Mystery twists

I can definitely be classified as a mystery reader, but most of the series I pursue are contemporary, with a preference for serious subjects and tending towards either character-driven or procedural themes. Every once in a while, however, I branch out to see what other mystery readers are discovering in such subgenres as Cozy, Historical, Noir, or Caper stories. I have occasionally taken a segue into legal mysteries, and I also enjoy a good thriller that may be related to mystery but not quite defined by that genre.

This week I tried out a couple of different subgenres, and I have to say that I am enjoying them enough to plan on continuing reading the series after this initial review is over.

The first book I read was A Curious Beginning, Deanna Raybourn’s series about lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell. It’s a historical, set in the Victorian era, and features an intrepid spinster who has never fit into a mold, and never intends to. Veronica travels the world in pursuit of scientific inquiry, makes her own living by selling rare specimens of butterflies, and occasionally has a discreet romantic dalliance.

As the story opens, she is wrapping up the affairs of the second of her two elderly adoptive aunts to pass on, and anticipates, now that she has surrendered their cottage and has no further ties to England, embarking on her most ambitious trip ever. Her plans are interrupted, however, when ruffians attempt to kidnap her right off the street in daylight, and she is saved by a sincere but somewhat enigmatic German baron, who tries to convince her that she is in danger and offers her a ride to London. She doesn’t really give credence to his warnings, but since that’s where she was headed anyway, she’s happy to take advantage of the free trip. Once there, he places her temporarily in the care of his friend Stoker, a taxidermist with hidden depths, vowing to return and reveal all. Unfortunately, before he can impart to Veronica the specifics of the plot against her, the baron is murdered, and she and Mr. Stoker are left to their own devices to figure out why someone wants Veronica dead and gone.

I was hooked on both this protagonist and her story within about 15 pages. Veronica is a progressive female determined to conduct herself on her own terms, and uses her considerable intellect paired with feminine guile to make her own way. One reviewer on Goodreads styled her as “a cool Nancy Drew for the turn of the century,” and that’s not a bad characterization! The story itself is sufficiently endowed with plenty of action and enough exciting twists to hold a reader’s interest, but the heart of its success is the witty banter carried on between Veronica and her initially unwilling partner, Stoker. The development of both of these characters is what kept me reading and led me to check out book #2 in the series as soon as I was finished with the first.

The second series on which I embarked is the Sydney Rye mysteries, by Emily Kimelman, beginning with Unleashed, although as the first book opens, Sydney is known by her original name, Joy Humbolt.

Joy has had an active 24 hours: First, she dumped her boyfriend, Marcus, a possessive schmuck who was fixated on the idea she was cheating on him (she wasn’t); then she lost her cool at work and took down a pastel-clad woman with bad hair in spectacular fashion for not understanding the difference between a macchiato and a frappuccino, for which she was fired; and finally, she went to the pound in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and adopted Blue, the largest dog on the premises. Two days later, she was the new owner of a dog-walking business on the Upper East Side, purchased from a friend of a friend, and 24 hours after that, she found herself embroiled in a murder mystery after golden retriever Toby (one of her dog-walking charges) led her to a dead body in an alley. This discovery would prove to be the true game-changer of Joy’s week, and possibly of her life.

Although this protagonist’s story is completely different from that of Veronica Speedwell, it is her character, combined with the vivid depiction of her environs and the details of her life that immediately grabbed my attention. Joy is, like Veronica, a bit edgy, a bit feisty, and with a similar tendency to refuse to tolerate bullshit. The way the amateur sleuth story details Joy’s discovery that she was meant to be a detective and to right wrongs is engaging, and the characters who surround her to either promote or foil her task are equally personable.

Although I can be a creature of habit in my reading tastes, I’m really glad that I stepped away from my usual preferences to try out these two original and absorbing series.

New York Historical

Several people on the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook page have recently requested recommendations for historical fiction, but hastened to say, “But not World War II please!” and it does seem like that conflict has dominated recently published popular historical fiction for a while now. I just discovered (through one of those BookBub daily deals on e-books) an author who specializes instead in a past/present focus on the important landmarks of New York City and the people who were somehow significant in their history or creation. I picked it up not so much for the connection to days of yore but because the story was art-related, but I was ultimately drawn in by the history.

Fiona Davis definitely has a formula. I have read two of her books now, and the introductory chapters of a third, and she plots them all similarly: Two protagonists, one living in the late 19th or early 20th century (1880-1940), the other in a more contemporary decade (1970s forward), who are either directly related or tangentially connected through the device of an iconic New York building and also through the ploy of a mystery to be solved. They remind me in this way of Kate Morton’s books, although they are neither as lengthy nor as literary in their language.

