Last Update 12/31/12      

The Rosewood Casket by Sharyn McCrumb, Dutton, 1996   

When an elderly widower slips into a coma, his four sons and their families return to fulfill the specifications of his final wishes, building a coffin by hand and attending to various other old fashioned customs. None of them are close and they present a quite varied group whose interactions provide the bulk of the story. The mystery element involves the disappearance of the dying manís half sister when they were children and the reappearance of her bones shortly before his death. Everything gets resolved and the only real melodrama is when a woman facing eviction wounds the sheriff and then forces a shootout with police. More of a character study than a mystery but the characters are so interesting that the low key plot is not a problem. 12/31/12

Reamde by Neal Stephenson, Morrow, 2011, $18.99, ISBN 978-0-06-219149-6 

I let this one sit for awhile so that I could build up a backlog of unused reviews because itís a thousand pages long and likely to be rich with detail. It ended up taking three days but they were well spent. The first protagonist is an ex-marijuana smuggler who is now CEO of a massive online multiplayer game called TíRain, which actually serves as a complex money laundering operation, among other things. His adopted niece, another viewpoint character, picked the wrong boyfriend, a data thief who gets involved with murderous Russian criminals and an extortion plot that involves transferring virtual gold within the game context in return for actual money in the real world. They are kidnapped and taken to China to track down the hacker, but thatís just the kickstart to an even more dangerous situation involving Islamic terrorists, crazed Russians, and others.  We see ensuing events through the eyes of various people including a Chinese peddler, a British secret service agent, a Chinese hacker, and a Russian mercenary. The novel reads a lot like the television show 24, without the internal contradictions, uneven plotting, and gaping plot holes that characterized the show. This would make a terrific movie, or better yet a miniseries. It's the best book I read this year. 12/26/12

The Twelve Clues of Christmas by Rhys Bowen, Berkley, 2012, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-425-25278-9 

Lady Georgiana returns for her fifth case, this time traveling to a small village in Devon for Christmas where she is employed as a social hostess for two weeks. Her mother and grandfather are there and her love interest is hovering in the background so we know heís going to show up at some point as well. Multiple coincidences move all of the recurring characters into place.  The day she arrives she learns of the escape of three convicts from a nearby prison and the accidental shooting death of one of the locals, as well as the village curse that is supposed to recur around the holidays. When three more ďaccidentalĒ deaths occur in separate incidents over the course of the next three days, she suspects foul play or supernatural intervention. The pattern continues, one death every day except for one upon which a major jewelry theft is committed, all of the deaths apparently accidents. The local constable admits he is out of his depth and Georgiana recruits her grandfather and boyfriend to help investigate on their own.  I had most of this figured out fairly early and part of the solution is a cheat, but itís still quite good. 12/21/12

If Iíd Killed Him When I Met HimÖby Sharyn McCrumb, Gold Medal, 1995   

Thereís a theme in the three cases involved in this Elizabeth MacPherson novel. Her brother has taken a case in which a charismatic preacher has decided that God wants him to take a second, much younger wife. His partner is defending a woman who murdered her ex-husband and his new wife after he went out of his way to ruin her. Interwoven with these is an historical case about a woman who apparently poisoned her husband, although she was never convicted because no one could figure out how she had done it.  All of the plots get tied up nicely and mostly as I expected Ė I even guessed the solution of one of the two mysteries. The subplot about the girl in love with a dolphin was a bit over the top, but itís not very long. Overall quite nice. 12/2012

The Dead Manís Brother by Roger Zelazny, Hardcase, 2009

Presumably this thriller is a trunk novel since Zelazny has been dead for quite a long time. A reformed art thief turned art dealer finds a body in his gallery and is soon thereafter mysteriously whisked off to the CIA.  They send him to Italy to help investigate the embezzlement of a large amount of money from the Vatican. He is only supposed to help with routine inquiries, but when he reports to his contact, the man is murdered and our hero nearly dies as well. He discovers that the man he is looking for was also murdered and, accompanied by the dead manís mistress, flies to Brazil to look up his brother, apparently also his partner in crime. There they are arrested and tortured by the police but eventually get a message from the missing brother, who is rumored to be heading a separatist movement. More bloodshed ensues. This is a quite good thriller and Iím surprised it wasnít published previously. My only problem with it was that the decision to go to Brazil makes no sense in context; he should simply have gone to the American embassy. 12/14/12

Collared by L.A. Kornetsky, Gallery, 2012, $15, ISBN 978-1-4516-7164-3   

There are two sleuths in this one, a man and a woman, one with a dog and one with a cat, and the pets are tangled up in the story. The female half is employed in a fairly routine investigation about some missing papers that turns out not to be routine after all. Complications arise and she enlists the aid of her bartender friend and his cat for a good natured and well constructed adventure wrapped around a middling mystery.  Fantasy readers know the author as Laura Anne Gilman, a genre for which I think her particular prose style is better suited. This felt a little too cute at times but it does have an element of charm. 12/12/12

She Walks These Hills by Sharyn McCrumb, Scribner, 1994   

A mentally disturbed killer serving a life sentence escapes from prison under instructions he receives through his Bible. He also suffers from an inability to process recent memories, which means he has regressed to before he committed the murder and assumes he is still married to his then young wife. This is mixed with the story of a young girl who escaped from Indians a century earlier, only to walk into a greater tragedy, a student trying to write a dissertation about her, the local dispatcherís efforts to prove she is capable of being a deputy, and the mystery surrounding the murder itself. The situation grows even more complicated when the convictís ex-wife is found murdered, but we know he didnít do it, and an infant is kidnapped, and we know he didnít do that either. And a genuine ghost appears to at least four different people. 12/9/12

