Archive for the ‘mystery’ Tag

History Makes Good Mystery   Leave a comment

Daughter of Time

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey was first published in 1951; the reprint in 1979. Yet, this gem of a mystery remains, well, timeless.

The crime and the manner of investigation are atypical. Alan Grant, of Scotland Yard, is recuperating in hospital with a broken leg. He’s bored, unhappy and not interested in reading. That is until he sees a copy of a painting of Richard III. He’s intrigued, particularly since the king’s face doesn’t mesh with the reputation of the man who killed to gain the crown. This sets Grant on a bedridden chase to learn more about Richard, whose short reign and place in history were tarnished.

Dry humor and rich narrative accompany Grant in his pursuit: was the king truly responsible for the murder of his two nephews to ensure his rise to the throne? The patient is assisted by Brent Carradine, a young researcher at the British Museum, and chronicles about English royalty of the 15th century. Even though all those involved at the time are, obviously, dead, Grant still conducts interviews: questioning his nurses and friends. They confirm Richard’s unfortunate place in history is warranted; Grant isn’t convinced.

Through  Carradine’s research, driven by Grant’s inquiries, it becomes clear Richard has been falsely maligned. In bringing history to life, the author’s description of Grant’s enthusiasm is palpable, as is his disappointment in the account rendered by historians, including Thomas More’s. The patient’s boredom converts to purpose and his recovery is almost as significant as his discoveries.

The Daughter of Time
Four Bookmarks
Touchstone Books by Simon & Schuster, 1979
206 pages

Disappearing People   Leave a comment

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Julia Phillips’ descriptions of the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia as lonely and cold are vivid in her novel Disappearing Earth. The title is fitting given the geographic isolation and the way the people move in, then away from the plot.

Beginning with the abduction of two young girls, the narrative features a range of characters with strong, tenuous or nonexistent ties to the victims. What they share is the locale and an awareness of the missing girls.

The first chapter is called August. Subsequent chapters/months represent the passage of time and introduce another situation involving others. The result is a disconnect more suggestive of a short story collection than a novel since there’s often no resolution for the problems or experiences described. Issues range from a young woman in college with a manipulative boyfriend, to a lost dog, from ethnic traditions to dissolution of friendships or family estrangements. Nonetheless, most chapters are captivating. These are interesting people, and the rich writing of each situation only begs for more. The list of main characters included to keep track of who’s who helps.

The investigation of the missing girls is initially a priority for the police, but eventually loses momentum. By contrast, a young indigenous woman who previously went disappeared was barely acknowledged by authorities.

The novel’s greatest strength lies in the setting; it’s a character unto itself. The weather, the light and the landscape, which includes rocky beaches, densely-wooded forests and looming active volcanos, are austere – like its people.

Disappearing Earth
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2019
256 pages

Laying Past Lives to Rest   Leave a comment

The Burial Society

The title of The Burial Society by Nina Sadowsky is a bit misleading. It’s not the dead who are laid to rest, but the past identities of those who need rescuing from abusive or dangerous situations. Catherine, a narrator, oversees everything necessary in creating an unofficial witness protection service. Although it’s never clearly stated, the implication is that most of those she helps are women.

In the midst of assisting a Russian model begin a new life away from the grip of her rich, sadistic husband, Catherine faces reminders of one of her covert endeavors gone wrong.

Chapters alternate  between Catherine’s first person voice to an omniscient narrator detailing the activities of Natalie Burrows, her brother Jake and Uncle Frank. The siblings’ father has just been murdered, and their mother disappeared several years ago, independent of the Burial Society. Catherine is certain an uncharacteristic lack of judgment on her part is responsible for the woman’s death.

Set mostly in Paris, the action involves Catherine not only ensuring the Russian model is safe, but that Natalie and Jake are, too. It’s the latter that takes the narrator out of her comfort zone.

Confident, clever and apparently wealthy, Catherine is almost like a female James Bond with plenty of sophisticated tricks and technology at hand to accomplish her tasks. The author creates s sense of urgency and uncertainty in Catherine’s ability to assist the Burrows without revealing her clandestine operation. The result is a briskly-paced mystery with a lot to be solved.

The Burial Society
Four Bookmarks
Ballantine Books, 2018
319 pages

Mom is the Best Private Investigator   Leave a comment

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Celine by Peter Heller is a love letter to a lively, clever, socially privileged, yet intuitively aware, woman who happens to be a private investigator. The title character warrants all the admiration and awe the author infuses in this two-in-one mystery – both of which are equally engrossing.

Celine Watkins, 68 years old, appreciates the finer things in life, but what she most enjoys is her avocation of tracking down missing persons. After receiving a call from a young woman wanting to learn more about how her father went missing 20 years ago, Celine can’t resist the challenge.

