It’s a Mystery: Arson and Old Lace, by Patricia Harwin

my rating: 2 of 5 stars

Catherine Penny has fled New York City for an idyllic English village, struggling to come to terms with her failed marriage. She and her husband had visited Far Wychwood in happier times, and Catherine is dismayed as those bittersweet memories mar her pleasure in her new home. Still, living near her daughter’s family provides some compensation, and Catherine is determined to fit in with her neighbors and make a new life for herself. But she has a disconcerting way of stumbling into trouble. She begins by offering assistance to the elderly man across the lane, unperturbed when he rebuffs her, and alienates his arrogant son.  She agrees to babysit for her two year old grandson, only to find herself exhausted by his boundless energy. Though some of the local ladies accept her with kindness, it isn’t long before Catherine is known as a pushy busybody. Then the old man’s house burns down, and she strongly suspects arson.

Catherine is an interesting protagonist, and the question of arson is an intriguing one. But in truth, she IS a pushy busybody. At her age (60-ish), she should have learned to control her impulsiveness, but Catherine repeatedly throws herself into one iffy situation after another. Some are mildly comical, but the way that she ignores her daughter’s wishes about the care of the little boy is deplorable. It’s true that she comes to reveal one of the town’s dirty little secrets, but in the process, manages to muck up several lives in which she had no business meddling. Look out, Far Wychwood, you’ll never be the same.

I plan to read the second in this series, to discover whether Catherine develops a modicum of wisdom. For a more appealing lady sleuth, read the Dorothy Martin series by Jeanne M. Dams.

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.

 

History is Mystery: The Lincoln Letter, by William Martin

imageMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Lincoln Letter is the tenth and latest  William Martin’s series of historical novels, several of which feature antiquarian book dealer  Peter Fallon. Now Fallon is back and hot on the trail of a heretofore unknown letter written by Abraham Lincoln on the last day of his life.  The letter is brief, addressed to  former War Department decoder Hawley Hutchinson , and seems to refer to a diary that Lincoln lost earlier in the Civil War. Fallon heads to Washington DC, only to discover that he  is not the only hunter in this increasingly dangerous quest. While Fallon is feverishly searching and defending his life, a series of flashbacks, narrated from the point of view of Hutchinson, illustrate how and why this mystery came to pass.  The plot is enriched by the actions of colorful characters in both time periods, and I found the Civil War story the more compelling. Martin adroitly handles the moral issues  of slavery and political machination without becoming preachy, and the African American characters are among the best developed.  Why were people so determined to find Lincoln’s diary in the 1860′s? For its value to anti-Lincoln factions for use as a weapon. Why are they so determined in the early 2000′s? For the diary’s value, to history, yes, but more importantly, for the fortune it would bring.

A fast paced, engrossing tale, thoughtful and well presented.

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!

Thriller: The English Girl, by Daniel Silva

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  My rating:     5 of 5 stars

The English Girl is author Silva’s thirteenth novel featuring Gabriel Allon, the brilliant, honorable, and ruthless Israeli intelligence operative. The book opens with a summons from number 10 Downing Street. The PM has been conducting a secret affair with Madeline Hart, a political aide who was just kidnapped while on holiday in Corsica. Hoping to keep this potential scandal from the press, the Brits are calling in a favor, asking Allon to find and rescue Madeline.  Reluctantly, and against his better judgment, he agrees.  What follows is a kind of Russian doll of a situation,  made up of plots within plots that grow ever more perilous,

Just as Allon is the consummate master of his trade, so too is Daniel Silva. There is no writer working today who is better at crafting a credible, mesmerizing thriller, one that reads like a James Bond movie. Allon, his wife Chiara, and his team, are by now old friends of readers, serve as the hook on which to reel us in. But Silva’s secondary characters are equally three-dimensional, and in this case include the killer for hire  who recently targeted Allon, the Don of the Corsican underworld,  and a peasant woman who can read the future in a bowl of water and olive oil. The exotic settings, which Silva brings to life with rich detail, and the intricate plots that never grow stale or predictable, add to the enjoyment.  As for the icing on these cakes, the geopolitical situations underlying all the intrigue provide the moral reason for the mayhem.

All of the Gabriel Allon novels can be read as stand-alones, but, for the richest experience, it’s best to take them in order. Highly recommended for those attracted to literary thrillers.

Modern Lit: Survival of the Fittest, by Robin Hawdon

Survival of the Fittest

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some books defy classification within a single genre, and that is true of Survival of the Fittest, a new novel by British playwright and actor Robin Hawdon. Part historical fiction, part mystery, and part spiritual/philosophical  journey, it’s based upon the private, unpublished papers of Charles Darwin and his wife, Emma. Following the recent trend of splitting plots into two or three subplots, Survival opens with depressed widower and London book dealer Maurice Aldridge, who after four years has yet to emerge from his grief over the death of his wife. Maurice relies upon his work and frequent dips into the whiskey stash in his desk to get him through the day. His routine is interrupted one morning by a visit from an American collector of rare books, who want Maurice, for a princely sum, to track down copies of the private journal of Emma Darwin, and the addendum in which the great scientist himself spells out his own beliefs about the existence of God. Both of these prizes have been the topic of rumors for 150 years, but to date, no one has managed to locate either. Maurice is in for the adventure of his life.

Interspersed between Maurice’s chapters are segments from the journals of Mrs. Darwin, in which she details her deepest concerns about the spiritual well being of her husband, whom she fears (and many believe today) has imperiled his soul by daring to denying God’s role in creation. She paints a vivid picture of family life, which was full of love, loss, the raising of ten children, and some very odorous scientific research, and these passages vividly portray Darwin as man rather than icon.