Killer Librarian by Mary Lou Kirwin, Pocket, 2012, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4516-8464-3   

Book store owners as detectives are showing up frequently lately in the cozy side of mystery novels.  This time itís a librarian who happens to be in charge of the mystery section where she works, who finds her boyfriend two timing on a trip to Europe to visit famous crime sites. She stumbles into a murder that seems unconnected but eventually realizes that her wayward beau may be the next victim. Eventually she figures out whatís going on. Not a bad plot but I found the dialogue in particular stiff and unconvincing. I believe this is a first novel; it shows some signs of promise but itís pretty lightweight overall. 12/4/12

Between the Thames and the Tiber by Ted Riccardi, Pegasus, 2011, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-60598-386-8   

This is a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories set after the apparent death of Dr. Moriarty. They vary wildly in quality. The first, about a mysterious assault, is pretty good. The second, in which Holmes cold bloodedly murders five people, is awful. The third isnít much of a story; Holmes finds a clue suggesting a planned assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, whom the authors maligns horribly, but fails to prevent the act. The next, arms smuggled in pianos, is okay but unremarkable. The next features Moriarty, so the chronology is mixed up, and Moriarty wins this time after a rather bland adventure. Thereís a longish story in which Holmes investigates the death of Richard Wagner Ė it was murder but cleverly disguised. Then another in which he takes Puccini as his client. The remaining few stories are reasonably good.  I have a second collection by the author on order but while these are good enough that Iíll read the other title, it wonít be starting near the top of the stack. 12/2/12

The Hangmanís Beautiful Daughter by Sharyn McCrumb, Scribner, 1992 

This really isnít a murder mystery although it opens with three murders and the suicide of the killer. There is never any doubt that the oldest son wiped out all but two of his siblings and then committed suicide. Their subsequent story Ė in which they descend into madness Ė is woven into a fabric consisting of a lonely ministerís wife whose unborn child is dead, an elderly woman who experiences authentic visions, a possible ghost, a man dying of cancer thanks to pollution in the local river, and a young mother whose husband has gone overseas in the military. Itís a fascinating story and we do learn more about the killerís motives, most of which I assumed from the outset. This is the second of her books involving Sheriff Sparrowood and his neighbors, and mystery or not itís compulsive reading. 11/22/12

MacPhersonís Lament by Sharyn McCrumb, Ballantine, 1992   

This Elizabeth MacPherson novel is the most complex to date. Her brother William has recently set up his law practice, but heís not the brightest light in the forest and heís pulled into a real estate scam that might end up putting him in jail. At the same time, his partner is engaged in mysterious incognito trips with a rifle, the MacPherson parents are having a messy divorce, the  man bilked in the real estate deal seems to have some unsavory secrets of his own, and all of this is interspersed with flashbacks to the final days of the Civil War, which will obviously have repercussions on the main story at some point. The partner has also discovered that her check bouncing client might also be a murderer. All of the individual strands are resolved neatly, although there is one humungous coincidence that leads to one of the solutions. I was sorry to see the last of the MacPhersons. 11/11/12

Skulduggery by Carolyn Hart, Seventh Street, 2012, $13.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-706-8  

This nice little thriller was previously published in 1984. An anthropologist is approached by a young man who has somehow come into possession of the Peking Man bones, missing since 1941. They are promptly attacked by a pair of thugs and separated, and her quiet life is permanently altered. Accompanied by the young manís older brother, she helps retrace his activities for the past week searching for a clue to his present whereabouts and where he acquired the bones. This gives the author an opportunity to take us on a tour of Chinatown, and indict the living conditions there. The plot moves rather slowly until late in the book when the protagonist is kidnapped by a bunch of thugs. Low key and drifts away from the plot a big too much for my taste, but not bad overall. 11/9/12

Hammett Unwritten by Owen Fitzstephen, Seventh Street, 2012, $13.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-714-3 

Dashiell Hammett is the protagonist of this short little novel actually written by Gordon McAlpine. The premise is that The Maltese Falcon was based on a real case, and that the supposedly counterfeit falcon at the end of the story is actually in his possession until he agrees to give it to the murderess from the book. She claims it is actually a magical talisman and that his literary career results from his possession of it and, sure enough, when he gives it away he ceases to write for the rest of his life. The plot interweaves Hammettís life with the plots of the book and movie, although the author for some reason incorrectly states that Gutmanís daughter in the book is not accounted for at the end Ė in fact it is stated clearly that she was murdered by the gunsel. The novel is told largely in short, clipped dialogue somewhat in the style of Hammett, and most of the time it works well, although occasionally it falters. I'll spoil the ending for you because it really doesn't matter; there is no magic involved. It's all a plot by the woman Hammett turned over to the police to jinx him and she hires other characters from his past to make it seem real. This took a larger leap of faith than I was willing to make. Interesting, but ultimately unsuccessful. 11/5/12

Zombies of the Gene Pool by Sharyn McCrumb, Simon & Schuster, 1992  

Despite the testimonials from people who should have known better, the version of SF fandom displayed in the second Jay Omega mystery novel is only accurate for a tiny subset, and even then it fails to ring true. I never heard of a fan who believed in the deros, for example.  And Brainwave was not Poul Andersonís latest book Ė it was his first book. The plot involves the reunion of several fans, some now successful, to dig up the time capsule they buried during the 1950s in a region that was until subsequently underwater thanks to the TVA dam. Now the lake is being temporarily drained so there is a plan to recover it.  The stories in it, we are told, could be published as an anthology for a million dollar advance. Sorry, but I doubt you could get that much for a lost Heinlein, Phil Dick, Asimov, and Clarke collection, even with H.G. Wells thrown in.  As with most of McCrumbís novels, the mystery takes a long while to get started, but this is the first time I was actually impatient for things to develop. The murder takes place three quarters of the way through, is solved about thirty pages later, but the killer was obvious from the outset. Thereís an interesting twist after that but this is still McCrumbís weakest novel to date. 11/3/12

