Writers of non-fiction, to say the least, don't always measure-up as authors of fiction. Jason Goodwin however succeeds admirably with his evocative first novel The Janissary Tree ($25, signed copies available).
In 1836, Istanbul is the center of the Ottoman Empire and the largest city in the world. Seated at the juncture of the Bosporus, it is the gateway between Europe and Asia, and is under political pressure to enter the modern world. When four promising New Guard officers disappear, and are feared dead, Yashim Togalu is summoned to investigate. He must find answers under a tight deadline, for in ten days there's to be an important military review and a palace edict announcing sweeping changes. To further complicate Yashim's task the sultan's Creole-born mother wants him to recover her stolen Napoleonic jewels, and solve the strangulation murder of a harem girl (one of 300).
Yashim is tall, well built, gray-eyed, and in his mid thirties. He's charming to both men and women, and has a talent for languages. In his modest brown cloak he can operate in the teeming streets of a sprawling city with a certain invisibility. Which is useful since all hope he can resolve matters without offending or alarming anyone. He is less a detective or intelligence agent, but more a palace trouble-shooter. Yashim is also a eunuch -- or more properly, a eunuch-guardian. This aspect, of course, dominates his status and character.
The investigation quickly points to the Janissaries. For four centuries they were the empire's elite troops. But they became too arrogant and powerful and, ten years earlier, Sultan Mahmut II had them violently purged. Are they about to arise to stage a brutal insurrection? Yashim is helped in his search by close friends a hard drinking though uninfluential Polish ambassador, and an aging Kocek dancing "girl".
Yashim is not the only eunuch in detective fiction. John the Eunuch, Roman Emperor Justinian's Lord Chamberlain, investigates in 6th century Byzantium in Mary Reed and Eric Mayer's notable six novel set. And the Ottoman Empire, in reality dissolved in 1918, survives and dominates the fantasy 21st century world of Jon Cortenay Grimwood's noirish Arabesk trilogy. Both series are in print.
A third person narrative, The Janissary Tree has a couple of confusing moments at the climax. Yashim also has an unlikely intimate encounter with a young and extremely beautiful Russian princess. But these are hardly worth mentioning. More than exotic --- it's as alien as any fantasy novel you may have read. And more than colorful --- it's downright flavorful. Recommended.
Readers should laugh more. I know I certainly should. They say it's healthy. The wicked humor in Pamela Branch's Lion in the Cellar ($14.95) is a good remedy. And it's easily been the most successful "hand sell" title at Uncle Edgar's these last few months.
This borderline British farce is a very welcome reprint from 1951. It has a near-perfect mix of funny dialogue, eccentric characters, and situational comedy. Action revolves around the Carp, a scruffy London neighborhood pub, and it's nosy regulars. Featured are the young married couple Sukie and Hugh. The ditzy Sukie has an unfortunate and notorious family history of murder and mayhem. Her mother is in a lunatic asylum, and grandmother and great-grandfather are enshrined in Madame Tussaud's. She's also blithely prone to outrageous lying, vulnerable to blackmailers, and feels she is doomed to follow in the family's bloody footsteps. Hugh's a barrister-in-training.
When the local veterinarian, whom no one liked, turns up murdered with a hatchet, the suffering and protective Hugh is convinced the other boot has finally dropped. Sukie thinks she must have done it, but isn't quite sure. After all there are other suspects. Hugh swaps the body with a casketed stuffed lion, which retired lion tamer The Great Tambora planned to have interred. The lion is then hidden in the cellar of the Carp. What follows is an oddly urbane, yet slapstick, comic run-around and amateur investigation. And all the while Scotland Yard is searching for a serial killer dubbed The Silk Scarf Strangler.
