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 …

When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash (Literary Fiction / Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Plot: 3/5

A crashed plane in the middle of the night in a small airfield in North Carolina. The dead body of a local black man is found nearby. A sheriff up for reelection in a week and very likely to lose to a younger man who is at the very heart of a good old boy network — to which many of the deputies also belong. And a daughter who returns home suddenly after the heartbreaking loss of her baby. These are the elements of this literary mystery.

The writing is very good in terms of the carefully crafted sentences and the sensitivity and depth of the main characters (Winston Barnes, the sheriff; his daughter; and to some extent Jay, the young black boy who is sent to live with his sister, the now widow of the victim). For me, the plot teetered between gripping and extraneous. Although the crime and the sheriff are front and center, this reads like literary fiction far more than crime fiction and the elements of plot that work to solve the crime are like sudden jagged edges introduced in spurts. I had a very hard time with the characters as well (other than the three I’ve mentioned). They were deeply stereotyped, reinforcing the dangerous divides our country is facing. Bradley Frye — property developer, running against the sheriff for reelection — drives a truck with confederate flags, calls black people the “n” word regularly, and has no trouble terrorizing the town. I also hated the ending — there was enough obvious foreshadowing that it was easy to see what was going to happen but somehow the sheriff didn’t. He behaved uncharacteristically, and I’ll leave it at that to avoid spoilers. The daughter theme resolves but had little to do with the crime plot.

I did enjoy much of the reading, but the ending and the stereotypes were such that I can’t recommend it.

Thank you to William Morrow and Custom House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on September 21st, 2021.

The Heron’s Cry by Ann Cleeves (Mystery / audio book)

This is the second book in Cleeves’ new Two Rivers series. The series is already slated to follow predecessors Vera and Shetland into (my) favorite British mystery shows.

An elaborately staged murder — the weapon, a beautiful piece of glass crafted by the victim’s daughter is the first murder to intrude on the idyllic North Devon countryside, but it won’t be the last. Detective Matthew Venn — calm and focused, works with colleagues Jen Rafferty (a now-single mom of two who left Liverpool and an abusive husband to come to Devon) and Ross May, a local boy.

I haven’t read any of Cleeves’ earlier books, but I have watched all of the mini series. What I really liked about reading (listening) to this one is how much depth her characters have. I liked that all the background and ongoing personal lives were integrated into the action — which after all is what life is like. I particularly liked that her characters have depth but are not overflowing with repetitive faults, as in so many of the newer TV series — I suppose that’s to make us readers / watchers happier about our own faults but I would prefer to engage with realistic characters who work to improve themselves than with screw ups who make me feel better about myself.

This was an audio book — the first I’ve ever reviewed. The reader — Jack Holden — was excellent. He read at exactly the right pace (so many readers are simply too slow), a lovely British accent, and good at doing the various accents and voices so that it was always clear who was doing the speaking. I’m not a huge audio book person — I read so fast that an audio book just takes far too long — so I’m very picky about readers and this is one I’d be happy to listen to again.

Complex characters, twisted plot, beautiful environment — I’m definitely going back to read book one and look forward to the ITV series.

The Accomplice by Lisa Lutz (Fiction / Humor / Mystery)

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

Funny, acerbic, and irreverent (Lisa Lutz’ signature trio). The action follows two best friends — Luna Grey and Owen Mann. No, they never slept together; yes they are the most important people in each other’s lives.

The story spans time, bouncing between 2003 and 2019 with important (and weird, always weird) flashbacks to the familial primordial ooze from which each has sprung. Four murders — connected but not in the way you think — and an intricate web of secrets, trust, suspicion, and guilt pervade the narrative.

The plot is consistently surprising and the characters engaging — plenty to love and plenty not to love. The pages are full of bizarre details that help us deep dive on who Luna and Owen really are and how they became that way. As an aside, I love the way Lutz describes her minor supporting characters — deftly reducing them to one to two sentence descriptions that capture the essence of what they present to outsiders — it’s a talent.

I always have fun reading Lisa Lutz — I was a big fan of the Spellman Files, but I’m glad she is moving to stand alone stories as I think Izzy Spellman is at the point where she can’t acgtually develop any more without losing what makes her interesting in the first place — the Spellmans are spent!

A few fun quotes:

“Thinking about being good didn’t make you good. Sacrificing individual happiness didn’t make the world a better place.”

“Sam didn’t believe in using words to state the obvious, or fill up silence, or attempt to ease discomfort.”

“I don’t like it when you ask me to explain men to you, like I have special insight into lascivious behavior.”

“He wasn’t Teflon; closer to particleboard. He soaked everything, letting it warp him, become part of him.”

Once, Owen had tried to talk to the guy. He asked Mason what he did when he wasn’t smoking pot. Dude, that’s like a really personal question, was Mason’s response.”

“He was obsessed with variety, which Luna had only recently correlated with his inability to stay faithful.”

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 25th, 2022.