Design for Dying by Renee Patrick
This is an appealing debut mystery, set in Hollywood in 1937. Lillian Frost, aspiring actress turned department store clerk, is shocked to learn that her former roommate Ruby Carroll has been killed. Lillian helps the police when she discovers that the gorgeous gown Ruby was wearing, along with the contents of a suitcase found at Ruby’s boarding house, were taken from Paramount Studios. At Paramount, Lillian meets costume designer Edith Head, who helps investigate the murder. Lillian is likeable, Edith is intriguing, Ruby had plenty of secrets and admirers, and the Hollywood setting and cameo appearances by movie stars make for a quick, engaging read. A sequel, Dangerous to Know, has just been published. This is a good readalike for Stars Over Sunset Boulevard, by Susan Meissner, and may also appeal to readers of All the Stars in the Heavens, by Adriana Trigiani. Renee Patrick is the pseudonym of writing duo Rosemarie and Vince Keenan.
The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett
Arthur Prescott teaches English literature at the University of Barchester so that he can live in his grandfather’s home town, where he spent many happy weeks as a boy. He loves to read in the cathedral’s rare book library, and attends Evensong and Compline services in the cathedral, where his friend Gwyn is the dean. He meets weekly with his friends David and Oscar to discuss book collecting, and is content with his life (except for faculty meetings) until young Bethany Davis arrives from America to digitize the cathedral’s books and unsettle his world. She demonstrates the usefulness of online research to Arthur, who avoids computers, befriends Oscar and David, and helps Arthur finish his overdue guide to the cathedral. Arthur is looking for information on St. Ewolda, who founded the monastery, and is stunned to find that Bethany shares his secret interest, searching for the Holy Grail. The contemporary story alternates with short accounts of the guardians of the lost book of St. Ewolda from 560 AD to World War II, and the dangerous times they lived in. Arthur, Bethany, David, and Oscar race against time to steal a rare book, explore the cathedral’s crypt, and crack a medieval cipher before the cathedral’s board must vote on an offer to buy the rare book collection. Barchester is the fictional town described in Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope’s books, and is a charming setting for this clever academic mystery that has a little romance.
Odds Against, by Dick Francis
Former jockey Sid Halley has spent the last two years at a London detective agency, but is assigned only routine cases. After fourteen years as a steeplechase jockey, he’s restless and unhappy. On a simple assignment, he is shot in the gut and can’t eat solid food for a while. While he recovers, his father-in-law, Charles Roland, invites him for a visit, even though Sid and his wife Jenny are separated. Charles has borrowed an expensive gem and mineral collection and wants Sid to help him impress and investigate another guest, Howard Kraye. Kraye may be connected to a string of bad luck at nearby Seabury Racecourse. Sid learns that a developer wants to buy out Seabury’s shareholders and build houses on the land. At a visit to a stockbroker, Sid encounters secretary Zanna Martin, who hides an injury from the world, just as Sid does with his damaged hand. Thefts and explosions add to the suspense of this intricately plotted mystery, published in 1966. During an exciting pursuit behind the scenes at Seabury, Sid’s injured again, and his future at the detective agency is uncertain. I enjoyed the fast pace, well-developed characters, and some witty dialogue. Sid appears again in three more mysteries, and this book was made into a television series, The Racing Game.
Airs Above the Ground, by Mary Stewart
I’ve recently read six novels that were popular in 1967, as my library is celebrating its 50th anniversary all year. Frankly, some of the books feel rather dated. This book doesn’t, except for newsreels playing before feature films at theaters. Young English veterinarian Vanessa March is asked to accompany a teen friend of the family to visit his father in Vienna. Puzzled at the request, Vanessa learns that her husband Lewis, currently on assignment in Sweden, was just seen in a newsreel at a traveling circus in Austria. Vanessa and 17-year-old Tim head off to Vienna, where Tim wants to work with the Lipizzaner stallions. Mountain driving, a visit behind the scenes at a small circus, including veterinary work on an older horse, a suspicious fire, plenty of delicious Viennese pastries, suspense, an old castle, the Lipizzaners, and a very unusual chase scene all add to the novel’s appeal. Also, when Vanessa finally sees her husband, he’s in disguise. Vanessa, Lewis, and Tim all work together to solve a mystery, just in time. This book is a real pleasure to read, or re-read.
Plaid & Plagiarism by Molly MacRae
This book is an appealing beginning to a new cozy mystery series set in the Scottish Highlands. Librarian Janet, her daughter Tallie, and two of their friends buy a bookshop in Inversgail with plans to open a tearoom next door and a B & B upstairs. Making a quick visit to Janet’s house to see why her move has been delayed, Christine finds the kitchen full of trash while Summer, a reporter, finds a dead body in the garden shed. Later they find a biscuit tin full of threatening letters at the bookshop, which were probably written by the victim, advice columnist Una Graham. I found the four women a bit difficult to tell apart at first, but it was interesting having four amateur sleuths working together on the same case. There are plenty of descriptions of learning to run a bookshop, remodel a tearoom, and plenty of local colour, although sadly no scone recipes. A good start to the Highland Bookshop series, with some room for improvement.
British Library Crime Classics
Recently I’ve read three of the British Library Crime Classics, mysteries originally published in 1935 and 1936. The series is described as “forgotten classics from the golden age of British crime writing”. 18 titles so far have recently been published in the U.S. by Poisoned Pen Press. I think that the books I’ve read will have broad appeal today.
The Cornish Coast Murders, by John Bude, is set in a small village on the coast of Cornwall. The mystery is discussed and partly solved during fireside chats in Reverend Dodd’s study, where he meets with the local doctor and Inspector Bigswell. When a local magistrate is apparently shot through a picture window, there are very few clues, suspects, or motives.
Death in the Tunnel, by Miles Burton, involves the death of a wealthy semi-retired businessman while alone in a locked train compartment, in a railway tunnel. There is no obvious motive for murder or suicide. The mystery is solved by the combination of careful detective work by Inspector Arnold and other, unnamed police officers, and the imaginative ideas of of Arnold’s friend, amateur criminologist Desmond Merrion.
Death on the Cherwell, by Mavis Doriel Hay, is set at a woman’s college at Oxford University. An unpopular member of the college staff is found dead in a canoe on a cold January afternoon by several of the students, who proceed to help police investigate the death.
The settings of these novels are charming to a modern reader, the intricate plotting is first-rate, the violence level is low, and the writing is compelling and richly detailed, making for quite a pleasant reading experience.
The White Mirror by Elsa Hart
Stranded by snow at the Tibetan manor of Dhosa, former imperial librarian Li Du, storyteller Hamza, and the rest of their caravan learn the stories of Dhosa’s family, meet several other visitors, and visit a nearby temple, where Dhamo, an elderly monk, painted religious art. On the bridge leading to the manor, the caravan discovered Dhamo’s body, a possible suicide, with the image of a white mirror painted on his chest. A tax inspector, a spy, another artist, and a young monk are included in the large cast of characters. A clever puzzle, and the beautiful setting, complete with hot springs, a painted cave, and a stunning view of the Himalayas, will reward patient readers in the sequel to Jade Dragon Mountain.