Saturday, October 11, 2014

Intriguing Traditional Mysteries: CAT ON A COLD TIN ROOF (Mike Resnick) and THE BUTTON MAN (Mark Pryor)

I've been taking time off from those complex, thought-provoking global mysteries and thrillers flooding the market, to sink into two really good traditional mysteries that turn entirely different settings and sleuths into well-plotted, well-paced, satisfying books. And when I'd finished both CAT ON A COLD TIN ROOF from Mike Resnick (yes, the same Mike Resnick famous for his science fiction) and THE BUTTON MAN from Mark Pryor (a prequel!), I suddenly realized they were from the same publisher, Seventh Street Books. I think that's a great sign for this mystery-focused imprint of Prometheus Books.

Eli Paxton in CAT ON A COLD TIN ROOF is the kind of detective I hope I might be if I'd gone that route: able to use his network of friends and acquaintances (including the best fences in Cincinnati, Ohio) to probe into the case that he's just landed through a police officer buddy. The police are at a murder scene, and officer Jim Simmons wants Eli right away to look into a side aspect of the scene, a missing cat. Sounds pretty trivial, until Eli soaks up several facts: the cat's owner, now dead, was a hugely wealthy reformed criminal ("organized" crime); the widow, who's hiring him, is throwing cash on the table right away; and, as he soon realizes, this cat was worth a fortune, for a very unusual reason.

Author Mike Resnick keeps the progress on the case both risky and entertaining, with a steady series of humorous moments (Eli's obnoxious dog and his overly curious landlady have leading roles). By the end of the second chapter, I was chuckling and saying "Replaces Westlake for goofy caper type crime fiction" -- and soon after, I was ignoring phone calls and work assignments to discover how Eli would juggle partnering with a "fixer" from the Chicago mob, and being chased by Bolivian killers. Plus there's a steady patter of "foodie" chat, as Eli and his contacts migrate around Cincinnati restaurants and comment on the specials.

Here are two more pieces of good news: This is the third in an established series (Dog in the Manger, originally published 2001 but reprinted by Seventh Street in 2012; and The Trojan Colt, also from Seventh Street, 2013), so there's some fun to catch up on. And Resnick is an even more established author of sci fi, much of it linked to Africa and the Kikuyu people -- so I'll be watching for his other titles over the winter.

THE BUTTON MAN also adds to an established series, but in this case Mark Pryor provides a prequel to his three Hugo Marston crime novels, all set in France: The Bookseller, The Crypt Thief, The Blood Promise. Neatly labeled "2008," the opening chapter takes place in a cemetery in London, where Marston -- a newly minted head of security for the U.S. embassy in London, after retiring from FBI profiling -- literally walks into a body. Almost immediately, he discovers it's one of the two visiting American performers he's been asked to protect as they film a movie in rural England.

And that's just the start of a quick series of startling connections among the visitors, the local politicos, and a kinky up-scale sex club out in the countryside. Soon Marston is depending on a secretive young hotel employee named Merlyn, whose surprising ties to both the actors and the club keep him racing to cope with one "situation" after another, trying to meet the demands of his job and his own sense of moral fairness.

When the rising body count betrays a possible serial killer entangled with the same individuals and institutions, Marston's job requires that he race to avert further violence. But without the final missing pieces, he's not catching up with the criminal, and time's running out.

Although the pace is much quicker and the circumstances obviously up-to-date, Pryor's mysteries remind me of the neatly twisted British work of Dame Agatha Christie: puzzles that we readers have a hair of a chance of solving before the sleuth, with memorable characters and scenes that make the most of London fog, back roads without road signs, old money and new. Traditional, professional, refreshingly suspenseful without horror -- I'd pick up (and keep) a Mark Pryor/Hugo Marston mystery any day!

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