The Murder of Mr. Ma by John Shen Yen Nee and SJ Rozan

This new light-hearted crime adventure is a book I’ve been looking forward to for some months. I already admire SJ Rozan’s award-winning mysteries featuring New York City private detectives Bill Smith and Lydia Chin. Although it is The Murder of Mr. Ma, co-written with media executive John Shen Yen Nee, is vastly different from the Smith/Chin stories, but equally entertaining. It features my favorite fictional detective, Tang dynasty Judge Dee Ren Jie in a 20th century version.

Judge Dee arrives in 1924 London to investigate the murders of former colleagues from the Chinese Labour Corps. (During World War I, the British government recruited several hundred thousand workers from its colonies and elsewhere to perform non-military duties, in order to free up British soldiers for fighting. Some 96,000 of these workers were Chinese.) Judge Dee’s war role was to mediate when a Chinese worker ran afoul of the military authorities. Military man William Bard, now an inspector in London’s Metropolitan Police force, became Dee’s nemesis.

Soon after his arrival in London, Dee meets a young academic, Lao She, a man with little worldly experience but a good heart, who acts as Dee’s guide and sounding board. Lao is Watson to Dee’s Holmes, recording their adventures and asking the pertinent questions that let Dee’s intellectual powers shine. The affectionate and sometimes prickly relationship between them is also reminiscent of the Holmes/Watson duo.

It doesn’t take Dee long to find old friends and acquaintances in the London Chinese community. In particular, he encounters Sergeant Hoong Liang, whose father taught Dee a full menu of Chinese martial arts skills, something that comes in handy on numerous dramatic occasions throughout this story. Dee also reaches out to knowledgeable characters in London’s underworld. Like Holmes, his circle includes people high and low.

Between his fighting skills, his gift for mimicry and disguise, and his flawless logic, Dee is a real superhero. But he does have one serious flaw. The pain of his wartime injuries was treated with opium, and he’s become addicted. On top of trying to find the murderer of his friends and persuade the police—especially his old enemy, Bard—to take the murders of the Chinese men seriously, he’s suffering the ill effects of drug withdrawal.

The story moves at breakneck speed and involves a subculture of London life not usually dealt with in mystery stories, but full of atmosphere and (mostly) charming peculiarities. It is an exciting ride, and though some of the antics must be taken with a grain of salt, it remains great fun throughout.

Ellery Queen, May/June 2024

Another winner! So many good stories in this issue of “The World’s Leading Mystery Magazine.” You can subscribe or order individual issues online.

Here are a few of my favorites from the May/June issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, several of which had great can’t-stop-reading opening lines:

  • “What do you know about Kool-Aid?” Clayton Ellicott asked. First line from Gregory Fallis’s “Where’s Dookie?” An art world mystery, which, along with Michael Bracken’s humorous “Bermuda Triangle” about a missing musical instrument, prove that shenanigans in the creative fields are not limited to those perpetrated by us authors. Bracken’s long first line puts you right in the scene and in the mood: “Erica Witherspoon had asked to meet at Coda’s, an upscale drinking establishment two blocks from the concert hall she managed, and I was sitting in a back booth finishing a gin and tonic when she walked in.”
  • “Poor Betsy might so easily have perished, only she didn’t. Her misfortune wasn’t quite of that magnitude.” From R.T. Raichev’s “Blind Witness,” in which a crime writer is cleverly lured into involving herself in a real-life case, much against her better instincts.
  • “Stepping out of her car, Miuri feels a wave of despondency wash over her.” In “Seppuku” by Geneviève Blouin, in which you get not only the cultural milieu of French-speaking Montreal, but also the Japanese cultural background of the detective and the sad, escalating crime itself, as foreshadowed in that grim first line.
  • “First I saw that snake-green car, long and low and not quite Christian.” In “When Baptists Go Bad,” by H. Hodgkins, a story that proves there’s a solution for everything, at least in fiction.

Happy Reading!

The Innocents by Bridget Walsh

This is the second in the entertaining historical mystery series Bridget Walsh launched last year with The Tumbling Girl. The stories are set in a somewhat seedy Victorian England music hall called the Variety Palace.

The Innocents takes its title from a mass-casualty event that occurred at Christmastime fourteen years before the main story. In a different theater, subsequently closed, a sold-out audience of children had been promised presents after the show. Actors on stage threw the treats toward the audience in the stalls. Seeing they would never get any of the presents, the children seated upstairs in the balconies and galleries rushed downstairs only to find that the doors into the main auditorium bolted shut against them. In the massive pileup of small bodies, pushing and shoving, many children were injured and one hundred eighty-three suffocated. No one was ever held to account for the tragedy—a bitter pill in the hearts of a great many families.

