“Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads SingI try to keep tabs on the latest hot crime fiction, but I’ll admit that Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing wasn’t on my radar at all until I noticed it had started climbing the New York Times bestseller list. Credit Reese Witherspoon’s book club for making it a hit. I do think Reese has good taste, and it’s wonderful that she’s using her celebrity to spotlight new fiction by a diverse range of mostly-female authors. I’ve reviewed several of her selections, including recent picks The Proposal and One Day in December.

Where the Crawdads Sing has likely continued to sell well because it has all the ingredients of a word-of-mouth hit. It’s a coming-of-age story, always a popular genre; it tells the tale of a poor, neglected young girl conquering difficult circumstances; and there’s a murder mystery, to boot.

I found the book extremely compelling, and whenever I had to put it down to go do something else, I felt its pull—returning to Owens’ lovingly-described North Carolina marshland felt like a reprieve from the hectic modern world. “The wind picked up, and thousands upon thousands of yellow sycamore leaves broke from their life support and streamed across the sky,” goes one lyrical passage. “Autumn leaves don’t fall; they fly. They take their time and wander on this, their only chance to soar.”

Owens, who spent decades living in isolation as a wildlife scientist in Africa, writes with authority about Kya, a young girl whose entire family abandons her, one by one, until she is left alone. Managing to avoid school except for one traumatic day when the kids in town made fun of her for being “marsh trash,” Kya eventually learns to read from a sympathetic young man who begins to pay visits to her remote cabin and slowly gains her trust. Chapters depicting Kya’s childhood and teen years alternate with ones taking place several years later, in the immediate aftermath of the suspicious death of the privileged Chase Andrews, who is everything that Kya is not: popular, well-off, with loving parents. Eventually, the two timelines intersect.

This is definitely not a conventional mystery novel, but it’s a lovely, sometimes heartbreaking work. And I hope the fans who have made this book a bestseller will go on to discover Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter, which also features a young woman growing up in a wild, beautiful and lonely place.

“The Last Act” by Brad Parks

The Last Act by Brad ParksA thriller featuring a protagonist who is a musical-theater star? Are you kidding me?! Since crime fiction and theater are two of my favorite things, I am definitely in the target audience for The Last Act. “I swear, the moment lasted longer than ‘City on Fire’/ ‘Final Sequence’ from Sweeney Todd—and that’s a thirteen-minute song” is a typical Tommy Jump quip. Tommy is the Tony-nominated star of the “short-lived but critically acclaimed” Broadway tuner Cherokee Purples, “a show about a family who had left the rat race in order to farm and sell the ultimate organic heirloom tomato.”

Unfortunately, Tommy, now in his late 20s, finds himself in an awkward stage: too old for kid roles, too short to be a leading man. He has decided that a summer-stock production of Man of La Mancha will be his swan song; he’s going to quit acting, maybe get a gig as assistant managing director of a regional theater in Arkansas. Until he gets an offer for a really big role.

A childhood pal of Tommy’s is now an FBI agent on the trail of a Mexican drug cartel. The one guy who has the evidence to bring down the cartel leader is an inmate in a minimum-security, “Club Fed” prison. Tommy will be given a new identity, then he’ll plead guilty to a crime in order to be sentenced to prison, befriend the inmate, and manage to convince him to reveal the location of a valuable stash of documents. He’ll be behind bars for no more than six months, and he’ll get $150,000 for his trouble, with more cash to follow if the information leads to an indictment.

At this point, I was practically shrieking “TOMMY, THIS IS A TERRIBLE IDEA!” at the book, but of course, the actor—who has a pregnant girlfriend—figures the money would give his new family a great start, and says he’ll do it. Needless to say, complications ensue.

I absolutely loved Parks’ last book, Closer Than You Know, and while of course I don’t want to reveal too much about the outcome of The Last Act, one of the reasons I enjoy Parks’ thrillers so much is that it’s obvious that the author really loves his characters. So I always know in the back of my mind that things will turn out OK, and I find that enormously comforting. Parks writes about nice people who go through hell and are able to use their wits to prevail in the end. There are lots of twists along the way, plus an obviously well-researched and engrossing look at day-to-day life in a minimum-security prison. This is a terrifically entertaining book.

Thanks to Dutton/Penguin Random House for sending me a copy of The Last Act! It’ll be published on March 12.

