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Death Comes To Pemberley by P D James

Publisher: Knopf

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

Picking up the fallen pen of a dead writer is fraught with problems.  You must avoid producing a mere pastiche, a ‘cut-and-paste job’; you must be careful not to overdo the signature style and produce a caricature , and you must deal with the emotions of the readers, who will read your offering with a mix of happy anticipation and resentment that you’d dared to carry on the work of their favourite.

Jill Paton Walsh did a reasonable job with her continuation of Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series, and there are a few writers who’ve produced quite good new Sherlock Holmes stories.  Now comes P D James with a brand-new story about Jane Austen’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennett.

I am not among the Austen fanatics; perhaps because it was a set book at school.  Books one is forced to read rarely seem to have the same attraction as those found by serendipity on the back shelves of a dusty country library.  That said, I have read Pride and Prejudice and seen the excellent BBC production of the 1990s, and therefore was familiar with the Bennett family and Mr Darcy and the arch-snob Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  Like many others, I’ve occasionally wondered what else Jane Austen would have written about the characters had her life not been so short.

P D James has made that idea reality by producing a murder mystery set a few years after the events of P&P.  James’s level of English is, as always, several cuts above most other writers, and she has leavened it with enough of the Austen style and vocabulary to make one instantly at home in the story, without falling into the ‘thee and thou’ trap of slavish imitation.

Most of the familiar characters are here again, including the bird-brained Lydia, Wickham the roué, the likeable Mr Bennett, the Bingleys, Darcy’s sister Georgiana, and of course Darcy and Elizabeth, now parents of two healthy sons, and living at Darcy’s estate, Pemberley.  The story opens with Elizabeth deep in plans for the annual ball, held in memory of Darcy’s mother Lady Anne.  Everything is disrupted when Elizabeth’s sister Lydia appears on the doorstep, distraught, and murder is shortly discovered to have been done.  Very soon thereafter Lydia’s husband is convicted of the murder and appears certain to hang. 

The scandal of having a brother-in-law poised on the edge of the gallows is very hard on Darcy: he’s used to being in control of situations, but now he is unable to do anything to stop the apparently inevitable outcome.  Elizabeth is likewise upset—if it were not for Darcy’s going against common sense and received wisdom, he’d never have loved and married her and hence not been embroiled in the consequences of her scatty sister’s actions. 

P D James brings everything to a close with a series of very 19th century solutions, which may seem like a cop-out to readers of modern crime, but felt comfortable to me.  A very enjoyable read, and one hopes that Ms James may produce another one before being called away to a permanent higher plane of writing.

 

 

 

Long Bones by K R W Treanor

Publisher: Quenda Books ISBN 978-0-9871205-1-9 (paperback)

Reviewed by Jim Rogers, New Mystery Reader

Karen Treanor’s new mystery, Long Bones, is sure to please anyone who has pets, grown children, culinary talent and a wonderful lover.  It is also sure to entrance anyone with a slightly shady past, is victimized by mysterious visitors, is a crackerjack marksman, has a tendency to stumble across corpses and is less-than-blessed by a truly nasty ex-lover.

Ms. Treanor succeeds in striking an amusing balance between the ultra-normal township of Byford, Massachusetts (which comes across as a character in itself) and sinister forces that, for the most part, remain unseen—and hence all the more ominous.  In many domestic-centered whodunits, evil lurks behind the deceptions of everyday life.  But in Byford, what you see is what you get: perfect normalcy.  While Miss Marple’s villains are likely as not your sweet-faced next door neighbors, Geneva Bradford’s nemesis comes from the past, and is strictly an outsider.  I got an overwhelming sense of a community binding together to protect its oddly normal-yet-quirky routine. 

There is no shortage of common sense advice on everything from managing chickens to how to handle a gun after discharging it (count those bullets, folks!).  There is food aplenty, and even instructions on how to block a sweater.  All of this adds to the sense of being in an alternate universe, where Evil falls flat on its face and Good Triumphant is described as “Just a bit of tidying up.”

The writing is up to Ms. Treanor’s usual high standards, and eminently quotable—my favorite being a reference to the Aztec practice of cutting out hearts.

A truly enjoyable read.

(for buying info please contact: quendabooks@iinet.net.au)

 

 

 

The Villa of Death by Joanna Challis

Publisher: Minotaur Books

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Ellen believes that she can finally forget the shame concerning the circumstances of her eight year-old daughter Charlotte’s birth by marrying the love of her life, Teddy Grimshaw.   Teddy’s not only fabulously wealthy and in high social standing due to his quirky American ways and resources, but he’s also Charlotte’s father.   Ellen has waited many years for their reunion and the family will finally reunite and restore her ancestral estate together.

Ellen’s happiness evaporates when Teddy collapses just after their wedding, leading to accusations of murder by her foul-tempered step-daughter Rosalie and complete confusion by the once happy wedding party.   Fortunately for Ellen, one of her attendants was her long-time pen-pal Daphne du Maurier, whose observational skills and desire to be in the thick of investigations give the aspiring novelist plenty of fodder.

