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Newsletter #62 June - August, 2003

Mystery Comments
By Jeff Hatfield



        My thanks to those friends of Uncle Edgar's who responded to my plea last issue for help in pinning down the respective unnamed cameo appearances of Robert Crais' Elvis Cole and Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch. Cole bumps into his fictitious Hollywood Hills neighbor at the division police station on p. 95 of The Last Detective ($24.95). And Bosch on p. 220 of Lost Light ($25.95) gives a brotherly wave to Cole who's stopped at a light in his yellow Corvette.

        The 15th Annual Minnesota Book Awards, presented by the Minnesota Humanities Commission, are due to be announced May 16th, which is too late to catch this newsletter's deadline. Since I contributed in a modest way to the selections this year, I'm happily obliged to attend the book celebration at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Though challenged by several small press and print-on-demand offerings by Minnesota authors, the odds-on favorites in the genre mystery category are John Sandford's Mortal Prey ($7.99) and Steve Thayer's The Wheat Field ($7.50). With a significant number of excellent and deserving novels by local authors already released in 2003, next year's competition is certain to be even more fierce and difficult to judge. We'll know soon how things shake out.

        Speaking of odds-on favorites; I'm also registered and will be among the approximately 2,000 attendants at Bouchercon 34, the World Mystery Convention, being held at The Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, October 16-19. Among the 400-plus authors expected this year will be American and International Guests of Honor James Lee Burke and Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell honored for her amazing body of work, and Toastmaster Lee Child. Another of the many attractions (in addition to the poker table) will be the presentation of the Anthony Awards. This recognition is made more significant by the fact that the Anthony's are readers' choice awards, voted on by genuinely serious mystery readers. While there, I expect to meet and greet friends of Uncle Edgar's. And I hope you're wearing your nametag, because my memory for faces remains strong but my recollection of names seems to decline daily. For more information visit the website: http://www. bconvegas2003.org or call (215) 923-0211.

        Presently, there are in print a large handful of very good contemporary series police procedurals featuring Italian investigators, including: Marshall Browne's Inspector Anders of Rome, Magdallen Nabb's Marshall Guarnaccia of Florence, Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano in Sicily, Iain Pear's General Bottando of the Rome Art Theft Squad; and also of Rome, Michael Dibdin's Inspector Aurelio Zen. But wouldn't you know it? Perhaps the best, most engrossing, and most appealing of this cadre, Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti of Venice, remains the least accessible. Eleven of the twelve Brunetti detective novels are only available in British import editions, and are priced accordingly at $14.95 and $16.95 in paperback.
        The latest, Uniform Justice (Heinemann $38.95) is just as character-strong and vividly evocative of its Venetian setting as any of those novels that precede, though I found it somewhat weak in plot.
        Sensitive, cynical, polite, and all family man, Brunetti is faced with the disturbing death of a young cadet found hanged in the shower room of an elite private Venetian military academy. The wrongful death, a presumed suicide, generates strong emotions in Brunetti. The young victim, son of a doctor and impeccably honest former politician, is close in age to his own son, and he has never had much sympathy or high regard for the Italian military. Then there are the elitist attitudes of the victim's fellow cadets and teachers, and their arrogant lack of cooperation. Even the boy's parents are reluctant to talk to police.
        With help from the computer savvy and indispensable Signorina ("Let me take a look and see what I can find.") Elettra, Brunetti investigates the doctor's political past and his family relationships. Is this "protect our own" wall of silence obscuring a case of corruption, conspiracy -- and murder?

        The climax is --anti-climactic. Appropriately low-key and even daring, it still ends with a provocative whimper and not a bang. What is more aggravating is the addition of a ten-page excerpt in back essentially promoting the preceding Brunetti novel, Wilful Behavior ($16.95) in paperback. The Brunetti titles are rarely seen second-hand at Uncle Edgar's, and because of price and uncertain availability are usually received new in limited quantities. For these same reasons the British imports are seldom listed among our forthcoming. So if you're now highlighting names, you're encouraged to put a yellow slash over the recommended Donna Leon.

