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Posts Tagged ‘Clea Simon’

P.D. James’ The Mistletoe Murders was an unexpected holiday treat last year. This year, it’s Sleep No More (Knopf, digital galley), which collects six more tales from the late writer best known for her Adam Dalgliesh detective novels. No Dalgliesh in these stories, but readers will recognize James’ artful scene setting, elegant prose and ironic twists. “The Murder of Santa Claus” is a classic locked-room mystery told with a sly wink as writer Charles Mickledore looks back to Christmas 1939, when he was a lonely schoolboy shipped off to a relative’s country house. His tyrannical host lords it over his assorted guests until he is murdered shortly after making his post-midnight rounds as Santa. In “The Victim,” we know whodunit as a milk-toast librarian confesses to taking revenge on the new husband of his beautiful ex-wife. But the ending may surprise, as do those of “The Yo-Yo” and “A Most Desirable Resident,” in which murder is also seen as a means to an end.  In “Mr. Millcroft’s Birthday,” a conniving octogenerian in a senior home turns the tables on his greedy heirs. And in the creepy “The Girl Who Loved Graveyards,” an orphan’s shadowy memories of her late father and grandmother are intertwined with her affinity for cemeteries. I guessed where this one was going, but the devil’s in the details. Brrrr…

Clea Simon immerses readers and her new series sleuth,  music journalist Tara Winton, in the 1980s Boston club scene in the noir-tinged World Enough (Severn House, ARC). Tara once covered the city’s punk rock bands for fanzines that paid little but gave her needed access. Now working in a dull corporate communications job, Tara is drawn back to the heady, long-ago times when her former editor asks her to write a piece on Boston bands for his glossy city magazine. The assignment coincides with the accidental death of musician Frank Turcotte, although Tara wonders if her old friend, sober for 20 years, really just fell down the stairs. And could his death be connected to that of once rising star Chris Crack back in the day? She soon discovers that digging into the past can prove dangerous, but letting go just isn’t in her nature. Once a reporter, always a reporter. Simon knows what’s she writing about.

Actress Krysten Ritter is well-known for her roles on TV’s Breaking Bad and Marvel’s Jessica Jones, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see her playing the lead in a film adaptation of Bonfire (Crown, Archetype, digital galley). After all, Ritter wrote the book, and it’s easy to picture her as Chicago environmental lawyer Abby Williams, who returns to her Indiana hometown after 10 years to investigate its most influential employer. But looking into Optimal Plastics’ possible pollution of Barrows’ water supply and its ties to local government means Abby must confront her own past. Snubbed in high school by the popular set, Abby is rattled by her old classmates. The boy she once crushed on is now an Optimal spokesman, a former cheerleader is an assistant high school principal, a bad-boy slacker has become a responsible single dad. And then there’s Kaycee, Abby’s sometimes childhood friend, who was always at the center of things before she suddenly disappeared. Inevitably, Abby’s questions about Optimal lead to questions about Kaycee, but Ritter generates suspense and an air of immediacy with her present-tense narrative. Don’t wait for the movie.

So what are the chances of two crime novels being published within a month of each other, both featuring small-town police detectives named Gemma, each investigating the murder of a high school teacher? Nor do the similarities between Emily Littlejohn’s A Season to Lie (St. Martin’s/Minotaur, digital galley) and Sarah Bailey’s The Dark Lake (Grand Central, digital galley) end there. Both Gemmas have live-in boyfriends with whom they have a child, both face on-the-job challenges, both are attractive, determined and flawed. And both deal with bad weather, although that means different things to the detectives. Gemma Monroe (A Season to Lie) battles blizzards in Cedar Valley in Colorado, while Gemma Woodstock (The Dark Lake) has to worry about a Christmas heat wave and wildfires in the Australian town of Smithson.  A Season to Lie is the second outing for Monroe, who was six months pregnant in Littlejohn’s Inherit the Bones. Now that baby Grace is three months old, her mom is hoping to ease back into work, but on her first night back, she and her partner discover a murdered man on the snowy campus of a private high school. The victim is famous author Delaware Fuente, a visiting lecturer using an alias while at Valley Academy. Fuente has other secrets, as do the close-knit townspeople who are split over the question of development by outsiders. There’s also an anonymous bully known as Grimm, who is terrorizing the academy students. And does another death mean a serial killer is at work? It’s a neatly plotted procedural. The Dark Lake, Bailey’s first novel, is more intricate in its secret-keeping. Gemma Woodstock went to high school with beautiful Rosalind Ryan, the popular drama teacher whose drowned body is found after opening night of her modernized version of Romeo and Juliet. Past collides with present as Gemma recalls the suicide of her high school boyfriend, whose younger brother is playing Romeo. Gemma also is juggling an affair with her married partner and her homelife with staid boyfriend Scott and toddler son Ben. Bailey alternates present-day events with Gemma’s flashbacks to high school and her rivalry with Rosalind. The time jumps make for an uneven pace as the investigation unfolds, but a nail-biting showdown atop a water tower offers a killer ending.

