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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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.

S.D. Sykes’ Plague Land Presents an Complex Murder Mystery Against the Back Drop of Britain After the Plague

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

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.

Garnethill — The First, Very Troubling Mystery in Denise Mina’s Garnethill Trilogy

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 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.

Beyond the Spellmans, Lisa Lutz Gets More Serious

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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.

Invisible City — A Murder Mystery Set within Brooklyn’s Hasidic Community

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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.