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The Glass of Time by Michael Cox

Publisher: Norton  ISBN-10: 0393337162

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader 

Readers of Cox’s previous work will enjoy learning the consequences of the thickly-plotted and meticulously detailed The Meaning of the Night, in which Phoebus Daunt helped deprive a dear friend of his substantial inheritance to the detriment of bothSet two decades later, The Glass of Time describes the aftermath of the murder of Daunt and those who survived him.

Emily Carteret, Daunt’s former fiancée and now known as Lady Tansor, leads a fairly reclusive life in her country estate of Evenwood with her adult sons, reclusive Perseus and gregariously impetuous Randolph.  Lady Tansor stokes her undying love for Phoebus Daunt while grooming her dark-haired Perseus to become a poet and intellectual like her lost love.  Younger son Randolph, happily forgotten, manages to find his own passion even while forced to stay at Evenwood.

With few friends and a transitional staff, Lady Tansor hires nineteen year-old Esperanza Alice Gorst to be her new maid.  Obviously well-educated, Esperanza, or Alice as the mercurial Lady Tansor calls her, requires employment because of her orphaned status.  It is through Alice’s eyes that the events occur and her first-person narrative relies heavily on her perceptions, private messages and personal initiative.  Alice, acting on orders from her guardian, never questions her duty to the wealthy woman and tutor who raised her even while enmeshing herself in her new household.  Alice and Lady Tansor both suffer unrequited love in a fashion and find that they have much more in common than the average heiress and lady’s maid. 

Michael Cox, who passed away earlier this year due to a rare cancer, wrote both The Meaning of Night and The Glass of Time while in ill health, which makes the richly detailed overlying fiction and tangled results even more remarkable.  His experience appears to inform the tragic, haunted nature of Lady Tansor while making the past such a central theme in the book even while looking into Evenwood’s future.

Because of the almost unyielding guardedness and formality of the characters, this dense text can sometimes be difficult and slow-going, especially considering the length of nearly six hundred pages.  Each resident of Evenwood carries dark secrets which promise tragedy and instability if exposed and forcing each person to carefully guard his or her true self.  Still, in the tradition of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and other intense, upper-class family dramas, The Glass of Time is worth the investment into this dark world with a satisfying conclusion to this long family saga.

 

 

 

The Chocolate Snowman Murders by JoAnna Carl

Publisher: Signet  ISBN-10: 0451226100

Reviewed by Tracey Jipson, New Mystery Reader

Lee McKinney Woodyard and TenHuis Chocolade are back, this time making chocolate snowmen for Winterfest, in the eighth book in JoAnna Carl’s Chocoholic Mystery series.  Lee, business manager for her Aunt Nettie’s gourmet chocolate shop TenHuis Chocolade, is serving as treasurer of this year’s Winterfest, an arts festival hosted by the quaint town of Warner Pier.   Even with the clashing of egos and personalities, the festival’s planning committee manages to keep everything under control if not running smoothly, at least until art judge Fletcher Mendenhall enters the picture.  Just the mention of his name spooks some committee members, and Lee is certainly unimpressed when she has to leave the drunkenly obnoxious Mendenhall alone in a motel outside Warner Pier.   But all are shocked when Mendenhall is found dead.  When Lee and her husband Joe, who were among the last to have seen Mendenhall alive, are pegged as murder suspects, they decide to find out who really killed Mendenhall.  When a fellow committee member also becomes a victim, and Lee herself is chased by a giant shovel-wielding snowman out for vengeance, it becomes clear that someone in Warner Pier is not afraid to commit cold-blooded murder.

This book is an excellent addition to a series that has only gotten better with age.  The now-married Lee seems much more mature, and the story’s more outward focus, with its attention on the town and its inhabitants rather than simply on Lee and her aunt and friends, makes for more interesting reading.  The mystery itself is engaging, the characters are lively, and the descriptions of chocolate will make readers mouths water.  This return visit to Warner Pier is a rewarding one for both long time and new Chocoholic readers.

 

 

 

The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks  ISBN-10: 0812978021

Reviewed by Scott Parker, New Mystery Reader 

When Charles Dickens died in 1870, he left his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished. I think it’s safe to say that, had Dickens finished Drood, we would put his name among those of Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle as the founding fathers of mystery fiction. Instead, Edwin Drood is an aborted coda to Dickens’ career and many scholars and writers have done their best to try and postulate the ending Dickens had in mind.

Matthew Pearl’s The Last Dickens is but one of two novels published this year (the other being Dan Simmons’ Drood) that tackle the unfinished novel. Pearl, unlike Simmons, writes a historical, literary thriller, with an emphasis on the word “historical.” Like James Michener before him, Pearl weaves historical characters with fictional ones to create a story with three distinct threads that come together, mostly, at the end.

When the news of Dickens’ death reaches the United States, the official American publisher, Fields and Osgood, are in dire straits. The Mystery of Edwin Drood was to be their ticket out of financial difficulty, allowing them to compete against the larger New York publishers. To that end, James Osgood, an historically accurate figure, sends a dependable young man, Daniel, to pick up the latest installments directly off the boat. Young Daniel has an accident and dies. The latest installments are missing. The physical evidence indicates he was an opium eater. Osgood doesn’t believe it. Nor does his bookkeeper, Rebecca Sand, who is Daniel’s sister. In the age of no copyright protection, Osgood knows he needs the ending of the book in order to publish the authorized version. To that end, he travels to England to discover as much as he can about the ending of the book. He allows Rebecca to accompany him and, together, they walk in the steps of Boz.

The best part of any historical novel in the details the author relates. The immersion factor can be tedious if the author devotes too much time and space to the history and not the story. For the most part, Pearl manages that delicate balance well. The Osgood/Rebecca story illuminates what it was like for folks who lived around Dickens’ home in Gad’s Hill and from whom the writer took his own inspiration. In perhaps the most entertaining strand of the story, Pearl writes about Dickens’ American reading tour in 1867. Here, the great writer comes alive in a fictional retelling based on some actual historical facts. The third strand, while historically accurate, goes nowhere. It’s the story of Frank Dickens, one of Boz’s sons, who, in 1870, was a member of the British Army stationed in India. The opium trade is tacitly condoned by the British and we get a taste of how the government regulated the narcotic. Other than a character being Dickens’ son, it is nice to read but slowed the book down during those passages.

