Who among us mothers of small children has not fantasized about solving a murder? Really, enough with the deeply troubled, cynical detectives and private eyes with their perpetual hangovers and cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. (Note that many female detectives and private eyes exchange jogging for drinking an smoking). It’s time for someone new.
In any event, Ayelet Waldman’s A Playdate with Death is a complete joy. Here is a normal person who just isn’t all that thrilled with full-time momdom. She feels guilty; she loves her children; and she is bored out of her skull. Juliet Applebaum is a former public defender who is struggling to keep her sanity while staying home with two young children and a very nice, but frequently absent husband. Juliet wants to be home for her kids, but in many ways it also sucks. She is trying to find her way and as a first step has started working out to get back in pre-pregnancy shape.
When Juliet’s trainer is found dead, she is devastated and intrigued. Is it suicide or not? Juliet is curious, and her old legal instincts kick in. As a public defender she spent a lot of time investigating the crimes her clients had allegedly committed. No one is paying her now, but she knows the questions to ask and where to look. She knows how to work with nasty people who try to mislead her and shut her down. Juliet is getting to use her skills and her brains. Hallelujah!
So many sleuths seem to lead tortured lives of inner turmoil. Juliet certainly knows how she feels, but she has too many other things on her plate to obsess. While trying to get to the bottom of what she thinks may be a murder, Juliet has demanding young children who are a constant and generally funny presence. While it would be far-fetched for most of us to take a kid along while questioning a witness, it is a fun thing to read about.
Ayelet Waldman has developed an interesting cast of characters and concocted an interesting plot, based on an obscure bit of information. It’s the kind of plot that reminded me of the great Cyril Hare mysteries where the plot inevitably hinges on some arcane legal principle.
I loved A Playdate with Death. It’s a great mystery with an excellent sleuth, lots of clashing characters and a really good plot. I also loved it because it featured a young mother trying to do her best as a mom, while at the same time having a blast solving a murder.
Magdalen Nabb wrote an excellent series of mysteries set in Florence and featuring Marshal Guarnaccia. The Marshal at the Villa Torrini is one of her best. Her police detective Marshal Guarnaccia is not suave and sophisticated, and he doesn’t always have all that much confidence in himself, all of which makes following along as he unravels odd clues and interviews an eccentric and highly diverse cast of witnesses a true pleasure. He is a nice, occasionally ornery guy with a purposeful, sensitive way of dealing with his witnesses. He is a bit of an outsider himself as he has transferred to Florence from Sicily.
So many mysteries present a terrific urgency in finding the killer and the prevention of further mayhem as bodies pile up. The Marshal at the Villa Torrini presents a calmer, more patient approach. There is one murder to solve, and Guarnaccia goes about his business thoughtfully as he waits for evidence to be collected and figures out how he can nail the culprit. He also has a brand new side kick who turns out be pretty adorable.
The Marshall at the Villa Torrini is not a comic mystery, but it offers a lot of well-placed humor. Florence is the perfect setting. Nabb’s constant references to dramatic and oppressive weather, as well as to a more mundane local court proceeding really add flavor and context. Guarnaccia’s round of witness interviews takes the reader all around Florence and offers a wonderful and often comic mix of personalities and circumstances. Nabb also gets high marks for presenting a new and different cause of death!
Magdalen Nabb was born in England and lived in Florence. She died in 2007, and left a legacy of some very fine books. They are concise, moving and highly intelligent.
Jussi Adler-Olsen started a wonderful Danish detective series with The Keeper of Lost Causes, The First Department Q Novel. It’s not unusual for a mystery series to start with a discredited and morbidly confused detective, but Carl Morck is truly distinctive. His personal and professional baggage is overwhelming, yet he carves out his space and moves forward. Morck’s contempt for most of the people in the police department, is both hilarious and near-suicidal, but he makes it work. I’ve always been a fan of watching discredited people make the system work for themselves. The way Morck tortures the people who are trying to torture him is inspired and very funny. Less funny is the guilt Morck suffers in connection with a prior case that left his partner completely incapacitated. Along the way, there is a mysterious yet oddly engaging assistant with an apparently gruesome past, a new love interest for Carl who has no idea what to do with it and the kind of dark underlying mysteries that happily characterize so many great Scandinavian crime novels.
This is no standard example of the Scandinavian crime genre. Adler-Olsen has created something wonderfully new. I think I’ve read a total of three Department Q mysteries, but this is the first and it sets the stage brilliantly for the novels to come. Carl is the kind of protagonist who lacks all social skills, and I couldn’t help loving him. Carl’s back story and the other characters created by Adler-Olsen are truly inspired and provide ample fuel for additional books in this series, and I now absolutely have to read all of them.
Hello Kitty Must Die by Angela Choi is one of the stranger books I have read recently, and I do recommend it. Fiona Yu is a youngish, hilariously twisted Chinese American woman with a take-no-prisoners attitude toward life. A Big Law lawyer, Fiona lives with her parents and has no love life. The disconnect between her parents’ traditional expectations and her own rogue intentions is massive, and yet they all live together. The first person narration of Fiona’s frustrations and utterly amoral nature gleefully pulls the reader into a bizarre, macabre tale. It is always impressive when an author can make the reader care about what happens to a truly appalling protagonist, and Choi does it with great zest. This very fun book reminded me of Arsenic and Old Lace, without the buffer of sweet characters with good intentions. Hello Kitty Must Die happily shares the manic zaniness of Arsenic and Old Lace and craziness of the best screwball comedies from the 1930’s. Underlying all the fun and mayhem, is the story of Fiona’s frustrations with the expectations and tedium of her life. Being a single, overworked lawyer with clueless, demanding parents presents real issues, and while the average person wouldn’t resort to Fiona’s fierce tactics, it’s hard not to bond with her, one way or another.
I know she led a long, rich and successful life, but how I miss P. D. James! Despite my long-standing aversion to the short story genre, I found James’ collection Sleep No More — Six Murderous Tales to be absolutely wonderful. These stories, which were published between 1973 and 2006, diverge from James’s usual sensitive, thoughtful mysteries starring Adam Dalgliesh. Unlike a full length mystery novel, these stories are written from the perspective of the actors rather than the detective. They are characterized by seemingly normal people going rogue and being astonishingly brutal about getting what they want. There is no agonizing. Some are written in the first person, which makes the amoral quality of them even more jarring. The plots are clever and are the main point of these tales. Personality is far less in the forefront than in a typical James novel. It is as if James came up with six interesting schemes for how murders were devised and committed and then simply wrote them down without belaboring how a detective might discover who did them. Since this is P. D. James, there is far more to it. She swiftly and effectively sketches compelling characters and settings and then she brutally presents the murder. These are well worth reading.
These stories also suggest that one way to write a mystery would be to start with scaffolding of a well thought out, clever pot and only then write the novel around it. I wonder if James did that. Anyway, these are great stories!
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.
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.
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.
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.
S.D. Sykes has written a masterful murder mystery set in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death in Britain. Plague Land has an unwilling hero. Oswald de Lacy, the third son of a minor British lord, was destined for the religious life, despite his lack of faith. When Oswald’s father and two elder brothers are killed by the plague, Oswald inherits his father’s title and returns home literally to become the lord of the manor.
In the course of an interesting plot and intriguing characters, S.D. Sykes tells her readers quite a bit about how the Black Death