Bess Crawford Mysteries

If you haven’t read any of the Charles Todd mysteries — featuring London Inspector Ian Rutledge and WWI nurse Bess Crawford (in separate series) — you should.  I’ve particularly enjoyed the historical setting of the Bess Crawford novels, focused on WWI, both in Britain and in France.  War as a character looms large in each of the books.  The mother/son duo Charles Todd paint a starkly realistic picture of life during WWI, with particular emphasis on the impact of PTSD (though not yet-named) and influenza, and how the conflict was devastating to many other than the soldiers.  Bess Crawford’s character lightens the tone just enough to take the books from a slog through death and disease to a slightly gritty (but still comfortably British) mystery.  Bess is far from flippant.  She is tough, smart, loyal (almost to a fault), stubborn, brave, but also steadfastly optimistic about humanity and the human spirit in general.

Bess’s father, a retired Colonel who used to be stationed in India, and his aide, Simon, make for an entertaining supporting cast (along with Bess’s mother, fellow nurses and her London landlord).  Charles Todd comes back to these characters throughout all of the novels, painting a vivid picture of Bess’s world and the support system that gives her the drive and confidence to continue her quest for fairness and justice (a common theme in each book).  There are seven books (so far) in the series, and I enjoyed them all.  But some more than others.

The first novel, A Duty to the Dead, is probably my favorite.

510XVc44EuL._AA160_In it, Bess is tasked with giving a message to the family of one of her patients who died in an army hospital.  She was very fond of the patient — possibly in love with him — and when she visits the family to pass on his message she discovers a dark family secret, a hidden brother and just a touch of danger.  In this book we are introduced to Bess’s compassion and doggedness.  The mystery is very compelling and heartbreaking.


Another good one is A Bitter Truth.  In this novel, Bess gets swept up into the family drama of a battered wife who she finds hiding out on her doorstep during a bad storm.  Rather than take advantage of her precious few days of leave, Bess takes the woman in and accompanies her home, to face her family and her husband.  It is probably the most “feminist” of the books.   Bess clearly would have been a bra-burning, Ms. magazine-reading young woman were she not born seventy years too early, and this gives us a taste of that side of Bess.  She fiercely protects a woman who she hardly knows and jeopardizes her own career and reputation in the process.


Another of the books I really enjoyed was An Impartial Witness.  In this book, Bess accompanies a severely burned patient, Lt. Merriweather, home to England from France.  She has nursed Merriweather in France and knows how devoted he is to his wife — her picture is literally pinned to his patient gown.  Bess feels like she knows the wife.  She delivers Merriweather to a nursing home in England and on her return to London she sees his wife at the train station, in tears and clinging to another soldier.  Within days, Merriweather’s wife is found murdered, and he dies from burn complications (or perhaps because he received news that his wife died).  Bess goes to the police with her information and by virtue of her identification becomes involved in a tightly drawn, and particularly nasty mystery.  A few more bodies turn up before the mystery is solved and the extremely high price of war becomes painfully clear.

Throughout the novels, Bess has sort of a flirtatious, “older brother” thing going on with Simon, her father’s aide.  He is a little older than Bess, always around to get her out of a jam, and clearly in love with her.  My one beef with the books is a bit of a Sam/Diane thing with a will they or won’t they get together?  I think the authors should simply wrap up that plot line, but maybe a little uncertainty isn’t a bad thing, particularly in a mystery.

Pick up a Bess Crawford and Happy Reading!



Binging Le Carre

I’ll cop to the occasional Netflix binge-fest.  When my back was out of whack last winter, I barely ate, bathed or drank — not because I was in so much pain, but because I didn’t want to stop my episodes of Dexter long enough to do any of said activities.  And I read.  A lot.  But usually I don’t find myself re-reading, or binge reading one author all the time.  I flit from book to book, savoring my favorites in between not-so-greats.  That changed late last December.

A few days before Christmas, I was surprised to see an Amazon box outside the front door.  I got my money’s worth out of AmazonPrime over the holidays, don’t get me wrong.  But all of the presents I had ordered were already opened and accounted for.  I asked my husband if he had ordered anything and he said, “No”.  The package was addressed to me, so I opened it.

51DbpDOTIBL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_And, inside, much to my surprise, I saw Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carre.  “What a great present for myself,” I thought.  “I don’t even remember ordering it!”  Again, I asked said husband who denied knowledge or culpability of the book.  My son, a university student, couldn’t possibly have:  (a) completed an Amazon order with proper payment and address information, (b) figured out what someone other than he, himself wanted for a present, or (c ) cared what someone other than he,  himself wanted for a present.  So, he was right out.  That left my own addled memory of whether I had self-gifted it to myself (a strong contender) and my sixteen year-old daughter.  I went with her.  Later, I asked my mother who confirmed that, yes, they had come up with the idea during a shopping trip to Barnes & Noble and she had ordered the book as a Christmas present.  I’m not quite sure how they came up with the idea at Barnes & Noble if they hadn’t, in fact, seen the book — which begs the question of why they didn’t buy the book in the store — but I digress.  I didn’t let on to my daughter that I had seen the book and squealed with delight when I opened it on Christmas morning.  And, she never reads this blog, so I know she won’t figure out that I knew ahead of time.