The irony of reading the novel is the author’s note. Pearl put it at the end of the book so a reader, unaware of many of the historical figures (as I was) didn’t know, going in, who was real and who was fictional. As an author of a historical novel myself, I know all about putting fictional words in the mouths of historical characters and wanting to create a novel where the reader won’t know the ending just because certain, real people can’t meet a dire fate. However, I would have preferred the historical note at the front, the way James Michener did it, so that I would at least have a frame of reference.

The historical detail is the star of The Last Dickens. The world of 1870 Boston and London comes alive and is a joy to read. The plot, however, tended to meander a bit. The story is one of discovery and, usually, there is an overriding dread hanging over the protagonists, propelling them forward either towards a goal or away from danger. That is not this book, really. There isn’t any urgency and, for once, I read a novel for the history, not necessary the story. Having said that, however, reading The Last Dickens has led me to make two decisions. One, I am intrigued in Pearl’s other two literary novels, The Poe Shadow and The Dante Club, enough so that I will seek them out. Two, having read The Last Dickens as well as Simmons’ Drood, I think it’s high time to read the source material, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the latest edition including an introduction by Pearl himself. Something tells me that Mr. Osgood, as well as Mr. Dickens, would be happy about that.

 

 

 

The Spy Who Came For Christmas by David Morrell

Publisher: Vanguard Press  ISBN-10: 1593155638

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

It’s Christmas Eve when American spy Paul Kagan finds himself on a mission that finally goes too far in crossing the line in what he’s been asked to do as an undercover agent.  Having beaten women, killed men, lied, stolen, and cheated in the name of his country, kidnapping a child for the Russian mob with links to terrorists that is to serve as the symbol of peace for a new era in international circles finally proves to be too much for him.  And so this is how he ends up wounded on Santa Fe’s Canyon Road on this snowy Christmas Eve on the run from the bad guys carrying this most special child hidden underneath his jacket. 

And when during his daring self-propelled mission he comes upon a home tucked away in which to find shelter and hopefully safety, he’ll discover that the woman and child he has surprised living there also have their own issues with faith and betrayal.  But now this odd threesome must learn to trust each other if they’re to survive the night that will take a miracle to get through in one piece.

Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of spy novels, but it must be said that this is one in the genre that so strays from that norm, it’s more than worth the read.  First, you have the lovely snow-filled ambiance of Santa Fe’s Canyon Road at Christmas time which, believe me, Morrell has captured perfectly, having been there myself and knowing just how crazy- beautiful it is.  Secondly, you have the timely allegory of the special child born bringing peace that’s beautifully tied in with the Christmas theme. And thirdly, you have a thriller that demands a one-sit reading, as putting down this fast-paced read down in the middle is not an option.  This is a wonderful read, and one that is infused with such atmospheric beauty and spine-tingling thrills that it’ sure to be one of the best of the season.

 

 

 

RISK by Colin Harrison

Publisher: Picador  ISBN:  0-312-42893-6

Reviewed by Ray Palen, New Mystery Reader    

Colin Harrison originally wrote this fine short novel as a series of installments for the New York Times Magazine.  The serial mystery translates very well into complete novel form and Harrison definitely benefited from the New York City exposure --- there are not many authors who can truly capture the pulse of modern NYC like Colin Harrison can.

RISK features the interesting protagonist, George Young.  Young is an attorney for a top insurance firm who usually gets tasked with pursuing bizarre high-risk cases.  In this situation, he is summoned by Mrs. Corbett --- the elderly, eccentric and very-wealthy wife of the firm’s founder.  Her son, Roger Corbett, was tragically killed by stepping off a curb in NYC and being struck and killed by a fast-moving vehicle.  What was most puzzling was the fact that a security camera captured the tragedy on film and Roger Corbett appeared to be preoccupied with a slip of paper he just read prior to taking his fatal final step.

George Young’s delving into Corbett’s life starts at the bar he left just prior to the accident.  The interesting bartender, Mort, seems to get a big kick out of being ominously cryptic when talking to George and may or may not necessarily be steering him in the right direction.  Unfortunately for George, he finds that Mort is the first of a string of strange characters that are uncovered as each secret layer of Roger Corbett’s life is peeled back. 

The most interesting lead and suspect George Young meets is a Czechoslovakian hand-model named Eliska who turns out to be the late Roger Corbett’s mistress.  Eliska seems hurt by Corbett’s death and appears to be genuine in her grief.  Young sniffs further and finds that Eliska may have had other, more notorious, motives surrounding her relationship with Roger Corbett.  Specifically, Corbett may have been the unwitting pawn in an international smuggling operation involving surprisingly valuable Christmas ornaments.  Eliska is mixed up with some very bad guys from the old Soviet bloc --- and they want their merchandise back.  The only thing standing between them and their ill-gotten goods is a storage key to Roger Corbett’s property that is in the possession of one, George Young.

To reveal any more would be too much --- as this short novel moves rapidly and remains engaging throughout.  The real star of the novel is New York City and its outer boroughs --- captured so vividly by Colin Harrison.  Those who live in the Big Apple will nod fondly at each highly descriptive picture of the various neighborhoods.  Readers not from the NYC area will be able to enjoy a true taste of NYC at its grittiest as Harrison brilliantly combines noir with the greatest city in the world to produce a very intelligent thriller!

