Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Always Knew There'd Be a Mystery for This Massachusetts City -- New, from Liz Rosenberg

Worcester, Massachusetts: Drive into this bigger-than-expected urban enclave, with the second highest population of the Bay State's cities, and new buildings for the arts and commerce shine from the downtown. But the traffic patterns, the neighborhoods, the twists of roads re-made over the years and not quite up to the number of cars on them, even when it's not rush hour ... all these speak most eloquently of the years when manufacturing made up the life energy of Worcester.

In the powerful new novel from Liz Rosenberg, INDIGO HILL, time shifts dramatically backward a lifetime, after Michelle and Louisa's elderly mother dies quickly of pancreatic cancer. For one brief moment, Alma Johansson, hard-working widow of a hard-working good man, considers trying to tell her secrets to her grown daughters. But as usual, 43-year-old Louisa's brusque comment jams up the conversation, and after that, there's no time left to confide anything. Well, what could it have been anyway? Her daughters know all about Alma's life.

But when their mother's will is presented, they discover how wrong they've been. And the shocking process of allowing an unexpected beneficiary to come to their mother's house and sort through its contents spins Louisa, an outwardly bitter woman with a soft core shown only at her workplace (she's a much-valued mental health counselor), back into her own net of secrets, losses, and terrible trade-offs.
She'd known it for a long time. People disappointed you. They let you down, they went away or died. They seldom turned out the way you thought.

But not, whispered the secret voice in her head, not your mother. ...Her mother at least could be counted on; Alma Johansson was rock solid -- or so Louisa had always believed. ... No. No way, She just couldn't do it. Louisa stuck the key into the ignition, and before she knew it she had parked the Chevy in the lot behind the hardware store belonging to her oldest school friend, Flick Bergstrom.

The sight of the old familiar brick building made her breathing a little easier, the pain at the center of her chest less intense.
Flick, it turns out, bears outward scars of a fire they'd experienced as teens. Louisa's are inward. And to make sense of her own past, as well as her mother's, she'll have to open those wounds again.

A fire that changed her teen community is at the heart of what Louisa must exhume. It's a long, painful, yet achingly lovely process, something like peeling away the collapsed roof and walls to rediscover something precious and unburnt within. Rosenberg's pace is steady, relentless as time itself, as she walks Louisa toward the truths that shimmer beyond her matter-of-fact family, her compromising in love, and her community.

Is it a mystery? Hmm. The pace is deceptive; the secrets are deep and burning. I felt as though INDIGO HILL solved something vital, and something that could perhaps only exist in the layered maufacturing city of Worcester. Even when the author's Afterword reveals the "facts" beyond the story (a real fire in 1968; lives lost), there's a magical sense of revelation as well -- as if all the bok-length uncovering had created also somehow the answer to how to live with the past and how to bless it. And that may be the deepest mystery of all.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Former MI5 Director Stella Rimington's New Espionage Novel, THE MOSCOW SLEEPERS

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

What if ordinary universities in America are already hosting “sleeper” agents and networks, awaiting a signal from Moscow or Beijing to activate and demolish democracy? All too possible, this concern leaps to life in the newest book from former MI5 director Stella Rimington, The Moscow Sleepers. Grimly real (as American elections already show), the threat of international meddling confronts all democracies that depend on freedom of speech and universal voting.

As The Moscow Sleepers opens, a professor’s murder in a Vermont hospital provides the first clue that such a plan could be in place. Around the same time, a postcard message alerts Liz Carlyle, working at a high level within MI5—Britain’s Security Service, addressing threats inside the UK—that a former collaborator in Moscow wants a face-to-face meeting in Berlin. MI5 would have to alert its international-operations counterpart, MI6, for this kind of outreach. Will Liz be able to control the connection safely if she complicates it in this way?

Rimington provides straightforward espionage activity, without much distraction of character issues. (Liz is lonely, and responds differently in some situations as a result, but not in any way that could jeopardize the action.) In a delightful way, she reveals Liz Carlyle’s alliance with the junior MI5-er whom Liz has mentored, Peggy Kinsolving, and the utility of that alliance in navigating a male-heavy hierarchy. “Lean in” is looking good for these women at headquarters, as well as in the field.