 

 

 

 

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watersEven though I haven’t been to Venice in years, it takes only a few pages of one of Donna Leon’s police procedurals featuring Guido Brunetti to transport me back to that singular city of water and stone. The 25th book in the series, The Waters of Eternal Youth (Grove/Atlantic, digital galley), strikes me as especially atmospheric and poignant. Reminders are everywhere that Venice is sinking into the sea, and historic preservation is much on the mind of several characters, including an influential contessa who asks Brunetti a favor. Fifteen years ago, her then-teenage granddaughter Manuela suffered brain damage after almost drowning in a canal. A drunken bystander who rescued the girl said a man had pushed her, but he forgot even saying that by the next day. Manuela, now locked in eternal childhood, apparently remembers nothing. Brunetti does not expect to find anything so many years later, but a murder lends urgency to the leisurely investigation. Brunetti’s literature professor wife Paola looks up from Henry James to offer her opinions; fellow detective Claudia Griffonio befriends Manuela and reveals something of her own past; and internet expert Signorina Elletra runs interference when Brunetti’s boss becomes too interested in the case. Venice, of course, enchants.

devonshireLaura Childs’ cozy Tea Shop mysteries have such evocative, tea-flavored titles — Death by Darjeeling, Chamomile Mourning, Scones and Bones. But her new one may be my favorite: Devonshire Scream (Berkley/Penguin, digital galley). Theodosia Browning’s Indigo Tea Shop in downtown Charleston, S.C. also caters special events, such as a trunk show at her friend Brooke’s jewelry store. But a smash-and-grab heist interrupts the event and Brooke’s niece is killed by flying glass. The police suspect an international gang of thieves who have pulled similar jobs in other cities and worry that the display of a real Romanov egg at an upcoming charity event may be the real target. In between serving delicious meals at the tea shop — cranberry scones, anyone? — Theo snoops among old Charlestonians and social-climbing arrivistes, picking up gossip and trailing possible suspects. She even dons a valuable gem for the gala, hoping the thieves will find it irresistible. They do. Irresistible recipes at book’s end are the icing on the tea cake.

nurseThe title of M.C. Beaton’s latest Hamish Macbeth tale — Death of a Nurse (Grand Central Publishing, review copy) — tells us the victim, but I knew from first sighting that Gloria Dainty was doomed. That’s because the flirty nurse to elderly James Harrison has agreed to a dinner date with Hamish, and Lochdubh’s red-headed police officer has notorious bad luck with women. Sure enough, Gloria fails to appear at the appointed hour, and the irascible Harrison says she’s done a flit. Four days later, Hamish finds her body at the bottom of a beachside cliff. His investigation is hindered by interference from higher-ups and from locals who fancy themselves detectives. Meanwhile, Hamish’s current assistant, clumsy Charlie, is winning hearts right and left, to Hamish’s dismay. Fans of the witty series will be amused by the return of familiar characters and local  color, but newcomers may have trouble keeping up with characters and clues.

skeletonMystery writer Marty Wingate transplants Texas gardener Pru Parke to an English country estate in The Skeleton Plot (Alibi, digital galley), where she digs up old bones and the remains of a Nazi fighter plane left over from World War II. Surprisingly, the bones are not those of the pilot, and Pru and her police officer husband’s quest to find out the identity of the skeleton is complicated by the new murder of a villager. The plot, though, isn’t as engaging as the quirky characters — especially Pru’s hacker nephew and her standoffish cook — and the details of the gorgeous gardens and village life. Excerpts from old letters between a WWII land girl and her soldier sweetheart add atmosphere and a sense of history. A green thumbs-up.

bunniesClea Simon has two new mysteries this month. When Bunnies Go Bad (Poisoned Pen Press, digital galley) is the sixth Pet Noir tale featuring animal behaviorist and pet psychic Pru Marlowe. As for the bunnies, there’s a visiting ski bunny whose gangster boyfriend may have stolen the valuable “Bunny in the Sun” painting, and a wild rabbit named Henry who is illegally residing with an 84-year-old woman. After the gangster is murdered, Pru becomes involved in the investigation despite her cop boyfriend’s disapproval as she works with ski bunny Ginger’s pampered spaniel and tries to communicate with wild Henry. The Ninth Life (Severn House, digital galley) is another color cat altogether, and not the cozy I was expecting. It’s narrated by Blackie, who wakes up from a near-drowning to discover he’s a cat rescued by a homeless teen known as Care. I’m not much on animal narrators, but Blackie’s voice offers a unique perspective on dark street life, where throwaway kids are at the mercy of drug dealers and worse.

