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