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Archived Newsletter Content


Newsletter #49 March - May, 2000

Mystery Commentary
by Jeff Hatfield

        I caught Patrick O'Brian's obituary on that first Monday of the year. A small item in the Star/Tribune. Days earlier I had flipped to Book Notes on cable TV and found the 85 year old novelist being interviewed by Walter Cronkite, and promoting his twentieth and last Aubrey/Maturin, Blue at the Mizzen (Norton $24, earlier titles $13.95 trade paperback). Thankfully, when advance word got out, enough fans pressured the producer/sponsor to record the live interview held in front of a huge audience at Princeton last fall.
        As I mournfully page through my prized first edition (Lippincott '69) of Master and Commander, I'm reminded that while I introduced myself to O'Brian's historical/naval saga early it was science fiction author Gordon Dickson who got me restarted. Certainly as a result, Uncle Edgar's was selling the British import editions long before Norton reintroduced the series to the U.S. in 1990.
        Countless customers over the years have commented on how odd it was for a mystery bookstore in Minneapolis to carry the series-turning on so many to the novels, as well as sending the books all over the country. In the days following that first notice, longer tributes appeared in newspapers and magazines. Many readers who first discovered Patrick O'Brian at Uncle Edgar's were faxing or sending along to me various feature items from around the country, or thoughtfully mentioning the author's passing when they dropped by the store. It's been a real head-shaker. For a long time I could confidently say I was O'Brian's number one fan, but as his popularity has grown over the years the odds are against me and I now can only claim to be one of a legion.
        The success of the series has spawned other books; reprints of earlier novels, an Aubrey/Maturin atlas, a cookbook, even a pair of discs of period chamber music for violin and cello gleaned from selections played in the captain's cabin. There's a biography of O'Brian coming out shortly by Dean King, and even two children's books, which came out early in his career (and under a different name). The author was working (in pen and longhand as with all the earlier manuscripts) on another installment to the saga in his final digs at Trinity College in Dublin. Though some issues in the saga were resolved (as suggested by the title Blue at the Mizzen) other fresh story ideas and horizons appeared, and the last novel was left open-ended. However, I simply cannot envision anyone else completing whatever has been left unfinished. A pastiche is inconceivable. No one could quite match O'Brian's breadth and depth of mind. Unless Jane Austen is reincarnated-as a man.
        Other notable authors have been lost to mystery readers (and others) over the past months, and I'll mention a few.
        It seems just a short while ago that Lawrence Sanders died, but it was '98. The First Deadly Sin ('73 Berkley, $6.99) was and is a genuine classic suspense thriller. A substantial effort combining the aspects of psychosexual serial killer and police procedural, the novel predated (if not influenced) authors such as James Patterson, John Sandford, and countless others.
        We heard of George V. Higgins' passing last November. Higgins' gritty first novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle ('72 Holt, $11.00) was perhaps as influential as Sanders, but fell well short in popularity. Since then we've seen more and more crime novels featuring a low-life protagonist (no one could call Eddie Coyle a hero) who never wears a white hat. Perhaps what can be appreciated most is Higgins' insistence that all good writing pass the acid test of being read aloud. Which is why, when sampling that first paragraph or page of an unfamiliar author with an unknown new novel as you browse at Uncle Edgar's, reading aloud is not only acceptable but downright encouraged.
        Bob Kane, artist and creator of Batman, and countless colorful villains, was also lost to us a few weeks ago. The enormous enduring success of the hard-boiled Dark Knight is evident to all. But what shouldn't be forgotten is that Bruce Wayne as the Batman is one of the Great Detectives in fiction. First appearing in Detective Comics, Batman over the decades and regardless of gadgets and working capital may have proven to be the best of the puzzle solvers.
        But perhaps the most unsettling was news of Sarah Caudwell's (Sarah Cockburn) death recently at the age of 61. I'm sure I'm not the only one who was convinced the author was older. Sarah Caudwell's deserved reputation as "a master of the most elegant and literate comed(ies) of manners in the mystery field today" rests on just three distinctive novels: Thus Was
Aldonis Murdered ($5.99), The Shortest Way to Hades ($4.99), and The Sirens Sand of Murder ($5.99). The books feature a coterie of four close friends; young Oxford educated London barristers Cantrip, Ragwort, Julia, and Selena, who are watched-over by their former Professor, the scholarly and donnish Hilary Tamar. Hilary, as first person narrator, approaches the epitome of the armchair detective since much of the "investigation" is done long distance over a realistically extended period via the reading of personal letters and such. All three novels feature an academic tone, arch British humor, seemingly constant wine drinking, and uncertain sexuality of characters primary and secondary. The light-hearted controversy among mystery readers as to whether Professor Tamar is a man or a woman has been going on since the appearance of that first novel. In my view, Hilary Tamar is undoubtedly a man.
        To liken Caudwell to Dorothy Sayers, as I've seen, is silly. Caudwell has humor, Sayers does not. But a comparison to Edmund Crispin or Michael Innes is certainly in line. There's been a long and frustrating quiet spell where Caudwell's only writing to appear was a short introduction to American Walter Satterwait's collection of African mystery short stories, The God of Mayani ($25.00). Now there's a fourth Hilary Tamar mystery on the horizon, The Sibyl in Her Grave (Delacorte, $23.95, due July 11). For a very long time the most asked question by fans at Uncle Edgar's was "When is the next Sarah Caudwell?" (since supplanted with the question, "When's the next John Dunning?"). Now I've a good answer. I've had the golden opportunity to read the uncorrected proof and am confident that readers will find The Sybil in Her Grave most satisfactory. Sadly the publisher's promise of "author publicity" must now be ignored.