And the field is where Liz will have to go, to respond to outreach from that Moscow field agent. Of course, MI6 will send its own agent, the deft and adept Bruno Mackay, but it’s Liz and Peggy who will find the threads that tie together the murder in Vermont, the agitated spy reaching out, and an odd and sinister boarding school in the English countryside where tech-brained immigrants are led unwittingly to become expert hackers.

To grasp the import of that last strand, Liz reconnects with Chief Constable Richard Pearson:
 'I’d better warn you it’s business,’ said Liz, and she heard Pearson sigh. ‘Well, only partly,’ she added. ‘Something’s come up in an investigation that seems to connect to a college in your patch. I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of it. It’s a sixth-form college about ten miles west of Southwold called Bartholomew Manor.’

There was a pause, then Pearson said, ‘Now, that is really interesting. I don’t think it can be a coincidence. This college has crossed our radar here, and just a few days ago. I’d love to know what your interest in it is—if you can tell me.’
Rimington’s writing rarely ramps up high suspense, even though one of the youths at the school is in peril; instead, she unspools a web of interconnection, with ramifications in The Moscow Sleepers that resonate with daily news in today’s perilous reality. Neatly plotted but without angst among the characters, the book offers an insightful look at what today’s Security Services really worry about, and how they cope in their half-lit theatre of action.

Looking for the page-turning risks of a Joseph Finder or John Le Carré book? Don’t pick up Rimington. Instead, The Moscow Sleepers offers a sturdy display of espionage agencies wrestling to collaborate via real-life intrigue, with a nice dose of feminine teamwork. It’s a good, if quiet, read, and may yield a better dose of the real thing than most other espionage novels today. 

From Bloomsbury; publication date November 13.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Best Holiday Stocking Stuffer: Helene Tursten's AN ELDERLY LADY IS UP TO NO GOOD

If you live with or love or are great friends with another mystery fan, you may have already experienced this holiday quandary: You'd like to slip a relevant and enjoyable gift into one of the stockings hanging at the mantel but a book is too large to fit -- or create a package in an eight-nights-of-small-gifts stack that doesn't instantly scream "book." Pilgrim, your search is ended. (Oops, if you recognize that line, you're as old as I am.)

In a generous and marvelous move, Soho Press just published (available as of yesterday) a marvelously wicked set of stories by Swedish author Helene Tursten. No, it's NOT related to her powerful Detective Inspector Irene Huss series ... instead, it's a set of situations that the elderly and solitary Maud finds frustrating. Living alone quite nicely, and in her eighties, Maud shouldn't have to put up with extreme frustrations, should she, at her age??

Fortunately for the clever protagonist of AN ELDERLY LADY IS UP TO NO GOOD, Maud's scruples regard principally her own comfort. If it's necessary to undertake criminal action in order to protect her way of life, her main concern is not to be a suspect -- and of course, not to make a huge mess of her charming apartment.

The five stories are neatly tucked into a darling hardcover book, about 4 by 6 inches -- yes, it will fit into most stockings, and definitely won't be guessed right away at a Yankee Swap party (you don't know about those? click for details of this odd New England custom).

Here's a taste from one of the tales as Maud prepares to take action:
Maud's luggage consisted of a suitcase and a sturdy stick with a rubber spike on the end. The stick had been leaning against the wall by the door of the clinic when she went to see the doctor about the problem with her eye. She had picked it up on the way out. You never know when something like this might come in handy, she had thought.
Oh, there is a short cameo appearance by Detective Inspector Huss near the end -- but is she good enough to tag Maud for any crime? Have fun discovering the answer.

I'm getting a modest stack of copies myself. This book is solving a lot of problems for this not-yet-elderly lady, and may prevent my having to take some of Maud's steps!

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Engrossing New Caper Mystery from Timothy Hallinan, NIGHTTOWN

I had the BEST time reading the newest mystery from Timothy Hallinan. NIGHTTOWN hit the store shelves yesterday and already has a slew of stunning reviews, including a starred one from Publisher's Weekly. So this write-up arrives a bit late to the party (yours truly had a pressing five-day commitment to a family wedding and couldn't quite write everything on time), and I feel free to just talk about how much fun I had with this latest caper.