 

 

 

Espresso Shot by Cleo Coyle

Publisher: Berkley  ISBN-10: 0425230767

Reviewed by Tracey Jipson, New Mystery Reader

Espresso Shot is the seventh installment in Cleo Coyle’s Coffeehouse series, and is as much a romance as a mystery.   Clare Cosi is the manager of the Village Blend, an independent coffeehouse in Greenwich Village, and has been hired by her ex-husband Matteo Allegro to create a coffee and dessert bar for his upcoming wedding.  Though she is convinced that these upcoming nuptials are a mistake, Clare agrees to his proposition, especially because she believes the upscale wedding will help bring attention to her coffeeshop.   Clare insists that she no longer has romantic feelings for Matteo, but she remains protective of him and refuses to let him attend his bachelor party alone.  A stripper, hired by Matteo’s friends because she looks just like his fiancée Bree, is shot down on the street following the party.  Then Matteo tells Clare that Bree was recently a near-victim of a hit and run incident, and asks Clare to find out if someone really wants Bree dead.  Clare is no fan of her ex-husband’s fiancée, but she agrees to look into the matter.  After spending some time with the thoroughly unpleasant Bree, there are many people on Clare’s suspect list—Bree the bridezilla seems to have few friends, and has made many enemies over the years.  Attempts on her own life, managing the Blend, and fulfilling her desire to design the perfect coffee bar for her ex-husband’s wedding certainly keep Clare busy, but her sleuthing also allows her to spend time with Mike, her police detective boyfriend.   

Strong personalities abound in this sophisticated novel, which is part whodunit and part romance.  Clare and Matteo are engaging if somewhat flat characters, and Mike, Bree, the Village Blend staff, old friends, police officers and even New York City itself all combine to weave an interesting backdrop for murder.  The author includes coffee trivia even recipes.  And yet, I had a tough time staying interested in this book.   There seemed to be little actual sexual tension between Clare and either of her past or present men.  And as a newcomer to the series I’m not sure where to direct my loyalty—should Clare be with Matteo or with Mike?  And if Bree is such an unpleasant person to be around, why is Matteo marrying her?    While this book did make me want to brew up a good cup of coffee and try to identify the killer, I found the relationships that exist at the core of the story a little bitter and hard to swallow.

 

 

 

The Tale of Briar Bank by Susan Wittig Albert 

Publisher: Berkley  ISBN-10: 0425230279

Reviewed by Tracey Jipson, New Mystery Reader

While the setting is a snowy and frozen British countryside, this coziest of cozies will warm the heart of any reader willing to set aside the rules of reality and embrace the quirkiness of talking animals and the book’s early 20th century English setting.   Beatrix Potter, she of Peter Rabbit fame, temporarily leaves a dreary and unsatisfying life with her demanding parents in London and escapes to her fairy tale property in the Land Between the Lakes.  A snowstorm (Bosworth Badger measures thirty three inches of snow!) prevents Beatrix from making her scheduled return to London and allows her to become involved once again in village life.  She helps a local family with debt collection and a talented young pianist find a better instructor, and also has time to investigate the death of a local antiques collector.  The villagers claim that his death by falling tree limb was the result of a curse, placed upon him when he dug up what was believed to be an ancient treasure.  Beatrix does not believe in curses, and instead begins to sort through the gossip and busy doings of a small town to discover the truth.  Of course, the animals, led by a badger named Bailey and by Pickles, the deceased man’s dog, also become involved in the mystery, because they know more about the situation than any human.

This combination of history and fantasy is indeed enchantingly quaint and clearly comes from the pen of a master storyteller.  Those readers looking for a family friendly puzzle will certainly be satisfied.   I found the author’s constant inclusion of dialogue from the talking animals to be an intrusion rather than enjoyable, and the whimsical nature of the story, while it may appeal to some readers, quickly became grating for me.   However, this historical piece of fancy is well written and well researched, and if you are a willing traveler, will whisk you away to a world where animals can talk and Beatrix Potter is the village sleuth.

 

 

 

Flesh House by Stuart MacBride

Publisher:  Minotaur – ISBN 0312584075

Reviewed by JL Roberts, New Mystery Reader

Twenty years ago, there was a serial killer knows as “The Flesher” who was purported to kill people and eat them.  Now, seven years after the killer has been released from prison, human meat has been found in a local butcher shop and DS Logan McRae are trying to track down a serial killer dressed in a butcher’s apron wearing a Margaret Thatcher mask.

I had a love/hate relationship with this book.  Be aware that murders are very graphic and gruesome, but I can deal with that. 

My issue is the characters.  McRae is about the only remotely likeable character and, even for him, you have very little background or real sense of who he is.  The characters are realistic but largely unpleasant. 

On the other hand, the plot, while unrelentingly grim, is thoroughly engrossing and delightfully twisty.  There was less humor in this book than in ones in the past.  A bit more light to offset the dark would have helped. 

McBride is definitely a good, skilled writer.  I can’t say I enjoyed the book, because of the theme, but I couldn’t stop reading it. 

 

 

 

Rough Weather by Robert B. Parker 

Publisher: Berkley  ISBN 0425230171

Reviewed by Don Crouch, New Mystery Reader

If you watch this space (and we certainly hope you do), you will know that Parker seems particularly interested in family these days, as his last few books, spanning all his current series, seem to revolve around how they behave towards each other. Rough Weather is no exception.

Spenser is hired by the oft-married temptress/socialite Heidi Bradshaw to be her “escort” at her daughter’s pending wedding on the privately-owned paradise known as Tashtego Island. Spenser agrees to act as bodyguard on the condition that he is allowed to bring along his own “protection”, Susan Silverman.

Upon arrival on the island, he sees a face from his past that brings him up short. That being the infamous Ruger, the Gray Man from Thin Air. Yup, the guy that nearly sent ol’ Spens off to a dirt nap is back to deliver his own particular brand of threat to the proceedings, and it doesn’t take long before that threat is fulfilled, and the wedding is disrupted by the inconvenient murder of the groom (for starters), and the kidnapping of the bride, all against the backdrop of the titular hurricane that blankets the island in a shield of wind, rain and darkness.

Parker stages these violent and complex proceedings in such a precise manner via Spenser’s narration—we feel the tension, and our clothes feel damp from the storm’s fury.

