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LOVE FOR SALE by Jill Churchill
Publisher: Avon ISBN 0 06 1031224
Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader
In keeping with the trend to site mysteries in the recent past, Jill Churchill returns to 1932 with her brother-and-sister team of Lily and Robert Brewster and their rackety old Hudson Valley mansion, "Grace and Favor". Tied by their uncle's will to the house for ten years, Lily and Robert are grateful to at least have a roof over their heads, albeit one in need of constant maintenance. Using it as a boarding house seems sensible, and the first tenants are the estate's executor and his wife. An impoverished gentlewoman and a flighty maid complete the household.
This is the fourth in the "Grace and Favor" series. This time murder comes a bit closer to home: in fact, to the best front bedroom. Lily is suspicious about the big man who wants to rent the room for a meeting, but he has real money, and she can't afford to turn him away. Within a day the man is dead and Lily finds herself with a houseful of suspects. When the police chief drags most of them off to the local asylum in lieu of a proper jail, Lily can't resist a little gentle sleuthing, sandwiched in with her substitute teaching.
The dead man turns out to be an evangelist with a huge following of people who haven't a clue about his real nature, nor what he does with the thousands of scraped and scrimped pennies they have donated to him. Could one of the faithful have discovered the fraud and done in the allegedly holy man? Or is there a more venal reason: perhaps one of his senior associates wanted a bigger share of the goodies?
The evangelist's past seems littered with discarded and betrayed women. Lily helps the police chief interview several of these and is appalled by what she hears. Meanwhile, the whereabouts of the teacher whose job she is doing becomes an issue when no one can find her. Why did the woman give a false address? Who's been using her car? Has she been murdered too? Normally Lily's brother Robert would be more involved in the investigation, but he's kept busy by the author trying to learn how to play croquet, and ferrying voters to the polls, as well as doing half the substitute teaching.
There's a nice cast of secondary characters: the poor but honest young woman who doesn't know if she's a wife or widow; the aging lawyer and his wife, the young newsman who lives in the hope of getting the big break, and the dignified school principal who fears the years which are lying in wait for her, among others.
Eventually the criminal is caught, more by accident than design, and the motive for the murder is revealed. Given the nature of the victim, perhaps the reason for his death should have been expected. It's a case of just desserts for sure.
This book is an interesting mix of 'malice domestic' and sociology. The author has done her homework, and makes sure the reader knows about the pinched and miserable lives many people were living in 1932. That has no direct bearing on the plot, but it sets the flavour of the age very nicely. If you're sick to death of rap-talking PI's with large guns and larger egos, this will be a nice change of pace for your summer reading.
An Ignoble Profession by Louis Sanders
Publisher: Serpent's Tail ISBN: 1852428406
Reviewed by Paul Kane, New Mystery Reader
An Ignoble Profession is Louis Sanders’ third novel and, like his previous two, it is set amongst the British expatriate community in the Dordogne, in South West France. It is an expertly-told mystery, but it is more than that. For Sanders (a Frenchman) delights in taking a deliciously snide and satirical look at the English interlopers in his midst. And this makes for superb, if sometimes savage, entertainment.
The story makes for a fine farce. When four Englishmen – including among their number an ageing hippy and a debonair ex-army officer - recognize details of their shady pasts in a recently published roman a clef, they feel the need to protect themselves. So they decide to hunt down and kill its supposed author. Later, three of these killers are murdered in mysterious circumstances, leaving the last surviving member of the quartet to find true love.
The tale is well told, with a fine intercutting of different perspectives, and the whodunit (which is here, “Who wrote the roman a clef?” as much as anything) is well disguised and only revealed on the penultimate page.
Louis Sanders’ acute eye for English idiosyncrasies may well be a serious threat to the entente cordiale that has existed between England and France for nigh on a hundred years, but it is also the source of some wonderfully acerbic wit. At one point, Lord Bollington considers an unpleasant overture from his wife:
Like many Englishmen of his class, Lord Bollington had two fantasies – dressing in women’s clothes, or in Nazi uniform. But he had the feeling that his wife’s suggestions were going to have nothing to do with either of these. (pp.39-40)
This is may be closer to the truth than one imagines. After all, Prince Harry went to a recent fancy dress party in Nazi uniform.
It is notoriously difficult to mix humour with crime, and I know of only a handful of writers who are wholly successful at doing so: Donald Westlake, Kinky Friedman, and the brilliant Kyril Boniglioli are the ones that come immediately to mind. While Sanders mostly pulls it off, occasionally he strikes the wrong note. The confusion seems to arise out of an uncertainty as to whether he wants us to laugh at his characters or feel sympathy toward them. Clearly, it is difficult or impossible to do both.
Overall though, this is a strong performance, and a worthy winner of First Prize at the 2003 Cognac Crime Writing Festival.
Louis Sanders’ merciless dissection of English mores and manners is a French delicacy that will appeal to both the discerning Anglophobe, as well as to all lovers of amusing and witty whodunits. Neither one should ignore An Ignoble Profession.
