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Posts Tagged ‘Julia Keller’

At 656 pages, the hardcover version of Lethal White could well be a lethal weapon. Happily, I bought the e-book of the fourth Cormoran Strike tale by Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling, so it only robbed me of a weekend’s worth of reading. And I found it time well spent, similar to binge-watching the Cinemax mini-series of the first three books. Strike is still large, grouchy and damaged, but he has rehired his assistant, Robin Ellacott, and elevated her to partner in the London detective agency. The two pursue a complicated case of blackmail, murder and past secrets involving the dysfunctional family of government minister Jasper Chiswell (pronounced “Chizzle”), the pervy husband of another minister, and socialist rabble-rouser Jimmy Knight and his mentally ill brother Billy. The cast is Dickensian, the plot smartly tangled and digressive, the writing detailed and atmospheric. Throughout, Robin contends with panic attacks left over from her serial killer encounter, as well as her selfish jerk of a husband. Meanwhile Strike deals with girlfriends past and present, all the while mulling over his attraction to Robin. Just when you think they’re about to get sorted, something or someone intervenes, and there goes another hundred pages. Still, I hope it’s not another three years before the next book. Cormoran Strike is as addictive as Harry Potter.

There’s good news and sad news about Wild Fire (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), Ann Cleeves’ eighth entry in her stellar Shetland Island series. The sad news is that Cleeves says this is the last Shetland book, the good news being that police detective Jimmy Perez finishes strong. When the body of a nanny is found hanging in the Fleming family’s barn, suspicion falls on the Flemings, outsiders with an autistic son. But then designer Helena Fleming reveals that she has found disturbing sketches of a gallows, and the dead girl turns out to have a complicated past and local romantic entanglements. Speaking of which, Perez’s boss and occasional lover, Willow Reeves, arrives from Inverness to head the investigation. When another murder occurs, Cleeves crafts the village equivalent of an atmospheric locked-room mystery — the closed-community puzzle. The few suspects all have means and motives, and your guess is as good as mine. Oh, I’m going to miss Shetland.

 

A Forgotten Place (HarperCollins, digital galley) is a truly memorable installment of Charles Todd’s series about spirited British nursing sister Bess Crawford. World War I may be over, but many soldiers are still reliving the horrors of the trenches, including the Welsh vets Bess first meets at a hospital in France. Once hardworking miners, the amputees face such a bleak peacetime future that they prefer death. Hoping to help avert more suicides, Bess uses leave to check up on Capt. Hugh Williams, who is staying with his widowed sister-in-law in a back-of-beyond village in South Wales. She ends up stranded among hostile villagers when her driver takes off in his car in the middle of the night. The Gothic atmosphere is thick with suspicion and rumors, and Bess observes several mysterious events, including the secret burial of an unidentified body washed up on the beach. There’s a dark secret at the village’s heart, one that goes back decades, a secret some are willing to kill to keep.

 

Other recent crime novels worthy of recommendation vary widely in subject and style. In Karin Slaughter’s riveting stand-alone, Pieces of Her (HarperCollins, digital galley), Andrea Cooper discovers her mother Laura has been hiding her real identity for 30 years. Her desperate road trip to find the truth of her heritage alternates with flashbacks to Laura’s harrowing past that endangers them both. In Caz Frear’s assured first novel Sweet Little Lies (HarperCollins, digital galley), the spotlight’s on a father-daughter relationship. London DC Cat Kinsella is investigating the murder of a unidentified woman when DNA provides the link to the 1998 disappearance of an Irish teen. Cat has always known her charming, philandering father lied about his connection to the teen back then, but she now fears he may be lying about murder. She sifts through both family history and present-day evidence for the answers. Stephen Giles goes Gothic with his twisty psychological chiller The Boy at the Keyhole (Hanover Square Press, digital galley) set in 1961 Britain. In an old country house, 9-year-old Samuel worries that his widowed mother, who left on a business trip while he was asleep, has been gone too long and isn’t coming home. Despite assurances from housekeeper Ruth, imaginative Samuel begins to suspect that Ruth has murdered his mother and hidden her body. Creepy.  Agatha Christie fans should be pleased by Sophie Hannah’s third Hercule Poirot novel, The Mystery of Three Quarters (HarperCollins, digital galley). The clever puzzle begins with someone pretending to be Hercule Poirot sending letters to four people accusing them of murder. But elderly Barnabas Pandy accidentally drowned in his bathtub, didn’t he? Or was it murder? Poirot’s little gray cells get quite the workout, as does his appetite for cake. On the even lighter side, actor Charles Paris plays sleuth again in The Deadly Habit (Severn House, digital galley). Alcoholic and middle-aged, Paris is surprised to get a part in a new West End production starring Justin Grover, an actor with whom he worked long ago but who has since become rich and famous. Although he’s trying not to drink so as to get back with his estranged wife Frances, Charles falls off the wagon at an inopportune moment, stumbling over a dead body backstage, then making a quick exit. Now he’s got to find a murderer before he becomes prime suspect or the next corpse.

