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Posts Tagged ‘mystery’

speculationFortune-tellers and floods, mermaids and mysteries, a traveling carnival and a tumble-down house threatening to fall into the sea. Erika Swyler packs all these and more into her first novel The Book of Speculation (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), which both fascinates and frustrates with its alternating narratives. In the present, reference librarian Simon Watson lives in the family house slowly sliding into the Long Island Sound where his mother — a circus mermaid — curiously drowned when he and his sister Enola were children. Simon looked after Enola while their grief-stricken father withered away, but six years ago, she ran off with their mother’s tarot cards and no plans to ever return. But then Simon receives a mysterious, water-damaged old book in the mail, and Enola calls to say she’ll be home in July. Simon is alarmed because the book — the logbook of a traveling carnival — shows generations of the women in his family all drowning on July 24th.   In the past storyline, a mute boy known as Amos is adopted by carnival owner, apprenticed to a Russian fortune-teller and is captivated by Evangeline, who may be a mermaid and is possibly a murderess. That the two storylines will eventually converge is a foregone conclusion, but the “how” makes for the suspense. Still, the novel’s rickety underpinnings sag under the weight of so many coincidences, romances and misfortunes that its magic begins to wane. The Book of Speculation ends up being both too much and too little. But I did like the horseshoe crabs.

dayshiftReaders of Charlaine Harris’s Midnight Crossing know that strangers to the dusty Texas town of Midnight are not nearly as strange as its residents. Phone psychic Manfredo Bernardo learned that when he moved to Midnight and discovered his neighbors included a witch, a shape-shifter, a couple of angels and a vampire. Still, things have taken a turn for the really strange in Harris’ follow-up, the entertaining Day Shift (Penguin Berkley, review copy). For starters, Manfredo is suspected of murder after one of his clients drops dead, and then the Reverend, who tends the little church and adjacent pet cemetery, takes in a young boy who grows taller — really taller — every day. Beautiful Olivia Channing is keeping all kinds of secrets while her vampire gentleman friend Lemuel is away. But what’s really weird is that a mysterious corporation is supposedly turning the abandoned Midnight Hotel into a luxury resort but also has relocated some indigent Las Vegas seniors to the premises. And just to keep things interesting, Harris brings in a couple of characters from her Sookie Stackhouse series as strange events come to a head under a full moon. Some mysteries are resolved, but others only deepen. A third book, please?

boneyardIslands have a certain magic, some more than others.  In author Susan M. Boyer’s mind, the fictional South Carolina island of Stella Maris is located a hop, skip, a couple of bridges and a ferry ride from Charleston. The picturesque beach community is also home base for PI Liz Talbot, although her hunky partner Nate wants her to move upstate in Lowcountry Boneyard (Henery Press, digital galley). As readers of the previous two books in this perky series know, Liz has a secret tie to the island in the shape of a ghostly guardian angel, her late best friend, Colleen, who conveniently pops up to warn of danger or gather clues in the spirit world. This time, Liz is searching for missing Charleston heiress Kent Heyward whom the police consider a rich-girl runaway. After meeting Kent’s family — including her stern father, matriarch Abigail and creepy twin uncles — Liz thinks Kent may have had good reason to leave town, but Kent’s chef boyfriend Matt and her BFF Ansley assure her otherwise. Dangerous surprises await when Liz goes poking around in a local cemetery and digging up family secrets in the lowcountry and upstate, but Colleen can’t come to the rescue if Liz is too far away from Stella Maris. Not to give anything away, but the fourth book in the series is due in the fall.

mysteriousElizabeth George, best known for her Inspector Thomas Lynley series, has a high old time with The Mysterious Disappearance of the Reluctant Book Fairy (Mysterious Press/Open Road, digital galley), her contribution to the Press short story series Bibliomysteries. At just under 50 pages, it’s a tale easily consumed in one sitting, true escapist reading a la Jasper Fforde. Janet Shore, the sickly youngest child in a boisterous Washington state family, perfects the art of escaping into a book at an early age. Literally. “Given a heart rending scene of emotion (Mary Ingalls going blind!), a thrilling adventure in a frightening cave (Tom, Huck, and Injun Joe!), a battle with pirates (Peter Pan and Captain Hook!), and our Janet was actually able to transport herself into the scene itself. And not as a passive observer, mind you, but rather as a full participant in the story.” Janet first entertains herself and classmates with book traveling, but gives it up when she grows older and has her heart broken. Then her best childhood friend Monie conspires to get Janet — now Annapurna — a job at the local library, where the overbearing Mildred Bantry sees a way to make money by setting up a book tourism company, Epic!, with Annapurna as chief tour guide. George has a lot of fun with this conceit, as will readers who can only imagine the joys of escaping into the pages of a favorite book or Greek myth. As for Annapurna/Janet’s choice of the perfect pages in which to get lost, let me just say that I’ll happily join her some gaudy night.

