Burial Ground ($5.99), Malcolm Shuman's first mystery featuring contract archaeologist Dr. Alan Graham, has spent time on our "Recommended American" rack. In mid-November we'll see a follow-up paperback original, The Meriwether Murder ($5.99), one of the first titles under Avon's new "Twilight" imprint.
Work done for the Corps of Engineers by Alan's Baton Rouge based firm Moundmasters leads him to examine the grounds of Desereé, a decaying ante-bellem plantation. Along with colleague P. E. "Pepper" Courtney, an awkward young love interest, he comes across a curious and humble headstone marked LOUIS. After locating Ouida Fabre, the matriarch who's been wrongfully maneuvered into a nursing home by her avaricious nephew, he gets his hands on the plantation's three artifact working journals. The indicators are there: Could this truly be the grave of the great explorer Meriwether Lewis? The man once called "as close to a son as Thomas Jefferson ever had", who was to have died (murder? suicide?) on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee in 1809?
E-mail threats at the office are followed by an urgent call from Brady Flowers, the plantation's caretaker. When Alan and Pepper go to meet him they are caught in the flames as the mansion bursts into fire, and are moments late in saving the murdered caretaker. There are multiple felonies committed almost 200 years apart. Will solving one mystery lead to the answer in the other? A not-too-reluctant Graham must stop a very alive and active killer, while perhaps resolving one of American history's great unanswered questions - and maybe putting a tragic hero to rest.
Somewhat awkwardly, I read The Meriwether Murder well in advance in photo-copied manuscript form. So I won't quote, and must qualify - changes were to be made. But it looks like the novel will be much longer than the average series paperback original, and certainly longer than its predecessor of 213 pages. This may in part be due to the large number of secondary characters, close to thirty, all named (Dorcas Drew, Flinders Mott) and all with at least something to say and contribute. There's also an interesting subplot featuring "Louis' " missing iron box which one imagines could contain just about anything. For the sake of the romantic development it will be ideal to read Burial Ground first.
The recommended The Meriwether Murder brought to mind several other recent titles; The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis by Ron Burns (out of print, St. Martins '93, never in paperback), Legends and Lies: Great Mysteries of the American West by Dale L. Walker (non-fiction, St. Martins $22.95), The Lafite Case by Ray Peters (Write Way, $22.95), and even Colin Dexter's The Wench is Dead ($5.99). You may also want to investigate Beverly Connor's forensic anthropologist Lindsay Chamberlain (Dressed to Die, September release from Cumberland House, $20.95), Katherine Kunz' genealogist Terry Girard, and Aaron Elkin's Gideon Oliver series. Goodness, by considering the lost artifact angle I could add a few more.
Because of its historical theme, easy readability, and satisfying characters and plot, this novel would be a good choice for a precocious younger reader. I don't go along with the suggestions that popular perception has the archaeologist either wearing a pith helmet or brandishing a bullwhip ala' Indiana Jones. Though if I were an actual contract archaeologist like author Shuman it would likely be my fantasy as well. And no, I haven't forgotten that he has written several earlier and very appealing hardcover mysteries as M. K. Shuman, but - well, just try finding them.
And the answer to the most asked question at Uncle Edgar's this past summer: Patrick O'Brian's latest, The Hundred Days (Norton, $24), has a drop date of Monday, October 5th. There's also the promise of one more and final title in the saga of Post Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin. This won't prompt a review (obviously Mr. O'Brian doesn't need my promotional help any longer), however let me mention a few recent entries in the historical nautical/military adventure - crime-on-a-grand-scale category.
Most notable is the arrival of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe's Triumph, alas in British hardcover (HarperCollins $39.95). This novel, the fifteenth in another amazing saga, answers another of those burning questions; "How did a man like Richard Sharpe gain his lieutenant's stripe?" It's literally Indian summer in 1803 and four years since young Sharpe earned his sergeant stripes at the Siege of Seringapatam (Sharpe's Tiger, $5.99 and never in U.S. hardcover). That's where, in addition to being a black hole prisoner of the Tipoo (and where he learns to read - sort of), Sharpe lights the charge that opens the breach, does some killing, and takes some significant plunder. All deeds he'd rather keep quiet about. He becomes the sole survivor and witness of a village massacre lead by a treacherous English lieutenant who's defected from the East India Company to join the Mahratta Confederation. It's the start of a vengeance trail, often at the side of the young and untried General Arthur Wellesley, that leads to the extraordinary Battle of Assaye.
