Last Update 12/31/09

Who Killed the Pinup Queen? by Toni L.P. Kelner, Berkley, 2010, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23205-7

I actually have several novels by this author in my library, but I don't believe I've ever read any of them until now. The protagonist/detective is a writer specializing in the entertainment industry. She is researching one involving an over the hill actors from a fondly remembered old television series as part of the promotion for a new resort as well as another about a one time pinup queen.  But as you might guess from the title, the latter is murdered before the story is written and our hero finds the body. Although there doesn't seem to be any connection between her two assignments, there wouldn't be much of a story if there wasn't, and in due course there's danger lurking in them thar hills.  Nicely written, although I found myself totally disinterested in the back story and only marginally fond of the protagonist.  I will undoubtedly try Kelner again, but I think I'll look at something not in this particular series.  12/31/09

Dead Air by Mary Kennedy, Obsidian, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22877-2

Talk radio provides the background for this mystery novel. The protagonist is a psychologist who tries to solve problems on the air, which I've always thought frankly was little short of fraud. Anyway, another performer - a kind of guru - begins receiving death threats which turn out to be more than idle talk.  Our heroine is further perplexed when her new roommate and friend becomes the prime suspect - don't you hate it when that happens?  So she has to get out of her comfy chair and solve a problem in the real world, avoiding becoming next on the victim list in the process. Predictably she travels to the edge of lawlessness herself but ends up being smarter than the police.  The author delivers just what you'd expect from this sort of book, and does it well enough that I suspect we'll be seeing more of this particular amateur detective.  Solid writing and a reasonably interesting puzzle to be solved.  12/29/09

The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale, Mysterious Press, 2000  

Somehow I missed this back when it came out, probably because it was shelved with mysteries and has a particularly innocuous cover.  Lansdale has become one of my favorites over the years, and the first chapter of this was worth the price of the book all by itself.  Thereís a serial killer slaughtering prostitutes in a particularly twisted fashion in a rural area of depression era Texas, and racism, poverty, and old personal animosities blend into the mix, to say nothing of a legendary creature called the Goat Man.  The story is told from the point of view of the son of the local constable and is filled with great little portraits of a time and place that seems almost mythical nowadays. Filled with memorable characters and taut scenes, this is a blend of mystery, psychological suspense, coming of age, and several other elements, all skillfully woven together. Highly recommended. 12/29/09

Brass in Pocket by Jeff Mariotte, Pocket Star, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4165-4517-0  

CSI, the Las Vegas version, is one of my all time favorite television programs.  I didnít think it could survive the transition to book form intact, and I was largely correct.  The names are the same and basically the same kind of things happen, but without the visuals and the presence of the actors who brought the characters to life, it all seems kind of flat.  That said, there is one fair and one pretty good mystery in this one.  The fair one involves the murder of a private investigator and the discovery of evidence linking our favorite poker faced cop, Jim Brass, to the crime.  The more interesting one is a kind of flying locked room murder mystery involving a pilot who meets his end at the hands of another.  Nothing earth shaking here but if it wasnít a tie-in, it would still be an interesting mystery novel. 12/18/09

The Unburied by Charles Palliser, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999 

This Victorian murder mystery is a real gem and Iím surprised Iíd never even heard of it before.  Itís a multi-leveled mystery whose story is intricate enough that I canít do it justice in a plot summary.  The protagonist is a scholar who agrees to visit an old friend he hasnít seen in twenty years.  The friend lives near a cathedral where two hundred years earlier a church official was murdered under peculiar circumstances, which will become even murkier when a body is unearthed during construction.  The scholar is also investigating another mystery, this one from the 9th Century, involving the various stories about King Alfredís behavior during the Viking invasions.  These two stories will overlap, and bear strong parallels, to another murder that takes place during the visit.  Impersonation and conspiracy convolute an already intricate problem, and although the reader will probably anticipate parts of the explanation, the whole truth is cleverly disguised.  Much of the book involves scholarly research, which should have been boring but which is definitely not, and the prose kept me compulsively reading this one.  One of the best historical mysteries Iíve ever read. 12/10/09

Expose! by Hannah Dennison, Berkley, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23158-6  

This is the third in a series of mysteries involving Vicky Hill, a reporter whose routine jobs turn into dangerous assignments, whose previous exploit was quite enjoyable.  Her latest involves the death of and funeral for a local celebrity, whose husband seems rather indifferent to her passing and in haste to get her buried.  Our feisty journalist's investigation heats up when she begins to suspect that the cause of death might not have been as simple as suggested - no surprise to the reader, and her persistence naturally makes her a target for the killer. There are some nice twists and Iíve gotten to really like the protagonist, who is neither as flat nor as cutesy as those that appear in a lot of similar mysteries.  Dennison is one of the best of the cosy writers, mixing the tropes of that form with hints of the private detective story.  Not quite the best in the series, but then again, it has some serious competition for that title. 11/30/09

The Fashion Hound Murders by Elaine Viets, Obsidian, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22842-0  

Iíve read two books in this authorís other series, about a divorced woman who solves crimes.  The protagonist of this series is a mystery shopper who stumbles into similar crimes with similar results.  This time sheís investigating puppy mills and sheís tipped off by one of the employees that the methods used to breed the merchandise are illegal and disgusting.  Itís no problem acquiring proof of the charges, but the informant turns up dead, suggesting that things are even more serious than we are at first led to believe.  And naturally our protagonist solves the crime at risk of her own life.  I didnít like this nearly as well as the other series.  The main character is bland, the mystery is okay but unimpressive, and the story is just a slight bit polemic.  Okay for a light read but Iíd expected more from this author. 11/27/09

Tragedy at Two by Ann Purser, Berkley, 2009, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-425-23006-0   

Third, I believe, in the Lois Meade series.  Meade is a professional cleaning woman Ė actually runs a small company Ė who is occasionally consulted by Scotland Yard because of her prowess as a detective, an unlikely situation but not crucial to the credibility of this particular novel.  Her daughterís troublesome lover is found badly beaten and subsequently dies of his wounds.  All evidence points to a camp of gypsies located nearby but Meade suspects there are further wrinkles to be smoothed and she sets about to do just that.  The novel projects a good sense of place and the characters are reasonably well delineated, but I thought the mystery itself was less interesting than it might have been.  Iíd read another if it came my way but I wasnít impressed enough to go looking for more. 11/27/09

Murder for Christís Mass by Maureen Ash, Berkley, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23157-9

A Play of Treachery by Margaret Frazer, Berkley, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22333-8  

I donít ordinarily read many historical mysteries outside the Victorian era.  Iím not quite sure why I donít care for them but I struggled with the Brother Caedfel and Judge Dee books, and only a few like The Unburied by Charles Palliser, or recent ones by Robert R. McCammon have really appealed to me.  These two are set in the 13th and 15th Centuries respectively. I had read one previous book in the Templar Knight series by Ash, and found it readable but unmemorable.  This one was pretty much the same.  The protagonist has recently returned from imprisonment during the Crusades and promptly finds himself asked to investigate the murder of a local man. His investigation uncovers a sinister plot and leads to a tense and violent confrontation.  The author writes well and I suspect Iíd be more inclined to read her if she wrote in another setting, but fans of historical detection should find this one rewarding. I believe this is the first Margaret Frazer mystery Iíve read, although I have sampled the author as Monica Ferris and as Mary Monica Pulver.  This appears to be the first in a spinoff series involving a minor character from her Dame Frevisse mysteries.  Joliffe is sent into France, ostensibly as a servant, actually to become a spy for his master.  Predictably he gets involved with a murder, risks being exposed, juggles various problems, and solves the crime in the end.  I liked this story better than the first, but I didnít think it was as tightly written.   11/24/09

The Asylum Prophecies by Daniel Keyes, Leisure, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6271-0

Daniel Keyes is, of course, best known for Flowers for Algernon.  This is only the third novel of his that Iíve ever read.  The story involves a terrorist plot by a Greek and Iranian groups to launch an attack in the US, knowledge of which is locked in the brain of a young woman with a split personality.  The CIA obviously wants to rescue her and find out what she knows.  The motivation for the terrorists to keep her alive Ė they also want to know what she knows Ė seemed to me a bit tenuous, particularly since one of their leaders said she should be killed immediately, just before his own death.  Thereís some straightforward plot development from there from multiple viewpoints before the plot is averted Ė it involves spreading anthrax.  Itís an okay thriller but nothing special, although some of the characterization is much better than youíd expect in a story of this nature. 11/18/09

Night of Thunder by Stephen Hunter, Pocket, 2009, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-4165-6514-7 

Iíve seen this authorís name in bookstores regularly but this is the first time Iíve actually read anything by him, part of a series about Bob Lee Swagger, a slightly larger than life figure.  His daughter, a news reporter, is attacked while researching drug related crime and is in a coma, and Bob Lee is not happy, which sets up the rest of the novel.  I was a little puzzled early on when police during a drug raid destroy a meth lab.  Wouldnít they have seized it for evidence?  Iím also not convinced that even an expert could have ascertained detailed motives from the skid marks.  Anyway, our hero decides to find out who hurt his daughter and after various adventures thereís a violent climax at a NASCAR event.  I was frankly not impressed.  Swagger is one dimensional and the villains have even less depth.  Thereís the skeleton of a much better book here, but itís buried under comic book style action and a host of unbelievable characters and events.  If this is typical, I wonít be reading anything more by this author. 11/14/09

Mobsmen on the Spot by Maxwell Grant, 1932  

This comparatively dull Shadow novel opens with open warfare between two criminal gangs.  Another man, a recently released ex-convict, is recruited by the Shadow, who knows he was not guilty of the crime for which he was imprisoned, and knows as well that heís about to be framed for yet another. After some initial action scenes, the story becomes almost laconic, with meetings and conversations among the various parties involved in the crime war. The new recruit, Cliff Marsland, unwisely confides his identity to one of the gangstersí girlfriends, but fortunately she falls for him. The crooks are planning to open up a new theater of operations Ė the theater business. Things pick up again as bombs are set and buildings destroyed as part of a campaign of intimidation.  Thereís quite a bit of Lamont Cranston in this one, and considerably less of the Shadow than usual. A whole lot of mobsters get killed in the ensuing fracas, but mostly offstage, and a businessmanís daughters gets kidnapped and rescued, and one of the victims caught in the crossfire surprised me since I expected her to survive. And naturally one of the good guys turns out to be bad.  The weakest Shadow novel so far. 11/8/09

