A Murder of Magpies — A Highly Entertaining Mystery Set in London’s Publishing World

I loved Janet Flanders’ A Murder of Magpies, a clever mystery set up London’s publishing world.  Samantha (“Sam”) Clair is a marvelous protagonist.  Sam is an established, somewhat jaded middle-aged editor with few illusions about her authors.  Because she is a woman, middle-aged, competent and unflashy…..  Well you can imagine how she is frequently treated and ignored.  When a friend goes missing, Sam she proceeds with curiosity and the help of her equally accomplished and exasperating mother and a rumpled detective.   Sam’s reactions feel so very human and she looks at things just a little differently because of her own experiences and intellect.  The London setting and the politics of the publishing and fashion worlds supply additional substance to this fun mystery.  Janet Flanders is clever, funny and charming, and deftly inserts sly feminist touches.

This is the kind of mystery I particularly like.  It has great characters with unexpected depth, courage and talents.  The settings are interesting, as is the plot.  As it happens, the fact that A Murder of Magpies is a mystery  is less inportant than the characters and how they interact with each other and their environments.  This is a fun, decidedly non-noir story, and I recommend it.

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Smaller and Smaller Circles — a Terrific Mystery Set in the Philippines

Felisa Batacan has written a stunning murder mystery set in the Philippines.  Smaller and Smaller Circles has it all — a strong emotional plot involving serial killing, political corruption and child abuse.  The protagonists are two academic priests with a specialty in forensics.  Their relationship has a history and is warm, humorous and oddly endearing.  Together they face enormous hostility from powerful political and religious power brokers who prefer to bury the unpleasant “problem” as quickly as possible.  The victims are all poor young boys who would be forgotten, but for these two remarkable forensic priests who are determined to honor the victims by solving their murders.  They also need to find the murderer fast, before more deaths occur.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a mystery featuring forensic priests before, but Felisa Batacan is clearly on to something.  The combination of the decent, clever priests with brutal murder and the stench of political and religious corruption makes for a truly fascinating story. The interplay of relationships is a strong component — everyone seems to be linked to someone else, for better or worse.  This excellent mystery also offers the intriguing possibility of redemption.  Some of the bad guys may not stay so bad.  

The writing is strong and clear, and this books has deservedly won a number of awards in the Philippines.   Apparently Smaller and Smaller Circles  is one of the first Philippine murder mysteries, and I hope Ms Batacan makes her excellent debut novel the first in a series.  

I really recommend this book!

A Mystery Centered in Shanghai by the Skillful Qui Xiaolong

Shanghai Redemption, a Chinese mystery featuring Chen Cao, the recently demoted chief inspector of the Shanghai Police Department.  Chen, who has hitherto maintained an enviable reputation as an honest and resourceful detective, is now inexplicably in jeopardy.  Trying to figure out where he went wrong or which of his investigations proved too hot for his enemies compels Chen to navigate the treacherous waters of modern day China.  A rat’s nest of party politics, corruption and disgraced cadres proves difficult to unravel and exceedingly dangerous.  The author does a stellar job of revealing Chen’s personality, perceptions and strategies.   Seeing events from Chen’s perspective, as well as the perspective of some of his old allies, makes for a great narrative.  This novel also provides a wealth of interesting characters with all kinds of connections to Chen and his enemies.   I did find it difficult to keep track of the names of so many characters who drop in and out of the narrative in no particular order.  If I had it to do over again, I would keep a list of who the characters were and when they first appeared, because many of the names sounded very similar me.

I’m increasingly interested in mysteries from the Far East, and Shanghai Redemption is a stellar entry in the genre.  This is the first Inspector Chen novel I have read, but it’s not the first in the series.  I plan to go back in time and read some of the earlier novels, because this is a very intelligent and compelling series with a unique detective.

Maisie Dobbs in Gibraltar on the Periphery of the Spanish Civil War

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs murder mysteries are always interesting and enjoyable.   A Dangerous Place is no exception.  Maisie, a recent widow, is working her way through a period of great personal trauma when she stops in Gibraltar on her way home to England after sojourns in Canada and India.  The setting is the sinister, troubled period of the Spanish Civil War, and Gibralter is right on the brink of it, literally.   There is a lot going on, and perspectives keep changing.   In addition to Winspear’s inspired choice of setting and an unexplained murder, she gives us Maisie Dobbs.  Dobbs is a different kind of detective — thoughtful to the extreme about the crime in question and the people around her.  In this novel, Dobbs is also compelled to give a great deal of thought to her own well being.  She is trying to center herself even as she unravels the murder she has discovered.

