Mystery Series


THE FRANGIPANI TREE MYSTERY
OVIDIA YU
(Crown Colony #1)
Constable (non-affiliate Amazon link)
99¢ Kindle sale!

Rating: a generous-hearted four stars of five

The Publisher Says: First in a delightfully charming crime series set in 1930s Singapore, introducing amateur sleuth SuLin, a local girl stepping in as governess for the Acting Governor of Singapore.

1936 in the Crown Colony of Singapore, and the British abdication crisis and rising Japanese threat seem very far away. When the Irish nanny looking after Acting Governor Palin's daughter dies suddenly - and in mysterious circumstances - mission school-educated local girl SuLin - an aspiring journalist trying to escape an arranged marriage - is invited to take her place.

But then another murder at the residence occurs and it seems very likely that a killer is stalking the corridors of Government House. It now takes all SuLin's traditional skills and intelligence to help British-born Chief Inspector Thomas LeFroy solve the murders - and escape with her own life.

I CHECKED THIS BOOK OUT OF MY TOWN'S LIBRARY. KEEP USING THE LIBRARY, FOLKS! THE SUPPLY CHAIN COULD USE THE REST.

My Review: October 2021 News The series has been optioned for television with an eye to a two-season arc!

It's a good day indeed when a new mystery series with its attendant cast of followable characters and its quiet upholding of justice and fairness with or without the law arrives on my bookshelf. The library brought me this fun first-in-series read, and I was delightedly transported to 1930s Colonial Singapore. Chen Su Lin, the polio-crippled granddaughter of one of the island's major money lenders, has been educated far, far beyond the norm for her age and ethnicity. Chinese women haven't been educated in great numbers until the last half-century or so. Su Lin, however, has no prospects for the usual fates allotted to her comadres: the limp and the "bad luck" presented by her polio render her undesirable as a match, either in marriage or in prostitution; her grandmother, being a practical soul, used Su Lin's brains to her advantage by schooling her in languages so she could assist with the family's shady dealings by interpreting for the business.

Su Lin, tasting the merest hint of freedom, develops other ideas while enrolled in the local Mission School: She'll become a teacher, or a secretary, or an accountant! Only on her own, not for her family.

The long arm of Fate reaches out, plucks the girl from her cozy dreams, and plunks her in the middle of an unhappy household of ang mohs (white folks) with shedloads of secrets and lies to protect. A much more experienced and adult (Su Lin is sixteen when we meet her) woman would've spent a few hours in that ménage and lit out for the territories. Toxic Miss Nessa the missionary lady rules her brother's house; useless Lady Palin, recently acquired second wife of bluff ol' Colonel Blimp-esque Sir Harry, acquiesces to this arrangement gracelessly and with great umbrage at her displacement from both England and primacy; daughter of the house Dee-Dee, the fever victim who is a seven-year-old in a teenager's body; young Harry, snarky sneaky ne'er-do-well, and to Su Lin's eyes likely the lover of a murdered nanny/companion to Dee-Dee called Charity...who appeared to have none, charging handsomely for, well, it's not spelled out but really does one need to have it be so?

Then we have the local servants, the loyal family retainer-cum-cook whose existence is mandatory in one form or another for any domestic mystery set in that time, and Inspector Thomas Le Froy, Colonial policeman with shocking cultural sensitivity, sangfroid in the face of gigantic threats to him and his position, and stubborn absence of interest in marrying, or even taking a housekeeper, while he is busy solving crimes. A simple and effective smoke-screen for...what? Why does he need to be aggressively single and pointedly resistant to Miss Nessa's machinations to plant a woman of her choosing in his household? Permaybehaps to avoid having it resemble her own?

This seething cauldron of awfulness leads to murder, alleged suicide, and a truly overblown reveal. I won't go into details, but this book would have a higher rating if it had presented its (pretty obvious and inevitably violent) conclusion bedizened with fewer Shiny-Brite ornaments on its thinnest branches. Author Yu is not a tyro. This is the first in a series, but it's not her first series. I'd be impressed with her restraint if it had been a first-ever mystery.