The first that I read, The Masterpiece, follows the fortunes of Grand Central Terminal, featuring little-known details of its history. The “early” protagonist, Clara Darden, is a struggling artist who has managed to snag a position as a temporary teacher of illustration at the prestigious Grand Central School of Art, an uncommon feat for a young woman in 1928. But Clara is determined that her drawings will, someday soon, grace the cover of Vogue magazine, and she uses every opportunity, including the influence of the two men in her life—one a wealthy poet, the other a bohemian painter—to make her ambitions come true. None of them knows that the Great Depression looms in their immediate future.

Nearly 50 years later, in 1974, Virginia Clay is recently divorced and desperate for work. After failing as a lawyer’s secretary, she reluctantly takes a job in the information booth of the rundown, grimy and dangerous Grand Central, and becomes invested in the fate of the once splendid building, whose historic status is now being challenged in the courts by a group who wishes to build a skyscraper on top of it. One day she takes a wrong turn and discovers an abandoned art school on a top floor of the building, where she finds a powerful watercolor hidden behind a cabinet and is introduced to the mystery of the artist Clara Darden, who disappeared in 1931. Virginia becomes determined to discover her fate, but there are several people who don’t wish her to succeed.

The second book, The Address, is centered around the famous Dakota apartment house, “the” address at which to live. The first part of the story takes place in 1884, when Sara Smythe, a young housekeeper in a London hotel, is lured to the United States by one of the Dakota’s architects, Theodore Camden, with the promise of a managerial position at the brand new building on the verge of opening its doors. Theo, his wife and three children occupy one of the luxury apartments, and regular contact between Sara and Theo soon leads to a forbidden association that will have long-lasting implications for all of them

The second protagonist is Bailey Camden, descendent of a ward of Theodore Camden and his wife, Minnie, a hard-partying young interior designer whose addictions have caused her to squander her chances with a major design firm. Just out of rehab in September of 1985, Bailey is floundering, trying to keep herself from drinking while looking for any kind of work in her field, in a town where her name is synonymous with disaster. She turns to her cousin, Melinda, a direct descendent and heir of the Camden family, who hires her to supervise the redecoration of Melinda’s apartment at The Dakota. There’s no money in it until Melinda comes into her inheritance at age 30 (still a few months away), but at least Bailey has a place to stay (the servants’ quarters of the apartment), a job to keep her mind engaged, and a local daily AA meeting. But while finding storage down in the basement for some of the classic ornamentation Melinda is insisting be ripped from the walls of the apartment so it can be modernized, Bailey discovers some artifacts in an old trunk that indicate the past history of her family may not be at all what she has been led to believe.

Other books feature backdrops such as the New York Public Library, the Chelsea Hotel, the Frick mansion/museum, and the Barbizon. They all seem to stay true to form, with two protagonists separated by half a century, and a mystery to be solved that connects the two through the agency of the building. But despite this repetitive device, the books are enjoyable reads, with engaging characters and vividly painted scenes; Davis seems to rigorously research the entire history, not just that of the buildings but also the habits, mores, clothing, hairstyles, and other minute details of the time periods involved. I also enjoyed the diversity in age and occupation of her main characters—they are of all stages and all life situations, and their vulnerabilities and failures are poignant and ring true.

I have never been to New York City (though I’ve always wanted to go), but I imagine these books would be particularly impactful for those to whom these buildings are familiar sights in their daily travels. Even never having been there, the books make it easy to picture. I don’t know whether I will read on, but those teaser chapters at the end of the previous e-book definitely snare your attention before you know it, so more Fiona Davis may be in my future.

Intricate plotting

My next book came recommended from the Facebook readers’ group (What Should I Read Next?), but I was careful not to find out too much about it before I read it. As it turns out, it wouldn’t have made too much difference (unless somebody really wanted to ruin it with spoilers), because We Begin at the End, by Chris Whitaker, is such a complex story that it would be hard to encompass everything contained within its pages in a simple book-talk.

Everyone in this book, and I mean everyone, has some sort of agenda, major or minor—some are obvious, some are hidden, some seem obvious but are quite the opposite—and following them all occasionally proved challenging but also definitely worthwhile. And along with these agendas go many secrets, a lot of misunderstanding, massive amounts of lying, and some catastrophic assumptions.

