The Thursday Murder Club

What better review for today, right? I highly recommend the audio-version of Richard Osman’s award-nominated debut cozy crime novel, narrated by Leslie Manville. Osman, who’s had a career in television production, has a second book with many of the same characters already available for pre-order.

Four septuagenarians living in the Coopers Chase Retirement Village, located in the Kentish Weald, meet every Thursday to discuss cold murder cases. Their combination of still being sharp as a tack and varied life experience makes for lively, insightful discussions. Elizabeth, the group’s leader, is the veteran of some possibly clandestine career that took her to countries around the world, Joyce was a nurse, Ibrahim a psychiatrist, and Red Ron a notorious union organizer and gadfly.

Their differences in temperament add to the group’s chemistry. While Ibrahim would like to analyze every factor down to its nub, Ron’s instinct is to barge in and clobber somebody. Elizabeth keeps various thoughts to herself, but Joyce writes a diary, and lucky thing too, because in it, she tells us what the group is thinking and, possibly, why. Joyce’s diary is Osman’s clever way to handle backstory and summary without tedious authorial intrusions.

In an early scene, local DC Donna De Freitas visits the group to five her usual spiel on “Practical Tips for Home Security.” She’s barely begun before Elizabeth cuts her off. “Dear, I think we’re all hoping this won’t be a talk about window locks.” Ibrahim adds, “And no ID cards, please; we know about ID cards. ‘Are you really from the gas board, or are you a burglar?’ We’ve got it, I promise.” “And no need to tell us we mustn’t give our PIN to Nigerians over the phone.”

De Freitas regroups and asks what they do want to talk about, and an enjoyable hour-long free-for-all starts. They recognize that the young De Freitas, for all her amiability, is rather underutilized in the local police department. What she’d like to be working on is a nice juicy murder.

Fate conspires to accommodate her. Tony Curran, a man with a gangster past, and the greedy developer, Ian Ventham, intend to build a second phase of Coopers Chase, on more of the former convent land Ventham purchased from the Church, including plans to dig up the nuns’ cemetery. When Tony is stabbed to death in his kitchen, the Thursday Murder Club wants in on the action. Their new friend Donna De Freitas may be the key, if they can only manage to get her on the murder team and convince her to let them help.

Ventham’s helper Bogdan, has hardly started excavating the graves when he discovers a set of human bones, not in a coffin, but on top of one. This looks like trouble, so he reburies them. Now the Club has two mysteries to solve: who killed Tony Curran, and who is the extra body? Though the local police barely tolerate this amateur assistance, in truth, the oldsters run rings around them. Joyce especially has a way of sounding like a batty old lady, chatting about cakes and tea, while maneuvering the detectives into spilling some useful tidbit.

Although the overall mood is lighthearted, there are moments of sadness, as loss is ever-present in a place like Coopers Chase. That doesn’t stop these four memorable characters from living their lives to the fullest. If you’re in a summertime mood for something light and delightful, this book could be it. If you choose the audio version, Leslie Manville’s narration is tops.

Order here from Amazon.

Fireworks from Ellery Queen

The July-August 2021 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, “The World’s Leading Mystery Magazine” is once again filled with dazzling stories, 19 of them. Here are just a few of the standouts:

Elvie Simons’s “Not So Fast, Dr. Quick,” shows how a tidbit of arcane knowledge can grow into a full-fledged plot. Engaging characters too.

Richard Helms’s “Sweeps Week” provides strong characterizations, then rewards with some old-fashioned retribution.

Jon L. Breen’s “The Body in the Bee Library,” wryly humorous, provides satisfying comeuppance.

Dave Zeltserman always makes me smile, even before I start reading. His characters Julius Katz and his cyber-assistant Archie delight once again in “Julius Katz and the Two Cousins.”

Barbara Allan’s “What’s Wrong with Harley Quinn?” takes you to San Diego Comic-Con, and you can witness the attendees’ shenanigans without donning your Spiderman costume.

Joyce Carol Oates’s “Bone Marrow Donor” is only three pages long, but to me was the darkest story of the lot. I couldn’t stop thinking about the nonfiction piece she has written about her own husband’s last day in our local hospital and imagining how that colored this story, even subconsciously. As I remember what she wrote, she received an urgent call to come to the hospital, and, of course, she drove there pell-mell, pulled to the curb on one of the nearby residential streets, and rushed inside. The staff had been right. The end was very near. When she’d signed all the paperwork, she walked to her car in a daze and found this awkwardly spelled note on her windshield: “Learn to park, bich.”

