“The Deeds of the Disturber” by Elizabeth Peters

Deeds of the DisturberLong ago, when I was a young mystery reader, Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series was one of my favorites. For the uninitiated, the late Barbara Mertz was a brilliant academic (she had a PhD in Egyptology) who turned to writing historical mysteries set in Egypt under a pen name. Intrepid Amelia and her husband, Emerson, made archaeological discoveries and solved crimes, sometimes rubbing elbows with real-life figures along the way.

I kept up with the series until sometime in the early 2000s, when I sort of lost track. My book group (which, as I’ve mentioned, is now meeting online) read the fifth novel in the series, The Deeds of the Disturber, this week. I own a first edition hardcover, signed by the author, but in one of those dismaying “Hey, you’re OLD now” reminders, the print was too small for me to comfortably read; I wound up downloading it onto my Kindle, where I can customize the font size to accommodate my aging eyes.

Deeds is the only book in the series that takes place in Amelia’s native England (the rest are set in Egypt). She, her husband and their annoyingly precocious son, Ramses, return home for the summer, where they get involved in investigating the murder of a nightwatchman at the British Museum, attributed to a mummy’s curse. At a lecture by E.A. Wallis Budge (one of those real-life people I mentioned above), a man dressed in robes and a mask interrupts the Egyptologist’s talk, uttering threats before mysteriously disappearing. More deaths follow, and Amelia fears her husband is the killer’s next target.

Reading this book was sort of like catching up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in a really long time, and discovering we no longer have much in common. The things I remembered about the series—hyperverbal Ramses, hot-headed Emerson, the eye-rollingly frequent references to Amelia and her spouse’s extremely active love life—are there in force; just like last week’s The Stranger Diaries, it took me a full week to get through this book. Unlike, say, How the Light Gets In, I found it pretty easy to put down, and I was never super-eager to pick it back up. I’m more distracted these days and unless something really hooks me, it’s often a struggle to finish what I’m reading. I have a couple more book club selections to read, but then I have a few titles on the TBR pile that I’m super-eager to get to, like Jennifer Weiner’s Big Summer and Cara Black’s Three Hours in Paris. We’ll see if anything is able to distract my anxious brain.

“The Stranger Diaries” by Elly Griffiths

The Stranger DiariesEvery year, I try to read the Edgar nominees for Best Novel. Of the 2020 field, the only one I’d already read was Michael Robotham’s Good Girl, Bad Girl, which I really enjoyed. I’m a big fan of Peter Heller’s spellbinding 2017 novel Celine, and I have a copy of his nominated book The River on my TBR pile. Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland is one I know nothing about, and I’ve heard good things about Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee.

That leaves Elly Griffiths’ The Stranger Diaries, which I checked out of the library back in January immediately after the nominations were announced; it had been described as a “brilliant twist on Gothic suspense,” which sounded right up my alley. I only made it a few pages in, however, before I came upon a passage which made me put the book down. A teacher is lecturing about the utility of animal characters in suspense fiction, and she tells her students:

“Animals are expendable. Authors often kill them to create tension. It’s not a significant as killing a human but it can be surprisingly upsetting.”

Since a canine character had already been introduced, I wondered if this was a signal to the reader that the dog would be bumped off in the course of the story. I’m not one of those “never kill a fictional animal” absolutists, but in this case, I had literally just adopted a new dog a couple of days beforehand, and the idea of reading about an animal in jeopardy held even less appeal than usual.

When the book won the best-novel award, I figured I should give it another try, though I sincerely hoped the dog would make it through the book alive. Spoiler alert: he does, though not without a few adventures along the way. Whew!

The Stranger Diaries has a trio of narrators: Clare, an English teacher at Talgarth High School; her teenage daughter, Georgia, who attends Talgarth; and Harbinder Kaur, the detective investigating the murder of Ella Elphick, Clare’s close friend and colleague. Ella is found dead in her kitchen, stabbed to death. A note left by her body reads “Hell is empty,” a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Ella had been rumored to be having an affair with another teacher. Could someone at the school have killed her?

The words “Hell is empty” also appear in “The Stranger,” a famous ghost story by 19th-century writer R.M. Holland, whose home is now part of the Talgarth campus. When another teacher is murdered, it becomes apparent that the methods were borrowed from Holland’s tale. Clare, who is working on a biography of Holland, writes regularly in a diary, and when cryptic notes written by another hand start showing up in those private pages, she worries that she might be the next victim.