I spent the next couple of days immersed in the life of David Cornwell, aka John le Carre.  Sisman’s biography rivals one of my favorites of all time — Simon Sebag Montefiorre’s biography of Stalin, Court of the Red Tsar.  It is direct, detailed, honest, and paints the picture of a brilliant, flawed writer and citizen.  After devouring the highs and lows of Cornwell’s life, I was gob-smacked by how autobiographical many of his books are.  I’ve been a long reader and lover of le Carre, and after learning about Cornwell’s relationship with his father, his limited time in the British secret service and his international travels, I was anxious to re-read his books.

And since late December, I’ve done little else.  I’ve sort of fallen in love with George Smiley all over again, nodded to myself at Cornwell’s inside jokes and jabs, and appreciated the context in which each of his novels was written.  51OpEdAXJ+L._SL250_

Certainly, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was what “started it all” for him and, if you haven’t read any le Carre, this book would be a great place to start.  It is a deftly woven tale, with more “mystery” than many of his thrillers.  Leamus took on a new identity for me — part Cornwell, himself;  part general malaise; part the insanity of the divided Berlin and Germany that faced the world at the time of writing.  George Smiley makes a tiny appearance, but really I had to go back to Cornwell’s earlier “murder mystery” to re-introduce myself to Smiley.

In A Murder of Quality, le Carre takes the reader to a British public school (what most of us would know as a prep school or boarding school) where a master’s wife has been killed and Smiley is brought into the scene by a former war-time colleague (the female editor of a Christian periodical who had a letter from the woman predicting her demise).  George also worked closely with the brother of the headmaster, and, thus, had an entree into the school to investigate the woman’s murder.  He encounters a soon-to-be-retired police superintendent, Mendel, who reappears in many subsequent Smiley novels.  Anyway, as english manor murder mysteries go, A Murder of Quality, is a little too predictable and contrived, but I didn’t — and don’t — care.  George Smiley was born and I’d follow that character almost anywhere.

So, I read A Call for the Dead and The Looking Glass War, and detoured to A Perfect Spy (Cornwell’s most autobiographical novel).  But then I cleared my schedule for the “Karla” trilogy again — the three books where Smiley matches wits with “Karla” (the Moscow Centre mastermind) either indirectly through Karla’s networks and moles — in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Honorouable Schoolboy – or, directly, in the last of the trio, Smiley’s People.  These three books are sweeping, cold-war epics that feed my should.  From Smiley’s quiet, melancholic brilliance, to Guillam’s rash but far more grounded actions, I can’t get enough of le Carre’s nuanced characters.  I’ve read more than my share of “classic” literature, and le Carre takes a back seat to no one with his character development and plotting.  “These people are my friends,” I tell myself.  I believe it.  In part.  I care about them, though, in reality, I know they don’t care about me. But in re-reading le Carre over this past month, it is crystal clear that he cares about me, as a reader.  He doesn’t always tie up his mysteries (or thrillers) neatly.  I know, for example,  no matter how many times I re-read it, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, won’t end any differently.  But that isn’t because le Carre is flippant about his readers.  I get the very real sense that he agonizes over every word and scene, to paint a picture for us.  To bring us into a world or an issue.  To introduce us to a character or a friend.  I can’t think of a better way to have spent the last month of my reading time binging le Carre, and I can’t think of better advice for you.

And to my daughter and Mr. Cornwell — “thank you”.  I doubt either of you will read this, but I’ll put it out there anyway.

Happy reading!

Murder, Soviet Style


I am so, so excited to review Alexei Bayer’s book, Murder at the Dacha.  If you’ve read the blog, you know that I’m a Russophile (Sovietophile?) and will pretty much devour any mystery or thriller set in Soviet Russia (current Russia works too), so be warned that the book plays to my strengths.  I first heard about the book while skimming through Russian Life and promptly ordered my well-worth-it copy.

Bayer’s book is set in the early 1960s, a Soviet era not frequently addressed in literature (or non-fiction either).   Many books focus on the Stalin era and while Stalin’s shadow lurks in the background (morphed into the form of KGB Colonel, Nakazov), it is somewhat refreshing to take a break from the sharply oppressive era that gave the world and her Russian citizens the “Great Terror”.