Let me explain the premise of the Junior Bender series, one of two that Hallinan writes: Junior (his real name -- and this is NOT a YA series, he's a loving and mature adult) acquired an awesome mentor into house burglary in his youth, has strong boundaries around what he will and won't do, and pretty much exclusively robs the rich when they're not home. (This is the seventh in the series -- check out earlier titles here.) Focused in Southern California, his targets are often multimillionaires with major film connections. Come to think of it, his allies in crime often have those connections, too. Or better. For example, there's his astonishing fence, Stinky Tetweiler, who's referred Junior into his latest commission, which actually isn't working out too well, so ...
I just kept kicking the front door, yelling and jamming my thumb against the bell. It was after 2 a.m. and I was making a lot of noise for a sedate, upper-middle-money neighborhood full of TV series supporting actors, second-tier studio executives, and record producers who hadn't had a hit since Big Hair, but that was the point. Stinky had a couple million bucks' worth of reasons not to want any of his neighbors to get alarmed and call the cops. At any given time the house had three or four rooms full of extremely expensive objects from all over the world, improbably jumbled together as though Sotheby's had held a garage sale.
The trouble is, the assignment stinks -- literally, of the baby powder used to cover human odors in a mansion where the owner recently died -- and the most worrying part of it is the amount of money at stake: so much money for Junior to burgle a single item from the house that he's sure there are layers of risk involved (not least of them the cops). But he's stuck with the job because he and his beloved need to fund an effort to kidnap back her daughter from a mob boss, so money really is essential. Hence the need for more resources on the job than Stinky suggested Junior would need, including "a short-tempered hit woman, a hippie throwback who hadn't signed on to the peace and love part of the lifestyle. Her parents, bless them, had named her Eaglet. I was thinking I might have a use for Eaglet when the door opened."

In fact, Junior does recruit Eaglet, as well as a tech team that readers of earlier titles in the series will recognize happily. And some of the funniest passages in this laugh-enough-to-annoy-your-spouse book involve Eaglet and that team of life-confused teenagers.

Are you a fan of Donald Westlake's caper books, or the first series from Bethany Maines with its side-splitting moments among makeup experts who ride on the wild side? Here's what you've been waiting for: exquisitely plotted action and twists, with conversation and commentary so dryly funny that those pee-proof panties advertised on TV should be sold with the book in some regions. (Tim? Is that possible?)

You need at least three copies: one for yourself (shelve with caper books, or with California crime fiction, or with "best of the year"), and two for the people in your life who get most tense as the holiday season approaches. Because they need this book to put it all back into perspective. For Junior Bender, if your reason for crime is both loving and well-executed, then what's the problem? Oh yeah, those risks and dangers already mentioned. Sigh. I can make a guess at the sequel (and can hardly wait).

Oh yes, one more compelling reason to read NIGHTTOWN: I swear it's based in part on the Winchester Mansion. What, you don't know about that? Read up about it here. You'll be glad.

From Soho Press, a fine host of today's crime fiction in all its diversity and richness.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

California Noir in Fresh Memes, from Jonathan Lethem, THE FERAL DETECTIVE

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

When Arabella, an Oregon college student, vanishes into a Southern California desert cult, it’s Phoebe Siegler’s call to action—because Arabella is the daughter of her best friend and somebody needs to do something, right? A referral near a mountain retreat connected with both Buddhist monks and Leonard Cohen leads Phoebe to a highly eccentric local detective who may be able to help. So The Feral Detective, one of the strangest and deepest mysteries of this year, begins as a missing-teenager case, only to morph into looking at what’s missing in Phoebe herself.

Of course, she doesn’t see herself as having issues, other than her tremendous rage and grief surrounding the 2016 presidential elections. (Somebody needs to do something!) Obviously, private eye Charles Heist, with a live opossum in his desk drawer and a wild young woman burrowing into the blankets on the office couch, is a prime candidate for Phoebe’s judging and labeling. In fact, she tags him as “the feral detective,” using a term that most of us only attach to starving and flea-bitten cats that won’t accept affection. Is it the investigator who fits the term? Or is it Phoebe herself, with her abrupt sexual approach and immediate aggression toward the people she meets?