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leonDonna Leon set her first book in the stellar Guido Brunetti series, Death at La Fenice, at Venice’s famed opera house, and she returns there in her 24th, Falling in Love (Grove Atlantic, digital galley). Returning, too, is soprano Flavia Petrelli, whose performance in Tosca leads to wild applause and a rain of roses. But it’s the extravagant bouquets of yellow roses left in her dressing room and at the doorway to her apartment that frighten her and concern Brunetti, who ties the mysterious stalker to two knife attacks in the city. Leon deftly explores the psychology and escalating obsession of the stalker, then ups the suspense at the penultimate performance of Tosca, with the violent emotions of the opera mirroring the climactic events backstage. One of Leon’s best, inseparable from the magic of the real Venice. Brava!

foundlingsThe Silence of the Lambs meets an episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent in Kate Rhodes’ suspenseful The Winter Foundlings (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley). After a missing girl’s body is left on the steps of London’s Foundling Museum, psychologist Alice Quentin, liaising with the police, meets with convicted child killer Louis Kinsella at Northwoods prison hospital. Three other girls are missing, and the kidnapper appears to be following in Kinsella’s footsteps — or following his orders. Is it a former pupil, or perhaps a member of the hospital staff? As the cunning Kinsella toys with Alice, time is running out to find the missing girls. Chapters told from one abducted girl’s perspective are interspersed with the main narrative, adding to the chilling atmosphere.

liarAn eccentric woman cries wolf in M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Liar (Grand Central, digital galley), the latest in her long-running and highly entertaining series featuring Scottish police sergeant Hamish Macbeth. After falsely claiming she was attacked, chronic liar Liz Bentley turns up dead in her Cromish vegetable patch, and Hamish suspects her murder is tied to the torture killings of a couple new to Lochdubh. But Chief Inspector Blair wants the Lochdubh murders for his own, so Hamish circumvents the official investigation, all the while dealing with his complicated love life. (He can’t believe a beautiful baker prefers the company of his rotund sidekick to his own). Still, the criminals command most of his attention  — and almost prove his undoing when he winds up in a coffin destined for burial at sea.

tombinturkeyFree-spirited Jude and worrywart Carole are longtime friends and amateur sleuths in the English village of Fetherings, but they’re on holiday in Simon Brett’s cheery The Tomb in Turkey (Severn House, digital galley). Intrigued by the offer of a free villa from Jude’s property developer pal and ex-lover Barney, the mismatched travel buddies find intrigue of a more menacing kind upon their arrival. Travel guide Nita glosses over the unwelcoming graffiti on the villa walls that suggests that Barney’s first wife died in suspicious circumstances. But then on a visit to the nearby Lycian tombs, Carole discovers Nita’s strangled corpse, which promptly disappears when she goes to get Jude. Still, Carole knows what she saw, and even Jude agrees that there’s something’s fishy in Turkey.

magpiesA book to die for. Or in this case, a manuscript. In Judith Flanders’  snappy A Murder of Magpies (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), London book editor Samantha “Sam” Clair is looking forward to reading author Kit Lovell’s new expose. But others are also after the manuscript about a recent fashion house scandal. There are several break-ins, a courier is killed and Lovell goes missing. Sam teams with her solicitor mother and a police detective to investigate, even while she ponders how to tell her best-selling novelist her new book’s a bomb and deal with back-stabbing colleagues. Flanders takes a page from Lovell, and dishes the dirt on the insular world of publishing. First in a series, we hope.