There are many ways in which one could characterize this book: It is a murder mystery, it is a coming-of-age story, it is the saga of multiple people caught up despite themselves in various forms of tragedy they are mostly unable to avert. Let me see if I can outline the basic story in some sort of coherent form…

There’s a guy called Walk (last name Walker), who grew up in the small coastal California town of Cape Haven of which he is now, at 40-something, chief of police. There’s another guy named Vincent King, who was Walk’s best friend until the age of 15 when he went to prison, partly sent there by Walk’s testimony. Star Radley is a friend of Walk’s and was also Vincent’s girlfriend before he went away, and she has two children, Duchess, 13, and Robin, five, but can’t (or won’t) disclose the names of their fathers. She’s a chronic alcoholic and drug abuser, with the result that Duchess, a necessarily tough girl with a perpetually bad attitude (picture a young Ruth Langmore from Ozark), is raising Robin and keeping an eye on her mother in an atmosphere of poverty and uncertainty. Walk tries to keep tabs on Star and the kids and help them out however he can, but Star seems determined to self-destruct.

The catalyst for the story is that Vincent is finally getting out of prison, after 30 years away, which precipitates all kinds of events, both expected and unexpected. There is a further panoply of significant secondary characters, mostly connected to Star and the kids but peripherally to others, including a couple of weird neighbors, an estranged grandfather living in Montana, a boyfriend with criminal connections, and a lawyer and former girlfriend of Walk’s; and then there are the tertiary characters—friends, social workers, helpful strangers—who enter and leave the story as needed. It’s a complex cast to juggle, but it’s masterfully done, and Whitaker manages to preserve the reader’s assumptions throughout the book, right up to the revelations of the unexpected conclusion. And what he does even better than keeping track of his plot is make you care about the fate of everyone involved.

This is a heartbreaking and frustrating story on so many levels—history repeats itself, love is mostly unavailing, and revenge and retribution are dealt out with a heavy and sometimes arbitrary hand. But it also speaks to the search for absolution and redemption, and the sacrifices people are willing to make for the people who are family, whether blood-related or not.

I won’t say much more than this, because the experience of reading it is so engrossing that I wouldn’t want to take away from that for anyone who chooses to do so. I was trying to think of other books that might be comparable to the complexity and drama of this one, and couldn’t. Stylistically, it’s a story about real people in a particular context; the closest I could come is This Tender Land, by William Kent Kreuger, but I liked this so much better (and I liked that one a lot). It also put me in mind of a little gem of a book called She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper, a much shorter and simpler story but with a protagonist who reminded me a lot of Duchess Day Radley, self-styled outlaw.

Don’t miss this one.

Indigenous mystery

The Firekeeper’s Daughter, by Angeline Boulley, was mentioned by one of my students in my Young Adult Literature class this past quarter as a book both by and about an indigenous voice from the Ojibwe tribe. It caught my attention because I have read several books set within the same locale (Sault St. Marie, in Michigan’s upper peninsula) and culture (Anishinaabe), though none that made that culture a central feature of the plot, and none written by a person from within the Ojibwe tribe, so I was particularly interested.

The first part of the book does a wonderful job of immersing the reader in the protagonist’s current life and giving the background necessary to set the scene and understand the issues. Daunis Fontaine is the product of a daughter from a wealthy white family who falls for a charismatic Objibwe hockey player, but her origins are something of a scandal, since her mother’s family forbade the relationship and her father ended up with someone from his tribe, who made a rather calculated play for him and also got pregnant, with the result that Daunis has a half-brother, Levi, who is almost her same age. Her mother courageously insisted, after Daunis was born, that she not be kept by her white family from her Ojibwe roots, so Daunis has grown up a part of both cultures, although she identifies more closely as one of the Anishinaabe, embracing native values both religious and secular.

The author also effectively embeds her story in the racism and atrocities historically visited on the tribes, as well as being immensely informative about such topics as traditional medicine, rituals and ceremonies, tribal elders and councils, contemporary politics, and the sense of family and community that characterize this culture; and she (mostly) manages to do so without being too didactic.

She uses the vehicle of a new boy at school, a recruit for the hockey team who needs to be introduced to all the nuances of life in the “Soo,” and has Daunis’s half-brother Levi, captain of the team, designate Daunis as Jamie Johnson’s “ambassador” who will tell him what he needs to know. The text is thus salted with indigenous words, concepts, and teachings that are explained by Daunis from within that context.