To get a hint at where the missing Arabella may be, PI Charles Heist opts first to assist a group of “homeless” people (really quite at home in their scrap of vulnerable land) to evacuate from a massive gully—a “wash”—before the oncoming rain sweeps them away. They may already know Arabella. Phoebe accepts the role of sidekick for the effort, doing something that’s more productive than her usual routine of watching and hating the politics of the moment. Then suddenly Heist leaves her at her hotel and takes off with some of the rescued outdoor folks:
Then came a strange time. In the hours before Charles Heist reappeared and took me away in his truck again, I entered a kind of spell or pall as if the small hotel room were a kind of tunnel too, and I’d been left behind instead of rescued. I stripped off my soaked clothes and took a hot shower, and while one part of my mind urgently wished to scrub off the mud of the Wash, the rank smell of the tunnel and of my homeless companions in the cab of Heist’s pickup, another part mourned some loss I couldn’t specify. I felt I’d been allowed to taste Heist’s world, teamed with him in pursuit of abjectly hopeless tasks in a pit in the rain. And then I’d been expelled.
But Heist does return, with a hint of where to look for Arabella: amid the often dangerous vagabonds, hippies, and outcasts who make up a pair of opposing cults out in the desert east of Los Angeles. Is Arabella caught up unwillingly in a massive feud between two groups known as the Rabbits and the Bears, or is she about to take part in a ceremony that will turn her into a desert queen? If Phoebe and Charles do extract her, will Arabella consent to go home with them?

Jonathan Lethem’s writing weaves together the surreal and the heart-wrenching, and Phoebe’s strong dark voice speaks with the same alcohol-soaked despair as in the earlier Los Angeles noir. At times, she sounds like one of the PIs of the 1930s, harsh, unlovable, able only to attack the world that refuses to accommodate her.

Readers of classic noir will recognize and bond to Phoebe’s gruff assessments of her case and her life (post-election trauma, anyone?); imagine Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain crushed in the latter-day typewriters of Lisa Brackmann and Taylor Stevens, then dried out under a desert sun. Complex, tragic and comic at once, and utterly memorable, Phoebe and her “hired gun” become memes for all of us trapped in political quagmire and questions.

But going deep isn’t the only way to read The Feral Detective: It’s also one of the most unusual, unlikely, and un-put-downable PI novels ever.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Murder and Life Entangle Across Centuries, in KEEPER from Johanna Gustawsson

Reading the new title from the French crime fiction author Johanna Gustawsson requires fierce concentration -- because once again, as she did in Block 46, Gustawsson tells multiple tales in multiple voices, and at multiple times. So if you enjoy feeling challenged to keep track of all the clues and see how the motives and means interact, KEEPER is meant for you.

Often gruesome, yet focused more on character, as well as the character of the times, KEEPER provides an intimate look into the lives of the London women-of-the-street who suffered at the hands of Jack the Ripper, among many other brutal people of that time. Meanwhile, we follow the reconnection of profiler Emily Roy and true-crime writer Alexis Castells as their lives become way too closely tied to an unfolding police investigation of a now-imprisoned serial murderer and possible copy-cat crimes breaking out, including in Sweden.

Most urgently, a noted actress is missing, believed kidnapped -- and because we're shown her point of view, as well as her torturer, we can see the parallels to what's taken place before. Maxim Jakubowski provides a clean, smooth translation with power and elegance, as in this reflection from the victim:
Her throat feels like it is lined with thorns. Her mouth is bone dry and her tongue unbearably heavy. Beads of sweat moisten the back of her neck, her armpits and her upper lip. As if there were a direct connection between the water deserting the inside of her mouth and the moisture pearling on the outside of her body.
Fair warning: There's a touch of Hannibal Lecter in this one. And the final plot twist are harsh and sudden. You'll want to double check the door locks and keep a few extra lights on, as you read. If that's a fair deal, grab a copy -- the book's well written and powerful, and the suspense is brutal. Released in the US by Orenda, today.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Brief Mention: Eve Wing's Sex-Style Murder Mystery, CHASING RAINBOWS NYC

Everyone deserves a chance to bring out a first book that shows there's a beginning author behind it. So a tip of the hat to Eve Wing, a retired artist manager who's taking solo flight with CHASING RAINBOWS NYC.

Structured with a murder at the start and a revelation at the end, the rest of the book is made up of the sexual adventures of protagonist Ariella Garvin, a writing coach and agent who slides back and forth between hot relationships with two different men, Jesse and Gael. She tells one of her sex partners: "It's you men who want virgins, Gael. Women want experienced men like you, and they don't want to wait until they get to heaven." So the book is a good fit for those who savor not-too-explicit sex scenes (when Ariella's turned on, she gets "the wrigglies").  But if you're a reader seeking "clues" and the usual progress of a mystery toward a solution, this book shouldn't be in your check-out basket. (A tougher editor could have eased some of the niggling goofs in continuity, too.)