The End of the Road by Sue Henry, Obsidian, 2009, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-451-22604-4  

Maxey is a retired widow who spends her time traveling with her dog through rural Alaska.  Apparently, like Jessica Fletcher, she has a habit of stumbling over dead bodies and then figuring out what happened.  In this case, she meets a drifter and invites him to dinner.  The following day he leaves her a thank you note and says he is moving on, but instead is found dead in his room, apparently a suicide although that wouldnít make much of a story.  He also appears to have been using a false name and itís not clear just who he is, or rather, was.  Maxey decides to do a little poking around on her own, not convinced that he killed himself, and sheís right Ė which also makes her the next victim.  Not a great surprise in the ending, but not bad either. The prose is pleasant but rather light weight; the entire novel is quite short and only took a little over an hour to read.  I could have done without the too cute dog, but your mileage may vary. 11/2/09

Bookplate Special by Lorna Barrett, Berkley, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23119-7  

Murders involving bookshops always attract my attention.  This series involves a New Hampshire bookstore which specializes in mysteries, both as stock on the shelves and as an occupation for the characters.  The story involves the roommate from Hell Ė a college student who takes advantage of the young woman she shares with and steals money before finally moving out, only to turn up dead within hours.  Not surprising given her nature, and providing a wealth of motives. So our heroine, the bereft roommate, has to figure out who else had it in for the unfortunate young woman.  Barrett continues to be quite good without pushing across into the category of very good.  The mystery itself is pretty good this time, and Iím getting to like the protagonist enough to look forward to her next case. 11/2/09

The Scarpetta Collection Volume 1 by Patricia Cornwell, Pocket, 2009, $16.99, ISBN 978-1-4391-5303-1

The Scarpetta Collection Volume 2 by Patricia Cornwell, Pocket, 2009, $16.99, ISBN 978-1-4391-7205-6

I read the four novels in these two combined editions when they first appeared back in the 1990s.  They were the first four Kay Scarpetta stories, pitting her against serial killers, stalkers, rapists, murderers, and even a man who appears to have returned from the dead.  At the time I was quite interested in the series, and I found the individual novels very entertaining and suspenseful, but I eventually lost interest because of inconsistencies from one book to the next, and irritation when at least one mystery was left unresolved.  I can tolerate that in fantasy trilogies, although I much prefer it when novels in a series are discrete unto themselves, but in detective fiction I consider it a fatal flaw.  The reader expects to have the mystery resolved at the end and it's not fair to run into a cliffhanger.  Anyway, the titles included here are Postmortem, Body of Evidence, All That Remains, and Cruel and Unusual.  These are handy ways to catch up on the series if you've been planning to give them a try, and the price is reasonable.  11/1/09

All the Wrong Moves by Merline Lovelace, Berkley, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23118-0  

There are a number of reasons why I should not have liked this slim little mystery.  The protagonist is Samantha Spade, a cutesy name that should have put me off.  Spade is a lieutenant in the air force, which is not a setting I usually care for.  She is also not a particularly savvy person; she admits up front that she married an idiot for idiotic reasons and dumped him when he cheated on her, not surprisingly.  So as I said, I shouldnít have liked it. Spade is in the desert testing a science fictionish exoskeleton when she runs Ė literally  - into two recently dead bodies.  The dead man had smuggled arms used to kill several marines and there is a marine detachment nearby.  Potential data recorded by the exoskeleton is described when someone sets a fire and Spade finds herself right in the middle of the investigation and the target of a skillful killer. This is all smartly done and Spade is an extremely well drawn and likeable protagonist.  I hope to run into her again. 10/28/09

Four in One Mysteries, Garden City, 1924 

This is a collection of four short mystery novels by four different writers, each of which has a glossy cover preceding it in the book.  I donít think they ever appeared elsewhere.  The first is The Death Bell by Edison Marshall, author of a handful of historical novels I read fifty years ago.  Two antique collectors are vying for possession of an old house in Scotland, full of antiques, once owned by a depraved 17th Century autocrat who was stabbed to death in the house.  One of them has tentatively bought the place, but the other comes uninvited with a group of friends to visit.  Their host acts a bit oddly, reluctant to answer the door, a bit pale, and for some reason defending the long dead aristocrat.  Thereís also a legend of a ghostly bell whose pealing is followed by a murder by sword cut and, as you might expect, the bell sounds and one of the visitors is found slashed to death.  Itís an Old Dark House mystery with strange comings and goings in the night.  Not a classic, but quite good and as far as I know itís the only mystery Marshall ever wrote. 

Flat-2 by Edgar Wallace, famous for his crime novels, is much less claustrophobic.  A young woman gets into debt gambling and is forced to break off her engagement in order to marry Louba, who holds her debts.  Her ex-fiance is furious and makes inquiries about the security where Louba lives shortly before the man is found bludgeoned to death.  As the most likely suspect, he is promptly arrested.  But it turns out that Louba had many other enemies, and that appearances might be very deceiving.  This one was okay but it seemed quite superficial and the plot meandered considerably at times.  Iíve never been a Wallace fan, and this one didnít change my opinion. 

The third title is The Remittance Woman by Achmed Abdullah.  This is more of an adventure story.  A feisty young woman travels to China, where the mother she never knew died in childbirth, carrying a tiny porcelain vase which her father cautions her not to show to anyone.  Before long she is involved in a web of intrigue involving the future of China, the secret of her mother's family, finds romance, gets arrested for stealing the vase, and has to think her way out of an increasingly difficult situation.  I remember the author for novelizing the early movie, Thief of Baghdad, and hadn't realized that he had written crime fiction as well.  Not bad, but nothing special. 

Lastly, there is The Moss Mystery by Carolyn Wells.  Wells is a hobby of mine, a terrible mystery writer whose eighty detective novels have languished in obscurity for a very good reason.  This one doesn't feature any of her recurring detectives, but Prall is just as egotistical as the others.  On the other hand, this is one of her better locked room mysteries, a woman found dead in her locked bedroom, asphyxiated because someone turned on the gas after she'd fallen asleep.  But how could they manage that without succumbing to the same gas?  A fairly elaborate mechanism is involved, but it probably would have worked.  I could think of easier ways to have killed her though.  10/20/09

The Black Master by Maxwell Grant, 1932

Someone sets off bombs on Wall Street, the subway, and in Grand Central Station, causing a city wide panic. An informer tells a reporter that he made the bombs under duress for a mysterious figure known as the Master.  But both men are killed when a fourth bomb destroys the newspaperís offices. Detective Cardona from the last Shadow novel reappears as part of the investigation, as does Harry Vincent in an unofficial capacity. The authorities suspect terrorists but the Shadow believes there is a different motive. An expert working with the police insists that communist agents are behind the attacks.  As usual, Vincent gets captured and has to be rescued. The Masterís plot involves blackmail and impersonation and casts a wide net throughout the city. Cardona does a good chunk of the legwork this time, aided clandestinely by the Shadow.  One of the victims of each of the bombings is linked to a worldwide plot, which means the bombings were not at random (though they do seem like very chancy, not to mention overkill).  The Shadow gets captured by the Master, who considers him a kindred spirit, but we know thatís not going to last. The ease with which the Master later drives people to suicide is a bit hard to swallow, but otherwise this was a surprisingly good story, although once again the real identity of the Master is transparently obvious. 10/16/09

A Fatal Feast by Donald Bain & Jessica Fletcher, Obsidian, 2009, $22.95, ISBN 978-0-451-22796-6   

Murder She Wrote lives on, in books anyway.  Jessica Fletcher puts the cosy in cosies. Sheís back in Cabot Cove to enjoy Thanksgiving this time, but naturally we know thereís going to be a dead body other than the turkey before long. She has a full plate entertaining, organizing, and cooking, as well as suffering from writerís block at a very inopportune time.  She and a visiting friend stumble on a corpse - if I were Jessica's friend I wouldn't even be startled -  and soon find themselves involved with murder, the witness protection program, and a distortion if not a miscarriage of justice.  As always, Bain manages to capture most of the flavor of the original show and the mystery is resolved in Jessicaís usual blend of deduction and intuition.  Not quite as good as the previous one in this series, but not bad. 10/13/09

The Silent Seven by Maxwell Grant, 1932  

Henry Marchandís house is burglarized while he is away.  Although nothing appears to have been taken, Marchand dies inexplicably in his study shortly after returning home. It appears that he was killed by a poisonous device he had installed himself to protect a drawer containing a coded note. The Shadow knows that it was really murder, and he also knows that the code is a red herring. Marchandís friend, Dr. Lukens, is taken into the Shadowís confidence.  Lukens also possesses a ring which the dead man had given him some time before. Then Lukens is killed and the police suspect the Shadow.  Next we learn that Marchandís secretary, Paget, is a member of a secret crime organization called The Silent Seven.  We see a great deal of this story from Pagetís point of view and Harry Vincent doesnít appear until the second half. As usual, he gets captured and has to be rescued.  The first half of this one is very slow paced but unusually complexly plotted.  Thereís lots of running around and battling in the second half.  The Silent Seven struck me as silly rather than sinister though. 10/10/09

The Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton, Berkley, 2009, $14, ISBN 978-0-425-23077-0  

Generally speaking, Iím not fond of mystery novels set prior to the 20th Century.  There are exceptions, of course, like Caleb Carr, John Dickson Carr, and a few others.   This is the first in one such series, set in Revolutionary America, 1773 in fact.  The protagonist detective is in fact Abigail Adams, wife of Sam Adams, who conducts her first investigation when her husband is unjustly accused of murder, perhaps because of his involvement with the Sons of Liberty. There one woman dead and one missing, and secret documents may be the cause of the trouble.  A British officer assigned to look into the matter finds himself increasingly sympathetic to Abigailís plight, if not her husbandís cause.  An interesting setting and cast of characters, a fairly engrossing story line, and some pretty good writing.  Iíll be happy to see Mrs. Adams return, perhaps to clear the name of yet another famous revolutionary. 10/6/09 

Mourning in Miniature by Margaret Grace, Berkley, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23080-0

Iíve read three previous books in this series, which stands out among the current crop of themed mysteries.  Geraldine Potterís hobby is making miniature models of various things, and that avocation has led her into a variety of dangerous situations in the past.  She goes a bit afield this time, agreeing to attend a high school reunion where she can find out whatís happened to many of her old students from when she was a teacher.  There is one troubling aspect, however.  One of the young women is obsessed with a boy she met in high school and is determined to make this reunion more than just a casual get together.  Clearly no good will come of this, and that proves to be true when the man in question is found murdered.  Potter will have to solve not only the present crime but uncover its roots in things which happened years earlier.  Grace continues to be one of my favorites at the light, hobbyist detective story. 10/6/09