The Battle of Assaye historically may have been the future Lord Wellington's most glorious moment, even outshining Waterloo. Suicidally out numbered and out gunned, it was also one of the finest moments for the Scots regiments in Wellesley's tiny army. Cornwell places Sharpe right in the center of the bloody frenzy. What complicates matters for Sharpe (though unbeknownst to him) is his nemesis, the twisted and twitching Sergeant Hakeswill, has framed him for assaulting an officer and is tracking Sharpe with a warrant for his arrest. Sharpe is not meant to survive the trip back for court martial. Hakeswill has become one of my favorite series villains.
One of the more unique aspects of the series is that the veteran reader already knows the fates of characters Sharpe, Hakeswill, and Wellesley. Sharpe's Triumph is the third prequel to the novel that introduced the hero in Sharpe's Eagle (Penguin $10.95). Three prequels? Unprecedented in my memory. It certainly should take away a majority of the series' suspense - but it doesn't seem to matter. Twelve of the bestselling novels have been made into films starring Sean Bean, with a handful being shown in the U.S. on PBS' Masterpiece Theatre. This also puts the scarred and green-jacketed Sharpe in very select company.
George MacDonald Fraser, emeritus Victorian novelist and humorist, has yet to reveal the details in The Flashman Papers of how Harry served in both the Union and the Confederacy during the American Civil War. But earlier this year he offered the colorful Black Ajax (Carrol & Graf $23). Opening in 1813 (let's not forget old girl Victoria reigned a long time), the novel features Harry's father Captain "Mad Buck" Flashman. The story has Buck mentoring American ex-slave Tom Molineaux towards his dream of defeating the great English prize fighting champion Tom Cribb. Always with a quick eye to the main chance (blood will tell, won't it?) "Mad Buck" has his own fantasy of gaining sporting and social fame. Black Ajax is primarily told by sixteen eyewitness narrators (remindful of Pear's Instance of the Fingerpost), each voice more distinctive than the next.
The ten Flashman books remain in print in trade paperback. Make that eleven, with the very welcome reprint of one of the great Edwardian novels, Fraser's grand story of Mr. American (C & G, $15.95, c. 1980). For it's in this long (557 pp.) but well-paced crime tale that we get our last glimpse of General Sir Harry Flashman, who plays a secondary character. I must beware - it's too easy to wax long and enthusiastic about this novel. But it has one of my favorite closing scenes; the aged Flashy, on display waving in his open car and weighed down with a chestfull of medals and years of war and debauchery, wends his way through the mob in the Mall while the brass band give send-off to the naive young soldiers marching off to fight the Kaiser in The War to End All Wars. Through the palace gates and past the Guardsmen, Harry, the ultimate survivor, just wants to use the loo ("The amount of liquor that's occupied my bladder in ninety years has rendered it a rather perished article.").
by Gerri Balter
[Gerri has been a regular customer at both Uncles for decades, and has also been active with the Twin Cities chapter of Sisters in Crime. Like many of the customers at Uncle Edgar's and unlike the people who work at Uncle Edgar's, she tries to avoid mysteries with much graphic violence. Below, she has recommended some of her favorites from the last few years. If you share her tastes, you might find some new authors to sample.]
Six Feet Under by D.B. Borton ($5.99) is the sixth book in the Cat Caliban series, and I think it's the best one so far. What I like about this series is that the protagonist is an older woman who has realistic physical limitations.
Cat is in training to become a private investigator. Her friend and neighbor, Moses Fogg, a retired police officer, receives a call from a young woman named Rocky Zacharias. He tried to keep her out of trouble before his retirement but failed and she went to prison. Out on parole now, she finds herself in big trouble and fearful that her children might be hurt because of it. Moses is the only one she thinks can help her. Cat thinks this would be a great way to get some training so she decides to help Moses find Rocky. Cat, whose friends include homeless people, does not think of herself as wealthy, finds herself in a world where she is considered rich and privileged. She learns about people who have to move in the middle of the night because they can't pay the rent, where children are abused and killed because a relative feels mean and surviving is the best they can hope for. Cat finds herself hiding Rocky's children and hoping she can find Rocky before it's too late.
The Body in the Bog by Katherine Hall Page ($5.99) is one of the series that includes recipes. Since I haven't tried any of them, I have no idea how good they are. This series gives an interesting picture of life in a small town where people live life at a much slower pace than I do. Although the main character, Faith Fairchild, is the wife of a minister, she doesn't act like a
stereotypical minister's wife. She gets jealous when she sees her husband hug another woman and sometimes resents it when he works on his sermons instead of spending time with her and the children.
