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Infamous Cambridge spy Guy Burgess had a cameo earlier this year in Joseph Kanon’s Cold War novel Defectors, but he practically steals the show in John Lawton’s excellent new Inspector Troy tale, Friends and Traitors (Grove/Atlantic, library e-book). It’s the eighth book in the crime series where history regularly meets mystery as Scotland Yard’s Frederick Troy dodges bombs in World War II London (Black Out), or protects Khruschev on a 1956 UK visit (Old Flames), or is tangled in the political scandals of the  early ’60s (A Little White Death).

In this entry, Lawton plays the long game, beginning with police cadet Troy first meeting Burgess at a family dinner in 1935. Both his Russian emigre/press baron father and his older brother warn him that the charming Burgess is bad news, “queer as a coot,” a notorious gossip, a possible spy. Still, Troy is intrigued by Burgess, who keeps showing up at various venues and times before, during and after the war. Then in 1951, Burgess and Donald MacLean defect to the Soviet Union, and their betrayal, along with that of Kim Philby, upends the British intelligence community for years. And that’s still the case in 1958 when a sad and pathetic Burgess approaches Troy during a family trip to Europe and says he wants to return to England. The ensuing imbroglio in Vienna results in the shooting of an MI5 agent, and Troy must defend himself against charges of murder and treason. All of this plays out in a string of atmospheric set pieces and charged exchanges of dialogue among the well-drawn cast of friends, family, lovers and spies.

The Troy books can be read out of order as stand-alone thrillers, but you run the risk of finding out the fate of characters and cases featured in other stories. Sudden death and reversals of fortune mark Troy’s complicated professional and private life, but that just makes the series all the more rewarding.

In 1939 Prague, with the Nazis on the doorstep, a woman named Otylie hopes to save her most treasured possession — an inherited musical manuscript of unknown authorship — by tearing it into three pieces. One movement of the sonata goes to her best friend Irena, the second goes to her husband in the Resistance, and the third she keeps for herself as she flees the country. Some 60 years later, Meta, a young musicologist who trained as a concert pianist, chances on one of the sonata’s movements and sets out to find the missing pieces and reunite them with their rightful owner. She also must prove the manuscript’s authenticity and perhaps discover who authored the haunting composition.  Bach? Beethoven? Maybe Mozart or Salieri?

Bradford Morrow details Meta’s daunting quest in his new historical novel The Prague Sonata (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), and I do mean details.  The premise is fascinating, the characters interesting, the plot hopscotches in time and place — Prague, London, New York, Nebraska. But the pace is uneven, the transitions often jarring, and the narrative so weighted with detail that it tested my will to read on. Students of music and history may well be enthralled, and I was at times because Morrow is an accomplished storyteller.  (I love Trinity Fields, thought The Forgers was clever and entertaining). But, at least in this case, too much of a good thing was still too much.

Nicola Upson’s detective series featuring real-life mystery writer Josephine Tey just keeps getting better as she artfully mixes history and fiction. Fear in the Sunlight played out against the set of an Alfred Hitchcock film, while London Rain‘s backdrop was the 1937 coronation of King George VI. In the seventh book, Nine Lessons (Crooked Lane Books, digital galley), Upson draws on the real-life crimes of the Cambridge Rapist, although she has him terrorizing women in 1937 Cambridge. Josephine is house-sitting for her lover, actress Marta Hallard, who is away on business. The tension and unease in town and at the colleges is palpable as the attacks on women escalate to include murder.

At the same time, Josephine’s great friend, Scotland Yard detective Archie Penrose, is investigating a gruesome murder in a London graveyard. The trail eventually leads him to Cambridge, a college choir and a long-ago death. What makes this second story especially chilling is the discovery that the London murder is tied to a series of ghost stories by M.R. James, who taught at Cambridge. The vengeful killer takes cruel delight in replicating disturbing details of James’ spooky tales. Then there’s the big secret that Josephine is keeping from Archie that could profoundly alter their relationship.

