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Posts Tagged ‘cozy mystery’

watersEven though I haven’t been to Venice in years, it takes only a few pages of one of Donna Leon’s police procedurals featuring Guido Brunetti to transport me back to that singular city of water and stone. The 25th book in the series, The Waters of Eternal Youth (Grove/Atlantic, digital galley), strikes me as especially atmospheric and poignant. Reminders are everywhere that Venice is sinking into the sea, and historic preservation is much on the mind of several characters, including an influential contessa who asks Brunetti a favor. Fifteen years ago, her then-teenage granddaughter Manuela suffered brain damage after almost drowning in a canal. A drunken bystander who rescued the girl said a man had pushed her, but he forgot even saying that by the next day. Manuela, now locked in eternal childhood, apparently remembers nothing. Brunetti does not expect to find anything so many years later, but a murder lends urgency to the leisurely investigation. Brunetti’s literature professor wife Paola looks up from Henry James to offer her opinions; fellow detective Claudia Griffonio befriends Manuela and reveals something of her own past; and internet expert Signorina Elletra runs interference when Brunetti’s boss becomes too interested in the case. Venice, of course, enchants.

devonshireLaura Childs’ cozy Tea Shop mysteries have such evocative, tea-flavored titles — Death by Darjeeling, Chamomile Mourning, Scones and Bones. But her new one may be my favorite: Devonshire Scream (Berkley/Penguin, digital galley). Theodosia Browning’s Indigo Tea Shop in downtown Charleston, S.C. also caters special events, such as a trunk show at her friend Brooke’s jewelry store. But a smash-and-grab heist interrupts the event and Brooke’s niece is killed by flying glass. The police suspect an international gang of thieves who have pulled similar jobs in other cities and worry that the display of a real Romanov egg at an upcoming charity event may be the real target. In between serving delicious meals at the tea shop — cranberry scones, anyone? — Theo snoops among old Charlestonians and social-climbing arrivistes, picking up gossip and trailing possible suspects. She even dons a valuable gem for the gala, hoping the thieves will find it irresistible. They do. Irresistible recipes at book’s end are the icing on the tea cake.

nurseThe title of M.C. Beaton’s latest Hamish Macbeth tale — Death of a Nurse (Grand Central Publishing, review copy) — tells us the victim, but I knew from first sighting that Gloria Dainty was doomed. That’s because the flirty nurse to elderly James Harrison has agreed to a dinner date with Hamish, and Lochdubh’s red-headed police officer has notorious bad luck with women. Sure enough, Gloria fails to appear at the appointed hour, and the irascible Harrison says she’s done a flit. Four days later, Hamish finds her body at the bottom of a beachside cliff. His investigation is hindered by interference from higher-ups and from locals who fancy themselves detectives. Meanwhile, Hamish’s current assistant, clumsy Charlie, is winning hearts right and left, to Hamish’s dismay. Fans of the witty series will be amused by the return of familiar characters and local  color, but newcomers may have trouble keeping up with characters and clues.

skeletonMystery writer Marty Wingate transplants Texas gardener Pru Parke to an English country estate in The Skeleton Plot (Alibi, digital galley), where she digs up old bones and the remains of a Nazi fighter plane left over from World War II. Surprisingly, the bones are not those of the pilot, and Pru and her police officer husband’s quest to find out the identity of the skeleton is complicated by the new murder of a villager. The plot, though, isn’t as engaging as the quirky characters — especially Pru’s hacker nephew and her standoffish cook — and the details of the gorgeous gardens and village life. Excerpts from old letters between a WWII land girl and her soldier sweetheart add atmosphere and a sense of history. A green thumbs-up.

bunniesClea Simon has two new mysteries this month. When Bunnies Go Bad (Poisoned Pen Press, digital galley) is the sixth Pet Noir tale featuring animal behaviorist and pet psychic Pru Marlowe. As for the bunnies, there’s a visiting ski bunny whose gangster boyfriend may have stolen the valuable “Bunny in the Sun” painting, and a wild rabbit named Henry who is illegally residing with an 84-year-old woman. After the gangster is murdered, Pru becomes involved in the investigation despite her cop boyfriend’s disapproval as she works with ski bunny Ginger’s pampered spaniel and tries to communicate with wild Henry. The Ninth Life (Severn House, digital galley) is another color cat altogether, and not the cozy I was expecting. It’s narrated by Blackie, who wakes up from a near-drowning to discover he’s a cat rescued by a homeless teen known as Care. I’m not much on animal narrators, but Blackie’s voice offers a unique perspective on dark street life, where throwaway kids are at the mercy of drug dealers and worse.

