Literally filled with magic, Carter Beats the Devil (Hyperion, Sept., $24.95, 496 pp.) is completely satisfactory, from its vaudevillian poster jacket to the final program notes. Because of this and more, Glen David Gold's first novel should be attracting a lot of review and word-of-mouth attention right about now.
Most properly it should be viewed as a historical, or period, novel. It covers the fascinating span of the Naughty 90's to the Roaring 20's, with Oakland, California as the primary setting. And it's spiced with real historical figures; maligned President Warren G. Harding, code-breaker Herbert Yardley in a cameo, legendary magicians Houdini and Thurston, and most of all Charles J. Carter --- Carter the Great.
The narrative may at times be slowed by the requisite romantic subplot (there are two), but the thrust of this colorful story is generated by crime and cheating death, mystery and illusion.
It's August, 1923, and Carter (anointed Carter the Great by Houdini himself) is at the height of his fame. His huge and expensive stage production is filled with dangerous stunts, wild animals and assistants, elaborate sets, and extraordinary illusions --- each more amazing than the one before. Carter meets fan and burdened President Harding (on a tour of his own) before his show's opening curtain. Much to the consternation of the Secret Service, the two manage to speak privately for a very short time. Harding asks a desperate and crucial question, one he's asked others during the preceding months; "Carter, if you knew of a great and terrible secret, would you for the good of the country expose it or bury it?" Soon he's assisting the great illusionist in the show's breathtaking finale --- Carter Beats the Devil.
Two hours later Harding is dead in his hotel room. Natural causes, though the coroner's office cannot explain exactly how the President died. But a single-minded veteran Secret Service agent, saddled with guilt and doubt similar to Clint Eastwood's character in In the Line of Fire, is suspicious. What really happened up on stage? Did Charles Carter murder the President?
These and other questions, outrageous rumors, and complications could cost Carter his hard-won reputation. And his life. For the Secret Service may be secret but they don't wear kid gloves, and unbeknownst (a genuine gothic adjective) to Carter the Great there's also a vengeful and envy-eaten rival magician waiting in the wings. Carter Beats the Devil is filled with nice historical touches. It also addresses such themes as the business of magic, the death of vaudeville and the Golden Age of Magic, and the head-on collision of illusion with the magic of science and technology. Suspenseful and intriguing, ambitious and polished, this first novel will prove easy to recommend. Though sadly a sequel just isn't possible.
The Rue Morgue Press has recently reissued The Black Paw (1941) and The Black Coat (1948), by Australian-born sisters, but New Jersey raised, Constance and Gwenyth Little. For years very tough to find, there are now nine out of twenty-one of these cozy and comic classics available at Uncle Edgar's in trade paperback at $14.00.
Certainly contrived with a grin, each novel is fast (all running approximately 160 pp.) and always fun. Constance would come up with detailed plot outlines, including a double handful of suspects (all acting suspiciously) and clues (genuine and red herring). Gwenyth would write the final draft. Seemingly innocent or irrelevant events are revealed to have major significance when it comes to the final explanation. And thankfully, the sisters made sure there were no loose ends. The Littles did all their writing in bed.
In The Black Paw, young and pampered golddigger Callie Drake is blackmailed by her soon-to-be-divorced friend Selma into finding and stealing some old love letters. After Selma tosses into the deal the keys to her hot little roadster ("Good God! Do you mean that vulgar white crate with the red leather seat?") Callie, wearing a skimpy uniform, finds herself in the old Barton mansion masquerading as a maid. When murder rears its ugly head, amid conniving family members and servants, the cops find it strange that the bodies started falling only hours after Call's arrival.
In between stolen cigarette breaks, long hot baths, and various flirtations, Callie snoops for clues. She witnesses several suspicious behaviors, and comes across a mysterious paw print --- in a house without animals. "I found myself shivering with cold and fear. The house seemed a place of horror, and I was trapped there by my own stupidity in having come at all." The Black Coat has several elements in common with The Black Paw. Anne Hillyer is on the train to New York City when she meets a younger Anne who "without permission" swaps her own old and heavy black sealskin coat for Anne's stylish tweed --- then disappears. Anne's in a pickle. Mistaken identity compels her to masquerade as the granddaughter of old and dying matriarch Aunt Ellen in an ancient brownstone private hotel.