The repartee between Hugh and Sukie reminded me of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, and the novel's black humor with the Alec Guinness film Kind Hearts and Coronets. There are also aspects that bring to mind British mystery authors Edmund Crispin, Michael Innes, Robert Barnard, and American Craig Rice. Lion in the Cellar has the added feature of a revealing and appreciative essay on Pamela Branch ("the funniest lady you ever knew"; Christianna Brand) By Tom and Enid Schantz. Regrettably, Branch wrote only four mysteries. The Wooden Overcoat, Murder Every Monday, and Murder's Little Sister (due June) are also recommended and in trade paperback at $14.95.
The title, This Dame for Hire ($21.95, early June $6.99), gives you the only clue you need for what veteran Sandra Scoppettone's latest novel is all about. Best known for three mysteries written as Jack Early, and six featuring contemporary New York PI Lauren Laurano, she now offers the first in a new series spotlighting the endearing and wisecracking Faye Quick.
New York, 1943, and secretary Faye has with some uncertainty taken over Woody Mason's midtown detective agency. Her boss has been shipped across the Pacific -- along with so many other young men sent to war. A few months after a late night stumble over the dead body of NYU student Claudette West on a snowy sidewalk she's hired by the girl's Park Avenue parents. Faye's first murder case. The angry father and grieving mother are convinced their daughter's money-hungry low-class boyfriend did it after Claudette broke off their relationship. The shamus isn't so quick to judge. Greenwich Village Faye heads Uptown, wearing out pump leather and looking into the other men in the girl's life. Was the motive money, sex, or something else?
Not extraordinary, but it's a PI novel that will prove appealing to both guys and dolls. There's strength in the period setting, character, dialogue, and Faye's fascinating first-person voice. It's less than noir, less than hard-boiled, and over the top in the amount of hip lingo. When you tackle This Dame for Hire it may be fun to have pen and paper handy to note and list all the colorful bits of slang that have been lost in our language -- glad rags, dark cheaters, heater, copper, hooper-dooper, moniker, fin, etc. It might make an interesting class project or paper for an English student. The follow-up, Too Darn Hot ($24.95), is due early July.
For readers who wish to spin off, there's Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher series. Poisoned Pen has come out with several in hardcover and so far one in trade paperback (Murder in Montparnasse, $14.95). The first of fifteen in the series, Cocaine Blues ($24.95) and the other hardcover editions push the price envelope, especially since they're essentially reprints and slim at approximately 175 pages each. But there's an interesting compare/contrast aspect between the Phrynne Fisher and Faye Quick books. Roaring Twenties vs.War-Torn Forties. Nouveau Riche Australian vs. Bohemian Village American. Both are very independent female investigators and their books share a decidedly feminist spin. Though in aristocratic Phrynne's case it's a bit suffragette/flapper, and with working class Faye it's like Rosie with a gat instead of a riveting gun.
In a different era, I could see a younger Diana Rigg as Phrynne Fisher. A young Ida Lupino or Joan Blondell would play the wisecracking Faye Quick. This Dame for Hire does answer one question --- gumshoes do come in high heels.
by Gerri Balter
In The Shifting Tide by Anne Perry ($7.50), Monk takes on a robbery case on the waterfront, an area of London he isn't familiar with. He really doesn't want the case, not only because he doesn't know anything about life on the waterfront, but because he doesn't like robbery cases. Unfortunately, there haven't been many cases and he and his wife, Hester, need the money. Hester has set up a hospital for prostitutes. They can't pay for their care. She depends on contributions. People are more willing to give money to people in foreign countries than to the city's prostitutes. While Monk investigates his case and Hester tries to give care to the prostitutes, one of the women in her care is murdered. While Hester examines the dead woman, she finds the beginnings of the plague. With help, everyone in the hospital is kept from leaving. Monk, crazed with fear that his wife might die, is willing to do whatever he can to help her. What she needs him to do is make sure that those who came in contact with her are quarantined. It seems that the dead woman was brought to Hester by the same man who hired Monk. With the help of the River Police, he is determined to track down everyone who was in contact with the dead woman, all the while praying that his wife will survive.