“Shell Game” by Sara Paretsky

Shell GameSara Paretsky’s dauntless sleuth, V.I. Warshawski, is never more fired up than when she’s dealing with a case that hits close to home, and boy, do things ever get personal in Shell Game.

In her 19th adventure, V.I. must try to help exonerate the nephew of her dear friend and mentor Lotty Herschel, who has been accused of murder. On top of that, there’s the disappearance of V.I.’s own niece, Reno—the daughter of V.I.’s ex-husband’s late sister, a young woman the detective hasn’t seen in many years. Reno’s sister Harmony suddenly appears at V.I.’s door, and V.I. learns that Reno had been living in Chicago, working for a payday lending firm, until she went missing.

The fact that Reno was employed in a notoriously sketchy branch of the financial industry should immediately set off alarm bells, considering how often V.I. has gone up against that type of business in past cases. Along with payday lending, Shell Game also deals with pump-and-dump stock schemes, smuggling of precious Syrian artifacts, undocumented immigrants, and sexual exploitation. This novel is a meaty 385 pages long, but it moves along at a rapid clip.

This is not one of those series where the protagonist ages in real time—I think V.I. would be in her late 60s by now if that were the case, a bit too old to run in heels and get attacked by Russian goons. (Paretsky’s first book, Indemnity Only, was published 37 years ago.) Instead, she’s as fresh and fired-up as ever, and Shell Game is classic V.I.: always on the side of the underdog, ready and willing to put everything on the line in pursuit of the truth.

“House Witness” by Mike Lawson

House WitnessThis week, I read another Edgar-nominated book: House Witness by Mike Lawson, part of his Joe DeMarco series. This is book #12, and looking at the covers on his website, it’s not too surprising that I have never read any of these novels before: they all have sort of generic “political thriller” book jackets, and that’s not a genre I tend to seek out. (I’m usually trying to avoid thinking about politics.)

However, I was pleasantly surprised by House Witness. The plot moves at lightning speed; it’s almost impossible to stop turning the pages. (This is another one of those books that kept me up past my bedtime.)

The protagonist, DeMarco, works as a “fixer” for a powerful Democratic Congressman named John Mahoney. As the novel opens, Rep. Mahoney has just learned that his illegitimate son—a man he’d never met—has been killed, shot to death in a Manhattan bar. The man’s mother, Connie DiNunzio, is a career bureaucrat in Albany, who became “a major player in the backstabbing, bare-knuckles world of New York state politics” after her long-ago fling with Mahoney.

The man who pulled the trigger, Toby Rosenthal, happens to be a spoiled rich kid whose dad is willing to spend any amount of money to keep his son out of prison. DeMarco’s assignment: make sure Toby goes to jail for what he did.

At first, it looks like a slam dunk, since there are at least five witnesses who got a good look at Toby shooting Dominic DiNunzio. But Henry Rosenthal, a corporate lawyer, has the means to hire one of the city’s top criminal defense attorneys to defend his son. And when that attorney realizes that keeping Toby out of prison is by no means a sure thing, he decides to get a little extra-legal help from a specialist who has been known to get very rich people out of sticky situations.

So House Witness turns into a story of fixer vs. fixer, with DeMarco trying to discover why the once-airtight case against Toby Rosenthal is going down the drain. Rep. Mahoney is keeping the pressure on, so DeMarco has to figure out how to outsmart a seemingly invincible, invisible opponent.

The only thing I found a little annoying about Lawson’s otherwise unimpeachable prose was his tendency to occasionally drop in little “had-I-but-known” asides, like “Dent had no idea at the time that Rachel Quinn’s owning a dog would turn out to be important,” or “Slade had no way to know then that in the end, everything would almost unravel thanks to a middle-aged secretary.” Still, that’s a small quibble. This is an entertaining and well-crafted thriller.

The Veronica Speedwell Series by Deanna Raybourn

Each year when the Edgar Award nominations are announced, I quickly skim the list to see which of this year’s nominees I’ve read. Usually, there are at least a few. This year, however, I had not read any of the six Best Novel nominees, and I was only familiar with one of the nominated authors (Walter Mosley). My friend Janet, who reads even more mysteries than I do, was in the same boat, so we decided we should read them and see what we were missing out on.