Once the storm has passed and Susan is safe, Spenser must deal with the guilt of failure to protect the victims, and it’s this guilt is what drives him on after being fired by his client. Guilt over letting Ruger execute his plot and escape, and even deeper, for not killing Ruger back when he had a chance.

So he enlists Hawk, and a few other characters to help him figure out what exactly happened, all the while breaking things down with Susan, as he so often does—this time, with the added force of her involvement in the situation.

As he explores the murky world of the victims—nearly becoming one himself—and suspects, it becomes clear that Heidi Bradshaw was hiding things. No, really? And there’s gambling in Casablanca? Shocking.

Parker’s oft-noted skills for snappy dialogue are as sharp as ever in Rough Weather, and he takes a complicated story and tells it in his ever-entertaining style. No great revelations here, simply the things we love and expect from the author.

Spenser discovers some truths at the core of the crime that bring us to what’s on Parker’s mind about family, and these truths bring color to what might seem stock characters on both sides of the story.

It’s these truths—how far some people will go to protect family, and how little others care about family—that also drive events in a fairly shocking conclusion.

It’s a story for the faithful, certainly. Rough Weather breaks no near barriers, but it still delivers the goods we rely on Parker for, and after almost 40 years, that’s no mean feat!!

 

 

The White Garden by Stephanie Barron

Publisher: Bantam Books  ISBN-10: 0553385771

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Jo Bellamy has a unique opportunity to explore Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst gardens thanks to the deep pockets of her latest client, Gray Westlake.  As a landscape designer based in the United States, Jo’s dream of visiting the White Garden was about to be a reality—and on someone else’s tab.  Her trip also allows her to escape the recent suicide of her dear grandfather Jock, who originally hailed from Kent.  Since he gave no indication of depression or other reasons for his action, Jo’s grief is compounded by her confusion.

Professionally self-assured, Jo travels to England to forget about her stateside misery and to learn more about the country of Jock’s birth.  Gray’s intention of replicating the White Garden on his own estate has opened the gates for Jo to immerse herself in the garden without other tourists and she quickly makes a discovery with Head Gardener Imogen Cantwell that will change their lives forever.

In some respects, The White Garden’s quick pace, chase scenes and wryly quick-witted experts as main characters may remind some readers of Dan Brown’s much larger-scale DaVinci Code.  This reinterpretation of Virginia Woolf’s life should not cause any controversy, though, especially since literature lovers and feminist fans will enjoy walking down the garden path of what-ifs.  Barron’s novel inserts chapters from the fictional Jock’s Book which sheds light on Virginia’s life and also of the creation of the famous all-white garden.

While many readers will be familiar with Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, the discussion of motives and personalities of their husbands Leonard Woolf and Harold Nicolson, respectively, adds depth and another detour of possibilities for these two men who were often overshadowed by their unusual relationships with famously complicated women.

Barron (author of the Jane Austen Mysteries) sympathetically alludes to Woolf’s tragic life with both subtle and overt references throughout the book but it is the depictions of the White Garden that will haunt the reader’s memory.  For devoted gardeners, the National Trust maintains a photo gallery on the Sissinghurst page with pictures of the White Garden and the Priest’s House.  With its nimble twining of history, literature and gardening, The White Garden should not be missed for anyone in need of a pleasurable, thoughtful mystery blooming with possibility.

 

 

Sink Trap by Christy Evans

Publisher:  Berkley Prime Crime ISBN:  978-0-425-23079-4

Reviewed by Anne K. Edwards, New Mystery Reader

Apprentice plumber Georgiana Neverall finds a brooch in a sink trap. The jewelry belongs to a retired librarian who no one seems to be able to contact.  Georgie is worried because they are working for her mother and she is one of the people involved in selling the property owned by the missing woman and that is where the item was found. Georgie and others begin to suspect foul play.

The puzzle is how the brooch got into a sink trap in the old warehouse the librarian owned.  When they start working on the house, Georgie discovers other clues to convince her the woman won’t be coming home.  She didn’t seem to take anything with her when she left, if she did leave.

I’m pleased to recommend this tale set against an unusual but entirely suitable occupation for Georgie as she loves what she’s doing. The mystery introduces many fun and interesting characters and you will enjoy meeting them on the pages of other books by talented author Christy Evans.

While being a plumber’s apprentice has its downside, it is not considered to be a dangerous occupation unless someone is setting booby traps.  This is a tale you will remember and guaranteed to provide reading satisfaction.  Enjoy.  I sure did.

 

 

 

 

Don’t Tell a Soul by David Rosenfelt

Publisher: Minotaur Books  ISBN-10: 0312356641

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Successful contractor Tim Wallace has barely gotten over the death of his recent bride in a boating accident, one in which he’s still suspected of bringing about, when he’s put in the middle of another questionable death after he’s approached by a stranger who tells him he’s murdered someone.  And that’s when Tim makes the biggest mistake of his life by looking into the stranger’s claim, his own investigation once again bringing him under suspicion when a body is found much as the stranger claimed.  But who is really behind this attempt to destroy his life?  With nobody to trust, and with nobody who trusts him, Tim will be forced to go on the run to find out who has chosen him as a target, and why they want to ruin his life.  

Rosenfelt’s first stand-alone will no doubt bring new fans to his writing with his complex plot of power, wealth, and unabated ambition.  This is not a leisurely swim that goes slowly into the rough waters ahead, but instead a head-on dive that pretty much forces you to go all the way under in one fell swoop.  Or, put another way, amazingly suspenseful and impossible to put down.  Okay, so it goes from a-z without the benefit of too much in-between, and the plot is mostly inconceivable, and yeah, there would be much easier ways for the villains to achieve what they’re attempting, but who cares?  There is so much fun in getting from here to there, you won’t much mind the jumps in logic.  An action-packed read that is more than satisfying, this one’s a winner.