I really like this series because of Maisie Dobbs and the way she approaches her cases.  This particular novel is especially good because of the horrific yet fascinating political context presented by the Spanish Civil war and the inexorable  approach of fascism.

Why We Die  —  A Strong British Mystery Featuring a Tough Female Detective and a Very Noir Atmosphere 

Mick Herron’s Why We Die is a strong mystery with quite a lot happening.  It’s a shame Lauren Bacall isn’t around to play the vamp, but Jennifer Lawrence would make a powerful Zoe Bohm, a down on her luck private eye who stumbles into the highly perilous inner workings of a crime family.  Arkle, one of three brothers, is seriously the scariest thug I’ve seen.  Sociopath doesn’t begin to describe him.  The interplay among Arkle and his two seemingly less scary brothers provides unifying substance to the careening violence, where nothing seems to go quite right.   The plot is spectacular, but so too are the characters and their troubles.  It’s a page turner with depth, supported by a grungy Oxford setting.    I highly recommend this book, particularly to people who like female detectives, British mysteries and a lot of noir. 

Blood on Snow and The Demon of Dakar. —  Two Excellent Scandinavian Mysteries

I love Scandinavian mysteries, and Jo Nesbo’s Blood on Snow and Ekjell Eriksson’s The Demon of Dakar are both excellent.  They share an almost laconic delivery that is just very satisfying to read.  The characters are interesting, and there aren’t a lot of stereotypes.

Blood on Snow, a Norwegian mystery has a very macabre set of humor. It features Olaf, a somewhat hapless hitman who has become a target himself.  There’s really not a lot more to say about this.  It is a short book and clearly written.  The author’s unconventional take on how one falls into a career as a hitman is highly entertaining.  

The Demon of Dakar  is a more complex and serious murder mystery.  Dakar combines a rich set of characters enmeshed in the drug trade.  A trio of desperately poor and relatively naive Mexican brothers gets caught up in a trafficking mess.  Manuel, the eldest brother is determined to get some justice from a  malevolent crew of sleazy Swedish dealers, and this sets the book’s central crime in motion.  I really liked a number of things about this book.  The investigation process was interesting, because the police were dealing with such an unexpected scenario.  I also found the capable, strong and utterly believable female characters to be a great strength of the book.   Their gender undeniably causes them problems, particularly on the job, but they remain focused persevere .  These women don’t have it all together, but they are responsible people — they are grown ups — so they get the job done.  I also really appreciated the author’s handling of the bewildered, yet determined Manuel’s stumbling yet effective progress through an alien environment.  

Both books are well worth reading.

Hell Fire — Karin Fossum Writes Another Great Norwegian Mystery

Hell Fire is Karin Fossum’s latest excellent murder mystery.  As usual Fossum’s story is heavy with troubled family relationships and people who are struggling.  The detectives are not partcularly quirky; they play a background role in this family tragedy.  The all consuming struggle of two single mothers trying to cope with bad circumstances and parenting challenges moves this story forward.  There isn’t a lot  of emotion to the matter-of-fact narration, but the story is well told and compelling, and I found myself thinking about it quite a bit afterward.

I Will Have Vengeance, The Winter of Commissario Riciardi — A Very Noir Neapolitan Mystery

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I Will Have Vengeance – The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi is Maurizio de Giovanni’s first book in the Commissario Ricciardi series.  Based on the two books I have read thus far, this is a great series.  Commissario Ricciardi is a compelling  and mysteriosly driven detective struggling in the dangerous muck of fascist Naples.   The few friends he has are intriguing in their own right, and Naples provides a dangerous and romantic backdrop.

Since I Will Have Vengeance is the first novel in the series, De Giovanni takes his time describing Commissario Ricciardi, his environment and what makes him tick.  Ricciardi is an unusual, tragic soul with a mystical approach to solving crimes.   I found the mystical twist to be an unnecessary distraction, but I still loved this book.  Ricciardi is plenty smart; he doesn’t need to “see things” that others do not see.  Mysticism aside,  Ricciardi is a compelling and clever detective whose remote and forbidding demeanor intimidates his boss and vaguely offends most of his colleagues.