It not being such, I found Su Lin's early avowal of respect for her uncle not selling her into slavery of one sort or another due to his wife's childlessness that the temple fortunetellers blamed on her somewhat tarnished by the sudden existence of cousins; and Inspector Le Froy's presence, at a few junctures, had to be stuffed into brief and mildly jarring third-person "asides" in the main first-person limited viewpoint of Su Lin. I wasn't entirely happy about a framing device inserted about two-thirds of the way through the book, either. I believe it is a device implicit in almost all first-person limited viewpoint mysteries, or narratives of any sort. But it's not a blot on the escutcheon that the minor inconsistencies felt to me to be. An experienced mystery novelist (Aunty Lee's Delights et alii) could and should know how urgently necessary it is to demonstrate an almost preternatural control over her material. I downgrade more harshly for the experienced versus the inexperienced writer in this regard.

But the pleasures of Author Yu's quietly lush and unobtrusively delivered lessons in the sights, sounds, tastes, and mores of Singapore make me err on the side of indulgence, and put aside these odd and unexpected moments so I can savor the delights and pleasures of the series. Su Lin, whose little-girl dreams are only the start of her ambitions, solves the problem at the heart of this book and at the center of her own life with one magnificent sweep of courageous action. No more thinking of herself as a crippled bad-luck symbol for Su Lin! And finally, with Justice served, she can take her appropriate and merited place on the world's stage.

Yep. I'll be back for more.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

ENTRY ISLAND
PETER MAY

Quercus (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$6.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: A detective is haunted by the feeling he knows his murder suspect - despite the fact they have never met.

IF YOU FLEE FATE...


When Detective Sime Mackenzie is sent from Montreal to investigate a murder on the remote Entry Island, 850 miles from the Canadian mainland, he leaves behind him a life of sleeplessness and regret.

FATE WILL FIND YOU...

But what had initially seemed an open-and-shut case takes on a disturbing dimension when he meets the prime suspect, the victim's wife, and is convinced that he knows her - even though they have never met.

And when his insomnia becomes punctuated by dreams of a distant Scottish past in another century, this murder in the Gulf of St. Lawrence leads him down a path he could never have foreseen, forcing him to face a conflict between his professional duty and his personal destiny.

I CHECKED THIS BOOK OUT OF MY LOCAL LIBRARY. SUPPORT YOUR LIBRARY, FOLKS!

My Review
: A weird hybrid of romance and historical fiction, with very little suspense but some strong characters. I wanted to love it; I liked it a lot, but found myself moving slowly through it. Author May's The Blackhouse and its two sequels had the same issues for me. I won't sprain things to get his books, but will read them when I find them on super sales and/or there's a group read.

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DEATH AT THE BEGGAR'S OPERA
DERYN LAKE
(John Rawlings #2) Review of #1 is here.
Endeavour Media
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: John Rawlings is among the beau monde enjoying a performance of ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ in Drury Lane when the leading actor – the notorious philanderer Jasper Harcross – dramatically falls to his death on stage. As Rawlings and the Blind Beak hunt for vital clues, they discover a hotbed of rivalry both on and off the stage which produces numerous suspects and questions.

As the search takes on a new intensity, John Rawlings soon finds himself on an intriguing trail of obsession that leads to the dark heart of a cold-blooded murder.

My Review: I wasn't expecting the solution to this murder. I could see how it was prefigured, though not exactly in line with generally accepted ideas of "fair play"...the Apothecary sees something we don't and *flash* into focus comes the solution, a very Dame-Agatha thing to do...so I'm actually more, not less, interested in reading the third book. Also of great appeal and interest to me are the sensory parts of the story: the sights of a London where Kensington is a country town, the Lincoln's Inn Fields were actually fields, there were houses on Pall Mall, there was a "Chelsea Bun House" for real, all these are delicious to me.