 

 

 

 

The Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton

Publisher: Berkley Prime Crime  ISBN-10: 0425230775

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Abigail Adams and her beloved husband John live in dangerous times now that Boston is filled with nervous redcoats and the defiant colonial-bred Sons of Liberty publish popular pamphlets decrying the British governing methods and succession of unpopular taxes on the Thirteen Colonies.  It’s 1773 and covert pamphleteer Rebecca Malvern has disappeared from her tiny rented house, leaving only blood and the body of a mysterious well-dressed woman lying on the floor.  As Rebecca’s close friend, Abigail desperately tries to find her before the British can uncover Rebecca’s secret identity or try her for murder.

Abigail’s quest to find her friend takes her nearly unaccompanied throughout both colonial and British strongholds, in both of which she must allay suspicion as to her motives and accede to the defined gender limitations of the time.  In order to pursue her goal, Abigail must avoid a controlling Sam Adams and rely on a British officer aptly named Coldstone.  As Abigail learns more about Rebecca, it appears that the missing woman had few friends but many enemies who disliked her independence, her native Catholicism, and her difficult decision to abandon her wealthy husband to preserve her sanity.

Rewarding details endear Abigail to the reader as she often refers to one of her favorite books, a 1740 novel titled Pamela by Samuel Richardson.  Hamilton (a pseudonym for popular author Barbara Hambly, who recently wrote the excellent Civil War novel, Homeland) pays close attention to historic fact while crafting her story, giving us an idea of Abigail as not only an abolitionist and future first lady, but also as a wife, mother and reader busy with her laundry and her attempts to spend a few minutes with her husband during a busy day.

Although two characters change from seemingly unrelenting foes into allies rather quickly, most of the characters reveal multi-faceted personalities, no matter how minor the role.

The first in the new Abigail Adams Mystery series makes a pleasant, agreeably dense holiday read and reminder of the harsh realities suffered by colonists and British soldiers alike in the years leading up to the Declaration of Independence.

 

 

 

Haunting Jordan by P. J. Alderman

Publisher:  Bantam Books  ISBN:  978-0-553-59210-8

Reviewed by Anne K. Edwards, New Mystery Reader

A fun read for the paranormal mystery fan with lots of action and well drawn characters you will enjoy meeting.  Talented author P J Alderman has crafted a story that will keep you reading.

Two stories overlap as the ghosts of two sisters show up in Jordan’s newly purchased fixer upper in Port Chatham and ask her to solve the murder of the elder sister.  Jordan doesn’t believe that she can see and talk to ghosts and as a therapist using a reality based therapy to help her patients she is half convinced at first she’s hallucinating.

Jordan’s problems don’t begin there.  She is the major suspect in the murder of her own husband and has fled to Port Chatham to escape the media attention while the investigation goes on. 

She learns she can see other ghosts in the town also and this is a town that is extremely proud of its ghosts.  Her investigations take her into the town’s dark past where she meets the many enemies of the murdered sister and they are all suspects on Jordan’s list.

In a warm and friendly present day town, Jordan feels welcome while the opposite was true of the murdered woman who seemed to have no friends or roots in the town, making one wonder a little why she stayed instead of selling out and leaving to find some happiness.  There is lots of story in this tale and the ghosts and historical research are both interesting and intriguing.  Almost made this reader wish she could see ghosts. Recommended as a fun read for any lover of spooky tales. 

 

 

 

In the Dark by Mark Billingham

Publisher: Harper  ISBN-10: 0061432768

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader (Interview coming in early 2009!)

In the Dark is Mark Billingham’s first standalone novel following seven successful books about London Detective Inspector Tom Thorne. (Thorne isn’t likely to go away; he makes a cameo appearance here.) If In the Dark is any indication, the freedom of a multi-perspective, complex tale appeals to Billingham as much as a single protagonist. This is a helluva book.

A summary is difficult, lest too much be given away. Theo is a Jamaican youth, gradually being absorbed into a London drug gang. He’s not happy about it, but he has a girlfriend and infant son, and money’s tight. His initiation is to act out an urban myth: while his mate drives with the lights out, Theo is to shoot into the first car that flashes its high beams.

Paul Hopwood is a London detective who spends more time than is socially—and possibly professionally—acceptable with known criminals. Not the street gangs like the one about to induct Theo; Paul’s contacts are the kinds of crooks who could make a lot of financial problems disappear for a soon-to-be-father, which Paul is. His partner, Helen Weeks, is also a copper, on maternity leave from her job working family crimes. She’s eight months pregnant when the story begins, unsure how much of a father Paul will be, in part because she isn’t a hundred percent sure how much of a father Paul is, due to her brief bout of unfaithfulness  somewhat less than a year ago.

These are spun together with a couple of others until they can’t be separated after Theo’s initiation turns into more than anyone bargained for. The police are a step behind someone else with an interest that may be either personal or professional as the boys in the car with Theo start dying by ones and twos.

Billingham is a stand-up comedian when not writing novels and has been quoted as saying the “pull back and reveal” technique so useful in comedy serves him well in his mysteries. This may be the understatement of the year, along the lines of saying Joe Biden occasionally talks too much, or Sarah Palin has an adequate clothing budget. It’s two pages past the first reveal before you’re sure what’s being revealed. A sub-twist about one of Paul’s criminal associates is never truly revealed; you eventually become aware of it, and it’s damned creepy when you do.

In the Dark trusts its readers well beyond what most publishers will allow, for which Billingham’s editors at Little, Brown (in the UK) and HarperCollins (in America) deserve full marks. Nothing is given to you. You know as much as you need to know and are expected to keep up; Billingham isn’t going to stop the story to explain things to you. In a culture where best-selling authors do everything but change the font and embed sound effects to let you know THIS IS A CLUE, it’s flattering, and exhilarating, to be treated so much like an adult for a change.

This is a no-nonsense book; Billingham’s gifts for comedy are present only in the unfolding of the tale as described above, and in his pacing, which is determined, not breakneck. The laughs well known to anyone fortunate enough to catch him on a conference panel or book signing are not here. The writing is straightforward, allowing the subject matter to provide the necessary darkness. This keeps the reader turning the pages of what could become an unrelentingly dreary read.

