A Sunlit Weapon by Winspear

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 5/5

Historical mystery at its best. Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs (a “psychologist and investigator” well connected with both the war office and the local chapter of Scotland Yard) continues to solve complex crimes while the timeline moves from early WWI (the first volume) through 1942 (WWII) in this 17th installment. Unlike many mystery series, these never get repetitive, nor are they replete with filler (as way too many are!). Each story draws from history to lay out a context in which the particular mystery takes place. The series reminds me of Foyle’s War — one of my favorite British television series — which similarly retells history via specific and accurate events.

The plot of A Sunlit Weapon centers around the women pilots who comprise the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). One crashes near Bromley for no apparent reason, and when a second goes to the area to investigate, she finds an American soldier — a black American soldier — left tied up in a barn with a second (white) soldier missing in action. At the same time Eleanor Roosevelt is heading to Britain, and there is real fear around trying to keep her safe, given that she likes to talk with everyone — particularly those whom others find uninteresting — the workers and the women.

Major themes of racial prejudice pervade — both with the American soldiers (who strive to maintain color segregation in Britain despite the fact that there is no such practice or policy there) and for Maisie’s adopted daughter, whose darker skin tone leads to bullying in the local school. Good writing, appealing characters whose lives also progress from one volume to the next, and a satisfyingly twisted plot. Full of real history — my favorite: the female ATA pilots were the first governmental employees to achieve pay parity with men.

I love this series — hope she keeps going!

Thank you to Harper and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 22, 2022.

Dark Night by Paige Shelton (Mystery)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5

Number three in the Beth Rivers / Benedict, Alaska series from Paige Shelton. This series is slightly different in that while each book has its own set of dead bodies to explore, there is an overarching, longer term mystery centering on our heroine. Beth Rivers is her birth name, but she is better known as Elizabeth Fairchild — a famous author of thrillers. She is in hiding from a man who kidnapped and tortured her for three long days before she managed to break free — and each book gets us closer to understanding who this man is, where he might be, and how she can stay safely hidden until he is apprehended.

This is a cozy — just enough action to keep my interest and not enough tension to keep me awake at night. I like the quirky characters in this remote Alaskan town. I’m guessing there isn’t really a lot of verisimilitude in the story, but it’s fun to read. In addition to our brave and yet terrified heroine, we have a retired special ops, Willie Nelson lookalike running the library, a tough-as-nails woman running a halfway house for female parolees, a new love interest named Tex, and Beth’s newly appeared mother about whom one could write an entire novel.

Don’t worry if you haven’t read the first two — the author spends a little too much time (IMHO) doing a thorough rehash of previous events.

A great beach / plane read.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published tomorrow (Dec. 7, 2021).

The Disinvited Guest by Carol Goodman (Mystery / Thriller)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5
Don’t read this book before bedtime!

Reed and Lucy Harper — along with Reed’s sister Liz and her lover Niko, and Lucy’s best friend Ada and husband Crosby, and Mac, the caretaker — all head to a remote island off the coast of Maine in the year 2030 to wait out what appears to be an even more deadly pandemic. The island, now owned by Reed and his sister, was once a quarantine hospital for (mostly Irish) immigrants with Typhus back in the mid 1800s. It is a creepy place, with three generations of deathly illness — the Harper parents died there of Covid in the previous pandemic, and numerous Typhoid patients met their end there the century before.

From the tense start until the surprising finish, the plot twists and turns in a Lord of the Flies meets locked-room Agatha Christie meets part Hitchcock’s Rebecca unfurling. When bad things start happening and the brutality of the island’s history starts bleeding through to the present, Lucy feels her sense of reality slipping.

This is a mystery / thriller with a huge amount of character development. The interpersonal dynamics are nuanced and ever evolving with the threats of unknown origin inserting suspicion and fear where there was once cameraderie and friendship. Very difficult to put down or to get out of your head.

The last thing I wanted to read was a dystopian books about pandemics, so let me reassure you that pandemics really didn’t feature except as an impetus to get them on the island in a quarantine state.

