“Gone to Dust” by Matt Goldman

Gone to Dust by Matt GoldmanI read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, but you know who appears to read far more of them than I do? Lee Child. It seems like half the books I pick up these days have a blurb from the author of the best-selling Jack Reacher series prominently displayed on the cover. Gone to Dust by Matt Goldman, for instance, boasts this Child quote: “A perfect blend of light touch and dark story—I want more of Nils Shapiro.”

I’ve been suspicious of blurbs ever since a certain best-selling writer once told me at a mystery conference that she doesn’t actually read most of the books she blesses with her public praise. She said it jokingly, but I suspect she may have been kidding on the square. I’ll say this for Child, though—his “light touch and dark story” comment actually sums up Gone to Dust pretty well. And it’s a fast read, so I’m going to guess he really did get through its 300 pages. (I will pause here to note that Child is a great guy who is truly supportive of his fellow crime-fiction authors; he is just so promiscuous with his blurbs that I find it kind of funny.)

The premise of Gone to Dust is pure genius: the killer empties dust-filled vacuum-cleaner bags all over the victim and throughout her house, thus making it virtually impossible for the crime scene unit to do their usual thing, picking up stray fibers with tweezers and the other stuff you see on “C.S.I.” Maggie Somerville lived and died in the tony Minneapolis suburb of Edina, which hardly ever has murders occurring within its city limits. The lack of usable physical evidence means this crime will be especially tricky to solve, so police detective Anders Ellegaard calls in his old chum, private eye Nils Shapiro. (He’s Jewish, but was named after the Scandinavian man who saved his dad’s life.)

Shapiro is divorced, but still hung up on his ex-wife, with whom he remains on friendly terms (and by “friendly,” I mean they still sleep together). He’s pushing 40, but like so many wisecracking P.I.s you meet in novels, women seem to find him irresistible. He begins interviewing Maggie’s friends and exes, and eventually learns that there’s a lot more to the case than meets the eye—and those revelations create conflict with the police department that hired him.

Goldman, a former TV writer who worked on “Seinfeld,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and several other shows, is a Minnesota native, and I’m sure locals will appreciate the copious references to Twin Cities geography (“The north end of the office park is bordered by Highway 494 and the south end is bordered by Normandale Lake, the Hyland downhill-ski area,” goes one typical passage). I’ve only been there once, so I don’t know my Lake Street from my Lake Calhoun, but the author’s descriptions of the snow and frigid cold of a Minnesota winter impart a sense of place more than the GPS-style navigation.

A first novel, Gone to Dust contains perhaps a few too many private-eye tropes, but for the most part it’s a clever and well-paced whodunit.

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“Sleeping in the Ground” by Peter Robinson

Sleeping in the GroundPeter Robinson’s 24th Inspector Banks novel, Sleeping in the Ground, is steeped in melancholy, something that is perhaps partially explained by the dedication to author’s father, who died last year. As the book opens, Banks is attending the funeral of his first love, Emily Hargreaves. They had fallen out of touch after Emily broke up with him, but he still has fond memories of their time together, and her death is a reminder of his own mortality: “When your friends and lovers start dying, you begin to feel as if you have only narrowly escaped the reaper yourself, and that it’s only a matter of time. Which, of course, it is.”

Meanwhile, as Banks sits on the train listening to George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, all hell is breaking loose back home: a sniper has fired at a wedding party at a local church, killing and injuring several of the guests and members of the party, including the bride. A terrorist attack seems unlikely considering the out-of-the-way location in Yorkshire. The bride was a successful fashion model; could she have attracted a stalker? Or perhaps the killer was just looking for “the most convenient and dramatic way he could find to express his sick needs,” in Banks’ words. The entire Eastvale team begins looking into the backgrounds of the dead and injured, and hunts for clues to the gunman’s identity.

Unlike most Banks novels, which feature a couple of different investigations, Sleeping in the Ground sticks to one, as we follow Banks and the usual suspects, including DI Annie Cabbot, on the killer’s trail. One beloved member of the force is missing, though: DS Winsome Jackman, who happened to be attending the wedding and was injured by a bullet.

