“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.

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.

“The Knowledge” by Martha Grimes

The KnowledgeEvery time I have visited London, I’ve been struck by how vast it is. When I was there last May, I took a walking tour and was amazed at how the guide took us down odd side streets that I would never even have noticed had I been wandering around on my own.

If you want to drive one of the classic London black cabs, you have to acquire The Knowledge—learning all of the city’s 25,000 streets by memory, and having to pass rigorous oral exams, which involve reciting from memory the fastest route from any given point in town to another.

The idea of a mystery novel centered around The Knowledge struck me as a great idea, and it had been a few years since I’d last read anything by Martha Grimes. But The Knowledge, in which a cab driver witnesses a murder in the book’s opening pages, actually has fairly little to do with taxis or drivers. Much of the action takes place in Kenya, and involves a 10-year-old girl, an orphan who survives by her wits. It’s quite an odd book.

Grimes’ long-running series character Detective Superintendent Richard Jury is on the case of who killed a glamorous couple in front of one of London’s most exclusive clubs, a casino/art gallery. Unbeknownst to Jury, little Patty Haigh has managed to follow the suspect from London to Nairobi. (Yes, this part of the story requires some suspension of disbelief.) Armed with a mobile phone, different-colored wigs and a selection of fake IDs, she’s akin to a 21st-century version of one of Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars. Meanwhile, back in London, Jury is trying to figure out a possible connection between the murders and a rare-gem smuggling scheme.

There are some wryly funny moments in this book, which has a plot that sometimes seems as convoluted as a route from Islington to Isleworth, many of them involving a pub called The Knowledge “that only London’s black cab drivers could patronize… [it] would be otherwise unlocatable: untraceable, unfindable, unmappable.” The Knowledge itself didn’t prove to be a totally satisfying novel, but I’d love to read more about that fictional pub and the cabbies that hang out there.

“The Colors of All the Cattle” by Alexander McCall Smith

The Colors of All the CattleSometimes, we all could use a do-over. Let’s say that there’s a big election, and the results break your heart. Then two years later there’s another election, and this one has an outcome that’s much more to your liking.

Do you think I’m talking about the presidential election of 2016 and the 2018 midterms? Don’t be silly! This is Botswana, home to Mma Ramotswe, proprietor of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and her secretary-turned-business partner, Mma Makutsi. If this gentle series, now numbering 19 volumes, has a big bad, it’s Violet Sephotho, Mma Makutsi’s sworn nemesis since their days together at the Botswana Secretarial College. In 2016’s Precious and Grace, Violet was in the running for Botswana’s Woman of the Year award, which she won (“My heart is broken, broken, broken,” lamented Mma Makutsi upon hearing the news).

And now, in 2018’s The Colors of All the Cattle, Violet is a candidate for Gaborone city council. She’s running unopposed, and is in favor of a large hotel being built next to a cemetery—which just happens to be where Mma Potokwane’s mother is buried. Mma Potokwane is Mma Ramotswe’s best friend, the matron of the local Orphan Farm and a woman of great persuasive powers. She is convinced that only one woman can defeat Violet and prevent the council from approving the Big Fun Hotel: Mma Ramotswe.

Mma Ramotswe has no desire to get involved in politics, but you can’t say no to Mma Potokwane, so of course she winds up on the ballot. She comes up with her own campaign slogan: “I am not much, but I promise you I’ll do my best.” Meanwhile, Violet is making all sorts of promises, like eliminating various registration fees and making free tea available throughout the city. Will the citizens of Gaborone vote for the preening and narcissistic Violet or the down-to-earth Mma Ramotswe? Surely Alexander McCall Smith wouldn’t want to break Mma Makutsi’s heart twice, now would he?

The agency itself is busy investigating a hit-and-run accident that injured an old friend of Mma Ramotswe’s late father, and Charlie—apprentice mechanic at Mma Ramotswe’s husband’s garage and part-time assistant at the detective agency—is threatened by someone who doesn’t want him to find out who was behind the wheel. A brick thrown through a window is about as violent as this series gets.