All of this makes the book sound more like an educational piece of nonfiction than a complex and multilayered mystery, but the wealth of scene-setting detail actually makes the puzzle to which Daunis is addressing herself much more plausible and compelling.

Daunis was supposed to be on her way up to Ann Arbor to start her college career at the University of Michigan, but two personal tragedies—the death by overdose of her beloved Uncle David, and her maternal grandmother’s debilitating stroke—keep her at home, with a plan to enroll instead in the local community college so as to be there to support her rather fragile mother through these twin losses. One person who is thrilled that she’s staying is her best friend, Lily, who will now be attending college with her.

They say tragedies always come in threes, and as a devastating event shocks Daunis into realizing that there is something dark destroying her native community from within, it is revealed to her that there are also outside interests attempting to solve the dual mysteries of addiction and suspicious deaths that are plaguing the people of Sugar Island; she makes the pivotal decision to get involved with ferreting out that solution.

The story is tense and suspenseful, with a protagonist facing many complications—perhaps too many. There is so much going on within this plot and surrounding this one person: Daunis’s biracial identity, her sick grandmother and dead uncle and father, her best friend’s meth-addicted boyfriend, her inexplicably ended hockey career, her new boyfriend’s secrets…it’s a lot. I do think the author does a good job of keeping all the balls in the air, but perhaps it would have been a better story with a few of these details ironed out of it. Because Daunis (and the author) has so much to juggle, some parts of the book become repetitive as the reader is reminded several times of the various elements in play. This is a first-time author with a slight tendency to over-explain, with the result that there are a few jarring moments in the book when Daunis suddenly seems to channel a third-person voice that is commenting on the action from an omniscient place outside the story line. A little more editorial notice should have been paid.

Having said all that, it truly is a riveting and emotionally realistic read, with a wealth of detail about the Anishinaabe peoples that you won’t stumble across in many places, and I applaud the author for managing to write a gripping tale while including such a rich, in-depth setting for it. This is definitely a book to add to your YA reading list.

In case it wasn’t made plain by my description of the story, there are many gritty, explicit events in this book that may prove overwhelming for the sensitive, so keep that in mind when recommending it—it’s definitely for older teen readers, not the middle school crowd.

Deception

The Murder Rule, the latest book by Dervla McTiernan, departs from her mystery series starring Detective Cormac Reilly to stand alone. The supposed theme of the book is revenge, but it turns out to be more about misplaced trust.

Hannah Rokeby is a law student at the University of Maine, the self-sufficient daughter of a fragile and damaged single mother. Her father died before she was born, and she has no other relatives who acknowledge her; it’s always been just the two of them, with Hannah knowing from an early age that it will be her job to be the adult in the relationship. Her mother, Laura, has sought all her life to conquer her PTSD using the crutch of alcohol, and Hannah patiently stands by during her ups and downs and encourages her in a daily routine whose predictability helps to combat her volatility and maintain her sobriety.

That all changes during Hannah’s third year in law school. When Hannah was a teenager, she discovered and read Laura’s diary telling the story of the summer of 1994, when Laura found and then lost a boyfriend and was brutalized by his best friend, a man who has since been convicted of the rape and murder of a young mother. When Hannah discovers that a prisoners’ rights group called the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia is seeking to overturn the conviction of the man responsible for damaging her mother so thoroughly, she concocts a scheme to insert herself into the process, posing as an idealist who seeks to help them with their mission so as to undermine it and consign him permanently to prison. But as she maintains her disingenuous façade and digs deeper into the case history, disquieting details come to light that throw everything she knows into question.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although there were some implausible bits, legally speaking, that might not happen in an American courtroom (McTiernan was an Irish lawyer for 12 years before turning to writing). Some readers have complained as well about the unlikeable protagonist, Hannah, and in general I prefer a sympathetic character, but in this book her cynicism and duplicitousness work perfectly to set up the story, as well as giving the character added depth. As events unfold, it becomes clear why Hannah is who she is, and enriches the story of her gradual awakening to different possibilities.

I don’t want to give away too many of the plot points here, since a big part of enjoying this book is arriving at them at the same time Hannah does, but the twists and turns as the story unfolds kept me reading enthusiastically from beginning to end. I was initially disappointed to discover that this wasn’t another of her Cormac Reilly series but, having read it, am duly impressed with her ability to write a compelling and entertaining stand-alone mystery/thriller outside of her proven formula.