The Chocolate Cupid Killings by Joanna Carl, Obsidian, 2009, $21.95, ISBN 978-0-451-22797-3

Killer Crab Cakes by Livia J. Washburn, Obsidian, 2009, $14, ISBN 978-0-451-22836-9   

The inclusion of recipes, tips, and trivia questions almost always puts me off mystery novels Ė because they generally indicate a lightly comic novel in which a murder takes place, which isnít quite the same thing.  But I decided to sample a couple of recent ones. The owners of a chocolate shop are sheltering an abused woman who is being sought after by a private detective in the first.  The detective turns up dead and one of the principles is potentially the prime suspect, although the reader might consider the abused woman an equally probable candidate.  I actually enjoyed this one Ė which is quite short Ė but it doesnít encompass any really great twists or revelations.  The protagonist of the Washburn novel is competing in a dessert making contest while watching over a bed and breakfast owned by her cousin.  Then a dead body turns up, not surprisingly, and Phyllis finds herself drafted into investigating a murder that looks like an accident.  This one wasnít bad either but the characters were less interesting, the dialogue less lively, and the solution more predictable.  Iíd say these were both above average of their type. 10/3/09

The Death Tower by Maxwell Grant, 1932 

A terrified man confides to his doctor that he has purchased a sapphire ring that is supposedly cursed. His obsession with it had me expecting him to call it ďmy preciousĒ at any moment. A minion of the doctor murders the visitor and the doctor, having stolen the ring, proceeds to impersonate the dead man. In that disguise, he then murders another man.  The doctor, who experiments on human brains and has a mysterious Arab assistant, tries to murder Burke, who is investigating the case, but he fails thanks to the Shadow.  The Shadow himself is nearly trapped in the doctorís lair but escapes and enlists the aid of our old friend Harry Vincent. The doctor recruits some thugs to help him trap the Shadow again, but we know that isnít going to work. Much confusion ensues with the criminals briefly thinking that the doctor is actually the Shadow, while the Shadow uses impersonation to sow more seeds of dissension. There are secret passages, death traps, hypnotism, and even an autogyro in this one.  Action packed finish.  Not bad. 10/1/09

Blackwork by Monica Ferris, Berkley, 2009, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-425-22990-3 

I thought it time I tried another one of Monica Ferrisí novels, even though theyíre yet another theme series whose protagonist runs a needlework shop.  This one looked a bit promising because the main tension is caused by the presence of Leona Cunningham, a businesswoman who practices Wicca.  When a drunken thug accuses her of using witchcraft, and immediately has an automobile accident, eyebrows are raised, and when he dies with no mark on his body, many in the community think he was cursed.  Really?  In the present day?  As low as my opinion is of peopleís abilities to avoid superstition, this was a bit much to swallow. Anyway, our protagonist investigates, and more than one suspect rotates to the top of the list before the ultimate solution is revealed.  It wasnít possible to guess the ending by deduction and several candidates could have been named in the closing chapter.  The killer wasnít my first choice but the explanation was satisfactory.  I remained uneasy with elements of the back story throughout, however. 9/29/09

Gangdomís Doom by Maxwell Grant, 1935  

The Shadow returns for his fifth full length adventure. Crude as they are, the Shadow novels are short and fast paced adventures just right for filling an idle hour or less.  A mob informer is killed almost under the eyes of Claude Fellows, one of the Shadowís agents.  Fellows, who has been a minor character in all of the earlier volumes, is killed early in this one to prevent him from telling what he knows. This temporarily leaves the Shadow without an intermediary between him and various others agents. The Shadow relocates operations from New York to Chicago in order to avenge the manís death, employing our old friend Harry Vincent in his cause. Vincent infiltrates a restaurant that serves as a mob cover and almost gets caught in a gunfight between factions. Steve Cronin, a minor gangster who has appeared from time to time before, returns to complicate matters further. The Shadow gets winds of a plot to kill the local assistant district attorney and decides to act. Elsewhere, a high class hitman is employed and minor gangsters begin to fall like rain.  The arguing among the various thugs goes on too long and robs this one of most of its momentum in the middle third. Eventually the bad guys try to negotiate a truce, but the Shadow shows up and threatens them in their lair before escaping. Cronin does not recognize Vincent for some reason, but he suspects him anyway and Harry is soon in trouble again. One of the mobsters turns out to have been the Shadow in disguise all along, but that was pretty obvious almost from the start. He provokes an even more violent war between the two main factions and avenges the death of Fellows in a complex but less than thrilling adventure. 9/24/09

The Silent Spirit by Margaret Cole, Berkley, 2009, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-425-22976-7  

This is the second Coel novel Iíve read, and the first involving Father John OíMalley, a recently recovered alcoholic whose parish is on an Arapaho reservation.  OíMalley becomes interested in Kiki Wallowingbull, a young man with a record of trouble, who announces one day that he is going to California to investigate the disappearance of his grandfather many years earlier.  Kiki turns up dead himself, not surprisingly, and itís obvious to us perspicacious readers that he found out more than was good for him.  OíMalley nearly falls into the same trap.  Coelís background in Native American culture gives her books a flavor reminiscent of Tony Hillerman.  I actually found the bits about the characters and the historic interaction with Hollywood more interesting than the murder mystery.  I did have some trouble identifying with OíMalley for some reason, but otherwise the story is involving and suspenseful, with a gratifying conclusion. 9/20/09

The Red Menace (1931) 

The Shadow returns to battle agents of the Soviet Union in this, his fourth outing.  A man visits the mysterious Prince Zuvor, apparently an ousted Russian nobleman to whom he tells the name of the man to whom he delivered a fortune in jewels smuggled out of Russia. He is murdered and, a short time later, a millionaire apparently leaps to his death from his office window.  The Shadow reads the news story and immediately (!) perceives the truth, that he was murdered by an employee named Berger. Elsewhere, we are introduced to the Red Envoy, a costumed figure working for the Soviet government. The Shadow sends Harry Vincent to follow Berger, the employee he believes committed the murder and whom we also know is yet another Soviet agent, and Harry predictably gets spotted and attacked. We also discover that the Shadowís opal ring has hypnotic properties.  The glorified portrait of pre-revolutionary Russia is just as distorted as what followed, but at the time the novel was written, this wasnít unusual.  Thereís a veritable army of spies, including a mysterious lady who rescues Vincent and who turns out to be one of the good guys.  And then thereís Death Island, home to an eccentric inventor and perhaps a gaggle of ghosts.  It turns out the inventor is building ďaerial torpedoesĒ and the Reds want the secret.  The surprise revelation of the Red Envoyís secret identity isnít entirely surprising, but there are some not bad twists at the end of this one. 9/19/09

The Shadow Laughs (1931)  

The third Shadow novel opens with Henry Windsor entertaining a visitor who claims to know something important about his younger brother, Blair.  The visitor is shot before he can speak and Windsor is accused of the murder, although the investigating detective is skeptical.  The killer discovers this and the detective is knifed to death at the city morgue. Claude Fellows, who believes that his secret employer the Shadow is actually Lamont Cranston, is somewhat perplexed when Cranston claims not to remember the injuries he suffered in the previous adventure.  As usual the Shadow draws fantastically accurate conclusions from the flimsiest of evidence. We discover that Cranston is just one of the people the Shadow impersonates, taking advantage of Cranstonís frequent trips out of the country. Through subterfuge, the Shadow learns that the best knife man in town is named Crull. Harry Vincent is recruited to check out Blair Windsor and Coffran, the master criminal from the last novel, also returns. The Shadow runs afoul of treasury agents this time when he uncovers a counterfeiting ring.  Harry Vincent gets into and out of trouble and the Shadow walks into a complex trap.  Thereís a bit of a twist ending but itís mostly the usual improbable heroics. Coffran, incidentally, escapes again. 9/15/09

Snake in the Glass by Sarah Atwell, Berkley, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23031-2  

Second in a series about a glassblowing amateur detective.  I suspect Atwell is a house pseudonym and if so itís entirely possible that different titles might be by different authors.  The first one was competent but uninspired.  This one was quite a bit better.  It takes three separate situations and weaves them together.  The protagonistís brother has disappeared, she herself has had a puzzling visit by a stranger who wanted to use her kiln, and a dead body is found in the desert.  The corpse is not her brother or the stranger, but there are links to both, and Emmeline has to use all of her wits to figure out just what is going on.  Workmanlike and with a few good scenes in the second half, but nothing to get excited about. 9/11/09 

Ghastly Glass by Joyce and Jim Lavene, Berkley, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23030-5  

Iíve read books from two different series by this husband and wife writing team, and have enjoyed both.  This is the second involving a Renaissance Faire, a kind of SCA tourist attraction at which Ė inevitably Ė a murder takes place.  This time itís the Halloween season and Jessie Morton is up to her neck in boyfriend trouble, job trouble, and dead person trouble when an actor playing the Grim Reaper lives up to Ė or maybe that should be dies down to Ė his role.  The death is followed by a series of vaguely threatening messages that suggest he might not be the last to die.  There are snatches of dialogue in this one that made me cringe a little but the basic story is sound and I ignored the rough spots and found it quite pleasant overall. 9/11/09

Eyes of the Shadow by Maxwell Grant, 1931  

The second Shadow novel has a suitably mysterious opening, though it has some logical flaws.  Bruce Duncan inherits his uncleís estate and discovers that he is supposed to carry through on a pledge to distribute a substantial fortune among several men.  The information relevant to that fortune is concealed in his bedroom, but is stolen before he discovers its existence.  Why the uncle would deliberately delay conveyance of the information to his nephew for so long Ė allowing the theft to take place Ė is nonsensical but necessary to the plot.  Harry Vincent returns from the first novel, this time accidentally encountering the one villain who escaped justice in that story, Steve Cronin, while traveling by train.  Elsewhere, two men have disappeared under similar mysterious sets of circumstances.  We also know that one of Duncanís acquaintances is keeping him under surveillance, and that his Hindu servant is also acting suspiciously. Duncan is taken captive by a supposed friend of his uncle, now revealed as his secret enemy and escapes poison gas, moving walls, and other dangers including an apelike thug.  The Shadow continues to be virtually omniscient, always anticipating the villains, fooling them by leaving his hat and cloak propped up and by impersonating their henchmen.  This one also introduced Lamont Cranston, whom we are led to believe for some time is the secret identity of the Shadow.  The Shadow is sidelined for much of this one while recovering from wounds, which leaves Duncan and Vincent to carry the load, but he recovers in time for the exciting finish. 9/9/09