 

 

 

 

 

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murderofmaryYes, there’s a pool of blood. Yes, Mary Russell, the intrepid young wife of Sherlock Holmes, is missing. Yes, housekeeper Clara Hudson smells gunsmoke. No, I don’t believe that Mary is dead, despite the title of Laurie R. King’s latest installment in her long-running series, The Murder of Mary Russell (Bantam, digital galley).

Still, King leaves readers in suspense and Mary’s fate up in the air shortly after she confronts an Australian visitor to her farmhouse claiming to be Mrs. Hudson’s long-lost son. Mrs. Hudson returns home from shopping to discover an empty house, a broken cup, gunsmoke, blood and no Mary. From there, King jumps back to give us Mrs. Hudson’s complicated and surprising history, beginning with the unlikely romance between her Scottish mother and seafaring father. Said dad is a charming con man and grifter, and, growing up in Australia, little Clarissa is his most apt pupil. Her talent for disguises and playacting helps her in her quest to make something of herself, despite her father and spoiled younger sister. Eventually, too, she crosses paths in London with a young Sherlock Holmes and transforms into Mrs. Hudson. But what about Mary? Soon, back at the farm, Holmes is on the case with Mrs. Hudson’s help, and Mary herself is doing her cunning best to stay alive.

Longtime fans of the series will be especially entertained by King’s take on Mrs. Hudson, and a neat little twist near book’s end hints that she’s still keeping secrets.

londonrainNicola Upson has forged a nice career as a mystery writer with her series featuring real-life mystery writer and playwright Josephine Tey. Set in the 1930s and replete with period detail, they have the atmosphere of the Golden Age mysteries of Agatha Christie and Tey herself.

In London Rain (HarperCollins, digital galley), it’s the summer of 1937, and the capital city is readying for the coronation of King George VI. Tey is in London to sit in on rehearsals at Broadcast House for the BBC radio adaptation of one of her plays. She meets Vivienne Beresford, an editor at Radio Times, and soon witnesses her public humiliation when her husband, famed announcer Anthony Beresford, is revealed to be having an affair with a well-known actress. On air during the coronation, Beresford is felled by a gunshot, and his wife is the obvious suspect. Josephine’s friend, Scotland Yard detective Archie Penrose, is handling what appears to be an open-and-shut case. But then a jailed Vivienne asks to see Josephine, a second corpse is discovered and Josephine’s theatrical connections and detecting skills come into play. Throughout, too, Josephine’s private life is complicated by her lover, actress Marta Hallard.

Upson’s psychologically astute novels make me want to go back and reread my favorite Tey mysteries: The Daughter of Time, The Franchise Affair and Brat Farrar. Talk about some twists.

 

 

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skullI’m late to the party when it comes to fall books. I missed Halloween and most of the last month due to a series of unfortunate events. Books went unread, blog posts unwritten, e-mails unanswered. Now we’re catching up: Three books aimed at kids with crossover appeal for teens and grown-ups.

The Screaming Staircase, the first entry in Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series about teen ghost detectives, was both frighteningly funny and wickedly smart. The follow-up, The Whispering Skull (Disney, digital galley) is all that and more, offering some genuine chills as Anthony, George and narrator Lucy pursue malignant spirits and evil grave robbers in an alternate London. The teens have the necessary psychic abilities — along with swords, silver chains and flash powder — to battle their supernatural foes, but they compete for business with larger, more established firms such as the Fittes agency. The rivalry is exacerbated when Scotland Yard puts both Lockwood and Fittes on the case of the mysterious “bone mirror,” stolen from the corpse of a Victorian doctor who tried to communicate with the dead. The doctor supposedly met a grisly end in a roomful of rats, but such rumors don’t explain the bullet hole in his head, nor the power of the mirror, which strikes such fear in onlookers that they go mad or die on the spot. While George researches the case, Anthony contacts an unusual source and Lucy tries to discern if a skull in a jar ever speaks the truth. Action and adventure ensue as the trio infiltrates a museum, eavesdrops on a midnight auction, leaps from rooftops and crawls through crypts. Don’t miss it.

