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Dead Man’s Chest by Kerry Greenwood

Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

Thanks to Poisoned Pen Press, American readers no longer have to wait for friends to return from trips to Australia to get the latest Kerry Greenwood book.   Dead Man’s Chest is the 18th outing for the fierce and funny Phryne Fisher, one of the most intriguing heroines of modern crime fiction.

Permanently fixed in 1928, The Hon. Phryne works as a private investigator in Melbourne when the mood takes her, but in the new book she’s on holiday, and expecting no problems that expensive skin cream can’t address.  All that changes the minute the big Hispano-Suiza pulls up at the rented holiday house: the back door is open, the servants are gone, and the larder is bare.

With the aid of her faithful maid Dot and her adopted daughters Ruth and Jane, Phryne makes do, but the mystery of what happened to the butler and cook niggles away at her.  When their small dog turns up much the worse for wear, she begins to suspect a serious crime has happened.  There’s also another mystery: who is the slasher who’s going around hacking off the long braids of unsuspecting local girls? 

The holiday house has some very peculiar neighbours: one household is comprised of a group of surrealists who wander around saying obscure things, and have parrots or stuffed hyenas for pets.  Another neighbour is a matron who drinks rather more than is good for her while trying to cope ineffectually with her own teenage son and his two unsavoury friends.  The local doctor has an unpleasant ancient relative as a houseguest and finds it hard to be sad when she suddenly dies.  And then there’s the moving company which moves many items that the folks at Customs and Excise would probably like to know about.

With her usual cool dispatch, Phryne sets about sorting out the pranks from the crimes and then bringing appropriate retribution to all, with the aid of Dot’s visiting fiancé, Detective Hugh Collins.  Along the way she rescues several half-starved Irish children and a prematurely aged spinster.

If you enjoy a really well-written story with a good plot, one in which the historical background is solid but not intrusive, and whose heroine is totally capable as well as thoroughly feminine, this one’s for you.   As well as the story, you’ll get the bonus of a few recipes of the time including “Impossible Pie”.  (For more about Kerry Greenwood, see the NMR Author Interview for February 2010.)

 

 

Deeper Than the Dead by Tami Hoag

Publisher: Signet

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

While the idyllic community of Oak Knoll might seem at first the perfect place to raise a family – just far enough from the evils of LA but still filled with the intellectual and wealthy residents that small college towns seem to attract – in the autumn of 1985, Oak Knoll proves to be just the opposite when a group of kids stumble on the corpse of a woman halfway buried in the woods.  Also a witness to the discovery is their young teacher, Anne Navarre, a naïve but intelligent young woman with her own share of heartaches who is determined protect her students at any cost.

And when another young woman goes missing, FBI agent Vince Leone is called in to consult on the case. But while his understanding of the criminal mind as a “profiler” is desperately needed, it’s also greeted with suspicion by the local police force that have yet to trust this new method of tracking the maddest of the mad. 

And when another woman’s body is found, making it clear that the evil that has invaded their town is far from ending, the sordid truths that hide behind the perfectly maintained streets and homes will slowly be revealed as everyone becomes suspects, showing that nothing is ever as it seems, and even the most trusted have secrets they think are worth killing for.  

It’s been awhile since Hoag’s latest, and most likely her many fans will find this one to be well worth the wait.  And with its setting taking place over 25 years ago, it’s especially fascinating to consider how far the art of crime solving has come - how technology has changed just about every aspect of it all in such a short time.  It’s also interesting to note how the use of profilers was just beginning then, and though for a long time after was the rage, it has since become more controversial and slowly seems to be going the way of Freudian psychology. 

But for those who don’t find forensic criminology interesting, never fear, Hoag also provides a great deal of suspense by offering up an array of unlikely suspects that will keep many readers guessing for most of the read.  And while, admittedly, this small community seems to have more than its share of over-the-top secrets that are a bit more deadly than your average small town, there’s something very enthralling and almost old fashioned in guessing who the evil mastermind is hiding behind the innocent façade. 

However, with that being said, some other readers might feel there's something missing.  While the suspense and challenging questions are there in spades, the more intimate aspects and deeper motivations surrounding those involved are mostly superficial and seem at times an afterthought created simply to embellish the plot rather than enhance it.   

Ultimately, though, Hoag does this one up decently by combining great suspense with older crime solving techniques and a light dose of romance that will appeal to fans of most mystery genres who like a good challenge.

