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Posts Tagged ‘Alan Bradley’

reckoningCable TV shows — Motive, Murder in the First, Major Crimes — got me through the summer, and now it’s back to the books. A flurry of new crime novels last month soon turned into a bit of a blizzard. That’s fine — it’s still hot and steamy here in Florida, and I appreciate the chill of ice and snow, if only on the page.

Winter is not just coming, it’s fast upon the Quebec village of Three Pines in Louise Penny’s A Great Reckoning (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover). Former Chief Inspector Armand Gamache comes out of retirement to whip the national police academy into shape, searching for long-rooted corruption. An old map literally found in the walls of Three Pines figures into the expertly plotted puzzle, as does the murder of an authoritarian professor, Gamache’s interest in a fierce young cadet, and the almost forgotten lives of World War I soldiers. Loss shrouds the winter-haunted village, but also the possibility of forgiveness. This is my new favorite in the series, right up there with the piercing How the Light Gets In.

brinded-catBooted from boarding school in Canada, intrepid girl detective Flavia de Luce is delighted to be returning home to her crumbling English home Buckshaw in time for Christmas. But what should be a joyous homecoming in Alan Bradley’s clever Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mewed (Ballantine/Random House, digital galley) turns bleak when Flavia learns her beloved father, the Colonel, is in hospital with pneumonia. Unable to be at his bedside, Flavia tears off on an errand aboard her trusty bicycle Gladys and comes upon the body of a woodcarver hanging upside down from his bedroom door. “It’s amazing what the discovery of a corpse can do for one spirits,” thinks Flavia, seizing on the unusual clue of famous children’s books in the dead man’s possession. The curious cat also on the scene may be the companion of a rumored witch across the road, and that’s just beginning of a curious mystery in need of Flavia’s detecting skills.

sorrowJulia Keller writes atmospheric mysteries set in the mountains of West Virginia, and Acker’s Gap, the hardscrabble hometown of prosecutor Bell Elkins, is practically a character in the series. Sorrow Road (St. Martin’s Minotaur, digital galley) is as chilly as its eye-catching cover, with several snowstorms impeding Bell’s investigation of a law school colleague’s death on an icy road, as well as her daughter Carla’s oral history project for the library. A nursing home where many of the residents have dementia ties several plot points together, including the murder of a staff member and the questionable deaths of several patients. Keller intersperses the present story with a past one about three local boys going off to fight World II and being together on D-Day.

 

wishtrueI grew up in a Charlotte, N.C. subdivision very like fictional Sycamore Glen in Marybeth Mayhew Whalen’s The Things We Wish Were True (Lake Union, digital galley), and I can almost smell the chlorine at the neighborhood pool. It’s the social hub during sultry summer days, kids cannon-balling off the diving board, mothers trading suntan lotion and gossip, young teens hanging out. In Whalen’s story, told from multiple points-of-view, an accident at the pool disturbs the seemingly placid surface of Sycamore Glen, revealing secret undercurrents. It’s not a conventional mystery but rather a domestic/neighborhood drama with elements of suspense. Think Liane Moriarty (Truly Madly Guilty) or Lisa Jewell (The Girls in the Garden), only in an all-American small-town. Zell is the middle-aged empty nester who keeps an eye on the single dad next door and knows more than she’s letting on about his runaway wife. Jencey, hunted by a stalker in high school, returns 15 years later, her country-club life in ruins. Her former best friend Bryte is now happily married to Jencey’s high school boyfriend. Then there’s Cailey, the young girl who lives in a rental house, and the older single man across the street who takes care of his elderly mother. Whalen deftly weaves their lives together, and if some events are predictable, others surprise. Things are not what they seem in The Things We Wish Were True, the September selection of the She Reads online book club.