The Living Shadow by Maxwell Grant, 1931 

This was the very first Shadow novel, from the magazine that ran 325 issues, actually written by Walter Gibson who would write most of the novels for the entire run.   The story opens with the Shadow recruiting an assistant named Harry Vincent and setting him to watch the mysterious comings and goings of the man in the adjacent hotel room.  The man is murdered and Vincent inadvertently recovers a talisman that is needed to identify a messenger carrying valuable stolen goods from a Chinese fence to another man.  Unfortunately, when Vincent is directed to pursue the impersonation, he discovers that a second talisman, a key, is also required, and he is promptly taken captive. This leads to the resolution of a mystery involving a secret code, a complicated jewel theft, and an unlikely criminal mastermind.  The writing is crude, as you might expect from a pulp, with such wondrous constructions as ďunloosen the ravelĒ and ďthe physiognomy of a thinker.Ē  The Shadow has nearly supernatural powers of invisibility as well as being able to impersonate virtually everyone on short notice.  Not at all plausible, of course.  There is, however, a kind of enthusiasm for storytelling that I miss in much modern and more self conscious fiction. 9/6/09

Skull Duggery by Aaron Elkins, Berkley, 2009, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-425-22797-8  

This is the second Gideon Oliver mystery Iíve read, although Iíve recently picked up most of the earlier ones and added them to my mountainous stack of books to be read when I have time.  Oliver is an anthropologist who frequently gets involved in forensic work although in this case heís off to a resort in rural Mexico on a vacation while his wife helps out the owners, whom sheís known since childhood.  Thereís some tension among the various family members, but genuine affection as well.  They are haunted by a tragedy, however.  Years earlier one of the three siblings disappeared, apparently having run off with a ranchhand after he stole the company payroll.  Oliver is asked to look into the discovery of a dead man in the desert, which leads him to inquire about the body of a teenager found years earlier in the same general area.  His insatiable curiosity begins to find connections and I doubt there will be many readers who donít realize the missing woman was killed at the time of her disappearance.  On the other hand, I doubt many readers will suspect the truth revealed at the climax.  Even though I had a pretty good idea what was coming, and I was right, I was also very wrong.  Not quite as good as Uneasy Relations but still enough to make me wish I had time to read the earlier ones right away. 9/4/09

The Filigree Ball by Anna Katherine Green, 1903 

Anna Katherine Green was one of the earliest practioners of the detective story and I thought I should try some of her work.  The prose is that over inflated style popular at the time and I often wonder if in real life people acted as histrionic and self absorbed as they do in popular fiction of the time.  In any case, hers is no worse than most of her contemporaries and she concentrates so completely on the detection that I wasnít always conscious of it.  There are no side issues about the detectiveís private life, how to cultivate a garden, or the problem keeping the press away from critical information.  There are also many of the classic elements of detection Ė the broken watch that tells the time of death, a plethora of clues which the detective has to interpret for us, the suspects who tell multiple lies, not always for good reasons.  The crime involves the death of a woman in her abandoned family home, a place with a bad reputation because several people died while sitting in the library, always in the same spot.  There is considerable question whether she was murdered or committed suicide because the latest victim of the family curse died just a few days earlier when she perhaps unwisely decided to have her wedding there.  Prime suspects are her husband, her half sister, and her uncle.  The husband was already estranged from her because of her strange actions, although he did not stand to inherit her fortune.  The half sister also lost her patron, but was known to be jealous of her sisterís husband.  The uncle has the most to gain, since he inherits the family fortune.  The detective, a police officer which makes this a police procedural in fact as well as tone, weaves his way through clues and miscues and eventually uncovers a diabolical killing machine Ė no supernatural content Ė and explains the true facts of the womanís death.  A bit troublesome if the prose bothers you, but a cleverly constructed puzzle. 8/30/09

The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril by Paul Malmont, Simon & Schuster, 2006, $24, ISBN 978-0-7432-8785-2  

The premise of this homage to the pulp era is that H.P. Lovecraft was murdered after making a dangerous discovery.  Walter Gibson, author of the Shadow novels, and Lester Dent, author of Doc Savage, are bitter rivals who are enlisted into the investigation of Lovecraftís death, assisted at times by L. Ron Hubbard.  In the course of their efforts, they encounter a number of other historical characters as well, and uncover a danger that threatens the entire world and stretches from Providence to China.  Although not badly written and occasionally quite fascinating, the frequent excursions into nostalgia detract from the plot itself, which is rather low key despite its grandiose nature.  This was a lot of fun but not really an adventure story in the pulp tradition despite many of the trappings of one. 8/30/09

The Queen of Bedlam by Robert R. McCammon, Pocket, 2007, $16, ISBN 978-1-4165-5111-9

Robert R. McCammon quickly went from being a Stephen King imitator to one of the most original voices in horror fiction.  His most recent books have been the two part Speaks the Nightbird, a murder mystery set in colonial America involving a woman accused of witchcraft, and this sequel, set in pre-Revolutionary New York City.  Matthew Corbett is now clerking for a magistrate, although the course of his future will change when he encounters a woman who heads an organization which "solves problems."  He is also obsessed with the Masker murders, dismissed by the authorities as the work of a madman, which he believes to be a carefully thought out campaign of terror and intimidation.  His investigation will lead him into deadly danger and uncover a trail that leads all the way back to London.  Ordinarily I don't care for historical mysteries, but this is more of an historical adventure story that just happens to include a string of murders.  McCammon brings his historical setting to life and this quite long novel moves by with refreshing speed and directness.  And Corbett's story is clearly not over yet.  8/27/09

Dead Docket by Mitchell Graham, Forge, 2009, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2245-6  

I enjoyed the first in this mystery/thriller series, Majestic Descending, enough to keep an eye out for the next, which has now arrived.  There are two protagonists, a police detective and a female lawyer whose relationship provides some of the entertainment value here.  The tone of this one is quite unlike the first, more like a traditional mystery although elements of the thriller are present as well.  He is helping to clear up the affairs of a friendís daughter after her accidental death, and yes, the death is not exactly accidental after all.  She decides to lend a hand despite the presence of a very deadly killer, and despite her own trauma after having escaped a serial killer years earlier.  Thereís considerable suspense, particularly in the waning chapters, and I like the way the author is exploring the psychology of his two characters.   Now I get to look forward to the third. 8/17/09

Dead Write by Sheila Lowe, Obsidian, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22812-3  

I confess that I remain somewhat skeptical of handwriting analysis, which is important in this series about a forensic handwriting expert.  I wasnít particularly impressed with the first book I read by this author, but Iím glad I tried again because this one is much better.  The protagonist answers a call from an old friend to help investigate the deaths of several clients, which predictably annoys her predictable police detective boyfriend.  The world of swinging singles, desperate and egocentric, is very well drawn and is just as repellent as you might expect. Claudia Rose comes across as a much more realistic though still rather predictable person.  She shares my opinion of the dating scene, but sheís obligated to pursue her investigation, which leads to a surprising revelation.  Skeptical or not, I found the story engaging and convincing, though I had a pretty good idea how it was going to come out well ahead of our heroine.  It goes by very quickly. 8/9/09

The Sword of the Templars by Paul Christopher, Signet, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22740-9 

Although there are trends in thrillers just like any other genre, I donít recall anything even close to the fascination with historical secrets, Biblical or otherwise, that lead to violence in the present day, presumably a product of the popularity of Dan Brownís novels.  In this one, a semi-retired military man inherits a medieval sword from his uncle, an object which makes him the target of a mysterious group that has existed for generations without the general public becoming aware of it.  That precipitates an investigation into the dead uncleís past, and his membership in a secret society dating from ancient times.  Much violence ensues as well.  This is a fast moving adventure story whose plot isnít strong on surprises but everything moves as plausibly as possible given the premise and it really zips by. 8/4/09

Rotten to the Core by Sheila Connolly, Berkley, 2009, 6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22876-0  

Another theme mystery, this one revolving around an apple orchard.  The protagonist has inherited the orchard and is still struggling to learn the ropes of apple growing when a dead body shows up on her property.  It isnít long before sheís nominated as the prime suspect.  There are odd aspects of the crime, including the presence of pesticide in the dead manís body, even though he was a fanatic organic farmer.  In standard mystery novel style, she has to solve the crime in order to clear her own name, which she does after a surprisingly good series of events and conversations.  Either I was in the mood for one of these or this is just a very good example because I enjoyed it thoroughly from start to finish. 7/29/09

The Angel of the Opera by Sam Siciliano, Penzler, 1994 

Although Iím not as much a fan of Sherlock Holmes as are his devotees, I occasionally like a fresh look, and this one starts with the assumption that Watson was inaccurate in his portrayal.  The narrator is Holmesí cousin, who disliked Watson intensely, and relates their trip to Paris to solve the mystery of the Phantom of the Opera, as in the novel by Gaston Leroux.  The story proceeds reasonably well and there are some clever touches, but I found the prose occasionally offputting, and more significantly, the Phantom is revealed to be just another clichťd villain with none of the depth of character that Leroux managed to evoke.  Not a particularly bad book, but not a particularly good one either. 7/28/09

Midnight Room by Ed Gorman, Leisure, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6108-9  

Dueling criminals often makes for a good plot, particularly if theyíre interesting in their own right.  In always reliable Ed Gormanís latest, a moderately inventive burglar breaks into the wrong house and steals videotapes which prove that his victim is actually a sadistic serial killer.  That seems like a potential gold mine when criminal one starts blackmailing criminal two, threatening to make his knowledge public.  But itís a risky enterprise for even the cleverest rogue, and no matter how many precautions he takes, we always know that the blackmailee is eventually going to be proven smarter.  The duel of wits is the high point of the novel, obviously.  Although I had a pretty good idea how things were going to work out, the author kept me guessing until almost the very end, and the path he takes to get to the ending is interesting in its own right.  7/20/09

Dust to Dust by Beverly Connor, Obsidian, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22768-3 

