It's easy to see why A Beautiful Blue Death ($15.99) by Charles Finch was an Agatha Award finalist for best first novel. Set in Victorian London, it introduces amateur sleuth Charles Lenox. He's a 40ish, bookish, genial bachelor, with a comfortable income and a brother in the House of Lords. On a beastly cold day, after a trip to Scotland Yard to wrap up a forgery case he was consulted on, he's happy be back home in his library, with a warm fire, dry socks, and buttered toast, but obligingly steps next door to see his lifelong friend Lady Jane Grey. Prudence Smith, her former housemaid, has been found poisoned: suicide, or perhaps murder. Charles heads to the girl's current place of employment: the home of George Barnard, the director of the Royal Mint. Assisting Charles is his friend Thomas McConnell, a physician and surgeon, who determines that the girl was poisoned with something very rare - definitely NOT the poison in the bottle in her room. There seems to be a suicide note, but Charles learns the girl could neither read nor write, and sets out to track down her killer. While his loyal and clever manservant Graham gathers information about the girl's life from the servants, Charles investigates Barnard's nephews and house guests, and Barnard himself. Finch supplies plenty of suspects, possible motives, and unforeseen complications, and an ending with a couple of good twists. This is a genteel, leisurely, traditional mystery, with an interesting cast of well-developed characters, lots of deduction, and very little violence. I enjoyed Lady Jane's calm intelligence, and Charles Lenox is quietly charming, particularly: his sympathetic and respectful way of dealing with witnesses and suspects, whatever their station in life; his fondness for books - he is reading his favorite new book one chapter at a time, to savor it, but allows himself two chapters after a particularly trying day; his diligent pursuit of answers; and his delight in acquiring a really warm pair of boots that keep his feet dry (a familiar sensation for any Minnesotan!). The series continues with The September Society ($15.99), The Fleet Street Murders ($14.99), A Stranger in Mayfair ($15.99), A Burial at Sea ($14.99), A Death in the Small Hours ($15.99), An Old Betrayal ($15.99), and The Laws of Murder ($25.99).
A Tiger's Tale ($7.99) by Laura Morrigan is a strong follow-up to her debut Woof at the Door ($7.99). Veterinarian turned animal behaviorist Grace Wilde can communicate telepathically with animals (although only a few people know that). She's called to Happy Asses Donkey and Big Cat Rescue to help out when Boris, a usually friendly tiger, suddenly turns ferocious during an exam. As Grace works to calm the cat, she discovers why he's upset: his favorite volunteer, a troubled teen named Brooke, is missing, and Boris saw her taken. The girl's stepfather thinks she has run away again, and refuses to call in the police. So, with some unofficial assistance from her crime scene investigator boyfriend Kai, Grace decides to look for her. I really enjoy the strong, independent women characters in this series. Grace is fierce and capable, and she's beginning to realize that her people skills really need work. Her sister Emma is smart (a successful party planner) and tough (a black belt martial artist), and more than willing to educate Grace about dealing with people. Brooke (once we get to meet her) turns out to be pretty sharp and determined, and rescue proprietor Ozeal Mallory is a great combination of warm-hearted and fierce. Frankly, the criminals don't stand a chance against these women and their animal allies! And Morrigan writes great animal scenes - my favorites in this book were Boris the tiger going goofy with a bag of catnip, Grace's wolf-dog hybrid Moss becoming completely obsessed with a new kitten, and Jack-Jack the mini donkey's cunning plan for escaping from his pen. I'm really looking forward to the next book in the series when it arrives in March.
