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
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.
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.
The wonderfully insightful review I had written of Denise Mina’s outstanding Garnethill has somehow vanished. I’m sure it is my fault; I probably pushed the wrong button somewhere.
Anyway, this is a great and unusual murder mystery set in a seedy, struggling Glasgow. This was Denise Mina’s first novel, and it was also the first book in her Garnethill trilogy. Maureen O’Donnell is compelling protagonist. Maureen has had a tough life, and it doesn’t seem to be getting much better when her married lover is found murdered. She is worried for herself and her brother and starts getting curious. She doesn’t really know how to investigate a crime, but she keeps poking around and thinking it through. This is one of those great books where a very flawed and undisciplined character is thrust into a dangerous situation and thrives! I rooted for Maureen O’Donnell every step of the way. Her good heart, her curiosity and her previously untapped intelligence and good heart make her a stellar heroine. There was enough hanging at the end of the book to suggest that the other two books in the Garnethill trilogy will be equally compelling.
I Will Have Vengeance – The Winter of CommissarioRicciardi 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.
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.
There is something particularly anxiety producing about 0n-run-mysteries. Lisa Lutz, the author of the weird and hilarious Spellman mysteries, continues to favor an off-kilter attack, but she tries a more serious approach in The Passenger. Tanya Dubois is on the run from the get-go in this oddly deranged and absorbing tale. It’s a challenge to make a wrong-doing character sympathetic, but Lutz pulls it off. Tanya isn’t nice or law-abiding, but you are anxious to know her backstory. As Tanya’s troubles compound and she wreaks more and more mayhem, you still pull for her even as you shake your head. Logic isn’t much in play here.
On the plus side, every reader ought keep this book, in case he or she ever finds herself on the run, because Lutz provides an abundant education on how to disappear and take on new identities. Hopefully this this will never prove useful
The Passenger is one of those books where each escape proves fleeting, and the constant onslaught of threats is dark and ugly. Without spoiling the story, the book succeeds because the careening plot is balanced by a continuing thread of human contact that suggests better times.
Julia Dahl’s Invisible City provides a fascinating look into the Ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn. Rebekah Roberts is a brand new stringer reporter for a New York tabloid. She is thrilled to have a newspaper job so soon after graduating from college in Florida. New York is pretty new to her, but she is learning fast. One of the stories she is sent to cover ends up involving a suspicious death in New York’s Hasidic community. Rebekah has some tenuous ties to the Jewish community and is swept into covering a fast-breaking story that was supposed to remain under wraps. There are lots of suspenseful moments and some interesting plot twists, but the theme that moves the book along is the tension felt by members of the Ultra-Orthodox community who can’t or won’t go with the program. Rebekah Roberts is a sympathetic character who is brave and curious, even as she makes rookie mistakes. Add to that her own back story and conflicted feelings about the demands of the Hasidic community, and Julia Dahl provides an excellent crime novel.
I am happy to recommend this book and to report that the author has already written a second book in what looks to be a thoughtful and intelligent series.
Jason Mathews has written a Cold War thriller, Red Sparrow, that is set in modern times. Not to worry, Putin is every bit as creepy a villain as those who were running the show before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The book was hard to put down and had a cast of very interesting and appealing characters in well-chosen settings. There was a female hero, Dominika Egorova, and a lot of sexual tension in addition to the usual spy stuff. While the sex advanced the story, it was sort of a shame that the Egorova was defined as a sexual object. Why is it that all the sexual degradation was inflicted on the woman and only then was she allowed to prevail? The answer is an integral part of the plot, but I couldn’t help wishing that this really interesting woman had been created without resort to to making her a beautiful victim of sadistic sexual abuse. This is a clever book, but it could have been just a little more original. Writers find all sorts of ways to create male heroes who are not sexually abused and subjected to voyeuristic torments, so with a little more effort it ought to be possible to create women heroes with less predictable backgrounds.
Red Sparrow is the first in a series. I like Matthew’s writing, so I am hoping that the next book will be less conventional.
Faye Kellerman’s The Theory of Death is an engaging mystery with great characters, a clever plot and very human characters. Pete Decker is a retired LA homicide detective who has taken a job with a small police force in an Eastern college town. Decker is aging and thinking about it, but of course there is a murder to keep him occupied. Ever since I first read Amanda Cross’s Death in a Tenured Position, I have loved academic mysteries. This one is set in the hyper-competitive math department of a small college, and there is lots of petty intrigue and jealousy to keep the story moving.
This series has been around for a long time and also features Decker’s wife Rina, an interesting orthodox woman of great understanding and warmth. Inevitably she gets drawn into the efforts to figure out who did what to whom and why. Decker is also an observant Jew and that adds a unique dimension to his character. Since moving East, this series has acquired a young, irreverent yet dedicated cop, Tyler McAdams. The tension and repartee between the experienced Decker and the newbie McAdams add to the charm and the bite of this series.
If you have never read an of Faye Kellerman’s Pete Decker series, you might want to start at the beginning. The Theory of Death stands on its own, but I really liked the early books because they set up Decker’s relationship with his wife and also offered a crash course in orthodox Jewish practice, in much the same way as Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. I have a always loved this series and particularly like this foray into academia.