After last year’s rather disappointing The House of Unexpected Sisters, my expectations were set kind of low, but I must admit that I found The Colors of All the Cattle to be a total delight from start to finish. It’s funny and charming and has a few genuinely heartbreaking and poignant moments, several of them involving Charlie, who has grown from a feckless teenager into an increasingly lovable part of the ensemble. As to what happens with Mma Ramotswe’s budding political career, there are a few unexpected twists, but McCall Smith comes up with a resolution that just seems perfectly right, as deliciously satisfying as a cup of red bush tea and a slice of Mma Potokwane’s fruitcake.

“Lethal White” by Robert Galbraith

Lethal WhiteOn many occasions, a book I’m reading has given me nightmares, because the content is gory or disturbing. Lethal White by Robert Galbraith, however, is the first book that has ever provoked an anxiety dream: I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to finish it before it was due back at the library, and that fear must have seeped into my unconscious.

I was looking forward to Lethal White because I’m a big fan of the Cormoran Strike series, and it’s taken three years for it to finally be published. However, I wasn’t expecting it to also be the size of three novels. It is a formidable 650-page tome that could, in a pinch, probably double as a weapon. (The audiobook clocks in at over 23 hours.) Fortunately, however, I did finish it a full two days before its due date.

My husband, who is an avid reader of Stephen King, noted that King’s books are incredibly long because he is so famous and successful that no one at his publishing house feels the need to edit him. (A New York Times article confirms this, noting “publishers often [take] a hands-off editorial approach with stars like [Anne] Rice and Stephen King.”) And I strongly suspect that if Lethal White had been written by anyone other than J.K. Rowling, whose final Harry Potter book tipped the scales at almost 800 pages, someone would have required her to pare it down by a couple hundred pages or so. Because while I enjoyed Lethal White, it would have been a better book if it hadn’t been so damn long.

I did appreciate the fact that Lethal White is a lot less horrifying than the gruesome serial-killer thriller Career of Evil, the previous Strike book. Lethal White is a good old-fashioned dysfunctional-family saga, featuring a Tory minister named Jasper Chiswell, who hires Strike to dig up some dirt on a couple of people he claims are blackmailing him. Jasper is the patriarch of a vast brood of upper-class twits, from his whiny wife Kinvara to the rest of the ludicrously-nicknamed clan, including Izzy, Fizzy and Tinky. One of his perceived enemies is a fellow government minister; the other, a radical socialist named Jimmy Knight, who is trying to extort money from Chiswell due to a mysterious past transgression he does not wish to reveal to the P.I., and one which Jasper “would not wish to see shared with the gentlemen of the fourth estate.”

Helping Strike with the investigation is his fellow detective Robin Ellacott, who was about to walk down the aisle with her loathsome fiancé Matthew at the end of Career of Evil. Lethal White picks up immediately after the ceremony; unfortunately, Cormoran didn’t rush in like Benjamin Braddock at the end of “The Graduate” and save her from marrying such an obvious jerk. However, there’s trouble in paradise even before the reception begins, as Robin discovers that Matthew has been deleting her cell-phone call history. Strike had fired her shortly before the wedding, but it turns out he had overreacted out of fear, due to Robin’s too-close encounter with the serial killer in Career of Evil that left her with an ugly scar and PTSD. He wants her to come back to work. Matthew, however, hates Strike and hates Robin’s job.

There was a bit of “will they or won’t they” tension between Robin and Strike in the first three novels, but Lethal White offers a different kind of love story—the love a woman has for her vocation. Robin, who started off as a temporary secretary/assistant, has developed into a damned good detective, and has obviously found what she was meant to do. Petty Matthew wants to keep her from it, which makes him an obvious villain. Will Robin finally come to her senses and choose career over marriage?

I enjoyed the snarky look at the British upper classes in Lethal White, such as the ridiculously stuffy gentlemen’s club where, “to avoid confusion, all male staff members are called George.” And I would certainly recommend this book to fans of the first three novels who can’t wait to catch up with this beloved pair of protagonists. But I also hope that we won’t have to wait another three years before the publication of the next novel in the series, and that when it comes, it’ll be both briefer and brisker.

“Last Looks” by Howard Michael Gould and “Snap” by Belinda Bauer

Last LooksCharlie Waldo is an LAPD officer turned hermit who hasn’t spoken to anyone in a year when his ex-lover Lorena, a private eye, turns up at his remote property. She wants his help with a case—”the biggest thing since OJ”—but he’s committed to the simple life, having pared down his possessions to a mere 100 items, and has no interest in returning to L.A.

