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Newsletter #70 June - August, 2005

Mystery Reviews
by Jeff Hatfield

        Owls Well That Ends Well ($21.95) is Donna Andrews' sixth featuring blacksmith Meg Lanslow.
        Meg and Michael, her small college drama professor/TV actor boyfriend, have bought "as is" a large and very elderly farmhouse. But before they can tackle this extreme "fixer-upper" Meg and Michael must deal with the decades of junk and clutter amassed by the packrat former owner. So, a yard sale. When her large and eccentric family add their own "merchandise", and dubious assistance, the sale becomes immense and carnival-like. Meg is caught dead center in a comic maelstrom.
        When a widely disliked antiques dealer is bludgeoned to death with an owl book-end in Meg's structurally-unsound and off-limits barn (complete with nesting barn owls) it's almost a minor distraction. But to save a family friend who's the number one suspect, and remove the crime scene tape that is throwing her sale out of whack, Meg starts sleuthing.
        Owls Well That Ends Well has an old detective novel by R. Austin Freeman as a macguffin, and a double handful of sheep puns. Unfortunately, there are also a couple implausibilities. Plus Meg twice utters the aggravating phrase "could care less", and she doesn't regard birds as being in the animal kingdom. An English Department prof close to Meg should really set her straight. Still, the novel is thoroughly entertaining. Even jaded readers will find plenty to smile over. Those less thick-skinned will enjoy more than a fair share of laughs. And well-handled humor is like money in the bank.

        Being a long-time fan and student of big band swing I immediately glommed on to Swing ($24.95, including music cd with extra clues) by Rupert Holmes. Holmes is best known for his music and award-winning work on Broadway. There's the Pina Cola song, his Edgar for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and his critically well received first novel Where the Truth Lies ($13.95) coming this September as a feature movie. But what prompted my reading was catching Frank Gorshin's one-man show on George Burns and Gracie Allen, Say Goodnight Gracie, at the Ordway and discovering that Holmes wrote the Tony nominated stage play and incidental music.
        It's early fall 1940 and jazzman Ray Sherwood (sax, clarinet, arranger, and sometimes singer) is touring with the Jack Donovan Orchestra. Their gig at a posh Berkeley hotel coincides with the Golden Gate International Exposition held on man-made Treasure Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. (The exposition was the left coast's response to the recent New York World's Fair.)
        Ray's divorced, and constantly haunted by the tragic death of his young daughter. He becomes captivated when pretty, talented, and flirtatious Berkeley student Gail Prentice asks him to orchestrate her contest-winning composition Swing Around the Sun. The avant garde piece is soon to be premiered at the exposition. Ray agrees -- for little money and under a very tight deadline. (There's a voiced "Had I But Known" moment here that may be the only off-key note in an otherwise flawlessly constructed thriller.) Shortly after meeting Gail, Ray is shocked when a young woman plunges to her death from the top of the Tower of the Sun, landing virtually at his feet. She's the same stranger who proposed marriage to him a half-hour before at breakfast.
        Ray gets to work, soon learning more about Gail, her mother, and stepfather. And he discovers a connection to the fallen girl. Suspicious characters and behavior, sinister surprises and events, all lead him toward a violent climax. Ray needs his music talent, iron nerve, and a plan, if he's to survive and thwart a deadly far-reaching conspiracy.
        Swing is a fine balance of genuine mystery and period thriller, in some ways remindful of John Dunning's Two O'Clock Eastern Wartime. Ray Sherwood is a very appealing protagonist with a great first person literary voice. Period pictures of the exposition at the head of each chapter are a nice touch. (There's an obscure classical music allusion here that we'll ignore.) The innovative addition of the cd, featuring original songs and music included in the story, serves best in establishing mood, and has value in and of itself. It's less significant in providing clues to the mystery. Lyrics are included in the afterword. Of course the cd makes reprint in mass market or trade paperback problematic. Recommended.
        Jitterbug readers can spin off from Swing by checking out the recent trade reprint of Murder Loves Company (1940, $13.95) by John Mersereau, also set at the Golden Gate International Exposition. Peter Duchin and John Morgan Wilson's series with high-society bandleader Philip Damon is set in the '60s; Good Morning, Heartache and Blue Moon, $6.99 ea. Then there's Hal Glatzer's adaptation of Hannah Dobryn's late forties series character Katy Green. Too Dead to Swing ($13.95), set May 1940, features Katy's all-girl swing band the Ultra Belles.

Mystery Reviews
by Gerri Balter

        Shrouded in Thought by N.S. Wikarski ($16.95; signing at Uncle Edgar's July 2) takes place in Chicago in 1894. Freddie Simpson, newspaper reporter, goes to the loading dock of a factory where a girl is found dead, drowned in the Chicago River. The police believe it's suicide. Freddie doesn't. He tries to enlist the help of his friend, Evangeline LeClair, but she's too busy with a factory strike that threatens to tear Chicago apart. As Freddie begins to investigate the dead girl's past, Evangeline begins to grow more interested especially when some of the suspects are people she knows. When more people die, Evangeline is positive the girl did not commit suicide. Then how did she die? Was it an accident? Did someone kill her? Evangeline and Freddie do what they must to find out the truth.

        Close to Home by Peter Robinson ($7.50) involves Chief Inspector Alan Banks in two murders. One involved a childhood friend of his, Graham Marshall, who disappeared in 1965. His bones were found while Banks was in Greece on vacation. Graham's disappearance has haunted Banks because a short time before Graham disappeared, a man tried to drag him off. He fought the man off, but never told his parents or the police because he was in a place he wasn't supposed to be. He knows he has to tell the police investigating Graham's murder. Meanwhile Detective Inspector Anne Cabot is investigating the disappearance of fifteen year old Luke Armitage. She asks for Banks' help. He finds himself thinking about the past and his friendship with Graham Marshall while investigating Luke Armitage's disappearance. Although both boys led different lives, there are similarities in the fact that no one really knew either one of them. Banks has to come to terms with his past to help solve Graham's case while he looks deep into Luke Armitage's life to find out what happened to him.

        Cyanide Wells by Marcia Muller ($7.50) is one of her stand alone mysteries. This story starts in Minnesota when Matthew Lindstrom is believed to have murdered his wife, Gwen, even though he has never been brought to trial. Tired of being ostracized by the people he knows, he travels around and ends up in Canada. Fourteen years later he receives an anonymous call informing him that his wife is alive and living in Cyanide Wells, California. He decides to go there and prove to everyone that she is alive. The problem is that by the time he's ready to confront her, she disappears along with her daughter. He learns that she is a lesbian and living with Carly McGuire. He and Carly have to learn to overcome their mutual mistrust to find Gwen. This means digging into the past of the town's citizens and coming to terms with their own demons.

        When Death of Riley by Rhys Bowen ($6.99) begins, Molly Murphy is having a problem keeping a job. When Daniel Sullivan, a police captain and the man she loves, finds her a job as a lady's companion, she reluctantly agrees to try it. As with the other jobs, it doesn't work out for her. The only good thing about the job is that she sees Paddy Riley, private investigator. She convinces him to hire her as an assistant. Before she has a chance to convince him to let her work on a case, she finds him dead. He was murdered. The police don't seem to want to investigate. Molly refuses to let it go. She looks into his unsolved cases and retraces his steps before he was murdered. Even though the killer tries to murder her, she refuses to give up. She is determined to find out the truth, no matter where it leads her.
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