One surprising member of the team is Jenny Fuller, a forensic psychologist brought in to help profile the killer. Dr. Fuller appeared in earlier Banks novels, back when he was still married (he has since divorced); there was a mutual attraction between them, but ultimately Banks resisted the temptation to stray. Jenny wound up moving to Australia, but is now back in Yorkshire.

I started reading this book on what would have been the birthday of a good friend who died earlier this year, so I was feeling as reflective as Banks and appreciated the dark and contemplative mood Robinson established. As usual, the Banks novels continue to rank high among my favorite crime-fiction series.

“Y is for Yesterday” by Sue Grafton

Y is for Yesterday“P” is for penultimate. The end is near for private investigator Kinsey Millhone, who has been entertaining readers for 35 years now. (Z is for Zero is scheduled to come out in 2019, 37 years after the publication of A is for Alibi; Kinsey herself will just be turning 40, since the books have all been set in the 1980s.)

So there are a lot of expectations for the final books in this series, which will tie up the long-running saga. The once-slim volumes that could be read in an afternoon or two now weigh in at around 500 pages, which might be comforting to fans who want to prolong their pleasure as long as possible.

One thing I’ve appreciated about Sue Grafton is that she never phones it in—unlike many series writers, her books have never been formulaic or lazily plotted. Y fits in well with the rest of the volumes she’s published in the past decade or so; it’s an enjoyable read, though perhaps not one of the all-time greats. Millhone’s sleuthing in Y is actually a little subpar. Cracking this particular case turns out to be more a matter of luck than investigative skill.

The “yesterday” of the title is 1979, 10 years before the “present day” of 1989. A group of high school kids have made a sex tape, featuring a couple boys having their way with Iris, a drunk, passed-out 14-year-old, while a couple others watched but did not participate. (Unlike “sex tapes” you hear about in the Internet age, this was, of course, a literal VHS tape.) A decade later, the tape continues to have repercussions. One person was killed, one of Iris’s rapists went to jail for the murder, and the others are still affected in various ways.

Kinsey is hired by the parents of Fritz McCabe, the boy who was locked up for killing his classmate Sloan, the ex-girlfriend of one of the participants in the filmed assault. Tried as a juvenile, Fritz served his time at California Youth Authority; upon his release, his wealthy parents received a copy of the tape in the mail, along with a demand for $25,000 “or this goes to the district attorney.” Since that could trigger new charges against Fritz of rape and sexual assault, his mother Lauren wants Kinsey to find out who is making the threat, without getting the police involved.

I read Y over the course of a week, and wished I had jotted down some notes on the characters and their relationships to one another. We get to know them in flashbacks to 1979 and in present day when Kinsey interviews them over the course of her investigation. It’s complicated, keeping straight which teens dated, how they’re related today (Iris, the girl in the tape, is now engaged to the dead girl’s stepbrother), etc. Meanwhile, in the B-plot, Kinsey is being stalked by a madman who first turned up in X, and there are various dramas involving her friends and acquaintances, such as the homeless couple and their vicious dog who have set up camp on Kinsey’s landlord’s property (with his permission—Henry’s a soft touch—but Kinsey disapproves).

Grafton will be 79 when Z is published, and for years now, she’s jokingly promised that she’ll arrive at signings and events in a pink ambulance when the final book reaches stores. I was lucky enough to meet her a couple years ago and she seemed like an energetic and lively person, so here’s hoping she’ll be able to savor the success of her extraordinary achievement.

“The Color of Fear” by Marcia Muller and “Seven Days of Us” by Francesca Hornak

Yesterday, I received an email from NetGalley, the service that provides me with some of my review copies, chock-full of Christmas fiction. Did I want to read Christmas at Two Love Lane? How about Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe or The Rancher’s Christmas Song (“Ella and Beckett come from two different worlds, and it might take a Christmas miracle to finally bring them together”)?

My theory is that these books, along with the ubiquitous Hallmark Channel Christmas movies like “A Bramble House Christmas” and “Snow Globe Wishes,” are so popular because most people’s holidays fall short of picture-perfect perfection, and cozying up with a seasonally appropriate book or movie is more fun than arguing with your Trump-loving uncle or rehashing old grievances with your siblings.