kings“The past is a different country.” No kidding. William Shaw calls up the exotic land of the Swinging Sixties in The Kings of London (Little, Brown, digital galley), the second in a trilogy that began with the very good She’s Leaving Home. DS Paddy Breen and his younger colleague Helen Tozer encounter the counterculture of drug dealers and art dealers, hippies and squatters while investigating several nasty fires. One charred corpse is eventually identified as a politician’s wayward son. Heroin is the real villain here, along with the gangs controlling its trade and the dirty cops looking the other way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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noraIs the Honeycutt mansion haunted? The summer people who bought the old mountain place and decided to stay for Christmas are beginning to think so. Their fake pink Christmas tree decorated with sea shell and flamingo ornaments keeps keeling over when no one’s around. Best ask neighbor Nora Bonesteel for help. After all, the old woman has the “sight” — she can foretell deaths and commune with ghosts.

Sharyn McCrumb’s holiday novella Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past (Abingdon Press, digital galley), takes place in the same East Tennessee town of her popular Ballad series and brings back several familiar characters. While Nora remembers long-ago holidays — and one young soldier in particular — Sheriff Spencer Arrowood and Deputy Joe LeDonne are driving up the mountain on Christmas Eve. They have to arrest an elderly man charged with the hit-and-run of a politician’s car. Still, a winter storm is coming, and the man won’t leave his wife alone in a cabin with no firewood and a broken window.

McCrumb’s gently humorous tale is replete with nostalgia. Nora vividly remembers simpler times gone by, when people were poorer but rich with friends, family and traditions.

hollyroadSheila Roberts has a knack for warm-hearted holiday tales that are sweet without being sappy. I’m especially fond of The Nine Lives of Christmas, which was made into a Hallmark movie this year. There’s a lot of wishin’ and hopin’ going on in picturesque Icicle Falls, the setting for The Lodge on Holly Road (Harlequin, digital galley).

Single mom Missy Monroe brings her two children to the lodge hoping to give them the kind of traditional Christmas she never had, although she knows she can’t fulfill their wishes for a dog and a grandmother. Enter Santa Claus, sort of — Brook Claussen kidnaps her widowed father, James, from his department store Santa job, hoping that a visit to the lodge will cure his grumpy blues. But she didn’t count on Olivia Wallace, the pretty widow who runs the place with her grown son, Eric. Brook thinks Olivia has designs on her dad, and she’s not wrong. But insufferable Eric scolds her for interfering. Among the other guests are a good-guy accountant who plans to propose to his snooty girlfriend, two old friends with opposite natures, a couple of bored teenagers and a prodigal son. What could possibly go wrong?

Roberts gets everything right in this romance — and even includes a recipe for Olivia’s gumdrop cookies.

jerusalemI always like to reread several holiday books from Christmases past. One year it might be Lee Smith’s The Christmas Letters, or Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, or Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ Certain Poor Shepherds. Last year it was Mary Kay Andrews’ Blue Christmas, in preparation for its sequel, Christmas Bliss. This year, I reached back 30 years to Martha Grimes’ mystery Jerusalem Inn, with Richard Jury and Melrose Plant investigating a sudden death in wintry northern England. The atmosphere’s a bit melancholy and a whole lot mysterious, and it’s one of my favorites in the Jury series. I’m a longtime admirer of the Scotland Yard detective with the devastating smile, still single after all these years.

Sweet dreams and happy holidays.

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biglittleYikes! I’ve been gone a month. Wish I could say I’d been to Fillory via Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land, but that enchanted journey still awaits. But, as in Fillory, time has passed differently for me ever since I had surgery four weeks ago. Either the anesthesia’s lingering effects have played havoc with my mind and/or it’s triggered lupus brain fog. I’m having trouble remembering both what I read before the surgery and the few books I’ve managed since then. Can’t seem to concentrate, or maybe I’ve just overdosed on middle-of-the-night reruns of Frasier.   “maybe I seem a bit confused . . . Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs!”