Split personality

I am a mystery reader, and I specifically enjoy British mysteries, although I have read my share of others. So I am always looking out for a new Brit-based series, and somewhere along the way I discovered the Bill Slider detective novels by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. They don’t seem to be terribly well known here in the States—I never see recommendations for them on any of the reading pages to which I belong—and the American version of the books is usually poorly designed and cheaply printed, with ugly art, crap paper, and inappropriate typefaces! But it’s such a fun series that I have persisted from the first—Orchestrated Death—to #21, Headlong, which I just completed, and I see that there are two more awaiting me, which happened while I wasn’t looking (i.e., teaching Young Adult Literature and reading for that).

They are police procedurals in the truest sense: Although Detective Chief Inspector Bill Slider is definitely the lead guy, he has under him a team of versatile and memorable officers, all working together to solve the homicides that come their way. From his main prop, Atherton, a literate, clever, fashionable ladies’ man, to the lowliest “plod” on the force, all have distinct personalities and specialties, and we are granted a multidimensional vision of the crime, the suspects, and the process through their eyes.

But lest the books be too concentrated on the whodunnit, Harrod-Eagles has also provided both Bill and many of his colleagues with lively and interesting partners, children, and private lives, which figure largely into each story in various ways.

She also has a wicked sense of humor and has created the higher-ups as wholly original versions of bureaucratic cliché; for instance, Slider’s direct superior, Porson, is the master of malapropism, and delivers twisted versions of every idiomatic proverb in the book, providing Slider and his minions with an ongoing challenge to keep a straight face while the reader is free to hoot with laughter.

This latest fulfilled its challenge of keeping the reader guessing. Ed Wiseman, a prominent literary agent, has apparently fallen to his death from the window of his study into the dug-out building site next door. Slider is assigned the case, but has been cautioned that Borough Commander Carpenter would like to see this quickly ruled an accident and quietly put to bed; it seems a young woman who was involved with the victim is also somehow related to the Commander’s wife, and he wants to keep any scandal out of the papers. But when the verdict is not accident but murder, Slider has to pursue a slippery group of clients, friends, ex-wives, romantic partners, and rejected authors in his quest to solve the crime, while assiduously avoiding involving the girl, who seems increasingly central to the case.

As with most of the rest of the series, this one is intricately plotted to realistically showcase the varieties of police work necessary. It’s also filled with red herrings, puns, wordplay, and humor, and continues to unfold the personal lives of the main characters with glimpses into their family dynamic. I’m glad to pick up this series again, and won’t delay long before moving on to the last two unread volumes.

The interesting thing about Cynthia Harrod-Eagles is that she is not specifically known for this series, and says that she wrote the first book as relaxation between other projects, with no intention of publishing it. Her “real” metier is historical fiction, and her reputation is tied to a massive effort called The Morland Dynasty, which began as 12 volumes that were to cover a 500-year period of British history, but evolved into 35 books as she discovered she wanted to spend more time (and pages) on the fictional characters embedded in the history. Outside of this mammoth family saga, she has also written other historical fiction, contemporary novels, a couple of fantasy books, and a dozen romances, with a total of more than 90 titles!

After enjoying the Slider mysteries, I wanted to read and experience something else she had written, but I didn’t want to embark on anything like a 35-book endurance test, so I chose the first book in a new series, The Secrets of Ashmore Castle, which seems to be a cross between historical fiction and romance with perhaps a whiff of the gothic (the description brought Victoria Holt to mind, although Harrod-Eagles’s prose is far more accomplished and the characters and plot more complex). (The publishing company compares it to both Downton Abbey and Bridgerton, but since I have only seen the TV shows for both of those, I can’t speak to their similarity.) I have come to regret this decision, because I enjoyed the book so much that I immediately wanted to continue on with its characters and plot line, but the second book in the series isn’t due out for another month!

The story begins in the year 1901. The Earl of Stainton and his family occupy Ashmore Castle, although at the opening of the tale several of the family members are widely dispersed. Eldest son Giles, who has always been at odds with his father despite his position as the heir apparent—not least for his choice of occupation—is in Egypt on an archaeological dig, while second son Richard is off fighting the Boer War in South Africa. Occupying the castle are the earl, his wife, and their two teenage daughters (plus a host of servants and, occasionally, their elder, married daughter and family plus Uncle Sebastian). But when the Earl breaks his neck in a hunting accident, Giles is called home from his beloved desert vistas to verdant but gloomy England to take up his duties as the new head of household.