Murder at the Dacha introduces the reader to Pavel Matyushkin, a Moscow police detective who somewhat reluctantly stumbles into a murder investigation of a Soviet power broker.  Returning home from a day of fishing with his girlfriend, Tosya, and her 10 year-old son, Sevka, Matyushkin intercedes when a man, Frezin, is harassing a young woman on a train.  Matyushkin arrests Frezin and turns him over to the suburban authorities, assuming that is the end of that.  A few days later Matyushkin is (seemingly) randomly assigned to investigate a murder at . . .  you guessed it — a dacha, and within a week it turns out his co-investigators (from the very Moscow suburb where Matyushkin took Frezin from the train) have discovered evidence tying Frezin to the dacha murder.  Matyushin doesn’t buy that Frezin did it, but before long the KGB gets involved (a Colonel Nakazov was “close” to the deceased’s family) and next thing you know, Frezin has been executed for the murder.  Case closed.  Or is it?

Among other things, I liked that Bayer gave us a few threads to follow.  The plot was intricate but not convoluted.  In addition, his characters were entertaining.  Lenny, Matyushkin’s womanizing partner, could have been painted as a one-dimensional cad, but Bayer does a fine job infusing him with humanity and intelligence. Tosya, too, is feisty but at the same time much more willing to comply with Soviet expectations that Matyushkin.  With Matyushkin, Bayer gives us not only a character who is steadfast and cuts against the grain, but one who is also thoughtful and somewhat gentle.   In a nice scene, early in the book (just after Matyushin has deposited Frezin at the local police station), Bayer paints this picture:

Sevka sat at the other end of the bench holding his fishing rod. Poor guy, he was tired and sleepy, shivering and jerking his head now and again to stay awake. He started and asked, “Why didn’t you punch him, Uncle Pavel? Just to make sure he got the message?”

“Punch who?” I asked.

“The dangerous criminal.”

“He was already down.”

“So what?”

“Should I have punched him while he was out for the count?”

“Why not? I would. He’s a dangerous criminal. I would have really socked him one in the eye.”

“I think you’re getting carried away,” I said. Socking a person in the eye should be an extreme measure. Otherwise, it’s counterproductive.

Matyushkin knows he should walk away from the investigation, he cannot revive Frezin (or the bigwig who died at the dacha) but, along with Lenny, he decides to pick at the threads.  During the course of the investigation Lenny meets the beautiful young daughter of the deceased, Lyuda, and begins a torrid affair with her that has rather disastrous results.  Matyushkin crosses swords with Nakazov and the deceased’s widow, Anna Panateleyvna, also with disastrous results.  He loses his job, his girlfriend and, almost, his life, but his dogged patience pays off in the end, for both Matyushkin and the reader.  I won’t give away anything, but Bayer does answer all of your questions in the end, so there is a “pay off”.

I can’t wait to read Bayer’s second novel, The Latchkey Murders, also featuring Matyushkin and the gritty, real Moscow of the 1960s.

Happy Reading!

My Fall Bookstack

I found myself with a rare “free” hour the other day so promptly made a beeline to my local bookstore.  I browsed the new mystery section and selected a stack of books to read this month.  I hope to feature them more prominently (once I’ve read them), but thought I’d give you a preview in case you are making your must read lists for the fall.


First up, The Final Silence by Stuart Neville.   I first came across the title as I trolled new/best mystery and crime sites, as well as The Guardian book pages.  It follows the story of a young woman, Rea Carlisle, who inherits a house from an uncle she barely knew.  Rea discovers a locked room that houses some very disturbing information and criminal “trophies” appearing to belong to her uncle.  She wants to go to the police with the information but her father (a very public figure) encourages her not to reveal the dark family secret.  So, Rea turns to a former lover and detective inspector to help her unravel the information.  Many reviews caution the story can be a bit cliche, but overall give it thumbs up for plot and suspense.  First line:

Raymond Drew wanted to die on the towpath.

Next, a collection of short stories, Chicago Noir, edited by Joe Meno.  Admittedly, I was drawn to this book by the title.  I live near Chicago, and have also lived in Chicago.  Chicago, is noir — “the language of shadows, of the world in-between.”  As Meno reminds the reader in the introduction, in what other city do former mayors/governors routinely go to jail, and do deceased residents not only vote, but vote twice?  That’s right — only in Chicago.  I have enjoyed other theme-based anthologies in the past, but haven’t yet read one of the “noir” books, so Chicago seems a great place to start.  As I flipped through the opening pages of the book, I was shocked to discover how many other cities have already been featured in the “noir” series — including Moscow, Dehli, Manilla and dozens of others.  More to come on this one . . .

Last but not least, The Thinking Engine by James Lovegrove.  This is one among a plethora of Sherlock Holmes revival novels and I’ll admit, the first line is what grabbed me:

‘Watson, old chap,’ said Sherlock Holmes as the mummy of a four-thousand-year-old pharaoh came shuffling towards us in the Archaic Room at the British Museum, ‘I am prepared to concede, in this one instance, that a belief in the resurrection of the dead may not be wholly unfounded.’