Minnie Ward, protagonist of the earlier novel and this one, is a skit-writer for the Variety Palace. She is temporarily in charge of the Palace while her boss, Edward Tansford (Tansie) recovers from the tragic events recounted in the earlier book. (While author Walsh makes frequent reference to those events, it isn’t necessary to have read the earlier novel in order to follow the story in this one.) Minnie is again teamed up with former policeman, now private detective, Albert Easterbook. You can’t help but believe that, if the series goes on long enough, those two will finally capitulate to their obvious mutual attraction, but so far Minnie is holding fast. Well, wavering.

Now it’s 1877, and the theater world has experienced a series of recent murders. They hit close to home when one of the Palace’s performers reports his brother missing and asks for Minnie’s help. When Minnie and Albert discover the missing man’s body in his dressing room, the realization gradually takes hold that all of the dead were connected in some way to the Christmastime tragedy. What’s more, all the deaths involved some form of suffocation. With so many people and families affected by the children’s deaths, it’s a challenge for Minnie and Albert to figure out where to begin their investigations.

Tansie reemerges, ready to take the helm of the Palace again but soon distracted again—this time by the disappearance of his monkey, who, he believes, has been snatched by a nefarious character who runs dog fights. Here Walsh gives you a peek at not just the talented and sometimes tony denizens and patrons of the Victorian theater world, but also a look at a decidedly seamy side of London life. Her vivid descriptions of these distinctive settings and the picturesque people they attract add considerably to the charm of the whole narrative.

Of course Albert worries about Minnie’s safety and of course she takes chances she shouldn’t, but in the fast pace of events here, you don’t have time to dwell on her occasional lapses of good sense. Nor do you lose confidence in the basic goodness of the main characters. Flaws and all, they are eminently likeable (even the monkey, who hides in the theater’s rafters and pees on the audience below).

Meanwhile, other complications have arisen. There’s plenty of plot here, engaging characters, a  colorful setting, and a fast pace. If you like to lose yourself in another era with a solid historical mystery, this is one you may really enjoy!

Savage Ridge by Morgan Greene

Morgan Greene’s new thriller, Savage Ridge, is named for the tiny Northwest US town where the action takes place. Ten years before the now of the story, three teenage best friends—Nicholas Pips, Emmy Nailer, and Peter Sachs—committed murder. (Not a spoiler; you find this out on page one.) Though they were suspects in the crime, an air-tight alibi set them free. For the last decade, they have been deliberately out of touch with each other, scattered across the western United States. Now, within days of each other, they’ve arrived back at their home town, where the ghosts of the past confront them on every street and around every corner. Coincidence? Not a chance.

The story is told in chapters that alternate then and now—the time of the murder and the current day. And they alternate perspectives—mostly those of Nicholas Pips; the long-time sheriff, Barry Poplar; Ellison Saint John, son of the wealthiest man in the valley and brother of the deceased, Sammy Saint John; and Sloane Yo, a private detective Ellison has hired to reexamine the case. Her first assignment—bring all three of them back—is a success.

Sachs has thrived in his new life away from Savage Ridge, Pips has had a mediocre decade, and Nailer is a mess. None of them escapes the guilt they feel about the murder, no matter how much they reassure each other that it was wholly justified. The crime looms over them like the steep hillsides loom over the town, their pine forests jagged sentinels against the sky, ever watching, and darkening the outlook of the people below. Nor are the three friends exactly the same people they were ten years before and, as the story progresses, the absolute trust they once had in each other is increasingly, dangerously, shaky.

Yo’s investigations reveal Sammy was much disliked by his classmates and had zero friends. He was not the golden boy his father and brother pretend he was, but the product of an entitled, autocratic, abusive man. Now, ten years later, the father is dying, and Ellison desperately hopes that, by pinning the crime on his only suspects—Pips, Nailer, and Sachs—he can gain his father’s respect at last. If it isn’t soon, it will be too late.

The story is an interesting kind of psychological thriller, because of the careful construction of the mental states of the three killers. Their reactions, their jockeying with Yo (who circles ever-closer) and with each other create much of the tension.

Savage Ridge is also a fascinating study of small-town life. Everyone knows everyone else, everyone has felt the overweening power of the Saint John family.

For me, this book was a real page-turner. Although you know all along who committed the crime, the why is unstated for a long time. Meanwhile, the characterizations are so strong, I found myself really invested in the fates of all three of the friends, and Sloane Yo, too.

