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Mixed Signals by Jane Tesh
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader
This is the second in the “302 Grace Street” series, and if its readability is any indication, it won’t be the last. There’s a great ensemble cast gathered in the old boarding house in Parkland North Cariolina: Camden, the owner; his pal David Randall the twice-divorced private investigator, and an assortment of bit players including the terminally grumpy Fred, a predatory newspaper reporter, and the attractive young Kary Ingram, David’s love interest.
Camden has the unwanted gift of being able to tune into a sort of psychic short-wave station somewhere. It’s not a gift he can control, and it makes his life hell, especially when he tunes into the mind of a killer. Camden’s friend Jared is found in his garage, knifed to death in an apparent frenzy. His last moments flood into Camden’s mind uninvited and Randall soon realises that if he doesn’t find the killer, Camden’s sanity may be at stake. The police have a suspect, but it’s the wrong man—unfortunately the testimony of a psychic doesn’t count as an alibi.
Complicating the hunt for the killer is the activity of The Parkland Avenger, a masked crusader who’s running around town allegedly protecting the citizens from crime. There’s also a club of harmless local crazies who think they are also superheroes but who don’t do anything much beyond holding meetings. Further complications arrive with Randall’s mother, who’s come for Christmas. Nothing wrong with that—except Mother has undergone a makeover that Randall finds hard to accept. What is the respectable widow thinking of, dying her hair, wearing high heels, getting new clothes—leopard print, no less!
Mixed Signals is in fact a mix, a veritable Christmas pudding of serious investigation, humour, occasional terror, some sadness, and a good dollop of fun. It reads a bit like Damon Runyon meets Jessica Fletcher. If you’re looking for a good holiday read that will involve and entertain you and not leave you with nightmares, pick this one up at your local bookstore.
A Small Hill to Die On by Elizabeth J. Duncan
Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader
Perfect for cooler weather, this Welsh cozy centers on the comforts of home and how important a sense of belonging can be to someone who feels adrift. For Canadian Penny Brannigan, Llanelan, Wales, has truly become home, especially now that she and her friend Victoria have opened a day spa in the friendly village. Penny remains spooked by the fact that a set of 50 year-old bones were recently uncovered in the historic building housing the spa, but her foster lab, Trixxi, keeps her busy when she’s not spending time at work or with her boyfriend, Gareth Davies.
In A Small Hill to Die On, Penny unexpectedly meets a Vietnamese woman named Mai who’s moved into town with her urbanized family. While Mai intends to build a country lifestyle on a large estate, her teenagers Tyler and Ashlee seem unhappy and unable to assimilate into the community. Since Mai boldly announces her intention to start a rival business while in Penny’s spa, Penny and Victoria battle their fears of financial failure in the face of the brash new business. When Mai’s daughter Ashlee is found buried in a shallow grave with her snakeskin manicure as the main identifying feature, Penny realizes that the quiet village will soon be abuzz with speculation and suspicion about the newcomers in the neighboring manor.
Since Gareth happens to be a Detective Inspector, Penny’s well-mannered amateur sleuthing is slightly supplemented by policework but primarily consists of Penny’s knack for being in the most interesting places at eventful times.
The only jarring feature of the story is the constant mention of racism used by characters who state that foreigners can protest ill treatment by decrying racism and periodic phrasing that indicates that the village would prefer to remain insulated and homogenous, although Penny’s white Canadian background gives her a special pass even though her “recent” transplantation over a decade before remains firmly rooted in the collective village memory. If Duncan wanted to avoid the thought of racism, better not to mention it or to do so with more nuance. This Vietnamese family may seem different or unlikeable but that doesn’t mean it’s got anything to do with their distant ancestry; after all, this is a well-established family bearing Birmingham (England) accents!
On a lighter note, Duncan clearly likes the Welsh lifestyle and general neighborliness, which truly comes out in a subplot about missing dogs. Secondary characters show readers the attraction of Wales and just why Penny feels so at home in a land so far away. Penny’s contemporary character, appreciation for the past and common sense plus the unusual setting combines to make an enjoyable cozy mystery series.
Books To Die For edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke
Publisher: Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader
John Connolly and Declan Burke are more than first-rate writers: they are passionate about their work, and about sharing that passion with readers and other writers. Books to Die For is their editorial collaboration all fiction a devotees should read. It is an exhaustive and detailed compilation of 121 essays from major crime fiction writers around the world to provide an examination of the books these heavyweights feel most influenced them in their careers.