I may actually start with this one.  Mummies, Sherlock, museums — Oh my!  Whatever your fall stack may look like, I hope you enjoy the shorter, cooler days as you snuggle up with a good book.  Happy Reading!

Joyland Delivers

Thank you, Stephen King, for being so prolific.  I mean it.  I don’t know how you keep cranking out these diverse, page-turners.  I first saw Joyland staring back at me from the shelves at Powell’s Books.  I already had several used books in my arms and wrote the title down in my list of “books to read”.


Then I just kept thinking about it.  I mean just look at the cover.  I couldn’t get it out of my head.  Not for the scantily clad woman, but the colors and the font and the kitsch.  It screamed pulp fiction.  And then as any of you who read this blog know, Stephen King is on my short list of awesome writers.  So, Joyland made it to the front of the queue.

It is a quick read and a nifty little mystery.  Devin Jones narrates the story, but in a flashback from forty-five years in the future.  So the reader is given an adult perspective on the somewhat poignant, impulsive summer in the life of a twenty-one year old.  King captures it brilliantly, noting:

When you’re twenty-one, life is a roadmap.  It’s only when you get to twenty-five or so that you begin to suspect you’ve been looking at the map upside down, and not until you’re forty are you entirely sure.  By the time you’re sixty, take it from me, you’re fucking lost.

Who can’t relate to that?  I’ve definitely concluded my map is upside down but haven’t completing given up yet on finding my way.  And, had Devin been writing contemporaneously, we wouldn’t have gotten this perspective which does so much to shape the tone of the book.

Devin, a work-study student at the University of New Hampshire in the 1970s, has secured a summer job working at the Joyland amusement park in coastal North Carolina.  On his first day, he and the entire summer workforce, hear from Joyland’s founder, 90-something, Bradley Easterbrook who tells them:

You’ll have interesting, fruitful lives, my young friends.  You’ll do many good things and have many remarkable experiences.  But I hope you’ll always look back on your time in Joyland as something special.  We don’t sell furniture.  We don’t sell cars.  We don’t sell land or houses or retirement funds.  We have no political agenda.  We sell fun.  Never forget that.

Sounds like someone I know quite well.  :)  And what a kick-ass, first day of work speech.  Like Devin, I thought to myself, how many people can put sold fun for three months on their resumes?

Devin’s girlfriend, Wendy, is working in Boston and shortly into the summer sends him a “Dear Devin” letter.  They have been going steady for a couple of years, but haven’t done “It” and aside from not having done “It”, there shouldn’t be much to miss about Wendy.  But Devin is twenty-one and just suffered his first major heartbreak, so he doesnt see it like that and it takes awhile to snap back.

The old-timers working at Joyland, including Lane (his mentor), Fred (the general manager), Mr. Easterbrook (the owner), Madame Fortuna (the park’s fortune teller), his two of his housemates, Tom and Erin (also working at Joyland for the summer), and eventually, Mike and Annie Ross (neighbors down the beach), play a big role in Devin’s memorable summer.  He learns about a young woman, Linda Gray, who was killed four years earlier on Joyland’s Horror House ride.  No one was ever arrested for her murder, though several pictures taken in the park that day show Linda and her boyfriend, the presumed killer.  Not a single picture shows the man’s face, though, and eventually the case goes cold.

Several people tell Devin that Linda’s ghost still haunts the Horror House ride, and he is determined to see her.  When he, Tom and Erin go on the ride on a day off (they are never posted to work in the Horror House), Tom is the one who sees Linda’s ghost and the image haunts Tom for the rest of his life.  Mike Ross, a young boy in a wheelchair who is slowly dying of Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, warns Devin against digging too deep into Linda Gray’s death.  Mike has visions, like Madame Fortuna does — not that Devin believes either of them.  But both prove to be correct on more than one occasion.  Eventually, Devin enlists Erin to help him solve Linda’s murder, and eventually he does.   With a little help from Mike and his warning –”Be careful, Dev.  It’s not white.”  And though Devin solves her murder, he never actually sees Linda’s ghost.  But he sees enough to know that she was real.

Devin’s relationship with Annie and Mike (Annie is Mike’s mother) adds a sentimental touch, and allows Devin to move on from Wendy. Although, like I said, moving on from her should have been a breeze.  But, he’s twenty-one.  And a guy.

I can’t say enough about this little gem of a book.  A sweet (but not syrupy) story, with just the right dash of mystery.  Sign me up.

Happy Reading!



Welcome Back, Lisbeth!!