 

 

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reckoningCable TV shows — Motive, Murder in the First, Major Crimes — got me through the summer, and now it’s back to the books. A flurry of new crime novels last month soon turned into a bit of a blizzard. That’s fine — it’s still hot and steamy here in Florida, and I appreciate the chill of ice and snow, if only on the page.

Winter is not just coming, it’s fast upon the Quebec village of Three Pines in Louise Penny’s A Great Reckoning (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover). Former Chief Inspector Armand Gamache comes out of retirement to whip the national police academy into shape, searching for long-rooted corruption. An old map literally found in the walls of Three Pines figures into the expertly plotted puzzle, as does the murder of an authoritarian professor, Gamache’s interest in a fierce young cadet, and the almost forgotten lives of World War I soldiers. Loss shrouds the winter-haunted village, but also the possibility of forgiveness. This is my new favorite in the series, right up there with the piercing How the Light Gets In.

brinded-catBooted from boarding school in Canada, intrepid girl detective Flavia de Luce is delighted to be returning home to her crumbling English home Buckshaw in time for Christmas. But what should be a joyous homecoming in Alan Bradley’s clever Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mewed (Ballantine/Random House, digital galley) turns bleak when Flavia learns her beloved father, the Colonel, is in hospital with pneumonia. Unable to be at his bedside, Flavia tears off on an errand aboard her trusty bicycle Gladys and comes upon the body of a woodcarver hanging upside down from his bedroom door. “It’s amazing what the discovery of a corpse can do for one spirits,” thinks Flavia, seizing on the unusual clue of famous children’s books in the dead man’s possession. The curious cat also on the scene may be the companion of a rumored witch across the road, and that’s just beginning of a curious mystery in need of Flavia’s detecting skills.

sorrowJulia Keller writes atmospheric mysteries set in the mountains of West Virginia, and Acker’s Gap, the hardscrabble hometown of prosecutor Bell Elkins, is practically a character in the series. Sorrow Road (St. Martin’s Minotaur, digital galley) is as chilly as its eye-catching cover, with several snowstorms impeding Bell’s investigation of a law school colleague’s death on an icy road, as well as her daughter Carla’s oral history project for the library. A nursing home where many of the residents have dementia ties several plot points together, including the murder of a staff member and the questionable deaths of several patients. Keller intersperses the present story with a past one about three local boys going off to fight World II and being together on D-Day.

 

wishtrueI grew up in a Charlotte, N.C. subdivision very like fictional Sycamore Glen in Marybeth Mayhew Whalen’s The Things We Wish Were True (Lake Union, digital galley), and I can almost smell the chlorine at the neighborhood pool. It’s the social hub during sultry summer days, kids cannon-balling off the diving board, mothers trading suntan lotion and gossip, young teens hanging out. In Whalen’s story, told from multiple points-of-view, an accident at the pool disturbs the seemingly placid surface of Sycamore Glen, revealing secret undercurrents. It’s not a conventional mystery but rather a domestic/neighborhood drama with elements of suspense. Think Liane Moriarty (Truly Madly Guilty) or Lisa Jewell (The Girls in the Garden), only in an all-American small-town. Zell is the middle-aged empty nester who keeps an eye on the single dad next door and knows more than she’s letting on about his runaway wife. Jencey, hunted by a stalker in high school, returns 15 years later, her country-club life in ruins. Her former best friend Bryte is now happily married to Jencey’s high school boyfriend. Then there’s Cailey, the young girl who lives in a rental house, and the older single man across the street who takes care of his elderly mother. Whalen deftly weaves their lives together, and if some events are predictable, others surprise. Things are not what they seem in The Things We Wish Were True, the September selection of the She Reads online book club.