Wishing this author good luck with her efforts, and congrats on the urban debut with Strategic Book Publishing.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Top-Notch Thriller from John E. Stith, PUSHBACK

If you already know the name of author John E. Stith, chances are you've been reading his high-octane science fiction. His author website, neverend.com, strongly reflects the space travel component of books that have taken him into the finals for the Nebula, Sejun, and La Tour Eiffel Science Fiction awards. But those books have often had a mystery component (see Deep Quarry and Death Tolls).

With PUSHBACK, Stith leaves behind science fiction entirely -- although that might not be clear in the opening of this thriller, when Dave Barlow takes his significant girlfriend to his high-school reunion, and finds himself erased from the class entirely. It blows apart the romance. But before it can totally knock Dave off kilter -- with his serious case of PTSD, that's a real possibility -- he gets a text from an unidentified sender: "How does it feel to be forgotten so quickly? Have a nice day. [Smiley face]"

Okay, somehow this is a setup, right? Maybe a practical joke? Except the cascade of events that follow, some of them directly life-threatening, are clearly not a jest. Someone's after Dave Barlow, even willing to attach the investment firm where he's worked. And there can be only one thing he's done that might cause such persecution: survived a car crash in which his then-fiancée perished.
Multiple nightmares got past my defenses during the night, and by the time I should be getting up, I felt even more tired than when I'd gone to bed. ... Two major events in three days gave me an awful feeling about what life might be like if I couldn't defuse this. I was a little closer to understanding Butch and Sundance's decision to flee to Bolivia. And my question was a bit like theirs: "Who is doing this?"
Stith's sci-fi expertise turns out to be excellent background for realizing how the Internet and social media and a few well-placed real-life gossip chains can be mobilized to swiftly destroy a life. His pacing is ideal for time-driven suspense and threat, and as narrator-with-issues, Dave Barlow is a terrific "Everyman" with vulnerabilities and a tough time keeping his anger in control.

One extra pleasure: Aside from an ordinary screwdriver and borrowing a few electronic items from a buddy, Dave Barlow's efforts in PUSHBACK to escape the cyberbullying and other horrors designed for him require no special tech expertise -- it's all about how painful ordinary life can be when a bully (or two?) can line you up front and center. I couldn't put the book down, so it's lucky for dinner that it ended around page 300.

John E. Stith
I hope Stith will keep pushing into the crime fiction area. He's a natural.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Diversion: THE DELIGHTFUL HORROR OF FAMILY BIRDING, Eli J. Knapp (Torrey House Press)

I pay attention to Torrey House Press, "Voices for the Land," because the press publishes the very satisfying National Park Mysteries by Scott Graham. When I saw this nonfiction title, though, I wanted to review it right away -- because "family birding" plays a daily role up here on our Vermont ridge and in our family.

The book's a collection of birding adventures and thought-provoking quandaries provided by Houghton College professor (of intercultural studies and biology) Eli J. Knapp. The anecdote that gives its name to THE DELIGHTFUL HORROR OF FAMILY BIRDING involves Knapp taking his family on a road trip near their home at the time, in Oregon, trying to stage for the kids and his wife the sort of magical experience he'd already had on his own, this time with a "Wildlife Refuge Photography Bird Blind" at Tule Lake. But instead of a heavenly moment, he found spiders and wasps ready to frighten and possibly hurt his family, including his two-year-old daughter. Crushed, scared, mortified, he retreated with his family to the car and the snacks.
My thought was simple and straightforward. Leave. Quickly. Like my family, I was tired, frustrated, hot, and hungry. Even worse, I felt stupid. What had I been thinking? Obviously I couldn't recreate inspired moments I'd had by myself ... [En route home,] We fortified ourselves at a grand buffet, navigated around the smoke and fires, and laughed about the delightful horror of the Tule Lake bird blinds. ... my sister-in-law uttered a word that again sent goosebumps down my spine. "Owl!" she gasped, pointing to a striking silhouette atop a large Douglas fir. I pulled over, positioning the car to give us all a vantage point. A deep indigo sky outlined the owl's barrel form, accentuating the ear tufts. Its head swiveled robotically, right then left. The body tilted slightly forward, and the owl lifted off, dissolving into the inky night.
Many of Knapp's adventures involve taking his students to locations where the "rare bird" being sought can be very hard to find, or to places not known primarily for birds -- like the Grand Canyon. His reflections delve into why it's hard to ensure survival of particular species -- and to see them personally, as well.