sisterhoodI bet Julie Berry had fun writing The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place (Roaring Brook Press, library e-book), even with her tongue planted firmly in cheek. I certainly chuckled my way through this madcap murder mystery set in a Victorian boarding school for girls. The seven students, from Dear Roberta to Dour Elinor, are shocked and dismayed when their skinflint headmistress and her no-good brother both drop dead at Sunday dinner. They’re not so worried about a killer on the loose as the prospect of the school being closed and the girls sent home. Then Smooth Kitty proposes a scheme whereby they’ll cover up the murders, bury the bodies in the garden and run the school themselves. One lie leads to another as nosy neighbors keep dropping by, and before long Stout Alice is impersonating the late headmistress while her classmates go sleuthing. So clever. Such fun.

witchboyThe title character in Kelly Barnhill’s coming-of-age fantasy The Witch’s Boy (Algonquin, review copy) is also known as Ned, “the wrong boy,” because his mother’s magic saved him from drowning with his twin brother, Tam, and then bound their two souls together. Ned believes Tam should have been the one who lived; he grows up awkward, shy and unsure himself. In a nearby kingdom, the girl Aine is also suffering from the choices her father — the Bandit King — has made. Ned and Aine’s lives are linked by an ancient prophecy — “The wrong boy will save your life, and you will save his” — as well as by her father’s scheme to steal his mother’s magic. Assertive Aine and quiet Ned make for unlikely friends as they begin a quest to discover the secret of nine stone giants and prevent a devastating war. Barnhill’s lyrical language and use of classic fairy tale elements gives her involving story a magic all its own.

 

 

 

 

 

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biglittleYikes! I’ve been gone a month. Wish I could say I’d been to Fillory via Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land, but that enchanted journey still awaits. But, as in Fillory, time has passed differently for me ever since I had surgery four weeks ago. Either the anesthesia’s lingering effects have played havoc with my mind and/or it’s triggered lupus brain fog. I’m having trouble remembering both what I read before the surgery and the few books I’ve managed since then. Can’t seem to concentrate, or maybe I’ve just overdosed on middle-of-the-night reruns of Frasier.   “maybe I seem a bit confused . . . Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs!”

But it’s still summer, and the wave of books continues, more than enough to carry us into fall. Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (Putnam, digital galley) is clever escapist entertainment, constructed like a good jigsaw puzzle. Readers know from the outset that Something Terrible happened at Piriwee elementary school’s annual fundraiser. But who fell off a balcony? And  is it an accident, suicide, murder?! Moriarty takes us back six months to detail the actions of several of the school’s mothers and their assorted partners and offspring. As secrets big and little come to light, they illuminate issues of bullying, domestic abuse, snobbery and violence. It’s all good dark fun.

silkworm“Fun” is not the word to describe J.K. Rowling’s The Silkworm (Little, Brown, purchased e-book), her second Comoran Strike detective novel under the Robert Galbraith pseudonym. I read and reviewed the first one, The Cuckoo’s Calling, without knowing it was Rowling’s work, and quite enjoyed it. This time, I recognized her fingerprints — the odd names, the many literary allusions, the grotesque touches to the crime scene.  Strike and his assistant Robin make for an appealing pair; he is large and grouchy and damaged, while she is pretty, eager and engaged to someone else. Investigating the murder of a pompous author trussed and gutted like a pig, they discover motives aplenty in the back-stabbing literary world. The plot is complicated enough that I’m happy I read it before my brain got so muddled. I might need to read it again as I didn’t see the killer coming. Then again, neither did Strike until almost too late.

