Murder and Mendelssohn by Kerry Greenwood
Although this is the 20th book in the Phryne Fisher series, this mystery could be a fine place to start. The books are set in late 1920s Melbourne, Australia, and the city is vividly described. Asked by Detective Jack Robinson to help investigate the murder of a choir director, Phryne joins the choir, which is preparing to perform Mendelssohn’s Elijah. During rehearsals, lunches, and parties thrown by the flamboyant soloist “Auntie” Mark, Phryne considers the possible suspects. In a parallel story, Rupert Sheffield, a mathematician in town to give lectures on the science of deduction has had some close calls. Phryne dislikes the very arrogant Sheffield, but his assistant, Dr. John Wilson, was a dear friend of hers in World War I, where she drove an ambulance and he was a medic. The reader learns that not only is Sheffield a former intelligence agent for MI6, but so is Phryne. Phryne’s assorted household, including the dog, helps with the two cases, and Phryne plays matchmaker for Dr. Wilson. Phryne and her friends are always good company, and so is the choir. I was even inspired to listen to a recording of Mendelssohn’s Elijah.
I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Stephanie Daniel. The print book will be coming out in May, several month after being published in Australia.
W is for Wasted by Sue Grafton
Kinsey is contacted by the coroner after an unidentified body has her name and phone number in his pocket. R. T. Dace was an alcoholic who lived on the beach. Business is slow, and Kinsey is curious, so she meets his friends and looks for the reason he was thinking of contacting a PI. Her investigation reveals that Dace had recently come into some money, and leads to Bakersfield, where she meets his estranged children. In a parallel story, rule bending PI Pete Wolinsky is on his last job ever, which doesn’t end well. The reader understands there must be a connection, but it takes the arrival of Robert Dietz from Las Vegas to connect the dots. Kinsey’s elderly landlord Henry gets involved in the case, and Kinsey has some hard decisions to make.
As always, Kinsey is good company and the low-tech 1980s California setting is enjoyable.
The Bones of Paris by Laurie King
This novel takes place in Paris, France in 1929. The main character is a American “down at his heels” Private eye named Harris Stuyvesant. He is currently in Paris on an assignment to find a missing American young woman who has not contacted her parents in months, which is totally out of character for her. The parents want her found and contract with Stuyvesant to find her.
Paris during this time seems to be one big Party/Pick up scene. In the course of his investigations, Stuyvesant encounters some big name American expatriates including author Ernest Hemingway and photographer Man Ray. Besides the investigations into the American girl’s disappearance, we are also treated to some of the more morbid history of Paris, including mass cemeteries, Catacombs, the Danse Macabre (The Dance of Death), Adipocere (wax made from human corpses), the Theater du Grand-Guignol in Montmartre (where murders are staged to shock and amuse the audience), and a number of gruesome suspects. Is it the Avant-Garde photographer who favors pictures of tortured/dying women, or is it the timid bone collector who keeps vats full of corpses being aided in decomposition by flesh eating beetles? Or is it the famous respected Count, a wealthy French hero of World War I, who runs the Theater Du Grand Guignol for the amusement of his mass of jaded followers?
This is a superbly written, darkly disturbing book.
Compound Murder by Bill Crider
A day in the life of Dan Rhodes, sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas, is an unusual and varied one. His dispatcher, Hack, can never tell a clear or concise story. Dan and his deputies deal with a dead body at the local college, thefts of copper and hair extensions, and a report of a wild hog inside a house in Clearview. The hog turns out to be a pet pig, and provides considerable comic relief. The dead man is Earl Wellington, an English professor who was not well-liked. Suspects in his death include the Dean and his department head at the college, along with student Ike Terrell, accused of plagiarism. A high speed chase after Ike peels out of the college parking lot ends with a cracked windshield and the need for Rhodes to visit the gated compound owned by Able Terrell, Ike’s father. I thought there might be a lot of violence in this book when I read about the compound, but there is more adventure and humor than violence. Dan is happily married, and has a dog who’s scared of his cat. I was amused to learn that the author, a native Texan, was an English professor. This is the 20th book in the Dan Rhodes series, and the first I’ve read, but I felt at home in Clearview right away. The first book is Too Late to Die.
Duck the Halls by Donna Andrews
This is a fun, fast-paced cozy holiday mystery. Meg Langslow and her husband Michael are busy preparing for Christmas with their 4-year-old twin boys and extended family in their small college town. Michael and Meg’s brother Rob are new volunteer firefighters and start getting paged to calls at local churches. One church has skunks; another has a small fire, while a third building has been filled with ducks. Meg is given the job of re-scheduling the various choir practices, nativity plays, and church services while looking for the culprit. A temperamental choir director almost puts Meg out of commission with a dislocated shoulder, and Meg’s mother is going overboard with holiday decorations. Michael is preparing for a one-man Christmas Carol reading for charity, while the little boys provide comic relief. Their days are hectic and tiring, and they long for a traditional holiday dinner with just their boys.