Rodolfo Walsh’s Last Case by Elsa Drucaroff

Weary of US politics? How about a peek at the way other countries handle political disputes? Argentina, for example. In this historical “true crime” novel by Argentine novelist and literature professor Elsa Drucaroff, translated from the Spanish by Slava Faybysh, fact and fiction overlap, reinforce, and illuminate each other.

In real life, as in the novel, Rodolfo Walsh was a well-known Argentinian writer of detective fiction and an investigative journalist. His career started in the politically tumultuous 1950s and continued for the two succeeding decades. He joined a militant underground group, the Montoneros, allied with the Peronists (“Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”—that Peron family). The Montoneros appointed him their director of intelligence, and he was adept at ferreting out information to aid their cause. These activities and the militance of his daughter Maria Victoria (Vicki) made them regime targets. Walsh was eventually assassinated in 1977, the day after publishing his famously scathing Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta, criticizing its economic policies.

Drucaroff weaves her novel around these facts and a compelling “what if?” What if, using his skills as a writer of detective stories, Walsh investigated the disappearance of his 26-year-old daughter himself? She, along with four men, were involved in a shoot-out with army troops—tanks and helicopter included—but in Drucaroff’s story, he is tantalized by differing reports of the number of bodies removed from the building and whether the woman involved was still alive when she was taken away. He has to track down the facts.

You can see why Walsh might want to shift his interest away from the Montoneros, who are prone to lengthy debates on Marxist principles (I hadn’t heard the phrase “dialectical materialism” in, I don’t know, decades?), and engage in a little practical action.

There’s danger in the air, and Walsh and his key contacts go about their business in increasing peril. In politically fraught stories, peopled by spies and secret police, you can never be absolutely sure which side a character is on, and Drucaroff has some surprises in store.

Drucaroff writes in a particular style, providing limited visual description. To keep the story moving, she places greater reliance on the significance of interactions among characters and their dialog. And move it does. It’s written in short segments—sometimes only a page or two until the point of view changes. From the early political arguments, where the story stalls a bit, to its acceleration with her cinematic cutting back and forth, the pace soon hurtles toward its dramatic climax.

Not a must-read, but an interesting and memorable look at another corner of the world we hear relatively little about.

Geisha Confidential by Mark Coggins

Mark Coggins’s new Tokyo-based crime novel, Geisha Confidential, features middle-aged San Francisco private investigator August Riordan, who may be familiar to you from previous books in this award-winning series. Read this fast-paced story, and you’ll barely have time to feel any trans-Pacific jet lag. Almost as soon as Riordan’s plane lands, trouble starts.

He’s made the trip for a personal reason. The last boyfriend of his dead former assistant has reached out to him for help, offering to pay Riordan’s airfare, hotel, and expenses. Riordan, who has never traveled outside the United States before and speaks no Japanese at all, is dubious about how much help he can provide, but goes out of loyalty to his late staff member.

The Japanese-American boyfriend, whom Riordan knew as Ken Ono, is certainly a surprise. She’s called Coco now—highly attractive, with long black hair, a mischievous smile, and a fondness for big straw hats. Coco is well into her gender transition; in the local slang, she’s a new-half prostitute.

That is precisely where the trouble may have started. Her doctor is a prominent Japanese gender reassignment surgeon, and his nurse warned Coco not to go through with her next operation. Ever since, Coco’s been followed and an attempt was made on her life. But the Tokyo police show complete disinterest in the troubles of a trans resident.

There’s quite a bit of solid humor in this story, given the inevitable cultural gaffes Riordan makes and Coco’s lighthearted spirit, despite the dangers. On the whole, it’s an interesting peek at the seamier side of Japanese culture—the Japanese Adult Video industry, high-end brothels, and the lifestyles of sex workers—in details sufficient to the story, but not too shocking.

Riordan is a well-developed, crusty character, and Coco is a delight. She recognizes the danger she’s in, but she’s not backing down easily. I was intrigued by the police sergeant named Miyojima, exiled to a lowly outpost due to some bureaucratic flap. He and Riordan are both prone to bend a few rules, and they click.

Author Coggins is an accomplished photographer whose work has appeared in numerous galleries and exhibits and reveals itself in his eye for descriptive detail. His descriptions convey an intimate knowledge of the city that makes this wild and wacky story quite believable. It begins with the story of Hachiko, the loyal dog who waited outside a Tokyo train station for his dead master for more than nine years. A statue now commemorates his devotion.

One request of authors who write books with lots of characters in a complicated story: include a list of them. Particularly when their names are culturally different from what readers are accustomed to, it can become hard to keep track of who’s who—at least for me! Bottom line: a winner!