But it’s still summer, and the wave of books continues, more than enough to carry us into fall. Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (Putnam, digital galley) is clever escapist entertainment, constructed like a good jigsaw puzzle. Readers know from the outset that Something Terrible happened at Piriwee elementary school’s annual fundraiser. But who fell off a balcony? And  is it an accident, suicide, murder?! Moriarty takes us back six months to detail the actions of several of the school’s mothers and their assorted partners and offspring. As secrets big and little come to light, they illuminate issues of bullying, domestic abuse, snobbery and violence. It’s all good dark fun.

silkworm“Fun” is not the word to describe J.K. Rowling’s The Silkworm (Little, Brown, purchased e-book), her second Comoran Strike detective novel under the Robert Galbraith pseudonym. I read and reviewed the first one, The Cuckoo’s Calling, without knowing it was Rowling’s work, and quite enjoyed it. This time, I recognized her fingerprints — the odd names, the many literary allusions, the grotesque touches to the crime scene.  Strike and his assistant Robin make for an appealing pair; he is large and grouchy and damaged, while she is pretty, eager and engaged to someone else. Investigating the murder of a pompous author trussed and gutted like a pig, they discover motives aplenty in the back-stabbing literary world. The plot is complicated enough that I’m happy I read it before my brain got so muddled. I might need to read it again as I didn’t see the killer coming. Then again, neither did Strike until almost too late.

latescholarHave you ever wished there were more books by your favorite dead author? Jill Paton Walsh has continued the investigative adventures of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane in a stylish, pitch-perfect series. The fourth entry, The Late Scholar (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), finds Lord Peter, now the Duke of Denver, and his novelist wife returning to Oxford, which, in Sayers’ Gaudy Night, played such an important part in their lives.  So a certain nostalgia suffuses the leisurely tale as the couple meet up with old friends while trying to resolve the problem of the missing warden of St. Severin’s College, whose members are divided over the proposed sale of an ancient manuscript with ties to King Alfred. More than one visit to the Bodleian library and Blackwell’s bookstore are in order, as are apropos references to professors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I think Sayers would approve.

lucykyteI’m not so sure how the very private Josephine Tey would feel about Nicola Upson’s series in which Tey herself turns detective, but these traditional British mysteries offer complex plots and vivid 1930s period detail. The fifth, The Death of Lucy Kyte (HarperCollins, digital galley), is set in the Suffolk countryside, where Tey has inherited a rundown cottage from her actress godmother, Hester Larkspur. Red Barn Cottage comes complete with a  nearby notorious murder, a possible ghost and Hester’s papers, which may well reveal more secrets about the author’s life and mysterious death. Speaking of mysterious, who is Lucy Kyte, who is also named in Hester’s will, and where on earth is she?

 

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rhapsodyBravo! Kate Racculia’s nifty novel Bellweather Rhapsody (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley) has been likened to Agatha Christie meets The Shining meets Glee. Add in Racculia’s declared devotion to the late great Ellen Raskin, author of Newbery Medal-winning The Westing Game, and I am so there. There, in this case is the once-grand, now-shabby Bellweather Hotel in the Catskills, famous for a 1982 murder-suicide in Room 712, witnessed by reluctant 10-year-old bridesmaid Minnie Graves. Fifteen years later, troubled Minnie decides to confront the past by returning to the Bellweather, which is hosting a statewide music festival for talented teens. On hand are twins Alice and Rabbit Hatmaker; she a drama-queen vocalist, he a shy bassoonist with a secret. They’re chaperoned by former piano prodigy Natalie Wilson, who right off runs into her old nemesis, Viola Fabian, the festival’s acting director. Viola — think Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil — terrorizes everyone, including aging concierge Harold Hastings, Scottish conductor and former lover Fisher Brodie, and especially her 14-year-old daughter, Jill, a musical prodigy who is rooming with Alice. In Room 712.

Having set the stage, Racculia then orchestrates this cast’s interactions with aplomb, leading up to Jill’s mysterious disappearance from her and Alice’s room, as well as a raging snowstorm that cuts off the Bellweather from the outside world. The cavernous hotel with its domed penthouse swimming pool is rife with rumor, alive with the sound of music and rowdy, randy teens.  Noting a full moon, Natalie wonders what will happen next. “The past was layered under the present like sheets of tissue paper, still visible if you focused your attention long enough to see below the surface.” Oh, my. Encore!