The miserly aunt is lucid only on occasion and is deathly afraid of falling asleep at night. A sinister chain of events begins when the old lady whispers to Anne; "I'm going to tell you where it is --- I had to kill a man to get it." Could there really be a treasure hidden somewhere in the building? Again there's murder (strangulation), odd disappearances, and bodies old and new. As with Callie Drake in The Black Paw, the police find it odd that the murder happened soon after Anne's arrival. Handsome but stodgy nephew George (the defacto head of household) bumps heads with Tim, an outrageous young man and martini fancier who is attractive Anne's only friend and ally. It's Tim who jumps at the opportunity to play amateur detective.
Again, all questions are answered (Who is the skeleton in the attic? Who put the bloody artificial hand in the chandelier? What's with this ugly sealskin coat? And will Anne find romance with rugged both-feet-on-the-floor George, or the flamboyant but charming Tim?).
Descriptions from critics of the Little novels include such words as "screwball", "wacky", and "Cornell Woolrich on laughing gas". All of which may be a slight stretch. "Celluloid comedy" and comparisons to a Kaufman play or a Capra movie seems more on the mark. As I was reading I found myself casting roles --- Carol Lombard here, Jack Oakie there, etc. Much of the fun in the novels of Constance and Gwenyth is in their murder mystery clichés --- but they were written before they became clichés. The cry of "The butler did it!" is a joke today, but in the '30s carried some weight. It's also refreshing that greed was more commonly a motive, as opposed to today when twisted and violent psychology seems the norm.
For a full share of fun grab any of the available novels. All can be recommended, though the Little's first, The Grey Mist Murders (1938), or Great Black Kanba (1944) are in my view likely to be the most appealing.
by Gerri Balter
Three Dirty Women and the Garden of Death ($15.00) by Julie Wray Herman is a trade paperback novel by a small press publisher, and it's one of the best first story mysteries that I've read in a long time. I was intrigued from the beginning and wanted to find out what would happen so much that I stayed up late to finish this book. My only disappointment is that I don't have another novel by this author to read.
Three Dirty Women is the name of the landscaping company whose members find themselves involved in a murder investigation when one of the members, Amilou Whittier, found her soon-to-be ex-husband dead under a client's azaleas. Another of the women, Janey Bascom, is the wife of the sheriff who is investigating the crime. The third woman, Korine McFaile, has a son who defends Amilou, who is the chief suspect when it's found that her husband was killed in front of her home, less than a minute after she shuts the door on him. None of the women are perfect. Each one has faults, as do the other suspects. Julie brings us into the lives of the three dirty women and their families. We learn to care about them. I especially enjoyed watching the sheriff who had to walk the fine line between investigating a case that might lead to the arrest of his wife's best friend and keeping peace in his own household. The plot is fast moving. The characters are interesting and unique. The setting a small town where people know too much about some things and not enough about others. All this makes for a wonderful read. I highly recommend it.
Funding for sports or for the arts? It's a battle that's being fought within school boards all across the country. In The School Board Murders ($6.50), Leslie O'Kane tells the story about what happens when school board members go too far. Sylvia Greene, the Carlton school board president, threatens to reveal the secrets of the rest of the members. When she is murdered, one of the major suspects is Molly Masters' father. She's sure he's innocent especially after he assures her that he has nothing to hide. Unfortunately, he does. And when the murder weapon is found in his sweater pocket, Molly knows she had better find the real killer before her father is arrested. Each of the board members has a secret. Most of them are serious enough for them to want to kill Sylvia. Could one of them be the murderer? Or might it be someone else? Molly will find out the truth.
Kate Grilley portrays St. Chris as a Caribbean island full of charming and fun-loving people in Death Dances to a Reggae Beat ($5.99). It's also a place where murder takes place. Kelly Ryan who runs the local radio station, WBZE, is coerced to become chairperson of the annual Navidad de Isabeya parade committee. It's the celebration of the discovery of the island by Columbus. Each member of the committee has his or her idea of what should be done. None of them can agree on anything. This is the last thing Kelly wants to deal with. Her ex-husband, who she's trying to get over, is going to marry another woman. Her current boyfriend turns out to be a drug runner who left the island and isn't going to return. When one of the parade committee, Zena Sheffield, is found murdered, some of Kelly's friends want her to help find the killer. The more Kelly finds out, the more reasons she comes up with why someone would want to kill Zena. The question is who. The setting of this novel is as much a character as any of the people filled with customs and people who are unique and interesting.
