Mystery Series


ANTIQUES ROADKILL (Trash'n'Treasures Mysteries #1)
BARBARA ALLAN
Kensington Books
$6.99 mass market, available now

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Brandy Borne and her mother Vivian find themselves investigating the murder of a crooked antiques dealer who just happened to take Vivian for all she was worth. Now they are in a race to find the murderer before he or she strikes again because they could very well be next!

My Review: ~meh~

Pleasant enough, I suppose, nothing at all wrong with it except that there's nothing to like. It's mildly amusing. It's a mystery about the same way any book is a mystery, in that one doesn't know how the author's going to wrap it up. But...how spoiled does this sound...I expected more. I wanted to chuckle more, even I don't know even laugh out loud once or twice.

A few smiles, one snicker.

~meh~

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THE LAST KASHMIRI ROSE (Joe Sandilands #1)
BARBARA CLEVERLY
Delta Trade Paperbacks
$14.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: In a land of saffron sunsets and blazing summer heat, an Englishwoman has been found dead, her wrists slit, her body floating in a bathtub of blood and water. But is it suicide or murder? The case falls to Scotland Yard inspector Joe Sandilands, who survived the horror of the Western Front and has endured six sultry months in English-ruled Calcutta. Sandilands is ordered to investigate, and soon discovers that there have been other mysterious deaths, hearkening sinister ties to the present case.Now, as the sovereignty of Britain is in decline and an insurgent India is on the rise, Sandilands must navigate the treacherous corridors of political decorum to bring a cunning killer to justice…knowing the next victim is already marked to die.

My Review: This series begins on a high note, with the character of Joe Sandilands romping through soon-to-be-de-Britished India. He is an appealing character. He isn't, however, interesting enough to make me want to read more books in the series.

About the mystery itself, I was a little bit more interested in its solution than I expected to be. I was pretty sure I knew who was murdering the women, and was suspicious about why...but honestly I was surprised by the motivation of the killer. I was a little more involved than I expected to be as the body count mounted.

What I wasn't was convinced that the killings were in any way part of a pattern that convinced me. Sandilands appears to be chasing his own tail, and I'm never clear that he's actually investigating and solving the actual crime.

Well, it's not a terrible book. It's nicely written. India is a good backdrop, and ti's well evoked. But what we have here is a failure to launch. I'm...well...oh heck, I have to say it...bored. Bored. Bored. Bored.

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BLOOD OF THE PRODIGAL (An Amish-Country Mystery #1)
P.L. Gaus
Plume
$13.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.8* of five

The Publisher Says: Plume's paper edition copy: A compulsively readable new series that explores a fascinating culture set purposely apart.

In the wooded Amish hill country, a professor at a small college, a local pastor, and the county sheriff are the only ones among the mainstream, or "English," who possess the instincts and skills to work the cases that impact all county residents, no matter their code of conduct or religious creed.

When an Amish boy is kidnapped, a bishop, fearful for the safety of his followers, plunges three outsiders into the traditionally closed society of the "Plain Ones."

Ohio University Press's hardcover copy: From the choppy waves off Lake Erie's Middle Bass Island to the too tranquil farmlands of Holmes County's Amish countryside, mystery and foreboding lurk under layers of tradition and repression before boiling up to the surface with tragic consequences.For Jon Mills, the journey begins with his decision to retrieve his ten-year-old son from the hands of the Bishop who bad ten years earlier cast Mills out of the Order, the same Bishop who is Jon Mills's father.

When Mills turns up dead, dressed in Amish garb, and with the boy missing, Professor Michael Branden plunges headlong into the closed culture to unravel the mystery and find the boy.

My Review: I don't imagine that I need to go over my hostility, nay hatred, for christian religion and its evils yet again. But given that I am without sympathy for the central organizing principle of the book's characters, why on EARTH would I pick it up?

Because it is never a good idea to shut one's self off from points of view not one's own. Illumination comes only when the curtains are open.

I started reading the book with modest expectations, and the writing delivered on those admirably. Not one paragraph stands out in my mind. No phrases clink against the myriad of quotes stored in my magpie's-paradise of a memory. Not one single crappy turn of phrase, a few slightly ungainly sentences, but overall a solid B+ effort of writing. It's the first in the series, so that's okay by me.

The murder and its motivations made me smile. Seeing a grand high muckity-muck of a christian sect that's looney even by their looney standards get it in the eye? Bliss! Seeing their bizarre separatist way of life illuminated so clearly? Fascination. The sleuthing team's interconnectedness and small-town life-long knowledge of each other, and watching that develop and alter, was a pleasure.

Gaus very clearly understands the world he's writing about, and clearly also makes a strong effort to be fair and informative to and about it. He doesn't go all preachy-teachy and he doesn't gloss over the good or the bad effects of the Plain People's (hubristic) separation from the world of the English and its attendant vanities. (Isn't a focus on eliminating vanity simply vanity in sneakers?)

I liked the book. I'll read the next few, though I doubt there's enough there there to keep me reading for all eight that exist to date. Of course I could be wrong, heaven knows it wouldn't be the first time.

But my wrongness aside, don't turn away from the pleasure of acquainting yourself with this interesting, weird world.

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THE PERICLES COMMISSION (A Mystery of Ancient Greece #1)
Gary Corby
Minotaur Books
$24.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Nicolaos walks the mean streets of Classical Athens as an agent for the promising young politician Pericles. His mission is to find the assassin of the statesman Ephialtes, the man who brought democracy to Athens and whose murder has thrown the city into uproar. It’s a job not made any easier by the depressingly increasing number of dead witnesses.

But murder and mayhem don’t bother Nico; what’s really on his mind is how to get closer (much closer) to Diotima, the intelligent and annoyingly virgin priestess of Artemis, and how to shake off his irritating twelve year-old brother Socrates.

The Pericles Commission is the first in an exciting new series by first-time novelist Gary Corby, who takes us to Ancient Greece at one of the most exciting times in history. In this wonderfully approachable, historically rich novel, Athens is brought vividly to life in a mystery engaging from the first page to last.

My Review: A Mouldering Mound of ~Meh~ read. Nico's coming of age as an Athenian and a politician was not without interest, and the love-match he wants to make with Diotima is a bit amusing, but the overall action contains few moments of surprise and almost none of suspense.

It passed some time, and I cared enough to finish it, but unless the next one grows wings and flaps in my door by itself, this will do it for me.

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A CARRION DEATH (Detective Kubu #1)
Michael Stanley
HarperPerennial
$14.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Smashed skull, snapped ribs, and a cloying smell of carrion. Leave the body for the hyenas to devour-no body, no case.

But when Kalahari game rangers stumble on a human corpse midmeal, it turns out the murder wasn't perfect after all. Enough evidence is left to suggest foul play. Detective David "Kubu" Bengu of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department is assigned to the case.

The detective's personality and physique match his moniker. The nickname "Kubu" is Setswana for "hippopotamus"-a seemingly docile creature, but one of the deadliest on the continent. Beneath Kubu's pleasant surface lies the same unwavering resolve that makes the hippopotamus so deceptively dangerous. Both will trample everything in their path to reach an objective.

From the sun-baked riverbeds of the Kalahari to the highest offices of an international conglomerate, Kubu follows a blood-soaked trail in search of answers.

Beneath a mountain of lies and superstitions, he uncovers a chain of crimes leading to the most powerful figures in the country-influential enemies who will kill anyone in their way.

A memorable detective makes his debut in this gritty, mesmerizing thriller. Set amid the beauty and darkness of contemporary Africa, A Carrion Death is the first entry in an evocative new series cutting to the heart of today's Botswana-a modern democracy threatened by unstable neighbors, poachers, and diamond smugglers. Those trying to expose the corrupt ringleaders will find themselves fighting for their lives...


My Review: I want to smack the copywriter who created the promo copy above, and on the dust jacket of my library's hardcover. “Detective” Kubu is “Assistant Superintendent” Kubu. And there's something very uncomfortable to me about the “darkness” of modern Africa cited above. Just tin-eared phrasing, I'm sure. No one in publishing could be unconsciously playing with stereotypes. No no.

Mm. That's as may be. I found Kubu and his Botswana to be a welcome new angle on territory once owned, in the US market and mind, by McCall Smith's rather more twee Mma Ramotswe series. Kubu, the dangerous hippo of a detective in the series, is a Mozart-singing grocery hound, a kind of African Nero Wolfe-cum-Inspector Morse with a very nasty boss, a very appealing wife, and a large country to help police.

It's a nice debut novel about an interesting character with a lot of promise. The writing team, one Afrikaner and one Minnesotan, do a lot with their man's appetites for food, truth, justice, and facts. They're a bit less facile with the villains, using a lot of shortcuts...wealth equals evil...and failing to avail themselves of opportunities to work in some believable offsets to the faults.