I'm sure the twee use of job titles as character labels is to some tastes, but "the Apothecary," "the Blind Beak," et alii, aren't delightful to me. I accept them as attempts at whimsical charm; backfire in my ears, though.

I had a suspect all fitted up for the murder, and was quite sure I was right. (Look at all my Goodreads Kindle notes marked "spoiler" (membership required, but free) if you want to see my logic.) I enjoy it when authors catch me out like that, it makes me really think about why I was so sure before the reveal that X is guilty, and that means going back over the whole puzzle to see what I missed. For this seasoned citizen, anything surprising in a puzzle is a Good Thing.

I am quite hesitant to do so, though, because there are SIX w-bombs dropped *shudder* and there is more, though less offensive by a slight hair, homophobic idiocy present. There's a bog-standard heteronormative locution about red-blooded males lusting after women; but there's this gem of genuine, deeply felt venom:
‘D’you have some verdigris for my face paint?’ asked an emasculated nothing, waving a handkerchief stiff with powder.
The 1990s were quite some time ago, and that's when Deryn Lake wrote these books. But I was a thritysomething all the decade long, and I know of my own personal knowledge that this kind of effeminacy-baiting was frowned on even then. Period appropriate arguments are null and void: This book wasn't written in Georgian England. It was written in the sad, bad barely-post-Thatcher era. This nastiness, present in the first book as well, is a choice made by a modern person to use nasty, insulting language about people the author clearly doesn't like.

So that third book will wait to enter my Kindle until I have some utterly uncommitted money (so no earlier than after the 2020 elections, I give all my uncommitted money to the campaign I support until then), or someone gifts it to me. I don't like this trend. I disapprove of the sneering nastiness of homophobia. I'm not sure I won't see it again...actually, if I'm honest, I am pretty sure that I will see it again...so I don't want to give the person who's sneering at me and mine any more of my money.

My eyeblinks, I'll risk again. Barely.

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MURDER IN THE DARK WALK
DERYN LAKE
(John Rawlings #1)
Endeavour Media
99¢ Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Having just finished his indentures, Rawlings is celebrating in Vaux Hall Pleasure Gardens when he trips over the body of a young girl.

Summoned to the magistrate’s office as prime suspect, Rawlings not only clears his own name but impresses Fielding so much with his power of recollection that he is asked to investigate the crime. From gaming hell to fashionable house, Rawlings follows a trail of lustful liaisons and illicit intrigue which prove beyond a shadow of doubt that the girl has had quite a past … a past with threatening secrets.

Death in the Dark Walk is a richly atmospheric and compelling Georgian mystery woven around the real characters John Fielding, the phenomenal sightless magistrate known as the ‘Blind Beak’, whose Runners formed London’s early police force, and John Rawlings, the Apothecary reputed to have invented soda water.

My Review: First published by Hodder & Stoughton in the 1990s, these recently scanned and Kindled editions of the books are back to bring happiness to genre-mystery lovers.

NINE instances of the reprehensible, revolting w-bomb. There's a contemptible sodden mess of a Duke portrayed as queer, and that sits badly with me. He is the object of epithetry as offensive as being called "faggot" to the ears of the day: "...a right Miss Molly," as a fellow Peer of the Realm calls him. Really? This book was written in 1995. The author couldn't be bothered not to make one of her suspects a stereotypical limp-wristed useless creature, who (in other offensive news) insists he's not queer and even places a beautiful whore under his "protection" to prove it?
‘I had no wish to wound you. Truth to tell, as Mr Rawlings already knows, I took Elizabeth on to prove to the world that I was a man and not the weak-kneed quean that all believed me to be.’

The Frenchman returned his glance with grudging admiration. ‘It must have cost you dear to say that. I appreciate your courage.'
...said the Real Man to the Faggot...I don't appreciate the author's appalling and insensitive portrayal of the Duke of Midhurst, period-appropriate that it may be.