The characters also do their parts well. No stereotypes here. Helen is the most sympathetic character, yet she can also be bitchy and wrong-headed. Theo wants to do the right thing by his family; he just can’t figure out what that is, and what he lacks to either go straight or do the gang thing right. His mates Easy and Wave aren’t nearly as tough and self-assured as they let on. Paul may be bent, he may be a jerk, or he may be someone afraid he’s in over his head on multiple fronts, doing the best he can. Frank Linnell—well, suffice to say Frank could be a book of his own.

In the Dark is a multi-faceted novel designed for a reader who does not like to be written down to. Billingham tells his characters’ stories with an empathy that never comes close to crossing over into sentimentality.  The book doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is: an unsparing, yet highly readable account of events that could happen this week in London—or New York, or Chicago, or Washington—seen through the eyes of those most directly affected by them, and are least likely to be able to see the entire story. Anyone interested in such a telling needs to look no farther.

For interview with Mark Billingham

 

 

 

The Murder Notebook by Jonathan Santlofer

Publisher: Harper ISBN-10: 0060882050

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

When ex-cop Nate Nodriguez, now working as a consultant to local police departments as a sketch artist, is called in to sketch eye-witness accounts of the first players in what’s to be a sting of murder-suicides hitting NYC, he has no idea just how deadly the trail he is about to embark upon will be. And while at first the killings, all followed by suicides, make little sense to Nate and his girlfriend homicide detective Terri Russo, deeper investigation soon shows that these men all had one thing in common: ties to the US Military.  And so the question then becomes if this string of deaths is related to PTSD-afflicted vets, or if instead there is something much larger and deadlier at play.  And as the clues begin to lead toward the possibility of a hush-hush government study on fear, those involved will find that the closer they come to unraveling the conspiracy, the closer they come to a dangerous new understanding of fear.   

The second in Santlofer’s series featuring Nate Rodriguez is an interesting and timely tale that gives not only an in-depth look at PSTD, and what little has been done for those soldiers who have been deeply impacted by it, but also an alarming look at some of the more controversial military studies performed in an effort to create a better soldier. Additionally, fans and new readers alike will enjoy the well drawn Rodriguez, whose half Latino/half Jewish ancestry, along with his artistic skills and out of the ordinary ability to see more than what’s really there, makes for a very interesting character.  Admittedly, some may find Nate’s love interest to be a bit off-putting at times, but she’s got her reasons, which does make her a bit easier to bear.

All in all, if you love provocative conspiracy theories based on controversial concepts, you’ll love this latest.  With great attention given to detail, and some very interesting drawings thrown in by this on top of that, you have another great read from this very talented author.

 

 

 

The Laughter of Dead Kings by Elizabeth Peters

Publisher: Harper  ISBN 978 0 06 168729 7

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

It’s been a long time between drinks, but at last, here’s a new Vicky Bliss mystery from the always-entertaining and informative Elizabeth Peters.  Peters makes this Egypt-based mystery set in the present day just as involving and action-packed  as her better known Ameiia Peabody/Radcliffe Emerson series. 

The story starts with a kidnapping—not just your average kidnapping, either: the missing person is Tutankhamen, the fabled boy kind of Egypt, whose  tattered mummy has lain on display  in the Valley of the Kings for decades.

Suspicion falls at once on Sir John Smythe, former master criminal, now reformed character and antique dealer.   There are a lot of people after John as he and Vicky go on the run in hopes of finding the real king-nappers before John is either arrested or killed.

The fleeing pair barely stay a step ahead of their enemies, slowed down to some extent by Vicky’s boss, Schmidt, who insists on getting involved.  It’s clear that to find the missing Tut, John needs to go to Egypt.  There he and Vicky run into even more violent people, not to mention a very angry Head of Antiquities who has just received a multi-million dollar ransom demand for the missing mummy.  He hires John to get Tut back without anyone else knowing about the kidnapping. 

After a lot of hair-raising adventures, Vicky, John and Schmidt end up at, of all places, the former home of the Emersons.  There is a violent confrontation which looks like ending badly for all of them until Schmidt reveals an unsuspected talent.   That looks  the end of the story, but unfortunately there is still one dangerous enemy in the shadows.   Will Vicky survive his last desperate action?

This is a rousing adventure which will also give you some painless education in antiquities and Egyptian history, with a bit of romance, a lot of  frantic danger-dodging, and a really clever solution to the problem of what to do with a kidnapped pharaoh’s  mummy when you finally get it back.

 

 

 

The Messengers of Death by Pierre Magnan

Publisher:  Minotaur Books ISBN:  0313287571

Reviewed by Anne K. Edwards, New Mystery Reader 

For the mystery fan who likes complicated plots, red herrings, lots of secrets, murderers in disguise, join retired Commissaire Laviolette and his friend Judge Chabrand in ferreting out the reason for the deaths of miserly women and card playing men.  Learn how the past can rule the present.

Emile Pencenat is digging his own grave, dreaming of a fancy crypt, because he doesn’t want to spend eternity with his shrew of a wife. A mysterious sea captain who fears the sea, a sly school teacher and a secretive mushroom hunter make an interesting foursome who play cards but lack the usual friendly banter. It is with one of them the mystery begins when he discovers a letter in an unused post box. 

The delivery of the letter causes fear in the recipient, but stubborn avarice wins out to make her victim number one.  The reader should proceed carefully so they don’t miss any possible clues or motives.  There is plenty of action and suspense mixed with a series of interesting characters and settings to pull the reader along.

Talented author Pierre Magnon has crafted a tale to please any mystery fan with realistic characters who walk the streets of Digne, a small town where life is so well described, you’ll believe you are there. You’ll learn secrets so old, they’re nearly forgotten, and yet they affect life today.

I’m pleased to recommend The Messengers of Death as a tale to hold the reader all the way through, a book worth the time.  Enjoy. I sure did.

