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Newsletter #125 March May, 2019

Who Dunnit - Short
Mystery Reviews

        by Mary McKinley

        The Widows by Jess Montgomery (HC $26.99) is not the the recent movie book. (That one is by Lynda LaPlante, and we have it in paperback for $9.99.) This book is loosely based on the lives of Maude Collins, Ohio’s first female sheriff and Mary Harris “Mother” Jones. It’s set in a mining town in Kinship, Ohio in the 1920s and opens with the reality of working for the “company store” - the job pays only in scrip which is pretty much worthless and takes weeks to earn enough for a necessity such as tinned milk. Unions are trying to establish a presence, but the organizers are literally beaten down when found out. There is a mine explosion, killing several men, resulting from unsafe working conditions. Daniel, the sheriff, is killed while transporting a criminal (read union organizer) to the regional jail. His pregnant widow, Lily, is devastated. Marvena, the “Mother Jones” character, had been married to a union organizer who was killed in a mining accident; then she was involved with the sheriff for a while; then she became the common-law wife of the escaped prisoner; and through all of this she has been a moonshiner. Lily takes over as the sheriff by popular acclaim, since the mine owners think she’ll be a pushover, and Marvena continues her moonshining business as well as taking over her deceased husband's union organizing activities. The women join forces to find the true murderer of Dan, unraveling his underground life as they do. And then there’s the missing Eula - Marvena’s daughter. She walked out one day and disappeared. There are perils such as when Lily rushes into a collapsed mine to save a young boy, and you feel the floodwaters rise up, just as she did. Montgomery’s writing is that strong and vivid. There is good, solid historical fact in this book which covers the bleak poverty of the 20s coal miners as well as the vicious preventative measures taken by the mine owners to prevent unionization. Tying all this together is the story of the two women who loved and lost the same man and need to find out why he was killed. The murderer was unexpected but not contrived, and for me, very satisfactory. The voices of the two women are distinct enough that it’s easy to tell who is telling which part of the story - Lily, who was brought up privileged and educated, and Marvena - the exact opposite. The narrative flows quite well and it was hard to put it down for necessary things like sleep. I highly recommend this page turner!

        An Elderly Lady is Up To No Good (HC, $12.99) by Helene Tursten - another book that grabbed me by it’s title. This is a collection of short, related stories about Maud, age 88 but still in full control of her faculties and not too physically incapacitated even though she convinces many people that she’s forgetful and frail, preferring it when people think of her as old and feeble because that makes it easier to get away with things, like petty theft. Oh - and murders. She lives alone and likes it that way; traveling every year to exotic climes. The blurb on the back says that it’s “funny and irreverent”, but to me it reads like the life history of a psychopath, who uses her age and falsified infirmities to get away with, well, murder, and to be able to live her life as she pleases - quietly and peacefully. The writing and translation are sound, it’s just not a character I could muster up any sympathy for. There’s a slight tie-in with Tursten’s other series with Detective Inspector Irene Huss appearing, which we have in new trade paperbacks priced from $9.99 to $16.95.

        The Gods Help Those (TPB $15.95) by Albert A. Bell, Jr. is the seventh case from the notebooks of Pliny the Younger, set in Rome during the first century. Previous books are: All Roads Lead to Murder (TBP $17.95), The Blood of Caesar (TPB $17.95), The Corpus Conundrum (TPB $17.95), Death in the Ashes (TPB $15.95), The Eyes of Aurora (TPB $15.95), and Fortune’s Fool (TPB $15.95). We start off with an uneasy introduction not only to the household, but to the Book of Genesis as read by Pliny’s mother’s servant, best friend, and Jew, Naomi. Due to many days of rain, the Tiber River has overflowed and washed away a good part of Pliny’s warehouse which leads to the discovery of 7 bodies - two living, including a baby and a woman, and 5 dead including a man wearing a tunic with an equestrian stripe, indicating aristocracy. This man has been dead for days unlike the others, and died of a stab wound rather than a building collapse. He also has 30 silver coins sewn shut in his mouth. Both the baby and the dead man are circumcised, a sure indication that they are Jewish. But who are they and how did they end up in the warehouse? As the tale evolves, there are more people stabbed in the back in the same way; some die, some take precautions against stabbing, and some are only injured. How does Queen Berenice fit into the equation, and most importantly, what happens to the baby? This series offers a good look at a specific Roman time - this book is set shortly after the eruption of Vesuvius - and covers the different classes in society, the excesses of the various emperors at that time, and offers an interesting look into both Judaism and Christianity during this era.

        Lindsey Davis has been recommended to me by many readers as an excellent storyteller. She currently has two series out, both taking place in ancient Rome. The first is about Marcus Didius Falco, who works for Emperor Vespasian, and the second series (which seems to have more readers) follows the adventures of Flavia Alba, his adopted daughter and also a detective. Her 6th in the series and most recent, Pandora’s Boy (HC, $27.99), finds Flavia investigating the poisoning of a young girl, purportedly by a love potion supplied by the witch Pandora. As it turns out, this young girl is not well liked, which broadens the list of suspects. Davis instills humor in her stories and has a way to turn a phrase: “I offered no refreshments to Laia Gratiana; I would sooner give her warts.“ Of course, she ends up taking the job even though it was brought to her by her husband’s ex-wife, and is all the way across Rome. Reading the rich details makes me believe in reincarnation - Davis has such a feel for Rome in the first century CE that she must have lived there. Other books in the Flavia series are: The Ides of April, Enemies at Home, Deadly Election, The Graveyard of the Hesperides (2017 Shamus Award for Best Novel Finalist), and The Third Nero (new TPB $16.99). It’s time for me to start at the beginning to read these! I like her style and the mystery holds together well until the end when all is revealed...