wolfMo Hayder’s seventh Jack Caffery tale Wolf (Grove Atlantic, digital gallery) is twisting and twisted, not for the faint of heart nor weak of stomach. Scientist Oliver Anchor-Ferrers is recovering from heart surgery at his Somerset country estate with his wife, grown daughter and their dog when they become hostages during a vicious home invasion. Meanwhile, Jack is taking a break from police work to further delve into the long-ago disappearance of his brother Ethan, believed to have been abducted by a pedophile ring. The enigmatic Walking Man, the drifter who has helped Jack previously, apparently has new information but first wants Jack to find the owners of a stray dog found with a “Help us” note tucked in its collar. Hayder builds suspense by cross-cutting the narratives and through the steady accretion of small details, some of which deal with a gruesome murder that rocked the wealthy Anchor-Ferrers years ago. Their present-day captors are all the more fear-inspiring because they are professional henchmen performing a job separate from their own ordinary lives.  Torture R Us.

midnightCharlaine Harris may have put Sookie Stackhouse and the Louisiana town of Bon Temps in her rearview mirror, but that doesn’t mean she’s left behind the paranormal. Midnight Crossroad (Penguin Berkley, purchased e-book) introduces us to the dusty, down-at-its-heels Texas hamlet of Midnight, where young online psychic Manfredo Bernardo (of the Harper Connelly series) sets up shop across the street from a large pawn shop. His new neighbors are an eclectic bunch, including an attractive witch and her watchful cat, a solitary reverend who tends over a little church and adjacent pet cemetery, the very pale downstairs tenant of the pawn shop, and a hard-working manager of the Gas ‘n’ Go and his teenage daughter and son.  Used to being an outsider, Manfredo finds himself surprisingly at home. When a missing woman with secret connections to a hate group is found dead, the community bands together against outside threats, each resident contributing his or her particular talents. As always, Harris is adept at depicting the cozy pleasures and perils of small-town life. First in a trilogy. I’ll be back.

revolutionIf you remember the ’60s, you know the era of peace, love and hard rock lasted well into the ’70s and that it often wasn’t peaceful. What I like best about Peter Robinson’s Children of the Revolution (Morrow, digital galley) is how well it evokes the youthful idealism and social unrest of that time when DCI Alan Banks investigates the death of a disgraced college lecturer. He discovers links to the victim’s college days 40 years ago and to Lady Veronica Chambers, former Marxist rebel turned popular romance novelist with political connections. Banks has his own memories and prejudices to deal with as he nudges toward retirement age. What I don’t like about the story is Banks romancing a woman younger than his children. Hard to believe and kinda creepy. Better the detective should follow George Clooney’s lead and find a more age-appropriate partner.

leonBooklovers will both delight and despair at Donna Leon’s new Guido Brunetti mystery By Its Cover (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), which spins on the defacing and theft of rare books.  The director of a Venice library calls on Brunetti when the losses are discovered after the disappearance of an American professor who was a regular patron. Surprisingly, neither the library’s longtime security guard nor another constant patron, a reader of church history, know anything about the situation. Or so they say. Then the professor’s credentials are found to be faked, and a murder ups the ante. As usual, the book is Venice-centric with many asides to the city’s charms, as well as its corruption, its crumbling culture and its invasion by cruise-ship tourists. An abrupt ending, however, may leave readers wondering if a few pages have gone missing?!

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lovestoryHypothermia as murder weapon. Young Cardiff detective Fiona Griffiths almost gets iced in Love Story, with Murders (Random House, digital galley), Harry Bingham’s crafty follow-up to Talking to the Dead, one of my favorite crime novels from last year. This procedural is more complex as narrator Fiona details her part in investigating two grisly murders, dubbed “Operation Stir-fry” by her colleagues (although not within hearing of frosty DCI Rhiannon Watkins).  Soon after Fiona discovers well-preserved bits and pieces of university student Mary Langton, missing for five years, very fresh parts of engineering lecturer Ali-el Khalifi begin turning up. Fiona helps the other detectives look for links between the victims, even as she spies a connection to an inept drug smuggler and a local business with foreign contacts.