Beyond the Headlines

RG Belsky’s Clare Carlson series may technically fit in the ‘amateur detective’ category, because Clare is a New York City television news director, not a police officer or FBI agent, but her skill at getting to the truth doesn’t take a back seat to anyone’s. There may be delays, detours, and false starts, but she gets there.

In Belsky’s latest book, his fourth in the Clare Carlson series, she’s again not content to assign the big story of the day to her reporters, she’s on the case herself. Clare’s best friend tips her off that mega-celebrity and Vietnamese immigrant Laurie Bateman wants to divorce her wealthy older husband, Charles Hollister. Bateman wants Clare to tell her story on-air.

This is shocking news, because the couple maintains a super-happy public image, but when Clare arrives at the Batemans’ apartment building, the street is filled with police. Hollister is dead, and Bateman is accused of killing him. Clare witnesses her would-be interviewee driven away in a squad car. Still, the murder is breaking news, and she has the story first.

Turns out, quite a few people might have wanted Hollister dead: his son, who believes himself short-changed in his father’s will, disgruntled business people he’s trodden upon, his mistress, her jealous husband. The police and prosecutor are not interested in any of these possibilities. They have the wife in a Riker’s Island cell, and tunnel vision keeps them focused on her. When Clare finally does get to speak with Bateman, the woman maintains her innocence.

When Clare’s interview with Bateman is televised, it opens a floodgate of public support, just as cracks appear in the prosecution’s case. Before long, Bateman is a free woman again and credits Clare with getting her out of jail. It was a big story, rewarding even, but Clare starts to have doubts. Had she just managed to set a murderer free?

The puzzle aspects of this book are nicely intriguing, and Belsky writes with a lot of narrative energy and humor. He also writes with authenticity and conviction on various aspects of the news business and about his Manhattan setting. The new well of experience he draws on for this book is his military experience in Vietnam, before the war began its slow wind-down.

When investigating a crime, Clare leads with her strength, conducting smart interviews. Her news stories are not police procedurals, and there’s not a lot of attention to CSI-type details. However, here, I thought some gaps needed filling. There was such a rush to arrest Laurie, why no gunshot residue test on her and her clothing? When it appears the killer may have had access to the apartment the evening before the body was found, what had the coroner established as time-of-death? Belsky recognizes this hole and patches it with a throwaway statement about the medical examiner’s uncertainty. Not quite good enough. These are investigative touchstones that Clare, with her experience, would presumably be asking about herself.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the central aspects of the story—the motives and behavior of a long list of iffy characters, each of them having their own secrets—Belsky excels.

Order here from Amazon. Or, Shop your local indie bookstore.

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – May/June 2021

Eighteen stories in this issue, blanketing the gamut of mystery and crime subgenres. Recently I read 75 short stories published last year for the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Awards. Most I hadn’t read previously, but some I recognized immediately as having appeared in EQMM. It’s a testament to the editors of the leading mystery fiction magazines that they select such memorable short fiction!

Among my favorites in this issue:

“The Hidden Places” by Linda Stansberry – A nice barroom tale: “The Open and Shut wasn’t a bar for wine lovers. It was a bar for lawyers who needed to drink.”
“The Case of the Strangled Man” by Steven Torres – A suspect is strangled to death while sitting alone in a police station interview room, and the cops must investigate each other. A detective and the desk sergeant had “gotten to the part of the interview where it was relevant to ask who was the greatest hitter in baseball history.” LOL
“Frank Scarso Finds His Life” by Doug Crandall – A true feel-good story, as is “Birdman” by Alex Knight. Revenge takes many forms.
“The Bunker” by Herbert De Paepe and translated from the Flemish by Josh Pachter. Great evocation of a bizarre workplace!

And, best of all, this issue contains the news that my editor, Barb Goffman, won the EQMM 2020 Readers’ Award for her “Dear Emily Etiquette.” Barb’s “irrepressibly satirical tale about the modern wedding” appeared in last year’s Sept/Oct issue. I certainly enjoyed that story and, clearly, many other readers did too!

Be sure to check out the issue cover, for a challenge along the lines of “what’s wrong with this picture?” I see at least three mysterious and deadly references.

Murder on the Island

By Daisy White – If you like to be in on the very beginning of a new cozy mystery series, you should know that Murder on the Island is billed as the first book in the Chloe Canton Mystery Series. At Chloe’s 50th birthday dinner, her husband of some years announced he was leaving her. Impeccable timing.

Soon thereafter, she learned her grandmother had died and left her the house and horse stables she owned in Bermuda. The timing of that is pretty spot-on, too, as Chloe definitely needed a fresh start. The story begins on the airplane ride taking her from the UK to her new life.