Simultaneously, Daphne’s beau, the dashing Major Browning appears by invitation although with a fiancée on his arm.   The fiancée, alternately described as possessing luscious dark hair and then golden locks, knows how to use her own upper-class skills to warn off Daphne from rekindling her relationship with their “Tommy.”  

In spite of the murder, love remains a theme, whether it’s the love that Ellen shared with Teddy for her home, Thornleigh, or Daphne’s feelings towards the Major.   Daphne’s concerned parents and amused younger sisters also serve to tether Daphne to reality when she threatens to succumb to the worlds she’s created in her short stories or when she daydreams of her future as the Lady of her own estate.

Joanna Challis imagines that this case serves as inspiration for du Maurier’s best-known work, the suspenseful and timeless novel Rebecca, which later became a classic film.   As in the previous books of the Daphne du Maurier series,
The Villa of Death describes the British economic classes and preoccupation with appearances during the 1920s even as their way of life draws to a close.   Challis chooses to make the secretive real-life Daphne prickly and difficult to like even while engendering immense loyalty from her friends, resulting in appreciation for her dedication to her friends and family.

 

 

 

A Christmas Homecoming by Anne Perry

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Reviewed by Robin Thomas, New Mystery Reader

Imagine a pristine winter scene in Victorian England interwoven with the darkness of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and now you are ready to read A Christmas Homecoming. Caroline Fielding, her husband Joshua, and his theater troupe, travel through a snowstorm to the Netheridge mansion in Whitby, the Yorkshire fishing village Dracula visited when he arrived in England. The troupe has been hired to perform Alice Netheridge’s adaptation of Dracula for the stage. No surprise, since Alice is an amateur, the script is horrendous and Joshua doubts that it is salvageable. Unfortunately, Joshua must perform a miracle; if he is going to keep the theater troupe afloat he must secure the financial largesse of Netheridge and that is dependent on the successful performance of his daughter’s play on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas).

Despite the severe snowstorm an unexpected guest arrives at the Netheridge mansion. Anston Ballin claims that his carriage has broken down and he needs a place to stay until the storm passes. During his stay, Ballin gets involved in the rewrite of the play and he displays an uncanny knowledge of the theater and vampires. Just when things seem to be settling down a murder occurs and the killer is one of the occupants of the mansion. The snowstorm has made travel impossible, so Caroline uses the knowledge she has learned about police investigations to protect the evidence from the crime scene and to conduct her own sleuthing.

A Christmas Homecoming is Anne Perry’s ninth Christmas novel. The author creates a well-developed traditional style murder mystery using the storm to “lock” all the suspects in the mansion. The author accurately depicts the challenges that women faced during Victorian times through the tension between Alice Netheridge and her fiancé and the struggles Caroline has being married to a man who is quite a bit younger than her and Jewish. A Christmas Homecoming is a delightful Victorian mystery that is sure to get the reader into the Christmas spirit.

 

 

 

 

Bonnie by Iris Johansen

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Reviewed by Robin Thomas, New Mystery Reader

Eve Duncan knows that the end is near; that all of the answers to her questions about Bonnie’s disappearance will be known. Bonnie’s spirit comes to Eve and confirms her suspicions but shares with her mother her concern that there she senses a great deal of pain.

Iris Johansen created a trilogy that is part of the Eve Duncan series that provides fascinating insights into Eve, Quinn, and Bonnie’s background. BONNIE, the final book in the trilogy marks the end of the powerful series plotline surrounding Bonnie’s disappearance and the life changing impact this event had on Eve Duncan. Over time, Johansen has skillfully built up the tension to this climatic moment in the series and uses Bonnie’s spirit to guide Eve to the answers that she and readers of this series have long anticipated.

Although I found the interactions between Eve and Bonnie’s spirit to be farfetched and a bit over-used in this book in particular, the dialog between them is so tender and endearing that it envelops the reader in the enduring love that exists between them. The desire to read on and get to the next visit from Bonnie is addictive and compensates for the whodunit that is adequate but not compelling. Although BONNIE is the last of the trilogy, Johansen leaves the door wide open for Eve and Quinn to solve more crimes in the future as the series continues.

 

 

 

 

Double Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

Publisher: Doubleday

Reviewed by Ray Palen for New Mystery Reader

The challenge in approaching a new novel featuring the complex and playfully twisted Dexter Morgan is the inevitable comparison to the hit series, DEXTER, running on Showtime.  As so often happens with the television or film adaptation of popular novels the producers attempt to ‘spice things up’ by changing plot elements and adding or dropping characters at will.

As I began Jeff Lindsay’s sixth novel in the series, entitled DOUBLE DEXTER, I was immediately faced with getting the characters straight in my head --- i.e. Dexter’s wife Rita is alive in the novels after being brutally killed off on TV two seasons ago; Dexter has a young daughter instead of a newborn son, and the most dramatic difference, Dexter’s arch-rival Sgt Doakes is still alive (however crippled and without a tongue) and still out to get Dexter.