Mystery Reviews
by Gerri Balter

        I have always wanted to go on one of those theme cruises. That's what Jesse Arnold is doing with her lover, Alex Jensen, an Alaska State Trooper in Death Takes a Passage (Avon, 1998, $5.99) by Sue Henry. She is on a ship that is recreating the famous Voyage of 1897 from Skagway, Alaska to Seattle, Washington. It's supposed to be a restful trip, but when valuables turn up missing, Alex is asked to investigate. He enlists Jesse to help him. After all the guilty party has to be on board with the rest of the passengers and crew. It should be easy to catch him or her. His troubles mount when one of the crew is killed and a dead body is found in the ocean. Descriptions of the beautiful scenery contrast with the group of thieves who want the gold carried about the ship and are willing to kill everyone onboard to get it. Alex needs the help of the other passengers and crew even though he isn't sure who is one of the thieves. Besides Jesse, he rounds up an unlikely group consisting of a teenage girl, a woman crippled with arthritis, a former military man, and the ship's engineer who has been wounded by the thieves. He is forced to trust them and hope his trust isn't misplaced.
        The people onboard ship are an interesting mix, and I enjoyed reading about them. I learned to care about what happens to them. What surprised me the most, however, was the ending of this story. Don't worry. I won't tell you what it is. I'll leave it to each of you to find out for yourselves.

        In Whom The Gods Love (Penguin Books, 1996, $6.99) by Kate Ross, Julian Kestrel is brought in to investigate the death of Alexander Falkland by Alexander's father who tells Julian he wants to know the truth, no matter what it is. There are plenty of suspects from Alexander's wife's half_brother to the people who did business with Alexander. This is only one of the mysteries. The other one is who was Alexander. There are almost as many descriptions of Alexander, as there are suspects. Which one is accurate? Who killed Alexander? Julian would like to take his time to find out the truth except that he made a wager with someone who doesn't approve of him that he can solve the crime in 7 days. Can he do it?
        Kate Ross was one of those writers who spent as much time developing characters as she did developing the plot. Both are done in an entertaining way that also teaches the reader about what makes people do the things they do.

        During Victorian times, poor women would supplement their meager income by engaging in prostitution. If they were beaten, the police would do nothing. That's the subject Anne Perry tackles in The Silent Cry (Ivy Books, 1997, $6.99). A man is killed and his son has been beaten so badly, he almost dies. Hester Latterly is hired to nurse the son. The police try to find out who killed the father but with little luck. In the meantime, someone who knew Monk before he lost his memory hires him to find out who has been beating poor women who try to make extra money through prostitution. Monk is sure the two cases are related. He thinks the young man and his father were the ones beating the woman and the men in the neighborhood found out and attacked them. Hester doesn't want to believe it. She likes the young man and doesn't want to believe that he would beat these women. He refuses to tell anyone what really happened. Monk's former police supervisor refuses to listen to what he has to say. Hester and Monk, looking at the murders from different points of view, find out the truth. Along the way, Monk finds out more about his life before he lost his memory.
        What's fascinating about the Monk series is that there are two mysteries. One is always solved at the end of the book and that is whoever the killer is. The second mystery, what Monk was like before he lost his memory, is revealed slowly, a little bit in each book.