What Giles is swiftly made to realize by his father’s men of business is that along with the estate and castle he has inherited a host of severe financial troubles that, if unchecked, will mean certain ruin for the entire family. He grimly digs into the details, hoping to find ways to alleviate the situation, but eventually comes to the dismal conclusion that his only real option is to marry for money. Having dedicated his adult life so far exclusively to his career, he doesn’t have a clue how to accomplish this, so he turns to his worldly Aunt Caroline for assistance.

Meanwhile, 17-year-old Kitty Bayfield, shy daughter of a wealthy but minor baronet and his social climber of a wife, has just graduated from her finishing school, along with her impoverished but vastly more socially skilled friend Nina, and is preparing to be presented to society during the Season. Kitty’s aunt comes up with a scheme to present Nina to society alongside Kitty to help Kitty overcome some of her reticence and feel more comfortable. Soon Giles, his brother Richard, Kitty, and Nina all meet, at teas, dances, and outings, and while Giles is powerfully attracted to Nina, he is soon made to realize that only Kitty can help him out of his financial predicament…

Harrod-Eagles is wonderful at both characterization and world-building, and all the protagonists come alive on the page; but equally compelling are the foibles of the servants behind the scenes, as well as the interventions in the plot made by secondary characters such as a cobbler turned industrialist, Giles’s French grandmother, and Nina’s Aunt Schofield. I spent several pleasurable hours getting to know both people and situations, and was dismayed to discover, when I arrived at the (somewhat abrupt) ending not knowing how certain significant acts in the evolution of the relationships would turn out, that the next book is not yet available. Now I am biding my time by filling in with other books, while anticipating the August 11th release date of The Affairs of Ashmore Castle.

Of course, I could embark on reading the Morland Dynasty books; but if I were to enjoy them as much as I did this, I would be dug in for a good long time, and I’m not sure I’m ready to commit a few months’ reading to the works of one author. Maybe I’ll just read the first one…

Nearly

I followed through on my intention to read more young adult books by Elle Cosimano, by checking out her duology about Nearly Boswell. Yes, that’s her name, although she makes her friends call her Leigh, because she thinks a name like Nearly makes her stick out too much. Nearly is a girl who likes to operate below the radar for a variety of reasons, the primary one being that she has a special “gift” (or curse): If she touches someone, skin on skin, she can feel their emotions, and can usually tell whether they are lying or being truthful. Although this sounds useful, functionally it can be overwhelming, giving her a bunch of information she doesn’t really want to know. Other reasons include that she lives in a run-down trailer park with a mom who makes her living as an exotic dancer, and Nearly doesn’t want to give anyone more reasons for verbal target practice at her expense.

Nearly’s father left them five years ago, and (a pivotal plot point) Nearly reads the personal ads daily, searching for a message from him (since he communicated with her in that way once before). But what crops up instead are a bunch of weirdly worded clues that end up being the precursors to murder—all of people somehow associated with her life. Now she’s in a race to interpret or solve the clues to try to beat the murderer to the next victim, assisted by Reece, a new love interest who may not be someone she should trust.

This mystery is solved in the first book, but events begin to repeat themselves in book #2, as Nearly navigates her way through an internship at the town crime lab (although the clues appear as chemistry formulas rather than as personal ads) in a weirdly familiar way that just can’t be happening, given that the person most likely to be tormenting her is now locked away in prison. It also doesn’t help that Reece is working as an informant for the police and is involved with another girl as part of his undercover personna. When a skeleton is exhumed from the local golf course, Nearly has to wonder: Could it be her con man father buried there? or is it someone he murdered?

These are suspenseful reads, a little dark, and rather brilliantly plotted. Teens who enjoy the Naturals series by Jennifer Lynn Barnes would probably love them. The books are Nearly Gone, and Nearly Found.

Robert Crais

I’ve been busy these past couple of weeks, starting a new quarter teaching at UCLA and also doing some Zoom classes on contour drawing for LAPL, and the mood has dictated that I don’t need to be reading stuff that challenges me, so I’ve been revisiting some books from the past (as evidenced from my last review). This week I went for mystery writer Robert Crais.

Crais has a series starring Elvis Cole, a private investigator in Los Angeles, and his buddy and business partner Joe Pike. Elvis is a deceptively happy-go-lucky, casual guy in a Hawaiian shirt, with a smart-alecky manner and a keen sense of how to cut through the extraneous to solve a missing persons case or whatever else his clients bring to his door. Joe Pike epitomizes the strong silent type, has all kinds of commando training and slinky stealth operations in his past, and retains unexpected clearance levels with the Department of Defense, considering that he was hounded off the police force in Los Angeles once upon a time. Given his splendid physique, the arrows tattooed on his biceps, and the smoldering look in his eye, not many people are willing (or able) to mess with Pike.