The Color of FearMarcia Muller’s The Color of Fear is only tangentially a Christmas book, but it does take place during the holiday week, and features lots of the conspicuous consumption that has made me a little bit fed up with this series lately. Between the Christmas shopping and obligatory references to Sharon McCone’s “buttery leather furnishings,” Muller’s long-running P.I. tackles a case that hits close to home: the seeming hate crime that has put her Native American father into a coma. The issue of racism in the liberal Bay Area has been in the news (the SF Weekly outed a San Francisco Klansman, while the so-called “alt-right” thinks this is a fun place to hold rallies), so this novel, though probably written in the pre-Trump era, is surprisingly timely.

I did enjoy The Color of Fear more than most recent entries in the McCone series—I’m always a sucker for “This time it’s personal!” narratives in mystery novels—but I do find myself missing the young, scrappy and hungry private eye of old. Still, even if half the text of future volumes is devoted to loving descriptions of Sharon and Hy’s rooftop garden and art collection, I’m never going to quit reading these books. McCone has been a part of my life for too long to give up on her now.

Seven Days of UsI read an advance copy of Seven Days of Us a couple of months ago when I was down with a cold and was looking for something easy and light. Despite the fact that it was July, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and I’m sure it will be even more fun for readers who pick it up when it actually ’tis the season. A dysfunctional-family novel that is extremely heavy on coincidences, this Christmas romp is set in a British country estate and features a large cast of characters.

Olivia is a doctor who has been ordered to stay in quarantine due to her recent work in a disease-plagued African nation—and her whole family’s locked in with her. Phoebe, the antithesis of her serious physician sister, is obsessed with her upcoming wedding. Their parents, Emma and Andrew, have problems of their own, and no idea that a few family secrets are about to come to light and wreak havoc during their period of supposed isolation (naturally, not everyone in the family’s orbit manages to stay outside those four walls, despite the danger).

Seven Days of Us may sometimes strain credibility, but it’ll go down easy after a few glasses of eggnog. The ending may even coax a tear or two.

Note: Seven Days of Us will be published on Oct. 17, 2017. Thanks to Berkley and NetGalley for the review copy.

“Magpie Murders” by Anthony Horowitz

Magpie MurdersAfter finishing Magpie Murders, it may be a while before I want to read a straight-up whodunit. Anthony Horowitz’s novel puts a fiendishly clever postmodern spin on the traditional mystery format; as a theater fan, I was reminded of musicals like The Drowsy Chaperone and Urinetown, which play with well-worn tropes while also building on them.

The brief opening chapter of Magpie introduces us to Susan Ryeland, an editor at Cloverleaf Books, whose marquee author is the mega-best-selling crime writer Alan Conway. His latest Atticus Pünd mystery, Susan tells us, “changed my life… as I reached out and turned the first page of the typescript, I had no idea of the journey I was about to begin and, quite frankly, I wish I’d never allowed myself to get pulled on board.”

Then the reader is given a couple hundred pages of Magpie Murders, the book-within-a-book, which is a rather traditional English village mystery featuring Pünd in the Hercule Poirot role of genius detective. However, the last pages of the book are missing. Susan’s quest to find them requires her to solve a “real-life” murder mystery, but unfortunately, she doesn’t possess Pünd’s considerable deductive powers, so she has to muddle along the best she can.

Along the way, there are some hilariously pointed observations about whodunits, like this one: “It’s strange when you think about it,” Susan muses. “There are hundreds and hundreds of murders in books and television. It would be hard for narrative fiction to survive without them. And yet there are almost none in real life, unless you happen to live in the wrong area. Why is it that we have such a need for murder mystery and what is it that attracts us—the crime or the solution? Do we have some primal need of bloodshed because our own lives are so safe, so comfortable? I made a mental note to check out Alan’s sales figures in San Pedro Sula in Honduras (the murder capital of the world). It might be that they didn’t read him at all.”

Magpie Murders is about 500 pages long, but thanks to its structure and Horowitz’s breezy writing style, it flies by. In the end, both mysteries are solved in a most satisfying manner, making this book doubly delightful.