How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny
In wintry Three Pines, bookseller and retired psychologist Myrna is worried when her friend Constance doesn’t arrive for a Christmas visit. She reaches out to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec for help. Gamache and Inspector Isabelle Lacoste find that Constance Pineault, 79, has been killed at her home in Montréal. When Myrna reveals Constance’s true identity as the last of the Ouellet Quintuplets, the mystery is only beginning. At the Sûreté, things are not well. Most of Gamache’s homicide department has been reassigned, and he’s thinking of announcing his retirement. Jean Guy, his assistant, is desperately unhappy and is working for Gamache’s nemesis, Superintendent Francoeur, who may be involved in a dangerous conspiracy. As Gamache and Lacoste race to solve one mystery, other friends are looking for information on what Francoeur is plotting, and retreat to Three Pines for safety, possibly jeopardizing everyone in the small village. Gamache knows that the danger could come from young Agent Yvette Nichol, needed for her computer skills. Eccentric poet Ruth Zardo plays a larger role than usual, along with her pet duck, Rosa. The story of the quintuplets and their parents is fascinating, and a nice contrast to the tension of the unfolding conspiracy. I listened to the audiobook, recorded by Ralph Cosham, and both couldn’t wait to find out what happened and hoped the book would never end, and with it, another treasured visit to Three Pines. This may be the best book yet in the award-winning series that begins with Still Life.
Spider Woman’s Daughter by Anne Hillerman
In Anne Hillerman’s debut Leaphorn and Chee Novel; the story begins with a bang. An unidentified attacker shoots retired Navajo Nation police lieutenant, Joe Leaphorn, outside of his favorite café. Officer Bernadette (Bernie) Manuelito comes to his aid and promises Leaphorn that she will bring the perpetrator to justice. This is a difficult thing to do, because police protocol requires that she be removed from the case as a means to protect her from any further mental and emotional trauma. Jim Chee, Leaphorn’s protégée and truly his next of kin, is assigned the case and together he and his determined wife Bernie (who is unstoppable) set to work. As the plot thickens, someone who had been trusted by Leaphorn, Bernie, and Chee disappears and then becomes suspect in the eyes of the department. Some other people, who had been long gone from Leaphorn’s life, resurface. These comings and goings leave readers wondering if ever the two paths shall meet and will that provide answers to whodunit-who shot Leaphorn! Additionally, new characters have been thrown into the mix that are either a digression, or a lead, in Bernie and Chee’s investigation, which they logically solve by the story’s end.
It is difficult to not compare Anne Hillerman’s work to that of her award winning father, Tony Hillerman. Her father wrote the first eighteen novels in this popular Leaphorn and Chee Novel series beginning in 1970 and ending in 2006. He passed away in 2008. Like Tony Hillerman’s stories, Anne Hillerman’s book is intriguing, character driven, has multiple plots, simple dialogue, and includes only mild violence. Anne Hillerman’s story also creates a strong sense of place (in this case, New Mexico and in particular, sacred places such as Chaco Canyon). Her first novel offers historical detail and several descriptions of indigenous beliefs, much as her father’s novels do—only here, readers may find it refreshing that the point of view is that of a woman and the focus is on the female traditions of her Nation.
For those of you who think about the author as you read, you may find yourself confused as to whether or not this is Anne Hillerman’s, or her father’s voice, because overall she seamlessly continues his tradition of great storytelling. At other times, you may feel certain that this is the storytelling voice of Anne Hillerman, whose main protagonist, Bernie, encapsulates what it is to be a strong woman who must balance her professional and personal life. Bernie is a descendant of weavers. She is the Spider Woman’s Daughter, a nickname her mother has proudly given her. Perhaps, Anne Hillerman is also the Spider Woman’s Daughter—someone who “helps with life’s unexpected complications, untangling messy situations.” For when fans of Tony Hillerman’s books worried if their favorite stories had ended, the talented writer Anne Hillerman came through and she delivered an enjoyable and satisfying continuation in this series!
Readers of this fictional series may also enjoy High Country by Nevada Barr (set in breathtaking Yosemite National Park this modern murder mystery transports readers to the American West)
Blackening Song by Aimee and David Thurlo (the first in a mystery series set in the Southwest that features Ella Clah, a Navajo FBI agent who struggles with traditional and modern Navajo pressures)
White Sky, Black Ice by Stan Jones (the first in the Nathan Active mystery series that features an Alaskan state trooper who was born Inupiat, but raised white. Nathan has returned to his birthplace on a work assignment and finds himself caught between two worlds)
Discover more on the author’s website.
