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Newsletter #63 September - November, 2003

Mystery Reviews
by Jeff Hatfield

        Despite a couple of acceptable stretches of plausibility, and a few discordant moments in it's 384 pages, Mission Flats (Delecorte, $23.95 due Aug. 26) from ex-DA William Landay is an extremely promising debut. It's very powerful, recommended, and already attracting accolades and natural comparisons to the novels of Dennis Lehane.
        Twenty four-year-old narrator and history grad student Ben Truman has returned home to care for his Alzheimer's suffering mother and replace his retired father as police chief of the small and fictional town of Versailles (that's Ver-SALES) Maine. When he reports finding a murdered Boston assistant DA in a closed lakeside cabin to the Boston PD they are quick to take over the case. The victim had been involved in a gang investigation focusing on African-American drug lord Harold Braxton long operating in the Mission Flats (a fictional "blighted Brigadoon") section of the city.
        But greenhorn Chief Truman can't let go of the case. And with an intro and help from long-thinking and slow-talking retired Boston detective John Kelly, he joins the Boston police to do his own investigating. Kelly takes the time to give mini-lectures on police procedure to Ben, just like Sean Connery lectures Kevin Costner in "The Untouchables". He also introduces the Chief to his thirty seven-year-old daughter, a very capable city prosecutor and potential love interest.
        In what turns out to be an event-filled seventeen-day leave, Ben is both helped and hindered by the players involved, including a street-wise detective who's not above bending the rules and the facts to be effective. (Author Landay also isn't above bending rules.) There's the manhunt for the elusive Braxton (who insists he's innocent of the murder), possible ties to two years-old cop killings, and the search for a phantom street.
        Terrific characters and satisfying action add to the memorable overall impact of Mission Flats. And some dark turns, twists, and a provocative climax will also assure a strong emotional response in any reader.

        The eighth much-appreciated title in Crippen and Landru's Lost Classics Series is Karmesin: The World's Greatest Criminal - or Most Outrageous Liar (June, 169 pp., trade paper $19, clothbound $27). For the first time all seventeen of Gerald Kersh's (1911-1968) Karmesin (carr-muh-zin) short stories are available in one edition, edited by Paul Duncan with his introduction and a bibliography.
        To many, this colorful British writer would be known for his dark classics Night and the City (1938, $12) and Prelude to a Certain Midnight (1947). But to an earlier generation of mystery readers it would be Gerald Kersh short stories that are best remembered. The Karmesin tales are scattered over the years 1936 - 1965.
        He's a fascinating but grotesque character; late middle age eastern European man, grossly overweight, with a mottled face and enormous mustache. Karmesin has the heft of Nero Wolfe and his self- proclaimed (and then demonstrated) genius. He even shares Wolfe's favorite expletive --- Pfui! Karmesin shares with Poirot a vanity over his mustache, and probably also matches Hercule in the little gray cells department. I was also reminded of that venerable character, Orczy's Old Man in the Corner. But instead of listening or telling tales to a reporter in a dim café while knotting a piece of string, Karmesin tells stories of his outrageous but very plausible criminal exploits to a reporter (Kersh) often in a café while rolling cigarette seconds from old fag ends. There's even a touch of The Saint or Travis McGee when he relates how he ingeniously swindled the swindler, double-crossed the double-crosser, and robbed the robber --- always taking advantage of the mark's greed and vanity, and always for big, big money.
        I won't argue here the pros and cons of the short story versus the novel. It's been true for many years that readers have preferred the long narrative; with its extended character development, unnecessary romantic subplots, and irrelevant dialogue. But the anthology has a unique value in that you can pick it up, read one story, and put it down, without too much pain. The blockbuster beach novel might ("I couldn't put it down!") keep you up all night. Karmesin may not be for everyone, but it can be savored --- stretched out over days, or perhaps weeks. Or, if you're an aficionado of the pulps, or one of Kersh's cult of fans, you likely will read it in one gulp.

Mystery Reviews
by Gerri Balter

        When life gets hectic and you want to relax with a mystery that is interesting and intriguing, try Sugarplum Dead ($6.99) by Carolyn Hart. Annie Darling is looking forward to Christmas until her father, Pudge, who she hasn't seen since she was a child. She loved her father and kept hoping that he would come back to her. When he didn't, she gave up on him. She wanted to have nothing to do with him. She refused to believe that he looked for her and her mother. She was sure that if he really wanted to find them, he would have. Even her husband Max can't get her to change her mind. Then she meets Rachel, her father's step-daughter, an unhappy fifteen year old who reminds Annie of herself at that age. Rachel loves Pudge. Annie reluctantly decides to give Pudge another change. Then Rachel's mother is killed. Pudge is the number one suspect. The only way Annie can prove to herself that Pudge is innocent is to find the real killer.

        Eleanor Roosevelt becomes involved in a murder investigation when one of the White House police officers is murdered outside the President's bedroom door in Murder at the President's Door ($6.50), written by William Harrington to continue the series started by Elliott Roosevelt. There are plenty of suspects among the police officers, White House staff, and famous people including Douglas MacArthur. The killer is someone who knows his or her way around the White House including ways to sneak in and out without being seen. It takes the secret service and Mrs. Roosevelt to find out the answer.

        I am a fan of the Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth series written by M.C. Beaton so when I started to read The Skeleton in the Closet ($6.50) by M.C. Beaton, I assumed it belonged to one of the series. I was wrong. The main character of this novel is Fellworth Dolphin, known as Fell. He has lived a miserable life. He was raised by two people who showed him little love. He worked since he was a teenager as a waiter to help his parents survive until his father died and took care of his mother until her death. His friends were mostly books. The only person he talked with was Maggie, who worked in the same place and also loved books. He was shocked to find out that he inherited five hundred thousand pounds. He wondered where the money came from. He was happy to be on his own and when his aunt threatened to move in with him, he lied and said he was engaged to Maggie. Maggie was happy to help him with the pretense. She also helped him to investigate his father's background. It seemed that his father was working as a railway signalman when there was a train robbery. There were those who believed his father was part of the gang who committed the robbery. Although Fell wasn't fond of his father, he couldn't believe the man committed a robbery. There's a picture of a woman he had never seen before in a phot album. With Maggie's help, Fell starts to find out more about his parents and his past while, but someone wants to stop them any way possible.

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