Heavy-duty noir seems not quite right for sunny, summery August. So here are two recent books light and bright enough to compete with surf and sand: The Tumbling Girl by Bridget Walsh and the comic novel Clonk! by JP Rieger.
The new Victorian-era mystery The Tumbling Girl blends murderous deeds with a healthy dose of romance between an unlikely pair of investigators. It evokes the sights, smells, and sounds of 1870s London, while believably capturing the social class distinctions of the day.
Minnie Ward is a retired music hall performer who writes songs and skits, and day-to-day oversees the Variety Theatre’s mix of tumblers, tightrope walkers, singers, not-so-funny comedians, Shakespearean actors, plate-spinners, and more, including a troublesome monkey. With this crew, something is always going on—cast-member drama, audience eruptions, the monkey in the rafters peeing on the customers below. Author Walsh has created a world that is intriguing, full of story possibilities, and rife with unexpected developments.
Albert Easterbrook is a public school-educated private detective. His friends in the police force are tracking a serial killer who has targeted the city’s women for a decade. Footsteps in the dark and chance encounters can be more than a little anxiety-provoking for Minnie and her friends.
When one of the acrobats is found hanged below the pest-ridden Adelphi Arches, the police dismiss her death as a suicide. But Minnie and the girl’s mother don’t believe it; they want Albert to find out what really happened. Minnie volunteers to help him, despite his objections that it’s too dangerous, as it proves to be. You also have a chance to see a bit of Victorian high-life, as members of the most exclusive gentlemen’s club in London seem to be involved.
If I had to sum up this story in a single word, it might be “romp,” because it moves fast, there’s plenty of entertainment along the way, and, even if you’re pretty sure where Minnie and Albert’s relationship will end up, getting there is half the fun.
In Clonk! you follow eight guys, friends from high school, who’ve managed to stay in touch and call on each other’s help for all kinds of matters, great and small. You might term the book a police procedural, because the main character, Kev Dixit, is a Baltimore, Maryland, police officer, but his procedures are hardly textbook. He has a brilliant way of subverting the system and solving problems outside—sometimes far outside—any approved method. His way of outfoxing the detective exam is LOL.
Two of these longtime friends are not nearly as bright as they think they are and become embroiled in a fraudulent real estate scheme. Arson is involved. In their worst possible moment, their old pal Kev helps them out, along with Chris, an ever-optimistic actor and terrible singer who believes his big theatrical break is always just around the corner, and Brian (the Troll), an undertaker. Yes, a dead body is involved.
Three more alumni of their Catholic high school who play smaller, but plot-vital parts are a disgraced doctor, an agoraphobic FBI agent, and an over-the-top attorney called in to save the doctor’s bacon.
You’ll find some uniquely Baltomorean touches and topics here, yet you can get the sense that these guys are essentially well-meaning, occasional screw-ups whom you could find almost anywhere. Occasionally they reminisce about their high school days as (no surprise!) the weirdos no one else wanted to spend time with. These backward glances lay the groundwork for how they react in a crisis as adults. And the crises keep coming.
A lot happens in this book’s 217 pages, as the world of policing the Dixit way hurtles forward. The novel is a testament to the value of loyalty and friendship, with Dixit, as author Rieger says, “a fortress in the storm of life’s absurdities.” Loved it!
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