and the Aegean, the small ruin of the Temple of Apollo on a hilltop with the best view on the island, all of them are beautiful and quietly cinematic. Hermes is a terrific character and the others are colorful and believable.

The old beekeeper, Gabrilis Kaloyeros, is still farming his hillside, selling his melons at a stall down in the village, caretaking what’s left of the ruined shrine. But his wife has been dead for some time and he is slowly letting go of his grasp on things–the glasses are gone and he can’t read what’s put in front of him to sign. The cottage is moldering, dusty, cluttered. The dishes go unwashed as do his few shabby clothes. He keeps the bees fairly well. But, on the way to sell his melons, he meets up with violence on the deserted road into town, a random accident that becomes a homicide.

The fat man finds him soon after he dies and determines to see justice done. And then we are plunged into a tangled web of shady developers, corrupt public servants, good cops, bad cops and cops with a lot to learn. Hermes Diaktoros doesn’t move quickly in the heat of late summer. But his deliberate style masks a formidable will and a fierce intellect and he discovers all the secrets while managing to keep his own.

The Taint of Midas opened a world to inhabit for the space of the book and it was worth the time spent there. Zouroudi captures contemporary Greece in all its unromantic complexity and she writes like a dream. A very good book and a clear incentive to look for its prequel The Messenger of Athens. I would like to know more about the fat man–maybe he gives away a few more clues in the inaugural book.  

The Taint of Midas: A Novel   Anne Zouroudi | Reagan Arthur Books   2008

The Leopard – Jo Nesbø

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 Jo Nesbø’s Nordic crime thriller is really really good. The Leopard is dense with predators and prey, the crimes are inventive and horrific, the heroes are terribly flawed. I couldn’t put it down. Well, slight exaggeration. I had to put it down to deliver on some work and to sleep for a few hours, reluctantly. Harry Hole–bad name, I suppose it isn’t as much of a fail in Norwegian–is a brilliant homicide detective whose last serial killer solve cost him everything he cared about in life and left him wrecked and off the force. He’s living in a hostel and a few opium dens in Hong Kong when he is persuaded to return to Norway because his father is dying.

The real reason he is hunted down and escorted home is that another serial killer is drowning young women in their own blood–the cirme scenes and the corpses are inexplicable and nobody can match Harry’s instincts and solve rate.  He wants no part of it, and then an MP is bizarrely murdered in a public pool and he’s hooked. Again. Things do not go well. Harry is a barely recovering drunk with a modest opium jones. His cop shop is in the crosshairs of an ambitious Kripos commissioner, a special branch with big designs on the Crime Squad’s homicide jurisdiction. Harry is given a basement boiler room at the end of a tunnel that connects the jail to the Crime Squad and assigned two officers to help him track the killer, the beautiful and somewhat devious Kaja who lured him from Hong Kong and an old colleague from Harry’s earlier days on the force.

Murders proliferate and get creepier as do the complications, false solutions, promising leads, dead ends and endless political maneuvering for power. Harry is a mess but he’s still a wizard at uncovering evidence and conjecturing motive. Bellman, the head of Kripos, steals his thunder every time. And the crimes keep unspooling, out of control and beyond reason. As soon as a clue is resolved, the plot jags off in another direction and you realize, as does Harry, that nothing has been solved. The evil is layer upon layer of darkness and everyone is shadowed by it. At some point, Harry realizes that the murderer is toying with him. The murderer joins a long list.

Harry Hole, name aside, is a great character-sleuth-hero. Lots of interesting characters crawling all over the book. Unexpected plot developments, sick but believable. Various reasons for the tension to rise. As much as I crave a little light in books to off-set the daily chaos, The Leopard was captivating and completely enjoyable. I doubt I will read the prequel, The Snowman, anytime soon–can only take so much depravity at a time–but it’s probably just as good. Jo Nesbø draws you into the snow and the darkness with all the assurance of a master. I mean it as a compliment when I say he has a great criminal mind. 

The Leopard (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)   Jo Nesbø | Alfred A. Knopf  2011

Swan – Frances Mayes

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Swan was a much-needed break from murder and mayhem, although a tragic death is the catalyst for much of the action in the book. Frances Mayes has written a smart story full of smart, literate, thoughtful people who happen to be as eccentric as any true southerners.