With 31 essays rambling from Tanzania to Florida to upstate New York, the book provides both diversity and challenge. (I feel better about my home birdfeeder now.) Not much horror, but quite a few moments of risk and "OMG."

I enjoyed particularly the reflections on the "why" and "why it matters" of birding. Sure, it's well outside my usual mystery and crime fiction fare. But every palate needs a change now and then. I'll be giving a copy of THE DELIGHTFUL HORROR OF FAMILY BIRDING to a couple of people on my holiday list. Definitely recommended -- for yourself or as a well-appreciated gift.

Consider this conclusion to a section where the author ponders his own shyness about being a birder:
It's good to march out of the house seeking an exquisitely hued varied thrush. Even better when my son follows me out. Or when my students ask to tag along. Occasionally, it's even okay to interrupt a meeting to point a thrush out. Why? Because my response to those who are earnestly seeking nature's overlooked wonders shouldn't be varied at all.
The book's available at all the usual stores and outlets -- but it's even more fun to purchase this one directly from Torrey House Press, in order to scoop up some of those Scott Graham mysteries at the same time. Right?

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Brief Mention: C. M. Wendelboe's Western Crime Novel, HUNTING THE SATURDAY NIGHT STRANGLER

A former law enforcement pro who worked first in South Dakota, then long-term in Gillette, Wyoming, C. M. Wendelboe just brought out book 2 in his second crime fiction series: HUNTING THE SATURDAY NIGHT STRANGLER, "a Bitter Wind mystery." Readers of Craig Johnson's series will appreciate Wendelboe's books -- so will Scott Graham's fans. I think they'll also be a good fit for Nevada Barr readers, although with less character depth at times.

Retired detective Arn Anderson and TV reporter Ana Maria Villareal team up and try to convince the Cheyenne police that two recent deaths are the start of a series of killings -- then, of course, tackle the investigation themselves. Count on desperation, hard terrain, some very broken minds, and a fierce plot twist to resolve the details.

Midnight Ink published this, as well as its predecessor, Hunting the Five Point Killer. Shelve with Western fiction and brace for blunt violence and a fast-moving plot, without necessarily a lot of growth of character.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.


The co-authors of THE QUESTION OF THE DEAD MISTRESS, E. J. Copperman and http://www.jeffcohenbooks.com, are based in the same person, whose third name is Jeffrey Cohen. And if you are already gently bemused by that, you are in the right frame of mind to enter this author's (these authors' ?) newest title, a lively and entertaining investigation featuring not a detective, but an answer seeker, on commission: Samuel Hoenig.

Samuel is a relatively young adult whose mother, like so many of us today, feels he should have gainful employment -- it was her idea that he open his agency, Questions Answered, housed in a modest strip mall in New Jersey. His assistant, Ms. Washburn, seems well cut out for her role as translator at the start of this fifth "case": She helps Samuel get the gist of such expressions as "What are you doing for lunch" -- which, contrary to what a logical mind might expect, is not usually a request for a description of a process. And if it weren't for Ms. Washburn's opinion on the matter, Samuel might have turned down this particular question from Virginia, who wants to be his new client: "Mr. Hoenig, is my husband having an affair with his dead girlfriend?"

To a literal mind -- say, one like Samuel's -- the immediate obvious answer is one word: "No." But of course, there's a reason why Virginia has brought him this question, and the case is surprisingly complex.

The author(s) have nonfictional experience with parenting a person diagnosed as having Asperger's syndrome -- a term for a kind of very high functioning version of the brain variant described by autism spectrum disorder. (It's commonly said by many that a high percentage of the geniuses figuring out today's technology have this form of brain function.) Copperman/Cohen plays the syndrome for chuckles around Samuel's efforts to comprehend and act on the highly irrational words and needs of the people around him, and anyone who has experienced a flood of dinosaur names and facts from a compulsively learning four-year-old will identify a lot of the time! The author's experience justifies writing from this point of view -- but I wasn't always comfortable with it. Still, the book makes excellent reading, with the flavor of an up-to-date Sherlock Holmes crossed with the adolescent agony of wondering when someone actually wants to be kissed (Ms. Washburn, for instance) and what is meant by that!

