It’s a Mystery: A Fatal Grace, by Louise Penny

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Martha Stewart wannabe CC de Poitiers has invaded the tranquility of the picture postcard village of Three Pines, buying up the somewhat creepy mansion in which Inspector Gamache’s last bloody case was brought to a close.  Moving in with her henpecked husband and gifted but unloved daughter, CC manages to cast a pall even over the idyllic Christmas Eve service. She’s also shamelessly purloined the ideas of the villagers  to publish in her new book as her own. So when CC  winds up dead by electrocution during the traditional holiday curling tournament, no one is surprised or sorry. But Gamache must investigate anyway, and has got his work cut out for him. The situation is complicated by the reassignment of agent Yvette Nichol to his squad,  who did her utmost to undermine that last investigation. Then there’s the murder of  a homeless woman in Montreal, a seemingly unrelated crime that turns out to have serious connections to CC’s death.

The charm of this series lies less in its police procedural aspects than in watching Gamache, a serious student of human nature, piece together tiny bits of evidence and intuitions to formulate a coherent theory to pursue. While  occasionally threatening to spill over into the cozy genre, this is avoided by the inclusion of unusual settings and experiences, in this case the curling match and  certain parallels to Eleanor of Aquitaine.  The behavior of seemingly honest and harmless villagers can also be deceiving. There is no such person in Three Pines or in Gamache’s wider sphere of influence, excepting perhaps, his wife Reine Marie. Like Guido Brunetti in Donna Leon’s series, Armand Gamache is a man of intelligence and humanity, someone you’d like to get to know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a Mystery: Please Don’t Tell, by Elizabeth Adler

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s a dark and stormy night on the California coast. There’s a serial killer terrorizing San Francisco, who drugs and rapes his  victims, slits their throats, and leaves them to die; one of these young women is discovered clinging to life and rushed to the ER, where the beautiful Dr. Vivian Dexter stabilizes her before surgery. “Dr. Vivi”, struggling to get over a failed romance, catches the eye of two men, the detective,  hunky Brad Merlin, and the hospital’s famous psychiatrist, “Dr. Ralph”. Miles away on Big Sur, Aunt Fen is disappointed that Vivi must postpone her visit due to the weather. But Fen won’t have to eat alone, for a rugged stranger, drenched and bleeding from a car wreck, appears at her door seeking help.

Thus opens Please Don’t Tell, setting up a plot full of danger and romance.  The love at first sight theme is seriously overextended, especially because several of the men serve as persons of interest. That doesn’t stop Fen, Vivi, and her sister JC from hanging all over them anyway, better judgment be damned. It’s not much of a stretch to foresee who the killer really is, and one of the three will become his next target. Not much of a mystery, not many thrills, but readers who enjoy a heavy dollop of romance will probably enjoy this tale.

It’s a Mystery: The Gods of Guilt, by Michael Connelly

Michael Haller is a defense attorney, one who never hit the big time. He is the object of much disrespect because of the sorts of clients he defends, but Mickey believes that the legal system is stacked against society’s lower strata, and is willing to go to bat for them. If some of his tactics are not exactly on the up and up, well, neither are those of the state.

Michael Connelly introduced Haller in the Lincoln Lawyer, and through the next several books in the series, has developed his character into a street smart sort of guy who, at heart, is something of a crusader. Mickey’s the sort of protagonist that readers really pull for. The Gods of Guilt (a term uses by Haller’s mentor for the jury) features an complex plot, in which his client has been framed for the murder of a prostitute, whom he defended once before and came to care about. As he works to discover who killed her and why, Mickey exposes a web of political corruption, and  is targeted by its masterminds. As a result, he loses someone he cares deeply about. But he also recovers a damaged relationship and forges a new one.  The story is superbly crafted, as I’ve come to expect from Mr. Connelly. This is crime fiction at its best. Wait, scratch that. This is fiction at its best.