promurderFlorida actor and playwright Ned Averill-Snell puts his experience with small professional theaters to good use in his first self-published mystery, Small Professional Murder (paperback review copy). Tall, gangly Suzanne answers to “Spriz” (rhymes with showbiz) as head of props for a small repertory theater in the Florida town of Galilee. She’s one of the few people who can tolerate leading man Brandon Wishart, and when the actor is killed by a falling flat, she takes it upon herself to find the friendless man’s heirs. She and her costumer pal Tommy road-trip the backroads of Florida, stopping at the little theaters and playhouses where Brandon once worked. Sadly, several have fallen victim to the recent recession, and that fact, coupled with the realization that Brandon was murdered, means Spriz and Tommy need to look closer to home. Averill-Snell’s backstage tale reminded me of Simon Brett’s witty Charles Paris mysteries, and theater fans will be entertained by the antics of cast and crew. But too many props — or descriptions thereof — tend to clutter the narrative.

 

 

 

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poppetThis time last year Mo Hayder’s Gone picked up the Edgar award for best novel. Now comes the sixth in the Jack Caffery series, Poppet (Grove/Atlantic, digital galley), and it’s another winner — chilling, twisted, and oh-so-creepy. Caffery and the Bristol major crime unit are still searching for missing Misty Kitson when a series of patient suicides at the psychiatric hospital Beechwood arouses the suspicions of nurse supervisor AJ LeGrande. The deaths, several incidents of self-harming, and rumors of a terrifying apparition known as “the Maude” unsettle the staff and residents, and the hysteria extends to the community when a patient who killed his parents is mistakenly discharged. Hayder doesn’t spare graphic, gruesome details, but her demon-haunted characters, especially Caffery and diving expert Sgt. Flea Marley, drive the story.

toothCaffery’s turf isn’t far from the historic city of Bath, where Peter Lovesey’s astute, abrasive copper Peter Diamond gets a crash course in classical music in The Tooth Tattoo (Soho Press, digital galley). The body of a young Asian woman found in a Bath canal leads to a string quartet in residence. One of its former members mysteriously disappeared in Budapest four years ago, and the new violist is still adapting to his colleagues’ eccentricities when he is drawn into the police investigation of superfandom. Diamond may not know one note from another, but Lovesey obviously does, and the clever plot is enriched by the passions of its players.

perfectghostThe title of Linda Barnes’ adroit stand-alone The Perfect Ghost (St. Martin’s, digital galley) refers not to a supernatural phantom but to Em More, one-half of the successful ghost-writing team of T.E. Blakemore. When the other half, charismatic Teddy Blake, dies in a car wreck, timid-mouse Em fights her agarophobia to finish their current project, the “autobiography” of famous director Garrett Malcom. She braves Malcolm in his Cape Cod home where he is working on a new version of Hamlet, and soon falls for her charming subject even as she suspects he is harboring secrets. Replete with clever Shakespearean references, the narrative’s as tense as a tight-rope when Barnes gives it a sudden, head-spinning twist. Em’s a little bit Ophelia, a bit more Jane Eyre, and very much  herself.

fearFamous mystery writer Josephine Tey and famous movie director Alfred Hitchcock meet in Nicola Upson’s Fear in the Sunlight (HarperCollins, digital galley), the fourth in this excellent series featuring Tey as sleuth. In 1953, an American visitor’s surprise announcement forces former Chief Inspector detective Archie Penrose to recall the strange events of the summer of 1936 when Tey and her theatrical friends gathered at a resort in Wales to celebrate Tey’s 40th birthday. Hitchcock and his wife Alma arrange to meet Tey in hopes she’ll agree to a film of “A Shilling for Candles.” But Hitchcock, who delights in unsettling pranks, is upstaged by the real-life murder of a Hollywood actress in a nearby cemetery, and Penrose and Tey are left to sort out a bevy of suspects and motives. Upson neatly meshes fact and fiction, and her characterizations of Hitch and Alma appear delightfully spot-on. 

parrotsCrime briefs:  The animals, including a profane parrot, a talkative tabby and a rebellious raccoon, steal the show in Clea Simon’s entertaining new Pet Noir mystery, Parrots Prove Deadly (Poisoned Pen Press, ARC), as Pru Marlowe detects misdeeds involving a nursing home, a shady doctor and horrible heirs.

                             gordonston                                                                                                                                          I would have liked to see more of the pampered pets in Duncan Whitehead’s The Gordonston Ladies’ Dogwalking Club (Dog Ear Publishing, digital galley), in which Savannah neighbors meet for afternoon cocktails and gossip. When one of their own, Thelma Miller, dies (bless her heart), the friends hone in on the widower, and jealousies, secrets and lies lead to an unmarked grave and an overheated mystery.

