“Winter and Night” by S.J. Rozan

Winter and NightI’ve read most of the books in S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin and Bill Smith series, but somehow I’d missed 2002’s Winter and Night, despite the fact that it won the Edgar Award for Best Novel. Rozan took an extended break from her series—there was an 8-year gap between 2011’s Ghost Hero and Paper Son, which came out just a couple of months ago (it’s on my TBR shelf).

One of the unique things about Rozan’s series is that each book is narrated by one of her two sleuths; “Lydia books” would alternate with “Bill books.” Winter and Night is a “Bill book,” and those tend to be a little more noir. Lydia’s stories always contain some comic relief from her force-of-nature mother, whom Lydia lives with in New York’s Chinatown. Winter and Night is pretty heavy going, without any breaks for levity.

It’s also one of those “This time it’s personal!” novels, as Bill’s 15-year-old nephew turns up in New York, picked up by the cops for trying to mug a drunk. Bill has been estranged from his sister and her family, so he hasn’t been a part of Gary’s life; however, he takes the boy back to his apartment, hoping to get him to confide why he ran away from home. “I need to do something,” is as much as he can get out of him before Gary manages to make a break for it.

Bill and Lydia go on the hunt for the teen, which brings them to the football-mad New Jersey town where he and his family had been living for the past few months. Gary was on the team, which made him part of the in crowd in Warrenstown; with a big game coming up, it seemed like a particularly inopportune time for him to disappear.

As the two private eyes are searching for the boy, the body of one of his high school classmates is discovered, and the local cops naturally assume that Gary killed her and went on the run. Meanwhile, Bill’s brother-in-law, Scott, is absolutely furious with Bill for what he sees as unwelcome interference in his family’s personal business.

At its heart, Winter and Night is a meditation on men and violence, both on the football field and in real life. Bill and Scott wind up in confrontations several times, which drives them both to peaks of rage: “Our eyes locked; in the color flaring in his face, the thrust of his shoulders, I could see how ready he was to explode. I clamped my jaw shut to keep from saying words to set him off, because part of me wanted that to happen, wanted him to rush me, wanted to fight Scott Russell right here, now, in my own place… Scott wanted what I wanted right now and I knew it. To hit, kick, beat someone down, exhaust yourself. To take the fear and helpless rage and turn them into something you can tell yourself you’re proud of. To force someone to betray himself, to make him fail. To win. To prove you’re really there.”

Winter and Night is very much of its time; it took me back to the days when every private eye had to have a hacker or two on retainer to dig up information that could now probably be found by anyone with a Facebook account and Google. Bill is also addicted to his ever-present flip phone. At almost 400 pages, this is a hefty read, but it’s well-written and thoughtful, and while the technology has changed, many of its themes continue to resonate today.

“The Right Sort of Man” by Allison Montclair

The Right Sort of ManThe cover of this book reads, The Right Sort of Man: A Mystery. And that’s accurate, since it is a whodunit, and a very good one. However, it comes with a second, bonus mystery as well: who is Allison Montclair?

Usually, when I’m reading a book by an unfamiliar author, I Google them to find out a little bit more information. The Right Sort of Man seemed incredibly polished for a debut, and that’s because this is not the author’s first novel; “Allison Montclair” is a pseudonym. According to an interview, “she has written historical mysteries before, as well as ‘fantasy, science fiction, horror, non-genre fiction, and theatre.'” (By the way, if you click on that link, the man in the accompanying photo is the author of the article, Neil Nyren.) Montclair’s editor at St. Martin’s Press suggested the idea for the series, so presumably her previous historicals were also published by that house, which doesn’t exactly help narrow it down since they have a pretty large author list.

As a last-ditch attempt, I emailed my friend Cara Black, who blurbed the book, and even she had no idea—the person at St. Martin’s with whom she spoke refused to spill the beans.

So enough about the enigmatic author, let’s talk about the book. It takes place in London immediately after World War II. Rationing’s still in effect, and there are bombed-out buildings everywhere. Two very different women meet by chance at a wedding and decide to go into business together, opening a marriage bureau to match eligible singles—”The war is over, and people want to start normal life up again in a hurry.”

Iris Sparks is savvy and streetwise, having spent time during the war doing things she still can’t (or won’t) discuss. The aristocratic Gwendolyn Bainbridge was married to an officer in the Royal Fusiliers who was killed in the war; the shock of his death sent her to a sanitorium, and when she got out, she found out that her in-laws had assumed custody of her young son. She needs something to keep her occupied (and out of the house she shares with her domineering mother-in-law).