 

 

 

Maracaibo by James A Ciullo

Publisher: Mainly Murder Press  ISBN 978 0 615 29012 6

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

If you read and enjoyed “Orinoco”, you’ll be happy to see the return of the Independent Senator from Vermont, Joe LaCarta.  (I’m still grappling with the idea that anyone could get elected to the senate as an independent, but if it could happen anywhere, Vermont’s the state that would do it.)

Joe and Jimmy Ray Hobson, a conservative Republican senator, have been sent to Venezuela by the President, who wants to make nice with El Presidente in order to assure the future supply of oil to the USA.  They have barely touched down when their flimsily-guarded motorcade is attacked, Hobson is killed and Joe is kidnapped.

Back in the USA there are people who would prefer that Joe remains missing in order to justify a reprisal raid against the oil-rich state.  The Vice President, a devious and power-hungry man, has managed to take charge of what seems to be an international crisis.  The media is whipping up a storm of angry half-baked public opinion, and it looks as if the Venezuelan president’s days in office are numbered.

Not everyone accepts things at face value, however: Joe’s wife and his friend TJ begin to suspect there’s more going on than has been made public.  Then Marielena Morales, daughter of another old friend, and now a CIA operative in Venezuela, makes contact.  She and Sergio Veneto, an undercover policeman, have been involved in a shootout with some very bad men who have apparently been told to get rid of Marielena.  It suits her to be thought dead for a while, so she plants some misleading evidence and takes off into the hinterlands with Sergio.

“Meanwhile, back at the secret hideout,” Joe is having a rough time at the hands of his captors, and hoping for a miracle.  He half gets his wish when Marielena and Sergio turn up in the middle of another shoot-out, but then all three of them are on the run, on the wrong side of a border that may not have any right side, and not only trying to escape their enemies, but also those who purport to be their friends.

Like its predecessor “Orinoco” this book could have used some more stringent editing to prune clichés and select more appropriate verbs—why would a healthy, mature woman ‘shuffle’ to the window if only six lines later she ‘quickstepped’ out the back door?   That quibble aside, this is a fast-moving story into which author Ciullo has woven some unexpected strands of domestic and international political intrigue alongside the age-old themes of greed and the desire for power. 

 

 

 

Snake Dreams by James D. Doss

Publisher:  Minotaur Books  ISBN-10: 0312945051

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Doss returns to Granite County in beautiful Southern Colorado with his familiar cast of characters including the 7 foot Ute Charlie Moon, his wickedly amusing Shaman great-aunt Daisy, and the lovelorn teen-aged orphan Sarah, Daisy’s new roommate.  This time out the mystery begins with a “visit” from a dead woman who wants Aunt Daisy to save her daughter from a killer.  To say much more would not help in sharing this latest plot, but suffice it to say, it’s a good one.

And so at first the unfamiliar reader might wonder:  Where in the heck are the dead bodies, the crazy serial killers, the blood, and the gore? Hell, is there even a mystery to solve in this thing? But don’t worry, as quickly as one wonders such things is as just as quickly as such questions disappear. Doss, in his usual manner of old-time story telling, spins a tale filled with larger than life characters whose shenanigans thrill and amuse, and one so vividly and delightfully charming - somewhat like one told at the foot of your grandfather's rocking chair - that being entranced like a child is a normal response.

And, yes, as it turns out there is a mystery, and a mighty clever one at that.  There are some bungled burglaries and some dead bodies and some awkward visits from the dead.  But even while the cleverest reader might see what's coming, it's almost more delightful to remain unaware of the answers until the end.  And, as always, when it comes to a story spun by Doss, you know that it's not even the plot that matters, it's how that plot is shared, which Doss does in a way that’s reminiscent of days gone by - in that magical way that is welcomed back with delight.

 

 

 

Hardly Knew Her by Laura Lippman

Publisher: Avon   ISBN-10: 0061490962

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader

Laura Lippman has spent the second half of 2008 winning awards faster than organizations can think up names for them, so she hardly needs an endorsement of her writing from the likes of me. Too bad; she’s getting one. She’ll just have to get over it.

Hardly Knew Her is a collection of seventeen short stories written between 2001 and 2008, a few of which were created just for this anthology. Not a bad story in the bunch, the collection still has the Curse of All Anthologies: some stories are better than others, which makes it hard to make overall pronouncements about the collection.

A writer (editor?) of supreme confidence is needed to place a story like “The Crack Cocaine Diet” at the front of an anthology. The editors of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine should push old ladies out of the way for a story like this tale of the misadventures of two clueless bimbos who might not be as clueless as they first appear. A tough act to follow, but “What He Needed” is just about as good.

Lippman protagonists are women both genders can relate to without pandering to either. Mona of “Femme Fatale” has connived her way through several marriages in sixty-eight years to reach a point that leaves her disappointed, hardened, and vulnerable. The skills that carried her through a prosperous life of being, essentially, a legally- and religiously-sanctioned paramour serve her far better than Social Security and Medicare ever could. Bliss, of “Honor Bar,” is already learning the down side of such a career at the relatively tender age of thirty-one. (Or thirty-two. Or thirty. She’s been lying about it so long she doesn’t remember herself.) Bliss could use some tips from Mona, as she still has a lot to learn.

“Easy as A-B-C” has a double jolt of Baltimore, taking place in Locust Point and making a bow toward Baltimore native Edgar Allan Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado.” “Black-Eyed Susan” hints at what could happen in Pimlico’s infield during the Preakness that network TV has yet to discover. “One True Love” and “Scratch a Woman” take the world’s oldest profession into the suburbs, with a healthy dose of irony provided by the protagonist’s cover story.

Tess Monaghan, Lippman’s  most famous character, makes appearances, too, solving a major league baseball trading deadline mystery. (Side note: Many thinks to Ms. Lippman for actually getting all the baseball references right. Not because she’s a woman, and I didn’t expect it, but because so many writers take a superficial knowledge of some popular cultural event as license to display their ignorance to those to actually know something about it.) “The Shoeshine Man’s Regrets” sends Tess to find the reasons behind the apparently excessive consequences of a harmless street encounter. Newcomers to the Monaghan novels may find some worthwhile morsels in “The Accidental Detective,” another story with multiple levels of Baltimore, posed as a newspaper profile of a local investigator.