This is a very clever book, and I must admit that the killer’s identity was a total surprise to me (though it made perfect sense in retrospect). For some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on, I found it a little bit difficult to get into, especially compared to last week’s book, Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In, which I just breezed through. In the end, I admired The Stranger Diaries more than I enjoyed reading it, but I’m not surprised that a jury of Griffiths’ peers elected to give her the top prize; the novel is supremely well-plotted and both plays with and faithfully follows genre tropes.

“How the Light Gets In” by Louise Penny

How the Light Gets InLouise Penny is one of those rare authors who inspires fanatical devotion. For many years, as Penny racked up awards and accolades, I read her books thinking, “Well, this is fine,” but I was never really bowled over, since the author relied on a couple of my least-favorite tropes. The setting of most of her novels, the idyllic Quebec town of Three Pines, gave the series a whiff of Cabot Cove syndrome (i.e. a village with a shockingly high murder rate). And her protagonist, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, is a deeply ethical man who has been battling with his boss, Chief Superintendent Francoeur, a villain who seemed to be the embodiment of mustache-twirling evil.

The last Penny book I read was 2012’s The Beautiful Mystery, which featured a bunch of Gamache/Francoeur drama. I owned a copy of the next novel in the series, How the Light Gets In, but I never got around to reading it until this past week—it was selected by my book group, which is now meeting over Zoom. At the beginning, we learn that “the most successful homicide department in the nation had been gutted, replaced with lazy, insolent, incompetent thugs… The rest of the old guard had been transferred out, either by request or on the orders of Chief Superintendent Francoeur.”

The continuation of this good cop/evil cop dynamic didn’t exactly hook me, but I kept going, and gradually I felt something shift in me, and I disappeared into the world of this book so completely that I barely poked my head up out of its covers until I had turned the last page. Whatever cynicism I approached the book with melted away, and I completely escaped into the world of Three Pines in a way I never have before. One of the residents, Myrna, approaches Gamache when a friend of hers who had been planning to visit never arrives. Myrna reveals that the missing woman, Constance, was the last surviving Ouellet quintuplet (a fictionalized version of the Dionne sisters); Gamache heads to Constance’s home in Montréal, and finds that she has been murdered.

The reclusive Constance had tried for decades to escape her early notoriety and live a simple life, but Gamache wonders if she died with a secret—one that led to her murder. As he investigates Constance’s death, Gamache learns that Francoeur is involved in a truly massive conspiracy to do something super evil. Naturally, everything climaxes in a titanic showdown in Three Pines.

“Armand Gamache had always held unfashionable beliefs,” writes Penny about two-thirds of the way through the book. “He believed that light would banish the shadows. That kindness was more powerful than cruelty, and that goodness existed, even in the most desperate places. He believed that evil had its limits. But… Gamache wondered if he could have been wrong all this time. Maybe the darkness sometimes won. Maybe evil had no limits.”

Oh, how I wanted to believe in the power of kindness, and that evil will be vanquished—maybe that is unrealistic in the world as it is right now, but I hoped desperately that in this book, at least, light would prevail over darkness, and Gamache would find a way to succeed over the grasping, greedy, power-hungry people who weren’t just trying to bring their evil plans to fruition, but wanted to break his spirit in the process. No spoilers here, obviously, but by the time I reached the end, I felt satisfied that How the Light Gets In was the exact book that I needed to read at this time.

“Girls Like Us” by Cristina Alger

Girls Like UsI read Cristina Alger’s Girls Like Us right after watching the HBO movie “Bad Education,” and by coincidence, both of them—one a work of fiction, one based on a true story—take place on Long Island. While the film is set in an upscale community not far from Manhattan, Girls shows a different side of the island, one in which “gangs… are still prevalent. Violent crime is high; drugs are everywhere. For all the wealth in Suffolk County, nearly half of the Third Precinct lives at or just above the poverty line.”

However, towns both rich and poor have their problems, and while “Bad Education” showcases a couple of corrupt school administrators, Girls Like Us features a Jeffrey Epstein-like character who preys on young women who are hard up and desperate for cash. FBI Agent Nell Flynn thought she had left Suffolk County behind long ago, but when her estranged father dies in a motorcycle accident, she comes back to settle his estate. Nell’s mother died when she was young, and her police officer dad was an abusive alcoholic; she couldn’t move away quickly enough.