Ginger Mason and her brother J.J. were devastated when 11-year old Ginger discovered the bloody corpse of her mother on the kitchen floor of their house in Swan, Georgia. Swan is one of those places that exists, lush and ancient, in a pocket of the deep South, clinging to its old ways, kindnesses and cruelties. Ginger fled, eventually, to Italy to work on an Etruscan archaeological dig. Marco is the archaeologist who wins her heart but even he can’t compete with disturbing news from Swan that sends Ginger back across the Atlantic to her family and its ghosts.

J.J., once considered to be headed to medical school to follow in his father’s footsteps, spends his time hunting and fishing in the swamps and bayou, collecting old arrowheads and carved fishing spears from the Creek Indians who once inhabited the area. He disappears for days and weeks at a time, as he has since the day their mother was declared a suicide and their father began the two years of steady drinking that would lead to a stroke and life in a nursing home.

The story tracks what happens when their mother’s grave is vandalized, dumping her mostly preserved body out in the mud of the graveyard. The crime opens all the old wounds and exacerbates the losses. The aunt who raised the two children is one of the women who discovers her sister-in-law’s body and is thoroughly unnerved. But her agitation has as much to do with a sense of guilt as it does with shock.

Past secrets can’t remain buried once the corpse is exposed and a routine inspection of the body reveals another shocking truth. Ginger and J.J. try to cope with the onslaught of new knowledge and old pain. They use the haunts of their childhood to soothe the damage and the strain of dealing with their quirky family, longtime help and the citizenry of tiny Swan, Georgia in which privacy is a foreign concept and memories are long.

Swan is beautifully written—a real pleasure to read. The characters are intelligent, not oafish or superficial. I’ve never read Mayes’ well-known Tuscany books but I might check out one or two for the pure enjoyment of reading such fluent and rewarding writing.

Swan   Frances Mayes | Broadway Books   2002

False Mermaid – Erin Hart

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False Mermaid is the common name of a marsh plant that may hold the key to an unsolved murder in a desolate boggy area by the Mississippi in Minnesota. The term can be stretched to cover the legend of the selkies that is still recounted in a seal harbor off the West coast of Ireland. In Erin Hart’s murder mystery, False Mermaid, Nora Gavin, an American pathologist who studies bog people, cannot let go of the horrific murder of her younger sister and her conviction that her brother-in-law is to blame.

Nora was the serious sister, following in her scientist father’s footsteps. Triona was the dreamer, fantacist, actress, a beauty in love with the magic in life. She left behind a six-year-old daughter and devastated parents—and the puzzle of who bashed her face in and stuffed her body in the trunk of her car. Nora leaves a committed lover in Dublin and decamps for Minnesota and home, after three years away, searching for closure and proof of guilt to nail Triona’s handsome husband.

Villains and plots abound. Nora reconnects with a troubled detective who keeps the cold case alive and nurtures a major crush on her. The widower announces he is about to remarry, the new bride is the  sister of his college best friend and former fiancé of Nora’s. Nora is afraid her brother-in-law plans to murder again—not entirely sure why—and this imposes a looming deadline to solve the case. She has issues with her parents, issues with her Irish boyfriend, issues with the besotted detective—just a lot of issues for this girl. Actually, nearly every character in the book has family issues–a therapist’s dream cast.

Then another body is discovered by a Cambodian refugee who escapes from his own issues by fishing along the riverbank every morning. Lot of muck in this book. A catrillion coincidences start to occur and evidence begins to pop up all over the place. This isn’t wholly credible in a cold case—clues seldom just sit around waiting for people to re-examine what they have already combed exhaustively, but whatever. Seals and legends materialize,  from Seattle to County Donegal. Mercifully there are no seals in the Mississippi.

I love selkie legends as much as anyone but a seal that somehow migrates within days from Puget Sound to the Atlantic off the Northwest Irish coast must have its own frequent flyer card. A lot in this book seems stuffed in to make it a page-turner. There are very flakey motives offered, when there are motives at all. Relationships seem oddly superficial. Not convincing. Just. Not.