Dog in the Manger by Mike Resnick, Seventh Street, 2012, $13.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-710-5 

This is the first Eli Paxton novel, which I didnít even know existed although it was first published more than ten years ago. Paxton is a private detective who is hired to find a missing show dog and soon finds himself ducking bullets, knives, and bombs. Someone is determined to end his investigation, which takes him from Cincinnati to Arizona to Mexico before it is resolved. Not surprisingly, Resnick tells a crisp, fast moving, and fully engaging story in the Sam Spade tradition, making use of his own familiarity with the dog show world. Wry humor and a nicely constructed plot, both qualities I find missing from most contemporary mysteries. More adventures are planned and Iíll certainly be reading them. 10/31/12

Missing Susan by Sharyn McCrumb, Ballantine, 1991   

The sixth Elizabeth MacPherson mystery is an odd one. It doesnít even have a murder in it. Elizabeth has to entertain herself while her husband is off on an expedition so she joins a tour of murder related tourist sites in southern England. Unbeknownst to her, the guide has been hired to arrange an accident for one member of the party, an heiress from Minnesota who is so annoying that I was cheering him on. Alas, he is not very competent at the job and his bumbling eventually attracts Elizabethís interest. I had anticipated most of the surprise ending but that didnít diminish my pleasure at the outcome in any way.  McCrumbís mysteries have a unique flavor that is particularly evident in this one. 10/28/12

The Windsor Knot by Sharyn McCrumb, Ballantine, 1990

The fifth Elizabeth MacPherson mystery has her rushing to get married to her marine biologist boyfriend so that she can attend a royal tea party. That brings her back to the eccentric family introduced in her very first adventure where she unexpectedly is called upon to use her education in forensics. A local woman was told five years earlier that her husband had been killed in an automobile accident and she has his ashes to prove it. But then the police call again to say he has just been killed in a car accident and that understandably intrigues the local police. Elizabeth solves the crime eventually Ė it involves yet another murder and an apparently clever scheme that Iím not sure would actually work. Itís plausible enough to be convincing though and itís another successful book from McCrumb. 10/21/12

If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-0 by Sharyn McCrumb, 1990   

This is the first in McCrumbís highly regarded Ballad series, and itís a good one. Folk singer Perry Muryan settles in a small Tennessee town and becomes mildly romantically involved with the local sheriff, Spencer Arrowhead. Then she begins receiving postcards with excerpts from folk sons which relate to unpleasant events in the town, a butchered dog, dead sheep, and the disappearance of a high school girl who looks very much like the younger Peggy. The narrative is interspersed with letters from her one time boyfriend who served in Vietnam after their breakup and who appears to have been mentally disturbed.  Thereís also a veteran in town who is subject to flashbacks, a teenager with an unhealthy obsession with the war, an apparently mentally ill man who dresses in various costumes, all mixed in with plans for a class reunion. Arrowheadís deputy is also a Vietnam vet, although there is never any hint that he might be responsible. Although I guessed the killer, I couldnít figure out the motive Ė and itís actually more than a bit of a stretch Ė and thereís a nice twist at the end. 10/13/12

Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb, Ballantine, 1988 

The first of the two Jay Omega mysteries, set at science fiction conventions. J.O. Mega is an academic whose serious SF novel is retitled much to his chagrin. At his first convention, he encounters a mean spirited but very popular fantasy writer whom everyone hates, including his fans, and who promptly turns up murdered.  Some of the satire is on target; some of it misses its mark.  Fanzines, for example, were generally not intended as outlets for people who could not get professionally published. They were for ingroup jokes and essays and group conversations for the most part. The mystery is okay and itís a clever resolution, but I identified the killer almost immediately and never once suspected that it was anyone else. Although this won an Edgar, I donít think it is anywhere near being the authorís best book. 10/9/12

Bones Are Forever by Kathy Reichs, Scribner, 2012, $26.99, ISBN 978-1-4391-0243-5 

The latest Temperance Brennan mystery is a step up from the last. Brennan is called in when a dead maybe is found in an apartment Ė the mother having vanished. Two other infant bodies are found hidden elsewhere by the searchers, setting off a manhunt throughout Canada.  Before it ends, the plot involves a war between rival pimps, the development of diamond mines in northern Canada, tension between two of the investigating officers, and a couple of red herrings. Although I enjoyed this one a lot, I winced as once again Brennnan gets herself into trouble and has to be rescued by the timely arrival of one of her male associates. I believe this has now happened in every book except one and it is very annoying. 10/3/12

The Bookseller by Mark Pryor, Seventh Street, 2012, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-708-2 

I believe this is the first in a new mystery imprint from Pyr books. Itís also a first novel. The protagonist is Hugo Marston, head of security at the US embassy in England. He gets involved in an unofficial investigation when a local bookseller and one time Nazi hunter is abducted. Other bookseller are murdered, suggesting a strange underlying pattern but Marstonís lack of official standing hampers things until he himself is nearly added to the list of victims. This felt much more like a spy novel than a murder mystery. There are some good points, but I never warmed to the protagonist and the mystery was so diffuse that it never really resulted in any suspense. As low key thrillers go, this was all right, but itís a below average detective story. 10/2/12

