Last Update 4/19/11    

Mourning Gloria by Susan Wittig Albert, Berkley, 2011, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-425-23913-1  

Although this new China Bayles novel is considerably better than the last couple, it has some of the same faults. It is not necessary to repeat the back story for each of the eight recurring human – and two animal – characters in detail every book. About a quarter of this one is spent reprising material we already know, most of which is irrelevant to the new mystery anyway. This time there’s a woman shot and left alive in a burning trailer, a pair of disappearances, rumors of various kinds of drug trafficking, a few clandestine affairs, and assorted other issues. Bayles solves the crime more through hard work and intelligence than happenstance, which is why I like this series a lot better than most cosies. There’s a little bit of a twist at the end, which is otherwise rather low key.  4/19/11

Sweet Revenge by Andrea Penrose, Obsidian, 2011, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-23303-5

Deadly Notions by Elizabeth Lynn Casey, Berkley, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-24059-5

Although I enjoy Victorian mysteries, I’ve only occasional tried those set in a Regency setting, and generally haven’t found the latter as interesting. This one might have pleased me more if the plot hadn’t been so similar to two contemporary cooking mysteries I read only a few days previously. The protagonist is posing as a chef in order to investigate the  murder of her father when one of her concoctions almost poisons the Prince Regent.  One of the foremost detectives in England is called in to investigate and he naturally uncovers the imposter with ease.  Fortunately, he agrees to keep her secret and the two turn up to solve both crimes. The first third of the book was not promising but it started to get interesting after that and on the whole was pretty good. I believe this is a first novel. If so, there is considerable potential on view and I’ll be watching for her next.  The Casey title is a sewing mystery, with sewing tips, and it was just too formulaic for me.  There’s an obnoxious woman in the circle whom everyone dislikes, so obviously she turns up dead and the protagonist, a newcomer, has to figure out which of her friends was responsible. Competently written but too much like the last half dozen cozies I read. 4/4/11

Murder Takes the Cake by Gayle Trent, Gallery, 2011, $15, ISBN 978-1-4516-0001-8

Cookie Dough or Die by Virginia Lowell, Berkley, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-24067-0

Cooking and sewing related mysteries are generally a hard sell for me lately because most of them are light romances in which a murder takes place instead of a detective story. But occasionally I’m in the mood for something light. Both of these are pretty light. In the first, a cake decorator is suspected of having murdered the town gossip. Naturally she has to find the real killer to clear herself and save her business, and naturally the town gossip has a lot of enemies. Not much detection, mostly just dumb luck, and snippy dialogue that makes the story go fast but which doesn’t convey much texture. The author also writes as Amanda Lee.  The plot in the Lowell title is quite similar. A prominent woman is found dead and the protagonist, who runs a cookie shop, is the prime suspect because of the terms of the dead woman’s will and because someone who ate one of her cookies promptly became seriously ill. Is the poisoning her clientele?  Of course not. There’s nothing in either of these for the hard core detective fan but for the casual reader they’re okay.  The Lowell is definitely the better of the pair. 4/2/11

The Powder Barrel by William Haggard, Signet, 1965  

If you can stand the not even thinly veiled racism, this is one of Haggard’s best novels, set in a tiny Arab state crucial to the oil industry, almost openly a puppet of the British government.  When the current ruler decides to skip the country with his money, and his chauffeur – actually a communist agent – inadvertently kills one British official and sets off to assassinate another – a crisis is set in motion that could have international repercussions.  Of course, Haggard assures us that the Arabs cannot manage their own affairs and that they are better off under British supervision.  Fairly suspenseful with an interesting villain this time around and at least it is very, very short. 3/31/11

Night of the Living Dandelion by Kate Collins, Obsidian, 2011, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-23301-1

The Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder by Mary Jane Maffini, Berkley, 2011, $7.99, IBSN 978-0-425-24060-1