Crais has now written 19 books shared by these two partners (with the emphasis on Elvis Cole), plus a further seven featuring Pike as the lead. This series, like any other long-running one based on the same people in the same city, has had its ups and downs, but I generally enjoy anything Crais writes. An added bonus is the books’ Los Angeles setting, since I am familiar with most of the locales and landmarks, which is always fun.

A Dangerous Man is billed as an Elvis Cole/Joe Pike book, but it’s really mostly Pike, with Elvis in a supporting role. (Being #18 in the series, I imagine Crais was already migrating his thinking over to Joe as the new lead.) You can read an in-depth review of the book here, from when I originally read it.

Crais started a new series in 2013 featuring Scott James, a police officer, and his K-9 partner, Maggie, and wrote one follow-up book, but doesn’t seem to be pursuing it further than that.

He has also written several stand-alone books, and these are among my favorites. Hostage was made into a suspenseful and action-packed movie, starring Bruce Willis, and I keep hoping that someone in Hollywood will revisit his books and decide to make movies based on the other two, The Two-Minute Rule, and Demolition Angel, given their great story lines and compelling protagonists.

I re-read Demolition Angel this week, and it mostly held up to my initial enthusiastic reception (although the technology in the book has become increasingly dated, of course). This is the only book of Crais’s with a female lead (although he does feature strong female characters in other books), and Carol Starkey’s presence is palpable and painful. She is the survivor of a bomb detonation by which she lost her lover, who was also her partner on the bomb squad, and even three years later she is on the edge, constructed of equal parts gin, cigarettes, antacids, and insomnia. She is now working as a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, and would like to get back to the bomb squad, but her therapist doesn’t hold out much hope of that, given her fragile and self-destructive state. Then the bomb squad rolls out on a report of a suspicious package at a strip mall and, after one of the bomb techs is blown up by its unexpected detonation, Carol Starkey is handed the case.

Starkey is terrified that either Homicide, ATF, or the FBI will take the case away from her, and determined to solve it herself before that can happen, which lends an urgency to the narrative. The components of the bomb itself suggest it was built by Mr. Red, an infamous shadowy character whose goal is to be on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. An FBI agent named Pell does show up, but seems content to work with Carol, offering his long-running history with Mr. Red to support her case. Things escalate as Mr. Red himself engages with Starkey via a dark-web chat room, and Starkey begins to realize that this case may be much more complex than everyone else believes, and have less to do with Mr. Red than anyone imagined.

Carol Starkey is a truly great character, and the scene-setting all over Los Angeles is both accurate and entertaining. I was fascinated by the procedural parts of the book, and also enjoyed the interpersonal relations with her team, the ATF agent, and the bomber/serial killer. Reading this after revisiting one of the series books showed me how much Crais has to offer when he is building a story from scratch, rather than relying on the formula of the Cole/Pike team. I wish he would write more stand-alones like this one.

What kind of mystery are you?

I just finished reading a series of five mysteries by Julie Smith featuring Jewish feminist attorney Rebecca Schwartz as the protagonist and set in San Francisco and surrounding counties, and I’m trying to decide where to slot them in the mystery panoply. They weren’t exactly cozy mysteries, by my definition: A cozy typically takes place in a small town, with a quirky set of local characters (some of whom are up to no good), and an amateur sleuth (frequently a gray-haired grandma) serving as detective. At the same time, I wouldn’t put them up against what I think of as “legitimate” mysteries, such series as the deadly serious Inspector Lynley books or the Harry Bosch saga. But in their way they do for San Francisco what Connelly’s Bosch books have done for Los Angeles—make the neighborhoods and idiosyncrasies of the City by the Bay a familiar and compelling backdrop to crime.

I have to say that I didn’t care much for the first book in the Rebecca Schwartz titles—Death Turns A Trick originates in a modern-day bordello, and the subsequent action and situations are just too ridiculous to be believable, as well as the mystery not being particularly compelling. I probably wouldn’t have revisited the series except for two factors: I had just finished reading a couple of uber-intense, rather lengthy items, and was in the mood for something light and not particularly challenging; and the second book is called The Sourdough Wars, which reminded me fondly of Robin Sloan’s book Sourdough. So I read that one, and was by then caught up in the momentum of Rebecca’s adventures and beguiled by the San Francisco milieu.