 

 

 

 

Grave Secret by Charlaine Harris

Publisher: Berkley

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

There are a lot of unexpected details in this mystery that can cause the “ick factor” to accelerate as a blended family’s home life is exposed as an unsupervised dirty drug den whose harsh realities have negatively impacted its young inhabitants.  Thanks to neglectful drug-addicted parents, the related and unrelated children tried to stay together using only their own resources, which somehow works until a serious illness and the eventual disappearance of eldest daughter Cameron Connelly.  Cameron’s disappearance has haunted her sister Harper Connelly throughout her young life, causing her to especially bond with her step-brother Tolliver Lang.  Tolliver, who serves as Harper’s assistant, has recently become her boyfriend, causing the “ick factor” experienced by others and so stoically noted by Harper.

With a personal history filled with the special type of imaginative details relished by Charlaine Harris fans, Harper’s character excels at using paranormal talents bestowed on her after being struck by lightening and has recently been similarly struck by a desire to finally put down roots with Tolliver.  Her day job includes substantial traveling as she and Tolliver locate graves, where Harper can feel the last few moments of the deceased and quickly internalize the cause of death.  This unusual gift keeps them employed but also creates a deadly chain of events after she inadvertently offers an extra reading for the wealthy, well-connected Joyce family.

The only caveat to Grave Secret comes when a scientific element central to the story should include further discussion in order to arrive at the conclusion required by the mystery.  The lack of explanation on a fairly well-known theory proves more unrealistic of an accomplished author such as Harris than the remarkable description of Harper’s special talent.  Fortunately, this remains a small part of Harper’s story.

Charlaine Harris’ golden touch continues with her incredible grasp of both the ordinary and extraordinary realms in this quiet, intense mystery.  In spite of—or because of—the unusual relationship between Harper and Tolliver and their constantly evoked squalid beginnings, readers will pull for them to discover the truth about their family while solving the case that blows it wide open for them.

 

 

 

Holiday Grind by Cleo Coyle

Publisher: Berkley

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader 

When NYC coffee café manager Clare Cosi decides to throw a special party featuring her new holiday coffee blends a few weeks before Christmas, it seems her biggest concerns are dispelling the bah humbug attitudes of her employees and the overly salacious looks from her ex-husband.  But those minor concerns are soon put on the backburner when she finds the body of one of her favorite customers, a seemingly happy-go-lucky gentleman who has been fulfilling the role of Santa Clause in the neighborhood.  But with the police summing it up as a simple mugging gone wrong, it becomes clear to Clare that it’s much more than that, so it seems it's now up to her to solve the mystery behind his death.

But her attempt to find answers is anything but easy when she soon discovers that this very caring soul had a rather sordid past and that his current actions may not have been exactly stellar either.  And with each discovery bringing her closer to a killer who has way too much to lose, she’ll find herself next on a list that is far from resembling the kind of list Santa might write, as this is a list of the killer’s next targets that must be stopped at any cost.

With the bombardment of holiday mysteries coming out, it would be easy to write this off as just another of the same.  And although tempted, I was glad I didn’t.  There’s a refreshing sense of sincerity in Clare’s determination to make the holidays more than a glorified spending spree, even while dealing with murderous events and devious greed.  This is an amateur sleuth that seems to know her limitations but yet doesn’t let them stop her, making her a worthy champion to root for.  And for those who would like to add some holiday touches to their coffee, this charming read also offers several pages of recipes in the back that not only include coffee, but other tasty offerings as well.  All in all, a fun read that can help get you in the holiday mood and that's well worth the time.  

 

 

 

Mrs. Jeffries and the Yuletide Weddings by Emily Brightwell

Publisher: Berkley

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Inspector Witherspoon has achieved a degree of local fame thanks to his reputation as an earnest, Victorian policeman who nearly always solves his cases, unlike many of his more class-conscious peers.  Hard-working and methodical, Inspector Witherspoon has an advantage so secret that even he is not fully aware. 

For each case, his entire household springs into action to uncover the household gossip of the victim and the suspects while trying to reason out motives and opportunity.  Aided by Inspector Witherspoon’s colleague, Constable Barnes, coachman Smythe and his fiancée Betsy, Mrs. Goodge the cook and Wiggins the footman all gather information for their mastermind, Mrs. Jeffries the housekeeper, to figure out the puzzle.  Meanwhile, the Inspector discusses the facts with Mrs. Jeffries but seems oblivious to the network of investigators living under his roof.

In this case, there are two weddings central to the story.  The first pertains to the murder of Miss Agatha Moran, a former governess to the bride who unexpectedly shows up outside the gate only to be stabbed in the heart.  Her former charge, Rosemary Evans, was indoors celebrating her impending nuptials to an impoverished aristocrat and oblivious to her beloved governess’ plight.  Heartbroken, Rosemary finds it difficult to celebrate while also mourning.  Inspector Witherspoon and his staff assume Miss Moran knew a secret someone was willing to kill to keep and his staff works overtime to figure out whom.