The business is a roaring success out of the gate, until one of their clients, Tillie La Salle, is found murdered, and the man Gwen and Iris had matched her up with is accused of committing the crime. Scotland Yard is so convinced they’ve found their man that they close the case. Iris and Gwen are equally convinced that he’s innocent, but there’s also the fact that the ensuing scandal could destroy their business, so they have little choice but to investigate.

The book really takes you into the world of postwar London, where desperate women scheme to buy nylons on the black market and bulldozers are busy scooping up the rubble left behind by the German air assault. The two lead characters are exceedingly well-drawn; Gwen must cope with her still-overwhelming grief and also try to fight for her son, while Iris lives in an apartment paid for by her married lover and sometimes has a penchant for acting recklessly (she carries a knife in her purse, and she’s not afraid to brandish it if she feels threatened).

While it would be fun to know a bit more about the author, the most important thing is that she’s written a captivating book, one which will make readers eager for the next installment in this promising new series.

“Killing With Confetti” by Peter Lovesey and “The Lost Man” by Jane Harper

Killing With Confetti“There is no frigate like a book,” wrote Emily Dickinson, and Peter Lovesey’s mysteries set in Bath have no doubt made many readers feel like they’ve spent time in the city. I longed to see it in person, which I finally managed to do last year. So it was especially delightful to discover that two of the places I visited during my stay, the Abbey and the Roman Baths, both play important roles in the latest Peter Diamond investigation, Killing With Confetti.

Diamond, Bath’s head of CID, is not happy with his latest assignment: providing security for the wedding between a crime boss’s daughter and a policeman’s son. And not just any policeman—the Deputy Chief Constable, second-in-command for the entire region. Joe Irving is fresh out of jail, and his criminal rivals would love to bump him off, while DCC George Brace will do anything to ensure that his daughter’s perfect day goes off without a hitch. Diamond’s boss, Georgina Dallymore, is ready to make Diamond the fall guy if anything does go wrong. It all adds up to a thankless, high-stakes assignment.

The suspense builds as the happy couple heads toward their wedding at the Abbey followed by a lavish reception at the Baths, everything paid for with Irving’s ill-gotten gains. Instead of having to catch a crook, Diamond is busy keeping one safe from harm. But unbeknownst to him, there’s a determined assassin waiting in the shadows…

Killing With Confetti provides the clever twists and wry humor that Diamond’s fans have come to expect over the course of this 18-book series. Lovesey is 82 now, and certainly has nothing more to prove—the list of awards and honors on his website is a mile long. How fortunate that he has chosen to continue to delight readers with new novels.

The Lost ManMeanwhile, on the other side of the world, Jane Harper has set her latest novel in a place much less hospitable than genteel Bath: the middle of the Australian Outback, a place so isolated and unforgiving that one stroke of misfortune can be fatal. The closest city, Brisbane, is 900 miles away; brothers Cameron and Nathan Bright are both cattle ranchers and are each other’s nearest neighbors, though their homes are a three-hour drive apart.

As The Lost Man opens, Cameron’s body has just been discovered, near a lonely, 100-year-old tombstone. Nathan and his youngest brother, Bub, can’t imagine that cautious Cam died by accident; the fact that his vehicle was found just a few miles away, in fine working order with a full tank of fuel and mini-fridge stocked with water, seems to indicate foul play. But Cam seems to have been bothered by something lately, though he didn’t confide in anyone. Could he have committed suicide? Though if so, why would he choose such a brutal way to kill himself instead of, say, using a gun?

The Lost Man vividly depicts Outback life, which is harsh but has its attractions as well. “There was something about the brutal heat, when the sun was high in the sky and [Nathan] was watching the slow meandering movements of the herds. Looking out over the wide-open plains and seeing the changing colors in the dust. It was the only time when he felt something close to happiness.” This book provides a fascinating glimpse into a place that at times seems almost as remote as an alien planet, but her characters are all heartbreakingly human.

“Below the Line” by Howard Michael Gould

Below the LineIn his debut novel, Last Looks, Howard Michael Gould introduced Charlie Waldo, a former policeman atoning for a dreadful mistake he made when he was on the L.A. force. Living the life of a hermit miles from civilization, Waldo was persuaded to return to L.A. by his former girlfriend, Lorena, a private eye who needed his help with a high-profile case. As Below the Line opens, Waldo and Lorena have been back together for a month, and she is urging him to join her P.I. business.