I spent my weekend with Lisbeth Salander.  How about you?  For those of you who haven’t been living under a rock for the past year, David Lagercrantz has just released the long-awaited continuation to Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, The Girl in the Spider’s Web.5172mlMJn5L._AA160_


When the worst I can think of to say about a book is that I was mightily pissed off that I finished it so quickly, it is a good book.  That was this book.  Lagercrantz brilliantly continues the series, reminding us why we care so much about Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander — really, really care about Lisbeth Salander.  To be sure, the writing isn’t exactly the same.  And that’s fine, good even.  I don’t think I would have liked it if Lagercrantz had tried to write as Larsson.  But, he remained true to the characters.  The crazy, unpredictable, ruthless, loyalty of Salander shines as brightly as ever against the gloomy Swedish backdrop.  Blomkvist’s passion and style are also in fine form.

Like the first three books in the trilogy, this one starts in high gear and never shifts down.  The reader is teased with deep, overlapping conspiracies — most of which are revealed by book’s end — involving artificial intelligence, corporate espionage, cyber-security and autistic savantism.  Any one of these themes could support a high-paced, page turning mystery.  All of them combined gives us the heart-thumping fix we’ve come to expect from this series.

By far the most interesting new character is August Balder, a beautiful eight year old autistic mute who turns out to have the answers to more than one of the mysteries haunting this book.  The book’s ending suggests that August may make future appearances, and I look forward to discovering how August has developed and progressed in the interim.  By far the most interesting recurring, supporting player is Camilla, Lisbeth’s twin sister.  Lagercrantz thankfully reminds us of the series’ characters with a quick overview at the beginning of the book.  And, I admit that I had kind of forgotten about Camilla.  Her back story takes front and center and offers a fascinating glimpse into the events and figures that have shaped Salander into perhaps the most memorable female fictional character, well, ever.  There I said it.  Ever.  Salander’s mind is unparalleled and her unwavering driving force is both awesome and inexplicable. Kudos to Lagercrantz for not quelling or softening her rough, rough, rough edges.

Like all of the books in this series, greed and power take a starring role.  Though life doesn’t always mirror these books, it is a fun and satisfying escape to see the greedy power-mongers unmasked and defeated before the last page is turned.  Can’t wait for the next installment — I hope you can hear me, David Lagercrantz, and are busy writing away.

Pick up The Girl in the Spider’s Web now, but really only open it when you have no other deadlines or obligations looming because you won’t want to put it down.  Happy Reading!

Mary Miley Captures Spirit of 1920′s in New Mystery Series

I’ve just finished Mary Miley’s two mysteries and they are an enjoyable, historical era treat.  She channels the 1920′s beautifully, allowing the reader to enjoy not only the traditional, mystery escape, but also to fully escape into another era.  Miley’s attention to detail (emphasizing clothing, food, transportation and lodging of the 1920′s) is mesmerizing — probably my favorite part of these books.  The “mystery” angle is enjoyable as well, but very straightforward without many unexpected twists and turns.

4175XTFkcTL._AA160_Her first novel in the series, The Impersonator, introduces us to her young protagonist, Jessie.  Actually, that isn’t really the character’s name, but for the bulk of the novel (and in the second novel) this is the name she uses so I’ll use it also.  Jessie has grown up on the vaudeville stage, traveling the  Big Time circuit (two performances per day).  She is plucky, smart, independent and (mostly) fearless.  After her steady gig disbands and she has no luck finding another role in the Big Time — or in the lesser circuits that required five or more performances per day — Jessie reconsiders a “job” offered by a wealthy patron in Omaha.  She has to impersonate his missing niece and heiress, Jessie Carr, a girl with whom she shares a remarkable resemblance.  Jessie reluctantly takes on the role but when she travels west to Oregon to meet the family she decides that she really is fond of them, well most of them, and doesn’t want to continue to deceive them.   When a handful of unsolved murders occur in the small Oregon town, she finds herself knee deep in solving the mystery of the real Jessie’s disappearance.  She and her supposed half-brother, David Murray, team up to discover what happened to Jessie and when the resolution is revealed, well, lots of things are turned upside down including Jessie’s not really inappropriate, but definitely awkward relationship with David.

51KKlNzREeL._AA160_Things wrap up fairly well for Jessie, as we learn when Miley’s second novel, Silent Murders, opens.  Jessie has travelled from Oregon to San Francisco and then down to Los Angeles where she ends up working as a “girl Friday” for her idol, Mary Pickford, and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, at their newly formed studio, United Artists.  Jessie wants to break into the new motion picture business but is working as an assistant script girl when she and her roommate (Myrna Loy) are invited to a Hollywood party where the host is murdered.  Jessie finds herself in the thick of the investigation, as the prime suspect, when an old vaudeville friend of her mother’s, Esther, is also murdered.  Esther had been serving at the party and had invited Jessie over the next day to see some of her mother’s old playbills.  Jessie discovers Esther’s body and realizes the two murders are probably linked.  When two more people are killed, Jessie tries to connect the dots, working with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford along the way.