White elephant sales are great ways to raise money. In White Elephant Dead ($6.50), a Death on Demand mystery by Carolyn Hart, a white elephant sale leads to murder. Instead of collecting items for the sale, Kathryn Girard collects blackmail payments. Unfortunately one of the people she blackmails kills her. The new chief of police thinks Henny Brawley is the killer because she is found wounded nearby and doesn't remember what happened. It's up to Annie and Max Darling with the help of Annie's mother-in-law, Laurel, and the other mystery readers of Annie's bookstore to find the real killer. Usually it's Henny who helps find the clues. Now she's a suspect and is recovering from a serious head injury. As always this book is filled with references to all sorts of murder mysteries and the usual contest. What makes this novel unique in the series is that the reader is shown how people on the island feel about each other.
In Dying Well ($6.50) Joyce Christmas starts out with a death and spends most of the rest of the book relating the events leading up to it. Part of the mystery is figuring out who is going to die as well as who is responsible for the death. Lady Margaret Priam enjoys living alone and ordinarily wouldn't allow anyone to stay with her for even a short time. However, when a friend assures her that the young woman, Lucy Rose, is new to New York and needs a bit of help finding a job and learning her way around the big city. Lucy has ideas of her own. She doesn't think she needs any help. Although Lady Margaret gets her an interview with Mrs. Roberta Reeves, a New York socialite, Lucy feels she got the job based on her talents. She rebuffs Lady Margaret 's offers of advice and help. Soon she moves out of Lady Margaret's and into the Reeves apartment where she decides to throw a fiftieth birthday party for Dale Reeves, Roberta Reeves' husband. Among the guests are Dale and Roberta's ex-lovers and the Reeves children who are estranged from their father and stepmother. It isn't surprising when someone dies. The only surprise is who dies and who is responsible.
Poor Agatha Raisin. Her head is filled with bald patches due to a vindictive murderer. In Agatha Raisin and the Witch of Wyckhadden ($5.99 or $21.95 signed hc) she goes to Wyckhadden to hide until her hair grows back. One of the people at the hotel where she is staying suggests she go to the local witch. She does and a short time later the witch is murdered. Although her potion helps Agatha's hair grow back, she can't leave Wyckhadden until the murder is solved. There are plenty of suspects including the other people staying in the hotel, the witch's daughter and son-in-law. Meanwhile Agatha becomes involved with the police officer investigating the case. She evens uses a love potion. When he proposes, she accepts, more to make her old boyfriend jealous than anything else. When another murder occurs and her romance goes sour, she has to find the killer so she can finally leave. I like Agatha. She's a real person with her good and bad points. Even though she means well, not everything she does turns out the way she wants. Part of the humor in this series comes from that fact. It's a fun read.
The 'M' Word ($5.99) in Jane Isenberg's novel is menopause. Poor Bel Barrett is suffering from it. In between getting advice from people in the online support group she found, Bel investigates the murder of the RECC's college president, Dr. Altagracia Garcia. The prime suspect is one of the students, Ozzie Beckman, a culinary arts major. Bel recruits Dr. Garcia's super-efficient assistant and a private investigator that also teaches at the college to help her. The suspects include several faculty and some students. While teaching impoverished students, some who come from other countries, trying to be a mother to her own children, and trying to deal with menopause, she also tries to clear Ozzie. She thought everyone liked Dr. Garcia. She found out differently. Dr. Garcia made some enemies. One of them killed her. It's up to Bel and her friends to find out the truth before the murderer decides to kill Bell.
Anna Pigeon isn't working in Liberty Falling ($6.99) by Nevada Barr. She is in New York because her sister, Molly, is in ICU and may not recover. Anna is staying on Liberty Island while she hopes she can convince Molly to live. Restless and unhappy, she explores the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. When a young girl falls from the Statue of Liberty and is killed, Anna doesn't pay much attention. Molly is her first concern. When the body count begins to rise and Molly improves, Anna becomes interested. Maybe part of it is due to the fact that Frederick, the man who left her for Molly, is back in Molly's life trying to interest Molly in life and a future with him. Anna has some decisions to make about her future and how she feels about Molly while someone wants to be sure Anna has no future.