Lorena’s bread and butter is routine marital investigations, but she’s convinced Waldo’s notoriety could bring in a celebrity clientele. Their newest client, though, discovered Lorena on Yelp. Stevie Rose, a 15-year-old girl who claims to be an orphan, needs help finding her missing older brother.

Lorena and Waldo soon discover that Stevie is a practiced liar despite her young age, and in fact, her parents are alive and well and producing a soapy teen TV drama called “Malibu Malice.” When Stevie disappears, her parents hire Lorena and Waldo. A teacher at Stevie’s school, who had been rumored to be dealing drugs, is murdered, and the girl becomes the prime suspect.

Waldo’s rules for living—he refuses to own more than 100 things total, and he constantly frets about his ecological footprint—play an important role in Below the Line as they did in Last Looks, but even more so than in the first book, he constantly finds himself having to make compromises. For one thing, Lorena refuses to respect his rules, and for another, the case winds up taking them all over Orange County, difficult terrain to cover when you limit yourself to getting around via public transit or bicycle. Their relationship is tested over and over again in a myriad of ways, and Waldo finds that there’s still a lot he doesn’t know about his lover.

Waldo is a wonderfully complex and quirky protagonist, and the mystery is fast-paced and twisty, but my main gripe about Last Looks continues to apply: Waldo is always getting physically pummeled, and still manages to jump right back into the investigation despite grievous injuries that would confine a normal person to bed for a week. He does pop quite a few Percocets; will he wind up hooked on pills if he continues having to deal with rough characters in L.A.’s criminal underworld? Maybe Waldo will eventually solve a case while he’s in rehab. (It seems fitting that Charlie Hunnam, whose character Jax was both victim and perpetrator of heinous acts of violence on the TV show “Sons of Anarchy,” has been cast as Waldo in an upcoming feature film adaptation of Last Looks.)

Because I was such a fan of Last Looks, I persuaded Howard Michael Gould to part with an ARC of Below the Line at the Left Coast Crime mystery convention in Vancouver earlier this year. It will be published by Dutton on August 13.

“The Sentence is Death” by Anthony Horowitz

The Sentence is Death by Anthony HorowitzConsidering that my review of Anthony Horowitz’s The Word is Murder gets approximately 10 times more hits than any other post on this site, thanks to people who are using Google to try to figure out which of its characters are real and which are fictional, I would be remiss if I didn’t review the follow-up, right? Once again, Horowitz has cast himself as the sidekick to an enigmatic private investigator named Hawthorne, and the book combines fact (yes, Horowitz actually did create the TV drama “Foyle’s War” and the young-adult Alex Rider novels) and fiction (no, literary superstar Akira Anno is made up—Horowitz writes that he’s “had to change her name,” but she doesn’t seem to be based on a single person; she’s likely a composite of various lit-world people Horowitz has met throughout his career).

Akira Anno stands accused of murdering divorce lawyer Richard Pryce, who was fatally struck by a wine bottle shortly after Akira publicly threatened him in a crowded restaurant. Richard’s home was in the process of being redecorated, and someone—likely the killer—grabbed some paint and scrawled a three-digit number on the wall. Since Horowitz has a three-book contract to write about Hawthorne and his cases, he starts following him around as he investigates the murder.

Perhaps the funniest scene in this very amusing book is one in which Horowitz attends one of Akira Anno’s readings at his favorite bookshop, Daunt (real!). Someone slips a paperback into his shoulder bag and he is accused of shoplifting and banned from the store by manager Rebecca Le Fevre, who is also a real person. Of all the indignities that Horowitz suffers during his career as Hawthorne’s Boswell, this is surely the worst.

Later, Hawthorne and Horowitz meet with a fictional publisher who may have information relevant to their investigation. “I think it would be a fantastic idea if they got you to write a [James] Bond next. I know the Ian Fleming estate. I could have a word with them if you like…” (Horowitz has published two Bond novels, Trigger Mortis and Forever and a Day.)

Horowitz’s mysteries are always reliably clever and well-plotted, but what really makes these books such a blast are those in-jokes. The reader gets the sense that these novels are just a lot of fun to write—The Sentence is Death merrily sends up pretentious literary offerings as well as the lowbrow “Doomworld” series (“a fantasy version of England in the time of King Arthur, weaving magic and mystery with really quite extreme levels of violence and pornography”)—but more importantly, they’re incredibly fun to read as well.