Paying the Piper by Sharyn McCrumb, Ballantine, 1988   

Elizabeth MacPherson is off to a remote Scottish island for an archaeological dig in her fourth exercise in detection. Murder rears its head before they reach the island. While on a guided tour of murder sites in Edinburgh, one of the tourists Ė who turns out to be a newspaper reporter Ė is stabbed to death.  Once they reach the island, tensions rise followed by an apparently accidental fall and the onset of a serious contagious illness, coupled with a storm and the sabotage of their radio. Eventually this is linked to the original stabbing although itís quite a coincidence that makes everything work out. Weakest in the otherwise strong series so far.  More to come. 9/25/12

Lovely in Her Bones by Sharyn McCrumb, Ballantine, 1985 

The second Elizabeth MacPherson mystery has her volunteering for a small archaeological dig to determine whether or not the Cullowhee are genuine Native Americans in order to protect their land from encroachment by strip miners. Some in the community want the mining to proceed while others are opposed. The head of the dig is killed when someone bashes him in the head with a tomahawk. Is it the interested parties, the jilted mistress, the outraged wife, or the offended subordinate? A second murder seems to muddy matters even further as various colorful characters interact with the investigation. Not quite as good as the first but still quite nice. 9/17/12

Highland Laddie Gone by Sharyn McCrumb, Ballantine, 1986   

Elizabeth MacPherson is off to attend a weekend gathering of Scottish Americans who like to play at being clan members by wearing kilts and group singing, but this time thereís going to be something more exciting on the program. Colin Campbell, an irascible doctor who enjoys irritating people, turns up murdered. Could the killer be the man whose real estate plans he was hoping to quash? The research assistant who offended him by refusing to take the Loch Ness Monster seriously? The young woman pretending to be the daughter of an earl? The  con man collecting funds supposedly for a Scots independence movement? Someone who just doesnít like the Campbell clan?  Or someone else entirely? Campbell had recently mentioned having uncovered a fraud. Very witty dialogue and McCrumbís usual cast of very sharply delineated and  generally appealing characters support a good mystery once again. 9/17/12

Sick of Shadows by Sharyn McCrumb, Ballantine, 1984   

I read this authorís two SF related mysteries many years ago and have largely forgotten them, although I have enjoyed several recent short stories. This is the first of her Elizabeth MacPherson mysteries, and it was good enough that I would have finished it in a single sitting if I hadnít fallen asleep some time after midnight. MacPherson is to be a bridesmaid at the wedding of her cousin, who has experienced mental problems in the past, not surprising given that her entire family consists of eccentrics. Her fiancť is a mousy type who seems ambivalent about the marriage, but happy to discover that under the terms of an old will, the first of the cousins to marry will receive a considerable legacy. The bride to be is then murdered while working on a painting that was supposed to be a wedding gift, and the painting has disappeared as well. The dialogue is great, the characters outstanding, and the resolution solid. 9/7/12

The Sauvignon Secret by Ellen Crosby, Pocket, 2012, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4516-6940-4 

The protagonist in this wine related mystery series finds a man hanging in his barn, a man she disliked intensely, but there is never any real suspicion that she was involved. Nevertheless, she gets involved in an investigation that dates back to secret unsanctioned  experiments with human subjects, one of whom died, and a possible murder covered up as an accident. Although the prose isnít bad, the plotting is very poor. For one thing, there is too much back story involving the recurring characters from the series Ė a fault I find in a lot of recent cozies. Then there are the really implausible elements. Our heroine is told to watch for black roses as a sign that a mysterious vineyard owner might actually be someone using a false identity. Then there are the conspirators, who covered up their crimes to protect their careers Ė but every one of them promptly changed careers. The relationship between the protagonist and her enigmatic boyfriend is awkwardly conceived, trite, and implausible. A crucial point in the case comes when the protagonist purely by chance wanders into an abandoned building and finds a cache of enlightening photographs taped inside a desk. And finally, there are just too many people who knew about the secret group and the death of one of their subjects for it not to have become public. Not recommended. 9/16/12

Dark Hollow by Anna Katherine Green, Dodd Mead, 1914

Green was one of the earliest mystery writers in America and she was noted for her close attention to legal detail. Her most famous book is The Leavenwortth Case, which I have not yet read. This one opens with the description of a reclusive judge whose fortress home is briefly visited by a mysteriously veiled woman and a child. Almost simultaneously his loyal servant is fatally injured in an automobile accident, leaving him alone in his solitude. The author raises several mysterious elements in very short order. Why did the judge become so reclusive and what is he hiding behind a locked door? Why have he and his son been estranged for several years? Who is the woman and why did she and the child, who turns out to be a random local, venture into his property? Why did the loyal servant leave the gate ajar so that she could do so? How does the mystery woman know intimate details about local property? What is the significance of the murder of the judge's best friend years earlier, a case which was apparently solved when all evidence pointed to a drunken man subsequently executed? The resolution of most of this hinges on that last, as the widow of the convicted man finds evidence that he was not responsible after all. There are a few brief places where the old style prose is a bit ponderous, but for the most part this moves as briskly as a modern detective novel. I'm still looking for more books by this author, who deserves to be better known than she is. 8/8/12

Freak by Jennifer Hillier, Gallery, $24.99, ISBN 978-1-4516-6454-6

A new serial killer thriller, a follow up to Creep, which I recommend you read first since it has a significant effect on your understanding of the characters in this one. The manipulative villain from the first, Abby Maddox, is in prison but a new killer has started killing young women and carving demands for her release into the bodies of his victims. The traumatized survivors of the previous novel are drawn into the situation again. In an echo of Thomas Harris, the story proceeds with Maddox suborning a guard and manipulating things so that she escapes from prison to pursue her vendetta. The ending is designed to set up the next in the series, so I found it unsatisfactory and a bit forced. Hillier writes well but I think the effort to create an ongoing series distracted from the quality of this one. 7/31/12