I find myself actively looking forward to books in this series about Diane Fallon, forensic investigator.  This one opens with a lot going on very quickly.  A woman is attacked in her home and, some hours later, a group of police and crime scene technicians are attacked by gun wielding, ski-masked bad guys, at least four of them, who steal something from the house, although one of them is killed in the ensuing fire fight. Shortly thereafter, Fallon is asked to help with a case involving a young girlís death, ruled suicide by the police, but after just a cursory look at the evidence Fallon knows it was homicide. Thereís another murder and an assassin shows up at Fallonís house for a rather violent confrontation.  Connor has a real talent at depicting obnoxious people and there are several of them this time.  This is more procedural than mystery; the killer is introduced relatively late in the book, and readers will be suspicious almost immediately, but there are some twists that youíre not likely to predict.  I wasnít at all disappointed and will be watching for the next in the series. 7/17/09

The Last Nightingale by Anthony Flacco, Ballantine, 2007, $12.95, ISBN 978-0-8129-7757-8

I donít remember who recommended this to me, but itís been sitting around for a while and I finally decided to read it.  The setting is the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.  Two serial killers are apparently at work Ė one a woman who kills her victims by throwing a knife into the back of their neck, the other a psychotic egotist who starts by butchering the Nightingale family.  The title refers to their adopted son, a young boy who secretly witnesses the murder but feels guilty and stutters whenever he talks.  He helps a local police officer solve another murder, which brings the two together, but at first the boy cannot speak about the crime he witnessed.  But then the killer discovers that he left one Nightingale alive and decides to complete his work.  A pretty good thriller over all although the pacing was a little slow in the middle.  It inspired me to pick up a book about the earthquake itself. 7/13/09

The Cheater by Nancy Taylor Rosenberg, Forge, 2009, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1902-9  

Female serial killers are almost as rare in fiction as they are in real life.  This very engaging thriller involves one, but sheís not a cookie cutter killer either.  She specializes.  All of her victims are cheating on their wives, or attempting to with her, and she only kills them when sheís sure theyíre going to be unfaithful.  She is also very good at planning and disguises, can even pass for a man, and remains cool and collected throughout.  The protagonist is a judge with a troubled past whose insights have led her to solve previous mysteries Ė which I have not read. Thereís also a talented FBI agent and a subplot involving the judgeís ex-husband, who is arrested for sexual assault.  Two apparently separate investigations converge, predictably, but with excitement and gripping suspense.  A bit out of the ordinary for me to pick this one up, but thatís a good thing. 7/10/09

Royal Flush by Rhys Bowen, Berkley, 2009, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-425-22788-6  

The third adventure of Lady Georgiana, 34th in line to the throne of England in 1932, is as delightful as the first two.  This time sheís enlisted by the authorities to investigate a series of mysterious accidents which are befalling members of the royal family.  Everyone is in Scotland so she heads home, to find her brotherís house full of obstreperous visitors including the Prince Regentís mistress.  Before long she nearly died herself.  The mystery element is actually fairly slight.  I guessed the killer well in advance and the murders are understated and take place late in the book.  There are also too many coincidence again, and several questions left unresolved, but I enjoyed it thoroughly anyway.  The protagonist carries the book even over its roughest spots. 7/7/09

Wicked Prey by John Sandford, Putnam, 2009, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-399-15567-3  

The latest Lucas Davenport mystery is a real page turner. There are two convergent cases this time.  The first pits Davenport and his friends against a gang who are taking advantage of the Republican National Convention to rob people carrying illegal cash payoffs.  They are well organized and brutal and they have a big finale planned.  The second is an old case, a disable ex-con who decides he wants revenge and plans to get it through Davenportís soon to be adopted daughter, Letty.  I ordinarily dislike the child in jeopardy style thriller, but in this case Letty is well able to take care of herself, although the plan she concocts when she realizes she is being stalked is not always clear.  Lots of action and a big finale in this police procedural, a solid entry in one of my favorite series. 6/28/09

Walking Dead by Greg Rucka, Bantam, 2009, $25, ISBN 978-0-553-80474-4 

This looked like it might provide a nice change of pace from the other mysteries Iíve read recently and I was right.  The protagonist is Atticus Kodiak, a former bodyguard and certainly one of the more unusual investigators in what appears to be a series.  The story opens in the former Soviet state of Georgia with a vicious massacre of all but one member of a family.  When the police demonstrate reluctance to investigate further, he and his lover, an ex-assassin, are off on a tour of various parts of the world as they try to track down those responsible and rescue a young girl.  But there is something percolating beneath the main plot that could have even longer lasting consequences.  A nice solid thriller, with plenty of action for those who get bored by quiet detection. 6/10/09

Crucified by Michael Slade, Severn House, 2008, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-84751-080-8 

Iíve been a big fan of the Special X novels by Michael Slade ever since the first one, and I had mixed reactions when I learned that the newest book was not in that series, the first time the Slade name Ė itís a pseudonym used by various combinations of people Ė has been used this way.  It has many of the same elements Ė alternation between contemporary and historical settings, an international secret, a vicious serial killer Ė but it also incorporates elements of The Da Vinci Code, since this one involves a biblical secret lost during World War II. The hero is a lawyer who now works writing books exposing covered up secrets who gets involved with the descendants of a bomber crew shot down under mysterious circumstances during the war.  Someone begins kidnapping and torturing them to death.  It reads very quickly, but ultimately I was disappointed.  It seemed like the sketch for a novel rather than a finished product, with lots of short sentences and paragraphs.  Thereís not much depth to the characters either, and I never really cared who might live and who might die.  I also anticipated the solution to the quasi-locked room mystery on the bomber  Okay and perfectly readable, but not up to Sladeís usual standard. 6/5/09

Murder on Waverly Place by Victoria Thompson, Berkley, 2009, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-425-22775-6 

The previous book in this gaslight mystery series was so good that I went out and bought the ten earlier books in the series (though I havenít had time to look at them yet).  The protagonist Ė Sarah Brandt - is a young female doctor who has an uneasy relationship with her wealthy parents in 1890s New York.  This time her mother has become involved with a fake medium and one of her fellow dupes is stabbed to death during a sťance.  Thatís particularly problematic because everyone in the room was supposedly holding hands at the time.  I found this to be a slow starter, probably because the sťance scenes and associated background have been done so many times before that they felt repetitious.  And some of the initial interviews are very repetitive.  Once the preliminaries are out of the way, things pick up a bit but most of the story consists of interviews with the various suspects.  Since I could think of two or three ways the murder could have been done, there wasnít much suspense about the method and since almost everyone had a motive, that element of mystery was missing as well.  Iíd say that I was mildly disappointed by this one, but only because my expectations were so high.  Itís still better than a lot of recent mysteries Iíve read. 6/1/09

The Diva Takes the Cake by Krista Davis, Berkley, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22840-1 

This was my first sampling of this series, which turns out to be a standard cosy in form, although the unwinding of the solution is unusually complex.  The protagonist has been working on preparations for her sisterís wedding, even though she isnít entirely convinced that she likes the husband to be.  Then some odd things begin happening culminating in the murder of his ex-wife and disruption of the ceremony.  The unofficial investigation turns up a lot of stuff the police should have found easily Ė a mix of murder, stolen identity, jewel theft, and a few other assorted crimes.  The characters are better drawn than in most similar series.  Not so impressive that Iíll go looking for the others, but if they or sequels turn up, Iíll probably read them. 5/24/09

By Hook or By Crook by Betty Hechtman, Berkley, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22838-8 

The previous book in this series of crochet related mysteries wasnít bad, although I guessed the solution pretty quickly that time, so I decided to try another.  A diary and other personal items show up at a social event and the crochet circle decides to find the owner, but unfortunately fail to do so before she turns up murdered - an eventuality that I anticipated.  A tangled web of extramarital sex and other peccadilloes slowly untangles itself as they intrude into the investigation.  I didnít guess the killer until almost the end this time, and the writing seemed to me to be stronger, with the story advancing quite quickly.  Mark this one as slightly above average. 5/24/09

The Language of Bees by Laurie R. King, Bantam, 2009, $25, ISBN 978-0-553-80454-6 

I thoroughly enjoyed five of the first six books in this series about Mary Russell, a young woman who marries the aging Sherlock Holmes and becomes his co-investigator in a variety of cases.  This new one involves the appearance of Holmesí son, by Irene Adler, and the disappearance of the daughter in law he never realized that he had.  Father and son go off to search for her while Mary pursues her own investigation, after a while.  The while is the main reason that this was the second in the series that I found disappointing.  So little happens in the first one hundred plus pages that my attention was drifting and when the story finally turns up the pace, it was too late to draw me completely back.  Itís about a weird religious cult, among other things, and thereís really not all that much mystery about whatís going on or who is responsible.  If you donít mind a very slow pace, this is as well written otherwise as Iíve come to expect from this author. 5/19/09

Killer Cuts by Elaine Viets, Obsidian, 2009, $22.95, ISBN 978-0-451-22686-0

Viets' continuing heroine/detective is a professional woman who gave up her career rather than pay alimony to her leechlike ex-husband, who conveniently got himself murdered in the last book.  Now she's working at a hairdressing salon owned by a flamboyant type who gets into an argument with a Hollywood gossip columnist who is clearly not a nice person.  Columnist gets pushed into a pool and drowns at his own wedding party, and despite a malevolent ex-wife, alienated daughter, and a new wife who stands to inherit millions of dollars, the chief suspect is the salon owner because he was caught on tape threatening the dead man's life only hours beforehand.  Helen, our hero, gets caught up in her own investigation and, not surprisingly, almost becomes a victim herself.  There's a serious mystery here draped with considerable wry humor that usually works, although sometimes it seems inappropriate given what is actually happening.  It's a fairly light weight mystery, but perfect for when you don't want to have to work really hard on a book.  5/13/09

The Killing Way by Tony Hays, Forge, 2009, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1945-6

The Lancelot Murders by J.M.C. Blair, Berkley, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22813-5 

