An urban fox prowls Hexham Place in Ruth Rendell’s cunning new ensemble piece, The St. Zita Society (Scribner, purchased e-book). The fox doesn’t care if the dustbins hold the detritus of the street’s tony residents or their various servants; he’s an equal-opportunity scavenger. So, too, is Rendell as she slyly details the intertwined upstairs-downstairs lives – the lazy au-pair who acts as two lovers’ go-between; the uptight business executive who keeps his car and driver on call; the elderly faux-aristocrat and her equally aged companion; the widowed Muslim nanny who dotes on her youngest charge; the gay couple who treats a tenant like a servant; the gardener who sips Guinness and thinks a god is talking to him through a cell phone; the young chauffeur sleeping with his employer’s daughter — and her mother.
Early on, Rendell notes a shaky bannister on some tall steps. It’s like introducing a gun in the first act; you know it’s going to go off in the third. Sure enough, the bannister plays a part in a sudden death, but the victim is a surprise, as is the cover-up that follows and turns one character into Lady Macbeth. As for the St. Zita Society, it’s a loose club of the servants named after the patron saint of domestic help. The members meet at the pub to air their grievances until the disappearance of a soap opera actor who’s a regular Hexam Street visitor really gives them something to talk about. The well-orchestrated conclusion is stunning.
Emily Arsenault’s new mystery novel Miss Me When I’m Gone (Morrow, digital galley via edelweiss) sounds like it might be a country song, which is only fitting. Gretchen Waters had a surprise bestseller with her memoir, Tammyland, in which she explored her life in the context of country music stars such as Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn. After Gretchen is found dead at the bottom of a library’s concrete stairs, her family asks her college friend, Jamie Madden, to be her literary executor. A former reporter, pregnant Jamie is working as a part-time copy editor, and while pulling together pieces of Gretchen’s second book, she realizes her friend’s research into family history may have led to her death.
The story is told by Jamie, but is interspersed with chapters from Tammyland, as well as the notes and excerpts from Gretchen’s unfinished manuscript. The whole is finely written and observed, as Arsenault delves into friendship, motherhood, identity, jealousy and violence. These same themes are reflected in the Tammyland sections, as Arsenault, via Gretchen, ponders how the messy lives of the stars spilled into their greatest hits. The only thing missing is a sound track.
Elly Griffiths’ mysteries featuring Ruth Galloway, an English forensic anthropologist and now single mom, just keep getting better. In A Room Full of Bones (Houghton Mifflin, library hardcover), Ruth’s examination of a medieval bishop’s coffin and of a small museum’s collection of bones from Australia are part of a complex plot of murder and superstition. Although it can stand on its own, the suspenseful book continues to reveal the personal problems of assorted series regulars, including archaeologists, police detectives and an enigmatic druid.
Open Book: You know me — why read read just three mysteries when you can read six or eight. I also enjoyed Jean Zimmerman’s rousing historical tale, The Orphanmaster (Penguin, digital galley via NetGalley), set in 1663 New Amsterdam — the future Manhattan; Cornelia Read’s involving Valley of Ashes (Grand Central Publishing, digital galley via NetGalley), in which former socialite Madeline Dare contends with toddler twins, a failing marriage, a part-time newspaper job and a series of arsons in Boulder; Meg Cabot’s fun Size 12 and Ready to Rock (Morrow; paperback review copy), featuring former pop star Heather Wells and her detective boyfriend caught up in a reality TV murder; Sara Foster’s chilling Beneath the Shadows (St. Martin’s, digital galley via NetGalley), in which a young mother returns to the snowy North Yorkshire moors where her husband vanished; and Alex Grecian’s gritty The Yard (Penguin, digital galley via NetGalley), set in a Victorian London still haunted by the Ripper and faced with the murder of a Scotland Yard detective. Now to start on Julia Keller’s A Killing in the Hills.