The Witherspoon household staff genuinely think of each other as family, and while fond of the Inspector, they sometimes shirk their duties in order to “go on the hunt” for clues.  In Mrs. Jeffries and the Yuletide Weddings, special attention is placed on the unusual Smythe and smart, young Betsy as they plan their wedding, which was previously twice delayed, and it coincidentally falls on the same day as Miss Moran’s wedding. 

Emily Brightwell’s charmingly useful characters assure well-paced progress and provides a generous overview of the workings of an ideal Victorian era-household while periodically pointing out the cruel realities in less fortunate homes.  Perfectly timed for the holidays, Mrs. Jeffries promises a wonderfully pleasant visit to Victorian England. 

 

 

 

13 ½ by Nevada Barr

Publisher: Vanguard Press  ISBN-10: 1593155530  

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

In this new stand-alone suspense tale, Barr begins by taking readers back to 70s, where in Minnesota a young boy is convicted of brutally murdering his parents and leaving his older brother for dead, and far away in Mississippi, a young high-spirited teenaged girl, Polly, leaves behind her dysfunctional parents by running off to New Orleans.  And after telling the tale of these three survivors in their early years, she then continues the story by moving ahead to post-Katrina New Orleans where these three characters’ lives - the convicted killer, the surviving son, and the high-spirited girl - will connect in ways that will prove both deadly and glorious. 

After having spent the intervening years in different ways, all have ultimately become successful professional and have settled into their changed lives with a certain sense of resignation, so that while “happy” may be a bit to ask for, it beats the alternative.  The boy convicted has long since been released and is now going by the name Marshall Marchand, a lonely but successful architect whose attempts at relationships have always fallen short.  But the one person who remains steady in his life is his brother, the survivor of that terrifying night whose never-ending loyalty seems nothing short of amazing.  But when Polly and Marshall meet and fall head-over-heals in love, it soon becomes apparent the secrets from the past they’ve kept hidden from each are closer than they know when ever-increasingly terrifying events begin to take place that seem to reflect the violence of that deadly night. 

Fans of Barr’s Pigeon series might be disappointed at first with Barr’s departure from her series, but, rest assured, it won’t last long as it’s quick to see that Barr succeeds at bringing to the table her ability to create characters and a storyline with the same forceful beauty as always.  Some might say even more so.  While this does indeed eschew the fundamentals found in what we’re used to from Barr and other writers who maintain their long-running series, that might just be what makes this stand out - it literally breathes a fresh gust of air into a genre that could use a strong wind to shake things up.  But while this read is unique and refreshing, fans will still recognize Barr’s stamp of talent in its gripping, touching, well-rounded, and immediate way of reaching into the reader’s heart with pure emotion while at the same time raising their pulse rate.  Definitely recommended, this comes with the hope that Barr is willing to try this again soon.

 

 

 

The Widow’s Revenge by James D. Doss

Publisher: Minotaur Books 

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

With the coming of spring, for once things are quiet at Charlie Moon’s Columbine Ranch in Southern Colorado. But while this part-time Ute tribal investigator might think that the only problems on his hands are the usual shenanigans from his curmudgeon Shaman Aunt Daisy, the lovelorn looks from the teen-aged Sarah, the spitting and complaining of his best pal Chief of Police Scott Parris, and some torn down fences and missing cows, that’s all about to change when he gets a call from an old woman he knows ranting and raving about witches running mad on her property.  And when he goes to check on the old lady, his days of peaceful mornings and well-cooked suppers come abruptly to an end when he discovers she’s been killed, and the ominous rants she raved actually point to a band of very crazy killers whose murdering spree has just begun.

In his usual fashion, Doss tells of this wild adventure with an engaging mixture of whimsy, humor, Indian folklore, and various unaccounted for supernatural visions in a voice that seems to come straight from your favorite story teller that speaks right into your ears and straight through your heart.  It’s always difficult to sum up a Doss novel, as it’s one of those kind of things that you have to read for yourself.  Yes, there’s a plot, and yes, it moves quickly along, but that’s not even close to what makes his writings special.  It’s all in the telling, and this is one writer who knows how to tell a story.  If you haven’t had the pleasure, now is another opportunity to not only read a great book, but to get taken away into a place you’ve never been, and one that you’ll want to visit again and again. 

For an interview with James D. Doss 

 

The Lineup Edited by Otto Penzler

Publisher: Back Bay Books

Reviewed by Don Crouch, New Mystery Reader

Otto Penzler leads the life to which we should all aspire.

He owns the signature indie crime fiction bookstore in the US, Mysterious Bookshop. He’s got about a million of his own publishing imprints. He’s written his own books, and, specific to the purpose of this review, he edits the absolute coolest anthologies in the genre.  He is one of the main reasons an “enthusiast press” exists for mystery fiction, and for that alone, we love the guy.