The Superstitious Natives Who Are Right trope isn't one I like much, either, but I'll let that go for this book. If it happens again, there will be discussion of it then.

On balance, the series deserves another shot, and the sleuth a chance to grow and shine. Until next year, then.

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A TREASURY OF REGRETS (Aristide Ravel #4)
Susanne Alleyn
Minotaur Books
$24.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.875* of five

The Publisher Says: For police agent and investigator Aristide Ravel, the teeming streets and alleyways of Paris are a constant source of activity. And in the unruly climate of 1797, when gold and food are scarce, citizens will stop at very little to get what they need.
When Jeannette Moineau, an illiterate servant girl, is accused of poisoning the master of the house where she works, Ravel cannot believe she is guilty of the crime. With stubborn witnesses, a mysterious white powder, and stolen goods all stacked against her, however, he knows it will not be easy to clear her of the charges. But Ravel finds an unexpected ally in Laurence, a young widow of the house, whose past surprisingly intersects with his own.

In a large household brimming with bickering and resentment, everyone seems to have a motive for poisoning old Martin Dupont. But as more family members turn up dead, the list of suspects rapidly dwindles. Tensions rise and Ravel and Laurence must probe the secrets of the city's crafty politicians and confidence artists for clues to clear Jeannette's name. Finding information, though, in dissolute post-revolutionary Paris can lead to costly and dangerous demands.

From the author of Game of Patience comes a new historical mystery, bringing alive the sights and sounds of eighteenth-century Paris---brimming with atmospheric details, scandal, and murder.

My Review: The second published, and fourth in reading order, Aristide Ravel mystery, set in Revolutionary Paris, leads us deeper into the twisty byways of our sleuth's character and, at the same time, deeper into the vanished Paris that was so influential in the creation of the modern world.

I like series mysteries for reasons I've discussed elsewhere...orderly things, mysteries, and the recurring characters make the world feel a little less random than it actually is...but they come with some hazards. Writers under the pressure of deadlines sometimes make us feel as though they're phoning it in, characterization can dwindle to a series of overused tics (like Miss Silver's cough in all those Patricia Wentworth mysteries) or a catchphrase so overused as to make one want to scream blue murder (Hercule Poirot's "little gray cells" oh clam up already).

Alleyn avoids these pitfalls by enriching our understanding of Revolutionary France and its creators as well as our sleuth. This is a spolier, so stop reading if you're spoiler-averse:

**SPOILER**

Aristide, from the last book, is still mourning his childhood chum Mathieu's death at the hands of the National Convention, which judicially murdered a lot of people belonging to an out-of-power political faction. Aristide dreams of this beloved friend's death at the beginning of this book, and we see him relive the horrible ride to the guillotine that Mathieu took, though I'd think that the presence of a friend there, at that moment, would be a comfort to Mathieu...but the kicker is, as we find out in the course of this murder investigation, that Mathieu was actually In Love with Aristide, who until now was blissfully ignorant of this important fact of his friend's life.

**END SPOILER**

So what does Alleyn do with the major revelation that she gives to not one, but two, of the major characters in this book? Does she grandstand a little and make it a huge stonking Brie wheel of a deal? No. She incorporates the revelations into the actual plot, the real mystery to be solved. It's a very nice touch. It's a reason to keep reading in the series, since this isn't the first time she's done this. It's a marker of a careful, considerate writer, one respectful of her readers, and that kind of writer deserves our dollars.

So, in the end, does this book satisfy? Yes. Are there problems? Yeah...none big...a few scanted red herrings, a little bit of background not quite colored in, that's about all. But history, the living breathing thing history, can never fail to satisfy the discerning reader. Be one of Susanne Alleyn's discerning readers, you won't regret it.

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THE LAST REFUGE (Sam Acquillo Hamptons Mystery #1)
Chris Knopf
The Permanent Press
$20.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Sam Acquillo's at the end of the line. A middle-aged corporate dropout living in his dead parent's ramshackle cottage in Southampton's North Sea, Sam has abandoned friends, family and a big-time career to sit on his porch, drink vodka and stare at the little Peconic Bay. But then the old lady next door ends up floating dead in her bathtub and it seems like Sam's the only who wonders why. Despite himself, burned-out, busted up and cynical, the ex-engineer, ex-professional boxer, ex-loving father and husband finds himself uncovering secrets no one could have imagined, least of all Sam himself. Meanwhile, a precession of quirky character intrudes on Sam's misanthropic way--a beautiful banker, pot-smoking lawyer, bug-eyed fisherman and gay billionaire join a full complement of cops, thugs and local luminaries, the likes of which you never knew inhabited the hidden corners of the storied Hamptons: haves, have-nots and want-to-have-at-all-costs. Some deadly. Like Dr. Gernard Ricux in Camus' The Plague, tragedy has given Sam Acquillo an excuse to go on living-if for no other reason than to satisfy his curiosity, and may be buy a little time before succumbing to the existential despair that has brought him to the brink.

My Review: Damaged systems engineer, divorced dad, and all-around working class hero Sam Acquillo retreats to his parents' old cabin in North Sea, a part of Southampton Township that us rich white folk used to call "Blackhampton", aka the working class part of New York's trendy and eternally inflating Hamptons. Sam's licking his wounds after a messy divorce from Boston/Connecticut Aryan-from-Darien Abby, and his scandalous separation from his Fortune 500 corporate employer, after beating up the revolting toady who wants to sell Sam's division to the highest bidder without regard to its consequences for the engineers he supervises.

Sam's horrible old-lady neighbor, Regina, dies; she's got no heirs, she's got no money, she doesn't even own the home she's occupied for over 50 years. And Sam, who has nothing but time on his hands, doesn't buy the manner of her death: she drowned in her bathtub. Problem is, she had severe arthritis, and used the cottage's (separate) shower. This gets Sam's problem-solving brain occupied for the first time since his divorce. And thereby hangs the tale of the first-ever Long Island Noir mystery novel. What he discovers during his nosing about the facts and the fallacies of his tiny North Sea peninsula neighborhood's past and present makes him appreciate anew the peace and solitude he left behind when he chose to become the champion of truth and justice and the populist way; he cannot go back and he doesn't want to go forward, yet he knows he must make his choice. And so he does. And nothing in North Sea can ever be the same.

Oh wow. What a fun ride! What a delight to have this book that harks back to the Dashiell Hammett "Continental Op" books! And all set here on Long Island, mah home! I loved reading the author's supple, decriptive prose; I loved the author's ability to make me invest in and care for the flawed hero main character, and I was bowled over by the clear-eyed populism of the author's presentation of the social issues plaguing the Hamptons. I have friends in East Hampton who experience the world in the same way as Sam Acquillo does. It's very exciting to see that on the page, as anyone who's read a book that "gets it right" about their home partch can tell you.

Then there's the modern dearth of real, heartfelt NOIR in fiction and movie-making. Characters who've lost everything, and so can't be scared. Situations that're based in the real concerns of real people. Problems that have no counterpart in most mysteries and thrillers, but should.

Okay. That's the upside.

Then there's the downsside. The copyediting **rots**. "Noyac Rd." in ****dialogue**** oofwince...and on the facing page, "Harbor Road." Oh now really. You can get it right on one page and not on the other? grrrrrrr

The gawdawful spelling mistakes! The parallelism errors. *wince*

But in the end, well, the beauty of the book is simply in its characters and its ability to draw you into its lie-filled world. Sam, his love interest Eddie the dog, and the women who want them are deeply involving. I care about them, and I want to read more about them.

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PALACE OF JUSTICE (Aristide Ravel #2)
Susanne Alleyn
Minotaur Books
$25.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.8* of five

The Publisher Says: Louis XVI is in his grave, and Marie-Antoinette is on her way to trial. Paris is hungry, restless, and fearful in the autumn of 1793, and the guillotine’s blade is beginning to fall daily on the necks of enemies of the French Republic. Not even members of the Republican government are safe from the threat of the Revolutionary Tribunal, where the only sentence for the guilty is death.

In this atmosphere of distrust and anxiety, police agent Ravel, while coming to terms with personal tragedy, must stop a ruthless killer who is terrorizing the city. Ravel soon learns, however, that hunting a murderer who strikes at random and leaves headless corpses on the streets, paralleling the ever more numerous victims of the guillotine, is a task that will lead him to dark, painful secrets and echoes from an even darker past.

From the author of The Cavalier of the Apocalypse, A Treasury of Regrets, and Game of Patience comes the fourth Aristide Ravel mystery, unfolding amid the bloody events and murderous politics of the Reign of Terror.