Medusa by Michael Didbin
Publisher: Pantheon, ISBN 0375422692
Reviewed by Paul Kane, New Mystery Reader
Italy has long held a fascination for English writers; Shakespeare was wont to set many of his plays there. Especially, it must be said, those plays that happened to contain scenes depicting deceit, treacherous ambition and murder. It is curious (and clearly unfair) that Italy should be the nation of choice when English writers want to imagine a certain kind of venomous violence. But it is a tradition in which Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen Mysteries sit rather well. Medusa, his latest, keeps to the same high standard set by previous novels in the series.
The story concerns a forbidden love affair and the connection between the human remains found in an abandoned military tunnel and the subsequent murders of ex-Italian Army personnel. Someone seems to be trying to cover their tracks, but whom? To find the answer, Aurelio Zen - in his typically methodical, unobtrusive and put-upon manner - must unravel an intricate web of motive and deceit.
Zen is a finely wrought character and Dibdin gives his detective at times a sort of perceptive sympathy:
He felt sorry for Paola Passarini, but there was also something unwholesome about her, like fruit picked green that rots before it ripens. (p.209)
The story is told in an elegant prose that is leavened with some fine moments of dry wit and, along the way, Dibdin draws a series of implicit yet incisive parallels between Italy and Britain. Here are two countries with similar social problems (soccer hooligans, illegal immigration, etc.) and the same sense of unease about the future direction of European politics. Even their prime ministers are alike, placing as they do the same emphasis on presentation and packaging.
And perhaps here lies an explanation for the phenomenon noted above: Italy is a mirror in which we (I am English) see ourselves.
Medusa is a superbly entertaining and intelligent police procedural; like the mythic Gorgon herself, it will stop you in your tracks. This is a Zen novel that is truly worthy of two hands clapping.
An Image of Death by Libby Fischer Hellmann
Publisher: Berkley Publishing Group ISBN: 042519504X
Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader
Chicago amateur sleuth Ellie Forman makes a stunning return as she faces some dirty dealings that have her pitted against Russian bad guys, Chicago bad guys, and her own deadly curiosity in this latest mystery that is energetic, suspenseful, and highly entertaining.
Ellie, creator of video documentaries, isn't completely surprised to find a video tape on her porch step one cold winter afternoon, but her mild bewilderment turns into shock when she views the brutal murder of a young woman depicted on the tape. Taking it to the police she's told to keep her nose out of it but, of course, Ellie has made a copy and has no intention of letting the matter drop. And before you can blink, she's dodging bullets and unraveling a mystery that dates back to the collapse of the Soviet Union, smuggled diamonds, and women being sold for sex.
This is one character that so easily charms and engages that turning the pages comes as naturally as breathing. Add to that a riveting plot of international intrigue, a failing romance, and satisfying scenes of domesticity and you have a first-rate tale that's sure to please even the most discriminating reader. Highly recommended, we can't wait for the next in this lively and captivating series.
Dreamland by Newton Thornburg
Publisher: Serpent's Tail ISBN: 1852428333
Reviewed by Paul Kane
Newton Thornburg is a crime writer whose work is undergoing something of a revival at present. George P. Pelecanos, perhaps the leading writer in the genre, has acknowledged him as a major influence; and the resurgence of interest is due in part, no doubt, to this.
Dreamland, originally published in 1983, is the third of Thornburg's novels to be reissued by Serpent's Tail. It is a Southern Californian PI novel, in the mould of Chandler or Ross Macdonald - but with a difference.
The main protagonist is Crow (or to give him his full name: Orville Crow Junior), a drifter-cum-slacker in his mid 30s who has been kicking around Seattle. Crow travels to Los Angeles to visit his father, picking up an hitchhiker along the way: Reno, an independent and vulnerable young woman. Crow's father is a retired cop and is now working as a Private Investigator. When his father meets with mishap, Crow (with Reno sometimes in tow) finds himself taking on the role of PI: researching his father's last case, working the angles, trying to discover what befell him. He enters Dreamland, the landscape of Southern California, as an errant knight on a quest for truth and justice; and we get a nicely convoluted noir plot with a lot of crazy nihilistic violence (always a good thing, I find), which is exciting, entertaining and (dare one say it) pretty titillating too at times.
The titillation comes courtesy of the gallery of grotesqueries that we meet along the way: a hitman who becomes incontinent whenever he gets nervous; an ex-CIA agent who likes hookers to call him "Daddy" as he plays out an elaborate paedophilic fantasy; a rich girl with an almost incestuous closeness to her uncle; a lesbian radical revolutionary with a black girlfriend / maid called Kitty "who only thinks she's free".
There is much to admire in this novel. The principal characters are well drawn and there's a plentitude of affecting humour in the dialogue and developing relationship between Crow and Reno. It is a convention of the genre that the PI should stumble into and out of trouble; Thornburg uses this well, lacing his narrative with some fine doses of dramatic irony. The climactic action at Colorado Springs where Crow, in seeking “only the truth” about his father's death, manages to create a scene of utter carnage being a case in point.