        Because I enjoyed Kent Kruger's first novel, Iron Lake ($6.99 pb or $23.00 signed first edition hardcover) so much, I expected to enjoy his newest novel, Boundary Waters (Pocket, 1999, $23.00 signed first edition hardcover). However, I did not expect it to be even better. He expands the characters he introduced in Iron Lake with a wonderfully complex plot that made me have to stay up late to finish the novel and a beautiful yet sinister setting that made me see the Boundary Waters as more than a fun place to camp out.
        Kent is continuing Cork O'Connor's story. He is no longer a law officer. Instead he operates a burger stand with his daughters' help. That's where a man named Willie finds him. Willie is looking for his stepdaughter, Shiloh, who is somewhere in the Boundary Waters, a wilderness area in northern Minnesota. Cork knows Shiloh's mother, who had been murdered when Shiloh was a small child. Shiloh witnessed her mother's death, but didn't remember what happened. Willie thinks that with the help of a therapist, Shiloh now knows who the killer is and the killer may be after her. When some FBI men also arrive looking for her, Cork leads an expedition into the Boundary Waters to find her with killers stalking both his expedition and Shiloh. While he's in the Boundary Waters, his estranged wife, Jo, deals with various others who are looking for Shiloh, some who think she is their daughter. It seemed that her mother hinted to more than one man that he was Shiloh's father. Jo and Cork find the answers to the mystery and Shiloh at the same time. They find the killer too.
        Whether or not you have read Iron Lake, you will be able to read and enjoy Boundary Waters.

        Although Devil's Trumpet (Berkley, 1999, $5.99) by Mary Freeman is marketed as a gardening mystery, you don't have to enjoy or understand gardening to like the book. It takes place in the small town of Blossom, Oregon. Rachel O'Connor runs a landscaping business. When one of her clients dies and one of her co_workers becomes a suspect, Rachel tries to clear his name. There are plenty of suspects who do not want Rachel poking into their lives. At least one of them tries to stop her. She also has to contend with her mother remarrying after her father's death. Rachel loves her mother and wants her to be happy. Still it is hard to think of another man taking her father's place. Rachel and the rest of the characters are depicted as real people who make mistakes, are far from perfect, and don't always do the right thing. The mystery as well as Rachel's other problems held my interest and kept me wanting to read more even after the murder is solved.

        I always enjoy Amelia Peabody mysteries. Elizabeth Peters' lets her characters change with age while keeping some of the characteristics that caused me to enjoy reading about them in the first place. In Seeing a Large Cat (1997, Warner Books, $6.99), the year is 1903 and Amelia, her husband and children are in Egypt to excavate some tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Ramses, their biological son, Nefret and David, their wards, are now teenagers and their problems are more complicated. When they receive a warning to stay away from a tomb that supposedly does not exist, they are all intrigued. When they find the body of an American woman who had supposedly left her husband for another man, the mystery deepens. It's obvious that someone wanted them to find the body. Could it be one of Amelia and Emerson's enemies? Could it be someone who's after the dead woman's stepdaughter? Or could it be someone who wants to discredit them? The culture in some ways is different from our own and in others is quite similar. Although Amelia is modern for her time, she is still a product of her world. There is a great deal of humor in these novels as well as unhappiness.

        I am always interested in people whose lifestyles are different from my own. Maybe that's one of the reasons I enjoy Joyce Christmas' Lady Margaret Priam mysteries. The other reason is that none of the characters are stereotypically what I would think of as rich and powerful Going Out in Style (Fawcett, 1998, $5.99) is the most recent novel I've read in the series. Margaret Priam is worried about her friend Dianne Stark. She is moody, reclusive, and anxious. This is strange behavior when Dianne has everything, wealth, power, looks, and a new baby. When Dianne's sister is murdered and Dianne disappears, Margaret begins to investigate. She finds out that she doesn't really know Dianne at all. Her friend led a life that was completely different from the one she led since Margaret met her. Margaret wonders if she will find out things she would rather not know.
        In Trunk Music by Michael Connelly (St. Martin's Press, 1998, $6.99) Detective Harry Bosch is called to investigate the murder of a movie producer who is found stuffed in the trunk of his Rolls. Harry thinks the solution is "Trunk Music, a euphemism for a Mafia Production. His investigation takes him to Las Vegas where he meets up with an old girlfriend, Eleanor Wish. They become involved and there are those who try to use this involvement to make him do things their way. He vows to find out who killed the producer no matter what. Crooked police, members of the Mafia, the dead man's wife, and mistress are all suspects. One by Harry clears them until he finds out the truth. This book gives a view of Las Vegas that few tourists see.
        Besides being a fascinating story, what I enjoy the most about this series is that Harry grows and changes with each novel. Part of the fun in reading this series is wondering what Harry will do next. I was pleasantly surprised with both the end of the mystery and with how Harry's life changed. I can't wait until I read the next book to see what happens next in his life.