It's 1911. Amelia Peabody, Emerson, Ramses, and Nefret are in Egypt for their yearly dig in The Falcon at the Portal ($6.99) by Elizabeth Peters. David, a young man that she and her husband took in and raised as their own son, and Lia, his new wife, will join them later after their honeymoon. Ramses, Amelia and Emerson's natural son, finds out that someone is selling fake artifacts and disguising himself as David. He and Nefret, a young woman they added to their family, try to find out who is behind trying to tarnish David's name. Meanwhile the dig isn't going well. There are too many accidents. Someone tries to kill Amelia. Is it all related? That's what everyone is trying to find out. A woman interested in Ramses is killed. A child who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ramses and calls him daddy appears. Ramses life falls apart. Can Amelia and Emerson help him put his life back together? Or has the villain who is out to get Amelia and Emerson finally won by attacking them where it hurts the most, the happiness of their son?
Why would anyone want to send Vicky Bliss a picture of a woman wearing golden jewelry that disappeared at the end of World War II? That's what Vicky wants to know in Trojan Gold ($6.99) by Elizabeth Peters. Vicky isn't the only one who has received the picture. So have several experts, some of whom are her friends. When she finds out that the man who sent the picture is dead, she wonders if his death was an accident or murder. To complicate matters, John Smythe, her lover and a con man, is involved and asks her to stay out of it. Vicky can't do that. Finding the jewels would be wonderful not only for her career but for the world of art history as well. Even when a dead body turns up at her home, she refuses to give in. She will find out the truth, no matter what.
Jose Pigeon thought it would be great to be on Courtney Castle's Castles, a PBS remodeling show. Her construction company could use free publicity. She never thought about why they came to her and asked her to do their show. Then she met Courtney Castle and wished she had never accepted. Unfortunately, before the show was finished filming a murder occurs. Jose is the main suspect. Not only does she have to clear her name, she has to come to terms with the decisions she made in the past. In This Old Murder ($6.50) Valerie Wolzien not only gives her readers a murder to solve, she gives us some insight to Jose's past.
Sharon McCone and Hy Ripinsky travels to Hawaii in A Walk Through the Fire, ($6.99) by Marcia Muller when Glenna Stanleigh asks them to come to Hawaii to investigate the accidents that are wrecking the efforts of the documentary film she is trying to make on Elson Wellbright. Elson had disappeared some years earlier. Glenna's partner is Peter Wellbright, Elson's som. He wants the film to be made. Other members of the family aren't as happy about the idea. When Sharon meets Russell Tanner, sparks fly between them. But she loves Hy. Or does she? Hy decides to go back to the mainland and leaves Sharon on her own. She has to deal with family intrigue, rituals, arson, drugs, and murder as well as making up her mind how she really feels about Hy and Russell Tanner.
It's Christmas time in A Stitch in Time ($5.99) by Monica Ferris. So why is someone trying to kill Betsy Devonshire? Could it be her ex-husband who wants to reconcile with her about the time she's due to come into an inheritance? She isn't interested and he doesn't seem to want to take no for an answer. Then there's Joe Mickels who is her landlord. He's been trying to get her to sell Crewel World. She has just found out that she is standing in the way of his acquiring some waterfront property. Finally, there is a damaged tapestry found in a church. It belonged to the wife of the former pastor. Betsy is donating materials for the restoration. She found several Christian symbols in the tapestry. Did they spell out a message, one that someone doesn't want her to figure out? She'd better find out the truth before the person who is trying to killer her succeeds.
The Yukon Quest is an Alaskan sled dog race that was not as well known as the Iditarod until the publication of Sue Henry's Murder on the Yukon Quest ($6.50 or $22.00 signed hc). Jessie Arnold, like many mushers, likes a new challenge. That's why she decides to enter the Yukon Quest a run from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada to Fairbanks, Alaska. The Yukon Quest is tougher than the Iditarod because there are fewer checkpoints and the going is rougher. It's even tougher for Jessie because she is worried about the man she loves. He has gone to Idaho because of the death of this father and shows no signs of returning. She thinks he's going to stay there. That's why when a couple of her dogs disappear and her equipment isn't in as good a shape as she thought it was, she figures it's because she's not paying attention. Once the race starts, however, she knows she has to concentrate on the trail or it could mean her death. Then Debbie, a young musher she befriends is kidnapped. The kidnappers want Jessie to deliver the ransom money. Reluctantly, she agrees, hoping that they haven't killed Debbie. What she hasn't taken into consideration is that they might want to make sure she can't tell anyone where she met them and what way they went afterwards.