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, 1930 

Possibly the best known private eye mystery, this is the story of Sam Spade and his encounter with a number of people searching for the statue of the Maltese Falcon, supposedly worth a large fortune. Some of the searchers are willing to kill to get what they want Ė and Spadeís partner is the first casualty of the novel. Hammett established many of the tropes of the form including the truculent relationship with the police, the lone operator who keeps his own counsel, the femme fatale, and so forth.  The climax is actually low key and the final murder takes place off stage.  The falcon eventually turns up, but itís not what they expect it to be.  One of the most memorable novels from the pulp era and one that is rarely equaled by writers plowing the same field today.  The Humphrey Bogart movie is actually quite close to the original story. 7/28/12

City of the Dead by Daniel Blake, Gallery, 2012, $25, ISBN 978-1-4391-9762-2

Some mild spoilers here because I can't really discuss the book without revealing a few things. First of all, it's a pretty good thriller set in New Orleans in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. There's a serial killer murdering people in ways reminiscent of voodoo rituals. A displaced detective from Pittsburgh, now working for the FBI, and his local partner, a born again black woman, have to figure out who's doing it. As a thriller, as I said, it's pretty good. As a detective story, it's tepid. I guessed the killer - technically half the killer since there are two of them - the moment he was introduced as a character. Although I found the story quite entertaining, I had some problems. First of all, the rituals did not seem like voodoo to me and it turns out they are not. Surely the voodoo priestess they consult would have known that. They're actually based in some way on Mayan mythology. This whole bit is very badly overlaid since it has nothing to do with the plot except to make the killings exotic, and we never even find out why the killer adopted them - and they involve considerable extra effort. The protagonist violates so many rules in is investigation that even with a signed confession he could not have gotten a conviction in court.  He doesn't, in fact. One killer commits suicide and the other dies quasi-accidentally. There are also too many coincidences. Although the victims are chosen pseudo-randomly, the interconnections are numerous. The hero's partner is even the ex-wife of one of the killers. The writing itself is more than competent but the plot could have benefited from some critical thought. 7/21/12

The Prisoner in the Opal by A.E.W. Mason, Sphere, 1974 (originally published in 1928) 

This was Masonís third detective story featuring Inspector Hanaud of the French police. He and a friend are investigating the strange goings on at a chateau where one member of the house party has gone missing and the other has been found murdered with one hand missing. Most of the appurtenances of classic detective fiction are here Ė the clue mentioned but not explained by Hanaud, the searching of the rooms of all the suspects, the gradual revelation of possible motives, the checklist of questions to be resolved. Much of the supernatural content is ambiguous as the inner workings of a satanic cult are revealed, but there are occult overtones throughout. 7/11/12

Harmless as Doves by P.L. Gaus, Plume, 2012, $14, ISBN 978-0-452-29786-9

This is part of an ongoing series of mysteries with a backdrop of the Amish community, which struck me as an interesting alternative. Our unofficial detective has an interesting problem when a young man commits to a murder that no one believes he committed. In order to prove his innocence, it will of course be necessary to discover who the real killer is. The plot is interesting, as is the unusual setting, and the mystery is relatively good, but for some reason I just never found myself involved in this one. I suspect this was a personal idiosyncrasy rather than a fault of the book, but I wanted something a little snappier. As it stands, it's a well written but pretty standard cozy. 6/20/12

Stolen Prey by John Sandford, Putnam, 2012, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-399-15768-4 

The latest Lucas Davenport thriller follows the same general pattern as the preceding ones, one major plot supported by a lesser mystery and some back story about his family. The main story this time involves the theft of some drug money from a secret bank account by a programmer who worked at the bank plus some confederates. The drug gang Ė Mexican Ė sends a team of executioners to find out who is responsible, and they mow down quite a few innocent people before getting on the right track, and only after the police already have a pretty good idea whatís going on and who is responsible. Thereís a mole in the police operation, the subplot about some petty thieves who rob Davenport at gunpoint, and some other interactions that enable Sandford to keep the focus moving back and forth. Thereís a kind of surprise ending which I donít want to spoil, but it involves the apprehension of the last two killers, which was not at all what I was expecting. Not his best but in the upper tier. 6/17/12

Blood on the Mink by Robert Silverberg, Hardcase, 2012, $9.95, ISBN 9780857687685 

Silverberg wrote this tough style detective story back around 1960, and as far as I know it was his only full length mystery. The protagonist impersonates a California mob member on a trip to the East Coast in an attempt to expose a counterfeiting operation. He discovers that the engraver and his daughter are prisoners of the local mob, but there are other factions interested in controlling the operation. Eventually he plays several of these against one another in order to rescue the engraver and put the crooks behind bars Ė those that survive. Thereís a kind of femme fatale but her part is relatively minor. Although not one of the great detective novels, this is quite effective and paced so well that I read it in a single sitting. Two short stories of the same general type are also included. 6/13/12

The Pirate King by Laurie R. King, Bantam, 2011, $15, ISBN 978-0-553-38675-2 

This series Ė Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes - while still entertaining, has deteriorated dramatically from its beginnings, and in fact Holmes is missing for most of the book which follows Russellís undercover work aboard a film crew traveling to Portugal and Africa, a film crew whose past work has often been accompanied by violent crimes. And much of the book just drags by with endless details about the voyage, the film company, and Russellís boredom with it all - she has been coerced into volunteering for the mission through the machination of Mycroft Holmes. There is in fact a mysterious conspiracy and Holmes shows up in time to help tie up the loose ends, but by then I no longer cared about the story. Very disappointing. 5/26/12

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice from the Crypt by Donald Thomas, Carroll & Graf, 2001 