Since these two Arthurian mysteries showed up within a couple of days of one another, I decided to read them consecutively.  I had already read the previous volume in this series by Blair (who writes horror as Michael Paine) but Hays was completely new to me.  In his novel, Arthur is on the verge of becoming king of all Britain when the murder of a young woman disrupts matters.  Merlin is accused of the crime and Arthur turns to a one-armed, embittered man with a brilliantly logical mind to unravel the mystery.  Thereís quite a bit of action in this as well as detection, and the story Ė not particularly long Ė seems to fly by.  Nicely done in almost every way.  Merlin is the detective in Blairís novel, aided by intelligence, intuition, and knowledge, though he has no magical powers in either of these books.  This one is set later in Arthurís reign.  Guinevere and Lancelot are living together and Arthur refrains from acting against them, although he is considerably nonplused when they begin to claim that they are the rightful rulers.  Then Guinevereís father is murdered and Lancelot is the prime suspect, a situation which seems well suited to Arthurís purposes.  But Merlin canít let a mystery lie unsolved. Slightly denser prose but another good mystery to be ferreted out.  Both of these are unusually good as historical mysteries.  One observation: Hays uses archaic speech patterns, a tradition in historical fiction that I donít favor.  Blair uses conventional dialogue Ė they were, after all, not speaking anything we could readily identify as English in the first place Ė which I find a more sensible and satisfying technique. 5/8/09

Patterns in the Sand by Sally Goldenbaum, Obsidian, 2009, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-451-22703-4   

Hereís a perfect mystery to take with you to the beach.  It has a good plot, itís not too prose heavy, has no hidden agenda, and is smoothly written.  The setting is a seaside town in New England where a visiting expert on knitting shows up in an unexpected fashion shortly before the owner of a knitting studio is found murdered.  Thereís a mystery to be solved and the local knitting club rises to the challenge, but before theyíre done theyíll uncover a wealth of secrets, some of them with unfortunately consequences for members of the community.  Iím generally not happy with theme mysteries, most of which seem to be more interested in the theme than in the mystery, but this one strikes a nice balance between the two elements.  It also just happened to come up right after Iíd finished a rather dark and intense novel, and the contrast probably didnít hurt at all. 5/5/09

The Third Revelation by Ralph McInerney, Jove, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-515-14592-2  

Another thriller that at least nods toward The Da Vinci Code.  This one opens with an assassin penetrating the Vatican, murdering two cardinals and a couple of others, before escaping.  His purpose is unknown but it appears to be linked either to the prophecies of Fatima or the attempted assassination of the Pope by Soviet authorities years earlier, or more likely both.  There is also a renegade faction of priests who believe the Vatican has become corrupted and that the official story has been falsified.  They have planted a mole who has managed to steal the original document, but his loyalties may have switched to a billionaire Catholic fanatic with his own agenda.  Enter Vincent Traeger, ex-CIA operative, who suspects almost immediately that the intruder was an old enemy of his from the Cold War days. Unfortunately this was all spoiled for me by the concluding chapters in which Europe finally realizes that it has been acting contrary to God, expels all of its Muslim population, dissolves the European Union, bans pornography and abortion, and so forth and so on.  A promising thriller turned into simpleminded propaganda. 5/5/09

Dark Side of the Morgue by Raymond Benson, Leisure, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6198-0 

Murder mysteries set in the world of rock music are near the bottom of my preferred subject list for reading, but I liked the previous book in this series so I tried another.  Spike Berenger runs a security firm that specializes in rock groups and musicians, so heís a natural to be called when the police refuse to believe that a series of shootings or over the hill musicians from the Chicago area who all played together at one point are connected.  The others from the group suspect it is connected to a woman who disappeared and was presumed dead forty years earlier.  Two more men are killed in separate incidents, both right in front of Berenger, which makes him personally interested in solving the case, despite the lack of cooperation from the officer in charge of the investigation. A real surprise ending on this one and I was pulled in so quickly that I read it in a single sitting.  Highly recommended. 4/29/09

The Deepest Cut by Dianne Emley, Ballantine, 2009, $24, ISBN 978-0-345-49952-3  

Although Iím fond of well written suspense novels featuring crazed serial killers, I have to admit that most of them arenít very well written and some donít have any idea how a real one operates.  This one, I am happy to say, was pretty convincing and very suspenseful.  The killer has an obsession with women in uniform, as we see early on when he murders a park ranger.  The protagonist is a police officer who managed to survive an encounter with him, although it has left her emotionally scarred and determined to bring him to justice even though she isnít supposed to be involved in the investigation.  She makes a not entirely plausible leap of judgment while assigned to another case, convinced that thereís a connection to her assailant, which naturally proves to be the case.  That cavil aside, the story is very strongly told, the protagonist is a compelling character, and the villain is nasty enough to make the reader look forward to his undoing.  Thereís a mild romantic interest as well, but itís almost superfluous.  A nice solid thriller. 4/29/09

Black Hats by Patrick Culhane, Harper, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-089254-8  

In real life, Wyatt Earp retired, moved to California, and became a consultant to the film industry relative to westerns.  In this mystery novel by Max Allan Collins (under a pseudonym) he finds employment as well as a private detective.  An old friend Ė actually Doc Hollidayís mistress Ė talks him into trying to intervene in the life of Docís son, who has gone astray and is living a life of crime.  This takes Earp back to the East where, among other things, he crosses paths with Al Capone and Bat Masterson.  The name dropping is fun and at times the story is quite compelling, but unlike most of the authorís other books Iíve read, I never really had any sense of the atmosphere of the places Earp visits.  A fun read but Collins has done much better. 4/24/09

Mary Janeís Grave by Stacy Dittrich, Leisure, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6160-7 

This police procedural mystery might have been a pretty good faux horror novel as well if it hadnít been so obvious from its tone that there was going to be a rational explanation.  A young girl is murdered near the grave of a young woman who was killed about a century earlier after being accused of witchcraft.  The obvious suggestion is that the killer was the ghost of the dead witch, or someone influenced by her power, but the protagonist, a police officer, has no patience with supernatural explanations and eventually uncovers the real culprit.  Although the story itself is pretty good, the motivation for the killings never convinced me and the plot Ė that of the villains not of the author Ė was unnecessarily and unwisely complex.   Pretty good until the mildly disappointing solution. 4/24/09

The First Apostle by James Becker, Signet, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22670-9 

I almost passed over this one because it looked like yet another clone of The Da Vinci Code, to which it does bear some more than superficial resemblance.  A woman surprises two men uncovering an inscription on her fireplace in Italy and is accidentally killed.  Her grieving husband and our protagonist, a police detective from England who was also in love with the dead woman, arrive to clear things up and discover that it was not entirely an accident.  Before long theyíre tracking down the meaning of an inscription from Biblical times and dodging a small army of Cosa Nostra gunmen, who have a working partnership with the Vatican in an ages old search for missing documents whose nature we donít know until the end, although there are hints that they prove that Jesus never actually existed.  The action starts early and continues throughout, most of it exciting and reasonably plausible.  I was, however, unconvinced by the almost supernatural ease with which our hero examines very minor clues and immediately jumps to the correct conclusions about what really happened.  I suspended my disbelief over that one with some harrumphing, but once past it I was carried along for a thrilling ride to the inevitable conclusion.  4/22/09

A Corpse for Yew by Joyce & Jim Lavene, Berkley, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22810-4 

This is the second book Iíve read in this series about a forensic botanist, a device that provides an unusual perspective on the traditional cosy.  The protagonist is having trouble with her over bearing parents which she tries to forget by concentrating on her work recovering and identifying objects from an archaeological dig.  Unfortunately what turns up is a corpse, and not a very old one, with some unusual physical alterations.  Of course, investigating a murder isnít the safest occupation, even if it does get you away from your parents.  I liked this a lot better than the previous one.  The characters seem much more realistic and the prose itself remains crisp and clear.  The authors also have another series about a quasi-SCA group that is also interesting. 4/21/09

Boca Knights by Steven M. Forman, Forge, 2009, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1987-X  

The first in the Eddie Perlmutter series runs through his family history, his marriage, career as a police officer, retirement, and move to Florida in the first sixty pages.  Although this is a pretty long prelude for a mystery or crime novel, itís entertaining, although I could do without the conversations between the protagonist and his penis. The rest of the humorous content, and thereís quite a bit of it, works much better. Suffering from arthritis, Eddie takes up security work at a golf club, but that doesnít work out.   Eventually he gets involved with the Russian Mafia, counterfeiting, white supremacists, an orphan looking for a home, and solves an old, open homicide case, while finding time to learn the history of Haiti and have two love affairs.  I should not have enjoyed this book.  Eddie is a kind of elderly Dirty Harry with more charm and wit and the pecker jokes were repetitive and often unfunny.  Despite all this, I was completely sucked in and read it essentially in one sitting.  Thereís a sequel in the works and I will be reading that as well. 4/10/09 

Wild Sorrow by Sandi Ault, Berkley, 2009, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-425-22583-7  

Jamaica Wild works for the Bureau of Land Management, but this is the third time thatís led her into a murder investigation.  While tracking a cougar, she shelters from a storm in an abandoned building and finds the body of an elderly woman.  Although not directly involved in the subsequent investigation, the reader will anticipate that sheíll be instrumental in the solution.  As with the previous books in the series, thereís considerable native American lore mixed in.  The dead woman was a sadistic teacher at a school that brutalized its students years earlier, and the revenge motive is obvious. Then someone tries to kill Jamaica even though she doesnít appear to know anything more.  Throw in problems with her pet wolf, who has been wandering, and her boyfriend, who appears to want to wander, a wounded cougar, and an uncooperative landlord and you have multiple sources of tension and conflict in this very fine installment in the series.  I was, however, a bit bothered by the multiple jeopardizes the protagonist finds herself in.  Since it was clear that someone has been trying to kill her and the police know it, they would surely have provided better coverage. 4/10/09

The Coldest Mile by Tom Piccirilli, Bantam, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-59085-2 

Tom Piccirilli reminds me a good deal of Jack Ketchum crossed with Dashiell Hammett in this latest crime thriller.  The protagonist is an ex-con man who reformed in order to marry the woman he loved, and whose life shifts again following her murder.  He decides to venture over to the other side of the law for a while, but the criminal organization he hitches up with has problems of its own, and our hero might end up being collateral damage.  This is all intertwined with a second major plotline involving efforts to rescue a child from being raised by a psychopathic crook.  Complications ensue from both sides of the problem, building to a refreshingly crisp climax.  This oneís not a traditional mystery novel as such, but fans of crime fiction and suspense should both be more than satisfied. 4/7/09

Mrs. Jeffries in the Nick of Time by Emily Brightwell, Berkley, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22678-0 