It seems odd to say, but the Monaghan stories may be the least satisfying of the collection, as the writing style lacks the freedom and edge of many of the other stories. The flights of “what the hell” writing found in stories like “The Crack Cocaine Diet” are missing. (“I had just broken up with Brandon and Molly had just broken up with Keith, so we needed new dresses to go to this party where we knew they were both going to be. But before we could buy the dresses, we both needed to lose weight because we had to look fabulous, kiss-my-ass-f***-you fabulous. Kiss-my-ass-f***-you-and-your-d***-is-really-tiny fabulous.”) “Femme Fatale” puts the reader in the mindset of a woman who lives on her looks better in a single paragraph than most writers can in a chapter. (“This is true: there comes a time in the life of a beautiful woman, or even an attractive one with an abundance of charm, when she realizes that she can no longer rely on her looks. If she is unusually, exceedingly self-aware, the realization is a timely one. But, more typically, it lags the physical reality by several years, like a thunderclap when a lightning storm is passing by.”)

This is the kind of writing that makes the more conservatively worded stories seem a little pale. Considering the caliber of writing throughout, that’s hardly harsh criticism. Hardly Knew Her is a first-rate sampling of one of the pre-eminent crime writers of her time.

 

 

 

 

The Gray Man by Mark Greaney

Publisher: Jove ISBN:  978-0-515-14701-8

Reviewed by Ray Palen, New Mystery Reader    

Newcomer Mark Greaney storms onto the action/adventure/international thriller scene with his first highly-testosterone charged novel, THE GRAY MAN.  His novel, featuring assassin-for-hire Courtland Gentry a.k.a. The Gray Man (one of the more interesting protagonist names in recent fiction) has already drawn comparisons to Robert Ludlum’s BOURNE series.  I think such comparisons may be a bit premature --- but not far from the mark.

Just like TV character Michael Weston in the terrific USA Network series “Burn Notice”, Court Gentry has been abandoned by the people and country he loyally fought for.  A former American Special Forces member and more recently a hired gun for various international syndicates, Gentry has brought upon himself much negative publicity by assassinating the brother of an infamous Nigerian dictator.  With international politics being of an unpredictable nature, certain powers-that-be (including members of the US intelligence community) find it best to eliminate Gentry from the picture rather than cause a major conflict between rival nations.

At the start of this novel, Gentry is under the guidance of his ‘handler’, British royal sir Donald Fitzroy.  Fitzroy has been compromised by a group that is looking to erase Gentry and his previous deeds and to do so have taken his family captive in a chateau outside Paris.  The Fitzroy family has been given a mere 48 hours to produce Gentry --- or at least drive him from hiding --- or they will be killed.  The lead antagonist in this drama is a former American intelligence member and current attorney of Fitzroy’s Laurent Security Group known as Mr. Lloyd.  Lloyd wants Gentry eliminated for both personal and professional reasons and has gone to great lengths to ensure that this is successfully done.

Gentry is being chased by not one but twelve (12) groups of international hit-men and guerilla-types --- all of whom have been enticed by a weighty bounty that has been put out there by Mr. Lloyd for the first team that can produce Gentry’s body.  Knowing that Gentry will still be in touch with Fitzroy, given the fact that Fitzroy’s own family and young grand-children are marked for death if Gentry fails to attempt a rescue, helps to guarantee that he will turn up --- dead or alive.   Court Gentry, however, is far more resourceful than anyone gives him credit for.  For an assassin that has been ‘burned’ more than once --- he immediately flies into survival mode and the rest of THE GRAY MAN becomes a non-stop ride of death and destruction.

Gentry proves to be indestructible at every turn as each successive team of would-be assassins fails in their attempts to capture him or end his life.  He is highly skilled at weaponry and hand-to-hand combat and trained to get out of almost any precarious situation.  The inevitable show-down occurs when Gentry battles his way to the French chateau where the Fitzroy’s are being held --- and Gentry and Lloyd will have their face time at last.  THE GRAY MAN is a fast read, as Mark Greaney keeps the pace at an extremely high rate and the death count right there with it.  It would have been nice to have seen a little more character development and background --- particularly for the Courtland Gentry character.  Being that this is Greaney’s debut effort, one can only hope that as he matures as a writer these details will come and I am intrigued by what he may have in store next for The Gray Man.

 

 

 

The Darker Side by Cody McFadyen

Publisher: Bantam  ISBN-10: 0553591339

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

When FBI agent Smoky Barrett and her special team of investigators are summoned to the murder scene of a powerful politician’s child in Washington DC by the Director himself, they immediately feel the pressure of solving this case quickly and discreetly.  And while at first the reason for the murder appears to be related to the victim’s gender change from a young man to a young woman, when another murder happens on their own turf in LA bearing the same signature, they begin to suspect they have a serial on their hands.  A suspicion turned into fact when not only more bodies begin to turn up, but also videos of the victims’ tortuous deaths preceded by their last confessions on the Internet.  But being armed with the knowledge that they have a religious fanatic on their hands, one who somehow knows each victim’s darkest secrets, isn’t going to make the hunt any easier, because this is one killer who has planned it all right down to the very end, including his own capture.

While McFadyen’s first two outings in the series were pretty damned good, there’s little doubt that this third one centering on the shame of undeclared secrets, is easily his best.  Shying away from the more graphic content found previously, McFadyen now seems to be content to focus more on motives and characterizations, a decision that results in a much more powerful and emotionally satisfying read.  But beware all you guilt-ridden Catholics, lapsed or not, this also offers up some pretty frightening scenarios regarding not only the sanctity of confession, but also the “price” to be paid for not revealing all of your dirty little secrets.  Needless to say, it’s much more challenging to read a mystery that makes you squirm for the truths it reveals, as opposed to the blood and guts it graphically depicts, a quality that makes this latest one highly recommended.