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Archived Newsletter Content


Newsletter #98 June August, 2012

by Elizabeth LaVelle

        In The Gods of Gotham ($25.95) by Lyndsay Faye, it's 1845, and New York City is run by brawling political gangs. A fire devastates downtown Manhattan, costing Timothy Wilde his job, his home, his savings, and nearly his life. He's rescued by his older brother Valentine, a city fireman who's well-connected among the Democrats. The city is forming its first police force, and Val has managed to get them both jobs. But since Timothy isn't political, he's assigned to the city's Sixth Ward, at the edge of the notorious Five Points slum, which is rapidly becoming even more crowded as refugees from the Irish potato famine arrive in droves. He's only had the job for weeks when a frantic little girl, dressed in a blood-soaked night shift, collides with him. Instead of taking her to the station, he takes her to his nearby home, where his landlady helps clean her up. They discover the girl is unharmed, and realize she's run away from a brothel, but she is too terrified to talk about what happened. When a boy turns up dead, Timothy discovers he was from the same brothel, and finally gets the truth from the girl about the night she ran away. What's more, she claims that dozens of children's bodies are buried in the forest north of Twenty-Third Street. When it turns out to be true, Timothy is assigned to investigate. Most of the city police aren't good for much besides cracking skulls and intimidating the population; Timothy is different, with a knack for observation and deduction. But whether he'll be allowed to get to the truth is another matter. Faye has done an excellent job with the historical setting, bringing the city to gritty life, seamlessly working in details about the obstructionist partisan political maneuvering, the grinding poverty of the slum dwellers, and the virulence of anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, anti-Black, and anti-Jewish sentiment - as well as less gloomy topics, like Justice Matsell's work compiling a dictionary of underworld slang, and the group of newsboys and bootblacks who founded a playhouse in Five Points, putting on fully staged productions complete with musical scores (the theater seated fifty, and once played host to Grand Duke Alexis of Russia).

        Once a Spy ($7.99) by Keith Thomson introduces us to Charlie Clark, a 30-year-old who spends 364 days a year at the racetrack (they're closed on Christmas) betting on horses. Lately his luck has been bad, and now he owes money he doesn't have to a Russian mobster. When a social worker calls to say his dad has early-onset Alzheimer's, Charlie isn't interested until the words "durable power of attorney" are used - with control of his dad's money, he could pay off the loan shark. Charlie isn't close to his father Drummond; when he was growing up, Drummond's work kept him away from home a lot. Charlie thinks his dad was an appliance salesman. But after Drummond gets them out of his house just as it explodes, then saves them from a pair of killers, and steals a vehicle for an escape, Charlie learns his dad was actually a spy. A very good spy, who knows a really important secret. And a rogue team of operatives has decided that, with Drummond's Alzheimer's, the only way to keep that secret safe is to kill Drummond - and anyone else who might get in their way, or pose any sort of risk to their endeavor. Charlie and Drummond need to reach Geneva, Switzerland, where Drummond has funds stashed, and where an experimental Alzheimer's drug is being developed. What follows is a sometimes wacky, always action-packed road trip, full of plot twists, schemes, double-crosses, and revelations. Our heroes are captured repeatedly, but Thomson never runs out of fresh ideas; each escape is unique as Drummond exhibits his genius for improvising mayhem. Along the way, Charlie develops a new appreciation and affection for his father - and begins to show some skill at improvisational mayhem himself. I'm about a third of the way through the second book, Twice a Spy ($7.99), and it promises to be a worthy sequel.

        I discovered Elizabeth Peters' mysteries in the 1970s, and I've been happily reading and re-reading her ever since. She's been writing books about intelligent, independent-minded women since the 1960s, and generally leavens her mysteries with some romance and a delightful sense of humor. Harper has just reissued several of her early stand-alone titles. In Devil May Care ($9.99), Ellie plans to spend her two weeks of summer vacation house-sitting for her Aunt Kate, a widow who inherited money from her husband, and used her genius for investing to turn it into a large fortune, then retired to spend her money enjoying her wide-ranging interests. Kate lives in a secluded, sprawling house in Virginia, alone except for her numerous pets, mainly cats and dogs plus a few others. (No animal sleuthing, but they add personality to the book.) Ellie expects to spend her time tending to the pets, doing some shopping in town, reading, and pottering away at some of the half-completed projects littering Kate's workroom. But the day Kate leaves, Ellie sees what seems to be a ghost in period costume. That apparition is harmless enough - although it turns out to bear a startling resemblance to Donald, the young man who does Kate's yardwork. The next night Ellie is awakened by strange music outside, and sees two figures in old-fashioned clothing, a man and a woman, gliding rapidly across the lawn, pursued a few moments later by another man. Kate's neighbor Ted suggests they might be spirits reenacting a hundred-year-old scandal involving two of the county's founding families. An apparition the following night suggests an old scandal involving yet another founding family. Are these supernatural visitations? Or is someone playing pranks to embarrass prominent locals? After Ellie and Donald ask questions in town, someone breaks into Kate's library, and seriously injures Ted. Who is behind these events? And how are they connected to the rare old book, a history of the county, that Ellie brought Kate? The search for answers brings more danger, and also quite a few laughs.