The famous characters popping up in Jessie’s life (Myrna Loy is also friends with an up-and-coming young actor, Gary Cooper; Jessie befriends Charlie Chaplin’s young wife, etc.) become almost too distracting.  But Miley has deftly woven a fictional murder mystery against a true backdrop — and borrows from or refers to actual murders that took place in Hollywood around this time.  It is fun to read about how these actors “started” and the fledgling motion picture business.

Jessie again encounters David Murray (know going by the name David Carr) and can’t quite sort out her feelings for him, or for the only honest cop she meets, Carl Delaney.  I would have liked those relationships to have played a slightly larger role here (or come to some resolution), but perhaps Miley is just saving these plot lines for book number three in the Jessie series.

Jessie’s ability to solve the first set of murders seems a little too pat and easy, but the solution to the second set of murders is more compelling, interesting and, frankly, more believable.  This book gives the reader a few more twists than the first novel — police corruption, illegal drug trading, and poisoning — and the setting will probably seem a little more familiar to most readers.  Again, the actual mystery aspect of these books is pretty straightforward and that’s okay.  I’m just noting for those who like their mysteries a little more convoluted or twisted, these novels may not fully satisfy.  But, I do think the setting and the personality of the main character, Jessie, makes up for the plot and make these books an enjoyable read for anyone.  I’m looking forward to what Jessie is up to next . . .

Happy Reading!

Penelope Hazard is on the Case

So, let me start with a disclaimer.  Yes, I know the author of the Penelope Hazard books.  Well in fact.  He is my husband.  I’m pretty sure I would love these books anyway.  But, there.  That’s out of the way.


With the second installment of Penelope Hazard now on the stands (or in print and digitized), it’s time to review these books.  In this mystery series, author, J. Grant Fiero, masterfully blends mystery with just a dash of sci-fi.  Not too many authors blend these genres, and for that reason alone, I think the Penelope Hazard books are unique and offer a quirky twist to the typical mystery formula.  Now, it would help if you also read Fiero’s overlapping Sci-Fi series, known as the Rider books.   There are four Rider books so far:  Waking the Rider, The Light of Gylfa, Finding Alex, and Prisoners of the Mountain.  The fifth and final installment of the Rider books is due out sometime next year.  Penelope Hazard takes place on Earth, in this dimension.  But the hints and clues dropped about some strange happenings will make more sense if you’ve read the Rider books.   We don’t quite know how Penelope and her crew will fit in with the Rider universe, but we know they do somehow and will hopefully discover more clues with the third Penelope Hazard installment due out later this year.

Back to the Penelope mystery series.  Not only is this series unique for its cross-genre subject matter, but it is unique in the interplay between main characters/amateur sleuths, Penelope and Bags.  Penelope is a fifteen year-old who recently moved with her parents to a gated Florida community, St. Georges, populated primarily by residents over 65.  Bags is Harvard Miriam Bagwell, a 70+ resident of St. George who becomes Penelope’s “adopted grandfather”.  The teen and senior strike up a friendship and Penelope ends of helping with Bags’ production of the social club’s “Murder Mystery” event.   When the event ends with an actual murder, Penelope and Bags join forces to find out who did it.  Their investigation takes the reader on quite a few twists and turns, involving drug smuggling, affairs, and clandestine meetings  – all in the supposedly quiet, nothing-new-happens here St. Georges.   The interaction between the 15 year old and the 70+ year old is refreshing, different and, most of all —  thanks, likely, to the author’s own teenage daughter — it rings true.  The book is narrated from Penelope’s point of view and has an appeal to the younger set.  But, it also appeals to the senior set and to the somewhere in the middle set based on my anecdotal evidence.

I won’t spoil the ending, but The True Stories of the (Mostly) Flawless Penelope Hazard was a fun, taut mystery that left me wanting to read more about Penelope and her senior posse.

And, that is where Penelope Hazard’s (so not) Flawless Mountain Getaway comes in.  This second installment of the Penelope series finds Penelope and Bags at a Colorado mountain resort, guests of the Wilhight’s, their St. Georges neighbors and corporate leadership developers extraordinaire.  The Wilhights have gathered some of the country’s top executives together for a leadership retreat in Colorado, and have hired a “high maintenance” speaker to attend, who happens to be a good friend of Bags’.  So Bags comes along to keep an eye on the speaker, and Penelope tags along to keep Bags company (and to decompress from their Florida murder investigation).

Book Two gives us the classic English-style murder with a body found at a remote mountain resort and a only handful of guests and staff who could have committed the crime.  It has a satisfying pace and resolution, and Penelope’s interaction not only with Bags, but her new friend, Rocky, gives us a more extensive peek into the quirky inner workings of a teenage mind.  As a parent of a teenager, it is somewhat scary.