But that’s only half of it. Bingham’s quite the plotter, but it’s Fiona, who describes herself as the “more-than-slightly crazy daughter of one of Wale’s best-known criminals,” who really keeps things interesting. As a teenager, she spent two years wrestling with a rare mental illness that made her think she was dead. Ten years on, she struggles to be “normal” — fixing dinner for her boyfriend, going shopping with her younger sister — but she still has an affinity for the dead, sometimes uncertain of reality. She also is continuing to look into her own past; she was abandoned as a toddler in a parked Jaguar belonging to the man who adopted her. And yes, she knows he was once a crime boss, arrested several times but never convicted. Digging into her past means digging up his. To be continued, thank goodness.

northofPirio Kasparov makes for another unconventional sleuth and narrator in Elisabeth Elo’s chilly North of Boston (Pamela Dorman/Viking). Pirio, heir to a high-end perfume business started by her Russian immigrant parents, has become known as “the swimmer” after surviving several hours in the icy Atlantic after her friend Ned’s lobster boat is run over by a freighter. Ned is presumed drowned, and it’s such a wonder that Pirio didn’t die that the Navy recruits her for research on surviving extreme cold. Meanwhile, Pirio has suspicions that the collision was no accident, and an investigative reporter has similar ideas. He’s been asking questions of  Ned’s fishing buddies at the company Ocean Catch, as well as Pirio’s  alcoholic friend Thomasina, who has a young son with Ned. Soon Pirio goes to sea again on a giant fishing trawler, and the story morphs into a suspenseful environmental thriller in Canada’s Baffin Bay. Battling bad guys and the elements, Pirio also discovers family secrets on an island remembered from childhood.

leavingWilliam Shaw’s keenly observed She’s Leaving Home (Little, Brown, digital galley) takes its title from a Beatles song, which is apropos considering its setting, 1968 swinging London. Detective sergeant Cathal “Paddy” Breen is bemused: “It was as if some kind of coup had taken place. The young and the beautiful had seized power. They had their own TV programs, their own radio stations, their own shops, their own language. In his early thirties, Breen felt cheated. Jealous even.”

Probationary constable Helen Tozer, 10 years younger, is Breen’s brash opposite, but the two are reluctantly paired  investigating the murder of an unidentified young woman near Abbey Road and the Beatles’ recording studio. The two question the neighborhood’s residents, including a nosy shrew, an elderly widower and an African surgeon, as well as the Beatles groupies hanging around for a glimpse of George or Paul. Tozer is a George-girl and surprises stolid Breen with her pop culture knowledge. Still, their search eventually takes them to Devon and Cornwall to find out why the dead girl left home and clues to her killer.

whitelie

Andrea Gillies’ first novel The White Lie (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley) is both a country-house saga and literary mystery, perfect for fans of Gosford Park. Michael Salter is 19 when he vanishes from the family estate in the Scottish highlands. His young aunt Ursula, emotionally stunted since a childhood tragedy, claims she has drowned Michael in the loch, but the family closes ranks, telling the villagers that fatherless Michael has merely gone away. Why the white lie? Perhaps because “the family has had more than its share of disasters, of premature deaths, one generation after another, such that people quite routinely refer to the power of the Salter curse.”

By the way, that’s Michael talking, or rather his ghost, 14 years after the incident at the loch. Able to review his past as well as “cinematic visitations” of other relatives’ memories before he was born, Michael makes for a beguiling narrator as he moves back and forth in time delving into the Salters’ secret history. Trust me. It works because Gillies writes beautifully, with elegant confidence.

hardgoingHard to believe, but Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ Hard Going (Severn House, digital galley) is the 16th entry in her estimable procedural series featuring London police detective Bill Slider. Seems like only yesterday that Slider was courting musician Joanna on the sly; now they’re embracing domestic bliss with a child.  But once again, the job interferes with family when Slider and sidekick Atherton are called out when a retired solicitor noted for his philanthropy is bashed over the head. They discover that the victim once successfully defended a man charged as a child molester, and death threats ensued. Perhaps, though, the answer lies closer to home and a colorful cleaning woman with criminal connections. There’s also an ex-wife in the background. Slider and company sort it all out in fine fashion.