But don’t take our word for it. We asked Robert Crais for a few words about Penzler, and this was his response:

Otto Penzler is a national treasure.  He is the creator and owner of the best known mystery bookstore on the planet, the Mysterious Bookshop.  He created and founded Mysterious Press, is both a publisher and an editor, and is responsible for books published around the world.  He is the world’s accepted authority on mystery fiction, and owns what is acknowledged to be the finest collection of first edition crime fiction on Earth.  No one else could have assembled The Lineup.  Writers of this caliber would never have written these essays for the money or exposure—none of us NEED the money or exposure—and had anyone else proposed the collection, I’m sure most of us would have passed (I would have).  But Otto isn’t ‘anyone else.’  Otto is a great guy, a better friend, and a champion of the genre.  I wrote my own piece because of my respect and love for the man.
 

His latest anthology is indeed titled The Lineup, and it adds much to his cred. It’s a highly entertaining and informative collection of essays by the leading series authors in crime fiction, talking the how’s and why’s behind their characters’ creation.

As you would expect, each author takes their own path, and the results are huge fun to read. Like most people, you will surely focus on the characters you are familiar with. After that, however, keep poking around, as you will find insight into characters that will certainly spark your interest towards checking out new works by authors you might not have considered reading.

Robert B. Parker delivers a Spenser short story. Spens and Susan are interviewed by an author who is profiling Real Men for a book. Spenser reluctantly talks about why he does what he does, with Susan’s cajoling. It’s full of Parker’s classic wit and snappy banter, and will help complete the circle for many Parker-philes.

Crais’ afore-mentioned contribution comes in two parts. First, an interview between author and character. Crais and Cole are taking a hike on Mt. Lee, where the Hollywood sign looks over the vast expanse of the author’s beloved L.A. Cole is a little cranky with the author as he talks about himself and Joe Pike (who is quickly becoming the dominant character in Crais’ universe). The author follows this with a more conventional essay about Pike specifically, and it’s actually much more informative if what you seek is the germ of the idea evolving into Elvis and Joe.

Authors like Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch) and Lee Child (Jack Reacher), present their information more journalistically, telling the basic story from their own point of view. Colin Dexter interviews himself about Inspector Morse. Ridley Pearson interrogates Lou Boldt. Jeffrey Deaver eulogizes Lincoln Rhyme.

The funniest—surprising to no one that is familiar with her books—is Laura Lipppman’s Tess Monaghan interview. Lippman brings all her wit and precision to bear in what is, of course, an exercise in navel-gazing. One character refers to another as a “fatless wench”. Gotta love that.

One of the more informative, from a “process” perspective, comes from David Morrell, telling the story of how Rambo was created, and the path it took to cinema immortality. Published years before the movie was made, First Blood was used by Stephen King (along with Double Indemnity), as a text in his creative writing class. It was, in its early stage, being set up for Steve McQueen. Morrell does a great job of shedding light on the life of a book and a character on the road to publication and, by extension, cinematic release.

All in all, the collection is a must-have for anyone that’s serious about their crime fiction, and another notch on the belt of Otto Penzler’s endlessly valuable contributions to the genre.

 

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

Where I live, there were once three independent bookstores within a 15 minute drive of my front door. Now there’s one, and that one survives partly on the strength of having a bank outlet on the premises.  The disappearance of independent bookstores is an all too common occurrence this century.

Desperately trying keep his bookstore afloat on a rising tide of competition from huge chain bookstores, Otto Penzler hit on the idea of bringing out a limited number of signed copies of profiles about famous fictional detectives, written by their creators.  The concept proved so popular that the stories have now been collected and produced as a mass-market edition so that those of us who don’t get a chance to visit The Mysterious Bookstore can enjoy them too.

The twenty-one chapters in this book make for one of the most enjoyable reading experiences this reviewer has had for some time.  Most of my favourite sleuths, policepeople and detectives are here, as well as some with whom I was not familiar, but will now seek out, thanks to this introduction.  Two of my favourite women in crime are here: the cold-blooded Mallory and the warm-hearted Precious Ramotswe.  My home-town hero, Spenser, is here along with his beloved Susan Silverman.  The mysterious Aloyius Pendergast is profiled by his writers, who also explain a bit of the tricky business involved when there are two writers and one story.

The styles of the chapters vary as much as the characters themselves.  Some of the stories are straight-forward biographies of the detective, and some are written as a story-within-a-biography or a biography-within-a-story.  Some are spare and lean; some are comfortably cushioned with detail.  All are entertaining, informative, and enjoyable.

This book is coming out in November, and I encourage you to put your order in now, preferably at The Mysterious Bookstore.  It’s important to keep the independent bookstores alive; if you are lucky enough to have one nearby, you will know why.