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Newsletter #68 December, 2004 - February, 2005

Mystery Reviews
by Jeff Hatfield

        Recent to Crippen & Landru's Lost Classics series is Banner Deadlines ($19, $29 ltd. hardcover). These fifteen stories by Joseph Commings (1913-1992) feature the locked-room crime-solving of New York Senator Brooks U. Banner. Added by editor Robert Adey, there's a foreword, character bibliography, afterword by Ed Hoch, and bibliography.
        Senator Banner dominates, and it's somewhat painful just to read his description. But here's the hurt: Like a more mobile Nero Wolfe with a bit of the Great Merlini thrown in, Banner has "a body like a hammer-thrower's gone to seed". 6' 3", 270 lbs., with unruly white hair, furry charcoal eyebrows, blue eyes and a bullfrog voice. He wears a peppermint-striped shirt, dirty string tie, well-thumbed red suspenders, gray "britches" that hang on him "in creases and bags like an old elephant's hide", and a dusty black frock coat. He chews (mostly) Pittsburgh stogies, uses a raccoon bone toothpick on a silver chain, is an amateur magician, reads comic books, and could be the next President.
        The locked-room puzzle is the epitome of the plot-focused formal detective story. The solutions in these tales of impossible crime indeed work, though plausibility is stretched at times. All are interesting, humorous and entertaining. But there is some cringe-inducing pulp writing that made me check if Commings was mentioned in Pronzini's study Gun and Cheek. He isn't.

        On the whole fresh and original, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon ($24.95, trans. from Spanish) is an international bestseller that has spent months on our recommended table. It's nice to see it coming early in trade paperback ($15, Jan. 25). The novel's a bit difficult to compare and categorize. While its many elements and conventions likely places it on the mainstream fiction shelf, at its heart lies mystery. I call The Shadow of the Wind a bibliophile's gothic.
        In Barcelona, 1945, eleven-year-old Daniel lives and works with his father and continues to mourn the loss of his mother. One night his father takes him to the hidden Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a labyrinth archive of volumes waiting for someone to discover and care about them again. Daniel is urged to select one book that he'll be responsible for and will have special meaning for him. He's so enraptured by his choice, The Shadow of the Wind, that he begins a quest for other books by the enigmatic Julius Carax. To Daniel's horror, a sinister and shadowy figure is also searching --- and destroying every copy of every book written by the author. In the years that follow, Daniel's hunt for truth and investigation into the life of the mysterious Carax will seriously endanger him and all close to him.
        Don't let 487 pages daunt you. The novel is a near epic that includes; murder, madness and obsession, coming-of-age, and doomed love. The extended denouement is a bit of a whimper; but it does give you a chance to catch your breath, absorb what's been read, and stop your head from spinning. It curiously lacks even a moment of humor. But I did have the funny suspicion (with nothing to back it up) that translator Lucia Graves (daughter of literary giant Robert Graves) went well above and beyond a translator's duty --- to the great benefit of The Shadow of the Wind.

Mystery Reviews
by Gerri Balter

         In The Sinister Pig by Tony Hillerman ($7.99) when a white man with no identification is found near the Jicarilla Apache natural gas field, Sergeant Jim Chee assumes the Navajo Tribal police will be doing the investigating. Instead, the FBI takes over the case. It doesn't stop Chee from doing some investigating on his own. It helps keep his mind off Bernie Manuelito. She left the tribal police force and joined the border patrol. When Bernie finds a mystery she can't solve, she turns to Joe Leaphorn. It takes the three of them working from different angles to solve the murder.

        CSI: Body of Evidence by Max Allan Collins ($6.99) begins with the investigation of two different cases. One has to do with child porn pictures found at an ad agency. Catherine Willows and Nick Stokes are the investigators on this case. This case is difficult for Catherine because she has a daughter about the age of the girls in the picture, and Nick was a victim of abuse. Meanwhile Brass, Gill Grissom, Sara Sidle and Warrick Brown are investigating a high profile murder case, the death of the mayor's assistant. What makes this case even more delicate is that their boss is running against the mayor for the mayor's job and is, therefore, a potential suspect. Grissom, who dislikes politics, is thrown in the middle of an intense political situation.
        Max does a wonderful job of giving the reader little insights to the CSI staff that aren't mentioned on the television show and the forensics are described in enough detail so it's easy to understand without being boring.

