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Posts Tagged ‘P.D. James’

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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smokeMystery writers are magicians of sorts, constructing clever puzzles, misdirecting our attention, dazzling us with their verbal sleight of hand. They also juggle characters and clues, and, sometimes, different series. Elly Griffiths, best known for her Ruth Galloway series, introduced the “Magic Men” mysteries with last year’s clever The Zig Zag Girl. The follow-up, Smoke and Mirrors (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), captivates as police detective Edgar Stephens and magician Max Mephisto hunt for a killer in early 1950s Brighton. It’s December, and the crime scene is straight out of Hansel and Gretel, with a trail of broken candy leading to the snow-covered corpses of young Annie and her best pal Mark. The fairy tale connections continue as Edgar learns that talented Annie liked to write plays based on Grimm for her classmates to perform, and other clues link to the pantomime Aladdin, in which Max is starring. The frantic holiday vibe, the theatrical backdrop, the colorful characters and the bleak weather add up to a moody mystery. Abracadabra, indeed!

wrongsideMichael Connelly takes a walk on the noir side in his new Harry Bosch novel, beginning with the title The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Little, Brown, digital galley). Then Harry, now retired from the LAPD and working part-time as a PI, goes calling on money — wealthy aviation tycoon Whitney Vance, 85 and in failing health. He wants Harry to find out what happened to the Mexican teen he got pregnant when he was a USC student 65 years ago and who then vanished. Is Vibiana still living and did she have the baby? Does he have a heir? Sworn to secrecy, Harry begins a dogged search for possible Vance descendants, a hunt that takes him to a one-time home for unwed mothers and his own past as a Vietnam vet. Meanwhile, Harry, who is also a reserve police officer for the city of San Fernando, is on the case of the “Screen Ripper,” a serial rapist with an unusual m.o. The parallel stories don’t intersect, except that Harry’s time and loyalties are divided between the two cases, both of which offer surprises and coincidences. Nice work.

mistletoeHere’s an unexpected treat: The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories (Knopf, digital galley) brings together four previously uncollected short stories by the great P.D. James, who died in 2014. In the stellar title tale, an elderly writer remembers a memorable wartime Christmas, when a fellow houseguest — an antiques dealer — was bludgeoned to death. The conclusion of this  cold case is a chilling twist. Two of the stories feature detective Adam Dalgliesh and pay homage to Christie and Holmes. In the wry “The Boxdale Inheritance,” Dalgliesh’s godfather asks him to investigate the source of family money — did Great Aunt Allie really poison her elderly husband and get away with it? “The Twelve Clues of Christmas” involves a young Dalgliesh showing local coppers how he’d solve a case. “A Very Commonplace Murder” is less Golden Age mystery and more of a creepy Hitchcockian tale as a voyeur spies on his neighbor’s illicit trysts, which end in murder. Oh, I miss P.D. James.

lostboySwedish crime writer Camilla Lackberg’s The Lost Boy (Pegasus, digital galley) combines a solid police procedural with a haunting backstory in a shivery tale of murder, drugs, grief and ghosts. Detective Patrik Hedstrom and his true-crime writer wife, Erica, should be enjoying their infant twin sons. But Erica’s sister’s loss of a baby has plunged her into months-long depression, and misfortune seems to fog the very air of Fjallbacka. Then the financial officer of soon-to-open hotel-spa is murdered, and his death leads to secrets from his past in Stockholm, shocking his elderly parents and his childhood sweetheart fleeing her abusive husband. Also in play are a couple of con artists, a violent biker gang, drug dealers high and low, and an island of ghosts. Really.

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Every time I read another “Best of” list, I add to my “Dear Santa” list. I don’t read enough different kinds of books anymore to name any one “the best.”  Of course, I’ve read lots of good books lately, hence this blog. Come the holidays, though, and I find myself putting ribbons and bows on a select few, my favorites for my favorite people.

Several friends will be getting copies this year of Chad Harbaugh’s  The Art of Fielding (Little, Brown),  an old-fashioned first novel about baseball and college, love, friendship and obsession. Henry is the unassuming star shortstop for Westish College, a small Wisconsin school on Lake Michigan. Herman Melville once paid a visit and gave a lecture, sparking the literary career of Guert Afflenlight, a former Harvard humanities prof who’s now college president.

The Harpooners have a shot at the national championship, and the pro scouts have their eye on Henry. Then he makes a surprising errant throw, which knocks out Owen, his brilliant gay roommate and teammate, and leads to a sequence of surprising events. Affenlight falls in love with injured Owen; Henry loses confidence in his game; Pella Affenlight, the president’s prodigal daughter, finds herself involved with Mike Schwartz, team leader and Henry’s mentor, and with Henry himself.

Early on, a pro scout notes that “Henry can flat-out play.” Harbaugh can flat-out write.

P.D. James meets Jane Austen in Death Comes to Pemberley (Knopf).  Really! And really good!

Somehow I never thought to put two of my favorite authors togther, but thank goodness James, now 91, set aside detective Adam Dalgliesh to write this delightful homage to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Of course, Austen sequels, prequels, mash-ups and rip-offs are a cottage industry these days; I’m generally wary, but James puts on a very good show, indeed.

Wouldn’t you know that the infamous Wickham, married to Elizabeth Bennet Darcy’s sister Lydia, would return to cause trouble? A mysterious shooting in the woods near Pemberley on a stormy night threatens the happiness of Elizabeth and Darcy, plus Jane and Bingley. James provides the necessary background to this “odious” event, and plots a twisting mystery with a satisfying resolution. The witty writing is spot-on:

“A murder in the family can provide a frisson of excitement at fashionable dinner parties, but little social credit can be expected from the brutal despatch of an undistinguished captain of the infantry, without money or breeding to render him interesting.”

Other 2011 favs that may yet find themselves under the tree were Victoria Roth’s Divergent, an exciting YA dystopian novel that won Goodreads’ book of the year; Lev Grossman’s The Magician Kings, a fine fantasy that builds on the story started in The Magician; Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, an award-winning British novel for fans of Brideshead Revisited; and Bobbie Ann Mason’s The Girl in the Blue Beret, an absorbing novel drawing on her father-in-law’s World War II experiences in France.

And on my TBR list: Robert Massie’s biography Catherine the Great (which I think a certain elf named Dean has already wrapped up); Julian Barnes’ Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending; Ali Smith’s intriguingly titled There But For The; and Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, which I already have on hand, along with Peter Ackroyd’s retelling of Malory’s The Death of King Arthur.

Finally, already read but still to blog about before year’s end, fingers crossed: Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk, a Sherlock Holmes novel sanctioned by the Arthur Conan Doyle estate; The Nine Lives of Christmas, a sweet holiday romance by Sheila Roberts; and more YA fantasy, including Legend by Marie Lu and the splendiferous fairy tale, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente.

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