Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Death in Daylesford by Kerry Greenwood

First Sentence: It was a lazy, late summer's morning in St. Kilda.

Miss Phryne Fisher and her ever-loyal maid, Dot, are off to visit the Spa at Hepburn being run for shell-shocked veterans of the Great War. Their visit coincides with the Highland Games, but it is not much of a celebration as people begin dying. And what about the women who have been disappearing? With Phryne away, her two adopted daughters, Jane and Ruth, along with handyman Tinker, join forces with DS Hugh Collins to solve the murder of the girl's classmate.

Ah, the joy of the Honorable Phryne Fisher of 221B The Esplanade in Melbourne, Australia in this multi-plot story where all the characters are fully developed and wonderfully realized. Phryne is a strong, independent, character with a view of relationships that is more traditionally male, yet completely accepting—'Phryne made a mental note to the effect that medical opinions stating that women who were same-sex attracted must be neurotic were so much ill-informed drivel.'

Those new to the series are introduced not only to Phryne and learn of her family history but meet her current family and those who are associated with her. With the secondary characters, Greenwood cleverly and oh-so-subtly includes a soupçon of doubt as to their honesty.

Greenwood begins each chapter with an excerpt from a poem or literature, adding a certain grace to the story. She paints verbal pictures; places, things, and most of all, people become three-dimensional through her words. "A generalized sense of doom hung in the atmosphere… 'I don't know how this farm strikes you, Dot, but it's a little bit too Thomas Hardy for my liking.'"

This is not a book to read when hungry as even the simplest meal leaves one salivating--"fish, beef, and chicken pies."—and-- "broccoli has a sauce made of lemon juice, garlic and butter, and the carrots have fresh ginger, sesame seeds, and honey. Oh, and butter.'" Alternatively, one appreciates Phryne admitting that Dot a lesson in camouflage.

Rather than a cozy, consider this a traditional mystery.  The murders are numerous, and the issues, whether related to the crime being solved by the group in Melbourne, or by Phryne and Dot, are stark. Greenwood makes it clear that issues of today are not new but were relevant in the 1920s as well.

"Death in Daylesford" is chock full of mysteries all of which are solved in the most British of manners. There are numerous characters to keep straight, so it's best to keep each mystery separate in one's mind. No matter what, it is wonderful to have Phryne and the gang back again.

DEATH IN DAYLESFORD (Hist/PI-Phryne Fisher-Australia-1920s) – VG+
Greenwood, Kerry - 21st in series
Poisoned Pen Press, Jun 2021, 318 pp

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Not a Creature Was Stirring by Jane Haddam

First Sentence: "Listen," Myra said, as soon as the phone was picked up, without waiting to find out who had answered it.

Gregor Demarkian, a retired profiler for the FBI "…the most Irish Catholic organization in the U.S. government" is asked for a special favor by his good friend, Father Tibor. Philadelphia Main Line millionaire Robert Hannaford has offered the priest $100,000 for his crumbling church if Gregor will have Christmas dinner at "Engine House," the Hannaford estate. What Gregor finds is a house with every inch decorated for Christmas; a group of siblings who don't like themselves or one another, some of whom are in financial and or legal trouble, and a matriarch crippled with Muscular Sclerosis who never leaves her room. Shortly after arriving, Hanniford is found in his den where a marble bust accidentally fell, killing him. Was it an accident? Gregor doesn't think so.

Haddam's voice is one that captivates. With a heading of "PART ONE SUNDAY, DECEMBER 18-SATURDAY DECEMBER 24 THE FIRST MURDER," it's clear there's an interesting story ahead. And it is nice that a floorplan of the house is included at the beginning of the book. The story is filled with subtle, often dialogue-driven humor. There is a cynicism and sharpness to her voice that causes frequent chuckles—"No intelligent psychopath had to murder a dozen little old ladies to get his kicks. He would wreak far more havoc by going into government work." After that, it is the character of Gregor and his friend Father Tibor who are the hook. We learn of Gregor's past and about life within an Armenian community.

As for the family/victims, they are a mess. It is hard to work up a whole lot of sympathy for them. It makes one glad to not be wealthy, or at least, overly entitled.

As for the plot, in the end, aren't all motives really quite basic? The family Gregor is investigating is filled with unpleasant characters, and none more so than the father. As the investigation proceeds, it is understandable why he was murdered.

One point of interest is that each of Haddam's 30 books, is set against the background of a holiday. This somehow truly fits with her sense of humor.

"Not a Creature was Stirring" is a familial version of Agatha Christie's "And Then There None." The has a strange, obscure plot of even stranger, mainly unsympathetic people other than those surrounding Gregor. However, what it really has is a delightful voice, eminently quotable lines, and a lot of smoking: one forgets how prevalent smoking was in 1990. This was one of those books where you feel as though you should have figured it out, but didn't. It's also a book that makes one really want to continue the series.