A collection of Holmes adventures, starting with a pretty good one in which Sherlock uses disguises and subterfuge to capture a gang of swindlers. The second tale is a rather contrived murder mystery, but then again, all Holmes stories are by their nature very contrived.  There follows a reasonably clever reconstruction of a murder designed to look like a hunting accident, or if that story is disbelieved, that an innocent man committed the murder, and another where he tracks down a homicidal bigamist.  The title story is the final and longest in the collection, but I liked the opening tale better. A bizarre extortion scheme seems to involve multiple perpetrators, but Holmes sees through the ruse and uncovers the real mastermind. All in all, a good but not spectacular collection. 5/17/12

The Secret Cases of Sherlock Holmes by Donald Thomas, Carroll & Graf, 1997 

Another collection of Holmes stories, opening with one in which a woman is slowly being poisoned to death by her bigamous husband. Or is she?  It, like the rest of the stories in the book, is based on an actual case. So we have Holmes investigating the death of the president of France, an attempted theft of the crown jewels, and several notorious murder cases. There are the usual sequences in which he interprets incredible detail from trivial observations, and Watson introduces occasionally amusing asides. Although some of the cases are interesting, I found this to be by far the weakest of the three Holmes books Iíve recently read by this author. Mildy enjoyable, but a bit pallid. 5/15/12

The Five by Robert McCammon, Subterranean, 2011, $26.95, ISBN 978-1-59606-341-9

I had expected to list this as a horror novel but even though there are hints of the supernatural, it's really just a thriller. The Five are a rock band of no particular import who are on the verge of breaking up when the lyrics of one of their songs attracts the attention of a psychologically unstable ex-marine sniper, who begins stalking them, killing one of the members and seriously wounding their manager. The police tumble to his identity early on and set up traps to capture him, but they make no bones about the fact that they consider him a more worthwhile person than his prospective victims, a situation I can imagine them believing privately but not publicly. Parts of the novel are extremely suspenseful, but there's a lot of slow moving exposition in between that really drags down the momentum. Okay, but very disappointing from an author who has produced much better work. 5/8/12

The Ripperís Apprentice by Donald Thomas, St Martins, 1986 

This Victorian age thriller, based on a real series of murders, has its moments but the book does not reach the quality of the authorís Sherlock Holmes pastiches. An ingenious, insane, and very nasty serial killer taunts the authorities while claiming his victims by poison and other means, simultaneously trying to implicate various members of the aristocracy and/or to coerce money from them. A young detective and an earnest sergeant have to track him down, which they eventually do after a fashion. The period touches are nicely done, but there just isnít any real sense of suspense. This is apparently a sequel to another book, Jekyll, Alias Hyde. 5/6/12

Mister Slaughter  by Robert McCammon, Subterranean, 2011, $24.95, ISBN 978-1-59606-276-4

Third in the Matthew Corbett series set in colonial America. Corbett and another man are hired to convey a serial killer to New York for transportation back to London, but he entices them with stories of a buried treasure and escapes, to be pursued by Corbett along a trail of bodies. Our hero is assisted by a Native American and initially hampered by his intention to capture the fugitive rather than kill him, although he eventually he realizes that Slaughter is a Hannibal Lector style crazed killer who must be destroyed, not restrained. The story line takes a bit too long to develop, but once we're on the chase, it moves quickly and suspensefully. I'm not generally a fan of historical mystery novels, but I'm always ready to make an exception when the writing is this good. 4/28/12

Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly by Donald Thomas, Pegasus, 2010, $25, ISBN 978-1-60598-134-5

A novel, a short story, and two novelettes chronicling further adventures of the world's most famous detective. The first and best of the stories involves apparent proof that a schoolboy stole money and attempted suicide, both charges of which Holmes disproves with casual effort. The second and longest piece is a sequel to The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, in which Holmes is asked to prove that the governess, accused of murdering one of her charges while insane and believing in ghosts, is both sane and guiltless. I thought this one went on a bit too long, but the resolution is plausible. I was way ahead of Holmes this time and had a pretty good idea what was going on very early in the story. The short is a vignette and pretty minor. The final story is about an actor who is handed cyanide in the middle of a performance. It's a pretty good case. I liked this collection enough to order two more of the author's Sherlock Holmes books. 4/17/12

Naughty in Nice by Rhys Bowen, Berkley, 2011, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-425-24349-7 

The fifth in the Royal Spyness series featuring the 34th in the succession to the throne of England during the 1930s.  This time Georgiana is off to Nice, France, secretly in the employ of Queen Mary who wants her to tactfully steal back an antique she believes was stolen from her by a prominent businessman. Thereís more mystery than that, however.  A Frenchman takes an odd interest in her, seemingly confusing her with someone else, and her luggage is searched while en route. Thereís a familiar string of coincidences that brings all of the series characters together despite the remote location. Then a valuable necklace is stolen, complicating matters even further, and then thereís a murder and our heroine is arrested for the crime. There is an exciting sequence of events, a couple of surprising revelations, and finally we learn the truth about the theft and the murders. More thriller than detective story, but a good one. 4/5/12

Gideonís Corpse by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Grand Central, 2012, $26.99. ISBN 978-0-446-56437-3 

I have been an enormous fan of this writing duo since Relic appeared, but I was somewhat disappointed with the first in this new series about Gideon Crew, a man apparently with less than a year to live who agrees to become a kind of special agent for the government. This time heís involved because a former co-worker went homicidally crazy after being exposed to what appears to be a nuclear bomb in the hand of terrorists in New York City, although that might not be the eventual target. Before he is done, heíll be partnered with a reluctant FBI agent and get involved with a variety of killers including cultists, discover the existence of a deadly biotoxin, and more or less save the day. I found all of this uniformly boring. None of his adventure are particularly interesting or novel and they feel like sketches rather than actual scenes. There is nothing here to distinguish the novel from those of less interesting and talented thriller writers, and even Gideonís terminal illness doesnít do much to differentiate him as a character. He never actually seems to feel any emotion about his situation. Thereís more in this series to come and Iíll read them in hopes of some improvement, but Iím not hopeful. 3/23/12