        With the expected superlatives, Doubleday describes The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (due June 17, $22.95) as: "dazzling ... a contemporary coming-of age story, and a fascinating excursion into a mind incapable of processing emotions ...a comedy, a tearjerker, a mystery story, (and) a novel of exceptional literary merit that is great fun to read." This debut from Britain's Mark Haddon is all that and more. Though be warned. Whatever's funny will be overwhelmed by other emotional and intellectual reader responses. And the mystery element is minor, serving primarily as a set-up for the situation and revealed midway through the story.
        Narrated by a fifteen-year-old autistic savant, Christopher Boone is somewhat obsessed with Sherlock Holmes (but not Doyle) and especially "The Hound of the Baskervilles". He discovers his neighbor's standard poodle impaled to the lawn with a garden fork and at first is accused of the killing. Christopher decides to play detective and write the story. Though he's armed with Sherlock's logic, his limitations test him in a fearful world of sensory and informational overload, strangers, unreadable expressions, sloppy speech, and too many questions. Christopher's like the television detective Monk taken to the extreme due to his young age.
        This modern novel is sure to click with a lot of readers, and I'm confident you'll soon hear more from other sources. But don't approach and read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as a mystery. And when, not if, the big screen version comes out expect the title to shorten and change.

Mystery Reviews
by Gerri Balter


        Mistletoe Man ($6.99) by Susan Wittig Albert is a China Bayles Christmas mystery. China is trying to balance her new marriage and her two businesses, her Texas herb shop and her new tea room. Her best friend, Ruby, and her partner in the tea room is acting strangely. Money is missing from the tea room. The people who are supplying her wreaths are having problems with the man who supplies her mistletoe. When he turns up murdered, they are the likely suspects. What makes matters worse is that the person who probably knows the most, their Aunt Velda, tells her that she was abducted by Klingons and they know the answer. Someone does. It's up to China and Ruby to find out who.

        Mulch Ado about Nothing ($6.50) by Jill Churchill starts out with an mistake. Jane receives flowers meant for Julie Jackson. Jane recognizes the name. Julie is teaching a gardening class that Jane and her friend, Shelley, signed up to take at the community center. When they drive over to deliver the flowers, they found out that someone attacked Julie and she is in a coma. Before they can leave, Jane tumbles off the curb and breaks a bone in her foot. With her foot in a cast, she has to learn to use crutches. Shelley and Jane's children pitch in to help out. In spite of her foot, Jane and Shelley show up at the first meeting of the class to find out if it's still being held. It turns out that the community center has found a substitute teacher, Dr. Stewart Eastman. A small group of people show up at the first class. Some of them know a great deal about gardening. Others, like Jane and Shelley, know nothing. Besides teaching them about gardening, Dr. Eastman decides that they should visit everyone's yard to see their gardens, picking two people's gardens to see at every class. Jane and Shelley notice how much people's gardens reflect their personality. When Dr. Eastman is murdered, Jane realizes she knows who the murderer is.
        Having broken my foot and having to learn to get around on crutches, I empathized completely with Jane's problems. Her pets' reaction was especially humorous to read.

        Stalker ($7.99) by Faye Kellerman is fascinating because of its complex plot and its intense characters. It deals with the problems of a rookie female police officer has with her father who is a police lieutenant and with her fellow officers. It also looks at the life of a police officer through the eyes of a father who is worried about his daughter's choice of occupation and a daughter who wants to be independent of her father.
        Cindy Decker loves being a police officer. However, she has problems with her fellow officers. Her father is a police lieutenant and she keeps mentioning him in every conversation with the other officers. She is a college graduate in a precinct with few college graduates. She acts more self-assured than she feels. Things get worse when she begins to notice little things like a picture in her apartment being moved and her clothes rearranged. Is someone after her? She can't imagine why. Meanwhile her father, Lieutenant Peter Decker, is investigating the death of Armand Crayton and a series of carjackings he thinks are connected. Cindy knew Armand Crayton casually and she also knows some of the people who were carjacking. Is there a connection between Crayton's death and the person who's after Cindy. She wants to find out on her own while her father wants her to keep a low profile while he does the investigation. They clash and Cindy goes off on her own with disastrous results.

        If you are a fan of the television show, "CSI", you will enjoy Double Dealer ($6.99) by Max Allan Collins. It's a novelization of the show, and the author does a wonderful job capturing the flavor of the show.
        Gil Grissom, Warrick Brown and Sara Sidle begin the investigation of a man killed in a room at the Beachcomber Hotel and Casino. A room service waiter caught a glimpse of the killer as he left. Although there are security cameras throughout the hotel and casino, the killer was shrewd enough to keep his face hidden. At the same time Nick Stokes and Catherine Willows are called to a construction site when the workers find a mummified body under an old trailer. The victim was supposed to have disappeared fifteen years earlier with a stripper. The book follows them as they look for and examine the evidence for each case. Unfortunately, FBI agent Rick Culpepper is interested in these cases too. Who will find out the answer first?