Following the wildest novel in the Dexter series, last year’s DEXTER IS DELICIOUS, I found DOUBLE DEXTER somewhat of a letdown.  Yes, it still features our fearless hero and his ‘dark passenger’ as well as the best inner monologue of any current character in modern fiction.  However, the plot just didn’t grab me.  After Dexter is witnessed punishing another sinner --- a pederast --- he begins to receive strange messages from the individual who caught him in the act and is not sure if he has a stalker or just a demented fan of his work.

At the same time, Dexter’s work with the Miami Police Department is hopping as his sister, Sgt. Debra Morgan, and the rest of the squad are after a killer that has been beating his victims to death with a hammer.  When one of the victims ends up being a female lab assistant from their department, the Miami PD begins to step up their investigation.  Things get sticky for Dexter when his deceased co-worker’s apartment is searched and hundreds of photos of Mr. Morgan turn up.  He now has become a person of interest --- especially in the eyes of Doakes --- and he realizes that the witness to his act may be taking things to another level and trying to rid the world of Dexter Morgan.

When Dexter’s personal investigation, now done while he is on suspension from the Miami PD, turns up the identity of his ‘double’ he is alarmed to find out that it is the assistant Cub Scout leader of his step-son, Cody.  Dexter reaches out to his ‘brother’, Brian, and asks for his assistance in ridding himself and the world of this threat.  At the same time, Dexter and family take a trip to Key West to look at property in an attempt to rekindle their familial bonds through potential relocation.  Unfortunately, Brian is unsuccessful in his attempt to take care of Dexter’s problem (very disappointed that this is only covered in the novel through a phone call as opposed to complete description) and of course, the deadly scout master has turned up himself in Key West for a final showdown with the Morgan’s.

Dexter Morgan, as a character, is a personal favorite of mine and one of the most unique creations I have ever read.  Fans will enjoy reading his exploits in DOUBLE DEXTER but the story is ultimately lackluster and does nothing to advance the characters in any way.  Here’s hoping the next outing will have a little more bite to it!

 

 

Inmate 1577 by Alan Jacobson

Publisher: Norewood Press

Reviewed by Ray Palen for New Mystery Reader

Alan Jacobson knows his stuff. Having worked with the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit for 18 years gives him the uncanny ability to get into the mind of the deranged and driven killers that haunt the American landscape.

With INMATE 1577, Jacobson revives his Profiler Karen Vail series with a mystery/thriller set in both the present and the past.  A series of horrific murders in the San Francisco area may somehow be tied to a former inmate of the long defunct Alcatraz prison.  Could the prison once known as Devil’s Island, shut down for over 50 years, still have a former inhabitant that is actively committing this horrible crimes?

Vail teams with SFPD Inspector Lance Burden and her former task force colleague, Roxxann Dixon to hunt down this killer.  The killer is not only choosing apparently random victims but also leaving behind cryptic messages at each death scene --- staged in such a way to baffle and challenge the newly formed task force that is hunting him.

What makes INMATE 1577 so engaging is how the story continuously shifts between Karen Vail and her team in the present day and the story of Walton MacNally nearly fifty years earlier.  MacNally was a small-time crook who stepped up to bank robbery and grand larceny in an effort to provide for himself and his young son, Henry.  Unfortunately, he is caught and sent to Leavenworth Prison.  It is there where MacNally is forever changed by the brutality and inner workings of a penal system that represents a social microcosm of the worst human beings that society has to offer.

A failed prison break finds MacNally being transferred to the one prison that no one should be able to break out of --- Alcatraz.  MacNally meets up with a former cell-mate and break-out partner, named Anglin --- and their infamous friendship leads to talk of the unattainable thought of freedom from Devil’s Island.  Meanwhile, it takes Vail and company a long time to decipher the messages the serial killer is leaving for them.  With the help of some local, and somewhat disreputable, local journalists they are able to recognize that the key to catching this killer lies not in profiling his next move but by understanding what happened to him in the past.

MacNally did get out of Alcatraz and fell off the grid shortly thereafter.  He had several grudges to avenge --- the most striking being the fact that his only son Henry committed suicide by jumping off the Bear Mountain Bridge in New York while he was imprisoned.  MacNally vowed to avenge those who wronged him both in and out of prison --- but could he still be the mastermind in 2011 as a senior citizen capable of committing serial murder?

Jacobson will have you guessing at every turn and the finale of this exciting and thought-provoking novel will provide more than a few shocking revelations before the final page is turned.  The tough-talking and quick-witted Karen Vail proves a worthy adversary --- but will that be enough to defeat a vengeance that has festered for many decades?  INMATE 1577 should satisfy both mystery and thriller fans alike as Jacobson has another quality addition to his Vail series.