“The Deeds of the Disturber” by Elizabeth Peters

Deeds of the DisturberLong ago, when I was a young mystery reader, Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series was one of my favorites. For the uninitiated, the late Barbara Mertz was a brilliant academic (she had a PhD in Egyptology) who turned to writing historical mysteries set in Egypt under a pen name. Intrepid Amelia and her husband, Emerson, made archaeological discoveries and solved crimes, sometimes rubbing elbows with real-life figures along the way.

I kept up with the series until sometime in the early 2000s, when I sort of lost track. My book group (which, as I’ve mentioned, is now meeting online) read the fifth novel in the series, The Deeds of the Disturber, this week. I own a first edition hardcover, signed by the author, but in one of those dismaying “Hey, you’re OLD now” reminders, the print was too small for me to comfortably read; I wound up downloading it onto my Kindle, where I can customize the font size to accommodate my aging eyes.

Deeds is the only book in the series that takes place in Amelia’s native England (the rest are set in Egypt). She, her husband and their annoyingly precocious son, Ramses, return home for the summer, where they get involved in investigating the murder of a nightwatchman at the British Museum, attributed to a mummy’s curse. At a lecture by E.A. Wallis Budge (one of those real-life people I mentioned above), a man dressed in robes and a mask interrupts the Egyptologist’s talk, uttering threats before mysteriously disappearing. More deaths follow, and Amelia fears her husband is the killer’s next target.

Reading this book was sort of like catching up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in a really long time, and discovering we no longer have much in common. The things I remembered about the series—hyperverbal Ramses, hot-headed Emerson, the eye-rollingly frequent references to Amelia and her spouse’s extremely active love life—are there in force; just like last week’s The Stranger Diaries, it took me a full week to get through this book. Unlike, say, How the Light Gets In, I found it pretty easy to put down, and I was never super-eager to pick it back up. I’m more distracted these days and unless something really hooks me, it’s often a struggle to finish what I’m reading. I have a couple more book club selections to read, but then I have a few titles on the TBR pile that I’m super-eager to get to, like Jennifer Weiner’s Big Summer and Cara Black’s Three Hours in Paris. We’ll see if anything is able to distract my anxious brain.

“The Stranger Diaries” by Elly Griffiths

The Stranger DiariesEvery year, I try to read the Edgar nominees for Best Novel. Of the 2020 field, the only one I’d already read was Michael Robotham’s Good Girl, Bad Girl, which I really enjoyed. I’m a big fan of Peter Heller’s spellbinding 2017 novel Celine, and I have a copy of his nominated book The River on my TBR pile. Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland is one I know nothing about, and I’ve heard good things about Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee.

That leaves Elly Griffiths’ The Stranger Diaries, which I checked out of the library back in January immediately after the nominations were announced; it had been described as a “brilliant twist on Gothic suspense,” which sounded right up my alley. I only made it a few pages in, however, before I came upon a passage which made me put the book down. A teacher is lecturing about the utility of animal characters in suspense fiction, and she tells her students:

“Animals are expendable. Authors often kill them to create tension. It’s not a significant as killing a human but it can be surprisingly upsetting.”

Since a canine character had already been introduced, I wondered if this was a signal to the reader that the dog would be bumped off in the course of the story. I’m not one of those “never kill a fictional animal” absolutists, but in this case, I had literally just adopted a new dog a couple of days beforehand, and the idea of reading about an animal in jeopardy held even less appeal than usual.

When the book won the best-novel award, I figured I should give it another try, though I sincerely hoped the dog would make it through the book alive. Spoiler alert: he does, though not without a few adventures along the way. Whew!

The Stranger Diaries has a trio of narrators: Clare, an English teacher at Talgarth High School; her teenage daughter, Georgia, who attends Talgarth; and Harbinder Kaur, the detective investigating the murder of Ella Elphick, Clare’s close friend and colleague. Ella is found dead in her kitchen, stabbed to death. A note left by her body reads “Hell is empty,” a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Ella had been rumored to be having an affair with another teacher. Could someone at the school have killed her?