It’s a Mystery: Holy Terror in the Hebrides, by Jeanne M. Dams

my rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sixty- something widow Dorothy Martin is an American ex-pat living in England.  Offered the chance to vacation on the tiny Scottish island of Iona, she gladly accepts. But Dorothy has the bad luck to arrive with an American church tour, whose seven members don’t permit their religious convictions to prevent them from squabbling and backbiting. On a group excursion to Staffa, a geological wonder, Dorothy is horrified to observe Bob, the most despised member of the tour, slip on a wet rock and tumble into the churning sea. Shocked at first, she soon recalls that conditions were dry all over the island: could someone have set Bob up for the fall by pouring water on that rock? Perhaps her suspicious would have developed no further, but the next day, huddling uneasily together in the hotel during a fierce rain and wind storm, Dorothy has the perfect opportunity to study each member for motive,  and piece her scanty evidence together. What she concludes shakes her deeply.

Holy Terror in the Hebrides qualifies as a classic English village mystery, but its author is no Brit. Jeanne Dams hails from Indiana, and describes her protagonist as her alter ego. Dorothy is a strong central character, propelling the rather simple plot via her observations, thoughts, and reactions. The actions of all other characters are filtered and interpreted through her. The novel is devoid of violence, with the terror promised by its title occurs in passages late in the narrative, and the denouement  is curiously lacking in suspense.  But Iona is a fascinating setting, and the story’s shortcomings are balanced by personality and atmosphere.

 

It’s a Mystery: Girl Missing, by Tess Gerritsen

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my rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the 1990′s, before switching to the medical thrillers she is famous for, Tess Gerritsen published a number of romantic thrillers. Girl Missing, published  in 1996 under the title Peggy Sue Got Murdered, foreshadows the currently popular Rizzoli and Isles series.

Kat Novak is a pathologist working for the greater Boston medical examiner. She’s tough, self-reliant, and something of a maverick, having grown up in the projects, and is not one to let go of suspicions easily. When three corpses turn up in her lab, each having OD’d on an unidentifiable substance, she sets out to find out what that substance is and who is distributing it. And someone among society’s elite wants to prevent her from finding out.

Girl Missing  does center upon a criminal investigation, one that the police somehow have little interest in, so the pathologist does it for them.  But sharing the stage is the romantic involvement that develops between Kat and Adam Quantrell, who owns a giant pharmaceutical  company and fears that his stepdaughter may be the next to OD.   Not particularly suspenseful, except at the end, there is little here to entice readers other than those  who enjoy a lot of romance in their mysteries.

It’s a Mystery: More Than Meets the Eye, By J.M. Gregson

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My rating:  3 of 5 stars

Sissinghurst,  one of the greatest of English gardens,  is the inspiration for Westbourne, the very interesting setting of  More Than Meets the Eye. Westbourne’s director, Dennis Cooper, loves his job, but possesses many irritating habits, such as collecting dirt on his employees,  that make him less than a favorite among the staff. When Cooper’s lifeless body is found on the grounds, Inspectors Lambert and Hook encounter many likely suspects. Author Gregson provides each of them with chapters of their own, and the mystery unfolds as the chapters alternate.  Rather than planting red herrings, he provides each character with very good reasons for wanting Cooper dead.  The reader never becomes certain about who really did it. So, More Than Meets the Eye works well  as a bona fide whodunnit, but, in this episode at least, the investigators, DSI Lambert and DI Hook, come across as rather flat. I found myself rooting more for the suspects than for the cops, and, no doubt as the author intended, felt considerable sympathy for the murderer. Let’s hope he/she is only charged with manslaughter!

Ghost Story: The Fate of Mercy Alban, by Wendy Webb

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Grace Alban left her childhood home for college more than twenty years ago, and has never looked back. Alban House, a grand Victorian estate on the shore of Lake Superior, holds too many melancholy memories for her, stemming from  the drowning deaths of her younger twin brothers and her father.  When her mother Adele dies, Grace has little choice but to return to make funeral arrangements, bringing along her teenaged daughter.  From the moment she sets foot in the mansion, she’s struck by the sense of being surrounded by spirits. Little does she know……

The Fate of Mercy Alban is a gothic ghost story, which only just misses  categorization as romance. The Alban family has buried some very macabre secrets over the generations, and poor Grace, kept in the dark about them until now, must learn all about them the hard way. The novel is populated by some obvious types, such as the loyal family retainers, the elderly aunt who was ensconced in a private institution for the criminally insane, and an understanding and very dishy vicar.  Its plot revolves around a manuscript that Grace discovers, which tells the thinly veiled story of whatever happened to Aunt Fate, the twin sister of the evil aunt. Is it fact or fiction?  Grace is soon to know the whole truth.