A Treacherous CurseThe interesting thing about the Edgars is that they are the only mystery award where the nominees and winners are chosen by a panel of peers. The other awards are basically all popularity contests. But for the Edgars, each year, a small panel is selected to judge each award (Best Novel, Best First Novel, Best Fact Crime, etc.), and those folks have to read every single book that is submitted to them. The people on these committees are anonymous (and sign non-disclosure agreements), but they are all active status members of the MWA (Mystery Writers of America). I have known plenty of writers who have served as Edgar judges over the years, and the amount of work they put in is almost overwhelming.

Many years ago, I had the honor of visiting the late Barbara Mertz (better known by her pen name, Elizabeth Peters) at her Maryland home. She was in the midst of her year as an Edgars judge, and there were piles of books everywhere. I asked her how she could possibly read so many books, and she told me that she could generally tell 2-3 chapters in whether or not a novel would be worth reading all the way through.

The first of the Edgar nominees I picked up was Deanna Raybourn’s A Treacherous Curse, third in her Veronica Speedwell series of historical mysteries. After reading the first couple of chapters, not only did I want to keep going, but I realized that I wanted to start at the beginning of the series. There was obviously a ton of backstory there, and while it was smoothly laid out for the first-timer, I had the luxury of not being obligated to plow through stacks and stacks of books by a certain deadline, so I could delve into A Curious Beginning and A Perilous Undertaking.

A Curious BeginningOne of the reasons I mentioned Elizabeth Peters above is that Veronica Speedwell is a true heir to Peters’ beloved Amelia Peabody series, and I’d be shocked if Raybourn didn’t count her as an influence. The Speedwell novels are set during the Victorian era, and like Amelia, 25-year-old Veronica is an unconventional woman, an adventurous soul who does not care to live by society’s strictures of how a “proper” lady should behave. She’s been around the world three times, collecting butterflies for wealthy patrons willing to pay a handsome price for a fine specimen. Orphaned at a young age, Veronica was raised by two guardians she referred to as her aunts; when A Curious Beginning opens, the last surviving one, Nell, has just passed away, and Veronica is planning to leave the little village where they had resided for the past three years.

Before she can depart, however, the Baron von Stauffenbach, a man she has never met, turns up at her cottage, warning her that her life is in danger. He insists on taking her to London, where he leaves her in the care of his old friend Stoker, the black sheep of an aristocratic family who works as a taxidermist in a cavernous warehouse. Despite Veronica’s protestations—”I am the least interesting person in England, I assure you. No one could possibly want to harm me”—she soon learns that the reason her guardians kept moving from town to town during her childhood was to protect her from some dark and possibly life-threatening secrets having to do with her parentage.

The growing bond between Veronica and Stoker is at the heart of this series; they grow to depend on one another, and they have a lot of respect for each other’s unique abilities. Will their friendship eventually turn to love? While Veronica finds him attractive, he has a lot of mysteries in his background, and he’s rather dark, brooding and damaged. Plus, having a romantic relationship would go against Veronica’s personal code of conduct: “Although I permitted myself dalliances during my travels, I never engaged in flirtations in England—or with Englishmen… Foreign bachelors were my trophies.”

A Perilous UndertakingA Curious Beginning deals with Veronica finding out the truth about her parentage, and the ramifications of what she learned in the first book continue to reverberate in A Perilous Undertaking. So far, I’m about a quarter of the way through A Treacherous Curse, which seems to be taking a deep dive into Stoker’s past. As a bonus for fans of Elizabeth Peters, there’s an Egyptology-related mystery as well.

Whoever you are, anonymous Edgar judges responsible for selecting A Treacherous Curse for this year’s shortlist, I am very grateful to you for introducing me to Veronica Speedwell. Happily, her fourth adventure, A Dangerous Collaboration, is due out next month. Whether or not Raybourn wins the Edgar Award, she has written an eminently prize-worthy series.

“An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere” by Mikita Brottman

“For as long as I can remember, certain kinds of mysteries have enthralled me, especially those that contain an element of the uncanny—an odd coincidence; a mysterious stranger whose presence can’t be explained; an element of missing time; a prophetic dream the night before. To me, these wonders are dropped stitches in the universe, windows left uncovered for a moment, permitting us a quick glimpse into the unknowable.”