Thank you to William Morrow Paperbacks and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 12th, 2022.

Murder on Madison Square by Victoria Thompson (Mystery)

A nice, light cozy — number 25 (!) in the Gaslight mystery series (New York City around 1900). Frank Malloy (former NYPD policeman, now gentleman private detective) and his wife Sarah (former midwife, but always a Lady having been born into a prominent family) work together (with some other interesting characters) to solve mysteries. This mystery: a man is found dead, having been run over by one of the very cars he was selling.

In truth, there is a lot of filler, a relatively simple plot, and a lot of repetition as everyone keeps talking about the possibilities from all sides. Some things become obvious to the reader long before the characters wake up to the truth (but perhaps this is a nod to expectations of the times?). However, what I do always like about Thompson’s mysteries are the new and interesting pieces of history she brings in to motivate and support the plot. In this book, we learn about the history of electric cars which were apparently very popular at the time — especially for women because they were so much easier (and safer) to drive. Who knew? Also an interesting note about New York divorces where adultery was the only valid grounds for divorce. These two items (and others) have a bearing on the plot.

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on April 26th, 2022.

Bryant & May: London Bridge is Falling Down by Christopher Fowler (Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5
Another beyond convoluted, arcana rich, episode of Bryant & May. In this installment, the two old (or rapidly decaying in one instance) colleagues and their merry band of the Peculiar Crimes Unit are once again battling to keep their unit alive. Given that the building has been gutted, their equipment retracted, and they’ve been told they are out of jobs, it isn’t going well. However, leveraging a loophole requiring all open cases to be closed before the unit can be officially shut down, Bryant gloms onto the case of a 91-year old lady found starved to death in her apartment. Blamed on a communication breakdown in social services, it turns out to be anything but. The merry chase that ensues involves the CIA, a Latvian national, a set of secret files, MI6, agents left over from Bletchley and of course, Bryant’s motley crew of “experts” ranging from psychics to anarchists to reformed academic sewage engineers to OCD ridden book restorers. It’s a fun and often confusing ride with rich veins of British history pumped throughout. Some fun pokes at Millenials too.

A nice quote about (mis)information spreading like disease: “There’s a nice traditional feel to the way diseases circle the earth. Information has the same spread pattern. It expands parts from a central starting point, burning through the crowded hot spots, bypassing those in isolation, guarded by super-spreaders.”

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on December 7th, 2021.

Pay Dirt Road by Samantha Jayne Allen (Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

Annie McIntyre returns home to small town Garnett, Texas with her tail between her legs, waitressing at the local cafe and wondering how she ended up back here. She slides into the family business (private investigating) with her grandfather when another waitress goes missing and is eventually found dead.

For me this was more a novel than mystery. The mystery did have a number of satisfying twists and turns with a healthy hodge-podge of possible suspects, motives, and witnesses — land grabs for oil pipelines, a nasty mother-in-law, illegals who aren’t able to testify for fear of discovery, etc. However, more of the book focussed on small town life (lots of drinking and continued high schoolish behavior by people no longer in high school) and self-discovery as Annie finds out why she wants to stay in Garnet after all and what she wants to do with her life.

Decent, entertaining, read. I did not discover an interest in visiting or living in Garnett.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on April 19th, 2022.

Desolation Canyon by P.J. Tracy (Mystery)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5

This is the second book in a new series from mother-daughter writing team, “P.J. Tracy,” and my first Tracy book ever. LAPD detective Margaret Nolan is about to enter a dangerous liaison at the swanky Hotel Bel-Air bar when she discovers the body of a wealthy man just below the surface of the hotel’s Swan Lake. In the meantime, a young woman and her daughter are desperate to escape a well-heeled religious community offering redemption retreats to the rich and famous in Death Valley. These two threads slowly merge with the help of the Russian mafia, some lovely ex-cons, and a decades old adoption ring.

