“The House of Unexpected Sisters” and “My Italian Bulldozer” by Alexander McCall Smith

The House of Unexpected SistersI always look forward to my annual visit with Precious Ramotswe and her colleagues at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, but as I read The House of Unexpected Sisters, it struck me as… even more slight than most of the books in this series. There are never murders in these mysteries, but there are always a couple good puzzles to solve. In this one, there are two, and they are rather flimsy: first, there’s a woman who claims she was unjustly fired from her job at an office-furniture store; second, during the course of that investigation, Mma Ramotswe finds out that there’s another woman with her same last name in the area, and wonders who she is. (Spoiler alert: check out the book’s title.)

The novel hits all the usual beats readers expect from these series: Mma Ramotswe’s ever-fraught relationship with the prickly Mma Makutsi, her secretary-turned-Principal Investigating Officer; long afternoons spent eating fruitcake and discussing matters with the wise Mma Potokwane; thoughts about the importance of cattle; an appearance by perpetual antagonist Violet Sephotho; etc. However, about three-quarters of the way into this rather slim volume, Mma Ramotswe learns some truths about her late father, and readers get to see an emotional side of her that we’ve never before encountered. I will admit that by the time I finished the book, I felt pretty satisfied.

Even though I wound up enjoying The House of Unexpected Sisters, I do hope that next year’s cases are a little meatier. And that Mma Makutsi remembers that she has a baby (seriously, there’s a point in this book where she seems to have forgotten).

My Italian BulldozerAlexander McCall Smith’s bibliography now spans two full pages at the front of his books, and he seems to publish at least three novels a year, but the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is the only one I’ve ever really gotten into (Sisters is #18, and I’ve read them all). After finishing Sisters, I decided to try one of his recent stand-alones, My Italian Bulldozer. It’s a breezy read about a Scottish travel writer who is forced to rent a bulldozer to get around the Tuscan countryside (shrug! What can you do? It’s Italy!). His girlfriend has recently left him for her personal trainer, and Paul, the writer, is hoping to finish his latest book. There may be life lessons along the way. And romance.

Once you get past the whole bulldozer thing, the book plays out fairly predictably, but there are worse ways to spend a couple hours than reading about Tuscan food and scenery.

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“Beau Death” by Peter Lovesey

Beau Death by Peter LoveseyYou can always count on Peter Lovesey to provide you with a solid, well-written, well-plotted novel. Year after year, Lovesey just keeps publishing fine crime fiction—he’s written over 40 books—and funnily enough, just a few hours after I had been musing, “Is Peter Lovesey taken for granted?” the news broke that he had been awarded Grand Master status by the Mystery Writers of America. I hope the honor will bring more attention to his stellar body of work.

Beau Death is the latest entry in his long-running series about Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, who works in the historic city of Bath. As the novel opens, a block of run-down townhouses is being demolished, and the wrecking ball reveals a surprise in one of the attics: a skeleton, dressed in an 18th-century costume, sitting in a chair. The police are called in, and when a goofy photo of Diamond with the remains goes viral, people start speculating that the dead man could be Beau Nash.

Nash was known as the “King of Bath,” a local icon who hosted royalty, politicians and famous writers during his tenure as town’s unofficial Master of Ceremonies. Eventually, scandal and debts caused him to survive on a small income from city funds, and when he died, he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave—but could he somehow have wound up in a townhouse attic in an unfashionable suburb instead?

I will admit that I thought Beau Nash was Lovesey’s own creation, kind of a take-off on Beau Brummel, but he was real. Not real is the book’s Beau Nash Society, a fashionable, invitation-only Bath club whose members are required to attend meetings dressed in period costume. If the corpse isn’t the real Beau, perhaps he was a modern-day member of the Society, and with a little help from his girlfriend Paloma (an expert on historic clothing), Diamond will need to don a wig and breeches in order to discover the dead man’s identity.

Unlike a lot of crime fiction series which overwhelm you with their characters’ back stories, Beau Death can easily be read as a stand-alone. There are some references made to incidents in Diamond’s past, but this really isn’t a series which demands to be read in order. Though mystery fans who are just discovering Lovesey will no doubt be delighted to find that he has such a rich and deep back catalog to enjoy. His Grand Master award is well-deserved indeed.

“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.

“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.