The Irish and the folklore and the place names and the rugged coast could rope in a Celtic romantic like me. But the novel felt awkward and amateurish—not exactly terrible but definitely disappointing. In the end, the villains were cardboard cut-outs and I didn’t even care about the kid. Pity. I would have adored a good selkie murder mystery. Selkies are really cool.  

False Mermaid   Erin Hart | Scribner   2010

The Likeness – Tana French

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Tana French writes many-layered psychological suspense novels that feature appealing (and appalling) characters, fluid prose and complex, imaginative and improbable plots. The Likeness, with a slightly unlikely core premise, is a stay-up-late que pasó that requires a large measure of the willing suspension of disbelief.

Cassie Maddox, a Dublin detective who is a repeat protagonist in French’s fiction, is pulled back into undercover work when a corpse is discovered in a tumbled-down “hunger cottage” in the countryside outside Dublin. The dead woman has Cassie’s exact face and goes by the fictional identity Cassie created (and has since retired) for her undercover work infiltrating universities in pursuit of drug dealers. The similarities are weird—and so is Cassie’s feeling about the idea of assuming the made-up life of a woman whose identity and death are unexplained.

She is lured back in, despite the misgivings of her serious boyfriend, a murder detective who has an impressive solve rate, the lead detective on the case. Soon enough her diabolical former boss from undercover is co-director of the homicide team. Cassie moves into an old Irish estate house with four roommates, assuming the identity of Lexie Madison, with a story about being stabbed, falling into a coma, nearly dying, and developing amnesia. She pulls it off and is in place to find out what really happened and who killed the mysterious “Lexie.”

Here’s where you might phone up Tana French and say “What?” How does a cop fool longtime roommates who live in close daily proximity and emotional intimacy and who have heard (and maybe seen) that their real roommate is dead? Why does Cassie take such an improbable assignment and almost immediately fall under the spell of the victim’s odd living arrangements? And when does a professional detective withhold critical evidence from her superiors for no defensible reason?  

But pretend none of this matters and you can enjoy the marvelous prose. There is a lot of it. The novel is well over 400 pages and, despite the gorgeous writing, could have been a lot shorter. There is enough introspection to fill two novels—just sayin’. It’s pretty good but maybe not important enough to earn that amount of ink, paper and reading time.

Okay, what happens: Cassie is drawn into the emotional environment of the house—the shared domicile of a bunch of PhD-candidate eccentrics who have no TV, home Internet connection or PCs (they work online on campus), or contact with hostile neighbors in the tiny village abutting the estate. The house is falling down and the five bond over shared renovation projects to clean it up. They play cards and board games by the fire at night and read, play musical instruments and restore the ancient herb garden. And, little-by-little, hairline cracks become visible fissures as Cassie apparently succeeds at impersonating the dead woman and begins to connect to the life at Whitethorn House.

The dangers of her situation intensify as she draws closer to understanding what might have happened to Lexie. Her own life starts to fray around the edges and her team in the Murder division digs up more and more information about Lexie, the four roommates, the threats and vandalism to the house, several possible villains antagonistic to the residents of Whitethorn House, and the complex web of relationships that set the stage for a bewildering homicide. If the maturity and basic mental health of these housemates weren’t significant questions, it might have been tougher to work out the rough details of the murder—or at least the rough details of the motive. I did stay up late to read it and it was good when I remembered to check my analytical brain at the door. Tana French is an amazing writer. The Likeness is a flawed but still engaging book.

The Likeness: A Novel   Tana French  –  Viking  2008

Acceptable Loss – Anne Perry

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I’ve been reading a lot of Anne Perry novels and come to some conclusions about this best-selling author of historical crime fiction. She writes several series with dedicated characters situated in specific venues for their exploits. By far I prefer her William and Hester Monk books. Acceptable Loss is the latest of these and they are so good I will reserve as many as the New York Public Library has so I can read all of them.

Monk shares top billing with Hester who is a strong heroine, smart sleuth, fearless investigator and highly principled woman essential to the solving of morally repugnant crimes along the Thames in Victorian London. Acceptable Loss picks up where Execution Dock left off—the pornography ring and floating salons of sexual abuse that serve as prisons for young boys is still very much alive. Even the murder-suicide of the owner of one of the boats and the prominent judge who was his customer hasn’t slowed the traffic. Monk and Hester have taken in a mudlark, Scuff, a kid who lived by his wits on the lawless banks of the Thames and was nearly destroyed by the horrible business. As Acceptable Loss opens, they know that Scuff still doesn’t feel safe and won’t until they do something to uncover the money and power behind the sex salons and the extortion ring they fuel.