The book is designed for readers who want to know what they are missing, essays by the major crime fiction writers of the day, on books that have meant the most to them. Read Elmore Leonard’s thoughts on The Friends of Eddie Coyle or the effect of James Ellroy’s American Tabloid on Stuart Neville. The books cited are arranged in chronological order, from Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin tales to Mark Gimenez’s The Perk, written in 2008. While it is big fun to cherry-pick your way from essay to essay, picking those written by or about your favorites, reading the book straight through will provide a evolutional history of crime fiction. Watch conventions change as puzzle mysteries cede their dominant place to more hard-boiled fare, and women take a more prominent place. (As characters. The uninitiated may be surprised to learn how strong was the female position as writers in crime fiction’s murky past.)
As Connolly pointed out at the recent Bouchercon, there are two ways a reader can glean suggestions for more to read: find one’s favorite writer and see who wrote about him or her. That writer is likely to share some tastes with you, and may well write things you would like. The converse is also true. See which essays are written by your faves to describe who and what they like, and influence them. Those, too, might be books worth picking up.
Writers will also benefit. While ostensibly a bucket list of books to be read, the level of critical evaluation is substantial. While readers will gain suggestions on what to read, writers may well gain insights on how to write, both from reading the suggested works, and from reading the essayists’ comments on what most profoundly affected them.
Books are too often said to be “important,” when no one can truly know which have earned the approbation until time has passed its judgment. Books to Die For may bear an accelerated schedule due to the immediacy of its effect. Readers now have an opportunity to broaden their horizons in one place—ion the words of the writers most affected, not critics’ opinions—rather than searching all over the Internet, or listening to half-whispered conversations in pool halls, alleys, and used bookstores. For that, everyone should be grateful.
A year ago I became alarmed at how many favorite authors I had fallen behind in reading as I tried to keep up with the new voices crime fiction. I created a list of 24 to be sure I kept current with, and a short list of their books I needed to read to catch up on. The list has expanded over time to have over fifty names and close to 100 books. That’s a good thing, right? Tightening the cracks through which good books might fall. Even though relatively knowledgeable in crime fiction, reading Books to Die For has added another 33 names to the list, and nearly 50 books. I’ll never get caught up now.
But at least I know what not to miss.
The Panther by Nelson DeMille
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader
You don’t have to have read DeMille’s previous blockbuster “The Lion” to understand or enjoy the 630 pages of his new work, because the author gives you enough background for you to expect that the death of Asad Khalil has something to do with the activities of the new big cat on the block, an American-born terrorist operating in Yemen, whose nom de guerre is The Panther..
NYPD agent John Corey and his FBI agent wife Kate Mayfield are offered a bit of job security in a very insecure business—but to earn it they have to accept a posting in the most frightening town in the Middle East. John has been in Yemen before and didn’t enjoy the experience much. He doesn’t want to go back, not for all the stained glass windows in Sana’a, but Kate’s determined to take the job whether he goes or not. Ostensibly, the agents are supposed to track down the mastermind of the USS Cole bombing, something Kate feels is worth risking her life for. John, ever the wise-cracking cynic, feels there’s more to the assignment than they’ve been told, but goes along with Kate. In very short order they have been jabbed with preventative shots of every description and are on their way. (Too bad you can’t get inoculated against danger, betrayal and intrigue.)
If you’ve read any others of DeMille’s oeuvre you know that nothing is ever going to be as straightforward for his agents as their bosses tell them. Sure enough, Kate’s job as Legal Attache and John’s as an evidence-gatherer following on from the USS Cole attack are just window-dressing to cover their hunt for The Panther.
Once in Yemen, John and Kate find friends and allies, both Yemeni and others, including some other Americans, but as is usually the case in such adventures, not everyone is what he or she seems, and there are double and triple agents, and spooks of all flavours in the desperately unstable country. Trouble gets serious when the couple retrace the steps of a group of massacred tourists in hopes of drawing the Panther from his lair. This works better than they’d hoped—or feared—and along about page 618 John is probably as deep in the manure pile as he’s ever been.
Events take a shocking turn on page 619—you’ll be torn between horror and amazement, with half of you wanting to applaud and the other half….well, you’ll just have to get the book and read it for yourself.
My only criticism about this story would be the constant wisecracking by Our Hero. It really wears a bit thin after a while, every response, every thought, has to be a one-liner; it’s as if Henny Youngman helped write the dialogue. One is amazed that Kate hasn’t beaned John with a laptop long before. All in all, it’s a rousing good read, and will no doubt make a great movie eventually.