I believe that Death of the Party by Carolyn Hart ($6.99) is one of the most sinister novels in the Death on Demand series. When Britt Barlow goes to Max Darling and asks him to help her catch Jeremiah Addison, her brother-in-law's murderer, he refuses. He suggests she call the police. When she refuses, he gives in and decides to help. He and his wife, Annie, go to Golden Silk, a private island estate where Addison died. His death was ruled as accidental. That was because Britt hid the evidence. Her sister was dying of cancer and Britt didn't want her more upset than she was. Britt invited everyone who was there the weekend Addison died to the estate on a pretext of giving each of them what they wanted. Once they got there, she told them the truth. Addison had been killed and she hired Max and Annie to find the killer. Needless to say the guests were upset. They would have left if they could. Unfortunately, someone took the only boat that could get them off the island before the weekend was over along with the only way to communicate with the mainland. Since they were stuck on the island, they reluctantly talked to Max and Annie. While they investigated the suspects, the killer did everything possible to make sure they wouldn't find out the truth, which included being willing to kill Annie to keep the secret.
Sue Henry is starting a new series with The Serpents Trail ($6.99). The protagonist is Maxie McNabb, a sixty-three year old widow who was introduced in Dead North, one of the novels in the Jessie Arnold series. Maxie has been widowed twice. She owns a motor home and travels the country with her mini-dachshund called Stretch. Maxie receives a phone call from a good friend of hers, Sarah Nunamaker, who is terminally ill. Sarah asks to see her. Maxie drives from Alaska to Grand Junction, Colorado. When she gets there she finds Sarah, barely conscious. Sarah dies a short time later after giving Maxie some enigmatic clues as to something she wanted Maxie to do. She goes to Sarah's house and finds that someone has broken in. While trying to clean up the mess, she finds information that Sarah had a child out of wedlock when she and Maxie were in college. Maxie had no idea that this happened. Sarah never mentioned it. She wonders what else Sarah didn't tell her. Maxie is the executor of the will. When Maxie finds out that Sarah was murdered, she needs to find out who would want to kill her friend. She finds the answer on Serpents Trail in the Colorado National Monument, a place where it is easy for someone to push her over a cliff to her death.
The Alpine Pursuit by Mary Daheim ($6.99) begins as Emma Lord is trying to get over the death of the man she loved, Tom Cavanaugh. She went to Rome, Italy with her brother, Ben, who hoped the trip would help her get over her grief. It didn't. She comes back to meet a new neighbor, Destiny Parsons who has a dog who likes to poop in Emma's yard. Emma tries to reason to Destiny, but she refuses to listen. She finds out that Destiny is in charge of putting on a play at the college. Emma goes to opening night hoping not to fall asleep during the production. She doesn't have to worry about than. One of the actors, Hans Berenger, the college dean, is murdered onstage. Everyone saw who did it, one of the other actors. However, the gun is supposed to be loaded with blanks. The question is who changed the blanks for real bullets. Emma begins to investigate the crime and finds out that Hans isn't well liked. In fact no one likes him so there are plenty of suspects. Besides all the suspects in town, there is a stranger lurking around the theater. Could he be the killer? Emma is determined to find out the truth so she can scoop the local radio station.
Requiem at the Refuge by Sister Carol Anne O'Marie ($6.99) takes place during a time when Sister Mary Helen undergoes changes in her life. Her best friend, Sister Eileen, goes to Ireland to take care of her dying sister. The new president of Mount St. Francis College where Sister Mary Helen works is a nun who believes in replacing older nuns with younger ones. Before the new president can replace Sister Mary Helen, she quits and goes to work at the Refuge, a shelter for women. Although the work is hard, Sister Mary Helen enjoys it until she finds the body of one of the shelter's residents, Melanie. Melanie is a prostitute who said she was afraid of her pimp. Everyone is sure he's guilty. Unfortunately, he has an alibi. When the police find that the murder weapon came from the shelter, it becomes obvious that someone there killed Melanie. Sister Mary Helen wants to find out who the killer is. In order to do so, she delves into the lives of prostitutes and finds out more than she wants to know. The truth is more shocking that she realizes.