This is a mildly creepy story, one that would probably make a scarier movie than book. It’s fun to read, and holds back one last secret till the very last page, which will leave you with food for thought and speculation.  And possibly a sequel?

It’s a Mystery: The Deliverance of Evil, by Roberto Costantini

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Deliverance of Evil is the debut novel of Italian writer Roberto Costantini. It opens in 1982, when Italy is celebrating the winning of the World Cup, thus taking little notice of a young woman’s murder on the streets of Rome. Detective Michele Balistreri doesn’t have the luxury of  ignoring the crime, but the heavy drinking, chain smoking womanizer is arrogantly certain that he’ll solve this murder. The case goes cold, however,  and the next 100 pages of this book are dedicated to demonstrating what a pretentious, hollow lowlife Balistreri is.

Though not exactly  on fast-forward, the story eventually takes its readers to 2006, and Italy is again on the verge of  another World Cup. Balistreri has finally hit rock bottom, where he lingers until pulled out of his self destructive funk by the death of his mother. When his clears, he remembers his failure to solve the long ago murder, and, feeling a modicum of guilt, sets out to rectify the situation.   Don’t look for the emergence of a Columbo, but Belistreri stumbles upon a deadly Eastern European prostitution ring,  and, when more murders occur, begins to piece together some links between past and present.

The Deliverance of Evil is full of extraneous detail, sketchily drawn characters, and a wordy rather than action based plot.  But buried among the extraneous clutter are some valuable insights in Italy’s social problems, which include widespread political corruption, a flood of immigrants, and constant conflict between church and state.  Rather than repeatedly demonstrating Balistreri’s moral ambiguity, some exploration of his own conflicts would add interest (ala Kurt Wallander.)  This novel is too long by at least a hundred pages, and tighter editing might shape it into a tauter, more appealing work.

It’s a Mystery: Firefly Beach, by Meira Pentermann

Firefly Beach

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Newly divorced accountant Beth leaves the world of stress and numbers behind, moving to Maine to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. As she settles into her rented cottage, she begins to become acquainted with the colorful residents of Virginia Point Cove, each with his or her own set of eccentricities and foibles. No sooner does she move in than Beth finds herself with a strange new “friend”, which she at first takes to be a firefly but then realizes it’s a strange little orb of light that can zip around a great speed and travel through solid windows and walls. The orb leads her to a secluded beach, where she discovers a diary hidden away amongst the rocks of the cliff face. Soon Beth is intent upon finding the girl, a woman now, who hid the book away before she disappeared from town. She will not be able to settle comfortably into her new life until that happens. It seems likely that there will be a sequel, since when Beth and the handsome craftsman living in town team up to solve the mystery together, a deeper relationship seems afoot.

Firefly Beach is perhaps most suited in its simplicity to a young adult audience.

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Thriller: The Cold Calling, by Will Kingdom

The Cold Calling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For DI Bobby Maiden, life after death is hell. Resuscitated after a hit and run, he’s haunted by dark, eerie dreams of being buried alive. Before the accident, he knew he was being fitted up by his supervisor, a crooked administrator who works hand in glove with the local hoods. When the supervisor visits him in the hospital, Bobby knows he’d better disappear before he’s forced to die another death.

The nurse who brought Bobby back to life is an alternative healer, and she hides him out with a friend, Marcus, who lives in the ruin of an ancient castle across the Welsh border. Marcus’s elderly housekeeper experienced, during childhood, a vision of the Virgin Mary at Black Knoll, the prehistoric burial mound above his home. Enter Cindy Mars-Lewis, a cross dressing entertainer who believes he has shamanic powers, and American journalist Grayle Underhill, looking for the sister who has disappeared somewhere among these ancient hills. When it appears that a serial killer is marauding, all hell breaks loose.

Will Kingdom is a pen name of Phil Rickman, the British novelist better known for his Merrilee Watkins series. There is no one writing today who is better at unrolling stories atmospheric with history and folklore, populated by magnetic characters, both good and bad, and topped with a credible dollop of the paranormal. Cold Calling has a multi-layered plot written tightly enough that the reader discovers the identity of the killer only when those in the story do. Green men, stone circles, and ley lines all play prominent roles, drawing the reader into the mystery.

I’ve said this in others of my Rickman reviews and it bears repeating: Phil Rickman is an author who deserves a wider audience in America. He’s outstanding. Check him out.

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