        I split my undergrad degree three ways (when you finish your BA in your 40s, you’re allowed to do that!) I majored in Anthropology, Psychology, and Forensics. So in addition to all things Scottish (check out my last name), I also am drawn to forensics, anthro and/or psych books. I stumbled across the Faye Longchamp series by Mary Anna Evans of which we have a couple in used HC and TPB. In order, they are: Artifacts, Relics, Effigies, Findings , Floodgates, Strangers, Plunder, Rituals, Isolation, Burials, Undercurrents - most recent, released in 2018. These take place at the Joyeuse Plantation in Florida as well as other southern sites as Faye finishes up her archaeology degree. Artifacts has Faye trying to save her home by digging up and selling artifacts on the black market, mostly from the slave quarters on her property, until she digs up a much more recent corpse. To make matters more interesting, she’s mixed race, doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere, and somehow, it was her 3 times great grandmother who acquired the plantation in a way lost to time. She digs up more corpses and is able, with the help of her friend Joe (who is part Creek Native American and is very adept at making and using stone tools) to not only track down the killer(s), but to unravel her lineage and prove ownership of disputed land. While things get perhaps too neatly tied up in the end, there is good suspense and an introduction to living in the Florida coastline swamps and what damages a hurricane can do, and what it’s like to be at ground zero during a hurricane with a murderer stalking you.

        A gargoyle who was accidently brought to life by an alchemist/magician sets the groundwork for Gigi Pandian’s fun series starting with The Accidental Alchemist. Young appearing Zoe Faust who found the Elixir of Life some 300 years ago has decided to settle down, buying a ramshackle house in Portland where she intends to build her lab and make a life of her own. As she’s unpacking, she discovers a living, breathing gargoyle who has hidden away in her crates. This gargoyle, Dorian Robert-Houdin, is a gourmet French chef who is slowly reverting back into stone for reasons yet to be divined. As Zoe is dealing with this unexpected guest, she comes home from a walk to discover her remodeler dead on her front steps and a small group of neighborhood teens breaking into the “haunted house”. While trying to keep her secret from the police and her gargoyle well hidden and retrained into vegan cooking, she also tries to discover the puzzle of the book that brought Dorian to life, and who killed her remodeler. This is the first in a series of four books, followed by The Masquerading Magician, The Elusive Elixir, and The Alchemist’s Illusion. Like most cozies, the books all have vegan recipes in the back. Pandian switched to a plant based diet following cancer diagnosis and treatment. These have been fun and educational reads - who knew that there were more types of alchemists than the standard lead-into-gold ones? And I had no idea that cashews were a versatile replacement for dairy products!

        So many cozies feature cats and dogs as either pets, protagonists, or perpetrators, but Betty Webb’s series about a small private zoo near Monterey, CA has innocent animals discovering (and getting blamed for) dead bodies. The series starts with The Anteater of Death (TPB $14.95), with Lucy, a pregnant giant anteater discovering a dead body in her enclosure. After warning the body off with her claws, she is blamed for the killing. It’s up to Teddy Bentley, zookeeper, to find the real killer. However, she has her own problems with an embezzling father, a former beauty queen mother, and a sheriff who has her heart. There’s also money, adultery, and blackmail which needs to be sorted out before the killer can be named. Nothing is sordid or graphic, more plot lines than titillation. Other books in the series are: The Koala of Death, The Llama of Death, The Puffin of Death, and The Otter of Death (all in TPB $14.95 - $15.95). One of the things I enjoy about her books are that the animals are “real animals” - no psychic powers, not thinking like humans, but acting and responding as wild animals do, whether they’re in a zoo or or in the ocean.

        In the revisiting favorite authors section, both Elizabeth and I highly recommend Elizabeth Peters. She is probably best known for her Amelia Peabody series, a woman archaeologist in the late 1890s - early 1900s era, who manages, with her family, to discover another dead body each year. While I recommend all of these which we have new and used, hardcover and paperback, my favorite character is Vicky Bliss - an American art historian in Bavaria, Germany. In her job as an art authenticator, she travels across Europe finding herself in the middle of murders, mysteries, forgeries, and love with a jewel thief. In order, the books are Borrower of the Night, Street of Five Moons (wherein she meets John Smith, or Smythe, or whatever alias he is currently using), Silhouette in Scarlet, Trojan Gold (Finalist 1988 Anthony Award for Best Mystery), Night Train to Memphis (Finalist 1994 Agatha Award for Best Novel), and Laughter of Dead Kings. We are introduced to John Smith in The Camelot Caper, before the two of them meet. As a side, Vicky writes romances, which are not intended for publication, but which keeps her boss on the hook for the next installment and off her back. Her other series features Jacqueline Kirby, an acerbic middle aged writer/librarian. All of her books are well researched, (she received her Ph.D. in Egyptology at age 23), feature strong characters, and have a streak of humor. There's no graphic or gratuitous killing and even when you're told who the killer is right upfront, unraveling the whys is believable and true to the characters as well as the story. Peters also writes under the name of Barbara Michaels and these books tend to be more supernatural suspense.

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