A couple of the better recent cozies. The first is part of a series I have generally found quite enjoyable. The protagonist is the owner of a flower shop – hence the title – who is hobbled literally this time, on crutches thanks to an accident.  The story line is not quite as plausible as in the past. There’s a man in town whom people believe is not only responsible for the death of a prominent woman but also a vampire. Sorry, I just couldn’t swallow that premise. The man in question is Romanian and dresses like a vampire and the victim was drained of blood, but the story just doesn’t fly. When another woman becomes convinced that she has been turned into an undead creature as well, the implausibility factor just overwhelmed me.  The second book involves a professional organizer – organizing tips included – and is considerably better.  Our protagonist is privy to a death threat against one of the mean girls returning for a high school reunion, and before long the speaker is missing and the mean girls are being murdered. Predictable, of course, but well plotted and much more believable than the Collins. 3/29/11

Fun & Games by Duane Swierczynski. Mulholland, 2011, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-316-13328-9

The third adventure of Charlie Hardie, my first introduction to him, is indeed a lot of fun. Hardie is an oddball doing a stint as a housesitter as he recovers from his previous adventures.  But there's no rest for the wicked, or the good in this case. He hears a story about a group of professional criminals whose specialty is making murders look like accidents, and before you know it, he's caught up in the moment. He meets a girl who is their latest target, and he can't just sit back and watch it happen.  I was not surprised to learn that the author also writes scripts for Marvel Comics as this has much of the same rapid pace and over the top action.  Let the games continue. 3/27/11

The High Wire by William Haggard, Signet, 1963 

This is one of Haggard’s better spy thrillers, though still not a very good one.  The misogyny and racism common to his previous work is mostly muted and the basic premise – spies use blackmail and attempted abduction to discover what’s going on at a secret British research establishment – isn’t a bad one.  The problems are endemic with Haggard’s work.  It is not enough to have a character do a completely nonsensical thing and explain it by saying that occasionally people do nonsensical things.  I also find his description of how intelligence services operate totally at variance with the real world.  For example, at one point the British know that a military assault of some kind will be launched against the facility.  To thwart this, they do nothing to augment the three lightly armed men patrolling in a civilian vehicle.  At another point, one of the British agents risks her life to steal a tape recording which she and everyone else knows is worthless.  Nor does Haggard understand the first thing about science.  Spies who not hope to acquire detailed scientific information from the civilian project administrator with no scientific training whatsoever.  They would go after one of the scientists.  Nor would they target a single individual; they’d have multiple operations pending.  Not awful but disappointing on a great many levels. 3/22/11

The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime edited by Michael Sims, Penguin, 2011, $16, ISBN 978-0-14-310621 

Given my fondness for the Victorian era as a setting, this collection of mystery stories with female sleuths, all written in that time period, naturally attracted my attention.  Although some of these stories include mild cheats – usually withheld information – they are in general quite nicely constructed and written.  The best in the collection is my Mary Wilkins, later Mary Wilkins Freeman, and the worst is by Andrew Forrester, an interesting puzzle presented in a tedious style. The novel excerpts by Anna Katherine Green, whom I like, weren’t self contained.  Grant Allen has a minor story, but the ones by W.S. Hayward, C.L. Pirkis, and Richard Marsh were excellent.  An interesting as well as entertaining collection of detective stories. With only a couple of exceptions they age surprisingly well. 3/21/11

Death Along the Spirit Road by C.M. Wendelboe, Berkley, 2011, $14, ISBN 978-0-425-24002-1  

It’s always a pleasure to discover a new writer who displays the skills of a long time professional.  This first novel features Manny Tanno, an FBI investigator sent to investigate a murder on the reservation he left many years before.  The death of a major developer leads to a complex unraveling of multiple murder cases, and Tanno has to survive several attempts on his life while sorting them out.  There’s also conflict with his older brother, who was convicted of murder years before, a gaggle of women, his own bad driving, and the animosity of the local acting police chief, who was a long time rival of Tanno when they were both younger.  It’s a police procedural that reminded me a lot of Tony Hillerman, and while I figured out part of the solution, other parts fooled me.  SPOILER ALERT.  The one criticism I had is that there are just too many murderers – five in all, and two others attempt to do the same.  3/10/11