The story was involving enough, though I knew who the murderer was early on (despite the fact that we next-to-never even *see* the criminal!), and the Use of Capitalization was a wee bit distracting (why are we expected to endure the twee use of "the Apothecary" and "the Blind Beak" for characters who have perfectly usable, uncomplicated names?), but the evocation of a long-dead London in the midst of great change was a true pleasure. Yes, problems exist that diminish my enjoyment of the book; I will still read the second installment, Death at the Beggar's Opera.

One more time on the unnecessary and noxious use of homophobia in place of character delineation, though, and I am out for good.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


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~

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


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.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


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.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


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.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

HARD STOP (Sam Acquillo Hamptons Mysteries #4)
CHRIS KNOPF
The Permanent Press
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In this, the fourth installment in the Sam Acquillo series, Sam's past reaches out to pull him back into the world of big money and even bigger egos, where the term "corporate intrigue" is redundant and ambition the only virtue. It seems a woman vital to the private life of a very important person has gone missing in the Hamptons. And it looks like the best way to get her back is to extort the cooperation of Sam Acquillo. After finally achieving some measure of peace and contentment on Long Island, Sam is yet again an accidental player in other people's dramas. It takes him into the world of private security goons, predatory financiers and lifestyles of young hedonists, some brave, some beautiful, all a bit lost. This time Sam has a few ambitions of his own that lead him into something all his battles in the ring and corporate boardrooms could never have prepared him for.

My Review: Knopf is one reliable writer. His Sam Acquillo is a noir hero with the right stuff, whose world is made up of wastes of space and friends. He doesn't much care which side of The Highway (local Hamptonsese for “the tracks”) you live on, were born on, made it big on...do you pull your own weight? Do you decline to play stupid status games? You got a shot at being on Team Acquillo.

In this outing, Sam's enemies are a smidge more removed from his life, since they come from his past as a major mover and shaker in the world of petrochemical engineering. Sam's whole life has been lived, since the implosion of that career with its house, car, marriage, status, and clothes, in an attempt to be what he always really was: A water rat scraping by, doing the carpentry and fixitry he loves best.

Sam's deep disdain for wealth and for showiness are on full display here. He's a brilliant engineer. He's not, however, greedy. And it works for, against, and through him in this book. The pace is pretty unremitting. The language is, as always, witty and amusing then turning into violent and angry. That's what we pay for, after all, when reading noir novels.

The cop characters are more fully drawn, and that helped; the villain, well, the villain is just a nasty piece of work and no doubt ever obtains as to what or how the crimes that were committed came about. There's a minor twist in the murderer's reveal. But it's this sense that Knopf has another hundred pages of needed backstory to reveal that keeps me rating these books in the middle threes. I love economical storytelling. I like a writer who leaves me some room to think what I want to think. But I also need to make some sort of real connection with the characters, all of them, or I don't see the point of working them into the story. Honest Boy, yes the character's name is Honest Boy, is my prime example here. He shows up with that moniker, which means he's got my attention, and then...piff gone for most of the book. When he shows back up it's not to do anything earth-shattering, either. He's set up for a return engagement, like the local journalist in the last book.

All in all, though, this is a solid book and it's by a solid writer and for noiristas this series is a strong bet. Dog lovers should read them just for Eddie Van Halen. I love that mutt. Go get one. No harm will come to your leisure budget.

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HEAD WOUNDS (Sam Acquillo Hamptons Mysteries #3)
CHRIS KNOPF
The Permanent Press
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Sam Acquillo can hide in his windswept waterfront cottage all he wants, but the demons of his past are going to find him. Worse, they've teamed up with some pretty nasty demons of the present, including a very determined Chief of Police whose top detective has Sam caught in the crosshairs.

Part-time carpenter, full-time drinker and co-conspirator with an existential mutt named Eddie Van Halen, Sam tries to lead the simple life. But as always, fate intervenes, this time in the form of Robbie Milhouser, local builder and blundering bully who shares at least one thing with Sam -- an irresistible attraction to the beautiful Amanda Anselma.