        Since I've read Dial M For Meat Loaf ($6.99) by Ellen Hart, I seem to see meatloaf on every menu. I didn't realize how popular meatloaf was before. Sophie Greenway and Bernice Washburn are judges in a meatloaf contest run by the Times Register. Sophie's husband, Bram, is giving them some free publicity. After the show Bernice tells Sophie that her father has had a stroke and she needs to get back to the hospital which is located in Rose Hill. Sophie offers to drive her there. When they get to the hospital, Sophie finds out that there is a tornado warning in the area. She decides to stay overnight at Bernice's parents' home. While at their home, she looks around at the pictures of the family. She realizes that Bernice's father resembles a man named Morgan Walters that she met when she was thirteen years old. He gave her a motorcycle ride and she never forgot him. However, Bernice's father is named John Washburn. When he regains consciousness, he claims he murdered Kirby Runbeck, who was killed a few days earlier. Bernice is positive her father is innocent and asks Sophie to investigate. Sophie is curious about John Washburn. She wants to know why he's changed his mind. The more she finds out about him, the bigger the mystery grows. Someone who resembles him has been working as a traveling salesman and marrying women in different cities. Some are still alive. One has committed suicide. Another has been murdered. Sophie is trying to piece things together before someone else dies.

        A Dying Art ($6.99) by Nageeba Davis is the first novel in the Maggie Kean series. Maggie finds her friend, Elizabeth Boyer, in her septic tank. Elizabeth had been murdered. When the will is read, Maggie finds out she has inherited enough money to allow her to work full time at sculpting. It also means that she is the main suspect. Elizabeth's grandchildren would love to see Maggie found guilty while the chief investigator on the case, Sam Vallari, wants to believe she is innocent. Maggie has to prove she is innocent. I admit the reason I like the story besides the interesting plot is that I like Maggie. She speaks her mind and dresses comfortably even though it isn't stylish. It's a fun first novel. I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the series.

        Death in Holy Orders ($7.99) by P.D. James is the latest Adam Dalgliesh mystery. For those of you who are fans of this series, you know that Adam's father was a parson's son. That's why Sir Alred Treves wants Adam to investigate his son's death. The young man was a student at St. Anselm's Theological College at Ballard's Mere, the High Church's establishment for the training of Anglican priests. Adam spent a few summers at St. Anselms when he was a teenager. He knew the college quite well. When he arrives, he is surprised to find out that one of priests who he knew as a teenager is still there. Besides the priests and the students, there are also guests that choose to come to the college, including other teachers, people who come for solitude, and a priest who comes to close the college. When the guests and people who work at the church start dying, Dalgliesh calls in his team to begin an investigation. What he finds out is a shock to himself and everyone around him.

        What would you do if you saw a dead body in a room and while you went for help the body disappeared? That's what happens to Betsy Devonshire in Unraveled Sleeve ($5.99) by Monica Ferris. Betsy's been having nightmares. Every kook in Minnesota is after her because they learned that she inherited a fortune. Betsy needs to get away. She decides to go to a stitch-in in northern Minnesota with her friend Jill. The stitch-in is being held in a remote, rustic lodge with no TV, fax, computer hookups or phones in the rooms. Just the place for Betsy to relax. She sits on a couch in a lounge and talks to a woman who joins her for a short time. When she goes back to the room she shares with Jill, she finds the woman lying on the bed. When she comes back with the manager, the woman is gone and Jill is lying in her place. Since Betsy hasn't been sleeping well, she wonders if it was a dream. She has to find out the truth, or does she? She waffles back and forth, trying to decide whether or not to get involved. She has to make a decision before things get out of hand.

        The Fourth Wall ($6.99) by Beth Saulnier begins by talking about the death of nineteen year old girl. I didn't read anything more about her death until page 168. By then I had forgotten about her. There is too much going on. Two people are dead. One is murdered. The other death is questionable. There is a fight to save an old theater. In the midst of all of this is Alex Bernier, a newspaper reporter who only wants to find out the truth. The problem is trying to decipher what the truth is. The story begins with a rally to save the Starlight theater. When no one shows up at the rally, Alex goes to interview Barry Marsh who is in charge of the coalition who is sponsoring the rally. She finds him dead in this office. He died of a heart attack brought on by taking Viagra. Death by natural causes? That's what the coroner says. Alex isn't sure. His death seems to rally the troops to save the Starlight theater spearheaded by Sissy Dillingham who acted like she had an affair with Barry. When Sissy is murdered after telling Alex that she has a way to save the Starlight, Alex is sure the theater has something to do with both Sissy's death and Barry's. When a 19 year old girl's skeleton is found in the theater, she's sure. What is the connection? The answer could cost Alex's life.