The words “Hell is empty” also appear in “The Stranger,” a famous ghost story by 19th-century writer R.M. Holland, whose home is now part of the Talgarth campus. When another teacher is murdered, it becomes apparent that the methods were borrowed from Holland’s tale. Clare, who is working on a biography of Holland, writes regularly in a diary, and when cryptic notes written by another hand start showing up in those private pages, she worries that she might be the next victim.

This is a very clever book, and I must admit that the killer’s identity was a total surprise to me (though it made perfect sense in retrospect). For some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on, I found it a little bit difficult to get into, especially compared to last week’s book, Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In, which I just breezed through. In the end, I admired The Stranger Diaries more than I enjoyed reading it, but I’m not surprised that a jury of Griffiths’ peers elected to give her the top prize; the novel is supremely well-plotted and both plays with and faithfully follows genre tropes.

“How the Light Gets In” by Louise Penny

How the Light Gets InLouise Penny is one of those rare authors who inspires fanatical devotion. For many years, as Penny racked up awards and accolades, I read her books thinking, “Well, this is fine,” but I was never really bowled over, since the author relied on a couple of my least-favorite tropes. The setting of most of her novels, the idyllic Quebec town of Three Pines, gave the series a whiff of Cabot Cove syndrome (i.e. a village with a shockingly high murder rate). And her protagonist, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, is a deeply ethical man who has been battling with his boss, Chief Superintendent Francoeur, a villain who seemed to be the embodiment of mustache-twirling evil.

The last Penny book I read was 2012’s The Beautiful Mystery, which featured a bunch of Gamache/Francoeur drama. I owned a copy of the next novel in the series, How the Light Gets In, but I never got around to reading it until this past week—it was selected by my book group, which is now meeting over Zoom. At the beginning, we learn that “the most successful homicide department in the nation had been gutted, replaced with lazy, insolent, incompetent thugs… The rest of the old guard had been transferred out, either by request or on the orders of Chief Superintendent Francoeur.”

The continuation of this good cop/evil cop dynamic didn’t exactly hook me, but I kept going, and gradually I felt something shift in me, and I disappeared into the world of this book so completely that I barely poked my head up out of its covers until I had turned the last page. Whatever cynicism I approached the book with melted away, and I completely escaped into the world of Three Pines in a way I never have before. One of the residents, Myrna, approaches Gamache when a friend of hers who had been planning to visit never arrives. Myrna reveals that the missing woman, Constance, was the last surviving Ouellet quintuplet (a fictionalized version of the Dionne sisters); Gamache heads to Constance’s home in Montréal, and finds that she has been murdered.

The reclusive Constance had tried for decades to escape her early notoriety and live a simple life, but Gamache wonders if she died with a secret—one that led to her murder. As he investigates Constance’s death, Gamache learns that Francoeur is involved in a truly massive conspiracy to do something super evil. Naturally, everything climaxes in a titanic showdown in Three Pines.

“Armand Gamache had always held unfashionable beliefs,” writes Penny about two-thirds of the way through the book. “He believed that light would banish the shadows. That kindness was more powerful than cruelty, and that goodness existed, even in the most desperate places. He believed that evil had its limits. But… Gamache wondered if he could have been wrong all this time. Maybe the darkness sometimes won. Maybe evil had no limits.”

Oh, how I wanted to believe in the power of kindness, and that evil will be vanquished—maybe that is unrealistic in the world as it is right now, but I hoped desperately that in this book, at least, light would prevail over darkness, and Gamache would find a way to succeed over the grasping, greedy, power-hungry people who weren’t just trying to bring their evil plans to fruition, but wanted to break his spirit in the process. No spoilers here, obviously, but by the time I reached the end, I felt satisfied that How the Light Gets In was the exact book that I needed to read at this time.

“Eight Perfect Murders” by Peter Swanson

Eight Perfect MurdersI’m always delighted to find a new mystery novel that plays with the form, daring to have a bit of fun with the tropes we whodunit fans all know so well. Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders and his Hawthorne series do this beautifully, and now here comes Peter Swanson with a new book that works as a standard mystery, a love letter to some of the classics, and a winkingly self-referential send-up of the genre.

