Dead Things by Stephen Blackmoore
Necromancy isn’t pretty. That’s probably why we don’t see many characters who practice it. Most of them are villains who are expected to do terrible things. The occasional good guy who uses necromancy usually just talks to the dead with the occasional raising of an individual. In Dead Things by Stephen Blackmoore, the main character shows that necromancy isn’t necessarily evil but it’s not for the squeamish.
Eric Carter was born with a knack for the dead that set him apart even in his magical family and community. His parents were murdered when he was a young adult and Eric killed their killer. He fled his L.A. home and left his younger sister behind to be taken care of by a friend. He spent the next 15 years learning more about his magic and never setting down roots. He regularly converses ghosts, occasionally visits the dead side of things which is dangerous for humans no matter what their power over the dead, and gets dead things to stop hurting the living. What he hasn’t done is thought much about what he left behind. When his sister is murdered, he’s pulled back to L.A. where he finds out the people he cared about have moved on. Two of his old friends are ready to help him out despite his abandoning them, but it’s not so easy for Eric. Neither is figuring out how to get rid of the man he thought he killed before he left.
Dead Things has been recommended to fans of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. It has the same noir feel to it (Eric gets beat up just as badly as Harry does) and lots of magic being thrown around. The action is intense. There’s a lot of introspection but Eric sees a lot more grey in the world than Harry does.
This book gave me two things I’ve been looking for: a protagonist who’s motivated more by justice than strict morals, and necromancy being used to do more than just talk to the dead or raise armies of zombies. It’s not clear if this is the first in a series and I think I’m okay with this. As much as I enjoyed the read, it’s a very intense and dark world that may work better as an occasional side-trip than a regular destination.
The Expats: A Novel by Chris Pavone
Kate Moore leaves her State Department job when her techie husband Dexter gets a job offer from a private bank in Luxembourg. Now an expat American, she takes their two young sons, Jake and Ben, to private school, hangs out with the other expat moms, and waits for Dexter to come home from the office or yet another business trip. They do enjoy occasional weekend trips with the boys to other cities in Europe. Kate is bored and lonely, and becomes suspicious of their new American friends, Bill and Julia. Guiltily, Kate contacts a former colleague to make inquiries, and learns that her husband is under suspicion of stealing millions of Euros. Kate has her own secrets: she worked for the CIA, not the State Department, and was an operative in Mexico and Central America until shortly after Jake was born. Will Kate’s or Dexter’s pasts catch up with them, what secrets will be uncovered, and will love or money win the day? A building unease and suspense keep the pages turning, with the reader trying to figure out who’s telling the truth. But underneath is still a couple who love their sons and enjoy living in Europe. The author is a former cookbook editor who spent some time living in Luxembourg with his wife and twin sons, so the settings and scenes of family life ring true. A first novel, Expats was just awarded an Edgar Allan Poe award for best first mystery by an American author.
Red Planet Blues by Robert J. Sawyer
Alex Lomax is the only private detective in New Klondike, a domed town on the Mars frontier. 40 years ago priceless fossils were found nearby, but the explorers’ spacecraft crashed after a prospecting trip. This is a unique combination of noir mystery and science fiction, where humans can transfer their consciousness into an android body. Then they don’t need to eat, and can work in comfort outside the dome. The transfers are also very hard to kill. Alex is approached by an owner of the transfer company to find her missing husband. With a small town, there shouldn’t be that many places to look. The police reluctantly help Alex, but are happy to have him do the detecting. Then it turns out that the diary of one of the prospectors has made it back to Mars with his granddaughter. Can Alex trust her, or the beautiful new writer in residence? There are some exciting scenes outside the dome, where Alex’s life is endangered more than once. Other scenes are in Alex’s favorite bar, where his girlfriend Diana works. Fast-paced and exciting, this book may appeal to readers of noir mysteries. Readalikes include The Disappeared by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, first in the Retrieval Artist mystery series set on the Moon. Another suggestion is A Talent for War, by Jack McDevitt, the first book featuring Alex Benedict, an interstellar antiquities dealer. I’m hoping for more Alex Lomax books from Sawyer, an award-winning science fiction writer.
Nightshade by Susan Wittig Albert
This is the third book in a trilogy within the larger China Bayles mystery series. The other two books are Bleeding Hearts and Spanish Dagger. China is a former attorney who owns an herb shop in the Texas hill country, and does a lot of detecting on the side, often with Ruby, who runs the new age store next to the herb shop, and Sheila, who’s in law enforcement. Mike McQuaid, China’s partner, is a former cop and university professor turned private detective. This trilogy is about a mystery from China’s past; her father’s death in a car crash 16 years earlier, and the introduction of a previously unknown half-brother, Miles. China wasn’t close to her father, who was also a lawyer, and resists the idea that his death wasn’t an accident. This is a good point to jump into an excellent ongoing mystery series. There is a strong sense of place, which makes me want to visit the Texas hill country. The characters develop and change from book to book, and subplots often carry over as well. Susan also writes the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, the Darling Dahlias books, and collaborates with her husband Bill on the Kate and Charles Sheridan mystery series as Robin Paige. Learn more at their website, along with information about herbs, recipes, and the Texas hill country.
Red Velvet Cupcake Murder by Joanne Fluke
This is the latest book in the Hannah Swensen cozy mystery series, which begins with Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder. They are set in fictional Lake Eden, Minnesota, where Hannah owns The Cookie Jar, a cookie bakery and coffee shop, frequently finds bodies, and tries to decide which boyfriend she likes best: Mike the detective or Norman the dentist. Her mother and two sisters along with her friend and baking partner Lisa help her solve cases, in between baking and enjoying cookies and other desserts. Recipes are included, but I like to listen to Joanne Fluke’s books on compact disc, so I haven’t tried the recipes yet. There is a cookbook available, Joanne Fluke’s Lake Eden Cookbook. Unlike most mystery series, you can start with any book, as Hannah shows no signs of settling down with either boyfriend, and the main characters continue from book to book. If you’re looking for a light, cozy mystery, Hannah Swensen mysteries are perfect. Appealing characters, small town setting, and a suspenseful scene or two make for enjoyable reading.