        J. P. Beaumont, a former Seattle homicide detective, is going on a curse to Alaska aboard the Starfire Breeze with his grandmother and her new husband in Birds of Prey ($7.99) by J.A. Jance. He is trying to get away from everything that reminded him of the deaths of too many friends. Unfortunately, it doesn't work. First of all, one of the women at his table, Margaret Featherman, disappears and is presumed dead. One of the security cameras shows that she had duct tape over her mouth when she went overboard. FBI agents are also onboard investigating a group called Leave it to God. They kill doctors who discover medical breakthroughs that save people who might otherwise die. The FBI agents believe this group is after Margaret's husband and one of his patients who is also onboard. Beau doesn't want to have anything to do with this. However, he is drawn in when he befriends one of Margaret's friends, who is a suspect in her disappearance. It's up to Beau to find out who the killer is.
        In Britain garbage collectors are called dustmen. M.C. Beaton writes about one in Death of a Dustman ($6.99). Fergus Macleod is a drunken abusive dustman who lives in Lochdubh with his wife and children. When Mrs. Freda Fleming, Officer of the Environment, comes to Lochdubh looking for a way to become famous, decides to clean up the town. She employs Fergus to help her. He's happy with his new job until the townspeople laugh at him. Furious, he vows to get even. No one is surprised when he is found murdered. Sergeant Hamish Macbeth and his constable Clarry Graham investigate. The problem is that Clarry has fallen in love with Mrs. Macleod and several of the townspeople have been blackmailed by Fergus Macleod. They beg Hamish to keep their secrets and he does so even when it might mean losing his job. The only way to save his job and keep the secrets of the townspeople is to find the real murderer.

        I am a big fan of Sara Paretsky and her V.I. Warshawski mysteries. I've read them all. I think Total Recall ($7.99) is the best so far. The author brings together several issues, recovered memories, reparations to the Holocaust Jews, insurance fraud into one compelling novel.
        The story begins before World War II when Lotty Herschel and her younger brother are sent from Austria to England to protect them from the Nazis. Lotty never sees her family again. They all died in concentration camps. Lotty and her brother survive and Lotty moves to Chicago, carrying a secret with her, one that she hopes will stay buried. And it does until a man appears on a television show claiming to be Paul Radbuka. He says he didn't realize who he was until a recovered-memory therapist helped him recover his lost memories. Lotty's friends want V.I. to investigate this man and find out if he's telling the truth. V.I. is already working on an insurance fraud case. A black man claims that an insurance company has cheated his aunt out of the money from his uncle's insurance policy. The insurance company claims that the money has already been paid years earlier. However, V.I. looks into Paul Radbuka's past because of the strange way Lotty acts every time his name is mentioned. She becomes angry and turns away from all of her friends. She uncovers truths that are painful and brings danger to herself and those close to her. Yet she has to persevere. It's Lotty's only hope.

        Often I start a series in the middle and if I like it, I go back and read the rest of books in the series. In the Kate Austen mysteries by Jonnie Jacobs, the first book in the series is Murder Among Neighbors ($5.99). Kate is a single mother. Her husband has left her to find himself after she finds herself pregnant with their second child. When her neighbor, Pepper Livingston, is murdered, Kate meets the very intriguing Lieutenant Michael Stone. In spite of herself, Kate finds herself attracted to this man all the while wondering what her husband is doing. Kate learns things about her neighbor which makes her realize she didn't know Pepper as well as she thought. The more she learns, the more interested she becomes in who could have killed Pepper even though the answer could cause her death.

        Rick Riordan's book, The Devil Went Down to Austin ($6.50) is difficult to forget once you read it. The characters are the most vivid I've encountered in a long time. Even the minor ones stand out. Tres Navarre goes to the University of Texas at Austin to teach a class. He stays with his older brother, Garrett, who is a paraplegic due to a train accident. Tres has found it difficult to come to terms with his brother's train accident. When he finds out that Garrett has mortgaged the family home to start up a new computer company, he becomes angry. His anger increases when he finds out that the company is in financial difficulty due to one of Garrett's partners. One by one his partners die and Garrett is the prime suspect. Tres has to put his anger aside to find out what's going on no matter what the cost.