Eventually Samuel figures out that he can best handle this question by appointing Ms. Washburn to be the lead investigator, since she sees some reason to pursue the answer. But soon the two find a need to pool their skills (not just for kissing opportunities), and discover there's more danger than expected in an ordinary question case.

An entertaining puzzle mystery with lively twists and a lot of food for thought, THE QUESTION OF THE DEAD MISTRESS will please many a Sherlock Holmes or Father Brown fan -- and, of course, anyone who began grade school by reading Encyclopedia Brown. Actually -- I really enjoyed it myself. I'd read more. Fortunately, since this is the fifth in the series, that option is available! (Although the publisher has been Ink, which is closing its doors, so expect a change of publisher.) And, my best measure of a good book: I've got at least three people I'd like to give this to.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

British Traditional Mystery with Magic, THE VANISHING BOX, Elly Griffiths

[Originally published in the New York Review of Books]

In the English seaside town of Brighton, there’s an active murderer again—one whose theatrical death scene creation immediately binds together the amazing (if aging) Max Mephisto, stage magician, and his former wartime colleague, Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens.

The Vanishing Box is the fourth in the “Magic Men Mystery” series from British authorElly Griffiths, and it’s set in 1953, when the deep echoes and wounds of The War still shiver in England. But it’s also a time when the future is coming brilliantly to life, as the landlady where the variety stage player lodge appreciates her wireless (radio) but the stage players themselves are eager for the huge audiences that television promises to give them. Max Mephisto’s daughter Ruby, also a magician, is ready to play to that enormous crowd. Max, maybe not so much.

The “Vanishing Box” is, of course, a famous trick of stage magic. Max and Ruby create a father-daughter performance where one after the other disappears, only to return to applause. Behind the scenes, each struggles with romance (an enduring thread in Griffiths’s mysteries): Ruby, in love and engaged to DI Stephens (but always second in line behind his investigations); Max, feeling over the hill (was 44 so old, back then?), and suddenly open to a new and younger lover. How cruel that murder could threaten these possible happy diversions!

At first, it seems the murderer might just have madly posed one beautiful young woman to resemble something from the local stage show, a historic scene from a painting. But when the murder rate escalates, even the police investigators suffer trauma:
 ’Holy Mary Mother of God.’ This was the porter becoming religious with shock.

‘Don’t come any closer,’ said Emma.

Bob was leaning over the body. ‘He’s dead all right.’ …

‘Have you got a telephone?’ [Emma] asked the porter. … She was very grateful to Bob for offering to stay with the effigy that had been [a man] but didn’t quite know how to say so. She followed the porter, whose name she learnt was Norman, to his basement apartment. There she rang the DI and refused Norman’s offer of a whisky ‘for the shock.’ 
Despite the foregrounding of Max and Ruby, the magicians at center stage of the murder scenes, it’s the police investigators that Griffiths places into best perspective. Murder still horrifies them; death wounds them; investigating a killing, whether it’s purely evil or somehow a necessary twist to a shattered mind nearby, shatters their everyday interactions and relationships. How many losses will the Brighton murderer create, as he or she continues to stage death with theatrical trappings and terrible effectiveness?

Griffiths is one of the few suspense authors who can successfully summon the reality of the awkward 1950s, with its uncertainty, its breathtaking possibilities, and its rapid changes that build up a heap of dead customs, vanished family structures, safety wiped away. Staging The Vanishing Box in the last of the old-time variety shows adds to the sense of regarding a vanished era, along with lives lost.

The plot is neatly pinned together, and if the red herrings are not as noticeable as the kisses and courting, well, that’s how Griffiths spins this series. (Her other one features forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway.  And Griffiths has been a winner of the prestigious CWA Dagger in the Library Award.) Pick this one up as a good traditional mystery that won’t keep you up at night, but will keep you pleasantly engaged, page to page, like the ones from G. M. Malliet, Ellery Adams, or Barb Ross.

Once everything’s sorted out at the end of The Vanishing Box, quite a few things have vanished, but not returned. Will the series continue? It’s not clear what will come next, but DI Edgar Stephens has new possibilities in front of him—and so does Max Mephisto.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.