The third major character in Survival is writing from prison in 1951. Klaus Fuchs is a physicist who worked at Los Alamos on the development of the atomic bomb that put an end to the Second World War. During that period, he was working as a secret agent, providing the Russians with the project details, and following the war was convicted of treason and espionage. With so much time on his hands, Fuchs sets himself to describing the many reasons, most quite moral, profound and philosophical, which guided his actions.

Judging by this novel, Robin Hawdon is a fine author, his writing intelligent, clear, and engaging. His characters nearly step out of the pages, all three protagonists struggling with serious, life altering questions. Their emotions and experiences become those of the reader, and linger in the mind after the book has been closed. This is a work of fiction that could be taken as biography, and has prompted me to look more deeply into Darwin’s life and work. It’s also a first rate detective story, with its full share of surprises and turnabouts.

Enjoyable, thought provoking, and wholly worthwhile.

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Thriller: Cabal of the Westford Knight, by David S. Brody

Cabal of The Westford Knight: Templars at the Newport Tower
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The daVinci Code crosses the pond to Westford, Massachusetts, following clues about the secret Jesus/Magdalene bloodline hidden in Scotland’s and the Sinclair family’s Roslyn Chapel. Cabal of the Westford Knight is based upon legends concerning the infamous Templar Knights, a band of which is supposed by some to have arrived in what is now New England, more than a hundred years before Columbus. Cameron Thorne is a small town lawyer who grew up in the region, and in the course of ordinary business, he stumbles into a diabolical conspiracy by parties unknown. The Knights are rumored to have left a priceless treasure, and Thorne quickly learns that there are those more than willing to kill for it. He determines to reach that treasure, whatever it may be, before the conspirators can.

Author Brody weaves existing artifacts and places into a historical fiction thriller that expands from local legend to archaeological fact to world wide religious conspiracy. Westford Knight is a labyrinthine tale, dependent upon countless twists, turns and incredibly lucky breaks. Amply supplemented with photos, it invites the reader to consider the physical evidence and draw his/her own conclusions. Character development is sacrificed to the necessities of a complex, galloping plot, though there is a budding romance between Thorne and a beautiful, brainy historian. Together, the couple track down artifacts and draw some pretty spectacular inferences, all while dodging bullets and jumping off bridges. Brody’s writing is competent but extremely literal, and appears to have been thoroughly researched. For readers interested in further exploration on this topic, he maintains a couple of interactive websites, referenced in acknowledgments.

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It’s a Mystery: The Lost Days of Agatha Christie, by Carole Owens

The Lost Days of Agatha Christie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In December, 1926, Agatha Christie, England’s most popular novelist of the era, disappeared for eleven days. When she was finally located in a Harrogate hotel, she could not remember who she was, and was unable to identify her husband. She did finally recover her memory, but was never able to recall what she did during that mysterious interval, or indeed, why she even left home. In a novel reminiscent of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, American psychotherapist Carole Owens imagines changing that outcome by placing Christie in an intensive, day long therapy session with a fictional Oxford psychiatrist. This plot device serves admirably as a way for the reader to learn about Christie’s childhood, writing career, and first marriage, while the psychiatrist helps his patient explore some of the possible psychological ramifications of the memories that she describes. It also serves as a vehicle for gaining insight into some of the ways in which therapy can work. In addition to providing a very credible explanation of what might have caused Christie’s strange experience, the book also paints a picture of early twentieth century life, its attitudes and expectations, among the minor English gentry. It’s difficult to write a story containing only two main characters, but Owens did so with authority, style and elegance, making both doctor and patient very real and likable. Though the book is heavy on dialogue, she builds in enough suspense to make her book a page turner. It’s a sleeper that deserves much wider readership, and it’s interesting to discover how some of the features of Agatha’s life might have influenced her creativity as an author.

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It’s a Mystery: Fever Dream, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Fever Dream (Pendergast, #10)
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Fever Dream, the tenth entry in Preston and Child’s Pendergast series, opens with an event that took place in Africa twelve years in the past. Though much time has now passed, Pendergast still mourns his wife, Helen, who was killed by a rogue lion in safari country. When the novel switches to the present, he makes an astounding discovery: Helen’s death was no accident. In typical Pendergast fashion, he sets off on a quest to avenge her murder. He seeks assistance from his best NYPD friend, Vinnie D’Agosta. As they jet from NYC to Africa to Maine to the swamp lands of Louisiana, it becomes increasingly apparent that Helen had been keeping secrets from her husband, which deeply shakes the usually imperturbable Pendergast.

Interesting plot, no? Yes. And the tie in with James Audubon is alluring. The trouble lies in the characters and in the book’s verbosity. Pendergast has always been a paragon, always ten steps ahead of everyone else, smarter, better educated, tougher, eerily prescient and more cultured. Multiply Sherlock Holmes ten times over, and combine him with Rhett Butler. Unfortunately, what began as eccentricity has grown and grown till it’s become nothing less than obnoxious. As for Vinnie, he’s the foil, just a good old guy who guzzles beer and often can’t understand what the devil Pendergast is on about. When Vinnie got shot, I kept wishing it was Pendergast. As for its wordiness, this novel could have benefited from tighter editing, with an eye to limiting cliches (the snake on the neck is right out of Indiana Jones) and eliminating useless subplots (Constance Green, Pendergast’s ward.) When the book finally reaches its conclusion, we understand what was going on with Helen. We also understand that there’s a sequel in the works, in which Pendergast and his brother in law will lock horns at a Scottish hunting preserve. Who do you suppose will prevail?

Yes, I realize mine is a minority opinion. But there it is.

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