“The Frangipani Tree Mystery” by Ovidia Yu

The Frangipani Tree MysteryChen Su Lin is “a bad-luck girl” in the eyes of her family in Singapore. Not only are both of her parents dead, but she walks with a limp, due to a bout of childhood polio. Now the 16-year-old’s uncle wants to marry her off, perhaps so she can become the second wife of a man who’s willing to overlook her faults thanks to a generous dowry. Su Lin, however, is determined to become a professional woman; all she needs is the money to pay for her training.

She seizes an opportunity to look after Dee-Dee, the 17-year-old daughter of Singapore’s English Governor, Sir Henry Palin, after the previous nanny died under suspicious circumstances. Dee-Dee may be a year older than Su Lin, but she is developmentally disabled, and needs constant care and attention. Sir Henry’s second wife, the unpleasant Mary Palin, certainly has no interest in looking after her stepdaughter herself, though sharing her home with an Asian girl strikes her as thoroughly disagreeable. (The dead nanny, Charity, was white.)

Since Charity may have been the victim of a homicide, Government House may not be a safe place for Su Lin, and the local Chief Inspector, Thomas LeFroy, is concerned that she may put herself in further danger due to her amateur sleuthing. But her position on the inside could provide him with vital information… as long as she stays out of harm’s way.

The Frangipani Tree Mystery is full of charm, with a clever and resourceful protagonist and a vividly-drawn setting. This is the sort of book which provides a pleasant escape into another world for a few hours, and I look forward to reading more of Su Lin’s adventures.

“A Dangerous Collaboration” by Deanna Raybourn

A Dangerous CollaborationAs I wrote back in February, I started the Veronica Speedwell series as part of a project to read the six novels nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Mystery. (Walter Mosley’s Down the River Unto the Sea, which I haven’t yet gotten around to, won the prize.) A Dangerous Collaboration, the fourth Speedwell book and the sequel to the Edgar-nominated A Treacherous Curse, was released last month, and as I was finishing it, I was struck with a terrifying realization: had it not been for Raybourn’s Edgar nod, I may never have discovered this series. I enjoy historicals but I don’t really seek them out, and I’d never read any of the author’s work before she made it onto the prestigious shortlist.

The reason it hit me so hard is because with A Dangerous Collaboration, I’m prepared to state that this is now my favorite current mystery series. I love these books so much. There are undoubtedly plenty of other novels I would absolutely adore if I only knew they existed! I read 100 books a year searching for just this kind of feeling. (For what it’s worth, my book group recently read the first Speedwell novel, A Curious Beginning, at my suggestion, and several members stated that they were planning to read the others, so I’m busy spreading the good word about Veronica.)

In A Dangerous Collaboration, Veronica is persuaded by her colleague Stoker’s brother Tiberius to travel to a remote Cornish island, which happens to be the home of the Romilly Glasswing butterfly, previously thought extinct. As a lepidopterist, Veronica is thrilled at the thought of encountering a rare specimen. However, it turns out that her trip to St. Maddern’s Island will be fraught with peril.

They will be staying with Tiberius’ old friend Malcolm, and Tiberius persuades Veronica to pose as his fiancée—they’ll still be sleeping in separate rooms, but it won’t be quite as shocking for the unmarried woman to be traveling with a man. Then, as they’re about to board the boat to St. Maddern’s, they find that Stoker is coming along for the ride as well. There’s a lot of bad blood between the brothers, which adds an extra layer of drama.

Malcolm has invited Tiberius to come to his home—a castle, complete with hidden passageways and mysterious hiding places—to help him figure out what happened to his bride, Rosamund, who disappeared on their wedding day, three years earlier. Also present are Malcolm’s sister-in-law Helen and her son, and his sister Mertensia. Malcolm cannot move on with his life until he knows what became of Rosamund. Did she leave of her own volition, or did she meet with foul play?

“There’s not a square inch of this island that doesn’t hold a secret,” one of the villagers on St. Maddern’s, a self-described pellar witch, warns Veronica. “Rosamund Romilly does not rest easy. Take a care for yourself and any you love.”

When a seance held by Helen to summon Rosamund causes some strange events to occur, Veronica and Stoker are faced with a mystery that tests their scientific and highly logical outlooks. (Though anybody who thinks Veronica Speedwell is going to come away from such an event thinking “Well, ghosts must be real, then!” doesn’t know her very well.)

Toward the end of the book, there’s an emotional payoff so powerful that tears sprang to my eyes. While Deanna Raybourn may not have taken home the Edgar, she’s created a series worthy of a gold medal.