Death Toll by Jim Kelly, Penguin, 2011, $&8.99, ISBN 978-0-141-03599-4

The third Peter Shaw mystery has him solving a new and complicated case, as well as bringing the background mystery that started in the first volume to a close. The first involves the discovery of a body on top of an occupied coffin in a graveyard when the grave is being relocated, leading to a feverish mix of family and racial politics, old grudges, and a mystery within a mystery. The second involves a prominent lawyer who, as a youth, was responsible for the murder of a young boy among other crimes, although never convicted. Now he's eliminating his cronies, who are blackmailing him for something else, and that provides the leverage to finally bring him to justice. Not quite as good as the first two but still head and shoulders above most other contemporary mystery novels. 3/19/12

Dead Past by Beverly Connor, Onyx, 2007 

The fourth Diane Fallon novel, but the last one Iíve read of the eight. Connor is much like Kathy Reichs, but better in my opinion. This one opens with a meth lab exploding under a college party, leaving bodies strewn about. One of the survivors tries to carjack Fallonís car but gets caught.  A variety of cases follow when the carjacker is murdered, along with the head arson investigator involved in the case, and a young woman apparently mistaken for one of the museum employees. The latter was traumatized as a child when she was kidnapped and left for dead, an old case which we discover is connected with what is happening in the present. Although there are some rather incredible coincidences in this one, the mystery itself is very well constructed and executed.  3/12/12

Dead Secret by Beverly Connor, Onyx, 2005 

The third Diane Fallon novel. Diane and friends are exploring a cave system when they discover a mummified body, apparently a caver who died several decades earlier. Shortly afterward, Diane and one of the others are stabbed by persons unknown while attending an unrelated funeral. At the same time we have some peripheral plots involving sexual harassment and a claim that a set of bones should be released to the supposed descendants. More complications arise as the story progresses and it quickly becomes one of those books you have to finish no matter how late at night it is. One cavil about this one. Part of the confusion is generated by a character we donít even know exists until near the end, and his part of the plot is almost completely unrelated to the rest of the story, which I thought was rather an awkward way to keep the mystery going. 3/6/12

Dead Guilty by Beverly Connor, Onyx, 2004 

The second Diane Fallon forensic mystery and a very good one. Two lumber company surveyors find three bodies hanging in the woods. That night, one of the surveyors is murdered in a similar fashion, although Fallon finds evidence that the ropes were tied by someone other than the first killer, and the second man disappears. A day after that, the assistant to the medical examiner who dealt with the first three bodies is murdered in his house and someone leaves cryptic messages on Fallonís phone as well as unsigned flowers somehow placed inside her car. Then another victim, the girlfriend of the dead surveyor, and an attempt on Fallonís life by a man armed with a baseball bat. A second attack has a different outcome; the intruder is shot by police and ends up in a coma, but forensic evidence places him at the various crime scenes. But there are still a hundred pages to go, so Connor is clearly trying to trick us. When he is murdered in the hospital, our suspicions are confirmed. And valuable diamonds show up at two sites, suggesting something illegal was going on.  As a mystery, I suppose itís a major cheat since we donít know of the existence of the killers until very late, but as a suspense novel, itís first rate. 3/2/12

One Grave Too Many by Beverly Connor, Onyx, 2003

I've read and immensely enjoyed the later Diane Fallon murder mysteries, so I picked up the older ones. This was her debut as she takes a job as museum director in Georgia following a disastrous mission to South America in which her team, and apparently her soon to be adopted daughter, were murdered. We find out more about this in later books. Although she had vowed to give up forensics, she gives in when friends of her one time lover are murdered in their beds and their adopted daughter is accused of the crime. They had recently found a human bone at an unknown location and although the incompetent police are unwilling to investigate, Fallon and friends decide to do so. Before long her life is in jeopardy as at least two people seem willing to commit mayhem and murder to cover their tracks. At the same time she has to deal with an attempt by some board members to move the museum in order to enrich themselves and the possibility that one of her young employees is being abused physically. Things move very fast, there are lots of interesting and sometimes repulsive characters, and I didn't guess the solution, although this is more of a police procedural thriller than a detective story. Looking forward to the next. 2/28/12

Carte Blanche by Jeffery Deaver, Pocket, 2011, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-4516-2935-4 

Deaver, whom Iíve never read until now, takes over the James Bond franchise with this longish and quite good adventure. He is part of an operation to discover the nature of a rumored terrorist act but is hampered by laws which prohibit from pursuing the case in the normal fashion because he is in the UK. The chief villain, Severan Hydt, is the head of a glorified trash and recycling company, aided by a singularly unpleasant chief of staff.  Bond has to outwit  Hydt and the rival British intelligence service as well, because the agent in charge is hopelessly incompetent and obstructive.  Doing so takes him to various locations around the world including South Africa and brings him into contact with a sizable number of interesting characters. There is a succession of surprise revelations at the end that caught me unawares. As an aside, although I generally ignore blurbs, I had to respond to the one quoted on the cover from the Washington Post which claims that Deaver ďbrilliant captures Flemingís style.Ē Clearly whoever reviewed it had never read Ian Fleming, probably basing his or her comments on the movies, which this novel more clearly resembles. Deaver is American, not British, and the difference is at times obvious. He also moved Bond to the present day, not a bad idea but it certainly doesnít help to emulate Flemingís style. Worst of all, the relaxed pacing, slight sense of Bondís own moral ambiguity, and the dwelling on details of incidentals like card games is almost entirely absent. Itís a very good novel, but nothing like anything Fleming ever wrote. 2/15/12

