“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.

“The Abominable Man” and “The Locked Room” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

The Abominable ManWhy would a pair of Communist Party members choose to write a book with a policeman as protagonist? Maj Sjöwall has explained that she and Per Wahlöö began writing a series of crime novels because “we wanted to describe society from our left point of view. Per had written political books, but they’d only sold 300 copies. We realized that people read crime and through the stories we could show the reader that under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer of poverty, criminality and brutality.”

In The Abominable Man, Sjöwall (who now says she identifies as a Socialist) and the late Wahlöö for the first time in their series present a truly unflinching look at what happens to a society when the police are allowed to basically get away with anything. The novel, which was originally published in 1971, will seem eerily timely to anyone who’s aware of the many well-known cases here in the U.S. where police have not been held accountable for killing civilians. After a police captain is murdered in a particularly grisly fashion, Martin Beck and a colleague sift through a stack of complaints alleging police brutality that had been submitted to Stockholm’s Justice Department Ombudsman. All of them yielded the same results: “Inspector Nyman dismisses the suggestion that he or anyone else mistreated the complainant… No action.”

If one of those complainants decided to take matters into their own hands and enact some vigilante justice, there are a lot of suspects to choose from, since Nyman was known to be a violent bully. Martin Beck’s friend and fellow policeman Kollberg, who knew Nyman when they both served in the army, tells Beck that “he’s probably committed hundreds of outrages of one kind or another. Toward subordinates and toward arrestees. I’ve heard various stories over the years… A man like Nyman always sees to it that there are policemen ready to take an oath that he hasn’t done anything… the kind of men who are already so indoctrinated they figure they’re only doing what loyalty demands.”

Kollberg, who refuses to carry a gun, has already begun to express doubts about continuing to serve on the force, but Martin Beck finds himself confronting certain truths about his job for the first time in this book. A report on the comparative dangers of police work versus other professions revealed that “police work wasn’t a bit more dangerous than any other profession… The number of injured policeman was negligible when compared with the number of people annually mistreated by the police.” (Construction workers, lumberjacks and taxi drivers are all jobs cited by the authors, and almost 50 years later, statistics bear out that people who work in those professions are still in more danger of dying on the job than police.)

Lest you fear that The Abominable Man is a dull bit of leftist anti-police propaganda, be assured that it’s one of the most pulse-pounding entries in the series, climaxing with a thrilling confrontation with an armed and dangerous man intent on revenge. And the authors don’t shy away from describing the loneliness, long hours and threats from hostile members of the public that police officers confront. Sjöwall and Wahlöö always wrote with great compassion about police and civilians alike.

The Locked RoomThe Locked Room continues the authors’ critique of Swedish society and the police force, as well as presenting a pair of “impossible” mysteries that hearken back to the Golden Age: a locked-room murder and a bank robbery where the witnesses’ accounts are all completely different. Martin Beck is back on the job after taking some time off to recover from injuries sustained in The Abominable Man. He now suffers from recurring nightmares and has been told by his doctors to quit smoking (the horror!). The mysterious death of Karl Svärd—”a most interesting case,” says Kollberg—is presented to Beck as something he can mull over in his spare time. Svärd was found dead in his apartment, with the windows shut and numerous bolts and locks secured from the inside; it took overwhelming force for the police to gain access. He had been shot, so one would think it was a suicide, but no gun was found on the premises.

The other case involves a bank robbery where a customer was murdered by the gun-wielding perpetrator during the course of the crime. Witnesses say the robber was definitely a woman—unless it was a man in a wig. And she definitely escaped in a car—unless she got away on foot. The police have very little to go on, and meanwhile, Stockholm banks are under siege. “A year ago there had been a drive against people passing bad checks… The National Police Board objected to checks being accepted as legal tender,” and the resulting influx of cash led to bank robberies, muggings and assaults. (It’s true that Sweden got rid of personal checks many years ago, but now they’ve gotten rid of cash, too.)

The Locked Room is one of the longer books in the series and it’s pretty heavy on the anti-capitalist and anti-police rhetoric. Also, it seems like most of the Martin Beck books contain at least one reference to poor pensioners having to eat cat food to get by. Was this ever really a thing? I don’t doubt that there are still struggling seniors in Sweden, but my research into this (i.e. 10 minutes of Googling variations on pensionärer + kattmat) seems to indicate that it was something of a myth.

As always, things are changing in Stockholm, and not for the better; the new National Police Board building is under construction, and “from this ultramodern colossus… the police would extend their tentacles in every direction and hold the dispirited citizens of Sweden in an iron grip. At least some of them. After all, they couldn’t all emigrate or commit suicide.” But as the two investigations progress, some unexpected rays of sunshine emerge in Martin Beck’s life, providing an unexpected tinge of optimism as we head into the final two books of the series. Will Sjöwall and Wahlöö give their protagonist a few hard-won moments of joy? Considering that the title of the next book is Cop Killer, I’m not holding my breath.