On medical and administrative leave after killing a man in the line of duty, Nell has plenty of time to work on preparing the family home for sale. But when the mutilated body of a young woman is found nearby, Lee Davis, her father’s partner on the police force and a friend of Nell’s from their high school days, asks her to help out. Another corpse had been discovered in the area a few months prior; both women had been dismembered and wrapped in burlap. Nell’s dad had been working on that case when he died. The second body and similar M.O. indicates that a serial killer could be at large, but the chief of detectives doesn’t want to bring in the FBI: “He’s about to retire and the last thing he wants is mass hysteria over a serial killer in Suffolk County,” Lee tells her. However, a little low-key, unofficial investigating by a visiting agent would be fine.

Nell agrees, and the two of them begin to uncover plenty of secrets in Suffolk County, the kind of secrets people would kill to keep. Some of them concern her father; was he really trying to solve that first murder, or was his goal to cover it up? Even her mother’s long-ago death comes back to haunt her, as a local journalist has been reporting on the man convicted of her murder, believing that he may have been coerced into confessing. At first, Nell is furious with her, but then she realizes that she must follow the truth, no matter where it leads her.

There are a lot of different threads to follow in this fast-paced book; in the early chapters, we learn that the man Nell shot was an associate of the Russian Mafia, and she’s worried that has made her a target. That storyline sort of peters out, though, which makes me wonder if this is the first novel in a series, and Nell will be back to do battle with criminals bent on revenge. In Girls Like Us, Alger captures the rugged beauty of coastal Long Island, and she has created a worthy heroine in Nell, a crusader who risks her own life in order to seek justice for a pair of vulnerable young women.

“Eight Perfect Murders” by Peter Swanson

Eight Perfect MurdersI’m always delighted to find a new mystery novel that plays with the form, daring to have a bit of fun with the tropes we whodunit fans all know so well. Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders and his Hawthorne series do this beautifully, and now here comes Peter Swanson with a new book that works as a standard mystery, a love letter to some of the classics, and a winkingly self-referential send-up of the genre.

The narrator is Malcolm Kershaw, co-owner of a Boston mystery bookstore. He stopped reading mysteries a while back, but “I keep up with the trends,” he says. “I am well aware that Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn has changed the industry, that unreliable narrators are suddenly popular… The thing is, and maybe I’m biased by all those years I’ve spent in fictional realms built on deceit, I don’t trust narrators any more than I trust the actual people in my life. We never get the whole truth, not from anybody.” Hmm… is that an indication that perhaps Malcolm isn’t being 100% truthful with us?

Before he gave up on the genre—he now sticks to history and poetry—Malcolm wrote a piece for his store’s blog called “Eight Perfect Murders,” in which he wrote about “the cleverest, the most ingenious, the most foolproof (if there is such a thing) murders in crime fiction history.” FBI agent Gwen Mulvey tracks Malcolm down at his store, because she’s convinced that a serial killer is using the books on Malcolm’s list as a sort of blueprint, starting with Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. Malcolm doesn’t know any of the victims, but when one of his bookstore’s regular customers is killed, he begins to suspect that the murderer is trying to tie him to the crimes.

This is a fiendishly clever novel which, by necessity, contains a lot of spoilers for other works—if you’ve never read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and don’t know whodunit, be forewarned that the killer’s identity is revealed herein—but if you’re a mystery addict, you’ll doubtless enjoy the ride. There’s some nostalgic appeal as well; a lot of us long-time readers first discovered the genre thanks to mystery bookstores like Old Devils, the one Malcolm owns, and sadly, most of them have gone out of business in recent years (including Boston-area mainstays Kate’s Mystery Books and Spenser’s). Old Devils’ continued existence is explained away by the fact that Malcolm’s partner is a bestselling mystery author who thought it would be fun to own a bookstore.

Meanwhile, the real-life mystery bookstores that are still hanging on have largely done so because of their live events, and with author tours and in-person book clubs on hold because of the pandemic, it’s likely that more will be closing for good in the coming months. If you have a favorite mystery bookstore that is still in business (I like Poisoned Pen, which is doing tons of virtual events), may I suggest ordering Eight Perfect Murders through their online store?

“Redhead by the Side of the Road” by Anne Tyler

Redhead by the Side of the RoadStop me if you’ve heard this one before: a middle-aged man, a resident of Baltimore, leads a strictly regimented and predictable existence, and then a stranger arrives and shakes it up. That character appears in almost every Anne Tyler novel; occasionally it’s a woman, but the fussy gentleman, a creature of habit who seems to have stepped out of a much-earlier decade, is definitely a Tyler staple. And Micah Mortimer, the protagonist of her latest book, Redhead by the Side of the Road, does not break the mold. “He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone,” she writes in the very first paragraph.