Peel back the glitz and glory of the fabled Hamptons and you'll find a beautiful place filled with ugly secrets. This is Sam Acquillo's world. Moving effortlessly across the social divide with wry pal Jackie Swaitkowski and rich guy Burton Lewis, the ex-boxer, ex-corporate infighter seems doomed to straddle the thin red line between envy and love, hate and forgiveness, goodness and greed.

And sometimes life and death. Only this time, the life at stake is his own. .

My Review: This third entry in the Sam Acquillo Hamptons series is, as usual, superior storytelling and top-flight modern noir.

It's set in glitz-a-licious Southampton, New York. The seamy underbelly of same, of course, this being noir. And oh my gracious me is this underbelly seamy! Real estate, in a world as awash in money as Southampton, is going to attract some very unpleasant people. Those there are aplenty in this tale of long-held grudges and long-simmering feuds.

Amanda, Sam's sexy relationship-avoidance cospecialist, is the motivating factor for the story when her efforts to redevelop the neighborhood home she owns in North Sea (Prolehampton, for those not gifted with a Long Island connection) lead to arson and murder, with a trail back to a very dark part of Amanda's pre-glitz Southampton youth. Sam, still running from his inner demons, finds that running from a murder rap is a lot harder than he supposed it would be for an innocent man. Which he's sure he is. We the readers? Well....

Knopf gets the tone of an aging loner's inner monologue pitch-perfect. He knows the indignity of looking in the mirror and seeing someone's grandfather looking back at you from your own eyes. He puts that into Sam's casus belli with the world. Knopf also makes sure we know, without being stupid or unrealistically smutty about it, that Sam's not dead from the waist down, and a cross-section of Southampton Township's females are pleasantly aware of this fact. It's very nice for someone Sam's age to be shown as realistically sexually active and alive, instead of a hyper horndog or simply a man gelded by age.

It's even nicer that Knopf doesn't use it as a ridiculous prop. Sam, while tempted and while quite elozable, isn't about to run out and make more trouble for himself with his bedroom behavior. It's about the only wise thing he does. Glad he picked this one.

Less well-handled are the ins and outs (!) of some series characters, eg Sam's rich lawyer pal Burton and a local paper reporter...clearly inserted for future use; the Township's cops aren't there as more than props; but all of these are minor issues, because the pacing of the story makes deep investments in these sidebar people unwieldy and even, to some degree, undesirable. A little more, a little little bit more...in the name of enriching the tapestry...sacrifice some of the angsting and repetitive violence....

Yes, the violence mandatory in noir is there. Sometimes drearily predictably so. There's a scene with a goon that goes on too long, and in the end is resolved unrealistically, at the end of the book, that strikes me as something we could've done without and missed nothing. A few times, flashbacks to Sam's past are, well, I myownself found that skimming them caused no diminishment in my reading pleasure.

But here's the reason I keep looking for these books, which seem to come out every two years or so: This quote, from the very end of Part 2:
But old Kant would tell you, reality is only as sure as the mind perceiving it. I wished I could get him to take {the doctor}'s seat across from me in the hospital canteen to I could put it to him straight:
Can a man be outsmarted by his own brain?

If that fails to raise a smile on you, this book is not for you.

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TWO TIME (Sam Acquillo Hamptons Mystery #2)
CHRIS KNOPF
The Permanent Press
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Sam Acquillo – ex-boxer, ex-corporate executive and accidental hero of The Last Refuge – is back in this action-packed, page-turning sequel. All Sam wants to do is hammer a few nails into his ramshackle cottage, drink a great deal of vodka, hang out with his dog, Eddie, and stay out of trouble. But trouble seems to find him anyway. When a car bomb outside a trendy waterfront restaurant kills a prominent financial consultant and injures Sam and his lawyer friend Jackie Swaitkowski, he is drawn into the investigation. Where the police have met roadblocks, Sam makes inroads with his trademark wit, instinct and charm. Also, he just wants to know: Why would someone go to such lengths not only to kill someone, but annihilate them?