Her sidekick is her life partner, Pete, an intelligent, reticent and supportive man. He and Celine leave the comfort of their upscale Brooklyn apartment for Wyoming, the last known whereabouts of the man in question.

Meanwhile, Celine’s adult son, Hank, wonders about the secret his mother has kept hidden for decades. This provides the narrative of Celine’s past: her childhood growing up with her two sisters in an aristocratic family where private schools, sailing lessons and speaking French were nothing out of the ordinary.

The alternating chapters build tension as Hank recounts his efforts to learn about the child his mother gave up for adoption and Celine pursues a thin string of clues while being followed in her investigation.

Heller blends humor with meaningful relationships among the different characters. At times Celine seems too good to be true, Mostly, she’s comes across as the strong, fun, determined and smart woman every girl should aspire to be.

Celine
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Alfred A, Knopf, 2017
334 pages

Breaking the Rules   Leave a comment

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A Rule Against Murder is the fourth in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series. I’ve been told to read the canon, comprised of 16, in order. Clearly, I have a ways to go, but what a fun journey to undertake. The problem lies in wanting to pick up the next book immediately after putting down the last.

Armand Gamache is the kind, intelligent, perceptive, chief inspector on vacation with his wife celebrating their anniversary. They are at a luxurious, remote inn where they’ve often stayed. However, this time a death occurs, which isn’t initially clear as accidental or murder, but since he is already on the scene, Gamache oversees the investigation.

Penny writes mysteries, so it’s no surprise there will be something for Gamache and his team to uncover. What’s most engaging is the slow, methodical, yet lyrical, manner the author incorporates to arrive at a possible crime, which isn’t immediate. Instead, the author describes the calm, rustic setting, the inn’s staff, the guests and, most fun of all, the Gamaches’ relationship. The scene unfolds like a travelogue for a get-away to a relaxing resort, complete with vivid, mouthwatering descriptions of the food served.

Also staying at the inn is an extended family, most of whom prove to be as unlikable as Gamache is charming. When a family member is found crushed beneath a newly erected statue commemorating the patriarch, clues are sought to determine the cause. There is no shortage of possible suspects and motives, although deciphering who remains in question.

A Rule Against Murder
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
Minotaur Books, 2008
322 pages

Major Creep Factor   Leave a comment

The Hiding Place by C. J. Tudor

Creepy is the best way to describe The Hiding Place by C.J. Tudor. The setting, the characters and the story itself are all disturbing. It’s difficult to appreciate a book with no likeable characters; yet the author successfully creates an unsettling story that goes beyond masses of beetles crawling out of walls.

Narrator Joe Thorne returns to his hometown, a run-down former mining town in rural England. It was never a thriving community, but its position at the edge of economic ruin makes the old days not look so bad in Joe’s eyes. It’s clear he’s returned to settle a score. Yet, there are so many twists and characters lacking empathy, interest or both, that the obvious question of why hangs too heavy over the narrative.

Joe is a teacher, a liar, a gambling addict and also, somehow, a victim. He left his previous job under suspicious circumstances but is able to con his way into a teaching position at the school he attended as a youth. Many of Joe’s old pals are still in town, but it’s clear these are no longer friendly relationships. Another unfriendly sort is Gloria, a thug hired by the Fatman to collect the gambling debts Joe has amassed.

Before Joe’s arrival, a murder/suicide has occurred in the very cottage he knowingly chooses to rent. A mother has killed her son before turning a gun on herself. This strikes Joe as hauntingly familiar even though nothing in his past suggests something similar. Until it does.

The Hiding Place
Three-and-half Bookmarks
Crown Books, 2018
278 pages

Family Mystery, Mysterious Family   Leave a comment

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I thought I had Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway figured out about halfway through. I was close, but close doesn’t count when murder and deceit are involved.

Ware masterfully creates a sympathetic main character in Harriet “Hal” Westaway, a 21-year-old plagued by debt and loneliness with no known relatives. That is, until a letter arrives naming her as a beneficiary in the will of someone identified as her grandmother. Hal knows this isn’t possible but schemes to learn more, even going so far as to concoct a plan to gain some portion of the will by misrepresenting herself. She makes her living as a tarot card reader who has learned how to tell people what they want to hear based on what they reveal about themselves. Hal is certain she can use the same approach with the Westaway family.

Of course, Hal is not the only one keeping secrets. Much of the fun lies in trying to determine the evil player among the deceased’s other living relatives. It’s clear Mrs. Westaway, the grandmother, was not a loving mother and her grown sons, Hal’s uncles, claim they want nothing to do with anything from her will. That is until it’s revealed that Hal is to inherit the bulk.