The books varied a bit in readability, my favorites turning out to be the latter three: Tourist Trap, Dead in the Water, and Other People’s Skeletons. So I guess you could extrapolate that Smith’s story-telling abilities improve over the course of the series, and I wouldn’t argue with that. I still felt that they were light and kind of silly, but on the other hand the characterizations are solid, the scene-setting is creative (one takes place at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, or should I say IN it?), and the story lines, while not truly riveting, definitely render the reader curious enough to finish them.

The website StopYou’reKillingMe.com ranks these not as cozies but as “humorous mysteries.” There is an element of humor to them; but there are also rather graphic murder scenes, and serious pondering on relationships, feminism, child welfare, and liberal causes. The covers on the re-released paperbacks seem to suggest more of a chick lit vibe, further confusing the issue. The jacket copy cites Janet Evanovich, Joan Hess, and Elizabeth Peters as read-alike authors, so if they are authors you enjoy, then Julie Smith might be for you.

Note that the Rebecca Schwartz books were Smith’s very first series (written in the ’80s); she has since completed two series set in New Orleans, one with Talba Wallis, a female black poet and computer expert as protagonist, the other starring Skip Langdon, a policewoman. Since she is consistent about featuring a female protagonist (and also presumably with the feminism standard set by Schwartz), if a female lead is your preference it’s another reason to seek out her books.

Land of Wolves

I have enjoyed Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series since the beginning, with few exceptions. There has been a book here and there that was a little too weird for me, but mostly I have invested in both the unsentimental policing of the wide open spaces of Wyoming and the slight mysticism brought into the books by Walt’s association with Henry Standing-Bear and the Native Americans living adjacent to Absaroka County. I have never been a big fan of westerns, but this series nicely marries a traditional western feel with interesting mysteries and native lore, which has, for the most part, suited my taste.

All of that changed with book #14 in the series, called Depth of Winter. I don’t know what Mr. Johnson was thinking but, judging from the responses of his fans on Goodreads, it surely wasn’t about them. He took Walt out of context, sending him out of his jurisdiction down to Mexico to fight what amounted to a war with a drug cartel. All the quirky and charming bits for which this series is known were notably absent, as were most of the personnel; and the narrative of the story fulfills the Hobbesian quote “nasty, brutish, and short” to a T. I was both disgusted by and dismayed at the amount of distance covered by Walt as he gave up all logic, pitting himself singlehandedly against this massive foe and then essentially abandoning all who offered to help him to pay the price in order to gain his own objectives. It was ugly.

I breathed a slightly attenuated sigh of relief, then, when I returned to the series with #15, his 2019 offering, to discover that Walt has been returned to Absaroka County and is dealing with a typical mystery for that area, the death of a Basque sheepherder. But this book was definitely a mixed bag. The mystery was weird, to begin with: We didn’t know for most of the book whether the shepherd had committed suicide or had been murdered, and we didn’t find out because the story kept haring off in multiple directions, from a kidnapped boy and a missing man to a lone wolf who has been sighted and blamed for sheep killing, working up the local populace. Usually the author takes all these disparate elements he introduces and weaves them into a coherent whole by the end, but in this case the explanations felt slight and unsatisfactory, and some went unresolved. And even the ones that ended with an explanation seemed tenuous where they should have been forthcoming.

Furthermore, Walt was less than present, due to both physical and mental recovery issues from his time in Mexico, making the narrative—primarily seen from his viewpoint—seem scattered. And although the regular people—Victoria, Saizorbitoria, Ruby, Henry—were once again present and accounted for, they didn’t seem fully realized, and Walt was so out of it that he didn’t pay them much mind, which meant the reader didn’t either. This book wasn’t the horrifying debacle of its predecessor, but it certainly wasn’t Craig Johnson’s best.

I hadn’t realized when I picked this up that I was so far behind with this series: Johnson has already written #s 16 and 17 (with 18 due out later next year), and the stars on Goodreads have been restored to a reassuringly consistent high number from most readers, making me think maybe it is safe to go on. There are also, since I last looked, half a dozen novellas that fall at various places between the full-length books that I could catch up on, for further experiences with Walt and the gang.

Something said towards the end of this book made me wonder if perhaps we will see the end of the series sooner rather than later, so I plan to keep reading, hoping that Johnson manages to avoid almost jumping the shark again, the way Lee Child emphatically did with Jack Reacher. I would hate to have to consign two of my favorite protagonists to the “do not read” pile….