promurderFlorida actor and playwright Ned Averill-Snell puts his experience with small professional theaters to good use in his first self-published mystery, Small Professional Murder (paperback review copy). Tall, gangly Suzanne answers to “Spriz” (rhymes with showbiz) as head of props for a small repertory theater in the Florida town of Galilee. She’s one of the few people who can tolerate leading man Brandon Wishart, and when the actor is killed by a falling flat, she takes it upon herself to find the friendless man’s heirs. She and her costumer pal Tommy road-trip the backroads of Florida, stopping at the little theaters and playhouses where Brandon once worked. Sadly, several have fallen victim to the recent recession, and that fact, coupled with the realization that Brandon was murdered, means Spriz and Tommy need to look closer to home. Averill-Snell’s backstage tale reminded me of Simon Brett’s witty Charles Paris mysteries, and theater fans will be entertained by the antics of cast and crew. But too many props — or descriptions thereof — tend to clutter the narrative.

 

 

 

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bordelloIt’s just a few days until Christmas — and P.I. Liz Talbot’s planned wedding to her partner Nate Andrews — when Liz gets a frantic call from bestie and bridesmaid Olivia that she’s stumbled over a body in the parlor of her great aunt’s historic home in downtown Charleston. Oh, and Olivia thinks the dead man is her attorney husband Robert, but y’know it was dark and she didn’t turn on the lights she was so upset. . .  So Liz rushes from nearby island Stella Maris — just a ferry and a couple bridges away — only to find that if there was a body, it’s gone now, and Robert’s very much alive.

But that’s just the beginning of Susan M. Boyer’s Lowcountry Bordello (Henery Press, digital galley), the fourth caper in this Southern charmer of a series. The next day, a body does turn up in a nearby park — that of Thurston Middleton, local developer and aspiring politician, as well as a longtime client of Aunt Dean’s high-class house of prostitution. What started as a proper boarding house has evolved into a home where local men keep their “nieces.” Olivia is part-owner of the house and begs Liz and Nate to help investigate, but quickly and quietly. Ha!

Boyer again crafts an entertaining cozy that comes with a supernatural flourish courtesy of Liz’s guardian ghost Colleen. Readers of the previous books will feel right at home, although newcomers might be tripped up by the rush of events — Murder! Wedding! Christmas! Still, a very merry time.

bronteKatherine Reay’s The Bronte Plot (Thomas Nelson, digital galley) is something of a hybrid: literary tribute, romance, travelogue, coming-of-age story, morality tale. Lucy Alling, a Chicago rare book dealer, loves a good story, so much so that she can’t resist telling little white lies. Then her boyfriend James breaks up with her over a big lie, and Lucy realizes that if she wants to emulate the strong literary heroines she so admires, she needs to change her life. The first step is accompanying James’ wealthy and frail grandmother Helen on a two-week antique-buying trip to England, despite James’ disapproval. Helen and Lucy have a lot in common, it turns out, and their mutual reckoning with their pasts proves revelatory as they visit London and then Haworth, the home of the Brontes.  A side trip to the Lake District also proves necessary.

Reay knows England and English lit, so her story is replete with scenic details and appropriate  literary allusions. The main characters — Lucy, James and Helen — are flawed and engaging as they struggle with doubt and moral ambiguity. Will they get the happy ending of a Victorian novel? Reader, I’m not going to tell you.

rufflesThe title character of Nancy Martin’s Miss Ruffles Inherits Everything (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover) is not a pampered princess pooch despite her fancy moniker. She’s an energetic Texas cattle cur who likes to chase prairie dogs and dig in the garden, as well as snap at the gentleman callers visiting her owner, wealthy widow Honeybelle Hensley. When Honeybelle drops dead of a heart attack, her family, friends and, indeed, all the townspeople of Mule Stop, Texas, are stunned to learn she’s left Miss Ruffles the bulk of her fortune. Honeybelle’s personal assistant and dogsitter Sunny,  cook Mae Mae and butler Mr. Carver will each receive $1 million dollars if they take good care of Miss Ruffles for the next year and then find her a good home.