darkestBe happy you weren’t invited to philandering land developer Sean Jackson’s 50th birthday party, which ended in disaster when Coco, one of his three-year-old twins, mysteriously vanished into the night, never to be seen again. This was in 2004, and now in the present day, Mila Jackson, 27, receives word of her estranged father’s scandalous death. All the houseguests at the ill-fated weekend will be at the funeral, except for her stepmother, Claire, who asks Mila to take teenage Ruby, the surviving twin. In The Darkest Secret (Penguin, library paperback), Alex Marwood skillfully uses flashbacks to tease out and eventually reveal (perhaps) what actually happened to young Coco. So readers do wind up at the scene of the crime, so to speak, privy to the bickering between narcissistic Sean and insecure Claire, and where the self-involved adults plan how to keep the handful of kids quiet while they party into the wee hours.  It’s not pretty, nor is the funeral gathering, where someone else ends up dead.

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bleedingheartArthur Bryant and John May of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit are Golden Age detectives untarnished by the modern era. Irascible Bryant, who looks like an ancient tortoise, is especially disdainful of modern technology; voodoo makes more sense to him than cell phones. Wily John May is somewhat younger and less fusty but knows his partner’s instincts and esoteric knowledge are invaluable. Still, the elderly duo are under pressure again from the higher-ups to prove their relevance or risk defunding. But, seriously, who else are you going to call when a star-gazing teen in a cemetery swears a corpse has arisen from its grave and started a conversation? Or when seven ravens vanish from the Tower of London, and mythology has it that their departure signals Britain’s downfall?

These two cases surprisingly intersect in Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May and the Bleeding Heart (Bantam/Random House, library hardcover), the delightful 11th installment in the entertaining series. A murder and a presumed suicide lead the detectives to St. Georges Gardens, a small park with ancient graves and a few spaces reserved for new residents. From there it’s a hop and skip to the local undertaker, rumors of black magic, a secret society and the reappearance of the Victorian-era body-snatchers known as the resurrection men. One of the series’ ongoing pleasures, in addition to its endearingly eccentric protagonists, is the way in which Fowler incorporates arcane bits of London history into his clever, convoluted plots. Here we get the chilling legend of Bleeding Heart Yard. Shiver. . .

chimneyA mummified body falling out of a bedroom chimney heralds 12-year-old Flavia de Luce’s arrival at a Canadian boarding school — Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy — in 1951. The precocious sleuth could hardly ask for more from her late mother Harriet’s alma mater after being “banished” from her beloved Buckshaw home in England. “Banished!” Flavia intones at the beginning of Alan Bradley’s As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (Delacorte Press, digital galley). “There is no sadder word in the English language. The very sound of it — like echoing iron gates crashing closed behind you; like steel  bolts being shot shut — makes your hair stand on end, doesn’t it?”

It takes a lot to unnerve the irrepressible Flavia, as readers of the six previous mysteries well know, so even the dislodging of the aforementioned corpse and the subsequent detachment of its skull only serve to intrigue her, as do the presence of an an acquitted murderess on the faculty and the mysterious disappearance of several fellow students. Is Miss Bodycote’s haunted? Is the stern headmistress friend or foe? Is the locked chemistry lab hiding dark secrets? Flavia is on the case in one of her most appealing adventures yet.

foxgloveBen Aaronovitch is a former screenwriter for Doctor Who, which helps explain his wild and witty paranormal police procedurals featuring detective Peter Grant.  The matter-of-fact manifestation of magic in everyday life came as a surprise to the young police constable in the first book in the series, Midnight Riot. But by now, in the fifth book, Foxglove Summer (DAW, purchased e-book), Grant is a semi-experienced junior wizard, dispatched by his mentor Nightingale to check out a missing persons case in rural Hertfordshire.