I really should have tried this series sooner Ė this is the 24th title, I believe.  Itís set in the Victorian era and itís exactly my favorite kind of mystery, the amateur detective with a talent for deduction.  In this case the detective is Mrs. Jeffries, housekeeper for Inspector Witherspoon of Scotland Yard.  Although the inspector gets most of the credit and does some of the legwork, the truth is that the brains of the operation belong primarily to Mrs. Jeffries.  This time the case involves a possibly senile man who is murdered in his room in a house full of family.  Who sneaked upstairs and offed the old man?  Is the sound of the gunshot exactly what it seems to be?  Who had the most compelling motive?  Thereís just enough Victorian background to give the story some flavor without overwhelming the plot, the characters are well drawn, and the dialogue is crisp.  I guess I have another 23 books to read. 3/29/09

The Private Patient by P.D. James, Knopf, 2008, $25.95, ISB 978-0-307-27077-1 

Somehow I missed noticing this when it came out last year, and since James is my second favorite mystery writer of all time (following only Dorothy L. Sayers), I was very pleased to discover its existence.  Iíd only read about fifty pages before I remembered the beauty of her prose, and a confidence in the writing that makes most of her contemporaries look like amateurs. This one involves the murder of an investigative journalist hours after she has plastic surgery to remove a scar on her face.  She is staying at a private clinic at the time, a country house with only one other patient in residence.  There are various tensions among the staff Ė a recently ended love affair, a decision to change employers Ė as well as superstitions about a haunted stone circle nearby.  The early chapters show us events from several separate viewpoints, which together provide a great deal of insight into the characters.  At first there doesn't appear to be any connection between the victim and any of the suspects, but of course there are, and that comes out during the course of the meticulous investigation.  The primary motive is not revealed until the closing chapters, after the murderer is unmasked, but it's not a cheat in this case because there were other reasons revealed earlier and, as detective Dalgliesh explains, motive is not always a significant factor in determining guilt or innocence.  Wonderfully written, I was up until almost 3:00 AM finishing this, which doesn't happen very often.  3/23/09

Execution Dock by Anne Perry, Ballantine, 2009, $26, ISBN 978-0-345-48933-5 

I got around to trying one of the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt Victorian mysteries by Perry recently and liked it a lot, so I expected to like this one, which is part of her second Victorian series, this one involving William Monk of the River Police.  Itís an altogether different kind of story in a very different Victorian world.  The first involved the nobility, in fact a member of the royal family was a prime suspect.  This is set in Londonís gritty, poor, crime ridden underside.  The first was a classic detective story in format; in this case we know who the killer is, although we donít know who is supporting him (although I thought it was obvious from the moment the character appeared).  Monk fulfills an obligation to a dead man, as well as deriving personal satisfaction, when he apprehends a man known to keep a brother for young boys where he murdered at least one.  Monkís friend, Rathbone, manages to defend the man successfully through some clever maneuvering and some sloppiness on the part of Monk and his friends.  So they have to build a new case against the villain, despite the protection afforded him by certain members of the upper class.  This was quite good, but I liked the other Ė Buckingham Palace Gardens Ė much better. 3/22/09

Murder of a Royal Pain by Denise Swanson, Obsidian, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22658-7 

I was reminded of the movie Jawbreaker while reading this, the latest in a series Iíve not encountered previously.  Someone has murdered the mother of one of the high school beauties competing to be prom queen, a pushy type who understandably had made a few enemies.  But the victim was wearing a distinctive costume duplicating that of the school psychologist Ė our protagonist.  So who was the intended victim?  And even if she wasnít, will her subsequent investigation cast her as act two?  Add in a person working under false pretenses, a boyfriend who seems to be having second thoughts, and a few other minor subplots to keep things moving and you have a rather successful if not groundbreaking detective story.  Swansonís prose is more interesting than that of most of her contemporaries, another bonus. 3/22/09

Wormwood by Susan Wittig Albert, Berkley, 2009, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-425-22609-4 

China Bayles is back, this time out of her usual element.  She goes with a friend to an abandoned Shaker camp that has been turned into a non-profit, although the current head of the corporation wants to change that by building a resort spa.  Almost immediately upon arriving, she learns from the accountant that substantial funds are missing from the endowment, and that a former employee committed suicide after being caught stealing relatively petty cash.  Then the accountant is murdered and the already sinister atmosphere grows more so despite the outward appearance that it was an accidental death.  The contemporary story is intermixed with that of the Shaker settlement in the early 20th Century, where internal problems and pressure from a man determined to develop the surrounding area aggravate the already declining fortunes of the small community.  Frankly, the Shakers come across as naÔve and deluded, which is not necessarily what the author intended.  The mystery isnít badly handled, but it really isnít the focus of the novel, a trend that has been obvious in the last several in this series, and I guessed who the killer was BEFORE the murder was even committed. 3/19/09

The Adversary by Michael Walters, Berkley, 2009, $15, ISBN 978-0-425-22596-7

I was really impressed with the first book in this series, The Shadow Walker, in which two Mongolian police officers are pitted against a serial killer.  The follow up is even more of a police procedural Ė though the setting and some of the police procedures are quite different than they are in most similar books Ė involving a crime lord who has recently escaped prison thanks to a police officerís creation of fake evidence in an effort to put a known criminal behind bars.  Our two protagonists from the first book are back, investigating the incident, corruption in the police force which may have been protecting the bad guy in the past, and also become involved with a more recent, particularly brutal murder.  Most of the elements from the first are back and are as good as ever, although I didnít think this one was nearly as suspenseful, probably because the chief villain is believable but kind of dull. 3/15/09

Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers, audiobook read by Ian Carmichael, Audio Partners, 2000

This is one of the lesser of the Peter Wimsey novels, one of the few that was not adapted for television a few years back, probably because so much of it is passive.  A doctor tells Wimsey of a suspicious death of a dying old woman.  Her niece appears almost certain to be the killer, but there is no evidence that she was drugged, no real motive since the terminally ill woman had left everything to her in any case.  But there are mysterious references to a lawyer, efforts to get rid of a nurse and two housemaids who may have seen something incriminating, and other evidence.  Wimsey employs a female acquaintance to ferret out information in that town while he and a Scotland Yard inspector look into other matters.  In due course Wimsey figures out the motive, which involves a change in the British laws of inheritance, and weíve known from very early on who was responsible.  But how did she bring about the elderly womanís death without leaving anything suspicious to be discovered during the autopsy?  The plot is almost a police procedural as Wimsey and company unravel a complex thread of impersonation by a clever, devious, and determined woman.  Although not as obviously superior as some of her other novels, this is a quiet little masterpiece of detection. 3/15/09

Dakota by Martha Grimes, New American Library, 2009, $16, ISBN 978-0-451-22589-4 

Martha Grimes is another mystery writer Iíve always meant to try.  This, her newest, is the sequel to one I havenít read, which introduced a young woman with amnesia who calls herself Andi Oliver.  Alas, this didnít make a good opening impression on me and didnít do much to mend it thereafter.  Within the first twenty pages, Oliver has rescued a mistreated farm animal, driven off a pair of potential rapists, irritated the head of one of the most powerful families in the area, and made some new friends.  The balance of the novel deals with her efforts to blend in, for a while at least, her job at a pig farm, her revulsion at the practices there and what she does about it, local politics, and other tensions are reasonably well done, but I think the novel just tried too hard.  The animal abuse became a lecture rather than a theme, beaten into the readerís consciousness at every opportunity, and some of the villains were such disappointing caricatures that I felt no sense of menace.  Iíd like to try something by Grimes in another vein because there were lots of good sections sprinkled through the book, but Iím afraid I wonít be looking for the prequel to this one. 3/10/09

Scoop! by Hannah Dennison, Berkley, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22643-8 

As you might have surmised from the title, this mystery novel is about a reporter, Vicky Hill, whose beat is a quiet little town in rural England.  Alas, her job is that of a lowly obituary writer, but that proves to be the gateway to bigger things.  When a local handyman is killed by an accident she considers improbable and suspicious, she uncovers hidden tensions and almost requires an obituary herself.  Although this is competently written and enjoyable, I have to protest against the opening assumption.  It is in fact the experienced person who is just as likely to have the kind of accident described here because many people become careless through familiarity.  On the other hand, I had never realized that hedge cutting could be such a competitive and contentious human endeavor, but then we always manage to find ways to fight with one another, donít we?  The first in this series was quite good and this one's even better. 3/4/09

A Lie for a Lie by Emilie Richards, Berkley, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22664-3  

This is the first novel Iíve read by Emilie Richards and naturally itís part of a series.  The protagonist/detective is the wife of a minister who in this case has volunteered/been volunteered to help babysit a temperamental and not very likable celebrity who is helping out at the local talent show.  Our star makes enemies with astonishing ease, so itís no surprise when he ends up dead.  Then we learn more about the actorís past, some of it borderline bizarre, and eventually the dead manís ex-wife is arrested for the crime.  The reader and the protagonist both know that this is a miscarriage of justice so our heroine saddles up to find the real killer, even if that means putting her own life in jeopardy.  The mystery element is handled well but thereís a kind of odd light humor at times that didnít quite work for me, like the organization whose acronym turns out to be SNOT.  Not a big enough issue to matter but it was mildly irritating. 2/24/09        

Leftover Dead by Jimmie Ruth Evans, Berkley, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22560-8  

A Trailer Park mystery, with recipes.  Sigh.  A newlywed finds time to abandon her husband in order to investigate an old murder that is sending new ripples through the community.  Fortunately, he gets interested as well.  They start asking questions and tracking down people connected to the case, one of whom promptly gets himself murdered.  That makes it more than an academic question, obviously, and they have to follow through before they are added to the list of victims.  One of the better constructed mysteries Iíve read recently, and the rural Southern setting was a nice variation of the small town story.  Like most contemporary mysteries, the story is relatively lightweight, but the characters are actually pretty interesting, sort of Nick and Nora Charles if they hadnít been wealthy.  2/19/09 

Mrs. Malory and a Time to Die by Hazel Holt, Obsidian, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22569-6  

Iíve been noticing titles in this series in bookstores for years and decided it was time to try one.  Sheila Malory is a very active grandmother who, presumably, solves a crime in each installment.  This one opens with Malory getting involved with a riding stable, thanks to her granddaughterís enthusiasm for horses.  It introduces an awful lot of named characters in a short period of time, several of whom are not relevant to the story, but otherwise it proceeds smoothly and convincingly to the first murder.  At first it appears to be an accident in the stables with an unruly horse.  I confess that I found the wifeís reaction to the death unconvincing, however.  She doesnít even bear a grudge against the horse that is supposedly responsible. Then a relative dies of an apparently heart attack, and the wife of the first man is electrocuted in another ďaccidentĒ.  It appears likely this is all part of a plot to get control of the land where the stable is located.  There are surprises at the end, one of which is that Malory doesnít solve the crime.  Another character reveals the truth almost spontaneously.  Entertaining, but I was a bit troubled by the fact that the motive is only introduced during the confession. Quite different from most cosies, Iíll be adding Holt to my watch-for list. 2/19/09

Dead Over Heels by Charlaine Harris, Berkley, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22303-1

A Fool and His Honey by Charlaine Harris, Berkley, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22639-1 

Two Aurora Teagarden murder mysteries, part of a series originally published back in the 1990s.  I actually like these as much or better than her more popular supernatural adventures.  The first one opens with a small plane circling over Auroraís house and dropping a dead body in her back yard.  The victim was a policeman whom she had had words with years earlier, but there seems to be no other connection.  Then strange flowers are sent anonymously to the house, her pet cat acquires a ribbon around her neck, and a supposed federal officer keeps asking questions that donít seem related to the crime at hand.  Then a woman is fatally assaulted after a public confrontation with Aurora, and one of her friends is attacked near her house.  Itís pretty clear that someone has a grudge and is acting on it, but who?  And why? Compulsively readable. 