Sunny, a Yankee newcomer from Ohio, is stunned when she becomes the object of vicious rumors, although she, too, has her suspicions about Honeybelle’s death. But she’s more worried about protecting Miss Ruffles from Honeybelle’s kin, especially her snobby daughter-in-law who was planning on dumping the dog at the pound while she produced her younger sister’s wedding in Honeybelle’s prized rose garden. Then there’s the university president who was hoping for Honeybelle to foot the bill for a new football stadium, and the goodlooking cowboy/attorney who is slated to be the groom in the upcoming rose garden nuptials. When Miss Ruffles is dognapped and held for ransom, Sunny sets out to rescue the rascally canine. Mayhem ensues on several fronts.

Despite some busy plotting and cliched characters, Martin’s tale is an agreeable bit of fluff, wirh lots of bark and a little bite. Miss Ruffles steals every scene she’s in, but it’s lookalike pup Fred who stole my heart.

 

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At the beginning of  Attica Locke’s atmospheric novel The Cutting Season, a cottonmouth the length of a Cadillac falls from a live oak during a wedding at a restored plantation. “It only briefly stopped the ceremony, this being Louisiana after all.”

Still, plantation manager Caren Grey takes the snake as a sign that Belle Vie’s beauty is not to be trusted. “That beneath its loamy topsoil, the manicured grounds and gardens, two centuries of breathtaking wealth and spectacle, lay a land both black and bitter, soft to the touch, but pressing in its power.”

Caren knows this better than most. She grew up in Ascension Parish, daughter of Belle Vie’s cook, descendant of the freed slave Jason, whose mysterious disappearance more than a century ago still haunts the estate-turned-tourist attraction. When a migrant worker from the adjoining sugar cane fields is found murdered at Belle Vie, Caren’s good intentions and curiosity put her at cross-purposes with the local authorities, the plantation’s owners, much of the staff, her own preteen daughter, and the girl’s father, a D.C. attorney. Past secrets lead to present dangers, love and loyalty collide, and the murder mystery winds through the plot like a slithering snake. But larger questions of class, race and identity complicate the whole, and it is those mysteries that Locke so artfully explores in prose as seductive as Belle Vie’s magnolia-scented grounds.

Dennis Lehane chose The Cutting Season as the first book for his new imprint at HarperCollins, so it’s fitting that one of our best crime novelists also has a new book. Live by Night is a sort of sequel to The Given Day, but this layered historical novel of the Roaring Twenties in Boston, Tampa and Cuba stands tall on its own.

Joe Coughlin, the younger son of a corrupt Boston cop, comes to crime as a teen “because it was fun and he was good at it.” By 20, he thinks of himself as an outlaw, with his own code of love and loyalty that allows him to work for established gangsters despite his aversion to senseless violence.

Joe’s conflicted conscience doesn’t keep him out of trouble. Quite the contrary. Falling for a rival mobster’s sultry girlfriend leads to her disappearance and presumed death while bad boy Joe is toughened by prison. He’s mentored by a Mafia don, who sets him up as a rum-runner in Tampa on his release. Still good at what he does, enterprising Joe builds a boot-legging empire and marries a Cuban social activist. Over time, he takes on all comers and uses some of his dirty money for good deeds. Still, blood and betrayal are inescapable.

This all makes for entertaining Prohibition-era noir, and Lehane bends the genre conventions to his own ends so that the past takes on the vivid solidity of the known present.

Open Book: I bought two copies of Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season (HarperCollins), one for me and one for my cousins Meg and Gail. As Caroline Cousins, we’ve written three cozy mysteries set on a restored plantation, and I enjoyed the familarity of Locke’s setting and details. I wish we’d thought of the falling snake, although we’d have played it more for laughs, like our marauding seagulls and ghost gator, and Locke’s book is deadly serious. I admire it very much. Dennis Lehane is a long-time favorite, and I read a digital galley of Live By Night (Morrow) via edelweiss.

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