The Teacher by Tim Sullivan

The screen and television writing experience of author Tim Sullivan comes through strongly in his series of crime thrillers involving neurodivergent Avon and Somerset Police Detective George Cross. The Teacher is the newest this entertaining series of police procedurals whose titles come from the murder victim’s profession. I also went back and listened to the first in the series, The Dentist.

Neurodivergent protagonists are increasingly popular, given the success of clever books like Nita Prose’s The Maid and Liz Nugent’s Strange Sally Diamond. They’re good examples that what might have been labelled a weakness can, instead, be a great source of strength.

George Cross—deemed by his boss to be the best detective in the Major Crimes Unit (MCU)— is on the autism spectrum. He’s not the easiest to get along with because his understanding of social graces is just about nil. And, because he deals only with hard facts, not the distracting possibilities and speculations hovering around a case like a bad aura, his investigations are a slow process.

A lot of good-natured humor arises from people’s inability to figure out where Cross is coming from. They aren’t accustomed to such bracing candor, so little waffling. I found myself delighted at every interaction characters have with him, because they show so clearly how much of the communication between people is vague and, at times, off-point. Cross is a breath of fresh air. Sullivan has done a terrific job in modelling Cross’s character, and I for one hope to read more of his exploits. Great job here!

EQMM – March/April 2024

A great plot keeps you reading, compelling characters make you care. But in my case it’s the love of words that brings a smile to my face. Authors using them in clever new ways. Painting indelible pictures with them. Hinting to me that they love the language as much as I do.

The short stories in the current issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine show once again that mystery writers can be just as expert at manipulating the English language as their more literary cousins. So many excellent stories in terms of the plot/character/setting basics, plus a couple whose deft prose grabbed my attention.

First, let me mention Bill Pronzini’s story, “The Finger,” because it has an affinity with this theme. His character is a successful and prolific writer of international suspense novels who has been known to crank out a 100,000-word thriller in just five weeks. Clearly, this man writes at a devilish speed, aided by superb touch typing skills. When an infection causes him to lose the little finger of his right hand, his typing speed plummets and, worse, the cascade of ideas that propelled that lightning pace has dried up too. Instead, Pronzini writes, “the innovative similes and metaphors that were the hallmarks of his work came less easily and tended to be trite instead of original. The prose stuttered and bumbled.”  

In this collection, there are several examples of “innovative similes and metaphors” that this nine-fingered author could have been justly proud of, in my opinion, and no stuttering and bumbling. Here are three examples I especially admired:

In Nils Gilbertson’s unsentimental story “Apple Juice,” he describes this scene: “By the time he reached the barn, night had turned to early morn and sun shone through bare trees, their branches like petrified veins against the cornflower sky.” Petrified veins. I look at my hands and see that instantly.

The EQMM Department of First Stories offers “Murder Under Sedation” by Lawrence Ong, and though this is his first detective story in EQMM, he rips off a clever putdown of every dreary dental waiting room everywhere: “I scanned the magazines on the rack to count how many are still in print before turning my attention to the waiting room’s other occupant.” I laughed.

“Turnabout” by Sheila Kohler contains a short passage, a model of subtlety, that conveys more meaning than some entire novels. The narrator and her longtime friend Jane walk into Jane’s husband’s study, where he and another visitor, Sergei, sit in armchairs opposite each other, smoking and not speaking. “It was something about the silence, I think, that spoke so clearly to me, or perhaps the way they were looking at one another, something in the brown-green and the blue-grey eyes which, young though I was, I recognized. I looked at Jane. Did she, smart girl that she was, understand what was going on?”

Great job, one and all!

Deep Freeze by Michael Grumley

If you’d like to write a creepily exciting medical thriller set in the near future, you could do worse than Michael C. Grumley did in his new medical/techno-thriller, Deep Freeze. Like him, you might want to consider the consequences of the hubristic quest for immortality. Who would want such a thing? What massive ego is required to even contemplate it? And, at a technical level, how could science make it possible?

Lifespan extension is a hot topic today that extends beyond the laboratory into policymaking or even, you might say, philosophy. The conceptual seeds for a changed mindset about the inevitability of aging have already been planted. An effort is afoot to have aging declared a disease—a Pandora’s box for sure—which will legitimate medical research aimed at making aging “curable,” even reversible.

The bedrock requirement of medical and science-based thrillers is the believability of the underlying science. It may not be technically correct, and if it involves the future, it may never come to pass. Yet, the science must carry authority, with enough detail to be persuasive, but without turning into a textbook. Michael Crichton was a master at this; Neal Stephenson is too. It’s clear Grumley has done his research. He brings together several advances in medical science that might address some of the inherent challenges of enhanced longevity. Yet I wasn’t able to totally suspend disbelief, in part because his characters didn’t think like the many doctors and researchers I’ve worked with.