“The Breakers” by Marcia Muller

The BreakersI’ve griped a bit about recent entries in Marcia Muller’s long-running Sharon McCone private-eye series—The Breakers is, by my count, #34—mainly the emphasis on the once-scrappy detective’s elevation to the one percent, complete with frequent references to her fancy downtown San Francisco office building, her Mercedes, and the “buttery leather furnishings” in her luxurious Marina District home. Plus, Sharon now has so many employees, friends and relations that you practically need a scorecard to keep track of them all.

Well, McCone fans rejoice, because The Breakers is the best novel in the series in years, a real back-to-basics private-eye story. As the book opens, a lot of the usual suspects—husband Hy, computer whiz Mick—are out of town, so Sharon has to do most of the investigating on her own, at least initially.

Regular readers will be familiar with Chelle, Sharon’s former next-door neighbor, cat-sitter and all-around enterprising young businesswoman. Now in her 20s, Chelle has purchased a derelict building called The Breakers in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset and is planning to rehab it. Her worried parents reach out to Sharon because they haven’t been able to get in touch with their daughter, who had moved into the run-down apartment complex while she worked on it.

Another resident of the building, Zach Kaplan, tells Sharon he has no idea where she is, either. When Zach takes her on a tour of The Breakers, McCone finds a horrifying tableau in Chelle’s room, hidden behind a decorative Japanese screen: a collage of newspaper clippings about notorious California killers, from Charles Manson to the Zodiac. The grim discovery adds to her feelings of dread about Chelle’s disappearance.

By coincidence, I had just visited the neighborhood where The Breakers is set a couple weeks before I read it; the novel takes place in August, and I enjoyed Muller’s vivid descriptions of the chilly San Francisco summer, with fog “so heavy that it felt almost like drizzly rain.” Gradually, McCone’s associates and loved ones reenter the picture and offer assistance with the investigation, but the focus is always on the detective herself, as diligent and determined as she was in her 1977 debut, Edwin of the Iron Shoes.

“The Word is Murder” by Anthony Horowitz

The Word is Murder by Anthony HorowitzBy far the most popular review I’ve published on this site in 2018 was that of White Houses by Amy Bloom, a fictionalized retelling of the love story between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. People who have read the book are obviously Googling Parker Fiske (a gay cousin Bloom invented) to find out whether or not he’s real. I can understand the impulse—I found myself reaching for my phone more than once as I was reading Anthony Horowitz’s The Word is Murder, a work of metafiction which features Horowitz himself playing Watson to an eccentric former police detective-turned-consultant named Hawthorne.

Did Horowitz actually take a meeting with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson about writing the script for a Tintin movie? (He did.) I already knew that he’d written a Sherlock Holmes novel called The House of Silk, because I had read it. What about his formidable literary agent, Hilda Starke? (She appears to be fictional.) Did he really turn down the chance to work on the “Mamma Mia” musical? (Unknown.)

If I didn’t know better, I might have checked IMDb for Damian Cowper’s filmography, since Horowitz “casts” the character in several real-life TV shows and movies, including “Mad Men,” “Homeland” the 2009 “Star Trek” reboot and “two of the Harry Potter films.” But Cowper’s name will not be found there, since he’s a product of the author’s imagination. Damien is the son of the murder victim, Diana Cowper, who was found strangled with a curtain cord just hours after she’d visited a funeral parlor to plan and prepay for the her own service and burial.

Called in to investigate this puzzling case is Hawthorne, who summons Horowitz to a meeting to pitch a book project. “I want you to write a book about me,” he tells the author. When Horowitz asks why anyone would want to read about him, he responds, “I’m a detective. People like reading about detectives.” And the Cowper case is attractive: “She was rich. She’s got a famous son. And here’s another thing. As far as we can see, she didn’t have an enemy in the world. That’s why I got called in. None of it makes any sense.”

Horowitz isn’t sure if he wants to get involved with the prickly Hawthorne, who is forthcoming about the case but oddly secretive about his own life. Nevertheless, he eventually decides to go ahead with the project, and learns that Diana Cowper wasn’t quite as squeaky-clean as Hawthorne initially thought she was.

I am proud to say that I figured out the identity of the murderer, thanks to one clue that leapt out at me, but it doesn’t really matter, because The Word is Murder is another delightfully twisty treat from Horowitz, whose Magpie Murders was one of  my favorite books of 2017. And what a joy to learn that he’s planning at least nine more books in the series. It sounds like the fictionalized and the real-life Anthony Horowitzes will both be keeping very busy.