“Ten Dead Comedians” by Fred Van Lente

Ten Dead ComediansWhen I first read Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None many years ago, I was amazed at how audacious a book published in 1939 could be. (That’s not even taking into consideration the whodunit’s original title, which is not so much audacious as just plain offensive.) On Christie’s island, there were no good guys, no Marple or Poirot… and no survivors.

Writing a contemporary riff on one of Christie’s most famous novels is also a pretty bold move. Fred Van Lente populates his island with stand-up comics, ranging from wannabes and has-beens to huge stars. They have all been summoned by Dustin Walker, an enormously successful comedian who starred in a blockbuster movie called “Help! I Married A Cat” and its many sequels. Ever since the failure of “Help! I Married A Cat: The New Litter” in 2009, Walker has been laying low, but now he’s plotting a comeback, and everyone wants in.

Anyone who follows the comedy scene will have no trouble matching Van Lente’s fictional stand-ups to their real-life counterparts: Billy the Contractor, a Larry the Cable Guy type whose catchphrase is “Fix ‘er up!”; Janet Kahn, an aging insult comic with a yen for plastic surgery a la Joan Rivers; Zoe Schwartz, a foul-mouthed comedian in the Sarah Silverman/Amy Schumer vein; and Oliver Rees, whose act seems to be a sort of hybrid of Gallagher, Carrot Top and the Blue Man Group. It’s plausible that a down-on-his-luck comic like Steve Gordon, reduced to teaching improv at corporate team-building events, would be willing to hightail it to Walker’s island, but would a high-maintenance celeb like Janet really show up sans entourage, even if she does see it as an opportunity to recover from her latest face lift?

If you can suspend your disbelief, this is a fun, quick read, though the solution (while clever) shows just how difficult it is to go toe-to-toe with Dame Agatha, even after almost 80 years.

Note: Ten Dead Comedians will be published on July 11, 2017. Thanks to Quirk Books (via NetGalley) for the review copy.

“Endgame” by Bill Pronzini

Endgame by Bill PronziniIn 2001, it looked like Bill Pronzini was putting a stop to his long-running Nameless Detective mysteries with book #27, Bleeders, which strongly implied that his sleuth was retiring. However, just a year later, Nameless was back in a rebooted version of the series; this time around, he had acquired a first name (Bill) and two associates (computer-savvy Tamara and brooding widower Jake). The new formula continued over the course of another dozen or so books, as Bill’s first-person chapters were interspersed with third-person accounts of the other detectives’ cases.

Bill always claimed that he wanted to cut down on his workload at the agency, but he simply couldn’t resist getting drawn back into cases. This time, however, I fear that he truly has retired; I suspected it when I saw the title of the new Nameless book, and Pronzini seems to go out of his way to tie up all the loose ends in his recurring characters’ lives. So perhaps this really and truly is the end of the road for this series. If that’s the case, I’ll be sad, because it’s one of my all-time favorites, but at least it’s ending on a high note.

Pronzini presents us with two “impossible” mysteries: a locked-room puzzle with a man found dead in a closed-up cabin, and the disappearance of an agoraphobic novelist. Jake Runyon heads to the Sierras to investigate the death of Philip Dennison, whose young widow is convinced he was cheating on her, while Bill tackles the case of Alice Cahill. Her husband James swears that Alice never left the house, and that she would not have gone voluntarily. Everyone seems to suspect James of foul play, so he needs Bill to find her and prove his innocence.

“If Runyon or Chavez or anybody else had handled the Cahill investigation, its ultimate outcome might have been different,” states Bill on the first page of Endgame. “One thing for sure: it would not have worked out in the same way, with the same consequences, if I hadn’t been the one to take it on.”

Those consequences don’t become clear until the very end of the book, and by that point, Nameless fans may find themselves getting a bit choked up at the prospect of the beloved series coming to a permanent close. And yet Pronzini, now in his mid-70s, doesn’t appear to be slowing down—Endgame is the second novel he’s published this year, following stand-alone thriller The Violated—so if we’re lucky, maybe Nameless will turn up in the occasional novella or short story. In any event, the Nameless Detective will forever be remembered as one of the true titans in the annals of private-eye fiction.