Faith comes home to find her husband comforting Miss Lora, their son's kindergarten teacher. It seems that Miss Lora has received threatening phone calls. As Faith soon learns, several people, all part of a local environmentalist group in town, have been receiving threatening letters. It all has to do with Beecher's Bog whose owners want to sell it to a housing developer, and the environmentalists who want to stop them. Things get worse when one of the owners of the bog is killed, and Faith finds the body while walking with her family. A second body, this time one of the environmentalists, is found in the ruins of the dead woman's home. Faith is determined to find the murderer before they can target their next victim__her.
A Deadly Shaker Spring by Deborah Woodworth ($5.99) is the second in her series. I enjoyed Deborah's first book so much that I had to buy and read her second book as soon as it came out. She does a fantastic job of describing how fear and frustration can drive normally kind people to violent acts, and how the past can come back to haunt us.
This series takes place during the Depression and involves a Shaker Community and the small town nearby. The town and the community survive by depending on each other. Someone is trying to destroy the Shaker Community's good name. They start by tearing down fences and letting mice run loose in the schoolhouse. They print terrible stories about what goes on in the community. Because the townspeople don't really understand the Shaker philosophy and feel powerless by what the Depression might do to them, they decide to take the law into their own hands. Unfortunately, the only person who might know who is involved is the former eldress, Sister Agatha, who has had a stroke and can't speak. Sister Rose Callahan, a newly appointed eldress, reads Sister Agatha's diaries and investigates in the hope that she can find the answer before it's too late.
Under normal circumstances, I don't read or recommend books with violent scenes. The Bone Collector by Jeffrey Deaver ($6.99) is an exception. I would recommend it to everyone, in spite of the violence. The characters are richly drawn and three_dimensional. He gives a realistic portrayal of what it's like not to have the use of your arms and legs. He shows that beauty can be a handicap if you want to be taken seriously. Even the minor characters have unique personalities and you feel for them. The plot is complex. It is a fascinating look at the contrast of today's Manhattan and the way it was in its early history. Most of the time when I read a mystery, I try to figure out who did it. I was so busy worrying about the characters in this book, I forgot all about trying to figure out who the killer was.
Lincoln Rhyme was one of the most brilliant criminologists in the field of forensics. He gave that all up when he was injured on a case and became a quadriplegic. He also has autonomic Dyreflexia, whose symptoms include pounding heartbeat, raging headaches, and off_the_charts blood pressure which could cause a stroke that could leave him a prisoner in his body with no movement. Not wanting to live like that, he decides to commit suicide. But he can't do it without help so he finds a doctor that is willing to help him. Then the police bring him a problem that intrigues him. A large United Nation meeting is taking place in town and a serial killer is loose. They need to find the killer and quickly. They are willing to give him whatever he wants if he would help them. He gathers a team together, including Amelia Sachs, the policewoman who was first on the scene of the latest killing. She has arthritis and was supposed to be transferred to public affairs, but he insists that she join the team. All he seems to be interested in was finding the killer. Saving the victims is more important to her. As they work together, they begin to learn from each other. At each crime scene the killer leaves minute clues and they begin to put them together only to realize the serial killer knows police procedures and maybe knows one or more of the team. What if the killer begins to target the team, especially Lincoln? And even if they catch the killer, will Lincoln still decide to commit suicide?
Name Withheld by J.A. Jance ($6.99) is the thirteenth in a series that takes place in Seattle, Washington. Beau, a homicide detective, is doing his ex_partner a favor by babysitting his two children over New Years so his former partner and his current wife can have some time alone before the birth of their first child. Little does he know what problems that would cause when he was called out to a murder scene and had to leave the girls alone. When someone pulls a prank at the apartment building and blames the girls, his ex_partner's ex_wife sues for full custody. She wants to take the girls to live in a dangerous part of Seattle. While Beau tries to help his ex_partner keep custody of his children, he also has to deal with the fact that his own ex_wife is dying of cancer. He wants to wrap up the case he started working on New Years Day so that he can spend time with her before she dies. The case involves a dead man found murdered in Elliot Bay with no identification. It takes a while before someone files a missing person's report. At first the dead man's wife is the prime suspect, but when she is found in his apartment, also a murder victim, Beau has to look elsewhere. And he has to look alone because his current partner is in Ohio with chicken pox. After he finds out about the dead man, he isn't sure he cares who the murderer is. The dead man has raped a woman, tried to take over a business, and isn't who he seems to be. How important is bringing a killer to justice? That's only one of the questions Beau has to answer in this complex mystery filled with interesting characters and a plot that kept me guessing all the way to the end.