Two girls — best friends Nicole and Hannah — have vanished on a moonlit night, and Grant’s supposed to make sure nothing supernatural is involved. Purely routine, until it isn’t, with a mention that one of the girls had an “imaginary friend.” Before long, Grant is researching local folklore as to fairies, while the locals hone in on alien abductions. A retired wizard turns out to live in the vicinity, and there’s certainly something odd about his beekeeper daughter, who reports her bees are avoiding a certain part of the river. The foxgloves — source of digitalis — are blooming profusely. It’s a mash-up midsummer night’s dream of a mystery, and I couldn’t stop reading. Or grinning.

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saintsAfter finishing Ian Rankin’s Exit Music a few years ago, I really hoped we hadn’t seen the last of Edinburgh police detective John Rebus, even if he had reached the force’s mandatory retirement age. Thankfully, it was a metaphorical Reichenbach Falls for Rebus, who next appeared as a civilian consultant working cold cases in Standing in Another Man’s Grave, one of 2013’s  best crime novels. And now in the riveting Saints of the Shadow Bible (Little, Brown, digital galley), Rebus returns to the force, the age ban having been lifted. Still, he’s a bit of a grumpy dinosaur having been downgraded to a DS,  and working on an apparently routine traffic accident.  Then his nemesis, internal affairs DI Malcolm Fox, asks for his cooperation reopening a 30-year investigation involving Rebus and a group of cowboy cops called “the Saints” who had their own rules back in the day.

How different, really, is the old Rebus from the  young one? As Rankin deftly intertwines the car wreck and the old murder trial with current Scottish politics and a new generation of enterprising crooks and cops, we see Rebus contending with loyalties past and present, as well as changes in policing.  At one point he turns on a reluctant suspect: “I’m from the eighties, Peter — I’m not the new-fangled touchy-feely model. Now get out of my fucking car!”

invisibleTalking dinosaurs, you can’t get more prehistoric than elderly London detectives Arthur Bryant and John May of  the Peculiar Crimes Unit, whose eccentricities match those of the unusual cases they take on. In Christopher Fowler’s witty charmer The Invisible Code (Bantam, digital galley), the duo somehow connect the sudden, seemingly inexplicable death of a young woman in a church and the odd behavior of a Home Office politician’s beautiful wife with witchcraft, black magic, general devilment and matters of national security. Fowler never condescends to his characters or readers, threading his puzzles with quirky facts about London history and that of the PCU. An ancient pathologist, Bryant’s landlady and the cat called Crippen add to the three-ring atmosphere.

vaultedIf you have not yet succumbed to the delights of Alan Bradley’s series featuring precocious junior sleuth Flavia de Luce, do yourself a favor and don’t start with the sixth book, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (Random House Publishing Group, digital galley). You need to go back at least one or two books to Speaking from Among the Bones and I Am Half-Sick of Shadows to catch up on the de Luce family history, the moldering mansion Buckshaw, Flavia’s penchant for poisons and detecting (an excess of high spirits got her kicked out the Girl Guides). There’s also the matter of missing mother Harriet, who vanished on a Himalayan expedition in 1941, and whose absence has defined Flavia as an “extraordinary” person. It’s 10 years later as the new book opens, Harriet has been found and Flavia is faced with becoming ordinary. Ha! Harriet’s homecoming is marred by the death of a strange man under a train, the arrival of distant relatives, experiments with reanimation and film restoration, suspicions of espionage and portents of an unexpected future. For series fans, it’s a fun bridge to the further adventures of Flavia. I can hardly wait for the next installment. O Canada!

huntingEarly on in Charles Todd’s Hunting Shadows (HarperCollins, digital galley), Scotland Yard’s Inspector Ian Rutledge gets lost in a shrouding fog on the Fens. That he can’t see a foot in front of him on the dangerous terrain is emblematic of his ensuing investigation into two baffling deaths. It’s August of 1920, and a sniper — presumably a veteran of the Great War like Rutledge — has claimed two victims two weeks apart. One is an Army officer awaiting a wedding at Ely Cathedral; the other a politician giving a speech in a nearby village. There’s no discernible connection between the two, and Rutledge is indeed hunting shadows, especially after one woman recounts seeing a “monster” in a window. As always, he is haunted by his memories of the war and the ghost of the soldier Hamish. The result is a thoughtful mystery rich in atmosphere.