        In Legend in Green Velvet ($9.99) by Elizabeth Peters, Susan is an American archaeology student headed for a summer dig in the Scottish highlands. While visiting Edinburgh, she is accosted by an old man, Tammas, who sticks his hand into her cluttered purse. She thinks he's trying to steal from her, but it turns out he's put a note in her purse, quoting a bit of old poetry written by James I of Scotland while he was being held captive by the English. The next day she takes a bus tour, then returns to find her hotel room has been ransacked. The police lose interest when they learn that the only thing missing is the note. Out for a walk the next evening, she spots Tammas following her, and decides to confront him. He runs away, and she loses him in the maze of old streets. When someone throws a rock at her, she decides to head back to her hotel - and runs smack into a man dressed as an 18th century Highland cavalier. James Erskine, on his way to a costume party, listens to her story, assures her (as has everyone else) that Tammas is harmless, and offers to take her to talk to him. They arrive at the old man's home, only to find him dead - stabbed in the back. James knew the old man, and is sure from looking at the crime scene that Tammas knew and trusted his killer. Why had the dying man crawled to a stack of tools and building materials? Why was he clutching a hammer and a rock when he died? Events conspire to send James and Susan on the run across Scotland. The few clues they have point to a slightly looney group intent on restoring the House of Stuart to the Scottish throne, but the men pursuing Susan and James seem more like professional criminals, presumably after something more tangible and lucrative. Again the danger is accompanied by quite a few laughs, as well as a completely unexpected answer to the question of why James doesn't want to shave off his rather ugly beard.

Mystery Reviews
by Gerri Balter

        Tears of Pearl by Tasha Alexander ($13.99) begins with a happy event, Lady Emily and Colin Hargreaves’ honeymoon. Unfortunately, a murder interrupts their happiness. Sir Richard St. Clare finds a dead harem girl who turns out to be his daughter, who was kidnapped as a child. Emily and Colin promise to help him find the killer. Emily is the only one who is able to talk to the harem women. She finds out that her preconceived notions about them were wrong. They are well educated women. She also finds out that politics are involved, even in a harem. Meanwhile, Colin not only works to find out who killed the harem girl, but who is stealing important information from Richard. Working together they find out the truth, but not before more lives are put in jeopardy, including their own.

        Most people think cozy mysteries don’t deal with the harsh realities of life. Dropped Dead Stitch by Maggie Sefton ($7.99) tells the story of what happens to Jennifer Stroud after she’s raped. Jennifer liked to go out drinking. She also brought men home. After she was raped, she changed. She didn’t report it because she didn’t think anyone would believe her. She no longer goes to bars. She doesn’t date anyone. She goes to therapy sessions. Her friends worry about her. They convince her to join them on a retreat in the mountains. Imagine her shock when she finds out that the retreat is being held at the ranch of the man who raped her. When he is found murdered, she is the prime suspect because she has no alibi. She was out walking when the murder occurred. Lucky for her, Kelly Flynn is her best friend. Kelly refuses to believe Jennifer is guilty. Kelly will do what it takes to find the killer. She doesn’t think about what it might do to the guilty person.

        Normally, Charlotte enjoys her job of getting people’s lives in order by getting their possessions in order. In Closet Confidential by Mary Jane Maffini ($7.99), Charlotte is dragged in to help Lorelei clean out her closets. But what Lorelei wants is for Charlotte to prove that her daughter was murdered. Even though Charlotte feels sure it was due to grief, she goes through the motions of investigating. That’s when she begins to have doubts about how Lorelei’s daughter died. Her doubts grow stronger when her best friend, a police officer, is attacked and her best friend’s husband, also a police officer, is accused of that crime. He was at the crime scene when Lorelei’s daughter’s body was found. When her friends’ child is kidnapped, Charlotte knows it is up to her to do what she has to in order to save the baby.

        The Ten-Mile Trials by Elizabeth Gunn ($27.95 hc or $15.95 trade pb) begins with a murder that takes place near where Jake Hines leaves his son for daycare. Jake worries about his infant son’s safety as he works hard to solve the case. It’s difficult as the dead man has no identification and no one seems to know who he is. The only clue is a card written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Could the Russian mob be moving into rural Minnesota? If so, Jake will make sure they move out, no matter what.

        In A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear ($14.99), everyone has secrets. One of them leads to murder. It is 1932. When the British Secret Service asks Maisie to take a teaching position at a private college, she agrees. It seems that the founder of the college is a pacifist in a time when such a thing is not in the best interest of the British government. They want her to spy on him. Before she can find out anything, the founder is murdered. Now Maisie needs to find out which of his staff or instructors killed him – and teach her class. She finds that all the suspects have secrets, from membership in the Nazi party to information about British conduct during World War I that the government is ashamed of. While uncovering their secrets, she finds one that leads to the killer.