However, Lorena’s visit opens the floodgates, and before long, media reports are falsely stating that the onetime superstar of the force is on the case, working to prove that TV star Alastair Pinch did not kill his wife, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Waldo’s retreat is no longer a secluded haven, and he realizes that “the only way to restore the stillness that had made life bearable again was to go and reclaim it.” So he reluctantly heads back to the big city.

This is a Hollywood satire, and Gould, who has worked on numerous TV shows, writes with an insider’s knowledge of the business. Pinch, a hard-drinking Brit hamming it up as a Southern judge on a terrible courtroom drama, is kind of a bizarro-world version of Hugh Laurie. He swears he didn’t kill his wife, but since he was blackout drunk at the time, even he can’t be completely sure what happened on the night in question.

Gould’s first novel shows a lot of promise, while falling back on a few crime fiction tropes—for instance, Waldo gets seriously beat up about a half-dozen times, which made me think of, well, the Crime Fiction Trope Twitter account:

And of course there’s a lot of build-up until we finally find out why he abruptly quit the force and took up the life of a recluse.

Still, I enjoyed the book and would happily read another one of Waldo’s adventures. Somehow I doubt that Gould will be letting his hero return to his spartan, lonely existence anytime soon.

Snap by Belinda BauerReaders will be hard-pressed to find any well-worn crime novel clichés in Belinda Bauer’s Snap, which is almost startlingly original. I reviewed Bauer’s Rubbernecker last year and while the book started slowly, the sheer audaciousness of the plot (which intertwines the stories of a man with locked-in syndrome and a young medical student with Asperger’s) won me over. Snap is equally bold, and shows that Bauer (who lives in Wales) may be the closest thing we have today to an heir to Ruth Rendell.

Snap introduces us to 11-year-old Jack, the oldest of three young siblings. The book begins in 1998; they are in the car with their mother Eileen, driving down the M5 motorway, when the auto breaks down. (My guess is that Bauer set the book when she did because cell phones weren’t as ubiquitous back then.) Their mom leaves them in the car, making them promise to stay put, while she heads off to walk to the nearest emergency phone. She never comes back, and her body is found a few days later.

Eventually, the siblings’ father gets exhausted having to parent on his own, and when he leaves, they are left to their own devices. Jack, now a young teenager, has begun breaking into houses and stealing things, then selling them to a fence, in order to support his sisters. He is small and lithe and able to creep into the tiniest of windows, and meanwhile, the local police force are stumped as to who could be committing the crimes and how the burglar always seems to know when the houses he hits are vacant. Among the detectives is DCI John Marvel, exiled to “darkest Somerset” from London after “a single unfortunate incident that had resulted in the death of a suspect fleeing custody.” (Unlike Waldo, Marvel is unrepentant about his botched case.) Marvel has no interest in investigating a bunch of boring property crimes. He’s a homicide detective. And then he finds out about Eileen’s unsolved murder…

Bauer isn’t terribly well known in the U.S., but she’s a literary star in the U.K., where Snap was even longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize (the judges described it as “an acute, stylish, intelligent novel about how we survive trauma”). Interestingly, according to a profile, she hadn’t even read any crime fiction before she wrote her first novel, and maybe that helps explain why her work is so startlingly fresh.

“The Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes” and “The Man Who Couldn’t Miss” by David Handler

Some nights, I dream that I have discovered a room in my house that I never knew existed. When I wake up, I’m always slightly disappointed to realize that it was only a dream, and my actual home is woefully bereft of secret spaces.

As a mystery reader, I’m kind of surprised I’ve never dreamt that I stumbled upon brand-new books in a beloved old series. You only thought you’d read every single Stewart “Hoagy” Hoag mystery, and that David Handler ended the series 20 years ago. But wait! Here are two Hoagy novels that you didn’t know about!

It’s slightly bonkers to realize that the Hoagy series, which meant so much to me back in the 1990s, had actually been brought back to life in 2017 without my knowing about it. Luckily, however, I recently stumbled across this blog post by the author. “Hoagy and Lulu returned last year in The Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes and on August 14 will be back in another new mystery, The Man Who Couldn’t Miss,” wrote Handler. “Meanwhile, as I sit here, I’m busy working away on their next adventure.”

Needless to say, I could not get my hands on those two books quickly enough.