A short-tempered, intimidating housekeeper and methodically revealed truths add to Hal’s distress.

It’s hard to go wrong with vivid descriptions of the cold, wet landscape surrounding the dark, old mansion. Thus, Ware sets the scene for an engaging mystery.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway
Four Bookmarks
Scott Press, 2018
368 pages

Uncovering the Past   2 comments

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The Tuscan Child is a book that makes you hungry for Italy, especially its food. Rhys Bowen’s story alternates between two different time periods: 1944 and 1973.

The former recounts British pilot Hugo Langley’s efforts to survive after parachuting from his stricken plane over German-occupied Tuscany. The latter, and bulk of the novel, picks up with his daughter, Joanna, following Hugo’s death. She discovers an unopened letter addressed to Sophia in a small Tuscan village. The letter includes a reference to their “beautiful boy.” With little else to go on, Joanna travels to Italy learn more about Sophia and the boy, who could be her brother.

The chapters involving Hugo answer some of the mystery; others are left to Joanna to solve.

Sophia discovers the wounded pilot and helps keep in him hidden in a bombed-out monastery. She’s limited by scarce resources and the inability to leave home without raising suspicion among the townspeople and Germans. Although it is only a month, Hugo and Sophia fall in love.

Joanna is unable to learn anything about Sophia and none of the old timers in the village knew anything of a wounded pilot. Still, shortly after her arrival, one man suggests he has information for Joanna. Before he’s able to share anything, he’s murdered and Joanna becomes a suspect.

Bowen has crafted a double mystery: one involving the boy and the other the murderer. In the process of unearthing secrets, Joanna is treated to meals lovingly prepared by her guest house owner.

The Tuscan Child
Four Bookmarks
Lake Union Publishing, 2018
336 pages

Grit But No Cigar   Leave a comment

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The Dime by Kathleen Kent combines two elements atypical to most mysteries: a lesbian protagonist in a contemporary Dallas, Texas, setting. Betty Rhyzk is a transplant from Brooklyn who moves to the Lone Star State with her partner, Jackie who wants to be nearer her supposedly-ailing mother.

Betty is a no-nonsense detective whose often-sarcastic attitude, above average height and flaming-red hair keep her on everyone’s radar. When a drug bust goes awry, Betty unwittingly becomes a target from an unlikely group for an even more improbable reason.

Betty’s an interesting, smart character. Her sexuality is a minor part of her personality. This adds another dimension of dealing with bias in a nearly all-male police department as well as some instances of close-minded Dallas residents, including most of Jackie’s relatives.

In addition to Betty and her police colleagues, is the ghost of Betty’s Uncle Benny. He’s not so much a specter as a presence in her life. His influence and wisdom is a large part of who she is. She thinks of Benny often and the voice she hears in the back of her mind is attributed to him. She isn’t crazy, she just misses him and the guidance he provided.

Severed body parts, sexism and wayward evangelism converge to threaten Betty and those in her life. An abundance of suspension of disbelief is required as Betty encounters the novel’s real villains. Kent has created a strong, female central character, but at times Betty’s portrayed as much more than a superhero.

The Dime
Three bookmarks
Mulholland Books, 2017
343 pages

A Swedish Mystery With Plenty of Light   Leave a comment

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Still Waters by Viveca Sten is part of the Sandhamn Murders, a Swedish series set mostly on an island near Stockholm. It’s often safe to assume that when the words murder and Sweden appear in the same sentence a dark, somber mystery is in store – the kind that makes you want to keep a light on at night. Sten’s novel breaks the mold, sort of.

Forget the gloom typically associated with Scandinavian who-dunits: Sandhamn is a coastal resort and in a part of Europe where the sun barely disappears from view.

Thomas Andreasson, a detective in Stockholm, grew up on one of the small islands of the archipelago of which Sandhamn is a part. He’s assigned to investigate what initially appears to be an accidental drowning. However, when the dead man’s cousin also turns up dead on Sandhamn, Thomas – and the reader – know this is no mere coincidence.

Along with the detective is his childhood best friend, Nora; she’s a married lawyer and mother of two young sons. The friendship is platonic, although marital issues between Nora and her husband surface. The characters are likable and engaging, but the deaths of the cousins are less compelling. Sten does little to create tension as Thomas works to solve the case. The single event designed to keep one on edge is, unfortunately, predictable.

The only real grit comes from the constant references to the sand. Nonetheless, Still Waters makes for a good summer read with no worries about locking doors or having a night-light.

Still Waters
Three-and-three-quarter Bookmarks
Amazon Crossing, 2008
434 pages