I have confessed before to being somewhat obsessed with Anne Tyler, and everything about her books fascinates me. As someone who lived in Baltimore for many years, I always pay special attention to the locations she mentions—legendary watering hole Swallow at the Hollow makes an appearance in Redhead, and Micah visits a client who lives in one of my old neighborhoods, Rodgers Forge. However, even a Tyler fanatic like myself must begrudgingly admit that Redhead is not one of the superior entries in her canon; it’s rather slight, and doesn’t really offer readers anything she hasn’t already done better in the past.

Still, when you’re living through a global pandemic, maybe you don’t want anything too different or earth-shattering, and here comes Tyler—now 78 years old!—with another novel about Baltimore loners and misfits. I was shocked to learn that the reclusive writer had apparently planned to tour the U.K. in support of Redhead; the trip was canceled due to the coronavirus, and Tyler told the Guardian that she felt relieved, but also culpable: “I remember I used to pray the school would burn down before a math test the next day. Yet if it had actually burned down I would have felt so guilty. So now I’m thinking, ‘Oh dear, be careful what you wish for!’”

In an interview with the BBC, she confessed,  “I always say when I’m starting a book, ‘This one’s gonna be different’. About halfway through, I say, ‘Oh, darn, it’s the same book over again.'” So she is at least self-aware. But there are always some little surprises to be found.

Judging by the title, I assumed that Tyler’s protagonist would encounter a woman with red hair, perhaps stranded due to a flat tire, or waiting for a bus that never came. However, it turns out that Micah goes for his daily jog without wearing his glasses (he “hated to feel them bobbing up and down on his nose”), and a fire hydrant on his route, “faded to the pinkish color of an aged clay flowerpot,” always appears to his myopic eyes to be a child or a petite adult with red hair.

I have stopped wearing my contact lenses—I read somewhere that it’s too dangerous these days to ever risk touching your eyes—and when I walked the dog today, in my non-prescription sunglasses, I almost changed my route when I spotted what I thought was a man lingering on a street corner. Then, as I approached, I realized someone had, incongruously, hung a white button-down shirt on a utility pole, creating a phantom businessman by the side of the road, an illusion of somebody dressed up to go work at an office job that no longer exists. I thought about Micah and his redhead, and then I wondered when I’d feel safe enough to walk right past a fellow pedestrian without worrying about keeping a six-foot distance between us.

“Fake Truth” by Lee Goldberg

Fake TruthI’ve always had a policy here at the blog that I do not review books written by my clients, but during the pandemic, all bets are off, so here is a disclaimer: I designed Lee Goldberg’s website and I also work on his newsletter and various other projects. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Lee is one of my favorite clients. He’s a really great guy as well as a brilliant raconteur.

So it’s possible that I’m not the most objective source when it comes to reviewing his novels, but I was actually a big fan of his work before I started working with him, and I happily devour his books as soon as they come out. My pre-ordered copy of Fake Truth dropped onto my Kindle on Monday night, and I started reading it immediately.

This is the third book in Goldberg’s Ian Ludlow series, about a thriller novelist whose seemingly-outlandish plots have a bizarre tendency to actually come true. It kicks off shortly after the events in the second Ludlow novel, Killer Thriller, in which Ian and his assistant Margo (who now works as an undercover agent for the CIA) foiled a plot to assassinate the presidents of France and the U.S. This time around, Ian is suffering from writer’s block and needs to come up with ideas for his next spy novel. What was supposed to be a simple research trip to Portugal winds up thrusting him and Margo into the middle of a nefarious Russian plot, and once again, he will have to rely on his skills as as storyteller to get himself—and the U.S. government—out of a jam.

These books have high body counts and plenty of action, but they’re hilariously tongue-in-cheek, kind of like the mid-period James Bond films Ian is constantly referencing. My favorite running gag in the series is “Hollywood and the Vine,” the atrocious TV cop show about “half-man, half-plant, all-cop” Charlie Vine, which Ludlow once wrote for. (Goldberg has plenty of experience scripting shows of various quality—sure, he penned several episodes of the beloved series “Monk,” but he also put in some time at “The New Adventures of Flipper.”) In Fake Truth, Ian finds himself back in the saddle, forced to write a script for the show which he describes as “a horrendous piece of shit”: “To get into the right frame of mind, he’d had to get into character and feel as unhappy and creatively unfulfilled as he had when he was writing and producing the show. That feeling still lingered, like the aftertaste of vomiting.”

Goldberg’s books are always so smoothly written and easy to read; even at a time when my attention span often feels fractured, I was able to speed through this novel and enjoy every last page. I even laughed out loud a few times. Fake Truth is a genuinely welcome diversion.