In All Shall Be Well by Deborah Crombie ($5.99) it's obvious from the beginning who's going to die__Jasmine Dent. She has terminal cancer. It's only a matter of time. So when Duncan Kincaid, a friend of Jasmine's, finds her body, no one is surprised. No one but Duncan. He's a Scotland Yard Superintendent and a few things don't add up. Even when he learns that Jasmine had planned to take her own life, he still has doubts. So he begins to investigate her life. The more he finds out about her, the more he realizes he didn't know her very well at all.
Part of the reason I liked this book is because Duncan and his partner, Sergeant Gemma James, have feelings. They don't come across as tough cops. The rest of the characters, with one exception, grow and change because of Jasmine's death. When I finished the novel, I felt as if I wanted to revisit them in a year or two and see what happens to them.
Dead Man's Hand by Catherine Dain ($5.99) features Freddie O'Neal, a Reno, Nevada PI. Freddie was out shopping with her boyfriend when two teenage boys tried to hold them up. When one of the boys shot her boyfriend, she shoots and kills him. Filled with guilt because she killed a teenager and worry because her boyfriend might die, she doesn't want to work. However, a minister who wants to help, convinces her to take the case of the dead boy's aunt. She wants Freddie to find out why her husband has been out late certain nights of the week and has become abusive. She finds the man dead and feels even guiltier. She has to find out what is going on even if it means risking her own life.
The author does a good job depicting how awful a person would feel after killing a young person, no matter what the circumstances. It is also refreshing to read about someone who is shot and doesn't instantly recover. He has relapses, contracts pneumonia, and at the end has to go away to recuperate. It's quite realistic.
Stage Fright by Ellen Hart ($4.99) is the third of the now eight book series featuring restaurateur-sleuth Jane Lawless.
Poor Jane Lawless. All she wants to do was show her aunt who arrived from England how safe and friendly people in Minneapolis are. And the first thing that happens is that someone attacks her outside her own home. Her garage is ransacked. The only thing stolen of hers is a snowblower. However, she has a couple of other houseguests and their things were also stored in the garage. Then she finds actor Torald Werness' body. Once the police find out that Werness attacked her, she is considered a suspect. As Jane begins to investigate, she finds out more secrets about his theatrical family. The dead man's father who is gravely ill was about to decide who would inherit the rights to his plays. Jane finds out that the dead man's sister had two children out of wedlock who were given up for adoption. Could one of them be the killer? A young man appears who says he's the son of the dead man's sister. Is he telling the truth? There is also a second child, a girl. Where is she? Three women on the scene resemble the dead man's family. Could one of them be the one? There are lots of questions that need to be answered, and Jane has to find the answers before it's too late, while being a referee between her aunt and father who have some unfinished business having to do with Jane and her dead mother. This one had me guessing until the end.
Permit for Murder by Valerie Wolzien ($5.99) is the second in the Josie Pigeon series. Josie, a single mother, runs a contracting business and employs women, most of who can't find jobs with other firms. She hires by instinct and doesn't do a complete background check on her crew. When a woman, who could be Jose's double, is found murdered on her job site, her ex_boyfriend, Sam, thinks she was the intended victim. Josie disagrees. She doesn't think she has any enemies. Besides she has other problems. She has to finish the job on time and her son, who was supposed to be at camp, has run off. When she finds what she thinks are satanic symbols at her home, she begins to have second thoughts. Sam thinks it's someone on her crew. As she begins to investigate them, she finds that each of them knew the murdered woman and none of them liked her. Josie realizes that she wasn't the intended victim and wonders which of the women on her crew was capable of murder.
Seneca Falls Inheritance by Miriam Grace Monfredo ($4.99) takes place in Seneca Falls, New York during the Women's Rights Convention in 1848. What I liked the most about this book is that the characters didn't act like `90s people who were living in 1848. History may give you the facts about the period. Reading this book gives you a taste of what it was like living at a time with no electricity, no modern medicine and no modern crime methods. You feel the grief of parents who see half of their children die. Some of the problems of that time remain problems today.