NOT A CREATURE WAS STIRRING (Pol(ret)-Gregor Demarkian-NYC/PA-Contemp) – Good
Jane Haddam, 1st in series
Mysterious Press, 1990, 320 pp

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

What Doesn't Kill Us by David Housewright

First Sentence: I was shot in the back at close range by a .32-caliber handgun yet did not die, at least not permanently.

Rushmore "Mac" MacKenzie is a former cop now spending his time by taking on unofficial private investigations as favors for his friends, some of whom are more law-abiding than others. It all starts when his friend Deese takes a genealogy-site DNA test and learns his father is not his father. But is that what led to Mac being shot in the back? Now lying in a medically-induced coma, it is up to Mac's friends to do a favor for him and track down his would-be killer.

What a unique premise. While the solving of the crime is left up to his diverse and fascinating assortment of friends with incidents shown from their perspective, the story is told, by post coma, by Mac. This gives a somewhat out-of-body feel to the narration. The book does mention COVID-19, although it was clearly written at the very beginning of the pandemic.

Housewright has compiled a fascinating collection of characters. Many are recurring characters that add to the overall series. Some, such as Detective Shipman, are new and add a touch of vinegar to the story. That Nina, Mac's wife and owner of jazz club, confesses being jealous of Shelby, the wife of Mac's best friend, is perfectly written and exemplifies how women almost never realize their own worth or successes.

The story segues into various relevant topics are insightful and add a layer to the story beyond the basic investigation. Rather than being intrusive or slowing the pace, they add a layer of significance.

Housewright is an eminently quotable author. Whether talking about emotional pain—"It reminds me of that old Skeeter Davis song. I wake up in the morning and I wonder why everything's the same as it was."—or referencing Shakespeare to impart a facial expression—"I need you to do something for me," she said. The way Smith and Jones glanced at each other yet again somehow reminded Shipman of Shakespeare's Richard III – I am not in the giving vein today."—or a t-shirt meme—"YOU MATTER unless you multiply yourself by the speed of light squared…then you energy."—his words are relatable.

Unconventional twists are sometimes so cleverly done as to make one smile. The story of Deese and the unintended result of taking the DNA test is one that could serve as a caution. But there is also a well-done twist that circles the plot back to the motive.

"What Doesn't Kill Us" is a well-done, non-stop read. The plethora of characters can be confusing, but collectively they consolidate the notes into a melody line that makes the story sing.

WHAT DOESN'T KILL US (PI-Rushmore MacKenzie-Twin Cities-Contemp) – VG
Housewright, David
Minotaur Books, May 2021, 345 pp.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves

First Sentence: Lorna lifted Thomas from his high chair and held him for a moment on her knee.

DCI Vera Stanhope comes upon a car that has skidded off the road in a snowstorm. There is no driver to be seen, but an infant has been left secured in a child seat. Knowing she can't leave him there, Vera and the child head for a nearby house; Brockburn, where her father grew up. When a neighbor of the house finds the body of a murdered woman half-covered by the snow, Vera calls up her team to solve the crime, uncovering family secrets along the way.

Vera is one of the best creations of contemporary mystery fiction. She is older, overweight, rather shabby, completely devoid of maternal instinct, and raised in a way to make her a loner, yet not unaffected by how others view her, and not without insecurities—"She paused for a moment, Cinderella looking in: the fifteen-year-old girl again, excluded."

In addition to her descriptions of Vera, Cleeves creates a vivid sense of place—"The sight was like something from a fairy tale. Magical. The flurry of snow had passed and there was moonlight, and a sky flecked with stars."—and scene—"…pheasant, cooked slowly with red wine and shallots…And a vegetable casserole…Roast potatoes and parsnips and sprouts…A variety of puds, hot and cold."

Vera's relationship with her team is interesting. She knows their vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Although she seems to take advantage of them, in knowing what drives them, she is helping them grow and improve individually and as a unit. What makes it work is that they understand what she is doing. They know her, too, with the teammates often bolstering one other.

Cleeve's books are as much personality studies as they are mysteries. By focusing on motivation, it becomes clear how the past can influence the present and the future. One cannot help analyzing oneself in the process.

The plot is excellent. The information on anorexia is well presented and stresses the severity of the disease—which not simply an issue of vanity. There are plenty of questions and red herrings. The question as to who fathered the baby leads to effective supposition. A "ta-dah" moment gives way to real suspense and threat, and a wonderfully English ending.

"The Darkest Evening" is another example of Cleeves' excellent storytelling. The climax is well done and even touching. It's a mystery one may not figure out before the end when it all makes sense, and the use of Frost's poem in the title is perfect.

THE DARKEST EVENING (PolProc-Vera Stanhope-England-Contemp) - Ex
Cleeves, Ann – 9th in series
Minotaur Books, Sept 2020, 384 pp.