Scotland Yard's Sergeant Gemma James is having second thoughts about her involvement with Superintendent Duncan Kincaid. Unfortunately, they have to work together in Mourn Not Your Dead ($6.50) by Deborah Crombie. It's difficult enough to investigate a murder when the victim is a high-ranking police officer. It's even harder when the two people doing the investigating are working through their personal relationship. The people in the village where the victim lives band together to hide evidence from the investigators. In order to find the truth, Sgt. James and Superintendent Kincaid will have to overcome their feelings for one another and convince the villagers to tell the truth. Can they do it? Or will a murder get away with it?
An elderly woman and her son are murdered. Environmentalists attacked a building developer. Parental troubles. Troubles with children. This is only part of what Sheriff Joanna Brady of Cochise County has to deal with in Outlaw Mountain ($6.99 or $24.00 signed hc) by J. A. Jance. This one of the most complicated mysteries in the series and the most enjoyable. It all begins when Joanna daughter, Jenny, tells her grandmother, Joanna's mother, that Butch, the new man in Joanna's life, is sleeping over. She neglects to say that Butch sleeps on the couch so he could help out when Joanna has to leave. Needless to say, Joanne's mother is upset. Joanne has no time to deal with her mother. She is trying to investigate the murder of Alice Rogers. There are plenty of suspects including both of Alice's son, daughter, son-in-law, and lover who has mysteriously disappeared. Before she can find the answer to who killed Alice, someone murders Alice's son. It would be difficult enough to investigate two murders. At the same time there are environmentalists attacking a building site. The construction workers don't like it and they've decided to put a stop to it with guns. While all this is going on, she also has to decide what to do about Butch who wants to marry her, one of her deputies who wants to be more than friends with her, and a friend who is going through a crisis of faith. Then there is her daughter who gets suspended from school for fighting and Junior, a developmentally disabled man who has been left at a church by people who no longer want to care for him. It's up to Joanne to find him a home. How all this gets resolved makes this novel a fascinating read.
If you have never read any of the books in Virginia Lanier's bloodhound series, I suggest you start with Death In Bloodhood Red ($6.50). It begins by telling the reader that the main character, Jo Beth Sidden, has two mysteries to solve, her father's will and the attempted murder of a man she hated and who almost killed her, her ex-husband whom she calls Bubba. The rest of the novel introduces us to Jo Beth's world, training and breeding bloodhounds and tracking people for Dunstan County, Georgia Sheriff's Department. Jo Beth is an independent lady who wants nothing more to get on with her life. Unfortunately, her ex-husband is out to get her. She has to live in a fortress and can never go out without a gun. She remembers some of her rescues and her childhood. By the time she is accused of attacking Bubba, the reader knows enough about her to understand why she was accused. The matter of her father's will is more complicated. Her father, who hasn't spoken to her since she married Bubba, died and left a will saying that someone would bring Jo Beth the special instructions as to who would inherit his estate. Unfortunately, a year has passed and no one has appeared. Her father was a famous painter and she has several of his paintings. She would like to frame them and hang them in her home, but she can't until the she finds out if she inherits. Of course if she is convicted of murder, she won' t have to worry about it. Jo Beth finds out that she can't do everything herself and needs the help of her friends. I enjoy the information about bloodhounds almost as much as the mystery.
Can you imagine what it would be like not to remember the first 18 years of your life? That's what happened to Susan Hayne in Who's Susan? ($9.95) by L.C. Hayden. When Susan's son disappears, Susan is the main suspect. The people at the boy's daycare swear Susan picked him up. She has no memory of doing so. No one sends a ransom note. All the evidence points to her. Her husband wonders if she's guilty. Even Susan isn't sure of her innocence. Maybe she did pick up her son. If so, what did she do with him? She wouldn't hurt him. Or would she? Susan has to find out the truth. She realizes what happened to her son has something to do with her loss of memory. She is bound to find out the truth no matter what the consequence. The characters are well written. The plot is one of those that makes you want to keep on reading to find out whether Susan is innocent or not.