TuesdaygoneNicci French follows up Blue Monday with the twisty Tuesday’s Gone (Pamela Dorman/Viking, digital galley), another tale with an off-putting beginning. But psychotherapist Frieda Klein only seems detached when she agrees to help the police investigate the case of a mentally ill woman living with an unidentified corpse. 

killowenThere are two bodies buried in the bog in Erin Hart’s layered The Book of Killowen (Scribner, digital galley). One is a well-preserved corpse from the ninth-century, the second that of a recently gone-missing TV personality with controversial views. Both present quite the puzzle for archaeologist Cormac Maguire and pathologist Nora Gavin, who are bunking at at nearby artists’ colony.

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Trapped in waiting rooms, I turn to thrillers for escape. And doctors wonder why my blood pressure’s up.

Like Joseph Kanon and Alan Furst, Mark Mills is adept at historical espionage. His atmospheric fourth novel The House of the Hunted (Random House, digital galley via NetGalley) is set in the seemingly idyllic South of France in 1935, where ex-Britsh spy Tom Nash is enjoying the good life in a villa overlooking the sea. He’s squashed memories of his violent past and lost love Irina, but when an assassin breaks into his house in the middle of the night, Nash finds old habits die hard.

Who among his circle of close friends and entertaining expats wants him dead? Nash turns spy again, suspecting a genial hotel owner, German dissidents, exiled White Russians, local police, even as his old boss, all the while nursing a crush on the daughter of said boss and closest friend. If Mary Stewart had written the book, it would have been romantic suspense from lovely Lucy’s point of view, in love with the older man she has known since childhood. As it is, Nash does his best to protect her from the secrets of the past and save both their lives in the process. A bit slow at the start, the story accelerates nicely once Nash starts driving the twisting coastal roads with a killer on his trail and yet another waiting around the next curve.

David Baldacci’s The Innocent (Grand Central Publishing, digital galley via NetGalley) is a hunting-the-hunter tale, full of cliches and contrivances. I didn’t believe a word of it, but I couldn’t put it down.

The beginning finds lonely government hitman Will Robie taking out the bad guys, no muss, no fuss, and then waiting for his next mission. He’s the consumate, patriotic professional but with his own moral compass, so the day comes when he refuses to pull the trigger on a designated target.  Then he’s on the run, and with his skill set, should be able to survive. But there’s 14-year-old Julie, who witnessed the murder of her parents. and who desperately needs his help. Aw, shucks. Chase on!

Now, you may find pet psychics and sleuthing felines to be wildly implausible, but Clea Simon has no trouble convincing me of the detecting abilities of Pru Marlow and her clever tabby Wallis. She follows up her first Pet Noir mystery, Dogs Can’t Lie, with the entertaining Cats Can’t Shoot (Poisoned Pen, paperback galley).

Horrified to be called out on a cat shooting, Pru soon discovers the white Persian isn’t the victim but the accused killer, apparently having set off an antique dueling pistol. The poor cat is so traumatized, Pru can’t tune into her thoughts, but she and Wallis trust their own instincts that there’s something fishy about the scene — and it’s not kibble.

My only quibble with Simon’s tales is the reminder of how many animals are in need of rescue and ever-after homes. But I think that’s probably a good thing.

Simon describes herself as a “recovering journalist,” which is also one of my identities, and yes, we know each other through Facebook and occasional e-mails. I don’t know Brad Parks, who describes himself as “an escaped journalist,” but I sure recognize his series sleuth, Carter Ross, an investigative reporter for a Newark, N.J., paper. You can still find cool, cocky, cynically idealistic guys like Carter in newsrooms across the country, although not in the troop strength of back-in-the-day. Look for the khakis, oxford-cloth shirt and attitude. Love ’em.

The Girl Next Door (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley through NetGalley), the third in the series, is terrific at capturing newspaper atmosphere and antics, but I wish the plot was stronger. Looking into the accidental hit-and-run death of a newspaper delivery woman for a tribute story, Carter finds evidence of foul play, perhaps dealing with the circulation department’s acrimonious labor negotiations with the tight-fisted publisher. Convinced he’s on to something despite his sexy editor Tina’s admonishments, Carter risks his career in pursuit of the story, facing such obstacles as a pretty waitress, an egghead intern built like a football player, a runaway bear, the tight squeeze of a cat door and the inside of a jail.

Carter’s snappy narration saves the day, but the interrupting scenes from the real villain’s perspective give away the killer’s identity way too soon. Too bad; this could have been a sweetheart with some rewrite.

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