Thirty-some years earlier, Chloe spent time in Bermuda with her grandmother and the beautiful island is still somewhat familiar. But still, it holds surprises. Not all of them pleasant. On an early-morning trail ride, she discovers a dead body on her property. The victim turns out to be an up-and-coming artist showing at a gallery in town. Chloe is a bit of a busybody—ok, more than a bit—and, as the investigation seemingly bogs down, starts asking questions herself. Always a risky proposition.

Is her curiosity the reason for her escalating troubles? There’s a break-in at her home, rampant rumors her business is going under, and the horsenapping of a palomino scheduled for a high-profile photo shoot. Or, are other stable owners on the island concerned she’ll be too successful? Or, does someone want her to leave Bermuda altogether? Author White has an easy writing style that keeps the story pinballing among these possibilities with alacrity.

Helping Chloe sort out her increasingly fraught situation, as well as trying to assure that she stays safe are her jovial neighbor, her conscientious stable manager, and a detective from the local police—her age, handsome, and widowed. Romance is definitely on the turquoise horizon.

Chloe takes oddly unnecessary risks, as heroines in the cozy genre do, and you may be puzzled as to why she’s thinking whatever she’s thinking at a particular moment. And, while you may not be surprised at the whodunnit solution, getting there is definitely a pleasant ride. One of the strongest features of the book is author White’s depiction of Bermuda. She became acquainted with the island in real life while working as a flight attendant, and her descriptions are so lush and vivid, this book is like a vacation between covers.

Order here from Amazon or support independent bookstores by ordering here from IndieBound.

The Cut

By Chris Brookmyre – “Millicent Spark’s life ended on the twenty-third of January, 1994,” starts Chris Brookmyre’s new thriller. She woke up with the body of her lover Markus next to her, covered in stab wounds. She served 20-some years in prison for his murder – her sentence lengthened because she insisted she was innocent. She’s finally out, living in Glasgow, trying to cobble together some kind of modus vivendi in a vastly changed world.

At a university across town, Jerry Kelly is an uneasy first-year student, having trouble fitting in. He’s black, from a village in North Ayrshire, and grew up with almost nothing. A big piece of his education, such as it was, came from obsessive viewing of horror videos from his gran’s rental outlet. This explains his encyclopedic knowledge of film in general and especially the legendary gore-fests.

Brookmyre’s two misfits have plenty of depth and individuality; they’re sympathetic, despite their flaws, with a wry sense of themselves. On the surface they appear to be polar opposites, but plot magic happens once their paths cross.

Jerry applies to live in an off-campus house, not expecting to be accepted, given who he is and how he looks—dreadlocks, black wardrobe of metal band t-shirts—and given that his prospective housemates are three elderly ladies. To his surprise and theirs, they take him in. He discovers that pre-prison, his prickly new housemate Millie Spark had been a genius makeup artist on many of the blood-soaked films he loves. Grisly wounds were her specialty. The movie-banter between them is highly entertaining, and she’s not put off by his dark affect. But what cements their relationship is when he rescues her from a man trying to smother her with a bed-pillow.

The last movie Millie worked on was Mancipium, a film rumored to be such pure evil no one has ever seen it. All copies were destroyed, and everyone connected with it died. Not strictly true, although several unexplained deaths and disappearances gave the story legs. Seeing Mancipium is at the top of Jerry’s all-time wish-list.

Millicent and Jerry discover that her murdered lover Markus was not a film production company rep, as he claimed, but a London cop. Why did he lie, and what was he after? Who really killed him, and why was Millie framed for his murder? The answers to these questions could prove Millie’s innocence and answer the more urgent question, who wants her dead now? Author Brookmyre effectively ramps up the tension as the danger to Millie mounts and as she and Jerry discern the outlines of a much bigger conspiracy.

The long-ago summer Mancipium was wrapping up offers intriguing clues: immense pressures on the production team, a decadent lifestyle of underage sex and over-consumed drugs, and the influx of high-powered guests that lifestyle attracted. Millie and Jerry search out the scattered remnants of the old crew and ask their questions, with their pursuers never more than a half-step behind.

There may be a fifty-year age difference between Jerry and Millie, but a lively and wholly believable friendship grows up between them. Getting out of their predicament will require the knowledge and skills of both. They are fascinating, funny, and spirited protagonists who are such good companions—to the reader and to each other—that I wished the book could continue for another hundred pages. I hated to give them up! In sum, a most satisfying adventure.

Ellery Queen Strikes Again!