For the uninitiated—and, since the series was always, shall we say, a bit more of a cult favorite than a mass-market success, that’s probably most of you—Hoagy is a wisecracking writer who was once hailed by the New York Times Book Review as “the first major new literary voice of the 1980s.” However, when he found himself unable to produce a follow-up to his Great American Novel, he found a niche ghost-writing memoirs for famous folks. Even when he’s on assignment, Hoagy is always accompanied by his anchovy-loving basset hound, Lulu.

The Girl With Kaleidoscope eyesMany of the celebrities in the Hoagy novels are take-offs on real-world stars, which is one of the reasons a diehard pop-culture fan like myself found them so winning: The Boy Who Never Grew Up is a version of Steven Spielberg, The Woman Who Fell From Grace is a riff on Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell, etc. The last book in the series, The Man Who Loved Women To Death, kind of wrapped up Hoagy’s story with a tidy bow, reuniting him with his ex-wife, actress Merilee Nash. So I was curious if The Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes would take place shortly after the events detailed in that book, or would Handler bring Hoag into the future… 20 years older, and with a new basset hound by his side?

Cleverly, however, Handler set Kaleidoscope in 1992, placing it immediately after The Boy Who Never Grew Up. Hoagy is still estranged from his much-more-successful wife, and needs the money he could earn by writing a book about Richard Aintree, a J.D. Salinger-esque novelist who disappeared shortly after producing one classic and much-beloved book. Even Aintree’s two daughters have no idea where he is, but then one of them, a Martha Stewart-type lifestyle guru named Monette, receives a letter from him out of the blue. It contains information that no one else would know, so it seems legit. At his agent’s behest, Hoagy travels from his Manhattan home to L.A. to meet Monette and possibly start work on a book about the Aintree clan.

Also on the scene is Richard Aintree’s second daughter Reggie, a former flame of Hoagy’s (she’s the girl with kaleidoscope eyes—they dropped acid together back in the 70s). He also has to deal with Monette’s two teenage children and her obnoxious TV-star husband, as well as a variety of Hollywood hangers-on. The murder occurs fairly late in the book, so I won’t spoil it, but I was delighted to note Handler brought back L.A. cop Emil Lamp, a recurring character in several of the Hoagy novels. Honestly, this book fits in so seamlessly with the rest of the series that it’s hard to believe that Handler wrote it in the mid-2010s and didn’t magically produce it from some early-’90s wormhole.

The Man Who Couldn't MissThe Man Who Couldn’t Miss is a bit of an anomaly in the Hoag series in that none of the celebrities are true doppelgängers for real-life stars. The crop of actors in the book are former Yale Drama classmates of Hoagy’s ex-wife Merilee Nash, who has brought them together to perform a one-off benefit performance of “Private Lives” to raise money to repair a cherished old playhouse in Connecticut. Hoagy and Merilee are still broken up, but getting along fairly well; he’s working on a new novel while staying in her guest cottage, escaping the heat of a Manhattan summer. Not surprisingly, some long-simmering tensions between the actors rise up, and one alumni who was not invited to take part is lurking on the sidelines. R.J. Romero is the man of the title, perhaps the most talented actor in the class but the least successful, due to his bad temper and criminal tendencies. Romero gets in touch with Hoagy to tell him that he has some damaging information about an incident in Merilee’s past, and unless Hoagy is willing to pay up, he will go to the tabloid press and it could destroy Merilee’s career.

Like all of the books in the series, The Man Who Couldn’t Miss is a delight, though it’s perhaps a bit darker and more poignant. Fortunately, Lulu (who “has a very menacing growl for someone who once got beat up in Riverside Park by a Pomeranian named Mr. Puffball”) is always around to provide some comic relief, though my guess is that it would make her quite cross to be thought of in that way.

When I first discovered this series, the first Hoagy novel, The Man Who Died Laughing, was long out of print and it took me years before I finally tracked down a used copy at the old San Francisco Mystery Bookstore (this was before you could find everything, no matter how obscure, online). Now all 10 of them can be purchased with the click of a mouse, though naturally I still have my treasured original copies, including a signed paperback of The Man Who Would Be F. Scott Fitzgerald that I bought during Handler’s appearance at Mystery Loves Company in Baltimore. The idea that there will be even more to come is, quite honestly, some of the best news I’ve heard in a while.