        Robber's wine is what young Annie Dumont thought her grandmother said was the only thing who will protect her mother, Belle. So she, her brother and sister brewed what they thought it was, wine mixed with anything poisonous. They thought it would keep them safe. In Robber's Wine (Ballantine, 1998, $5.99), Ellen Hart tells the story of what happened to Annie Dumont and her siblings when they became adults, when robber's wine could no longer help them. First, Belle died after she called her children together to tell them something important. Was it an accident? The police thought it was. Jane Lawless didn't agree. She proved to them that it was murder. The most obvious suspects were the children and their father who had divorced their mother when they were young children. Then they find out that their mother has a half_brother that no one knew about. Could he have done it? Annie's younger sister has an abusive husband. Maybe he did it so that he could get his hands on some of the money the three children were going to inherit. Then there's the matter of the burglar who was breaking into all the homes in the area. Could the burglar be the killer? Jane, with her friend, Cordelia's help, finds out the truth. But the only way to catch killer is for Jane to be set out as bait. Hopefully, the killer will be caught before they kill Jane.

        A Drink Before the War (Avon, 1996, $6.99) by Dennis Lehane is a gritty, tough novel. In spite of the fact that the author spends, in my opinion, too much time preaching, I did enjoy it. There are rich well drawn characters and the plot keeps you wanting to read more.
        Patrick Kenzie, a private investigator, takes a case ostensibly to find some documents stolen from some Massachusetts politicians by a cleaning woman named Jenna Angelina. He's well aware there is more to it, but needs the money. Patrick and his partner, Angela Gennaro, find Jenna and she is killed, but not before she tells him that what she stole were incriminating pictures. She shows him one, a picture of a politician with a drug dealer. Even though they don't know where the pictures are, both the drug dealer, a rival gang, and the politicians all threaten them if they don't find them. It's up to Patrick and Angela to find the rest of the pictures and decide what to do with them. They have no one to depend on except each other.
        Part of what I really liked about this novel was that Patrick and Angela's private lives are as interesting and compelling as the mystery they are trying to solve.

        In Both Ends of the Night (Warner, 1997, $6.99) by Marcia Muller, Sharon McCone is asked by her friend and former flight instructor, Matty Wildress, to find out what happened to her lover. He disappeared, leaving Matty to take care of his son, Zach. He left a letter telling her he left her a large sum of money. He wanted her to take it, Zach and disappear. When Matty is killed, Sharon and her lover, Hy, are determined to find out who the killer is. First, however, they have to find out who Matty's lover is. He isn't who Matty's friends thought he was. He supposedly hated to fly yet was taking flying lessons. His history only went back a short time. While they are trying to find out the truth, they also must help Zach deal with Matty's death and his father's disappearance. The trail leads them to the Minnesota wilderness where they have to fight the murderer as well as the elements.
        In each of Sharon McCone books, Marcia Muller does a wonderful job developing Sharon's character, her relationship with the people around her as well as giving us an interesting and captivating mystery to solve.