But perhaps the best part of Book Two is the introduction of a new character, April, a kick-ass bodyguard with an altogether mysterious background.  April quickly becomes Penelope’s new idol and offers the reader an even better look into the sci-fi world of J. Grant Fiero.  Here, we get more than hints about the Rider universe.  Penelope, Bags and April confront that world, and possibly some of the Rider characters, face-to-face.  Without giving too much away (although the author holds back here as well), Penelope also learns that she has inexplicable premonitions that some bad is going to happen, and she learns that someone or something is after her Florida friends and maybe even her.

If you’re looking for a new twist on the classic mystery formula, the Penelope Hazard books are a must read.  Happy Reading!

Check In to the Dead Mountaineer’s Inn

I had long heard about the Strugatsky brothers’ mystery, The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn.  It has a cult-like following in Russia.  The Strugatsky’s are the kings, the Tsars, of Russian sci-fi.   But I just didn’t want to wrap my head around reading the mystery/sci-fi mash-up in its native Russian (something I could do, but chose not to devote weeks spent poring over a dictionary doing).  So when I was wandering the stacks at Portland’s Powell’s books recently, I stopped dead in my tracks when I spotted the Dead Mountaineer’s Inn — in glorious English translation.  I snapped it up and am so glad that I did.


By way of background for those of you who are not familiar with Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the brothers are iconic Soviet/Russian science fiction riders, their most well-known work being Roadside Picnic (also available in English now) which, incidentally, is not really at all like The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn.  They grew up in Leningrad and were deeply affected by the siege of the city during WWII, as, frankly, were all Soviets.  Boris stayed in Leningrad with his mother during the siege, but Arkady and his father left the city by train, headed to Vologda.  When they reached their destination, Arkady was the only survivor on his railcar.  The scars of war, inhumanity, and the impact of human kindness and connection clearly infuse their writing, this book being no exception.

But in Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, the Strugatsky’s are having fun, with the reader and likely with each other as they wrote the book.  It is absurdist comedy in the truest Russian sense.  Borrowing from works like one of my favorites, Gogol’s The Nose (where a petit bureaucrat wakes up to discover he has turned into a giant nose), Dead Mountaineer’s Inn introduces us to detective Peter Glebsky.  He descends upon the Inn, isolated in the mountains at the far back end of a narrow pass, where a mountaineer may or may not have recently died, and may or may not have left behind his Saint Bernard, Lel, who may or may not himself, the dog, be literate.  Glebsky meets more strange characters — a magician and his neice/nephew, a scientist, a youth counselor with tuberculosis, a wealthy drunk recluse who may, or may not, beat his beautiful young wife with a whip, a giant Swede, a daft but alluring chambermaid/cook, and an innkeeper/inventor of perpetual motion machines.

Glebsky is not a detective in the true, criminal investigator sense.  Rather he is a detective the bureaucratic, paper-pushing, forged documents/counterfeit sense. Nevertheless, when the giant Swede ends up dead after an evening of dancing and card games, timed somewhat coincidentally with an avalanche that has cut off the Inn from civilization for at least several days, Glebsky reluctantly agrees to try to solve his murder.  New guests appear, old guests disappear, and many of the Inn’s residents have meltdowns – including Glebsky.  I’ve heard the book compared to a sort of farcical “Noises Off”,  and while I can readily conjure up the images of Glebsky walking up and down hallways with doors opening and closing, and guests traipsing up and down stairways, the book isn’t quite as slapstick as “Noises Off”.  Absurd to be sure though, and wryly funny as well.

As science fiction writers, the Strugatsky’s embrace the unknown, and this theme resides in the Inn as well.  Alek, the innkeeper, seeks out and embraces the unknown and urges Glebsky to do the same.  When the mystery deepens, Alek hints at some knowledge but suggests to Glebsky that he is not ready to hear it.  Glebsky doesn’t fight that notion, instead recognizing that he is in far, far over his head.

Ultimately, Glebsky does solve the mystery, and the solution involves rival gangsters, love triangles and certain other intriguing plot twists that I won’t give away.  If you are a fan of Russian absurdism, or just looking to try it out, add the Dead Mountaineer’s Inn to your list.  Happy Reading!


Dorothy Says Who?

Maybe like me, you try to sample mystery’s greatest hits.  Christie, Conan Doyle, Chandler, Hammett . . ..  In looking at “classic” lists, and in particular, classic English mysteries, one name in particular, however, has been sorely lacking from my bookshelf — namely, Dorothy Sayers.