A Deadly Cliché by Ellery Adams, Berkley, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-24023-6

Sealed With a Kill by Lucy Lawrence, Berkley, 2011, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-24025-0 

A murder mystery whose clues involve wordplay.  How could I resist?  At each of a series of burglaries, the thieves leave behind a cryptic message disguised as an allusion to a cliché. When our protagonist discovers a dead body on the beach nearby, she suspects that there is a connection, and of course there is. And there happens to be a small group of writers in the area who seem ideally suited to solving the crime.  Several subplots crowd into this one, almost too much for such a short book, but the author keeps his characters and readers on the straight path.  I liked this one considerably.  The second title is okay but not nearly as good.  A group of sightseers stumble over a dead body and their guide gets involved in finding out who the killer is. Quite predictable though not badly written. 3/4/11

Murder of a Bookstore Babe by Denise Swanson, Obsidian, 2011, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-23280-9

How to Survive a Killer Séance by Penny Warner, Obsidian, 2011, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-23279-3  

I can rarely pass up a bookstore based murder mystery, even though a lot of them are pretty minor. I’ve read one previous installment in this series and liked it well enough, but I had some problems with this one.  The premise is that a new bookstore is opening in a small town and some of the locals are circulating a petition to close it down because it sells romance novels and “sci-fi”, which are obscene and satanic respectively.  Now I’m perfectly willing to accept that there are small minded people who might be so inclined, but I balked when the protagonist found it necessary to do something to investigate their claims.  That said, the murder – a woman crushed under a bookcase – isn’t badly set up and Swanson certainly writes well enough.  I just couldn’t get over that initial incongruity.  The second title is by an author new to me and involves a high tech séance set up as a party rather than a scam.  But someone hijacks the control room, makes incendiary comments to the assembled guests, and then leaves a dead body behind.  The detective is a party organizer who understandably takes umbrage at having her arrangements used to commit a crime.  Not bad at all.  Will watch for more by this author. 3/1/11

Scones & Bones by Laura Childs, Berkley, 2011, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-425-23896-7

A Touch of Gold by Joyce & Jim Lavene, Berkley, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-24024-3    

I wasn’t particularly impressed with the earlier books I’d read by Laura Childs and might have passed this by except that when two mysteries about lost treasures show up on the same day, it felt like it was meant to be.  And I did like this considerably better than I expected.  Someone steals a valuable relic from a show, murdering an attendee in the process, and our heroine, though not directly involved, decides that she must put her investigative skills to work to find out the truth.  There’s a pretty good mystery involved – although I found the protagonist to be rather a busybody – and some chicanery with a fake artifact.  Not a classic – and the multiple pages of recipes and other extraneous material still irritates me – but quite readable.  I’ve had more luck with the Lavenes and this one was pretty good as well.  Another pirate treasure is stolen, this time in rather spectacular fashion, and another body is found at the site. But the protagonist in this series has clairvoyant visions which help solve the crime.  It’s a delicate balancing act when you have a clairvoyant character because either it’s too easy or too artificial to be realistic.  This one does a good job of treading a safe path. 2/25/11

My Gun Is Quick by Mickey Spillane, Isis Audiobooks, read by William Dufris 

I picked this audiobook on cassette up very inexpensively as my recollection of Spillane – whom I sampled a long time ago – was that he wasn’t my cup of tea.  To my surprise, although I still find his worldview depressing and his view of women misogynistic, the prose wasn’t that bad and I actually enjoyed the story, despite the really clumsy romantic scenes.  Dufris does an excellent job as well.  The story involves Mike Hammer’s determination to avenge the death of a prostitute he befriended, which he eventually does although he causes the deaths of two more innocent women in the process.  The identity of the criminal mastermind is so obvious from the outset that there’s not much suspense or mystery, but Hammer solves the crime through use of his brains rather than just by chance, which is definitely a plus for me. 2/23/11

Blast from the Past by Toni L.P. Kelner, Berkley, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23990-2 