When the body of a boat owner farther upriver washes ashore, Monk and his deputy find another slave ship crammed with five- and six-year-old boys. The hunt is on for the real puppet-masters, complicated by the charge that the upper-class father-in-law of London’s most prominent barrister, a close friend of both Hester and Monk, has something to do with the revolting trade in children’s flesh. Monk’s investigation threatens a major patron of Hester’s clinic for prostitutes and poor women, and makes an enemy of the barrister’s wife, a clinic volunteer and friend of Hester’s who is also the daughter of the chief suspect.

The forensics are terrific; the suspects are plentiful; the stakes couldn’t be higher; the moral questions are fierce; the courage required to pursue faint and dangerous leads to the truth is exceptional. So is the novel. I think the Monk books are by far Perry’s best and my guess is that the characters and the issues are richer and more compelling than those in her other mysteries. London’s seedy waterfront spawns an inexhaustible number of colorful individuals. The crime is cinematic; the narrow alleyways are stifling; the poverty is grinding and grimy; the gap between rich and poor is stark; the self-doubt that plagues the protagonists at key points in the crime-solving isn’t based on poor self-image but on a refusal to settle for anything less than absolute integrity.

I wonder if Monk and his cohorts are Anne Perry’s favorite creations? In my estimation, they benefit from the lion’s share of her talent. I have yet to read any of her WWI books, although I am told those are among her best. So I’ll reserve final judgment until I’ve had the chance to sample all the dishes in this literary banquet. But Monk and Hester are the go-to team for times when I want a reliable, satisfying read—one that could compel you to stay up way too late so you can finish it. Which I did.

Acceptable Loss: A William Monk Novel   Anne Perry | Ballantine Books  2011

A Christmas Grace – Anne Perry

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The library had none of the books I ordered and there was a half-shelf of Anne Perry mysteries just sitting there like an open box of chocolates so I grabbed a few. Terrific escape-from-too-much-taxing-reality reading. A Christmas Grace was a lovely afternoon’s respite from several busy days. Nothing like a little murder and killer storms along the Irish coast to provide entertainment.

Emily Radley travels, against her will but guiltily, to a Connemara village on Ireland’s West coast to spend Christmas with her dying aunt. She hasn’t seen Susannah in a lifetime and she hates to leave her children and holiday celebrations in London but her husband persuades her it is the right thing to do. Susannah, who married for love against her family’s wishes and is now widowed, is very frail and troubled by some secret that seems to have the whole town in its grip. As a terrible storm bears down on the coast, the fear rises palpably and the weather explodes in a maelstrom of wind, rain, lightning and ferocious tides. Through a flash of lightning, Emily sees a ship foundering offshore and, as it sinks, the sea casts a lone survivor into the shallows.

The rescue of the shipwrecked sailor awakens old memories that plunge the village into terrified and suspicious behavior. Daniel, the sailor, can’t remember much more than his first name but has an uncanny way of asking the questions that uncover each person’s most closely held dreams, failings and fears. Emily determines that Susannah wanted her there to uncover the clandestine knowledge that is poisoning the people and emptying the village. Daniel’s questions stir up doubts and uncertainties Emily hadn’t realized she harbored about her own happy marriage. And then she discovers that seven years ago a similar fierce storm cast another young sailor ashore—and that someone in the village murdered him.

A Christmas Grace is a search for motive rather than means. It holds a sense of darkness and menace but no urgent tension or frightening threats to the sleuth or her failing aunt. Emily does come perilously close to dying at an auspicious moment in the plot and she stirs up a hornet’s nest of her own when her questions hit too close for comfort. This is a murder mystery more in the vein of Agatha Christie than Carol O’Connell or even Kate Atkinson. But it is an enjoyable read and I’m happy to have a couple more Perry mysteries to wile away blustery spring evenings in the company of good stories.   

A Christmas Grace: A Novel   Anne Perry | Ballantine Books   2008