latescholarHave you ever wished there were more books by your favorite dead author? Jill Paton Walsh has continued the investigative adventures of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane in a stylish, pitch-perfect series. The fourth entry, The Late Scholar (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), finds Lord Peter, now the Duke of Denver, and his novelist wife returning to Oxford, which, in Sayers’ Gaudy Night, played such an important part in their lives.  So a certain nostalgia suffuses the leisurely tale as the couple meet up with old friends while trying to resolve the problem of the missing warden of St. Severin’s College, whose members are divided over the proposed sale of an ancient manuscript with ties to King Alfred. More than one visit to the Bodleian library and Blackwell’s bookstore are in order, as are apropos references to professors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I think Sayers would approve.

lucykyteI’m not so sure how the very private Josephine Tey would feel about Nicola Upson’s series in which Tey herself turns detective, but these traditional British mysteries offer complex plots and vivid 1930s period detail. The fifth, The Death of Lucy Kyte (HarperCollins, digital galley), is set in the Suffolk countryside, where Tey has inherited a rundown cottage from her actress godmother, Hester Larkspur. Red Barn Cottage comes complete with a  nearby notorious murder, a possible ghost and Hester’s papers, which may well reveal more secrets about the author’s life and mysterious death. Speaking of mysterious, who is Lucy Kyte, who is also named in Hester’s will, and where on earth is she?

 

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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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When writer Robert B. Parker died in January of 2010, I was still a couple of weeks from launching this blog. Otherwise, I’d have been one of the many remembering Parker, who created tough-but-tender Boston P.I. Spenser in 1971’sThe Godwulf Manuscript. It was the beginning of a long-running series that revived detective fiction, linking the classic to the contemporary.

Many of the affectionate tributes were from writers whom he’d influenced or journalists who had interviewed him over the years; everyone it seemed had a “Bob” story to share.  I had one as well — he was the first big-name mystery writer I ever interviewed, back in 1983, at the annual book/publishing  covention known then as the ABA for American Booksellers Association. Now it’s BEA — BookExpo America — and it’s going on this week in New York City, and yes, I kind of miss it because it was an opportunity to meet writers whose books I admired and enjoyed.

The 1983 ABA in Dallas was my first, and I couldn’t understand why there were only a couple of other reporters at Parker’s late afternoon press conference. For that matter, I was the only one asking real questions. Didn’t other people know who this guy was? They did, but unlike me, they knew to to arrange ahead of time for one-on-one interviews.

Actually, mine turned into just that, because when the allotted 15-20 minutes were up, Parker and I left the press room still in deep conversation about hard-boiled crime fiction, Raymond Chandler, Boston (my parents had just moved back to S.C. after seven years in the area), the Red Sox, English lit, and, of course, Spenser. He could tell I was a fan, and we ended up in a couple of comfy chairs and continued talking until his publicist found us and carried him off to some party or dinner in his honor. He said he looked forward to our next meeting. I said, “me too — and the next Spenser.”

There were a few more meetings and a lot more Spensers, as well as two more detective series (Jesse Stone, Sunny Randall), several westerns and historical novels –60 or so books in all. I just finished what I think is the last one, No. 39 in the Spenser series, Sixkill.

It’s not great Spenser, but it’s pretty good, and much better than the few in the late middle that read as if Parker phoned them in. Hawk, Spenser’s laconic, violent sidekick, is in Singapore, alas, but Spenser still has long-time love Susan Silverman to cook for and banter with. And when police pal Quirk asks for help on a case, Spencer also begins training a new squire to his white knight.

Zebulon Sixkill, “Z,” is the Cree Indian bodyguard to badass actor Jumbo Fisher, on location in Boston and the No.1 suspect in a girl’s death in his hotel room. Jumbo sics Z on nosy Spenser, who easily takes out the former football player/bouncer without real fighting skills. Jumbo fires Z, and Spenser steps in as his new mentor. Maybe Z will eventually tell him what really went down with the girl, but Spenser also sees the potential coil of controlled violence. Before long Z’s becoming a toughened warrior, and he’s got Spenser’s back when the mob comes calling.

It’s too bad we won’t see more adventures with the new wingman, and way sad no more Spenser. Going to miss the snap-crackle-pop dialogue, the bullet-paced narratives, the moral compass that Spenser lived by.