darkestBe happy you weren’t invited to philandering land developer Sean Jackson’s 50th birthday party, which ended in disaster when Coco, one of his three-year-old twins, mysteriously vanished into the night, never to be seen again. This was in 2004, and now in the present day, Mila Jackson, 27, receives word of her estranged father’s scandalous death. All the houseguests at the ill-fated weekend will be at the funeral, except for her stepmother, Claire, who asks Mila to take teenage Ruby, the surviving twin. In The Darkest Secret (Penguin, library paperback), Alex Marwood skillfully uses flashbacks to tease out and eventually reveal (perhaps) what actually happened to young Coco. So readers do wind up at the scene of the crime, so to speak, privy to the bickering between narcissistic Sean and insecure Claire, and where the self-involved adults plan how to keep the handful of kids quiet while they party into the wee hours.  It’s not pretty, nor is the funeral gathering, where someone else ends up dead.

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zigzagSo many mysteries the last month or so. A popular author kicks off a new series, while another chooses to end a longtime favorite. Star turns by trusted detectives, past crimes leading to present-day puzzles, procedurals, capers, a serial killer — or two.

Elly Griffiths, whose Ruth Galloway series is known for its engaging characters, introduces another memorable cast in The Zig Zag Girl (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), set in 1950 Brighton. Police detective Edgar Stephens and magician Max Mephisto both served in a special ops/disinformation group known as the Magic Men during World War II and reteam as sleuths when someone starts killing people by restaging famous magic tricks. Atmospheric, clever and appropriately tricky. Encore, please.

longlandWith the evocative Long Upon the Land (Grand Central, library hardcover), Margaret Maron brings her long-running Deborah Knott series to a close by circling back to Deborah’s complicated family history as bootlegger Kezzie Knott’s daughter. She marries a contemporary mystery about a dead man found on Kezzie’s North Carolina farm to one with roots in World War II, when Deborah’s mother Susan befriended both a young soldier and widower Kezzie. In both cases, Deborah needs answers from her many older brothers, her aunt and her father, as well as others with long memories. Sweet and bittersweet.

raggedLand is also at the heart of Last Ragged Breath (St. Martin’s Minotaur, advance reading copy), Julia Keller’s fourth entry in her excellent series featuring prosecutor Bell Elkins. A native of the hardscrabble West Virginia mountain town of Acker’s Gap, Elkins is familiar with the area’s history, even if the disastrous 1972 Buffalo Creek flood was before her time. Royce Dillard was only two when he survived the rushing waters that claimed the lives of his parents and more than a hundred other souls, but now the solitary dog-lover’s life is imperiled once again. He is on trial for the murder of an outside developer on his land. The circumstantial evidence points to Dillard, but Elkins has her doubts, well aware of the passions aroused by the dead man and his plans that could forever change Acker’s Gap. Like her protagonist, Keller knows the landscape and its residents. Unlike Elkins, though, she also knows dogs. I fell hard for Goldie.

natureofA boy cries wolf once too often in Louise Penny’s The Nature of the Beast (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover), a stunning addition to her Inspector Gamache series. I was disappointed by the last one (choppy writing, digressive plot), but this one took my breath away as the isolated Quebec village of Three Pines is invaded by suspicion and betrayal with far-reaching moral consequences. All the familiar characters are on hand, including Henri the dog and Rosa the duck, as Gamache resists peaceful retirement in his search for answers. What little Laurent finds in the woods is real and fearsome.

xgraftonThe only problem with Sue Grafton’s X (Penguin Putnam, digital galley) is that it means we’re nearing the end of her alphabetically titled series starring PI Kinsey Millhone. As always, it’s a treat to watch Kinsey using the old-fashioned tools of the trade circa 1989 to catch criminals. Here, knocking on doors, using library reference books and looking at public records in person has Kinsey figuring out frauds large and small, even as the private files of a late colleague lead to a trail of missing women and a serial killer. Yikes! The colorful characters include a wily divorcee, a slick sociopath and annoying new neighbors for Kinsey and her elderly landlord Henry.

susansThe plot of Julia Heaberlin’s thrilling Black-Eyed Susans (Random House/Ballantine, digital galley) reminds me of an episode of Criminal Minds but minus most of the gory details. In 1995, 16-year-old Tessa was found buried alive under a blanket of black-eyed Susans in a Texas wheat field that served as a grave for three other girls. Tessa, who only has flashes of memory of her traumatic experience, nevertheless testified at the trial of the presumed killer, who was sent to Death Row. Now, with his execution only days away, Tessa reluctantly agrees to help a defense attorney and a forensics expert trying to free the condemned man by finally identifying the other victims. Heaberlin alternates between past and present, piling on the red herrings, and Tessa struggles to recover her memory. The ending’s a bit muddled and unevenly paced, but Heaberlin’s third book will keep you up all night.