The narrator is Malcolm Kershaw, co-owner of a Boston mystery bookstore. He stopped reading mysteries a while back, but “I keep up with the trends,” he says. “I am well aware that Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn has changed the industry, that unreliable narrators are suddenly popular… The thing is, and maybe I’m biased by all those years I’ve spent in fictional realms built on deceit, I don’t trust narrators any more than I trust the actual people in my life. We never get the whole truth, not from anybody.” Hmm… is that an indication that perhaps Malcolm isn’t being 100% truthful with us?

Before he gave up on the genre—he now sticks to history and poetry—Malcolm wrote a piece for his store’s blog called “Eight Perfect Murders,” in which he wrote about “the cleverest, the most ingenious, the most foolproof (if there is such a thing) murders in crime fiction history.” FBI agent Gwen Mulvey tracks Malcolm down at his store, because she’s convinced that a serial killer is using the books on Malcolm’s list as a sort of blueprint, starting with Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. Malcolm doesn’t know any of the victims, but when one of his bookstore’s regular customers is killed, he begins to suspect that the murderer is trying to tie him to the crimes.

This is a fiendishly clever novel which, by necessity, contains a lot of spoilers for other works—if you’ve never read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and don’t know whodunit, be forewarned that the killer’s identity is revealed herein—but if you’re a mystery addict, you’ll doubtless enjoy the ride. There’s some nostalgic appeal as well; a lot of us long-time readers first discovered the genre thanks to mystery bookstores like Old Devils, the one Malcolm owns, and sadly, most of them have gone out of business in recent years (including Boston-area mainstays Kate’s Mystery Books and Spenser’s). Old Devils’ continued existence is explained away by the fact that Malcolm’s partner is a bestselling mystery author who thought it would be fun to own a bookstore.

Meanwhile, the real-life mystery bookstores that are still hanging on have largely done so because of their live events, and with author tours and in-person book clubs on hold because of the pandemic, it’s likely that more will be closing for good in the coming months. If you have a favorite mystery bookstore that is still in business (I like Poisoned Pen, which is doing tons of virtual events), may I suggest ordering Eight Perfect Murders through their online store?

“The Lost Gargoyle of Paris” by Gigi Pandian

The Lost Gargoyle of ParisI haven’t been reading as many books as I normally do—in this post-pandemic era, my attention span seems better suited to old episodes of “The Great British Baking Show”—so when Gigi Pandian released a new novella in her popular Accidental Alchemist series, it seemed like the perfect diversion. Old familiar characters, and a book that can be read in just a couple of hours: hooray!

For those unfamiliar with the series, it’s kind of a fantasy/mystery hybrid, featuring alchemist Zoe Faust (born in 1676, but she doesn’t look a day over 28) and her living gargoyle sidekick, Dorian. I originally thought that seemed a bit too fanciful for my tastes, but I was a fan of Pandian’s Jaya Jones series, so I gave the series a try, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Dorian was originally carved for Notre Dame in Paris, but he was a bit too small; the sculptor gave him to magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, who inadvertently brought the gray stone creature to life through a bit of alchemy. Now he and Zoe live together in Portland, where they are occasionally called upon to solve mysteries.

In The Lost Gargoyle of Paris, Zoe and Dorian travel to Paris (Dorian has to travel in Zoe’s checked luggage—quelle horreur!) shortly after the fire at Notre Dame. Discovered in the wreckage was an original drawing of a gargoyle by Victor Hugo, the man who wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame and is credited for inspiring the 19th-century renovation of the then-dilapidated cathedral. Zoe is concerned that her old foes, the backwards alchemists (who try to use destructive shortcuts to achieve transformations), might attempt to use the drawing to regain their power.

This novella works nicely as a stand-alone, since Pandian gives just enough backstory to allow newcomers to get on board. (There’s even an excerpt of the first book in the series, The Accidental Alchemist, at the end.) For people (like me!) who have been eagerly awaiting the next installment of Zoe and Dorian’s adventures, this clever mystery provides a welcome chance to catch up with some old friends.