There are a handful of mystery series about female reporters but this is potentially one of the best.  Tilda Harper specializes in where-are-they-now articles and her latest subject in an actor who once performed in a corny television show about a rock band in outer space. She immediately spots another ex-cast member, now working as a chauffeur, who becomes chief suspect when someone tries to kill the star.  This one’s a genuine amateur detective story rather than a disguised romance, and the characters are much more interesting than in most contemporary cozies.  I’ve read one previous Kelner novel, and it had a similar plot, but I liked this one considerably better. 2/14/11

Town in a Lobster Stew by B.B. Haywood, Berkley, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-24001-4

A Crafty Killing by Lorraine Bartlett, Berkley, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23985-8

A pair of craft oriented murder mysteries, or rather, light adventure  romances in which a murder takes place.  The first is set in Maine during a lobster cooking competition, so fierce a rivalry that kidnapping and theft are part of the process.  Our protagonist is a reporter who suspects that there are more sinister forces at work, but her efforts to investigate are hindered by a local who seems inordinately determined that she mind her own business. Well written and generally entertaining but I didn’t find the mystery particularly compelling.  The second was more to my taste.  The protagonist in this case is a recent widow who has just become manager of a permanent crafts fair, thanks to the murder of her predecessor.  Understandably, she wants to know what precipitated that crime and her investigation leads her to suspect that her husband’s death, supposedly an accident, might have been murder as well.  A bit more investigative than the first.  It’s also the first in a new series. 2/10/11

Murder Your Darlings by J.J. Murphy, Obsidian, 2011, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-23199-4  

Celebrity murder investigators are not new but I think this is the first time Dorothy L. Sayers, the greatest mystery writer of all time, was called upon to solve a crime.  She’s attending a get together for writers when a body turns up and the prime suspect is William Faulkner.  Sayers decides to find the real killer, with the help of Robert Benchley and other literary notables, and does so in the traditional manner.  The side references are a big part of the fun, and I fear they may be lost on a good many readers since the circle of writers involved has been largely forgotten by the public at large.  It’s still a good read even if you don’t get the references though. 2/5/11 Update:  Mike Blake tells me there is an earlier Sayers as detective novel, Dorothy and Agatha by Gaylord Larsen.

The Antagonists by William Haggard, Signet, 1964

Despite some mild misogyny and racism the first two thirds of this short thriller are better than most of Haggard's earlier novels.  A communist country, transparently Yugoslavia, has brought its most prominent scientist to England to protect him from Russian assassins.  The Russians believe that the scientist is on the brink of a discovery that could give his country political and military independence.  The US intelligence agency is for some never defined reason forbidden to get involved but a minor embassy official befriends the man preparatory to questioning him under drugs.  Another diplomat/spy who failed to kill the man is on the run from the police and his own bosses, and wants to redeem himself by finishing the job.  The British under Colonel Russell flounder around and do little but watch. The story falls apart at the end.  Characters start doing things with no motive, sometimes in direct contradiction to their own best interests, and events are almost random through the disappointing conclusion.  2/2/11

Buffalo West Wing by Julie Hyzy, Berkley, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23923-0  

White House chef and detective, an unusual combination.  Olivia Paras is adjusting to the changing of the guard – installation of a new First Family – when a mysterious package of fried chicken arrives. When she refuses to allow it to be served to the Presidential children, she incurs the wrath of the incoming First Lady, but she sticks by her guns even when it appears that she may be replaced by the latter’s personal chef. Not surprisingly, there turns out to be poison in the chicken, which improves her standing but raises the question of who would target the children and why.  Hyzy has produced a solid series with the Paras novels that actually require her protagonist to use her brains rather than just stick her neck out and see who tries to chop it off.  This is a good one. 1/29/11

Catch Her If You Can by Merline Lovelace, Berkley, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23925-4

The Samantha Spade series has become one of my favorites, partly because it’s a little closer to traditional detective stories in construction than most other contemporary mysteries, but mostly because Lovelace just tells a much better story than do most other writers currently working in the genre.  This one starts with a bang.  Spade, who tests experimental devices for the military, is working with a robot dog when she stumbles into a confrontation that reveals three human heads in a pickup truck. Spade gets a healthy reward for killing the driver – a known killer with a price on his head – but someone apparently wants to even the score. Fortunately, they’ve underestimated her resourcefulness. Best of all, the series seems to be getting better as it goes along. 1/27/11