Deirdre "Foxtrot" Lancaster works as administrative assistant (aka chaos wrangler) to wealthy Zelda Zoransky (ZZ for short), keeping things running smoothly at her estate, which includes a mansion, tennis courts, pool, private menagerie, and a cemetery where for decades people have been burying their pets (as well as the occasional circus, show, or rescue animal). As if that wasn't enough work, in A Taste Fur Murder ($7.99), Foxtrot discovers that she's been drafted: the pet cemetery is also a mystical nexus that animal spirits travel through on their way to visit their former human companions, and Foxtrot is the new caretaker. The word is that a human is going to die, the cemetery will be threatened as a result, and she has to stop that from happening. But she will have help. Mr. Tiny (his given name, most unfortunate) is an ectoplasmic shape-shifting dog with a military background, a British accent, and a dry sense of humor. Tango is a cat - in fact, she was Foxtrot's cat until she died ten years ago, but now she's back, reincarnated into the 7th of her 9 lives. Both animals communicate telepathically with Foxtrot, and with each other, and their snarky conversations make this series a lot of fun. Meanwhile, back at Foxtrot's day job, she adds sleuthing to her duties when a servant is murdered while cleaning ZZ's closet, and then ZZ winds up in a coma after drinking drugged tea. With a not-to-bright police detective on the case, it's up to Foxtrot to figure out who is responsible. (Good thing she reads mysteries in her spare time!) Is it one of the staff? One of the house guests? Or maybe ZZ's badly behaved son? Whether gathering clues from animals at the menagerie (with Tango acting as interpreter) or from the ghostly denizens of the cemetery, Foxtrot will need all of her formidable negotiating and problem-solving skills - and her ability to stay calm in a crisis - to crack the case. To Die Fur ($7.99), the second book in the series, brings more challenges when Augustus, a rare albino liger, is poisoned while staying in ZZ's menagerie. Not only does Foxtrot have to figure out who was responsible, but the tiger goddess and the lion god are both trying to claim Augustus' spirit, which could lead to a cataclysmic battle at the cemetery no matter what Augustus decides to do. Despite his demise early in the book, we get to spend a lot of time with Augustus; his spirit is a major character in the book, and Tango mentors him as he considers what he wants to do with his afterlife. I enjoyed the second book even more than the first; the third book is expected in April.
I always enjoy finding a book where the main character shows me the world from a different angle. And that's certainly the case in The Question of the Missing Head ($14.99) by E.J. Copperman (Jeffrey Cohen). Samuel Hoenig is a man with Asperger's Syndrome, which he considers a facet of his personality rather than a disorder, and a very handy one for his chosen profession: he answers questions for people. He knows that people consider him odd; he considers most "typical" people odd, and believes that he behaves quite rationally by comparison. And we get to learn all about his abilities and foibles when he's hired to answer this question: who stole a frozen head from the Garden State Cryonics Institute (GSCI)? A visit to the scene of the crime reveals the dead body of a GSCI doctor. That isn't the question Samuel is there to answer, but his mother and his associate Miss Washburn encourage him to get involved. And Detective Lapides, who is in charge of the police investigation, has never worked a homicide before, and soon turns to Samuel for help. The case rapidly grows more complicated, with ransom demands, kidnappings, and attempted murder, and the plot has plenty of twists and turns to keep things interesting and surprising. Through it all we see events from Samuel's unusual perspective; he spends a lot of time detailing the things he's noticing, as well as his occasional inability to interpret what he's noticing. Miss Washburn has great people skills, acting as an interpreter and facilitator, able to explain Samuel's behavior when it puzzles others, and to provide Samuel with information he's missed or misinterpreted. And the relationship between Samuel and his mother is great, too. Asperger's Syndrome is a trendy plot device these days, but in this case the author knows what he's talking about - Cohen has a son with Asperger's, and has written some nonfiction on the subject. I hope Samuel will be answering many more questions.
Twisted Threads ($7.99, expected early January) by Lea Wait is a promising start to the Mainely Needlepoint series. For the last 10 years, Angie Curtis has been in Arizona, working for a private investigator, but a phone call from her grandmother Charlotte summons her to Maine: when Angie was 9, her mother Jenny disappeared, and now Jenny's body has been found. Back home in Haven Harbor, Angie learns that Charlotte has started a business with some local needlepointers, doing custom work. But Jacques Lattimore, who handles order-taking, delivery, and collections, has stopped sending them payment and answering their calls. Angie tracks him down and brings him back to meet with the group; when Jacques gets sick after the meeting, Angie needs to figure out which of the needlepointers poisoned him. And she really wants to know who killed her mother all those years ago. This book is a bit grittier than the average cozy. Angie is a tough and capable character, but still working through her childhood traumas and the stigma of growing up with an unmarried mother who slept around. And the needlepointers are a nicely varied group: Dave Percy was taught by a crewmate while serving on a Navy submarine; Katie Titicombe learned from her husband Gus, a surgeon who took it up in medical school to improve his stitching, and who also talked Captain Ob Winslow into taking up needlepoint after his back problems made it hard for him to do woodcarving; and Aussie antique store owner Sarah Byrne is also interested in conserving and restoring vintage needlepoint. I enjoyed watching Angie gradually reconnect with her hometown, and adapt to changing circumstances. And I also enjoyed her willingness to work with the police on the investigations - I'm really tired of amateur sleuths who stupidly refuse to work with the cops, and end up in deadly peril as a result.