The Janus Reprisal by Jamie Freveletti
Grand Central Publishing
Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader
The last thing one would expect when attending a World Health Organisation conference on contagious diseases would be an attack by heavily armed terrorists. As Lt-Col. Jon Smith hangs for his life onto the outside of a hotel under attack, he can’t make sense of the situation. Fortunately there are others who do have a clue or two about what’s going on, and with a bit of help from a new friend with a sniper rifle, Smith lives to share that knowledge. One of the things he learns is that the hotel safe has been breached and samples of some deadly diseases have been stolen. Smith is an operative of Covert One, the private security and anti-terrorist organisation that reports only to the US President, and he’s got a better imagination than most people when it comes to dreadful things that can happen. Terrorists plus germs equals potential mass murder.
Having an idea what the terrorists are up to is a far cry from stopping them. It doesn’t help that there are several layers to the plot, and many of the people in one layer don’t know about the other layers. After the attack on the hotel, bombs start going off elsewhere in The Hague; at first these look like attacks on the particular places, but soon it’s clear that they are diversions, to pull attention from the real target, a prison transport vehicle.
Oman Dattar, a genocidal warlord is on trial at the ICC for crimes against humanity, but is rescued during the attack on the supposedly secure vehicle and goes on the run. Life becomes that much harder for the good guys. Oman Dattar is crazy as a rabid dog and just about as predictable, but one thing is clear: he must be recaptured before he makes it to the safety of the Pakistan borderlands or he’ll be gone forever, and free to plot more and more mayhem against the West.
I make a point of not reading promotional material or end papers until after I’ve read the book, which means unless I already know about the writer, he or she will be an unknown quantity. It was with some surprise that I discovered that Jamie Freveletti is a woman; nothing in the writing had telegraphed that fact. There aren’t many women writing techno-spy-thrillers of the Robert Ludlum genre, let alone carrying on a best-selling author’s characters—the obvious exception being Gayle Lynds who co-wrote three of the Covert One series with the late Ludlum. . As with the Eric van Lustbader’s continuation of the Bourne franchise, the Freveletti addition to other Covert One novels is thoroughly satisfying, and as complex a tale as the Master himself could have contrived.
The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader
When Armand Gamache hears the Gilbertine Gregorian chants, he closes his eyes and feels deeply at peace. He forgets the horrible shootings that claimed the lives of four of his young officers and nearly took a fifth. Gamache immerses himself so deeply in the plainchant he can forget the politics behind the scenes in Quebec’s police service. Finally, he can almost put it out of his mind that one of these divinely inspired voices belongs to a monk who has just committed murder.
In The Beautiful Mystery, nearly all of the investigation occurs in the nearly forgotten cloistered monastery whose glorious music revealed their presence to the world just two years earlier. The 400 year-old monastery needs repairs and the proceeds from the recording helped greatly with the physical needs but has created a rift between the monks over their vows of silence and their traditional necessity of near invisibility. In the midst of this, Prior Mathieu’s body is found in the private garden of the abbot, Dom Phillippe. As prior, Mathieu led the heavenly sounding choir, serving as both a mentor and a musical leader.
Fortunately for the monks, innately gentle-mannered Gamache is the police detective to knock on their door in response to their report of murder, although he brings with him his loyal but less nuanced detective, Jean-Paul Beauvoir. Gamache’s mild-mannered approach and inherent reverence for the plainchant is belied by the iron in his soul, however, and he shuts himself in the monastery with the monks to find which silent servant of God has lied through his deeds.
Louise Penny (A Trick of the Light) juggles the influential aspects of tradition and modern temptations not only for the monks but also for the detectives. As part of Penny’s long-running Chief Inspector Gamache series, she deftly describes the state of true bliss and the tangled fall from grace in this Quebecois mystery, just not at all in the ways in which one would expect in a story about a hidden religious order. Penny remembers to lift the somber mood much as the Gregorian chants are intended for the soul with the use of well-placed wit and astute observations. For the poor prior, she notes that the prickly “prior simply looked well satisfied with his life, though clearly more than a little disappointed by his death.”
Readers who appreciate thoughtful, morally complicated mysteries or the style of British procedurals in general (ala Stephen Booth among others) should consider this one of the year’s best—well worth reading and, of course, contemplating.