Fast pacing, surprising plot twists, and just enough tension to make it interesting, but not enough to stress me out (very important!). Plenty of interesting characters, one of which was the suspect (obviously cleared) from the previous novel. I liked that the bad guys had as much depth as the good guys — they were definitely bad guys but you got a sense of their motivations and emotional state.

No need to have read the first book to fully enjoy this one (although I’ll probably go back and read it now).

Thank you to St Martin’s Press and Net Galley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 18th, 2022.

A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz (Mystery)

In this third episode of ex-detective Hawthorne and his amanuensis (non other than the author himself), the two have been invited to a (quite small) literary festival in Alderney, one of the Channel islands. There is a murder — Charles le Mesurier — a thoroughly unpleasant, wealthy man who made his fortune in online gambling sites. In an Agatha Christie style locked-room murder, the festival guests — a bestselling children’s author, a blind psychic, a French poet, and a TV chef — are prime suspects.

Unfortunately this was just so-so. Decently entertaining — Horowitz always writes well — but the gimmick of writing himself into the book as a sort of sniveling, bumbling, Watson to Hawthorne’s Holmes has gotten old and somewhat annoying. I’m a big fan of Horowitz’ work, and I believe I would enjoy meeting him in real life but not if he were the person depicted in these pages! Additionally, this is one of those books where the detective just “figures it out” at the end and we only sort of had the clues that might have helped. All in all, I read it quickly. It would make a good beach / plane read, but I’m not sure I’ll bother with the next one.

The Verifiers by Jane Pek (Fiction / Mystery)

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Plot: 3/5

Claudia Lin is the tiny, stereotype-busting, Asian, lesbian, bicyclist hero of this tongue-in-cheek, semi-snarky, story of an amateur detective gone wild. Having landed a job at a dating detective agency, she ignores protocol and starts investigating the mysterious disappearance of an unusual client. And so it goes…

The mystery lives within an interesting premise — online matchmaking systems using AI based bots which move from verifying dating profile claims to nudging clients to becoming one with their claims. Claudia (and obviously the author) is an inveterate reader, and I enjoyed her literary asides and the source of Claudia’s detective know-how — the (fictional) mystery series starring the philosophical Inspector Yuan. Some interesting, novel likes explorations of the life and background of Claudia and her family that dips freely into a somewhat standard immigrant parent backstory. It’s a bit of a genre mishmash that started as a lot of fun with well-drawn characters but ultimately took too long to get to an abrupt and unsatisfying end.

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 22nd, 2022.

The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny (Mystery / Literary fiction)

Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Writing: 4.5/5

Chief Inspector Gamache is asked to provide security for a statistics lecturer at an abruptly scheduled speaking engagement between Christmas and New Years. But this isn’t just any lecturer. Abigail Robinson is drawing large crowds with her message of a simple solution to all the misery and pending economic collapse threatening the post-Covid world. It is a simple message (clothed in psuedo-compassionate language): just kill all of the weak and defective people soaking up the majority of the world’s resources.

The topic is masterfully handled. There is an attempt on Robinson’s life at the lecture, and later there is an actual murder to solve, but the backdrop of the plot is the way an unpopular message can be skillfully turned into a popular delusion. The “delusion” (I believe) is that the proposal would be a mercy and a kindness to everyone, including those who are to be euthanized. The philosophical discussion takes place throughout the book as different characters struggle with the concepts of burden, empathy, and fear in their own personal lives. Robinson is friendly, soft spoken and earnest. She knows how to paint the terrifying picture and then soothe it with easy solutions, tempering the calls for murder with the promise of compassion and pity and “all will be well.”

As always, Penny’s crime fiction is impossible to put down. Her writing is on a par with good literary fiction, her plots twisted and surprising, and of course it’s difficult to not be in love with all the characters we’ve come to know throughout the previous 16 books (an interesting new character is introduced — an “Asshole Saint” in the form of a curt woman from the Sudan who is up for the Nobel Peace Prize).

There have been a few recent Penny books that I haven’t loved, but this isn’t one of them. I’m already waiting for number 18 …