Newbery Honor Book and Edgar Award finalist Three Times Lucky (ages 10 and up, $7.99) by Sheila Turnage takes us to the tiny town of Tupelo Landing, North Carolina, and introduces us to one of my all-time favorite narrators, rising sixth grader Mo LoBeau. Mo washed ashore in a hurricane, and found a home with Miss Lana (a woman with a love for the dramatic) and the Colonel (a formidable man with a mysterious past and a strong dislike of cops and lawyers); together they run the town's cafe. When cranky neighbor Mr. Jesse is murdered, and it turns out Mo's best friend Dale was spotted near his house, naturally Mo has to get involved. But first the Colonel and then Miss Lana disappear, and the plot gets more complicated as secrets going back years come into play. Mo is intelligent, intrepid, fair-minded, warm-hearted, fiercely loyal, and impulsive; luckily, Dale is more cautious, even downright fearful at times, which acts as a brake on some of Mo's wilder plans. And there are adults around to step in and take charge when things get too tough, or scary, or upsetting. The mystery part of the book is well-plotted, and I loved the town's great cast of characters, and the way the townsfolk look out for one another. But what really makes this book special is Mo's way of putting things. Whether she's asking diner customers how they'd like their peanut butter sandwiches ("Hand-squished, or fluffy?"), or talking about Dale's big brother Lavender ("Lavender is handsome in the NASCAR way, and if I was old enough I'd snatch him up and marry him before sundown."), or defending Anna Celeste (Mo's Enemy for Life) to her demanding mother ("'Anna Celeste has the best girl's voice in our class.' It was true-ish. Sort of. We all sing like bullfrogs."), Mo's narration is a delight. Next up in the series is The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing ($16.99). When Miss Lana accidentally buys a haunted inn at the Tupelo Landing town auction, Desperado Detective Agency - aka Mo and Dale - opens a paranormal division to solve the mystery of the ghost's identity; they also plan to interview it for their history assignment (extra credit). As Mo and Dale track down the truth about the ghost (with some help from the new kid in town), they discover the truth about a great many other people, too.
Magic Marks the Spot (ages 8 and up, $6.99) by Caroline Carlson introduces us to The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates. Hilary Westfield has always wanted to be a pirate, so she's been studying pirate lore, tying knots, climbing rigging, rowing, and fencing. She can tread water for 37 minutes. She and the family gargoyle love to read Treasure Island. So Hilary is not pleased to end up at Miss Pimm's Finishing School for Delicate Ladies. Uninterested in learning to waltz and faint, or in joining the school water ballet, she and the gargoyle run away to answer an ad for a pirate crew. Years ago, the Enchantress of the Northlands gathered up most of the kingdom's magical items and hid them, because people were using them unwisely, but a few items are still in circulation, mostly in the hands of High Society people, and of course pirates. Now a few High Society scoundrels are trying to round up all that magic for themselves. But pirate captain Jasper Fletcher is determined to find the magic the Enchantress hid, and distribute it to everyone in the kingdom. Hilary and the gargoyle are happy to join his crew. Her former governess Miss Greyson tries to persuade Hilary to return to school, then joins the crew as well, to provide Hilary with proper supervision. But to gain the treasure, they'll have to overcome the most treacherous - and unexpected - villain on the high seas. Hilary is great - smart, determined, capable, protective of her friends, and relentless in her efforts to locate the treasure - and the gargoyle is a great sidekick, plucky but also vulnerable to fears and doubts. And I really like the way that Jasper and Miss Greyson interact with Hilary and Charlie (Jasper's apprentice), listening to them and allowing them a say in events. The book excels at taking preconceived ideas, giving them a good shake, and turning them upside down. It is also very funny, interspersed with articles from the kingdom's newspaper, excerpts from the League's guide to piracy, letters written by various characters, and a couple hilarious examples of the kingdom's Form 118M: Intention to Set Sail. I'm looking forward to reading more of Hilary's adventures.
by Gerri Balter
In Killing Kate by Julie Kramer ($7.99) Riley Spartz hasn’t seen Laura Warnerm since they had a difference of opinion in college. When Riley hears that Laura’s young sister, Kate, has been murdered, she goes out of her way to investigate, and finds out Kate was the victim of a serial killer. Riley also takes on another case, of a dog named Buddy who died of heatstroke because he was left in a car. Riley rescues him, but she’s too late to save him. While she works both cases, the serial killer begins to stalk her.