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goodbaitI can’t remember. Is the dead body encased in ice at the beginning of John Harvey’s Good Bait, or is it in Sara J. Henry’s A Cold and Lonely Place? Oh, yes, it’s in both, although not, of course, the same frozen corpse.

In Good Bait (Pegasus, digital galley via NetGalley)), the discovery of the body of a Moldavan teenager on Hampshire Heath jumpstarts DCI Karen Shields’ homicide investigation, which will eventually tie into Cornwall detective Trever Cordon’s search for a missing prostitute.

Both cases, which alternate by chapter, are confusing, and Cordon’s strains credibility. Still, the deft stand-alone from Harvey is especially strong in its characterizations; it’s also the third novel I’ve read in a month (after David Baldacci’s The Innocent and Peter Robinson’s Waiting in the Dark) dealing with human trafficking. Without realizing it, the writers are upping each other when it comes to horrific details.

henryHenry’s A Cold and Lonely Place (Crown, digital galley via NetGalley) is the sequel to her compulsively readable Learning to Swim, which introduced free-lance reporter Troy Chase. Here, Troy, who lives in Lake Placid, is covering the preparation for the Winter Ice Carnival at Saranac Lake when the ice cutters see the shadow of a man underneath the ice. Troy recognizes Tobin Winslow, the frat-boy slacker boyfriend of her roommate, Jessamyn, who had made a habit of dropping in and out of town and Jessamyn’s life. Was his death an accident, suicide or murder?

Partly to help Jessamyn, and then Troy’s sister, as well as to write an investigative story, Troy delves into the secret lives of Tobin and his wealthy family. A long-ago drowning suggests a connection, but so do events in Lake Placid with its transient population of snow jocks and Olympics trainees.

Henry writes with the crispness of a journalist, and her appealing characters (some returning from her first novel) and the well-drawn atmosphere make up for a rather undernourished plot. I want more of Troy, her faithful dog and a certain out-of-town detective.

flavia5“History is like the kitchen sink,” observes a character in Alan Bradley’s Speaking from among the Bones (Random House, digital galley via NetGalley). “Everything goes round and round until, eventually, sooner or later, most of it goes down the waste pipe. Things are forgotten. Things are mislaid. Things are covered up. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of neglect.”

Nothing would ever be lost if it were up to precocious 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, who cooks up poisons in her late uncle’s lab in her ancestral home Buckshaw and who wheels around her 1950s English village on a bicycle named Gladys, digging up mysteries at every turn. In her fifth outing, Flavia’s actual digging reveals an underground tunnel leading to a burial vault beneath the village church. It also leads to one of the book’s funniest scenes — when muddy Flavia rises from a grave in the churchyard and frightens the vicar’s wife. Of course, she has a good excuse for being there, as she hopes to discover who killed the church organist and perhaps recover a valuable jewel from an ancient bishop’s grave, which may keep Buckshaw from bankruptcy.

Oh, Flavia, she’s so delightfully sneaky, shivering with delight when Inspector Hewitt tells her that there are dangerous killers on the loose, “the words which every amateur sleuth lives in eternal hope of hearing.”  No surprise she was sacked from the Girl Guides “for having an excess of high spirits.” This high-spirited tale, though, offers quite a few surprises, including new information about Flavia’s missing mother, Harriet. More, please.

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I can’t decide what is my favorite part of Alan Bradley’s I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, the new mystery featuring 11-year-old amateur sleuth Flavia de Luce.

Is it when curious Flavia discovers the body in the middle of the night while prowling through Buckshaw, the dilapidated English estate where she lives with her father, the Colonel, and her irksome older sisters, Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy)? Or is it right before this when the villagers gathered at Buckshaw to watch scenes from Shakespeare performed by a visiting film crew realize they’re snowed in by a Christmas Eve blizzard?