So writes Mikita Brottman in this fascinating chronicle of her growing obsession with a death that took place in the building she calls home, the Belvedere in Baltimore. A former hotel, which opened for business in 1903, the Belvedere was converted to condos in the early 1990s. By the time Brottman moved in, it was a place of “shabby grandeur,” with worn carpeting in the hallways and elevators that regularly broke down.

About a year after taking up residence in the downtown landmark, Brottman notices “Missing” posters posted around the neighborhood. Rey O. Rivera, age 32, 6’5″, brown hair, brown eyes. Eight days after his initial disappearance, Rivera’s body is found at the Belvedere, inside an empty room that used to house the building’s swimming pool back in its hotel days. He had apparently leapt off the top of the Belvedere and plunged through the roof of the annex, where his body had lain undiscovered for over a week. Out walking her dog, Brottman sees police swarming the building; later, from her apartment window, she has “an almost perfect view of cops climbing around on the annex roof,” and she even visits the room after everyone has left: “the carpet is stained almost black and scattered with what look like grains of rice, which, when I get down on the floor to study them more closely, turn out to be dried insect larvae.”

An Unexplained Death chronicles Brottman’s effort to find out what happened to Rivera. Was it suicide, or murder? Rivera had been working for a company called Agora that many of the people she talks to seem to consider somewhat sinister. He and his wife had been planning to move to California and everything seemed to be going well for them, so why would he kill himself? Brottman also reports on the many suicides and deaths that have taken place at the Belvedere over the years, along with the riddle of suicide itself. (This is the kind of book which matter-of-factly serves up sentences like, “Full urban mummification is not as common as you might think.”) You have to be willing to follow Brottman through her digressions, as this is not a linear true-crime tale. She even turns her gaze toward herself, and her lifelong conviction that she’s somehow invisible, forgettable.

I thoroughly enjoyed the twists and turns of her amateur investigation, and while anybody hoping that she will somehow come up with a definitive solution to the mystery may be left disappointed, I found the conclusions she does reach at the book’s end to be well-reasoned and utterly plausible. “What makes a death mysterious?” she muses. “What happened to Rey Rivera transpires every day. People die alone; their bodies are undiscovered for days. It happens everywhere… Nobody feels compelled to solve the puzzle.” Readers can feel lucky that Brottman took a crack at this one.

“One Day in December” by Josie Silver

One Day in DecemberBefore I started reading One Day in December, I scanned the blurbs on the back cover, including this one by author Hannah Orenstein: “I devoured this delicious novel in one sitting.” Noting that One Day in December is 400 pages long, I scoffed at the idea of reading it in one go, assuming I would finish it in 3-4 days.

Instead, I found myself turning the final page at about 1:45 AM, long past my usual bedtime, grateful that I’d at least started it on a weekend night.

The novel covers 10 years in the life of a Londoner named Laurie, beginning on a fateful December day in 2008. Laurie is riding the bus and looking out the window when she spots the man of her dreams waiting at a stop. Their eyes meet, “as if an invisible fork of lightning has inexplicably joined us together.” But he’s waiting for a different bus, and Laurie is hemmed in by a crowd of passengers, so she can only sit there helplessly as the bus pulls away.

At this point, I wondered if they have “Missed Connections” ads in London, but I guess not, since Laurie spends months searching for “Bus Boy,” to no avail. Helping her out is her best friend and roomie Sarah, a gorgeous aspiring TV presenter. Sadly, a year passes, and Laurie never manages to find her mystery man. Then Sarah introduces her new boyfriend to Laurie and… you definitely see where this is going, right?

The premise is pure rom-com, but Silver kept me turning the pages because the characters were so appealing: you get to see them grow from kids fresh out of university into adulthood, making mistakes and figuring things out along the way. When Laurie realizes that her pal’s new love, Jack, is Bus Boy, she immediately decides not to tell Sarah that he is the guy she’s been mooning over all year long. Jack doesn’t say anything, either (Laurie can’t be sure that he even recognizes her).

The main reason Laurie doesn’t want to spill the beans to Sarah is because she doesn’t want to risk jeopardizing her friend’s happiness. The relationship between the two women is, refreshingly, depicted as just as important, if not more important, than any of the romantic entanglements in the book. Laurie’s family is also a crucial part of her world. By the end, Laurie, Jack and Sarah all felt like old friends.