        Gwen Katz Silver is trying to make a new life for herself in A Brisket, a Casket by Delia Rosen ($6.99). She has recently divorced her husband and quit her job in New York to move to Nashville to take over running a kosher deli left to her by her favorite uncle. There is trouble from the beginning. No one who works at the deli trusts her. They believe she will sell the business to a real estate agent who wants to tear the deli down. Then one of her customers dies from food poisoning. The police believe someone who works at the deli is guilty because no one else could have committed the crime. All Gwen wants to do is make a success of the deli and convince her staff she’s in Nashville to stay. While she tries to make some sense of her uncle’s chaotic office, she finds out who the killer is. The problem is that the killer realizes this and wants to stop Gwen before she tells the police.

        Since I knew that Locked In by Marcia Muller ($7.99) began with Sharon McCone being shot in the head at her agency and not being able to move or speak, I wasn’t sure I would be able to finish it. I didn’t think I could stand reading a whole book about what it was like. However, once I started, I couldn’t put it down. At first no one even knows she is conscious. Even then, the prognosis isn’t good. Most people in her condition don’t recover. Sharon refuses to give in. She is determined to recover and find out who shot her. Her reaction to her condition is only part of the story. The other part has to do with the reaction of those closest to her, her husband, her family, and the people who work in her agency. In their own way, each one works at finding out who would want to kill Sharon and why. Even though she can’t move or talk, she can blink her eyes. Everyone talks to her about what they found out and she helps them take the next step so together they find out the truth. Sharon will do what she must to recover.

        Dead by Midnight by Carolyn Hart ($7.99) begins when Annie Darling hires Pat Merridew to help her in her mystery bookstore, Death on Demand, even though Pat knows nothing about mysteries. She is a quick study and soon becomes a valued employee. When she doesn’t come to work one day, Annie goes to her home and finds her dead. The police think she committed suicide. Annie doesn’t. When she begins to investigate what happened, she finds that Pat was watching the home of her former employer, Glen Jamison. When he’s murdered, she begins to wonder if his death has something to do with Pat’s. Although Glen has a younger wife, the police believe Elaine Jamison, his sister, is the killer. Annie wants to help Elaine because they’re friends. Elaine refuses her help and does nothing to help the police clear her. Annie is determined to help her no matter what. Unfortunately, that puts Annie’s life in danger as the killer isn’t about to let her succeed.

        Who would believe a witch lives in Excelsior, Minnesota? Lots of people do in Blackwork by Monica Ferris ($7.99). When Ryan McMurphy is found dead under mysterious circumstances, most of the residents believe Leona Cunningham, a member of Wicca, is a witch who used spells to commit the perfect crime. Leona, who is one of the owners of a microbrewery pub, is worried that she will lose the business. Leona goes to Betsy Devonshire for help. Betsy, who believes in Leona’s innocence, starts to investigate the case. She finds out a great deal about Ryan. He wasn’t a very nice person. There are several others who could be the killer. Betsy works hard to find the truth. The killer works just as hard to keep Betsy from succeeding.

        Olivia Limoges is an interesting main character in A Killer Plot by Ellery Adams ($7.99). She has enough money to do whatever she wants. What she wants, she thinks, is to be left alone. Then she meets Camden Ford, a writer, who convinces her to join a local writers group. When he is murdered, Olivia and the rest of the group want to know who is responsible, especially since a poem is found by the body. Before they can find the answer, more people are murdered; each one has a poem found nearby. Working together, sharing information, they become friends, and Olivia becomes more open and friendly to the townspeople. The killer, however, is determined to continue to kill.

        Would you defend your ex-husband if he were accused of the murder of the woman who led to your divorce? That’s the question that Suzanne Hart has to answer in Sinister Sprinkles by Jessica Beck ($7.99). Someone who masqueraded as one of the other citizens of April Springs, North Carolina, was murdered at the Winter Carnival. Suzanne doesn’t want to become involved, but changes her mind once she finds out that the dead woman was Darlene Higgins, the woman her then husband had an affair with. Both she and her ex-husband are prime suspects. She has an alibi. Her ex doesn’t, and he disappears. She has mixed emotions as to what to do. She decides to find out the truth, even if that means her ex-husband is guilty.

        When I first started reading Heaven’s Keep by William Kent Krueger ($15.00), I wasn’t sure I could finish it as I thought I knew the plot and ending. I wasn’t in the mood for a sad book. I was totally wrong. I was caught up in the plot and had to keep reading even though I felt sure I knew the ending. Jo O’Connor is on a private plane that goes missing in a snowstorm in the Rockies. In spite of a search, the plane isn’t found, and everyone is missing and presumed dead. Cork, who didn’t part on good terms on the day she went missing, feels her loss more strongly. For the sake of his children, one of them a 13-year old boy, he does his best to go on. Then the wife of the pilot, who has been accused of drinking the night before, comes to Cork with proof that her husband wasn’t drinking. In fact, she isn’t sure he was the pilot. She had hired a private investigator who has disappeared. Cork and a friend start an investigation of their own. They find that everything about the first search is a lie. The plane is not where it was first thought to be. Could Jo be alive? The thought leads him to search for the truth even if it means he has to carry a gun, something he hasn’t done in some time, to find a truth he can’t imagine but was foretold in his son’s vision.

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