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tatianaAsked if Russian police detective Arkady Renko is depressed because he has a wandering bullet in his brain, one of his colleague notes that “he’s not a ray of sunshine.” But in Martin Cruz Smith’s Tatiana (Simon and Schuster, digital galley), it’s melancholy Renko’s persistent idealism that shines like a beacon in dreary, corrupt Kalingrad, an industrial outpost on the Baltic. He ends up there because he doesn’t believe that crusading journalist Tatiana Petrova’s fall from a sixth-floor Moscow apartment was a suicide, and that she was killed after obtaining a coded notebook belonging to an interpreter killed on a Kalingrad beach. While his young chess-whiz friend Zhenya tries to decipher the symbols and gibberish in the notebook, Renko follows a complicated trail eventually involving a dead mob boss, his impulsive son and shadowy partners, an amber mine, Russian submarines, Chinese businessmen and a stolen bicycle. Bullets fly, but Renko’s not ready to give up on life, not by a long shot.

nightingaleRuth Rendell’s venerable detective Reg Wexford is officially retired, but in No Man’s Nightingale (Scribner, digital galley), he takes time off from reading Gibbon’s hefty Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to help find the killer of the local vicar. But this is no armchair cozy — the strangled vicar is single mother Sarah Hussain, whose gender, race and progressive views have divided St. Peter’s congregation. Indeed, Wexford’s former colleague, Mike Burden,  decides the murder is a hate crime and collars a likely suspect with motive and opportunity. But after meeting the dead woman’s teenage daughter and and a couple of longtime friends, Wexford suspects her complicated past — of which he hears several versions — may have played into her murder.  He also picks up clues from the constant prattle of his gossipy house cleaner, who found the body, and who unwittingly reveals details of another crime. Even as he copes with the loss of power and respect that came with his former job, Wexford proves himself as astute a detective as ever, as canny as his creator.

paganThe vicar is the hero and the heartthrob in Pagan Spring (St. Martin’s Press, purchased e-book), the third in G.M. Malliet’s witty series featuring Max Tudor, a former MI5 agent whose sleuthing skills were tested in Wicked Autumn and A Fatal Winter. Max has had little problem fitting into the village life of postcard-pretty Nether Monkslip, although he’s disappointed the ladies by taking up with Alwena Owen, a New Age herbalist. But several newcomers trouble the community’s apparent serenity, including a famous actor and playwright past his prime, his much-younger wife, and an enigmatic hairstylist from France who writes long e-mails. Of course, there’s a murder for Max to solve, and he is both helped and hindered by his friends, including the members of the Writers’ Square (because everybody has a writers’ circle). Old secrets come to light as villagers confront unpleasant truth. Fans of Miss Marple will feel right at home.

evilactScotland Yard detectives Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers take off for Italy in Elizabeth George’s Just One Evil Act (Dutton/Penguin, digital galley), with Havers risking her career in search of Hadiyyah, her 9-year-old neighbor. The girl is apparently with her English mother, who never married the Pakistani microbiologist who begs Havers for help. Not much can be done officially or legally, but Havers, more unlovely than ever, goes off on a tear, and handsome, aristocratic Lynley covers for her. The twisting plot, with echoes of the Amanda Knox case and that of still-missing Madeleine McCann, is absorbing, but at more than 700 pages, the book is overly long, and Havers’ self-destructive behavior grows tiresome. She’s better and brighter than this, as a charming Italian detective discerns.

cleelandNow, imagine that Lynley was sexually obsessed with Havers, and you’ll have an idea of the discomfiting atmosphere of  Anne Cleeland’s Murder in Thrall (Kensington, digital galley). Scotland Yard newcomer Kathleen Doyle isn’t really sure why Chief Inspector Michael Acton has taken her under his wing on a homicide case, but readers will quickly realize he’s been stalking her on the sly. When Lord Acton makes his intentions clear, Doyle is more than willing, although she takes a minute to worry about jeopardizing her career. I’ve already forgotten the murder this odd couple was investigating. Cleeland is better than this, as her appealing historical mystery Daughter of the God-King (Sourcebooks, digital galley) proves. Enjoy intrepid Miss Hattie Blackstone’s adventures in France and Egypt as she looks for missing archaeologists — who happen to be her parents.

cambridgePublisher William Morrow/HarperCollins is feeding my addiction to British crime with its new Witness Impulse e-book series. I’m a longtime fan of Frances Fyfield and Stephen Booth, and it’s good to see their titles available. But I’m especially happy to be introduced to excellent police procedurals by Alison Bruce (Cambridge Blue, The Calling), Mari Hannah (The Murder Wall) and Leigh Russell (Cut Short, Road Closed). Bruce’s Gary Goodhew is the youngest member of the Cambridge police force, Mari Hannah’s Kate Daniels is working homicide cases in Northumberland, and Russell’s Geraldine Steele is a DI in the rural town of Woolmarsh.

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