        I don't often suggest that people start a series at the beginning because often I start a series in the middle myself. However, after reading the first book in the Dorothy Martin series, The Body in the Transept (Harper, 1996, $5.99) by Jeanne M. Dams, I suggest you start the series by reading this book. It will give you prior knowledge of her life which enriches the enjoyment of the novel.
        Dorothy Martin and her husband had a life long dream to retire to Sherebury, England. When Dorothy's husband died, she decided to move there anyway. Although the people are friendly, she feels alone, especially her first Christmas since her husband's death. She decides to go to church and meets Alan Nesbitt, chief constable. Before they can become acquainted, she finds the body of Canon Jonathan Billings. She didn't like the Canon. Neither did most of the rest of people in Sherebury. When a young man befriended by her only close friend in town is a suspect, Dorothy decides to look into the matter. After all, she doesn't have anything else to do. The more she finds out, the more she finds out that people she knows are involved. Alan Nesbitt tries to warn her that the killer might go after her. She doesn't believe him until it's almost too late.
        I admit part of the reason I enjoyed this book is because Dorothy is over 60, is hefty, and men find her attractive. It's nice to read that senior citizens can lead full, active lives. I also enjoyed how Jeanne Dams made each character in the novel unique, from Dorothy and Alan to the people who only appeared for a scene or two. After reading this novel, I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the books in the series.

        There are authors who write about the solutions of earlier cases in later books. I hate that, don't you. I'm glad that Connie Feddersen doesn't do that because in Dead in the Driver's Seat (Kensington, 1998, $5.99) several people including the main character, Amanda Hazard, mention the other cases she has solved. Amanda, a CPA, has just returned from a vacation with her grandfather. She hoped that being away from Vamoose would help her solve her problem. Two men wanted to marry her, Police Chief Nick Thorn and the county commissioner, Sam Harjo. Although she has broken up with Nick Thorn because he makes fun of her criminal investigations, she still has feelings for him. In the meantime, she goes to Frank Lemon's used car lot to look for a vehicle that will run better on the bad roads around Vamoose. She finds the perfect one, Frank's truck. He says he will sell it to her. Later that evening, Nick comes over and they reconcile. Then she sees the truck she is going to buy careen down the road. Nick goes after the driver and Amanda goes along for the ride. When the truck crashes and Frank is killed, Nick is put on suspension because Amanda was with him. The family blames him for forcing Frank off the road. Thorn asks Amanda to help clear his name before their wedding. Soon she realizes that Frank was murdered, and everyone in his family had a motive. Every member is cheating in some form or another. Could they have gotten together and planned the murder together? Anything is possible.

        If you don't believe in spirituality or like to read about it, I think you will like Death of a Healing Woman (Worldwide, 1998, $4.99) by Allana Martin. The main characters are Texana Jones who runs a trading post in Presidio County, Texas and her husband, Clay, the local vet. When Texana finds the body of Rhea Fair, a healing woman, the local authorities tell her that someone smuggling drugs across the border killed the woman. Texana doesn't believe that especially since a young woman who was supposed to visit Rhea shortly before she died is missing. While Clay is working on a local rabies outbreak, Texana investigates Rhea's death. Neither of Rhea's children is mourning their mother. Could one of them have killed her? Her clients trusted her with their secrets. Could she have betrayed one of them? Or maybe she found out something she shouldn't have. Whatever the answer, Texana is determined to find it even if it means putting her own life in danger.
        Allana does a wonderful job describing a part of the country and a way of life that is quite different from the way people in the city live. The characters are well developed and I really cared about them. Even though Rhea dies in the beginning of the novel, Allana takes the time to let us get to know her and see what kind of person she was. I am looking forward to reading more books in this series.

        Ever since I read my first book by S. J. Rozan, featuring P. I. Lydia Chen, I've been a fan. It wasn't until later that I found out that she also does novels featuring Lydia's partner, Bill Smith. No Colder Place (St. Martens, 1998, $5.99) is the first one I've read, but it won't be the last. It's interesting to see how each one of them views the other and for me, as a reader, to see each one through the eyes of the other.
        S. J. Rozan gives us portrait of what goes on at a construction site as Bill goes undercover as a bricklayer at a Crowell Construction Company site to investigate thievery for a friend. After one man falls over the edge of the building and another is found buried on the site, Bill realizes that there is much more going on. He asks Lydia to help him by posing as a secretary at the construction site office. Some of the funniest scenes in this novel take place between the two of them when he goes to the office and how she describes her interaction with the men at the site. However, it isn't all fun. Bill is almost killed and witnesses the death of one man who could have given him the answer he needs to solve this crime. He has to deal with greed, murder, organized crime, and more in order to find the answers.
        Not only does Ms. Rozan show us what men who work construction are really like, not the stereotypical version we see on television and in the movies, she lets us see the vulnerable side of Bill. One of the most poignant scenes in this novel is the description of how Bill reacts to almost being killed and seeing another man die. I'm looking forward to reading more about both Bill and Lydia.

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