My Review: Paris during the Terror, 1793, would seem to be a demi-Paradise for a homicide detective. There was a murder or six every few hours at the guillotine. But Aristide Ravel, whose first adventure The Cavalier of the Apocalypse is set in Royalist times and explains why he stopped trying to be a struggling writer and turned to crime (solving!) for his daily bread, is called upon to find the person beheading Paris's lesser folk in icky, non-guillotine-y ways. He does this while watching his dearly beloved friend Mathieu the National Assemblyman walk ever closer to a more judicial murder as a Brissotin. (They lost the power struggle with Robespierre and his ilk.) Ravel finds the suspect, proves he's involved in the grisly freelance murder spree that takes eighteen lives, the murderer confesses, and...and...

There is, quite simply, no excuse for anyone who likes historical novels not to read the Aristide Ravel books. Susanne Alleyn can and will transport you in 21st-century comfort to the fearful, hungry, exciting world of Revolutionary Paris, and you will be deeply glad that it's a book and not a time machine she's using. Though there are many times I would have sworn I really was there, I was so swept up in the action.

Alleyn is unjustly underknown. Please find her books, buy her books, and support the career of a storyteller who has the wit, the sparkle, and the smarts to bring a quietly ignored epoch to gritty, grisly, fascinating life for our amusement and (if we're willing to go there) edification. Highly, highly recommended.

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THE CAVALIER OF THE APOCALYPSE (Aristide Ravel #1)
Susanne Alleyn
Minotaur Books
$24.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: In the cold winter of 1786, the streets of Paris are bubbling with discontent, warning of the Revolution to come. When a murdered man is found in a Parisian cemetery, struggling writer Aristide Ravel recognizes the strange symbols surrounding the body to be Masonic.

What secrets are lurking in the city of Paris? In this stunning historical mystery from Susanne Alleyn, Ravel will seek answers in Paris’ intellectual demimonde and discover a world of conspiracy, secret societies and scandal. The third Aristide Ravel mystery, a prequel set in the raucous years leading up to the French Revolution, The Cavalier of the Apocalypse is a fascinating look at a world in turmoil--steeped in atmosphere and peril.

My Review: Wow. In the third published, but first in reading order, of her Aristide Ravel, police spy, mysteries set in Revolutionary Paris, Alleyn actually takes us to 1786, ten years before the first published book (Game of Patience) is set. It is the dying spasm of the ancien regime, the time when the royal government's incompetence and the royal family's political tin ear reached the simultaneous peak of their rise to intolerability. The plot revolves around Aristide's informal induction into the ranks of police informers, and the character Brasseur becomes his mentor in the force.

There is much to like about this book. I am on record elsewhere as admiring Alleyn's ability to set a scene, establish a character, and make a plot revolve like an orrery. This book displays all those characteristics, so...so...why is it I feel just that little bit dissatisfied at the end of it?

Because it's a prequel. Since one of the main reasons I like mysteries is that they're orderly, I like them to appear in order so that I may read them in order. It's the way I want the world to work, this following that which is followed by the other thing. I understand that, sometimes, books in a series appear out of order because publishers make this decision. I don't know if that's the case here, but I gather not since Miss Alleyn is currently writing the fourth book in the series and it's set in 1793.

But really that's a minor point, only of interest to me and my fellow order freaks. The book itself has all the pleasures I've come to associate with Alleyn's writing and I recommend it heartily. Fellow order nuts, read it first!! FIRST!!

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THE TERRA-COTTA DOG (Inspector Montalbano #2)
Andrea Camilleri
Penguin Books
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The Terra-Cotta Dog opens with a mysterious tete-a-tete with a mafioso, some inexplicably abandoned loot from a supermarket heist, and some dying words that lead inspector Montalbano to a secret grotto in a mountainous cave where two young lovers, dead fifty years and still embracing, are watched over by a life-size terra cotta dog. Montalbano's passion to solve this old crime takes him, heedless of personal danger, on a journey through the island's past and into a family's dark heart amid the horrors of World War II.

My Review: I am truly gruntled and kempt after reading a Montalbano novel. Sleek, in fact; one could go so far as to say consolate.

The mystery, that is the modern-day mystery of arms-dealing and law-breaking, gets short shrift in this delightful book. It gets passed to Montalbano's second-in-command, Augello, at Montalbano's discretion, after Augello pitches a hissy fit and acts like a neglected wife because Montalbano runs a team within a team to do his real work.

Things Go Badly. In fact, a character I loved very much pays the ultimate price for Augello's jealous fit. But Montalbano, whose head everything ultimately falls on, has already turned his attention to Livia, his quite extraordinary lover from Genoa, and a mystery from WWII.

One guess which of those two gets neglected.

The point of these books is how much a mystery gets hold of one, how deeply set the hook is when it's properly baited for the mysterian. (Other than the name of a one-hit wonder band, I've never actually used that word before, and "I do not think that word means what you think it means." {Princess Bride reference}) Sure, yeah, people are smuggling submachine guns and stuff, mmm-hmmm get back to me if something needs my attention but some a-hole killed two kids in the Act of Luuuv 50+ years ago, then put them in a cave where evidence assures us they were NOT shot, and with some very odd burial goods...a bowl of money, a jug of water, and a terra-cotta statue of a dog...and then sealed them up carefully and invisibly. WTF? as Montalbano most certainly wouldn't have thought, who does that? What kind of story makes that not only okay, but so urgent as to force someone to do it?

Exactly what I was wondering. Montalbano is my kinda guy. There are people to *do* the modern-day, not-very-challenging stuff, and even when they get stuff wrong (as they did, to his almost-fatal detriment when a shoot-out costs him the life of a friend and a month in the hospital) things will turn out, they always do...just learn to live with the consequences...but only he, Montalbano, cares to or can ferret out the seemingly unimportant but emotionally charged secrets of the past.

I was walloped upside my little punkin haid by the ending of this book. I could NOT believe an American publishing house would do this! Of course, they only did it ten years after it became a bestseller in *the rest of the world*, but let's let that slide. They did it, thank you Penguin, and they made a lovely object of the book, and they have published all of the series in proper order *smoochsmooch* on their corporate ham-producing-areas to boot!

I won't encourage anyone to read these books because, if you need encouragement, you're not the Right Stuff for them. (*snicker* THAT oughtta cause a stampede!)

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A FATAL GRACE (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #2)
Louise Penny
Minotaur Books
$23.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Welcome to winter in Three Pines, a picturesque village in Quebec, where the villagers are preparing for a traditional country Christmas, and someone is preparing for murder.

No one liked CC de Poitiers. Not her quiet husband, not her spineless lover, not her pathetic daughter—and certainly none of the residents of Three Pines. CC de Poitiers managed to alienate everyone, right up until the moment of her death.

When Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, of the Sûreté du Quebec, is called to investigate, he quickly realizes he's dealing with someone quite extraordinary. CC de Poitiers was electrocuted in the middle of a frozen lake, in front of the entire village, as she watched the annual curling tournament. And yet no one saw anything. Who could have been insane enough to try such a macabre method of murder—or brilliant enough to succeed?

With his trademark compassion and courage, Gamache digs beneath the idyllic surface of village life to find the dangerous secrets long buried there. For a Quebec winter is not only staggeringly beautiful but deadly, and the people of Three Pines know better than to reveal too much of themselves. But other dangers are becoming clear to Gamache. As a bitter wind blows into the village, something even more chilling is coming for Gamache himself.

My Review: The first of these warm, acutely and accurately observed, scrumptiously comfy cozy mysteries, Still Life, hooked me in completely to the world of Gamache, the Sûreté (weeeeurrrrnnnh goes the WWII siren, off to catch Jews in Nazi-occupied Paris, the line of Traction Avant sedans hurtling through the rain-soaked night) du Québec, and the madhouse-meets-retirement-home that is Three Pines. It had its issues, including an inordinate focus on a minor character's past when that character was shuffled off tout suite before the end of the book. But it was perfectly wonderful, and I fell in love with it immediatement.

The second entry is more assured a performance on every level, and the minor character is back again, despite being shuffled off last book. It's amazing how annoyed I was at the appearance of a character I disliked so very much. I *resented* having even the name on so many pages! I know Inspector Beauvoir, Gamache's second-in-command, felt the same way.

The interpersonal dynamics in this book are stellar. Gamache et sa femme, Reine-Marie, are clearly the best-suited married couple in all of fiction. Gamache and Beauvoir love each other deeply, in a tender and gentle way, and it never shades into prurience or sentimentality. How Penny achieves that, I cannot venture to guess, but I wish to goodness she'd give lessons to Anne Rice and Stephen King in how it's done.

The two murders in this book are both heart-wrenching, though for completely different reasons. Their solutions are exactly in tune with the series's ethos, and the events of a cold winter's night that take place on a lake will, unless you are insentient or a sociopath, make you take a Kleenex break until you're eyes actually smart from crying in...in...joyous furious sadness.

I've always had it in my mind that I'd spend my declining years in Skookumchuk, British Columbia, because well who doesn't want to live in a place called Skookumchuk? Daily laughter guaranteed! But now I want to grow old in Three Pines, next door to Clara and Myrna and with Reine-Marie and Armand at the top of the hill. One will always be safe, if not from murder, then from the outrages of the wider, more callous, uncaring world. That's worth a lot.