        Monkeywrench by P.J. Tracy ($6.99) is one of those books that grab the reader from the first word and don't let go until the last one. The novel begins with two murders. One takes place in Kingsford County, Wisconsin. Two religious Catholics are found dead in church by the priest. The problem with these people, besides the fact that they make trouble for the other parishioners, is that they don't have a past under their current name. They seem to have moved from place to place for no apparent reason. Sheriff Mike Halloran is in charge of the case.
        The second crime has to do with a software company called Monkeywrench based in Minneapolis. They developed a serial killer game. While they're testing the game, someone begins killing people the same way they are killed in the game. Detective Leo Magozzzi is in charge of this case. The Monkeywrench partners are the suspects here. They, too, have changed their names for some strange reason. Not only that but they all carry weapons and one of them, Grace McBride, lives in a house which is more like a fortress.
        This novel is populated with unique quirky characters that are likable people that I cared about. I recommend this book to anyone who likes interesting characters and a plot that keeps you guessing until the very
end.

        A Highland Christmas by M.C. Beaton ($4.99) is a fun book that tells the story of how Hamish Macbeth celebrates Christmas in Lochdubh, Scotland. It's getting close to Christmas and Hamish, the local constable, has several crimes to solve including a lost cat and stolen Christmas lights. The lost cat belongs to Mrs. Gallagher, a old woman who lives alone behind locked doors. It is obvious to Hamish that she is frightened of something, but she doesn't want to tell him what it is. He's determined to find out the reason why. While he investigates Mrs. Gallagher's past, he finds out there is a nursing home that needs entertainment for Christmas and a lonely child whose parents won't let her celebrate the holiday.

        A Killing Gift ($7.50) is the first book I've read by Leslie Glass. It won't be the last. The story begins with a retirement party for NYPD Lieutenant Bernardino who is April Woo's former boss and mentor. Lt. Bernardino isn't too happy about how he's lived his life so far. He feels he's spent too much time at his job and not enough with his family. And now it's too late for his wife who has died a short time after winning the lottery. Tired of the party, he leaves and is murdered. April realizes he's left, goes after him, and is almost murdered by the same man. She survives, barely. For the first time in her career April is treated like a victim and doesn't like it. She isn't supposed to investigate the case, but she feels compelled to find Bernardino's murderer. Part of it is guilt. She feels she should have noticed he left sooner and should have caught the killer. Then a wealthy woman is also murdered. April, her fiancéé, Mike Sanchez and their teams search for something that links these two people who ostensibly live in different worlds. It's the only way they can find the killer before someone else is murdered.

        Juliet Applebaum, a mother of two, becomes mixed up in a murder case in A Playdate with Death by Ayelet Waldman ($6.99). Juliet goes to work out at a local health club. When she gets there, she finds out that Bobby Katz, one of the employees, is dead. The police are inclined to think it's suicide. Juliet disagrees. She has gotten to know Bobby pretty well and doesn't believe he would kill himself. As a former public defender, she knows what to look for. What she finds out is that Bobby found out that he's adopted shortly before his death. He's been doing some investigating to find his birth parents. Juliet tries to find out who his birth parents are. When someone threatens her family, she sends her children and husband away and continues to investigate. She sure nothing will happen to her. The murderer has other ideas. She has to find out the truth before the murderer adds another victim to the list.

        In Better to Rest by Dana Stabenow ($6.99), Liam Campbell has a great deal on his mind. He has been offered a job in Anchorage and doesn't know if he should accept it. He isn't sure where he stands with the woman he loves, Wyanet Chouinard. She has become withdrawn because of her own problems with her adoptive son, Tim, and finding out who she really is. On top of all that, he has two deaths to investigate. One took place during World War II when a plane crashes into a glacier. It is slowly becoming uncovered. The FBI and the military are taking an undue interest in the plane which piques Liam's curiosity. The second death is a murder. Lydia Tompkins, a seventy four year old grandmother, is found murdered in her home. Liam has just met her and really likes her. Her death hits him hard. No one seems to have a motive to kill her. Liam finds the answers in the most unlikely place.
        One of the things I enjoyed most about this novel is the positive way it depicts people over the age of sixty. All of them live rich, vital lives.

        Faith Fairchild has no desire to teach cooking to teenage boys. In The Body in the Bonfire by Katherine Hall Page ($6.99) that's exactly what she does. She takes the job because Daryl Martin, a African American teenager who is a student at Mansfield, a private academy, becomes a victim of race prejudice from some of the students. Faith, using the cover of teaching a cooking class, hopes to find out who the guilty parties are. Instead the prime suspect is found burned to death after a bonfire at the school. Of course, Daryl is the prime suspect. Faith is positive he is innocent and she won't stop until she finds out the truth no matter what.