marrykissWith its snappy dialogue and cinematic scenes, Marry Kiss Kill (Prospect Park Books, digital galley) reads like a rom-com caper TV movie — no surprise since author Anne Flett-Giordano’s writing and producing credits include Frasier and Hot in Cleveland. With the glitzy Santa Barbara film festival as backdrop, police detective Nola MacIntire and her partner, Tony Angellotti, try to solve the case of a murdered street artist while also looking into the suspicious death of a wealthy businessman. Nothing especially original here, but appealing characters and a spritz of name-dropping make for fast-paced fun.

pargeterKeeping up with so many series means I hardly ever run out of new mysteries to read. A shout-out to the Witness Impulse imprint that introduced me to several excellent writers from across the pond, including Brian McGilloway, whose Lucy Black series is set in Northern Ireland; Mari Hannah, whose Kate Daniels series takes place in Northumbria; and Alison Bruce, whose Gary Goodhew procedurals are set in Cambridge. I also count on British publisher Severn House for witty new tales from Simon Brett, who writes the Charles Paris series and the Mrs. Pargeter books. Severn also publishes new mysteries from American writers (and Facebook friends) Clea Simon and Sarah Shaber.  Recommended all.

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wastedIn Sue Grafton’s latest entry in her alphabet series, W is for Wasted (Putnam, purchased e-book), California P.I. Kinsey Millhone is still happily ensconced in the ’80s with nary an iPhone or iPad in sight. Still the story feels up-to-date, involving homelessness, substance abuse and medical trials, as well as murder and money. Kinsey begins in her usual forthright fashion: “Two dead men changed the course of my life that fall. One of them I knew and the other I’d never laid eyes on until I saw him in the morgue.”

The unknown man was found on the beach with Kinsey’s business card in his pocket. First charged with tracking down his identity, Kinsey befriends three of his wary homeless companions, then has to find his estranged kids in nearby Bakersfield to explain the terms of his will — which surprisingly benefits Kinsey. And, oh yes, the kids are her kin, too, another surprise. Meanwhile,  a parallel plot focuses on the last days of fellow gumshoe Pete Wolinksky, whose ethics — or lack of them — see him sliding down the slippery slope. His last case, a matter of blackmail and murder, eventually intersects with Kinsey’s investigation.

Happily for readers, there are three more letters before Kinsey’s last case. Happily, too, Grafton’s still adding to the cast of irregulars. Welcome Ed the cat.

parisbonesHemingway and company may have spoken metaphorically of Paris’s Lost Generation, but a missing young woman propels the plot of Laurie R. King’s evocative The Bones of Paris ( Random House, digital galley). In the fall of 1929, Harris Stuyvesant, the American detective from King’s 2008 Touchstone, is prowling the alleys and cafes of Jazz Age Paris, hunting for pretty Phillipa Crosby, a young American who seems to have disappeared. Her roommate Nancy’s just returned from summer vacation and helps Harris look for Pip, who played at acting and modeling within the free-wheeling milieu of expat artistes and entourages.  Surrealist photographer Man Ray is on hand, as is Cole Porter, but the pied piper  of the new “death pornography” movement  is a powerful and aristocratic art collector, the Comte, also associated with the Theatre du Grand-Guignol and its macabre plays.

The convoluted plot has its own Grand-Guignol touches — an artist who works with human bones,  a terrifying journey through the underground caverns carved from cemeteries. Bennett Grey, the tortured human lie detector, makes a late entrance as Harris works with a Paris detective searching for a serial killer. Intrigue competes with atmosphere. Fans of historical fiction win.

bitterriverCounty prosecutor Bell Elkins and her West Virginia hometown of Acker’s Gap return in Bitter River (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover), Julia Keller’s finely wrought follow-up to A Killing in the Hills. When the body of a pregnant high school student is discovered in the river, Bell and her friend, Sheriff Nick Foglesong, hope it’s an accidental death or even a suicide. But it’s not, and even as they look for a stranger, they fear the killer is one of their own. Not that the hardscrabble mountain town is immune from outside crime. Bell has been railing against the organized meth trade for some time, but terrorism is something new. A determined assassin is apparently aiming for Bell and those she loves.