The Unquiet Sleep by William Haggard, Signet 

A Charles Russell spy thriller, this time involving a new tranquilizer that appears to be habit forming and which has connections to some prominent government officials. As with Haggard’s previous novels, a big part of the plot revolves around a disastrous marriage to a conceited woman, in this case one who has a boyfriend on the side.  There's a drug mob that wants the drug declared dangerous so they can sell it, and they use a gigolo to seduce the wife of a government official connected with its regulation.  There's a murder that hardly seems justified by the situation, but that's a common failing in Haggard's novels.  Some authors over explain.  Haggard does the opposite.  Government officials fail to take action on several occasion because, we are told, they cannot do so, although there seems no reason why not except that it is convenient to the plot. One or Russell's agents, emotionally involved with the case, covers up an extortion attempt, which makes no sense in context, and after carefully choosing nondescript clothing in order to conduct a clandestine operation personally, she wears her custom made shoes and leaves one of the laces at the site of what turns out to be a murder.  No one calls the police even though there's a murder and abduction, until after the fact. I also found the science suspect - the drug is only addictive some of the time!  Better than most of his previous novels but still badly flawed. 1/23/11

Shot Through Velvet by Ellen Byerrum, Obsidian, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-23250-2

Stitch Me Deadly by Amanda Lee, Obsidian, 2011, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-23251-9 4078-9 

A pair of light weight but reasonably entertaining mysteries here.  The first is set in the fashion world, and involves a woman who discovers a body while touring a velvet factory. The victim was a supervisor who was very unpopular with his subordinates, but a mysterious legendary killer appears to be the prime suspect.  When our heroine gets a calling card, ostensibly from the latter, she fears she may be the next victim. The dialogue seems a big clunky, but otherwise it’s not a bad story.  The second has an embroidery theme – but includes no patterns! – and bears a strong resemblance to the China Bayles novels by Susan Wittig Alpert.  The protagonist runs an embroidery store and a woman who visited the shop promptly turns up dead.  Not badly written, but I didn’t find this one nearly as entertaining.  There are mystery writers who produce excellent novels around just okay mysteries - Josephine Bell - and mystery writers who write ho-hum novels around excellent mysteries - John Dickson Carr, but there are very few who do both like P.D. James or Dorothy Sayers.  1/21/11

The Arena by William Haggard, Penguin, 1961

This is one of the early Charles Russell spy thrillers, and not a good one.  A master spy from an unnamed country is trying to engineer a merger of a commercial bank he owns with another which has loaned money to an important British technical firm.  This would ensure that he has access to their revolutionary new missile technology, apparently, although I'm not sure how that follows since companies are not likely to divulge valuable secrets to their banks.  Nevertheless, there's a complicated fight among the shareholders and the bad guys want to kill the man blocking the merger.  British intelligence counters in a rather squishy battle of wits before resolving the issue in the manner I thought obvious from the outset, shift the loan to another institution. At least it was very short. 1/6/11

Spider Bones by Kathy Reichs, Scribner, 2010, ISBN 978-1-4391-0239-5

The latest Temperance Brennan mystery has a fascinating puzzle at its heart.  A man accidentally kills himself during an autoerotic episode in Canada and his fingerprints match a man who died in Vietnam forty years earlier.  The presumably mistakenly identified body is exhumed but poses and even greater problem, and before long we have a third and a game of musical identities that Brennan and company have to solve.  At the same time, a pair of recent murders in Hawaii turns out to be linked to the same chain of impersonation – a rather large coincidence – and someone inevitably tries to kill Brennan, a plot device that is even less convincing than usual this time around.  There’s a subplot about the tension between Brennan’s daughter and boyfriend Ryan’s daughter that is pretty lame and horribly predictable.  Despite the bad peripheral issues, the central problem is fascinating enough to make this an enjoyable read. 1/1/11