Possibly it’s when Flavia takes it upon herself to sneak back to the scene of the crime and investigate at her leisure, discovering important clues. Or maybe it’s when her plan to catch Father Christmas in the act goes awry on the snowy roof of Buckshaw when confronted by a killer. Or it could be when the fireworks Flavia has concocted in her laboratory finally detonate.

Oh, it’s all such fun. I’ve enjoyed precocious Flavia’s detecting adventures ever since Bradley introduced her in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, also set in post-WWII England. Think Agatha Christie meets Nancy Drew and Encylopedia Brown. The other two Flavia books — A Red Herring Without Mustard and The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag — are also entertaining, but I think this new one is my favorite.

Maybe it’s the relationship among the three sisters. Or maybe it’s because readers find out more about the Colonel and  his late wife Harriet. Maybe it’s the witty writing, the amusing characters, the neat plotting. Or all the literary references. . .

Really, the only thing I truly dislike is having to wait another year for a new Flavia book.

Open Book: I borrowed a hardcover copy of Alan Bradley’s I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (Random House Publishing Group) from the Edisto Beach Public Library and read it the next-to-last-afternoon of the year.

 

 

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I didn’t make a year-end list of recommendations for 2009 because I was too busy trying to get this blog going. (And it was the holidays, too). But now several of my favorite books from last year are out in paperback. I see that that they are all mysteries of one kind or another, but each is so different from another. Still, they all surprise.

When Will There Be Good News?  by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown): A great title for a great literary mystery that begins with a scene of shocking violence in the English countryside, then skips ahead 30 years to catch up with the 6-year-old witness and survivor. Her happy life intersects in unusual ways with a cast of well-drawn characters, including motherless mother’s helper Reggie, police inspector Louise Monroe and the always intriguing detective Jackson Brodie.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (Random House): Agatha Christie meets Harriet the Spy in the personage of 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, who as an aspiring chemist has a familiarity with plants, potions and poisons. But her experiments with a rash-inducing face cream for her older sister can’t compete with her discovery of  a dying stranger in the garden. When her father, the stamp-collecting Colonel, is implicated in the man’s murder, Flavia is not above picking locks, eavesdropping on her elders and figuring out clues, including a dead bird on the doorstep. Clever girl! 

 

The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly (Grand Central Publishing): This sequel to The Poet, one of the best serial killer novels ever, finds LA Times investigative reporter Jack McEvoy forced to not only take a buy-out but also to show the ropes to his attractive rookie replacement. The two think they’ve found a good story when a drug-dealing teen supposedly confesses to a horrific murder, but that’s just the beginning of the bloodletting as Connelly unravels a twisty tale that also pays homage to the struggling daily newspaper industry and its ink-stained wretches. Give this to your favorite reporter, or former reporter as the case may well be.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill): In chilly 1907 Wisconsin, a wealthy widower sends for a mail-order bride, “a reliable wife.” But what he gets is a woman with her own secret agenda — and he knows it. “This begins in a lie,” he says. More lies follow, as does treachery and desire in a downright shivery novel. A good winter’s tale. 

 

 

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton (Atria/Simon & Schuster): Combination family saga and English Gothic, Morton’s follow-up to the very good The House at Riverton reveals its secrets slowly. On her 21st birthday, Nell learns that her Australian parents adopted her as a 4-year-old left behind on a ship from England in 1913. No one ever claims the child with the small suitcase containing a few anonymous items and a book of fairy tales. Eventually, Nell travels to England’s Cornish coast and Blackhurst Manor in quest of her true identity. But it is left to her granddaughter Cassandra to finally link Nell to the mysterious Montrachet family, “the forgotten garden” and the enchanting book.

Open Book: I received a review copy of The Good Wife from the publisher, checked out The Scarecrow from the library, and bought copies of the other three.

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