For readers who may not be familiar with Dorothy Sayers, she was a British writer, largely focused on writing between WWI and WWII.  She won a scholarship to Oxford and received a “certificate” in literature in 1915 (women were not entitled to degrees at that time).  Ultimately, Sayers was one of the first women to receive her degree, an MA in 1920, when Oxford’s policy changed.  One of her most well known characters, Lord Peter Wimsey, was largely influenced by her time in and around Oxford, and his foil (later wife), Harriet Vane, appears as a not too subtly autobiographical character.  Vane, like Sayers, was educated at Oxford.  Like Sayers, Vane was also a crime fiction writer.  Like Vane, Sayers had at least one high-profile affair, and had an illegitimate son, raised as her nephew (that last part didn’t happen with Vane or, at least, Sayers never wrote about it).

If you haven’t sampled Sayers, I would say to  give her a try, if nothing else to add to your classic mystery background.  Her writing is  very introspective.  The “act” of murder (and/or the act of getting away with murder) isn’t the focus of Sayers’ books.  Instead, the focus is on the psychology of the characters, their relationship to the victim, and heavy emotions like jealousy, greed, insecurity, sexual frustration and revenge.  At times with a somewhat heavier hand than I personally like, Sayer digs into her characters and reveals what makes them tick, exposes their darkest secrets and fears.  Lord Peter comes off a bit too perfect and at times like a caricature, but Sayers’ supporting characters are nicely flawed and all-too-human.

220px-Gaudy_nightMy first foray in Sayers came with Gaudy Night.  I don’t always like to start things in order, so maybe it is no surprise that I began with her penultimate Lord Peter Wimsey book.  Although it may have been helpful to have read some of the earlier Wimsey books (particularly Strong Poison, the book where Wimsey first meets and falls for Harriet Vane).  However, Sayers re-capped the history between Vane and Wimsey with relative ease and proficiency.

In Gaudy Night, Harriet returns to her former Oxford College (Shrewsbury) for a reunion of sorts, and finds herself drawn into a dark plot.  In an effort to help nip in the bud what appears to be a mere embarrassment for the College, Harriet agrees to investigate on the Q.T.  Ultimately, Lord Peter is drawn into the mystery (as is his equally rakish and handsome nephew), and they ultimately expose who has been tormenting the Shrewsbury-ans.    In the book, Sayers appears at times to be frustrated with the inactive world of Oxford academia:

If you ask me, observed the Bursar, we discuss everything a great deal too much in this university.  We argue about this and that and why and wherefore, instead of getting the thing done.

Yet, at the same time, Sayers is protective and proprietary about the environment of the all-women’s college enclave.  She clear cares about the nuanced, intelligent and flawed characters among the college’s cast, including the Dean, the Bursar, female dons and students.  Sayers’ works straddle these worlds, tackling the role of women in modern England, and contemplating the merits of academic life vs. that of a crime writer/copyrighter.  Far more than her contemporary, Christie, Sayers presents her female characters as modern, working, educated women who struggle with their places in society.

51hik5liE6L._AA160_I was so taken with the relationship between Vane and Wimsey — part Nick and Nora Charles/part Holmes and Watson — that I quickly turned my attentions to Busman’s Honeymoon, the next book featuring Lord Peter and Harriet.  It can hardly be a spoiler, given the title and the almost eighty-year time gap since the book was first published, to tell you that Lord Peter and Harriet get married.  And, in some ways, the book is a little kitschy.  But, it also kinda works.

Instead of traveling the globe on a whirlwind, first class honeymoon (something Lord Peter’s pocketbook certainly could have supported), the two end up spending their honeymoon in a dilapidated cottage near the village where Harriet grew up.  And, when the man from whom they purchased the cottage fails to meet them with the keys — and fails to have the cottage stocked and ready to go as promised — the two suspect foul play.  Indeed, the man is later found dead in his basement and Lord Peter and Harriet are left to sort out the crime.  The plot and motive in this novel take a far, far back seat to Sayers’ musings on new love, and marriage.  Says Harriet,

I love you — I am at rest with you — I have come home.

To which (a little later), Peter responds:

What kind of life could we have if I knew that you had become less than yourself by marrying me?

I was less than enthused with the “solution” to the crime, but nonetheless very sorry that my time with these two characters had come to an end.

I sampled a few other Sayer novels, including Whose Body?, the first Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, and In the Teeth of the Evidence, a series of Lord Peter Wimsey short stories.  The Wimsey found in Whose Body? is a little more human than the Wimsey in the later novels — he is struggling with post-War trauma, is uncertain of how to proceed, and stumbles a bit with the mystery presented.  Altogether a good read.  I found the short stories a little too flimsy on plot and character development, something I think Sayers does exceedingly well.  But, for a quick read that you can put down/pick up without having to backtrack, they give an interesting back story to Lord Peter and his family.

If you are a mystery fan who is still saying Dorothy Who?  Pick up a Sayers novel, or two!  Happy Reading.