The historical and operatic context of I Will Have Vengeance is its greatest strength.  A nasty yet immensely talented opera singer is bumped off, and Ricciardi faces intense political pressure to solve the case immediately.   The year is 1931, and Mussolini’s fascism has overtaken Italy, but this particular mystery is driven by opera.   As it happens, Ricciardi knows little about opera, so an enthusiastic opera buff is recruited to educate the detective about the opera and its singers.   It is a nice twist to have an Italian detective know so little about opera, and we learn as Ricciardi learns.

Even so, the prevailing political mood is sinister and opportunistic.  Fairness and justice are early casualties, although this book doesn’t have the cold and deadly atmosphere of terror that dominates a later book I read in this series.  Clearly things will be getting much worse in fascist Italy.

I happen to love European noir mysteries.  This excellent series stands out because it is set in Naples, which combines its own blend of poverty and corruption with deadly fascist terror.  With the benefit of hindsight, I recommend that you read this series in order to take full advantage of De Giovanni’s brilliant depiction of the creeping horror of fascism, while at the same time developing a complex picture of an unusual and oddly pragmatic detective and his friends.

A Bullet in the Ballet – Hilarious Ballet Murder Mystery

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Now for something completely different.  Caryl Brahms & SJ Simon’s A Bullet in the Ballet combines a  1930’s British mystery with the wonderful world of ballet, and the result is hilarious.  A Bullet in the Ballet was first published in 1937, but its artistic lunacy is timeless.  In this  giddy mystery, artistic temperament runs amok.  A struggling, second-rate Russian ballet company is performing ballet Petroushka in London when one of its stars is murdered.   It comes as no particular surprise that the victim wasn’t very nice, had lots of enemies and isn’t much missed.  Indeed, the ballet company remains pretty much unfazed by the murder, except to fret about how it will affect scheduling and, more importantly, offer the chance for a lesser dancer to snag a starring role.  “The show must go” definitely trumps solving the murder for this company.

Enter Adam Quill, a not particularly successful detective, who wants to redeem himself and get this case right.  Poor Quill struggles to get the impresario Vladimir Stroganoff and the rest of Strigranoff’scompany to focus on the murder and answer a few questions.  Instead they keep offering him tea and diversions.  While Quill never entirely abdicates his professional responsibilities, he is charmed and inevitably swept up in the zany world of Stroganoff and his assorted dancers, both aspiring and aging out.   Ultimately solving the mystery plays a distant second fiddle to the wonderfully crazy atmosphere of artistic desperation and opportunism.

I generally avoid books with two authors, but am happy I broke my rule here.  Caryl Brahms was a dance critic, and SJ Simon was an expert bridge player and writer, of all things.  They lived in the same lodgings and wrote a bunch of books together.  They are a fantastic writing duo.

A Bullet in the Ballet evokes the madcap qualities of 1930’s movies such as “Bringing Up Baby.”  Let me just say that Cary Grant would have been an outstanding Detective Quill.  If you are in the mood for a funny murder mystery or happen to love ballet, this is a wonderful read.

It is worth mentioning that I only heard of this book because I read The Wall Street Journal’s  Saturday book reviews, which are a wonderful source of interesting books from the past. I don’t know if  A Bullet in the Ballet is still in print, but it was very easy to find a used copy on line.

Death Among Friends — Cyril Hare Short Story Mysteries with a Legal Twist

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If you like English murder mysteries, you need to know about Cyril Hare.  Hare was a London barrister who spent much of his long legal career in a chambers known for handling high profile criminal cases.  Throughout his long legal career, which culminated in a judgeship, Hare also wrote murder mysteries.  In Death Among Friends, a short story compilation, Hare proves the point that it never hurts to look at events from a completely different and somewhat skewed angle.

Hare’s murder mysteries, many of them written in the years between the wars, frequently turn on some arcane legal point.  In Death Among Friends, Hare offers both short and longish detective stories where the precise reason for a murder is often as obscure as the manner in which the murder is accomplished.   Greed is the overwhelming motive in most of these stories, and of course by itself that is not so unusual.  What makes these stories so interesting and fun to dissect, however, is the care and imagination Hare employs to develop and justify the basis and manifestation of his characters’ greed and expectations.

Hare’s legal bent is highly entertaining for lawyers, but these stories and his longer books engage anyone hooked on unexpected and clever plot lines.  Hare doesn’t spend a lot of time developing characters, except to the extent that he creates some very selfish, single-minded people.   I do prefer novel-length murder mysteries and highly recommend Cyril Hare’s longer books.  Even if they are out of print, they can generally be found as used books on line or in your favorite used book store.  To have a complete background in the English murder mystery you really need to read Cyril Hare.