If this were all, Dreamland would be an enjoyable and efficient thriller, no more. What lifts this novel above the ordinary is Thornburg's concern with what one might pompously call "the masculine virtues": with courage, steadfastness and filial obligation. This is a key theme of the novel - and a major theme in much of Pelecanos' work too, come to that.
When he arrives in LA, Crow is a man who "was thirty-five years old and had nothing to show for it except a few good friends and a few good memories". He has "gone his own easy way", drifting from job to job and never settling down with one woman for very long. His father challenges his lifestyle, putting questions that Crow later begins to ask himself:
Just how long could a man go on coasting as he had? And just what would happen - how would he react - if he ever did find himself in what the old man called the real world? He was tempted to shrug it off, to tell himself that if his luck held, he might never find out. But he knew that was no answer. Not anymore. (p.40)
Somewhat later, as the novel reaches its denouement, Crow reflects that:
For once in his life he just might be, in his father's words, 'playing for keeps' And he couldn't help wondering - just as the old man had - if he'd be able to cut it… (p.211)
One can see, from these two passages, a little of what Pelecanos may have got out of Thornburg. The two writers have parallel concerns.
Dreamland is an excellent crime novel and a welcome reissue, but in one curious respect the novel has dated. Its portrayal of a gay character, Richard Kellogg, as an irredeemably weak and tragic figure seems unconvincing. Not simply "of its time" or true for its time, but false. How much things have changed since 1983.
The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre
Publisher: Scribner ISBN: 0743262433
Reviewed by Narayan Radhakrishnan
You got to admire Mr. Le Carre. How can he produce such superb chiller-
thrillers one after another?
What follows is a tense political thriller of the first order with Justin
Quayle trying to bring to justice the killers of a woman he knew about, more in
death than in flesh and blood.
Oyster Blues by Michael McClelland
Publisher: Pocket Star ISBN: 0743477316
Reviewed by Donna Padilla
English Professor Happy Harry Harper flees an island in the Dominican Republic because he thinks he has killed a man. He hires on to sail a suspicious cargo to Miami, in spite of the fact that he does not know how to sail.
Oyster shucker Jane Ellen Ashley gets the hell out of Franklin County, Florida because she thinks she has killed a Senator's son. She winds up in Miami, where she is kidnapped, escapes, and hijacks the boat Harry is sailing into the harbor. Now that Harry and Jane are together, they are both being chased, believe it or not, by the same people.
Most of the characters in the book (both good guys and bad guys) are so inept that are absolutely hilarious. The plot is a little thin, but does not detract from the overall book. Every word must be read , because interspersed with the mafiosos, hit men and corrupt politicians, the reader is treated to literary quotations, history, and Greek mythology. Which when all combined, add up to an interesting and worthwhile read.
Arson and Old Lace by Patricia Harwin
Publisher: Pocket Books ISBN: 0743482247
Reviewed by Donna Padilla
Catherine Penny's husband has left her, so she retires from her library job in New York and moves to Far Wychwood, a small quiet village in England. When she pulls her dying crotchety old neighbor out of his burning house, he whispers a few words to her. Everyone assumes he has accidentally set the fire, But Catherine knows he has been murdered by an arsonist. Unable to keep her nose out of the investigation, she becomes a target.
This book is a delightful read and is the first in a series of Far Wychwood mysteries. Any reader who is enthralled with elderly female detectives is advised to begin this series. Catherine Penny is a charming compassionate women who through logic and inadvertently stumbling over clues is able to put the puzzle pieces together and reach the right conclusion, all in a manner that is both appealing and highly engaging.
Death Row by William Bernhardt
Publisher: Fawcett Books ISBN: 0345441761
Tulsa Lawyer Ben Kincaid has spent the last seven years fighting what seems to be a hopeless cause. His client, Ray Goldman, has been on death row and his time is just about up. Accused of the savage massacre of a family that left only one survivor, 15-year-old Erin Faulkner, whose own testimony helped convict him, he now is only 30 days away from execution unless some new evidence is found. But when Erin is found dead of an apparent suicide the day after she admitted to Ben she lied on the stand, he’s in the minority in believing she was murdered. But soon Detective Mike Morelli and his new partner Kate Baxter are on the case to hopefully prove otherwise. But as more clues are uncovered the less clear everything seems, and Ben must keep the faith if he’s to save, who he thinks, is an innocent man.
This was my first time to have the pleasure of reading this extremely talented author, and it won’t be the last. Ben Kincaid and his eccentric crew, along with detective Morelli and his new partner, all add to a plot that reaches the height of suspense almost effortlessly. Flawlessly blending a subtle sense of humor with real-life drama, these well-constructed characters navigate themselves towards a stunning and life-affirming climax with enough thrills along the way to satisfy even the most discriminating reader. And while I’m not a big fan of legal thrillers, this one is so impeccably rendered, that I couldn’t help but be drawn in, and drawn in in a very big way. I’ll be reading the previous Ben Kincaid adventures, and eagerly waiting for his next.