Bad Blood by Dana Stabenow
Have you met Kate and Mutt? They have now appeared in 20 Alaskan mysteries by Dana Stabenow. Kate Shugak is an Aleut homesteader near the fictional village of Niniltna who occasionally works as a private investigator. Mutt, her sidekick, is half wolf and half Siberian husky. Her partner, Trooper Jim Chopin, asks her to help him investigate the death of a young man, Tyler Mack, from the small traditional village of Kushtaka, just down the river from the more prosperous Kuskulana. The villagers have been bitter rivals for a while, and no one is telling Jim or Kate the whole truth. When another body is found, and someone sabotages a boat, the suspense really begins. Add a young couple with ties to both villages, and Kate really has her hands full. If you want to start at the beginning of the series, read A Cold Day for Murder. For the funniest book in the series, try Breakup. If you read Bad Blood, know that the author is continuing the series, but it will be two years before you find out what happens next. Here’s a recent interview with the author about her background and Kate’s origins.
A Killer Read by Erika Chase
Book discussion groups can be more fun and interesting then you’d expect if you haven’t yet joined one. But I’ve never been to a book discussion as exciting as the first meeting of the Ashton Corners Mystery Readers and Cheese Straw Society. Reading specialist Lizzie Turner has organized the book group, which is meeting at the mansion of her friend Molly. Lizzie finds an intruder inside the mansion, who asks to use the phone to call a tow truck, but shortly afterwards, his body is found outside. Everyone in the book group is a suspect. The new police chief, Mark, grew up in Ashton Corners and shows special interest in Lizzie, who coordinates the book group’s sleuthing when not working at the local schools. The small town Alabama setting is appealing, and Lizzie, who sings, teaches reading, and works with young adults studying for the G.E.D. when not visiting her mother at a retirement home, is a fairly complex character. Ashton Corners is well worth visiting if you’re in the mood for a cozy contemporary mystery. A sequel has just been published; Read and Buried. Learn more at the author’s website.
Miss Dimple Disappears by Mignon Ballard
Life on the home front in Elderberry, Georgia, is pretty calm in Fall,1942 until Miss Dimple Kilpatrick, longtime first grade teacher, disappears, and the school custodian dies, apparently of a heart attack. Charlie Carr and her friend Annie, both teachers, decide to investigate, along with Charlie’s mother and aunt. Charlie’s boyfriend Hugh will probably enlist in the armed forces soon, and Charlie wonders how she’ll answer if he proposes. The reader learns Miss Dimple’s account of her kidnapping, a possible motive, and how she plans to get rescued. Meanwhile Thanksgiving is coming, with plans for a meal and dance for visiting service men. This is a cozy mystery with lots of quirky characters and small town charm. I enjoyed a glimpse of Charlie’s life as a teacher dealing with rationing, lunch at a boarding house, worries about her brother in North Africa, and doing her bit by writing to many of the enlisted men she meets. There are two more books already in this series. The second book is Miss Dimple Rallies to the Cause. Miss Dimple Disappears reminds me of the 1930s Darling Dahlias mystery series by Susan Wittig Albert, set in small-town Alabama.
Unnatural Habits by Kerry Greenwood
This is the latest book in the the Australian mystery series set in and around Melbourne in the 1920s. The first book is the unfortunately named Cocaine Blues. Phryne grew up poor in Melbourne before her father inherited an aristocratic title, drove an ambulance in World War I, and was an artist’s model in Paris. Now she’s single and wealthy in Melbourne, and a fearless private detective. She has lots of adventures, and has a lover, as well as two adopted daughters. In the latest outing, pregnant women who had been living (and working) at a convent have gone missing from their maternity house, along with Polly, a reporter who was searching for them. Phryne also acquires a new member of the household, 14-year-old Tinker. For more about Phryne and her friends, visit the author’s website. Greenwood also write the Corinna Chapman series, set in modern day Melbourne. Read my review of Earthly Delights here.
1222 by Anne Holt
For American readers, this is an exciting place to jump into the Norwegian mystery series featuring police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen; at 1222 meters, or 4000 feet above sea level, in a snowstorm. Hanne and 267 other passengers are on a train from Oslo to Bergen when it derails near a tunnel entrance. Only the driver is killed, and the passengers are evacuated to a nearby hotel. We quickly learn that Hanne is in a wheelchair, having been shot in the spin 4 years earlier. For a cranky, reclusive woman, Hanne is pretty good company. Injured in the crash, she is treated by Magnus Streng, a charming dwarf physician. Hanne takes angry teen Adrian under her wing, and the various groups from the train settle into the different wings of the hotel until they can be rescued. A death in the night brings Hanne to work with a small group of leaders to make plans and keep the passengers from panicking, especially as the weather worsens, and another death is discovered. Young teen athletes, older youth headed to a concert, a church group, doctors on their way to a conference, and the unknown passengers aboard the train’s extra carriage variously blend, clash, eat, and get impatient. While I would have preferred Hanne to spend less time observing that different passengers could use a shower or clean clothes, I did find this to be a fast-paced and intriguing mystery. As in most Scandinavian mysteries and crime thrillers, it is dark, cold, the detective has personal issues, and much coffee is drunk, Holt makes her own mark on the field with a book that has much in common with traditional English country house mysteries. For readers who prefer to start at the beginning of a series, the first two Hanne Wilhelmsen mysteries have recently been translated into English.