Not My Blood by Barbara Cleverly
Publisher: Soho Crime
Reviewed by Robin Thomas, New Mystery Reader
On a wintery night in 1933, Scotland Yard Detective Joe Sandilands receives a call that resurrects events from his past that he thought were well buried. Jackie Drummond, a young boy attending a Sussex boarding school, was given Joe’s number to call in case of emergency by his father. Jackie’s parents returned to their home in India after settling Jackie in school. Jackie is in real trouble; he thinks he may be responsible for the death of the school form master. Sandilands meets Jackie at Victoria station after he flees from the school and Joe brings him back to the house. Lydia, Joe’s sister is visiting and she is stunned by the horrific story that Jackie tells them and by the revelation that this boy may be her brother’s biological son.
Sandilands decides that he will accompany Jackie back to the school but before he leaves for St. Magnus he is called to headquarters to receive a briefing about an ongoing investigation of the school and its unsettling history of young boys “disappearing” from campus. He is asked to quietly poke around while at the school acting as Jackie’s guardian, but to raise no alarms since this inquiry is a secret. Lydia joins Jackie and Joe on the trip to St. Magnus. They stop at Lydia’s house and Joe is surprised to find Dorcas Joliffe visiting. Joe has not seen Dorcas in a number of years and is unaware that she is currently attending University studying psychology. Unbeknownst to Joe, Dorcas has set herself up to be the one accompanying Joe and Jackie to St. Magnus. Despite the years apart and the obvious age difference romantic tension still crackles between them.
Upon arriving at the school, Joe finds out that someone else has been secretly investigating into why boys have been disappearing from St. Magnus. Also, one of Jackie’s friends, who supposedly left the school to return home, has disappeared. Sandilands with help from Dorcas focuses on the most recent disappearance in hopes of finding the boy alive and solving this mystery that has gone on for decades.
Not My Blood is the 10th book in the Joe Sandilands series and I found it to be thoroughly enjoyable even though I have not read any of the other books. From the first page the author effortlessly transports the reader back to the 1930’s and pre-WWII England. The intricate whodunit is brilliantly interwoven into the historical events of that time. Sandilands and all of the secondary characters are delightful and it is clear that character development in a historical setting is an art form for Beverly Cleverly. Not My Blood is an outstanding read on its own and if you are like me you will want to read the whole series (in order of course). For those who are followers, I am sure that you will not be disappointed.
Murder Most Austen by Tracy Kiely
Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good for New Mystery Reader
Set in a peculiar world of obsession and manners, Murder Most Austen gives fans of Jane Austen (Janites) a place to feel at home as they congregate in Bath, England, for a convention devoted to the famous British writer. Elizabeth Parker has embraced her Anglophilia and the opportunity to learn more about the world of remarkable literary characters such as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, especially since her reality means joblessness, a cordoned-off apartment and confusion in her own romantic life. Although she’s a modern American woman in her twenties, true to Austen’s time, Elizabeth is coincidentally chaperoned by her Aunt Winnie, a force of nature in her seventies.
Shortly before the conference, one of the presenters confides that he has found a shocking discovery about Austen’s death, one which will completely transform the accepted understanding of her reputation. That, combined with his boorish behavior, provides Elizabeth with multiple suspects when the man is murdered at the conference’s costume ball. His wife, Alex, and his ex-wife Gail uncomfortably jockey into position to take over his legacy, leaving his son Ian confused and at the mercy of his vampiric, humorless wife. The local police become involved, reminding Elizabeth that life is not truly like the BBC and its stable of insightful detectives because the real ones become testy when “arrogant Americans” interfere with investigations. Unfortunately, one of the suspects is Cora, Winnie’s friend and the mother of Elizabeth’s new acquaintance, the strikingly attractive Izzy, prodding Elizabeth to investigate anyway.
Tracy Kiely proves Elizabeth’s Anglophile claim through several historical and literary comments and quotations, especially when she reaches back 400 years to note an opinion on Richard III’s role in the death of his nephews. While this will entertain historical-minded readers, devotees of Jane Austen’s work will appreciate numerous quotes casually worked into the text and as subheadings to enlighten events occurring in Elizabeth’s time. It’s also entertaining to read about the cadre of costumed Austen characters at events, a process familiar to those who indulge in Renaissance festivals or Star Trek conventions.
Kiely makes it easy for readers to follow along the twentieth century investigation even if they do not share a fascination with Jane Austen or England in general. Elizabeth and her aunt are likeable and while some twists are predictable, this is an enjoyable mystery perfect for light reading.