        Sins Out of School by Jeanne M. Dams ($5.99) starts when Dorothy Martin decides to do a favor for a friend, Catherine Woodley, and teach school for a day. A flu epidemic has struck the small town of Sherebury where Dorothy lives with her husband, Alan Nesbitt, a retired police man. Amanda Doyle, one of teachers in St. Stephens, where Catherine is head mistress, didn't show up. Dorothy was a retired school teacher in the United States. Teaching in the English school system is much different. Dorothy manages to muddle through the day. The next day she finds out that the school teacher returns, but when her husband is found murdered, the police take her into custody. Dorothy is pretty sure she isn't guilty of the crime. She isn't so sure about the couple's child, Amanda, who seems to have lots of strange ideas. Dorothy decides to find out the truth even though no one wants her to become involved. Most of the people who knew the murdered man are happy he is dead and some of them aren't very nice people. Dorothy has plenty of suspects. However, the more she finds out the more she thinks she knows who the killer is. The killer knows who she is too and wants to make sure she tells no one what she knows.

        Smoked-Filled Rooms by Kris Nelscott ($6.99) takes place in 1968 in Chicago shortly before the beginning of the Democratic National Convention. Smokey Dalton and Jimmy flee to Chicago hoping that the people who are after Jimmy because he saw who killed Martin Luther King won't find them. The problem is both the local police and the FBI are questioning everyone who looks slightly suspicious because of their fear of what might happen at the convention. When one of the tenants in the place he and Jimmy are staying tell Smokey that someone is following him, he brings Jimmy to the one person who he feels can protect the boy, Laura, the white woman he loves but can't be with. When a young boy who looks like Jimmy is brutally murdered and left in front of the building where Smokey lives, he knows he has to find the killer before the killer finds Jimmy.

        Gone for Good by Harlan Coben ($6.99 or $23.95 signed hc) has characters you can care about and a plot that keeps you guessing until the very end. Will Klein comes home because his mother is dying of cancer. Before she dies, she tells him that his brother, Ken, is alive. Ken is the prime suspect for the murder of Julie Miller, which took place 11 years earlier. Will loved Julie and he was heartbroken when they broke up. He does not believe his brother is guilty no matter how strong the evidence is against him. When Will's current girlfriend, Sheila, disappears and is found dead, Will is numb with grief. His grief is mixed with confusion when he finds out that Sheila knew his brother, Ken, and has left behind a daughter that seems to have disappeared. He sets out to find her daughter and to find out the truth about Sheila. The FBI and Ken's old friends are after him and think Will knows where Ken is. The more Will learns about Sheila and Ken, the more confused he becomes. The Sheila and Ken he hears about don't resemble the two people he loves so much. He has to come to terms with the truth no matter how much it hurts.

        Airtight Case by Beverly Connor ($7.99) is one of those books that is hard to put down once you pick it up. It begins with a woman who has no idea of who she is. She finds herself in a hospital in Mac's Crossing, Tennessee. She was found by some truck drivers, walking down road. A man who claims to be her fiance comes to meet her. He says her name is Lisa Christian. Although she doesn't remember who she is, she knows the man isn't her fiance and her name isn't Lisa Christian. She runs away and is found by John West who claims to be her lover. Although she doesn't remember him either, she instinctively knows he is telling her the truth. He tells her that her name is Lindsey Chamberlain. It takes a while but her memory finally returns. She remembers being buried alive and escaping, but she doesn't remember all the details. She is shaky and unsure of herself for the first time. She is asked to join an excavation of a 1830s farm site on the edge of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in Tennessee. This dig has serious problems. Claire, the site director, doesn't like Lindsey. The crew is openly rebellious. Drew, the principal investigator, is accused of causing the death of a local resident and stealing valuable papers from her. Lindsey is asked to straighten things out. The problem is that she is haunted by what happened to her. In order to find the truth, she has to come to terms with her fears.
                                
        The Big Dig by Linda Barnes ($6.99) is a mystery that takes place during the creation of a central artery tunnel running beneath downtown Boston. Carlotta Carlyle needs work due to medical expenses. So when an old friend asks her to help him by pretending to be a secretary on the construction site, she takes the job. At first it is boring so she also accepts a missing person case. She looks for Veronica James, a young woman who never returns after going away for the weekend. Carlotta doesn't think she'll have a problem working on two cases. Then one of the construction workers dies. Someone broke into the place where Veronica James lived. Both cases heat up at the same time. Carlotta uses all her abilities to solve both.

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