And did I mention I recommend the book?

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REASONABLE DOUBTS (Guido Guerrieri #3)
Gianrico Carofiglio
Bitter Lemon Press
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.9* of five

The Publisher Says: Lawyer Guerrieri is asked to handle the appeal of Fabio Paolicelli, sentenced to sixteen years for smuggling drugs into Italy. Everything seems stacked against the accused, not least because he initially confessed to the crime. His past as a neo-fascist thug also adds credence to the case against him. Only the intervention of Paolicelli’s beautiful half-Japanese wife finally overcomes Guerrieri’s reluctance. Matters get more complicated when Guerrieri ends up in bed with her. Gianrico Carofiglio, born in 1961, is a judge and anti-Mafia prosecutor in the southern Italian city of Bari. Bitter Lemon Press introduced him to English-speaking readers with his best-selling debut novel, Involuntary Witness.

My Review: Third in the Guido Guerrieri Italian legal procedural thrillers, this outing finds Avv. Guerrieri tilting at windmills again, with a twist: He's running an investigation into the client's story. He's taken the case of an imprisoned drug courier who insists he's innocent of knowingly transporting 40 kilos of cocaine from Montenegro back to Bari in the car carrying himself, his wife, and their small daughter. He was a small-time crook before, yes, and (unknown to the client) was even a nasty Fascist gang-bully in the 1970s who beat young Guido up in the street. But to imperil his own wife and daughter by doing something so stupid as to run a hundred pounds of cocaine across international borders?! Never!

But word in the prison-yard is that Avv. Guerrieri is a good one, a lawyer who does the job he's hired for, and makes the case work for the client. This time, though, Guido faces something a little bit tougher than just a client probably guilty and just denying it out of embarrassment at involving his family, or even the long-ago beating he got at the client's hands (which the client's clearly forgotten): Don Quixote de Guerrieri has met his Dulcinea, the client's beautiful half-Japanese wife Natsu.

And here Guido Guerrieri is, single and everything, since Margherita left for New York and a new life (the rat!). And here Natsu is, unsure of her husband's innocence, unsure of her future, unsure of how to tell her daughter that Papa's not coming home from his business trip until 2025...what can you expect a woman to do when a handsome older gent with sad eyes and a penchant for reading strange books, a sophisticated palate that can really appreciate her cooking, and a way with soothing her deeply unhappy daughter's nightmares falls into her lap?

In the end, as always, Guido sees justice served, and sees his services amply rewarded in the process by solidifying his excellent reputation among the criminal classes, with the local narcotics officers, and the Italian judiciary, all at the same time. Not for the first time, Carofiglio weaves a believable resolution to a plot he seems to have set in motion specifically to challenge the clockwork universe into crushing our Don Quixote hero with the windmill blades.

At the end of the last book, Guido and Margherita were celebrating Christmas together! He'd even jumped out of a plane to impress her! And in one short passage at the very beginning of this book, Carofiglio dispatches her to the same place that all happy-making things go in the lives of hard-boiled sleuths. I was a little bit surprised at first, then I remembered the cardinal rule of noir: No one is happy for long.

A doomed affair with a client's wife is a great noir touch, too. No one even moderately sentient can doubt for a second that, once Natsu appears, Guido's going to succumb to her and that she's going to offer up the goods. All progresses apace, and the expected complications ensue; and perhaps that's why this installment isn't quite so thrilling to me as the previous two. I suspect that the far greater emphasis on the investigative parts of the case as opposed to the actual court arguments and examinations might contribute to my lack of superhappy. But the elements are there, just in smaller proportion to previous outings. All I can hope is that the series doesn't become all PI instead of procedural.

I really like the translations of these books, I must say, since they give me credit for being intelligent enough to need the occasional reinforcement of the book's Italian setting by using actual Italian in some non-critical but very practical ways. My favorite example is the characters calling each other, when culturally necessary for them to do so, by their job titles, eg Guido being called "Avvocato" or "Lawyer-man" in professional contexts, exactly as they would in Italy. Grace notes like this are very important to my sense of pleasure in a book, and greatly enhance my willingness to read more of the series.

I continue to enjoy these books, and wait eagerly for the next installment. That's saying something from a man whose "to be read" shelf has over 1000 titles on it.

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MURDER IN THE RUE CHARTRES (Chanse MacLeod #3)
Greg Herren
Bold Strokes Books
$9.99 eBook only, available now

Rating: 4.3* of five

The Publisher Says: Murder hits the Big Easy.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Chanse MacLeod returns to a different, shattered New Orleans in an attempt to rebuild his own life and face his own future. When he discovers that his last client before the storm was murdered the very night she hired him to find her long-missing father, he is drawn into a web of intrigue and evil that surrounds the Verlaine family.

My Review: There is no escape from the past. It supports us, if we're lucky; it drags us down from otherwise attainable heights, if we're not. This third installment of Herren's Chanse MacLeod mysteries reinforces this sad, inescapable lesson in a harsh and cruel and painful way, only for once it's not Chanse that does most of the suffering. Hired to look into a 32-year-old disappearance by the daughter of a vanished father, Chanse ends up fired before he can so much as cash the check...and then his client turns up dead. Odd, that...and her in the throes of planning her wedding? Something smells fishy to Chanse, who returns her retainer check in person to the dead woman's older brother. Surprise there: Chanse now has a much larger retainer check and a new client who wants the same job done. In short order, Chanse meets the patriarch of this singularly unlucky clan; loses his new client to what he is morally sure is murder; breaks up with his rebound guy, a nice-but... that he met in the last book; has a quickie with an old friend, newly single; and learns that his hag/best friend is leaving post-Katrina New Orleans. To finish her book, she says.

Rest assured, though: The right people end up in the right places and Chanse, for a wonder, actually unthaws his cryogenically preserved, battered, bruised, and broken heart, resolving to live his life and not simply exist in it because he's not dead yet.

New Orleans post-Katrina is a grim backdrop for this outing. I suspect in many ways anyone who has written about New Orleans since 2005 has written out of a sense of atonement, or expiation, or making things right, because after all they're alive and so very many aren't any more. Chanse comes home from a stay in Dallas to find that he's lost nothing in the storm or the flood; his friend Venus lost everything, for example, as did so many. The hero of a mystery series needs obstacles to make him more interesting that simply a crime-solving computer. The obstacles here, well, they're pretty grisly...driving around and seeing those horrible, horrible "X"s showing where bodies were found...refrigerators abandoned as far from homes as possible so they won't add to the mold problems, and adorned with anti-government slogans...well, this leads Chanse to a minor breakdown. No duh.

I am not, at heart, a New Orleanian. I got out of the car in 1975 and said, "Jesus, what a dump." Nothing in all the time since has made me think anything different. I don't miss going there, and wish our friends from there would come here to visit. But the city is one of the world's most popular destinations, and it's got a certain raffish charm that shines through in these books. I still don't want to go there. But I like the Chanse MacLeod character's development and growth, and I like the secondary characters like Paige, his hag, and Venus, the tall and elegant lady detective; who knows, maybe Herren has let us see a glimmer of hope for Chanse to have a shot at boyfriendly bliss!

Kinda doubt it, though. Remember what happened to "Moonlighting" when Cybill Shepard and Bruce Willis finally got it on?

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THIRTY-THREE TEETH (Dr. Siri Paiboun #2)
Colin Cotterill
Soho Crime
$14.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: Feisty Dr. Siri Paiboun is no respecter of persons or Party; at his age he feels he can afford to be independent. In this, the second novel in the series, he travels to Luang Prabang where he communes with the deposed king who is resigned to his fate: it was predicted long ago. And he attends a conference of shamans called by the Communist Party to deliver an ultimatum to the spirits: obey Party orders or get out. But as a series of mutilated corpses arrives in Dr. Siri’s morgue, and Nurse Dtui is menaced, he must use all his powers—forensic and shamanic—to discover the creature—animal or spirit—that has been slaying the innocent.

My Review: Returning to Vientiane, Laos, a good three months after we left it in The Coroner's Lunch, Colin Cotterill drops us in the midst of Laotian Hell: It's the hot season, before the rains, and so the entire nation greets each other with, "Hot, isn't it?" Responding, "Damned hot."

I felt that horrible, stifling, miserable heat the entire time I was engrossed in the two mysteries Dr. Siri Paiboun, Laos's only coroner, sets out to solve. The first is a truly terrifying series of maulings, which are blamed on a Malay black bear recently escaped from terrible, cruel captivity at a local luxury hotel's menagerie. Dr. Siri sees the first victim in his morgue, determines there's no human agency in the death, and goes home...there to awake with a black bear breathing on him! He suspects his last earthly moments have come, but the bear merely shambles off after communing with him for a time. More maulings are reported over the course of the book, but the bear herself is not found despite an intensive manhunt.