Glynis Tryon is helping her friend, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, get ready for the Women's Rights Convention while worrying about her own future. She is a spinster by choice and manages to earn a living as a librarian. But some members of the Board of Directors don't approve of the kinds of books she allows young girls to read like Jane Eyre. They could fire her and then she would have to marry. When she finds a young woman's body after being one of the last people to see her, she becomes involved in the investigation, first as a favor to Constable Stuart. Then her curiosity takes over as she learns that the woman was the daughter of the benefactor who helped her become the town librarian. No one knew of her existence until after her death. Could the benefactor's son have killed her so he wouldn't have to share his inheritance? Or was it someone else? Glynis struggles to find the truth.
In Dust Devils of the Purple Sage, Barbara Burnett Smith ($4.99) writes an interesting story about life of a single mother who is trying to raise a teenage son. The mother is Jolie Wyatt, a mystery writer, who works part_time at KSGE, the local radio station in Purple Sage, Texas. She breaks the news that 20_year_old James Elliott Jorgenson escaped from prison and, along with his sister, Sharon, was headed for town. No one can find James and his sister even though search parties are searching around the clock. Then Tim Michelick, a college student who dated Sharon Jorgenson is murdered. Most people think James did it. Jeremy, Jolie's teenage son, was friends with Tim and is very upset. To help him overcome his grief, Jolie helps Jeremy gather information for a memorial article about Tim. She finds out that the dead men had lied and cheated several people. All of them have a motive to kill him. When Jolie is injured running from a tornado, James and Sharon find her. Too injured to run away, she is forced to rely on them and hope she is found before it's too late.
Private investigator Sharon McCone learns the hard way that it's not a good idea to work for relatives in Marcia Muller's novel, The Broken Promise Land ($6.50). This book is not a light read. There is a great deal of heartbreak with no easy fix. Her favorite brother_in_law, Ricky Savage hires her to find out who is sending him threatening letters. She assumes that her sister and brother_in_law are happily married. Then she finds out that her sister is having an affair with another man and that her brother_in_law does drugs and has had several affairs. Besides trying to find a person who seems to know exactly where Ricky is and what he is doing, she has to deal with a bitter sister, broken_hearted nieces and nephews and her own feelings about what is happening. Can she put her own grief about the breakup of their marriage aside and solve the case before it's too late?
What I enjoy most about Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon mysteries is that each one takes place in a different location. She describes each one so well that you feel as if you have been there. In Firestorm ($6.50), Anna is a medic in California's Lassen Volcanic National Park where a wildfire called Jackknife is burning everything in its path. Due to a change of wind, the wildfire turns on her and group of firefighters. When the fire has passed, she finds that two men have died. One was burned to death. The other was knifed to death. Although they are in communication with the main camp, a sudden winter storm keeps them from being rescued. She is trapped with a murderer. All she wants to do is survive until help comes. But the murderer has other ideas.
M can stand for a lot of things. Sue Grafton could have done things the
easy way and titled her book M is for Murder. Instead she chose the title M is for Malice ($7.99). It was a good choice. Usually the murder victim is someone everyone hates. In this book, the victim is liked by at least one person, Kinsey Milhone, the private investigator who is hired to find him by his three brothers. When their father died, the Malek brothers are supposed to inherit a considerable fortune. One of the brothers ran away from home after constantly getting into trouble. Kinsey was hired to find him. What she finds is a kind, considerate man who has changed. When he reunites with his brothers, someone kills him. Kinsey feels responsible for his death and tries to find out who killed him. She finds out more about all the brothers than she would like. The dead man hurt a lot of people before he left town. Could one of them killed him? Or was it one of the brothers?
No Witnesses is a perfect title for this mystery by Ridley Pearson ($6.99). There are no witnesses to whoever is poisoning cans of Adler soup and Adler candy bars. Yet innocent people are being killed because Owen Adler, the owner of Adler foods, refuses to give away all his money and commit suicide. It's up to homicide sergeant Lou Boldt and police psychologist Daphne Matthews to find out who the guilty person is. It hurts Sergeant Boldt to see innocent children killed. He has a two- year-old child of his own and another on the way. He becomes obsessed with finding the killer. Daphne has her own reasons for being on the case. She and Owen are in love, and she doesn't want to see anything bad happen to him. It's great to read a book where the characters are richly drawn and three_dimensional. I enjoyed reading a mystery where the police show emotion. Even Owen Adler, a rich man, was not stereotypical. He is a man with feelings for others as well as a desire not to lose everything he had built.
Although we don't see the person responsible until the end of the novel, the author finds a way to tell us about this killer. I found myself unwilling to put the book down. I had to know who did it.