Set, once again, against the backdrop of Southampton, Long Island, Two Time is full of moody sunsets, beachfront properties and beautiful people with an extraordinary amount of money and very dangerous secrets.

My Review: Sam Acquillo, “retired” (fired for beating up a Fortune 500 stooge who wanted Sam to do unethical stuff) engineer turned curmudgeonly champion of the abused, is back. He's still licking his psychic wounds from The Last Refuge, where his problem-solving skills were used to bring some justice to the world of Southampton Town's unfashionable Bay-side Oak Point. Amanda, the cause of his suffering, owes him her freedom from the workaday world and a husband she didn't like; she really, in fact, owes his silence her absence of jail time.

What's a divorced, lonely, bored guy to do when he falls for a, well, a slightly shopworn angel? Wave bye-bye as she motors out of town, her criminal husband's money in her new suit, that's what. Gratitude, thy name is not Amanda.

But another fun benefit of doing the right thing is that local cop Joe Sullivan now has Sam and his problem-solving skills on the radar, and the fact that Sam is a former big shot with a fancy degree means to Joe that Sam can handle the moneyed elite better than Joe can. And he needs that skill right now.

See, somebody hated investment advisor Jonathan Eldridge enough to blow his narrow ass right up. Taking four innocent people with him.

Almost including Sam. Damaging Sam's pal Jackie enough to send her into months of plastic surgery. So Sam's not exactly unwilling to do the poking around Joe wants him to do, except for his ritual growls and grumbles about ungrateful, illegal, obnoxious...you know the stuff, you have to love at least one curmudgeon, all bark and no bite.

Sam gets to know the vaporized dude's wack-job wife, the sibling rivalry-ridden younger brother, the local up-island mobster, an FBI agent named Ig, and a selection of his billionaire buddy's fellow too-rich-to-steal set. Along the way, Jackie has more surgery to fix the damage the blast did, Joe gets stabbed in Sam's front yard, Sam beats the crap out of some stupid small-time muscle working for the mobster, and puzzles together the damnedest, most WTF solution to this nasty crime that you can't imagine.

Oh. Amanda comes home, and moves in next door to Sam. Like he doesn't have enough trouble.

I like noir novels. I like stuff set in places I know well. I like guys like Sam, who move through the world fixing shit somebody else broke because they can.

I like simple sentences telling exciting stories, and characters whose motivations aren't obscure or blatant, but grayscaled and textured. I like books that make the experience of reading them effortlessly fun.

I think it's a damn shame that Chris Knopf's name doesn't carry the same “oh, yeah!” response that Steve Berry's does. He deserves to. He writes well, he plots well (there are some holes in this tale, but not more than niggling ones I can't specify without serious spoilering, and some underused characters like Jackie and Ig mentioned above), he decides to tell a particular story and that's what he does from beginning through the middle to the end.

Need something to read for a summer afternoon? Want to be satisfied, at the end of the book, that Right was done? Read Two Time. Populist anti-hoity-toity tract that it is, no one goes home unscathed or unvindicated, and the privilege of the Privileged Class takes it on several of their chins.

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THE LAST REFUGE (Sam Acquillo Hamptons Mystery #1)
Chris Knopf
The Permanent Press
$9.99 Kindle edition, 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, descriptive 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 downside. 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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A TREASURY OF REGRETS (Aristide Ravel #4)
Susanne Alleyn
Spyderwort Press
$4.99 Kindle edition, 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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GAME OF PATIENCE (Aristide Ravel #3)
SUSANNE ALLEYN
Spyderwort Press
$4.99 Kindle edition, 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. If 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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PALACE OF JUSTICE (Aristide Ravel #2)
Susanne Alleyn
Spyderwort Press
$4.99 Kindle edition, 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
Spyderwort Press
FREE on Kindle, 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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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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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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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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