The next layer of mystery announces itself with a strange death at the Ministry of Sport and Culture. An official charged with overseeing the Ministry's archive is found dead at the base of the fountain in the square the Ministry's on, clearly having been precipitated from the roof. The archive is locked, the only key is on the inside of the door, and the official can't possibly have thrown himself that far from the building. Siri breaks into the archive with his pal Inspector Phosy, last seen as a covert cop, and now a Vientiane police inspector. They discover a chest with the Royal seal intact on it, and can't bring themselves to open it because of its evil aura. Siri warns Phosy and his fellow officers to stay away, he will find a way to get into the chest using his newly discovered connections to the Other World; reluctantly they agree; Siri must now figure out what to do, since he has not Clue One how to manage evil spirits.

And here is where Cotterill takes this tale from a very good 3.5 to near 4 stars, over the bar, and into the four-star world. Siri is summoned to Luang Prabang, Laos's ancient Royal capital, to look into the deaths of two men whose identities the Communist authorities are eager to discover for reasons they won't go into. Siri meets the spirits of the men, uncovers a vicious and wicked betrayal, and brings the malefactor to Justice, instead of legal justice. In the process, Cotterill introduces Siri and the reader to the Laotian kingdom's central spirit repository, and reveals the unhappy reason for an unhappy nation's descent from quiet prideful independence into ever-increasing want and lack. The scene of the reveal is so moving and so affecting that I was compelled to read it twice.

Far from leaving his readers there, though, the author then proceeds to tie in and tie up the maulings with Siri's morgue nurse, Dtui, earning her detective stripes (literally) by her determined and courageous pursuit of a solution to the mysterious animal's whereabouts, taking her from Comrade Minister Civilai's world of the Politburo (where the old codger is the Voice of Reason, an exhausting and thankless task, making him miss his youth spent in the jungles as a freedom fighting boon companion to Siri), to the hidden world of the prisons Laos isn't supposed to need anymore in the Socialist Paradise, and finally to the ragged edge of her own life at the mercy of the evil forces causing the mutilation killings. Siri and his boon companions wind all the loose ends into a very, very happy ending, though just as in real life, there are prices to be paid for all happiness...but on balance, the good outweighs the painful and unhappy.

Like we wish it would in Real Life.

Oh my heck. I just can't get over several scenes in this book, the one I won't spoiler that I mentioned above, but also some character scenes that I was moved by. One involves Comrade Coroner Siri, Comrade Minister Civilai, and Comrade Inspector Phosy having lunch by the river, something that childless Siri and Civilai have done together often, but now include the unmarried, middle-aged Phosy in. The scene comes at a very interesting point, where Siri has just confirmed that he (like Buddha) has thirty-three teeth which marks him out as a being who is a bridge between the Other Realms and the mundane world we all live in. It feels like the reader is the quiet fourth person watching a pair of old uncles chaffing and loving their younger, respectful nephew, all with the quietest and most enjoyable teasing sweetness. I was very pleased and honored to be allowed into their moment of closeness, and then remembered that the author was creating this scene, not recording or reporting it.

And then there came a moving scene between Siri and Nurse Dtui, which I can't talk about for fear of spoilering events. I hate that I can't talk about it, but to anyone who has felt the ghastly sense of anti-climax when reading a spoilered ending, I need not explain my hesitation. Suffice it to say, Nurse Dtui is more of a daughter to Siri than even he knows yet.

Four full and happily given stars, plus a quarter star to grow on. This is a series my mystery fanboy heart has embraced for good.

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KILLED AT THE WHIM OF A HAT (Jimm Juree #1)
Colin Cotterill
Minotaur Books
$24.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Book Report: The launch of a brand new series by the internationally bestselling, critically acclaimed author of The Coroner’s Lunch

With worldwide critical acclaim, Colin Cotterill is one of the most highly regarded “cult favorite” crime writers today. Now, with this new series, Cotterill is poised to break into the mainstream. Set in present day rural Thailand, Cotterill is as sharp and witty, yet more engaging and charming, than ever before. Jimm Juree was a crime reporter for the Chiang Mai Daily Mail with a somewhat eccentric family—a mother who might be drifting mentally; a grandfather—a retired cop—who rarely talks; a younger brother obsessed with body-building, and a transgendered, former beauty pageant queen, former older brother. When Jimm is forced to follow her family to a rural village on the coast of Southern Thailand, she’s convinced her career—maybe her life—is over. So when a van containing the skeletal remains of two hippies, one of them wearing a hat, is inexplicably unearthed in a local farmer’s field, Jimm is thrilled. Shortly thereafter an abbot at a local Buddhist temple is viciously murdered, with the temple’s monk and nun the only suspects. Suddenly Jimm’s new life becomes somewhat more promising—and a lot more deadly. And if Jimm is to make the most of this opportunity, and unravel the mysteries that underlie these inexplicable events, it will take luck, perseverance, and the help of her entire family.

My Review: Jimm Juree, female crime reporter/editrix in waiting, leaves heavily urban and crime-ridden Chiang Mai, Thailand (ideal for her chosen trade, eh?), when her scatty, pre-dementia-sufferer mother (called "Mair" which means Mama throughout the book) decides to sell the family home and family shop and buy a ghastly little hole-in-the-wall "resort" in Thailand's Deep South...with all the freight that phrase implies in English fully intact here. With Mair and Jimm go Arny, the youngest of the family, a cliff of muscle and a mass of insecurities, as well as Granddad Jah, father of Mair and forty-year veteran of the Thai police whose inability to take bribes stalled his career at the level of Corporal.

Gettin' the set-up here? Mass of misfits go to be, collectively, fish out of water on the hot, humid Gulf of Siam coast. And what happens? As soon as the family gets there, Jimm gets involved in a weird discovery: Two skeletons in an ancient VW Kombi discovered at the bottom of a well-pit. What gives? We follow Jimm as she makes friends (sort of) with the local constabulary in pursuit of information on the who, what, when, how, and why of this utterly strange killing...murder...accidental death...suicide...? Who knows? But the editor Jimm so wanted to replace as soon as he dies buys the story.

Yay, right? Well...then comes a grisly horrible scary murder of an abbot sent from Buddhist HQ to investigate the possible salacious goins-on of the local abbot and his resident nun. Turns out they knew each other well in former lives...and someone is sure they're doin' the nasty even now, many many years later. When the HQ abbot turns up hideously slain, there is a curious radio silence...no news leaks...but Jimm, being steps away from the crime scene, hears all and sees much. She, with help from flaming queen Lieutenant Chompu, Granddad Jah, and a selection of interviewees at varying levels of helpfulness and relevance, puts all the pieces together. The guilty are, well, guilty, and known to be so; the ending is a bit of a let-down on some points. But end it does, and no one can not know justice is meant to be served.

This book and I have A History. The first copy I got was *shudder* bug-infested *shudder*, and was summarily heaved into the trash for the crime. Then a dear and warm-hearted fellow reader took pity on me and sent me her copy of the ARC. Now how kind is that? And when does the book arrive? Just as I'm beginning a nasty nasty bout of flu. So was I willing to cut the beginning of the book, which contains some unpleasant slights to the transgendered community, any slack? Why no! I was not! And then we are treated to some snark, a little sarcasm, and heaps of condescenscion. Oh, my, were we on the way to a flame-fest! I had my own vituperative darts and righteous flaming arrows all lined up, I did. I was even ready to give up and just not review it, since I hate to be nasty to authors who have spent blood, sweat, and tears on creating something to amuse thee and me. Seems churlish somehow.

Then came p349. I won't tell you what happens there. Suffice to know that the whole reason I was reading the book, ill temper and all, snapped into focus for me. I was left a little hollow by that stuffing-knocking-out. I was so very glad I'd kept going. It made a lot of things that ticked me off fall into perspective. It could for you, too...but, in the end, it's the characters that will make or break this book for readers, not necessarily the mystery. In this way, the book merits comparison to Mma Ramotswe's adventures retailed by Alexander McCall Smith. The setting of rural Thailand is certainly fresh and new to my jaded American eyes!

So. To recommend or not to recommend? I choose recommend, with one strong caveat: Open up *first* or the experience of change might slip past you. I'd hate to know that was the case.

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A WALK IN THE DARK (Guido Guerrieri #2)
Gianrico Carofiglio
Bitter Lemon Press
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.9* of five

The Publisher Says: When Martina accuses her ex-boyfriend—the son of a powerful local judge—of assault and battery, no witnesses can be persuaded to testify on her behalf, and one lawyer after another refuses to represent her. Guido Guerrieri knows the case could bring his legal career to a messy end, but he cannot resist the appeal of a hopeless cause. Nor can he deny an attraction to Sister Claudia, the young woman in charge of the shelter where Martina is living, who shares his love of martial arts and his virulent hatred of injustice.