        The Happy Birthday Murder ($6.99) by Lee Harris starts with a broken basement window and a wet floor. When Christine Bennett finds the mess in her basement, she cleans it up. She finds mementos kept by her Aunt Margaret who died and left her the house. As she looks through them, she comes across two notes thanking her aunt for helping two women during a time of grief. One of them, Celia Yager, lost a mentally challenged son, who got lost, the other, Betty Linton, a husband due apparently to suicide. Although Christine and her aunt were quite close, she knew nothing about either incident. Curious she contacted both women to learn more about her aunt. She learned a funny thing. Each of the dead men was wearing shoes that didn't belong to them. Actually they were wearing each other's shoes. That didn't make sense because as far as anyone knew the two men never met. Christine was so curious she began talking to everyone who lived in the area where Celia's son was lost and asked about Betty's husband. She met a great many interesting people, one of whom committed two murders.

        Benni Harper has her hands full in Goose in the Pond ($6.99) by Earlene Fowler. Besides getting ready for a Storytelling festival filled with bickering people, she also has to play referee between her grandmother and aunt and between her husband and stepson. On top of everything else, she is worried about her husband who is holding in the grief over the death of his best friend and worrying about his son. So when she finds the body of one of the library's children's storytellers, Nora Cooper, she tells everyone she's not getting involved. Unfortunately, no one listens to her. Everyone tells her things that they are afraid to go to her husband, Police Chief Ortiz, about and asks her to tell him. She finds herself investigating Nora's death in spite of her intentions to stay out. When she learns that Nora was also capable of spreading secrets about adults, she finds there are plenty of people who have a motive to kill her. The problem is finding out who the guilty person is before that person kills again.

        I admit I bought The Chocolate Cat Caper ($5.99) by JoAnna Carl because I love chocolate and I like cats. I read the book because I became intrigued with the story. Lee McKinney is a divorced woman who lives with her Aunt Nettie who runs a luxury chocolate store called TenHuis Chocolates. Lee does the bookkeeping while studying for her CPA. When Clementine Ripley, a defense attorney, puts in an order for chocolates, some made in the image of her champion cat, Aunt Nettie doesn't want to fill it. She holds Clementine responsible for her husband's death. A man Clementine successfully defended on a previous drunk driving offense is the one who killed her husband while drunk. Lee convinces Aunt Nettie to fill the order. They can use the money. Needing extra money, Lee hires on as a waitress for a party Clementine is holding where the chocolates will be one of the treats. When Clementine dies after eating one of the chocolates, Lee and Aunt Nettie are two of the prime suspects. Another one is Clementine's ex-husband, Joe Woodyard. Because Lee feels responsible for getting Aunt Nettie involved in Clementine's murder, she feels she has to solve the crime no matter what the danger.

        Sister Rose Callahan has her hands full in Dancing Dead ($6.50) by Deborah Woodworth. People have seen what they describe as a ghost of a shaker woman in the village. Rose doesn't believe in ghosts even when people close to her tell her they have seen it. Then one of people who are staying at the Shaker Hostel is murdered. Each of the guests and the cook has a secret. Sister Callahan would prefer to let the local police investigate. When they accuse Brother Wilhelm of the crime, she is in turmoil. She doesn't get along with Brother Wilhelm. Her life would be much easier if he weren't around.. The problem is that she is sure he is innocent although he refuses to say anything that will help her prove it. Someone else might walk away. Not Sister Rose. She is determined to find out the truth no matter what.

        What would you do if someone close to you who you thought had died eight years earlier sent you an email? That's the problem faced by Dr. David Beck in Tell No One ($6.99) by Harlan Coben. His wife Elizabeth died eight years earlier when they went to a private place to celebrate their anniversary. Dr. Beck was hit over the head and his wife disappeared. Her body was found while he was in the hospital recuperating. A serial killer was convicted of the murder or so Dr. Beck thought. After receiving an email that could only have from his wife, he began to question everything. At the same time, the FBI began to question him. They thought he killed her. The more he found out, the more questions came up that he couldn't answer.
        This story is filled with plot twists that kept me guessing until the very end. Every time I thought I had it figured out, something happened that made me change my mind. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys interesting characters and an intricate plot.

        The Cold Blue Blood ($6.50) by David Handler is told from the point of view of two very different people. One is Mitch Berger a white male New York film critic. He has recently lost his wife and is trying to start living again. He rents a house in Dorset Connecticut. The second person is Lieutenant Desiree (Des) Mitry of the Connecticut state police, a six foot tall African American woman who rescues feral cats and convinces people to take them, and draws realistic pictures of dead people. These two people who seem to have nothing in common come together when Mitch finds a dead body when he's trying to plant a garden. The body is that of Niles Seymour, the estranged husband of his landlady, Dolly Seymour. Mitch and Des are attracted to each other from the moment they meet although neither one realizes it. Because the suspects in the case trust Mitch and tell them things that they don't tell Desiree, she is constantly thrown in close contact with them. It takes the two of them working together to find the truth.







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