As in her first book, Keller skillfully weaves Bell’s backstory of childhood abuse and failed marriage into the page-turning plot, expanding on her love-hate relationship with Acker’s Gap, the pull and push of family and friends.

kindcruelThe key to solving multiple murders in Kind of Cruel (Viking, digital galley), Sophie Hannah’s new psychological thriller/police procedural, apparently lies in the words Amber Hewerdine repeats under hypnosis: “kind, cruel, kind of cruel.”  Insomniac Amber doesn’t remember where she first heard the words, or what they mean, but for married police detectives Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer, the phrase is their first break in the death of primary schoolteacher Katharine Allen. Amber goes from being questioned in the case to investigating the murder, prompted by curiosity and the recent death of her best friend Sharon. Amber and her husband are now caring for Sharon’s young daughters, who escaped the housefire that killed their mother.

If you think where there is fire, there must be smoke obscuring Amber’s connection to the first murder, you’d be right. A fog also hangs over a peculiar Christmas Day incident involving Amber’s extended family. Hang in there. Hannah eventually reveals all in her characteristically creepy fashion.

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An isolated monastery in northern Quebec, a shabby West Virginia mining town, the ancient city of Fez. Setting plays an integral part in three new crime novels.

In Louise Penny’s The Beautiful Mystery (St. Martin’s press, library hardcover), Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and sidekick Jean-Guy Beauvoir travel north to the wilderness outpost of two dozen cloistered Gilbertine monks, whose amateur CD of Gregorian chants brought them world-wide fame. The CD also has divided the brothers between those who side with the choirmaster in wanting to further capitalize on their divine musical gift, and those who agree with the abbott that preserving their isolation is essential to their tiny order’s preservation. But now the choirmaster is dead in the abbott’s walled garden, presenting a no-exit puzzle for the two detectives, whose investigation is further hampered by the unwelcome arrival of Gamache’s dodgy boss.

In her last novel, A Trick of the Light, Penny explored ambition,  pride and jealousy in the art world; here, the same motives for murder emerge among the monks, all of whom have been recruited for their musical gifts that combine for “the beautiful mystery” of the title. Penny smoothly orchestrates the ensemble cast, detailing the history of plainsong and musical notation, along with asides on chocolate-making and monastic life. Gamache is quietly astute, as usual, but troubled Beauvoir keeps second-guessing his mentor’s methods. A murderer is revealed but not without cost to the Gilbertines — and the detectives. The ninth book in this favorite series can’t come soon enough.

The narrator of Laurie R. King’s A Garment of Shadows (Random House, digital galley via NetGalley) awakes with a headache, not knowing where or who she is. A victim of amnesia, our intrepid heroine will figure out where she is — Fez, in 1924 Morocco — long before she reclaims her identity as Mary Russell, the much-younger wife of Sherlock Holmes, something series readers have known since the get-go. But before the two can be reunited and embark on a daring ride through the desert, Mary will use her wits and fierce intelligence as she dons male Arab garb and seeks her name in the twisting marketplace. Warplanes fly overhead as Britain, France and local political factions tussle over Morocco’s future, and Holmes, in a parallel narrative, is drawn into the intrigue even as he learns Mary is missing. King evokes the period and Arab culture with her vivid writing, and the plot unfolds at  a relentessly suspenseful pace.

The impoverished West Virginia town of Acker’s Gap springs to life in journalist Julia Keller’s first mystery, A Killing in the Hills (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley via NetGalley) when three old men are gunned down in a fast-food restaurant. County prosecutor Bell Elkins’ teenage daughter Clare was a witness to the shooting, but her failure to tell her mother about the figure she glimpsed in the doorway will put both their lives in danger as they pursue separate investigations.

Bell, who has returned to her hometown from Washington, D.C., to crusade against the prescription drug trade that is ravaging the rural county, is a strong and prickly protagonist. As she tries to figure out the perplexing shooting with the sheriff, she also deals with a mentally handicapped man accused of killing a child, the scars of her horrific childhood and the difficulties of being a single mother. Keller builds suspense by moving among the perspectives of Bell, Clare and the hired killer, and then ups the ante with a devastating betrayal. My only quibble is the overuse of similies that mar Keller’s otherwise fine writing.

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