My Review: In the second installment of the Avv. Guido Guerriri legal thriller series, Our Hero has accepted the case of an abused woman who wants to bring civil suit against her battering, stalking ex-lover. Who just happens to be the son of the most powerful criminal judge in the city of Bari. And he didn't get that way by passing out Christmas hams to the needy, if you get my drift. Martina, at considerable risk to herself, wishes to put an end to the charm in her ex's charmed life by making him face publically the harm he's done her; he isn't, unsurprisingly, prepared to let this happen, and he retains the meanest, most sick-making kind of silk-upholstered shit-sack of a lawyer one can imagine. (The author being a judge, I suspect this character is a sarcastic payback on someone or someones he's dealt with in his anti-Mafia trials.)

Cue Guido's Don Quixote music! Saddle up, Sancho Reader, we're going for a tilt at the windmill of privilege, social and societal. Guido hears about the case with aplomb...she's gotta be kidding, so he slapped her around, this isn't a criminal case, c'mon! stalking? what, a man can't walk down a street?...until a combination of a feminist martial artist/nun, a female public prosecutor, and the head of the local deviant crimes unit all singing the same song makes him listen, and re-evaluate. Then they tell him who is alleged to have committed the crime.

Whoa Nelly! Career suicide help line, my name is don't do it, please tell me everything...and by god, Guido does the amazing and the improbable: He learns to accept that male privilege is a mindset, and society doesn't even notice it. (I'd add straight privilege if it was relevant, which it's not here, but it's equally virulent.) He's already sure he wants to take down the son of the local bought judge because he's an old leftist. (Old, hell, he's a puppy of forty.)

And Guido works his most sneaky, ju-jitsu-inspired magic in the trial that ensues. He really gives it a twist this time. So does the author. SUCH a twist, with nuns and cops and lawyers and sleazeballs all enmeshed in a fracas that had me, no exaggeration, gasping and jumping up and down.

In a paltry 215pp, I lived through the entire range of my emotional reactions to violence. Each of them. In turn, simultaneously, in order of virulence, and finally in catharsis.

I am not a subscriber to the Woman is Saintly Victim school of thought. I do not believe that men are abusers and women victims by nature, despite the crap that infests our fictional bookosphere. The issue of stalking, and its nastier ancillary complexes, is a very real one and a very scary one. The world has mean, nasty, horrible people in it, and by all that's holy, they need to be put away, stopped, found out and exposed. This novel satiated my strong need for that to happen, and it did a brilliant job of it.

The ending, while emotionally intense and not entirely pleasant, came close to being perfect. Close, so close...one event did not happen, and that is my one cavil with the whole thing.

I'm a big fan of the less prurient, more procedural style Carofiglio uses in these books, compared to the confessional, almost pornographic closeness to the dramatis personae most American procedurals use. Don't be surprised if your take on the style changes...from con to pro, but possibly the reverse...in this installment. It's a balancing act, as it always must be, to decide what details to present, what relationships to flesh out, what to suggest and what to explain. Carofiglio makes the most use of suggestion of any crime writer I've found.

Me likey. A lot.

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STILL LIFE (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #1)
Louise Penny
Minotaur Books
$14.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Winner of the New Blood Dagger, Arthur Ellis, Barry, Anthony, and Dilys awards.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec and his team of investigators are called in to the scene of a suspicious death in a rural village south of Montréal and yet a world away. Jane Neal, a long-time resident of Three Pines, has been found dead in the woods. The locals are certain it’s a tragic hunting accident and nothing more but Gamache smells something foul this holiday season…and is soon certain that Jane died at the hands of someone much more sinister than a careless bowhunter.

With this award-winning first novel, Louise Penny introduces an engaging hero in Inspector Gamache, who commands his forces—and this series—with power, ingenuity, and charm.

My Review: Oh, the raptures of a first novel that also inaugurates a mystery series! It's like your first piece of birthday cake as a kid...OMIGOD this is good wait whaddaya mean I gotta wait another whole year to get another one you stink and you're mean *waaahIwantmymommy*

But crafty old fifty-plussers like moi wait. We lurk behind the bakery, sniffing the ineffable esters of birthday cakes destined for the inexperienced and the impatient and the indiscriminate, mentally filing away those scents most closely followed by moans and slurps of ecstasy, biding our time and hoarding our book-calories (aka money) to see which annual yumyums consistently produce those sounds and smells.

Here it is, ladies and what-all-else, the first birthday cake from Canadian cake-baker Louise Penny, and my GOD was it worth the wait!

A friend sent this to me as a Christmas gift. It came after self-same friend raved and jumped up and down and yodeled the praises of the series, featuring Inspector Gamache of the Quebec Surete (I can't help myself, I hear Gestapo jackboots and Euro-sirens every time I see that word) and the odd, off-kilter inhabitants of Three Pines, Quebec. I was practically panting with eagerness to get this package, which when it arrived proved to contain *several* of the Gamache series.

Being a good Virgo, I snatched up the first in the series, and applied eyes to page. Steadily. For four hours. I was 2/3 through with the book then, and *forced* myself to put it down because a) I had to walk the dog, b) I had to feed my 91-yr-old aunt, and c) I had to pee.

Let's talk about mystery series for a minute. I like them, as readers of past reviews will yawningly recall, because they satisfy my need for order, for the world to work *right* for a change. I think a lot of people feel similarly to me. But a series, iteration upon iteration of similar plots/characters/motivations/dialogue...what makes a well-read consumer of Lit'rachure such as I, and so many fellow Goodreadsers, am/are seek these books out? Comfort? Yes, but... Ease? Yes, but... Quality.

Some of the best storytelling going on in literature today happens in mysteries and thrillers.

Yeup, you can love or loathe Grisham's writing, but you CANNOT fault, in any way, his eye for a story. You can fairly say it's not to your personal taste, but don't even TRY to say it's "not good." Likewise James Patterson, Stephen King, Iris Johansen, et alii. There is a reason these folks are bestsellers, and it is NOT that the People got no taste. It's that these are storytellers, entertainers, creators of worlds we-the-people want to inhabit if only for a moment.

As was Homer, may I remind the snobs. No one thought much about Homer's stuff, except that it was rollicking good fun. Nobody even bothered to write it down for a few centuries *after* writing was invented. Somewhere on the Times bestseller list is the work of the Homer our culture will be remembered for, and it's not likely to be Faulkner. (Horrible thought: What if it's HEMINGWAY?!?)

Louise Penny's Three Pines is a place I want to go and stay, eating Gabri's bounteous cooking and flirting with Olivier and lusting from afar at unattainable Peter and gossiping unkindly with Ruth...then settling in for a long, quiet snifter with Gamache and Beauvoir and Clara, to think it all through and come to a reasoned conclusion about life. I am there with these people, these words-on-page creations that have the life only a deep well of talent can water into existence. I believe them. I think you will, too.

I offer this moment from very near the end of the book, when Clara realizes who murdered her very best friend:

Clara stared at her reflection in the window of {the victim}'s kitchen. A ghostly,frightened woman looked back. Her theory made sense.
Ignore it, the voice inside said. It's not your business. Let the police do their work. For God's sake, don't say anything. It was a seductive voice, one that promised peace and calm and the continuation of her beautiful life in Three Pines. To act on what she knew would destroy that life.
What if you're wrong? cooed the voice. You'll hurt a lot of people...But Clara knew the voice lied. Had always lied to her. Clara would know and that knowing would eventually destroy her life anyway.

If that doesn't make you sprint out to get this book, nothing else I can say will.

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MURDER IN THE RUE ST. ANN (Chanse MacLeod #2)
Greg Herren
Alyson Books
$13.95 trade paper or $9.99 eBook, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: When sexy gay private eye Chanse MacLeod investigates the financial shenanigans of club promoter Mark Williams, he discovers that not only does Williams have ties to the New Orleans judiciary, he also has ties to Chanse’s lover, Paul—a connection that reveals secrets about Paul’s past that Chanse had never guessed and now wishes he didn’t know. When Paul disappears, it seems his past has caught up with him in a terrifying way.

My Review: Second of the Chanse MacLeod murder mysteries set in New Orleans, this is a more assured performance by author Herren. He winds a good tale around the sudden end of happiness for our tight-lipped hero...boyfriend Paul goes, in the space of twenty-four *really* lousy hours, from apple dumpling sweetie pie to murder suspect to missing person. Chanse reveals more to us in the course of his frantic search for Paul, and along the way steps in the dogshit-laden middle of a Federal Mob case, almost becomes a wrestle-porn whore, and winds up with a tender and loving experience of family and love and acceptance. As his entire world ends. Ain't it always the way?