Night Film by Marisha Pessl
From the title, this sounds like a dark book, and it is. A combination of horror and mystery, the novel is centered around the activities of Stanilas Cordova, a genius movie director, who produced a limited and very notorious group of films made in the seventies and eighties that were so malevolent and disturbing that they were banned from being viewed in theaters and thus could only be seen through special viewings set up by his cult of followers, called Cordovites. These viewings took place in hidden underground venues. The movies were produced on Cordova’s secluded and highly secure residence, surrounded by an twenty foot high impenetrable concrete barrier. All the actors are hired not so much for their talent as their ability to keep a secret. Cordova has not given an interview or been seen in thirty years. There are rumors that these movies Cordova has been making are “snuff” films” but there is no evidence.
The plot begins with the suicide of Stanilas’s daughter, Ashley Cordova, a gorgeous, brilliant child and a piano prodigy. Scott McGrath, a veteran journalist, suspects that Ashley’s death is not a suicide, and with two young people who knew Ashley intimately, sets out to discover the “Truth”. As they probe deeper into the Oeuvre of the secretive director, the trail leads through depraved night clubs, secluded apartment buildings and ultimately to The Peak, the mystery shrouded Adirondack estate of Cordova, which has been long been abandoned.
The book is full of page turning excitement, and not a few dark gruesome scenes. However the end of the book resembles Captain Willard’s search for the enigmatic Colonel Kurtz in the movie “Apocalypse Now”. Can the true horror of people ever be known. As Colonel Kurtz says at the end of the movie, “The Horror, the Horror”.
Death of a Dyer by Eleanor Kuhns
Will Rees has returned to his farm near Dugard, Maine. A traveling weaver since his wife’s death years ago, he has learned that his farm and his son David were neglected by his sister and brother-in-law. Now teenage David is basically running the farm while Will prepares to set up his loom, and former Shaker Lydia Jane is the new housekeeper. Will has strong feelings for Lydia, but isn’t ready to commit to marriage yet, so she lives in a cottage on the farm, and they try to avoid company. While serving in the Continental Army, Will learned he had a talent for solving crimes, demonstrated in the first book in the series, A Simple Murder, set in a Shaker community. When his childhood friend Nate Bowditch is killed, lawyer George Potter tells Will that Nate’s wife Molly would like him to clear her son Richard of suspicion of murder. The investigation pays for help with the harvest and in the kitchen, so Will is free to travel by wagon and investigate. He learns that Nate was greatly changed from the last time Will saw him, and preferred to live in a weaving cottage on his farm, researching dyes yet neglecting his family, and he also gambled. Richard has disappeared, but his half-brother, son of a slave, is also a suspect, and Will protects him from slave catchers. Many secrets in the Maine community of Dugard are unearthed, and Will’s life is threatened more than once. Reluctantly, he accepts Lydia’s help in his investigation, and even David’s input as well. Will and David have a complicated relationship that feels authentic. The late 18th century small town Maine setting is refreshingly different, and appealing. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Richard Waterhouse, and didn’t want the story to end. Lydia and Will are excellent company, and I hope for many more mysteries for them to solve.
Storm Front by Jim Butcher
I was inspired to read Jim Butcher’s first book, entitled “Storm Front” in his Dresden Files Series, after a friend excitedly introduced me to the main character, Harry Dresden–wizard extraordinaire! I am now a fan and am sure to read more in this series. Thrillers with car chase scenes just don’t grab me the way a giant scorpion (“an orthopod version of Frankenstein’s monster”) chasing a wizard does. I read this book on audio and the narrator James Marsters sounds as smooth as Butcher’s portrayal of Dresden. While this book didn’t center too much on the Chicago landscape, the series overall does. I think I’ll enjoy that aspect of the other novels that I’ll eventually get to. Some of the most pivotal points in the story take place outside of the city at a lakefront home where Harry Dresden confronts dark magic in an effort to solve two converging mysteries. The first case is of a missing person and the second is of a baffling killing spree, in which the murderer left a distinct signature mark. Lieutenant Murphy of the Chicago PD Special Investigation Unit suspects that only Dresden, her trusted wizard friend and private investigative colleague, can offer insight to this grisly case.
Other suggested audio reads of dark fantasy that has lighthearted, witty humor mixed in are Neil Gaiman’s “Anansi Boys,” read by Lenny Henry who is superb at speaking with multiple dialects. Jim Dale’s reading of the J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” audiobook series is also intense and versatile.