“Careful What You Wish For” by Hallie Ephron

Careful What You Wish ForMarie Kondo’s decluttering method, highlighted by the now-famous question declutterers are supposed to ask themselves as they handle each of their possessions—”Does it spark joy?”—has become such a part of the culture that it’s not surprising that Kondo-mania has now inspired a mystery novel. “Emily Harlow wasn’t convinced that her sock drawer sparked joy” is the first line of Hallie Ephron’s Careful What You Wish For. When a clever video made by Emily documenting her sock-sorting process goes viral, she decides to cash in by quitting her teaching job and becoming a professional organizer.

However, swapping a class of third graders for an assortment of messy adults proves dangerous for Emily when she gets caught up in a murder investigation. A body is found in a self-storage unit belonging to one of her clients, and the police seem to think that she may have been involved in the crime.

Ironically, Emily’s own husband, Frank, a lawyer, is a clutterbug himself; he can’t resist a yard sale or an auction, filling up the basement of their home with his finds. One of Emily’s new clients, Mrs. Murphy, is a recent widow who needs help parting with her husband’s possessions, some of which appear to have been acquired by extralegal means. Another client, Quinn Newell, is a wealthy woman whose controlling spouse wants her to get rid of all of the furniture and possessions she owned before they were married. During their first meeting, Quinn quips that she wishes she could chuck her husband out with the rest of her cast-offs. As the book’s title says, careful what you wish for…

Ephron is the author of several best-selling novels, along with a well-regarded how-to book for wannabe mystery writers; she is a consummate pro who knows how to build suspense and keep readers wondering what will happen next. With Careful What You Wish For, she’s come up with a winning concept and executed it as tidily as a Kondo’d closet.

“The Glass Thief” by Gigi Pandian

The Glass ThiefThe first book I finished in 2019 was Gigi Pandian’s anthology The Cambodian Curse and Other Stories, so it seemed only fitting that I closed the year with her latest novel, The Glass Thief. This is the sixth novel in her Jaya Jones series, about the adventures of a globe-trotting San Francisco professor who is often called upon to find historical treasures.

The Glass Thief kicks off with a prologue about an eerie mystery: in 1950, the heir to a tea-company fortune died after falling down the stairs of his Paris mansion. Exactly one year later, his widow perished in the same fashion. Right before she died, she claimed that her assailant was a ghost. Years later, one of their descendants became the latest victim of the family curse, pushed by an “invisible hand.”

We soon find out that the prologue is actually the first chapter of a new book by the best-selling thriller writer Rick Coronado, one of Jaya’s favorite authors until he suddenly disappeared several years ago. Rick has sent it to Jaya, hoping she’ll help him make a comeback by working as an adviser on his new book. His series heroine, Gabriela Glass, has a lot in common with Jaya: they are both treasure-hunters. “I feel we’re kindred spirits, you and I,” Rick tells Jaya in a letter. “I’ve read all about you and your travels. You’re living the adventures I once wrote about.”

As she reads on, it soon becomes clear to Jaya that Rick doesn’t just want her to critique his manuscript—he also wants her to help him find a priceless statue that was hidden in the Paris mansion he described. It turns out the novel is a lightly fictionalized version of something that actually happened… and someone Jaya is close to may have been involved. She jets off to France and then Cambodia in search of answers.

Pandian’s books are always a lot of fun, especially for the armchair traveler (though I was so eager for the answers to the central mystery that a chapter in which Jaya goes sightseeing at Angkor Wat seemed a bit superfluous). I did appreciate that she included a couple of Easter eggs for fans of the late Elizabeth Peters, whose mysteries featuring art historian Vicky Bliss and Egyptologist Amelia Peabody were huge influences on Pandian’s work.

There’s a seemingly never-ending supply of new mysteries and thrillers hitting the market today, but Pandian’s books fill a pretty particular niche; if you’re a fan of Peters, Indiana Jones, cozies that aren’t overly precious, or you just like reading about a strong female heroine traveling around the world, this is a series worth checking out.