*SPOILERS FROM HERE ON*
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I don't know if I've told my grim secrets often enough for them to be scabbed over or not, but this book ripped them scabs right off. Chanse's trailer-trash past is detailed here, and while the setting of his agonies was way way down-market from mine and my mother was the abuser not my father, we came from similar backgrounds of unknowable trigger-points for screaming violent abuse. It was harrowing to read. (Sucked to live, too.)

Then, after a very unpleasant break-up, we see Chanse's self-involvement and inability to love and care in a real and significant way for others: Check! Did that. I hid it behind being an AIDS volunteer, and put a braver face on it for the public, but oh yeah. Ask any of the women I married. Ask the men I dated. I promise they'd back me up here: Cold as a walk-in freezer when it came down to it.

And then, and then...oh my oh my...Chanse loses Paul to a vile and horrible crime, as I lost my son to his mother's drunk driving in 1981, as I lost my dearly, dearly treasured Bland to AIDS in 1992. Herren gives his reactions to the horror in a direct and laconic way, which makes them all the more affecting. Those of us only slightly and tangentially able to feel emotions anyway respond to grief in a particular way...all the color goes out of the world. There may be a storm of weeping, then *slam* the gate goes down. No more tears. And then the torment begins: You are made of lead, of iron-bound lead, and the world is papier mache. Moving is a delicate task. Nothing at all works. Drinking and drugging suddenly seem like *wonderful* ideas, so off you go!

And that, my friends, is where Herren leaves Chanse--at a bar, drink in front of him, at 11:45am.

Oh yeah. Been there, done that, and so (I suspect) has Herren. I don't think a person can make this imaginitive leap without a real solid launching pad. I hurt for him, no one should have to know what it's like. But then, isn't that what art does? Take the fortunate to the places the unfortunate know how to find? Well, whatever the source, the book takes the reader there, that awful agonized place of loss.

But then you get to close the book, put it on a shelf, and get a glass of water for your nightstand as you go to bed.

Sweet dreams.

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MURDER IN THE RUE DAUPHINE (Chanse MacLeod #1)
Greg Herren
Alyson Books
$5.98 trade paper, $9.99 eBook, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: For gay New Orleans private eye Chanse MacLeod, it seemed like a simple case: find out who was blackmailing his pretty-boy client's rich, closeted boyfriend, collect a nice check, and take some time off. But then the pretty boy turns up dead in what looks like a hate crime and the gay community of New Orleans is up in arms, demanding justice. In the stifling heat of a New Orleans summer, Chanse searches for an extremely clever killer on a trail leading to a gay rights organization, boys for hire, and New Orleans society, knowing he has to find the killer before the entire city explodes.

My Review: Chanse MacLeod, former LSU football star, New Orleans policeman, and present-day private detective, gets a client in the most appealing possible way for a gay male mystery: His hottie hirer picks him out, and up, at the gym. Hunky Mike Hansen is, wait for it, in love with a rich, married, closeted doctor who is being blackmailed. Mike arranges to meet Chanse at Mike's home, after getting the incriminating blackmail tape from Dr. Delicious McWallet. (We don't find out his real name until well into the book.) Chanse, worn out from the workout and still sad over his peripatetic lover's departure for another multi-day trip as a flight attendant, oversleeps and is an hour late for their meeting. Darn good thing, too, since if he'd been on time, he'd've seen Mike being murdered.

Discovering the body, reporting the murder to his former colleagues at NOPD, and then trying to stay out of the circus that ensues is the meat of this short first mystery in a series by author and anthologist Herren. Gold diggers, horny creeps, jaded reporters, single-minded do-gooders, whores and whoremongers jig and caper through Herren's pre-Katrina French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny. MacLeod's laconic page presence still allows for character development, since we're in first person. What solves the mystery is an attempted murder that, for a wonder, vivifies the term "feed 'em to the fishes." The resolution is in no way a surprise, but the way it arrives is fun.

I'm not sure Chanse would give my fat carcass the time of day, muscle queen that he is, but I don't mind hitchhiking on his betank-topped muscular shoulder. The book is a fantasy, and it's not played for realism, but it's got some good character bases for a long-legged series: gruff black lady cop, honest and forthright, whom everyone erroneously assumes to be a lesbian; Chanse's hag, reporter Paige Tourneur, is appealingly damaged and quite obviously hangin' with his hunky self out of self-protection, so fertile ground for fun developments; Chanse's lover the air mattress (gay male slang for stewards), who commits the Unpardonable Sin of saying "I love you" to Chanse not once, oh no we can ignore that, but TWICE! Chanse's attack of the fantods led me to the mirror to see if maybe Herren had a camera in there...and leads Chanse to the brink of an affair with a most, most inappropriate man.

Enjoyable fluff, this. I wish the author's editor had made him do a few of the obvious development tricks, delving just a wee bit deeper into the recurring characters' pasts, but all in all this is a good and solid effort. It lacks suspense to an almost fatal degree as a mystery, but it makes up for it in blithe and quick-witted writing. Book 2, Murder in the Rue St. Ann, awaits on the nightstand. It's only 1am, I can fit in 50pp or so, can't I?

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THE BIG SLEEP (Philip Marlowe #1)
Raymond Chandler
Vintage Crime
$14.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5 waaay enthusiastic stars of five

The Publisher Says: When a dying millionaire hires Philip Marlowe to handle the blackmailer of one of his two troublesome daughters, Marlowe finds himself involved with more than extortion. Kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in.

My Review: Philip Marlowe's first print appearance. Gen. Sternwood summons Marlowe to look into a blackmail attempt on his daughter. The daughter's a no-good dame, the General's a rotter, the twists and turns are dizzying, and the whole plot would take another 500 words to relate. Don't be fooled by the fact that it's detective fiction from the 1940s. (Okay, 1939, but bugger-all difference, isn't there?) It's got a dense and rich sensory universe, it's got economical but never facile characterization, and it's a jim-dandy edge-of-your-seat thriller, to boot.

Okay, nobody move. Sit there and read this.

Raymond Chandler is one of the best writers of readable fiction ever to practice his craft:
I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.
He wrote a googol and six pulp stories for the cheesy mags of his day, and he burned away all the really crap stock phrases while he was doing that. He honed his flensing knife and cut the blubber from his prose while he was writing a story a day or some such, and this novel...one of the early ones...shows how the effort and the time he put in on those stories paid off.

The Big Sleep gives us an indelible icon, Philip Marlowe, tough and smart and street-wise; he's the epitome of what the culture of the 30s and 40s thought of as A Man: Good at thinking as well as fighting.

The reason that today's audiences should still read Chandler's fiction is simple: Human nature is never more nakedly on display, warts and all, than in the best crime fiction, and it's always a good idea to read the best before reading the latest.

Enough said. More won't convince the unwilling. Excellent stuff, this.

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THE CORONER'S LUNCH (Dr. Siri Paiboun #1)
Colin Cotterill
Soho Crime
$14.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.875* of five

The Publisher Says: Laos, 1975. The Communist Pathet Lao has taken over this former French colony. Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72-year-old Paris-trained doctor, is appointed national coroner. Although he has no training for the job, there is no one else; the rest of the educated class has fled.

He is expected to come up with the answers the party wants. But crafty and charming Dr. Siri is immune to bureaucratic pressure. At his age, he reasons, what can they do to him? And he knows he cannot fail the dead who come into his care without risk of incurring their boundless displeasure. Eternity could be a long time to have the spirits mad at you.

My Review: In the Vientiane, Laos, of November 1976, green-eyed Dr. Siri Paiboun is the seventy-two-year-old coroner...the only one in the newly liberated by communism country...charged with discovering why Mrs. Nitnoy, powerful leader of the Laos Women's Union and wife of Member of Parliament Kham, suddenly keeled over dead. Her husband insists it was her peasant taste for raw pork. The judge Dr. Siri works for thinks that sounds reasonable, and also unnecessary to investigate.

Dr. Siri knows otherwise. Not because he's that good a coroner, since he's only had the job for ten reluctant months...he knows because Mrs. Nitnoy told him so.

After she was dead.

So begins a fascinating look into the chaotic world of Southeast Asia in the wake of the Vietnam War, told from the out-of-the-Anglophone-ordinary viewpoint of the Southeast Asians left to pick up the pieces. The story follows Dr. Siri as he is manipulated from behind the scenes in someone's quest to hide truths from the doctor, someone who clearly doesn't know...heck, even the good doctor doesn't know!...that Dr. Siri is the latest incarnation of legendary thousand-plus-year-old shaman Yeh Ming, and so has the ability to see spirits and call on ancient energies intrinsic to Laos's beautiful forested mountains.

Dr. Siri is called upon to use his increasing skills as a coroner to look into the deaths of three Vietnamese nationals, in Laos for purposes both secret and unknown to anyone Siri knows; then is sent to the ethnically Hmong south to deal with the sudden and unexpected deaths of Army officers in charge of an economic revitalization program that doesn't seem to be revitalizing so much as devitalizing the men in charge; and while among the Hmong, who worryingly seem to know him better than he knows himself, Siri finally gets to know Yeh Ming, his fellow traveler in this green-eyed body in a country of brown-eyed people.