The short stories collected for the bimonthly editions of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine are always entertaining and diverse. The current issue has some classics as well as brand spanking new ones, though I don’t recall any actual spanking. That must be some other magazine. Here are some of the stories I enjoyed best:

“Pink Squirrel” by Nick Mamatas – Stories with clever Lithuanian grandmas are always entertaining. “Welcome to America! Where you can drink ice cream and alcohol simultaneously!”

“Stray” by debut author Ken Lim – What if what you’re running from isn’t really after you?

“The Interpreter and the Killer” – There’s a big international drug-trafficking case that takes an unexpected courtroom twist for Jeff Soloway’s Spanish-language interpreter. The plot hinges on a single word.

“Boo Radley College Prep” – Karen Harrington’s heartfelt tale about how a young boy learns not to make assumptions about people. This one will stay with me a long time. Excellent characters.

“Curious Incidents” – Steve Hockensmith devised a clever girl who is a Sherlock Holmes devotee, of course, for his latest Holmes on the Range story about Big Red and Old Red and a disappearance out west. Funny and true to the master of detection.

Many of the authors in this issue write novels as well. You can get the flavor of the way they think and write in these short, pleasurable bites.

Primary Obsessions

Primary Obsessions, Charles Demers

By Charles Demers – Vancouver, B.C., cognitive behavioral therapist Annick Boudreau is the protagonist in this new psychological thriller. She’s compassionate and confident about her treatment strategy, even though the work with her new patient, Sanjay Desai, is slow. Desai suffers from a primarily cognitive (i.e., in his thoughts) obsessive compulsive disorder, characterized by uncontrollable and distressingly violent thoughts—in his case, involving his mother.

Boudreau is unfailingly encouraging, but Desai is convinced he’s a monster. He’s so frightened by these blood-soaked thoughts that he’s moved out of the family home and into a cheap apartment with Jason, a bouncer in a gangster-owned bar and strip club. Jason’s best friend is another bouncer there, not bright enough to hold down the job, probably, except that his uncle owns the place. They make Desai’s home life miserable. To escape, he turns his noise-cancelling headphones up high.

Boudreau wants Desai to write the down his violent thoughts in a therapy journal for later discussion. She reassures him that primary obsessives do not act on their thoughts, but her conviction is shaken when Jason is brutally murdered. The police find Desai in the apartment, wearing his headphones, and washing his hands and arms up to his elbows. He claims he didn’t hear a thing. Then they find his therapy journal.

After some soul-searching, Boudreau is convinced Sanjay is innocent, if only she could explain about his condition and about the diary. Professional ethics prevent her from doing so unless he gives permission. These are interesting dilemmas, not usually addressed in crime fiction.

She keeps Desai’s secrets with her long-suffering boyfriend Philip too. The dialog between them is always believable and often funny. Meanwhile, the murdered man’s best friend posts an expletive-filled, all-caps Facebook rant, naming Desai as the killer: “THIS IS WHERE POLITICAL CORRECTNESS LANDED US TOO WHERE MENTALLY ILLS HAVE MORE RIGHTS THAN A NORMAL PERSON.” All the “likes” and “shares” this post attracts are a chilling reminder of the persistent stigma of mental illness.

With the authorities convinced they have their perp, and unable to explain to them about Desai’s diagnosis and the therapy journal, Boudreau decides to investigate a bit herself, starting with Mike, the Facebook poster with the permanent Caps Lock. Soon she’s in over her head, and her queries make her a target of the gangsterish club owners.

Author Demers presents Boudreau with a number of compelling personal and professional dilemmas. Despite the seriousness of the topic, the book is never ponderous and is, on the contrary, a pleasure to read. Demers is a comedian, actor, playwright, screenwriter, and political activist. Some of these experiences clearly help him write lively dialog. Demers lives in Vancouver and uses his admiration for that lovely city to bring it to life for his readers.

Order from Amazon here.

The Huntress

The Huntress, Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn’s 2019 thriller is a real page-turner—good thing too because there are a lot of pages. Soon after World War II, widowed Boston antiques dealer Daniel McBride meets Austrian refugee Annaliese Weber and falls for her. She has a four-year-old daughter and a bit of a murky past whose pieces don’t quite fit. Daniel is in love and oblivious, but his teenage daughter Jordan is not. In the chapters where she’s the center, you feel her love for her father, as she tries to reconcile her stepmother’s affectionate behavior and her doubts about the woman.

Over in Europe, two Nazi-hunters—a sophisticated Englishman and a Polish-Hungarian former GI—have teamed up to track down war criminals overlooked by the Nuremberg trials. Ian, the erudite Englishman, received a solid education, but it’s Tony, from polyglot Queens, who “could talk to anyone, usually in their native language.”