In an isolated research center in the Arizona desert some twenty years in the future, Grumley writes, medical scientists are working on a one-of-a-kind technology. You very soon get an inkling that everything in the running of the lab is not on the up-and-up. The sophisticated machine that Rachel Souza (a vascular physician) and her friend, technician Henry Yamada, are testing is designed to warm a frozen body (think cryogenics) very slowly. The machine has worked on animals, and the story begins with the first human test, an attempt to thaw the frozen body of former US Army Special Forces veteran John Reiff. Clearly, the stakes are high.

And they are successful. As Reiff gradually regains both physical and mental capacity, he senses Rachel and Henry aren’t completely honest about where he is and what the project is all about. But those uneasy feelings are nothing compared to the shock of learning he’s been kept in a frozen state by someone, somewhere, for twenty-two years. From the point he becomes aware of what’s happened to him, the story becomes a frantic scramble for Rachel, Henry, and Reiff’s survival (ironic, given the book’s overall theme). It becomes much like a conventional cat-and-mouse thriller.

Determinedly, almost naively, optimistic, Rachel takes much too long to recognize that all isn’t as it should be in the lab. Blinders on, she wasn’t convincing. Nor did I believe in the story’s villains—they were cardboard-cutout-evil.

Grumley maneuvers around the project’s ethical issues by eventually describing how, during the period Reiff was frozen, the world economy, governments, and social systems totally imploded. Traditional norms were abandoned. That’s such a major piece of context, it would have helped to have it much sooner—and in convincing detail. It also explains the odd anti-government allusions that occur earlier in the story. Several major pieces of the story are left hanging and will probably be the subject of subsequent books in this series (this is Book 1).

This medical thriller has a strong opening and includes several quite likeable and interesting characters. It provides a lot to think about, too, at multiple levels. You can’t quite hear about certain new medical advances without recalling it.

Broadcast Blues: New from Dick Belsky

Now that we’ve reached the sixth in former New York City newsman Dick Belsky’s mystery series featuring Channel 10 News Director Clare Carlson, picking up Broadcast Blues is like a rendezvous with an old friend. Belsky is a former newspaperman, as was Clare before her paper folded, and both of them tend to look down just a wee bit on the sometimes dubious journalistic standards of their on-air colleagues.

Clare’s snarky, self-deprecating sense of humor isn’t universally appreciated around the newsroom, at least by her boss, but as a reader I love it! Even better, she immediately recognizes where a story lies, has a bulldog’s determination to get to the bottom of it, and a keen sense of how to tell it. All her nights out, morning coffee stops, minor deceptions, and manipulation of the information machine take place in a Manhattan that is quite obviously the author’s home turf. His New York, like his newsroom, is the real deal.

This story begins with a page from a diary written by former cop and now private detective Wendy Kyle: ‘If you’re reading this, I’m already dead,’ it says. In fact, Kyle is dead, victim of a bomb planted in her car and set to explode when she opened the door. But who’d want to silence her? Clare’s keen to find out.

Kyle left the NYPD on not the greatest terms, accusing her commanding officer of attempted sexual assault. The client list for her agency, Heartbreaker Investigations, is mainly women out to prove marital infidelity. Loaded with some of New York’s richest and most powerful men, that list might generate some suspects. But the police declare the case closed. They say Kyle was killed by her ex-husband who wrote a confessional note then conveniently committed suicide. Clare doesn’t buy it.

Channel 10 is up for sale, and who knows what new ownership may bring. Clare has always been the station’s news director as well as an on-air reporter who breaks some of its biggest stories. Her boss repeatedly tells her to drop the Wendy Kyle case and focus on her management job, especially at a time of organizational uncertainty. A protagonist who won’t back off is a standard trope in crime fiction, and when it comes to Clare Carlson, everything about her tells you she’ll stick with it, regardless.

On a personal level, Clare is nearing her fiftieth birthday (kudos to Belsky for not creating another thirty-year-old, size six protagonist) and tells everyone who’ll listen that she’s not at all fussed about that milestone, but she does keep bringing it up. The author has a way of devising a story that is engaging, believable, and moves forward at the rapid pace of the 24-hour news cycle, and his character Clare Carlson is unfailingly entertaining. Naturally, you want Clare to succeed here, not just for Wendy Kyle’s sake, but also because Clare’s dedication to getting the truth out is something that deserves to carry on. Another win for Belsky!