With a combination of mundane detective skills, spirit guidance, and help from a formidable nurse, an eidetic Down's syndrome laborer, an old friend in high places, and a new friend in clandestine ones, Siri ties all the malefactors in knots and delivers them to the proper authorities (whether spiritual or mundane) with ribbons on.

This book is such a welcome addition to my series-mystery-loving world. Dr. Siri is a delight. He's too old, and too weary, and too smart to be scared by petty bureaucratic thuggery. He values his comfort...oh yeah baby, the older we get, the more we do!...but his idea of comfort includes doing the real right thing, not the easy right thing.

Cotterill gives Dr. Siri a deep and rich backstory reaching into Laos's colonial French past, extending into the jungles of Pathet Lao communist resistance, and through to the time of victory and the inevitable Animal Farm-esque disillusion that accompanies regime change. "Throw the crooks out!" the cry goes up, but the unsaid and often unrealized second part of that cry is, "and let our crooks have a turn!" Dr. Siri sees this, knows it, and frankly doesn't care. He's got no children, so no grandchildren, and so no, or a very small, stake in this Brave New World. Except, well, you know, there IS justice in the world, imperfect and piecemeal though it may be, but justice demands a good man's best be given and a heavy price be paid both for administering and evading it.

He might only have one (metaphorical) eye, but Siri is honor bound to use it among the blind he lives with. It's this quality that makes him irresistible, and gives Cotterill's creation a semblance of life that brings him out of the pages of the book and into the imagination of the reader who lives in a world where ideals of fairness and decency and selflessness have degenerated into "don't tread on me" selfishness and mock-"liberty" that curiously resembles "don't tell me what I can do with what's mine" greed. It's these very things that Siri grimaces at.

Just like me.

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GAME OF PATIENCE (Aristide Ravel #1)
Susanne Alleyn
Minotaur Books
$23.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.125* of five

The Publisher Says: Paris, 1796. Aristide Ravel, freelance undercover police agent and investigator, is confronted with a double murder in a fashionable apartment. The victims prove to be Célie Montereau, the daughter of a wealthy and influential family, and the man who was blackmailing her.

Célie's enigmatic and bitter friend Rosalie Clément provides Aristide with intelligence that steers him toward Philippe Aubry, a young man with a violent past who had been in love with Célie. According to an eyewitness, however, Aubry could not have murdered Célie. As time passes, Aristide finds himself falling in love with Rosalie, albeit reluctantly, as he suspects that she knows more about the murders than she will say.

When Aristide uncovers evidence that points to Rosalie herself, he must learn whom she is protecting and why before he can obtain justice for Célie and save Rosalie from the guillotine. From the gritty back alleys of Paris to its glittering salons and cafés, through the heart of the feverish, decadent society of post-revolutionary France, Aristide's investigation leads him into a puzzle involving hidden secrets, crimes of passion, and long-nurtured hatreds.

With elaborate French cultural atmosphere, author Susanne Alleyn has created a sophisticated and stylish mystery set in the uneasy and turbulent years between the Terror and the rise of Napoleon.

My Review: French Revolution buff Alleyn's second novel and first mystery is a perfect example of how historical fiction can illuminate history in the most satisfying and intriguing light; simple textbook history doesn't and can't come close to the concerns and needs of the actual people of 1796 Paris, and this book does that job very, very well.

I could end this review here, adding only "read it yourself if you don't believe me," but I want to offer some specifics.

The upheaval of the Revolution was as inevitable as anything in all of history could be. When intolerable abuse is heaped upon enough people for a long enough time, they find a way to make it stop. While there were Royalists in France, like there were Tories in the American Revolution, they lost...so the history is that of the winners.

But what about the average citizen and citizeness? (These were the titles that replaced Monsieur et Madame in those years.) What did life hold for them? Alleyn explores this subject in her novel, and what life held was...well, what it always holds: Love, hate, fear, passion, joy, rejection, redemption (though that last is rare). So Alleyn delves into our human comedy to show us that, mutatis mutandis, Revolutionary Paris's people were just like us, only colder and hungrier.

The story of Aristide Ravel, police spy, and Henri Sanson, executioner, is one of destinies that criss-cross in unpleasant places. Surprisingly, they find themselves friends...okay, friendly acquaintances at first. As a result of the movements of the plot, their most dramatic meeting will cause the friendship to blossom or die; another book will tell that tale. But theirs is the central relationship in this book. It's an odd thing to say, I suppose, but it's true; they each have one half of a very important story in their possession, neither knowing this until the author clangs them into each other so hard that the reader's teeth rattle.

While Sanson is central to the story, he's offstage most of the time. This device worked well enough, though I was a bit overprepared for his eventual appearances by the time they happened.

The principal quality of this book for me was its rhythm. I felt I was there, living by the truly alien Revolutionary calendar of thirty-day months and ten-day weeks. I found myself thinking "isn't it just about decadi, shouldn't stuff be closed?" (That was the Revolutionary Sunday-day-of-rest equivalent.) I wondered where the manservant was more than once while immersed in Aristide's life...he's too poor to have one. (I relate.) I felt myself jolting along in the fiacre with Aristide and his boss (actually just the frost-heaved Long Island roads) to the Hotel de Ville (my village's city hall is nothing like so grand, but it's next to the liberry so the association stuck).

If you are bored by history, try reading this book. It will allow you to experience history more directly than even a conventional historical novel could, since there are such ordinary human stakes in the crime committed and its solution. If you're a mystery fan, the puzzle should keep you going. IIf you're just an old sourpuss, give it a miss. But I hope you aren't, and hope you'll have a great time walking around Paris with Aristide and his crew.

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THE SHAPE OF WATER (Inspector Montalbano #1)
Andrea Camilleri, tr. Stephen Sartarelli
Penguin Books
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Andrea Camilleri's novels starring Inspector Montalbano have become an international sensation and have been translated from Italian into eight languages, ranging from Dutch to Japanese. The Shape of Water is the first book in this sly, witty, and engaging series with its sardonic take on Sicilian life.

Early one morning, Silvio Lupanello, a big shot in the village of Vigàta, is found dead in his car with his pants around his knees. The car happens to be parked in a rough part of town frequented by prostitutes and drug dealers, and as the news of his death spreads, the rumors begin. Enter Inspector Salvo Montalbano, Vigàta's most respected detective. With his characteristic mix of humor, cynicism, compassion, and love of good food, Montalbano goes into battle against the powerful and the corrupt who are determined to block his path to the real killer. This funny and fast-paced Sicilian page-turner will be a delicious discovery for mystery afficionados and fiction lovers alike.

My Review: Television made me do it.

No. Really. There's an Inspector Montalbano mystery TV series made in Italy, filmed in Sicily, and all in Italian with subtitles. Since there are no Italian people in New York City and environs, our local PBS stations AND the city's wholly owned TV station neither one carry it. {/sarcasm}

It was left to a not-very-cultured bud of mine in **DAYTONA, FLORIDA** of all the lowbrow, low-rent places, to gush and rave and generally make a to-do over scrumptious Sicily and handsome Montalbano blah blah blah. Wench. And oh the insufferable coos of "Really? Truly? You haven't even *read* the books? No! Get out!"

THEN, to add insult to injury, who but a cyber-siren (second class) reviewer and friend should pop up with more rapturous flutings about Camilleri and Montalbano and well, you see?? See?! How on earth is one two-eyed human supposed to resist a cyber-siren's enticements? Okay, she's not up there with the Goodreads Gods yet, but just a few more eye grafts and it's Katie bar the door!

So fine fine, I give, five lights, I'll go get the blasted thing. I did, at 2:10pm yesterday. I finished the second read at 4pm today. It's short, obviously, but it's just completely fabulously delicious. It's wry, it's witty, and it's got my favorite quality: Good people do the right thing, even if it's illegal, and bad people don't get away with dick.

Montalbano's got a lover in Genoa, a hot chick who happens to be his friend's daughter, and she's all worked up for him, as well as a murder suspect who is an Italian man's wet dream: tall, blonde, Swedish, racing car driveress. Does he cheat on the lover? No. Does he seem to want to? Not so much, he really can't be bothered about silly stuff like that when the local party big-wig is found half-naked and dead in the local errr, mmm, uuuh "playground" shall we say. The man's widow, completely unfazed by this, helps Montalbano see the details that are wrong, the little discrepancies that shouldn't be noticeable, but when added up make the whole picture...askew.

The resolution to this case is one I wish some publisher would allow an American author to get away with. I just can't say enough about the rightness of it all. Sicily needs me, I must fly there immediately! Well, via Camilleri's books. And over a smallish Northeastern city, where I plan to *bomb* a Certain Cyber-Siren Party's residence.

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