Boca Daze by Steven M. Forman, Forge, 2012, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2876-2 

I was mildly disappointed by the second in this series, mostly because the first one was so good, but Forman is back in stride with the third adventure of Eddie Perlmutter, retired Boston cop and now popular private detective in Boca Raton, known colloquially as the Boca Knight. He has several new cases this time including a chain of illegal dispensers of legal drugs, a Ponzi scheme with national implications, a team of assassins who target Eddie and his friends, a crooked priest, a comatose homeless man, and others some of which are tied to one another. The book moves along at an almost frantic pace but always without losing control, even when Eddie himself loses control. He also has to come to terms with his own erectile disorder and make common cause with a violent street gang. Great fun from the first page to the last. 2/10/12

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James, Knopf, 2012, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-307-95985-0

The Adam Dalgliesh mysteries by P.D. James rank second only to Dorothy Sayers in my estimation, but James brought that series to a close with her previous novel. This one is a sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and captures the tone of that brilliantly while adding in a low key but puzzling mystery. Elizabeth Darcy's brother in law is accused of murdering his best friend in a woodlot near Pemberley one evening, and his drunken statement that he is responsible for the man's death is interpreted as a confession. An alternate solution seems unlikely given the alibis available to all of the other principle characters, but the reader knows that some surprise is in the offing.  I half suspected the truth in this, but despite the well constructed mystery element, this is more about the characters than the detection, and in fact no one actually solves the crime until the guilty party confesses.  Different in tone from James' other novels, but no less well written. 2/8/12

Ring for Tomb Service by Kate Kingsbury, Berkley, 1997 

One of the two Pennyfoot Hotel mysteries I was missing showed up on Ebay. Itís about average for the series, but comes late in the sequence when Kingsbury was showing more interest in her various characters than in the detection sequences. Her low key romance is also starting to heat up a bit. She pokes a bit of fun at the clergy this time around, and thereís a particularly annoying accountant who is gone by the end of the book. The mystery itself is okay but not really that interesting. More enjoyable for the byplay than the main feature and not one of the stronger titles in the series. 1/27/12

Dig Deep for Murder by Kate Kingsbury, Berkley, 2002 

While digging a new garden, residents of Manor House discover a dead body buried in a shallow grave. Itís one of the local people and suspicions rise involving locals as well as the American soldiers stationed in the village. Naturally our heroine has to investigate to clear up matters, even if that puts her own life at risk.  The romance evolves slightly as do the other subordinate stories, but the mystery this time is pretty tame and uninteresting.  One of the low points in the series. 1/16/12

Fire When Ready by Kate Kinsbury, Berkley, 2004 

When a munitions factory is built near a small British village, the locals are upset because itís a natural target for German bombing raids.  Then the factory explodes, killing the owner, but not because of the Germans.  Someone local is responsible. Is it a saboteur or someone with a grudge against the dead man? Or, as the police believe, was it simply an unfortunate accident?  There are threatening letters, business rivals, rumors of an affair, and other complications. Reasonably good detective work alongside the usual variously amusing and annoying sideplots involving the recurring characters. One of the better entries in the series. 1/16/12

The Emperorís Tomb by Steve Berry, Ballantine, 2011, $9.99, ISBN 978-0-345-50550-7 

Iíve seen several of this authorís books but this is the first I actually read. Many contemporary thrillers Ė particularly those that constitute a series Ė involve heavy doses of testosterone and weapons porn and very little actual story, usually ineptly told.  But there is a sprinkling of good ones in the mix. This particular one involves Chinese politics, lost Confucian manuscripts, a kidnapped child, assassinations, ancient traditions, a secret order of eunuchs, a two fisted gun toting hero and an equally competent female lead. Thereís not much mystery Ė we get to see all the parties at work and thereís no confusion about motivation Ė but thereís lots of action.  This falls somewhere between the two extremes. Itís clearly an adventure story similar to Andy McDermott, but it avoids most of the silliness of Clive Cussler or Stephen Coonts. I would read more by Berry, but I wouldnít make a special trip to the store to find his latest. 1/14/12

Death Watch by Jim Kelly, Minotaur, 2010

This is the second in the Peter Shaw series. Shaw is a young detective who is investigating the murder of a man who operated the organ and drug disposal incinerator at a major hospital. His death seems linked to the disappearance sixteen years earlier of his twin sister, or does it? There are some questionable characters living at a local hostel, a mysterious old man who may be more than he seems, rumors of a frightening figure known as the Organ Grinder, hints of impropriety at the hospital, and a plethora of clues, some of which seem to contradict one another. Underlying that is a back story in which Shaw investigates a case which disgraced his father. This is a very complex mystery and it involves a bit of coincidence to cause two separate story strands to overlap, but that's part of the fun. Not quite as good as the first in the series, but head and shoulders above most other detective fiction I've read recently.  1/9/12

For Whom Death Tolls by Kate Kingsbury, Berkley, 2002 

A Manor House mystery. An altercation between two American soldiers stationed in Britain during World War II is followed by the death of the one of them, found hanging in the church belfry. The lady of the manor decides to investigate for herself, in part to smooth the animosity between the two groups, in part because she has a thing for an American major, and in yet another part because her secretary has a crush on the chief suspect. For the most part this is a genuine detective story despite the humorous interludes, mild romance, and sometimes distracting side stories. It does, however, rely on a cheat as the killer is someone we hadnít even known existed as a potential suspect. Fair. 1/1/12

 

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