The second one starts a bit slower but picks up speed fast. Auroraís husbandís niece shows up unexpectedly with a baby.  Later that night, her husband is found dead nearby, the baby is alone, and the mother has disappeared.  Aurora and her husband travel back to his home town to try to figure out whatís going on, and they uncover some pretty twisted information about the niece and her husband, their neighbors, and the town in general.  This one has a very violent and even tragic ending.  Not quite as good as the first Ė and I thought the title was completely inappropriate Ė but still a very pleasant reading experience.  I regret that Harris has apparently abandoned this series permanently. 2/12/09

Cottage Sinister by Q. Patrick, 1931  

Patrick Quentin aka Quentin Patrick aka Jonathan Stagge aka Q. Patrick was variously a  combination of three different writers.  I have always been a big fan of The Grindle Nightmare, and some years ago I tracked down all of the Peter Duluth mystery series and a few other novels, but this is one of the several I missed. It is their first published book. Two sisters are poisoned on consecutive evenings while visiting their mother, a retired nurse living at a guest cottage on the Crosby estate.  This leaves the third sister, Lucy, and her mother.  Lucy is mildly involved with the heir to the Crosby title, currently working as a doctor.  Inspector Inge is sent from Scotland Yard to investigate at the request of Sir Harry Crosby, whose wife is out of the area and doesnít learn of the deaths until a chance encounter with Inge on the train from London.  Also involved is a woman named Vivien, whom the elder Crosby couple would prefer to see married to their son. Lady Crosby is found dead, also poisoned, and Lucy is on the verge of arrest when her lover figures out who was responsible and how the murders were committed.  The middle third is very slow moving but in general this is quite good, though not nearly as impressive as their later work. 2/8/09

Scattered Graves by Beverly Connor, Obsidian, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22614-3

I should know better than to start a book I suspect is going to be engrossing late in the evening, and I was up until the wee hours of the morning with this one, my second Diane Fallon mystery.  Fallon is a forensic anthropologist, director of a small private museum, and occasional consultant to the police.  Her newest adventure has multiple converging puzzles.  A police officer who has disliked her for some time attempts to murder her and is accidentally killed in the process.  A farmer finds humans remains when he plows an old field.  The new mayorís cronies launch an aggressive, offensive, and illegal campaign to seize control of some of the museumís assets Ė and their battle is actually more interesting than the murder mystery.  Then the mayor and the chief of police are both murdered, possibly by a popular senior police detective, although we readers know that heís innocent.  The suddenly extinct regime is also linked to the earlier murder of a popular judge and suspected of some as yet undetermined conspiracy.  It is also clear that the true mastermind has yet to be revealed.  Compulsively readable and cleverly plotted, this is much better than the first I read by Connor, and I liked that one as well.  The SF fan in me also appreciated the references to Tolkien and Heinlein.  All of the separate story strands are nicely brought together at the end.  One tiny quibble.  At one point it is obvious that one of the mayorís appointees, who superseded her, is both corrupt and incompetent.  She feels vindicated, then ashamed to feel that way.  Why?  She wasnít gloating over a fallen enemy; she was pleased by the proof that she was the better choice.  Thatís nothing to be ashamed about.

Evil in Carnations by Kate Collins, Obsidian, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22623-5 

Another theme murder mystery, this one featuring a woman who owns a flower shop.  You could probably have guessed that from the title.  This time Abby helps a discouraged friend to get a date with a less than stellar guy Ė hardly the kind of thing Iíd want a friend to do for me.  Anyway, shortly afterward, the unpleasant guy turns up dead and guess who is heading the list of suspects?  Abby rides to the rescue with her quasi-boyfriend to assist, but once again the story line becomes more complicated when a bevy of family issues complicates matters at the crucial moment.  I found this very annoying this time.  All it really accomplishes is to pad out the book and help set up the final scenes, which could have been done much more directly.  I know that the trend today is to try to humanize the characters more and give them more background than did John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, and others of that era, but in this case it seemed more distracting than helpful and I was impatient for the story to get back to the main issue. 2/1/09

Malice in Miniature by Margaret Grace, Berkley, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22558-5 

Iíve read a couple of previous volumes in this series about a woman who builds miniatures in her retirement, a kind of artsy craftsy version of Miss Marple.  A local artist is killed during the holidays when Geraldine Potterís family is in town, so she enlists her granddaughter as a kind of Doctor Watson in her latest escapade.  Although sheís not a detective by profession of inclination, the importunities of a neighbor to help her clear a friendís name prevail and the game is soon afoot.  The miniatures are really a side issue in this workmanlike mystery, and the addition of the young sidekick raises this one a notch above its predecessors.  The resolution even had a few surprises for me and thereís a genuine sense of menace when the real killer decides to discourage Geraldine from pursuing her investigation.  One of the best of the theme mystery series. 1/30/09

Bookmarked for Death by Lorna Barrett, Berkley, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22641-4 

Homicide in Hardcover by Kate Carlisle, Obsidian, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22615-0 

   I had a couple of bookstore related mysteries sitting around so I decided it was time to read them.  Iíd read one of the earlier volumes by Barrett and it was good enough to hold my interest, so I tried her first.  Our protagonist, who runs a bookstore in New Hampshire, has an author in for a signing, but she gets more publicity than she counted on when the author turns up dead, murdered.  The sheriff, predictably, has a one track mind and can only focus on a single suspect, so our heroine dusts off her detecting skills and solves the case for him in a fashion that reminded me of Murder She Wrote.  I liked this one better than the last, but once again I wonder why there are recipes included.   

The Carlisle novel is the first in a series about Brooklyn Wainwright, a woman who restores old books.  In somewhat similar fashion, Wainwright discovers a fellow book restorer dead under mysterious circumstances, and with a couple of puzzling clues about the manner of his death.  On the other hand, she seems to be the only one with a credible motive as well as opportunity, so she becomes the prime suspect and has to solve the crime to clear her own name.  I think this one is a first mystery novel, and itís quite good, so both of these proved to be a rewarding use of my time.  I still long for the classic locked room murder,  but in the mean time these are a reasonable substitute. 1/23/09

Ding Dong Dead by Deb Baker, Berkley, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22502-8 

Latest in a themed mystery series about doll collectors and restorers.  A doll collecting club is given a building to turn into a museum, but one of their number has ďpsychicĒ messages that the building is haunted.  Odd events, sometimes sinister, begin to plague the group, culminating in a murder in a cemetery.  Could the old woman be right or is there a more solid villain involved?  Obviously itís the latter.  The protagonist steals a march on her police detective boyfriend to solve the crime.  The last one I read in this series was pretty good, which is why I read another, but I didnít think this one was as well written, although I liked the story better.  The dialogue is choppy and some of the descriptive passages feel rough as well, as though the book needed one more revision that it didnít get.  Not awful, but not particularly recommended either. 1/15/09

Hail to the Chef by Julie Hyzy, Berkley, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22499-1 

This is the second in a series of mystery novels featuring a White House chef.  Thereís a gingerbread making competition coming up and our protagonist is having to deal with a lot of logistic problems as well as pressure to tilt the outcome in the right direction.  Two deaths appear unrelated and unthreatening, but Ollie Paras, chef, thinks thereís more there than meets the eye.  An electrician is killed in what appears to be an accident, and one of the First Ladyís relatives dies, apparently a suicide.  Naturally thereís more to it than that.  In fact, thereís a terrorist plot against the White House making use of a clever, if mildly absurd, device.  I thought the first in this series, State of the Onion, tried to hard to be funny as well as mysterious.  This time around the comedy is under control and makes a nice counterpoint to the main plot.   If volume three is as much of an improvement, this series will be one to watch closely. 1/13/09

Dead Men Don't Crochet by Betty Hechtman, Berkley, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22500-4

Second in a series in which murders are solved by a crochet circle, following Hooked on Murder.  In this case, one of their circle has been selling her work to a local store, until she discovers that she is being hoodwinked by the not particularly nice store owner.  I easily guessed what would follow.  The finagler ends up dead and the desperate and wronged victim is the prime candidate, having the only discernible motive.  The protagonist, who dates a police officer, decides to take matters into her own hands and clear her friend's name.  This leads to the usual misguided interference although predictably everything works out all right in the end.  The mystery element is fairly well done and there are tidbits for knitters and such sprinkled through the book.  Berkley seems to have an endless supply of these thematic mystery series, a kind of hybrid between the traditional cosy and very light romance.  For the most part, as is the case here, the result is entertaining, but there isn't anything to make this particular series stand out.  1/12/09

Ringing in Murder by Kate Kingsbury, Berkley, 2008, $14, ISBN 978-0-425-22399-4

 This was my first visit to the Pennyfoot Motel, and early 20th Century British tourist haven that has apparently been the scene for various murders in previous volumes.  In this case, the action starts with an explosion and fire that kills two guests in their room, initially believed to be an accident caused by a gas leak.  But then remains are found of a firecracker that may have been doctored to create a more than celebratory explosion, and other clues begin to emerge suggesting that it was murder.  There is also a mysterious snowman which apparently moves of its own volition, a nicely creepy touch although I did wonder why no one bothered to actually investigate when the first few reports of its unnatural movement were heard.  Everything is tied up pretty well in a somewhat light weight but well constructed mystery, whose greatest strength was in the depiction of the minor characters. 1/1/09

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