By 1950, they have a good track record, despite the shoestring nature of their operation. A woman they would really like to find is die Jägerin, The Huntress. She had been the mistress of a high-ranking SS officer, now dead. During the war, she murdered numerous people, including six refugee children, and one of her victims was Ian’s brother Sebastian.

Ian first heard about Seb’s death from a young woman, “all starved eyes and grief,” whom he encountered in a Polish hospital. Nina Borisovna Markova is the third leg of this sturdy triangle of point-of-view characters—Jordan, Ian, and Nina.

Nina grew up in a tiny village in Siberia—the youngest of several children, with no mother, siblings who fled, and a violent alcoholic father—dreaming of escape, but where and to what? The answer comes the day she sees her first airplane. She heads west to a city where she learns to fly, becoming a member of the first Soviet women’s flying squad, and active in bombing the German invaders. It’s a perfect life for her until her father’s drunken denunciations of Stalin reach the wrong ears. Unless she escapes the Soviet Union, she’s likely to be rounded up and imprisoned too. The Siberian legends and superstitions of Nina’s childhood are woven into all these experiences, and the result is a complex, prickly, utterly unique personality.

Quinn’s characters are passionate about their concerns, though Nina’s passions are at best only half-tamed. Because die Jägerin tried to kill Nina, she wants to find the woman just as much as Ian does. And, she knows what die Jägerin looks like. When Tony stumbles on a faint clue that leads them to Boston, they hope to pick up the murderer’s scent. They have no idea she’s living as a respectable housewife right under their noses.

To sum up this story in a single word, it would be “satisfying.” All Quinn’s characters and their concerns are compelling, and their rich experiences support the plot. There’s more than a touch of romance, and the good-humored banter provided by Tony is an effective counterpoint to the seriousness of the hunters’ quest. In short, I really enjoyed this book and recommend it highly.

Reading in the Time of Covid

chalk outline, body

A new approach to book reviews: In the past, I’ve reviewed almost every book I’ve read. My thought was that even a so-so review could be helpful to you. The aspects that bothered me might not be issues for you. And, if they are, then a lackluster review might save you the time and trouble of delving into a book you probably won’t like. Going forward from September 2020, I’m abandoning that approach. If you see a book here, it’s because I do recommend it.

Since my last book review post on April Fool’s Day, I’ve read at least 40 books and listened to a dozen more. Many of them were crime fiction, and full reviews on CrimeFictionLover.com are linked below. Click the book title for my Amazon affiliate link. Here’s the first three among the very best, in print. Audio on Thursday.

Rules for Perfect Murders

In this entertaining novel, Peter Swanson has concocted the perfect plot for lovers of classic mysteries. Malcolm Kershaw, the widowed part-owner of Boston’s Old Devils Bookstore wrote a blog post some years ago that described what he considered the best depictions of ‘the perfect murder.’

Now, it seems, someone has taken up his challenge and is recreating those scenarios. Or are they? Is he a suspect or the next potential victim? Desperate for answers, he launches his own investigation and, as the pages fly by, you’ll find there’s more to this bibliophile than you may have assumed. Read my full review here.

Little Altar Boy

John Guzlowski’s riveting new police procedural takes you back to the time before sustained pressure on the Catholic Church brought to light its widespread and systemic problem of child sexual abuse. It’s the late 1960s, in the post-Christmas dark night of winter, and Chicago police detective Hank Purcell is at home, waiting for his 19-year-old daughter Margaret. She has new friends, new habits, and new attitudes, none of which make him happy.

Hank and his partner are trying to resolve not one, but two compelling dilemmas: they’re clearly outraged by the evidence of child abuse among the clergy, but, while they’re trying to save the world’s altar boys, what about Hank’s own child, beset by a whole different class of predator? Hank’s wife Hazel is a useful foil for the two detectives, pressing for handling Margaret’s situation differently. But it seems there are no right answers; each course of action threatens consequences more chilling than the wind blasting off Lake Michigan. Full review here.

Nine Tenths of the Law

This literary crime thriller by Claudia Hagadus Long is part treasure hunt, part family story, part romance, part tragic history woven together in a complicated plot through the strong voice of the story’s sympathetic narrator, Zara Persil-Pendleton. At a Manhattan museum show, Zara and her sister Lilly spot a menorah the Nazis stole from their family many years before. Lilly wants it back.

The women embark on an ill-conceived plot to obtain it, which leads them into some sticky situations. At first these are awkward and funny, but gradually, they become potentially dangerous. Zara, with all her on-point observations and clever asides will keep you amused and interested. Long strikes a nice balance between describing Zara’s inner conflicts and maintaining the action of the story. My Crime Fiction Lover review is here.