Parker died at his desk at age 77.  Really miss him. I’ll probaby go back and reread some of the Spensers from time to time, and I saw the new Jesse Stone TV movie with Tom Selleck last night. Also, I’ve settled in with another old friend, Lawrence Block. His new Matthew Scudder — No. 17 — finds the ex-cop-turned P.I., recovering alcoholic looking back to his days on the job in the early ’70s and one case in particular. Equal parts loss and redemption, it’s aptly titled A Drop of the Hard Stuff. Recommended.

Open Book: I downloaded the e-book version of Robert B. Parker’s Sixkill (Penguin Group) to my nook. I’m reading a digital galley edition through NetGalley of Lawrence Block’s A Drop of the Hard Stuff (Little, Brown).

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January 6 has long been considered the birthday of the great detective Sherlock Holmes by members of the Baker Street Irregulars, the foremost society of Holmes’ scholars and enthusiasts. That Holmes is the fictional creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle matters not. As T.S. Eliot wrote in a 1929 review of  The Complete Sherlock Holmes Short Stories, “Perhaps the greatest of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries is this: that when we talk of him we invariably fall into the fancy of his existence.”

This apt quotation appears at the beginning of Chapter 22, “The Great Hiatus,” of Graham Moore’s entertaining novel, The Sherlockian, in which several games are afoot. Additional quotations, many of them from the canon itself, introduce the other chapters, which briskly alternate between January of 2010 and the time when Doyle was writing the Holmes stories — or rather not writing them.

 As even the most amateur Sherlockians know, Doyle killed off Holmes in December of 1893 in “The Final Problem,” a showdown with Moriarty at Reichenbech Falls. The author refused to comment as the world mourned. Then, eight years later, Doyle resurrected Holmes in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” again without explanation.

What may have occured in this hiatus is the key fictional mystery of The Sherlockian, as it is the real-life question that still perplexes Holmes scholars. As Moore explains in his Author’s Note, his book is a “a collage of the verifiably real, the probably real, the possibly real, and the demonstrably false.” And it’s fact that a collection of Doyle’s papers vanished, including a volume of his diaries, after his death in 1930. Sherlockians’ search for it became tantamount to that of the holy grail for the next 70 years, and a famous scholar in pursuit of the missing papers died under mysterious circumstances in 2004.

In Moore’s The Sherlockian, the world’s leading Holmes/Doyle scholar declares that he has discovered the lost diary, but he is murdered in his hotel room during the annual gathering of the Baker Street Irregulars. Its newest inductee, Harold White, is our intrepid hero who determines to solve the murder and locate the still-missing diary. Other members are also testing their deductive skills, but it is Harold and a reporter named Sarah who set off for London at the behest of one of Doyle’s heirs.

Meanwhile, in the foggy London autumn of 1900 — the period covered by the missing diary — Doyle and his friend Bram Stoker (not yet famous for Dracula) become embroiled in the case of a serial killer of young brides and attempt to assist Scotland Yard in its investigations.

There’s all sorts of hugger-mugger involving Harold and Sarah, and Doyle and Stoker. The latter pair are more interesting, and Moore skillfully evokes the Victorian era giving way to the new century, symbolized by the introduction of electric lights to gloomy city streets. Doyle misses the old gaslights and their shadows. Harold even admits at one point that he feels more at home in 1895 London than in the modern city.

That all Sherlockians are romantics is elementary. It’s Moore’s aplomb at tapping into their desire to seek a puzzle’s solution, with the perfect quotation ever at the ready, that makes this tale such an engaging fusion of history and mystery. Maybe not the great game but a fun one.

Open Book: My copy of  The Sherlockian by Graham Moore (Twelve/Hachette Book Group) was a gift from Santa. I rather think that my first copies of the Sherlock Holmes adventures were, too, and read by flashlight under the covers. Or maybe I got them for my birthday.

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