“The Department of Sensitive Crimes” by Alexander McCall Smith

The Department of Sensitive CrimesOccasionally, a book comes along that I feel uniquely well-qualified to review. Such is definitely the case with The Department of Sensitive Crimes, the first novel in Alexander McCall Smith’s new series featuring Swedish detective Ulf Varg. Not only have I been reading the author’s books for many years now, but because I was born in Sweden and have spent a lot of time there, I felt I would have a good sense for how authentically Swedish the characters and settings seem to be.

And the answer is… not very. The book is set in Malmö, which is located in southern Sweden, just across the Öresund Bridge from Copenhagen. I will admit that while I have crossed that bridge, I have never actually visited Malmö, but really, he could have chosen Karlstad or Mora or Göteborg and it wouldn’t have made much difference. There is a plot point that requires Varg to make a crucial discovery at a nude beach, and it is probably true that the province of Skåne has more beaches than other parts of the country. But otherwise, there’s no flavor of the city itself.

Curious about Zimbabwe-born Scotsman McCall Smith’s connections to Sweden, I found this article, which states that the author “has visited Sweden on numerous book tours” and is a big fan of Swedish crime shows. He calls his new series “Scandi-blanc,” the opposite of the Scandinavian noir of authors like Henning Mankell, Lars Kepler and Jo Nesbø. “The basic idea for doing Scandi-blanc came from the general enthusiasm that people have for the Scandinavian noir. I loved the idea of really deflating the body count aspect of crime fiction, where everything is so ghastly that people are chopping one another to bits… there are no bodies in these, [they’re] just really ridiculous. It’s all tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at these stock images of Scandinavian crime.”

Readers of McCall Smith’s Botswana-set No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency will be familiar with the kind of low-stakes crimes investigated by Varg and his colleagues in the Sensitive Crimes Department of the Malmö Criminal Investigation Authority. A man is stabbed in the back of the knee; there are mysterious goings-on at a resort hotel; a college student invents a boyfriend to get her friends to stop asking her about her love life, but when she decides to make him disappear, one of her roommates reports the matter to the police, who must then investigate the case of a missing person who doesn’t actually exist.

I only found one really glaring error: the aforementioned college student was raised by a single mother, who was not able to pursue higher education herself because “she simply could not afford to pay for several years of childcare” along with her studies. Sweden has had free or heavily subsidized childcare available since 1975, so that shouldn’t have been an issue for a girl born in the 1990s.

Avid readers of Scandinavian crime fiction may spot some references to other authors’ work, intentional or not: for instance, there’s already a famous Scandinavian detective named Varg, Norwegian author Gunnar Staalesen’s private eye Varg Veum. The Department of Sensitive Crimes is a bit like Copenhagen’s Department Q in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s series, and Skåne was where Henning Mankell set his Kurt Wallander mysteries.

Still, despite these nitpicks, I’d happily read another one of these gentle, comically absurd mysteries, and while Ulf Varg is no Martin Beck, he does have a melancholy, reflective side: “He thought of all the ways that so many people felt about life. Life was a matter of regret—how could it be anything else? We knew that we would lose the things we loved; we knew that sooner or later we would lose everything, and beyond that was a darkness, a state of non-being that we found hard to imagine, let alone accept.”

“Under a Dark Sky” by Lori Rader-Day

Under A Dark SkyIf you were to ask me to describe my ideal reading environment, I might picture a rainy Sunday afternoon, a mug of tea and a comfy couch. Or perhaps a deck chair next to a pool. Even a long flight, provided turbulence and screaming infants were kept to a minimum.

The opposite of those scenarios involves me spending all day trying fruitlessly to catch up on my never-ending workload, followed by a few hours moving and sorting boxes as I try to clear out a relative’s multiple storage units. At the end of the day, I collapse into bed, pick up a book, and feel my eyelids starting to droop almost immediately. That’s why it took me two weeks to finish Lori Rader-Day’s Under A Dark Sky, and the reason I suspect I can’t quite give this novel a fair shake. It’s almost 400 pages long, and it felt long, but is that just because I was reading it in such small increments, when I wasn’t at my best?

The book has a fascinating premise: Eden Wallace, a young widow from Chicago, arrives at a dark sky park (an area with no artificial lighting, allowing visitors to observe the night sky free from light pollution) in northern Michigan on what would have been her 10th anniversary. After her husband was killed in an accident, Eden developed a paralyzing fear of the dark. But she also came across some papers indicating that he’d been planning to take her to the park as an anniversary surprise. Sure, it seems like a terrible idea (sort of like someone who has an incapacitating tulip phobia deciding to visit Amsterdam in the spring), but she decides to go anyway, bringing along some high-wattage lightbulbs to help keep her room nice and bright.

She immediately discovers, to her dismay, that her husband had only rented one room in the park’s guest house, not the entire thing, so she’s going to be sharing the facilities with six annoying millennials who are having a reunion four years after they graduated from college. (Five, actually—the sixth woman is the new girlfriend of one of the alums.) Eden decides she has no interest in crashing their party, and plans to head home the next day. But when one of her fellow guests is murdered, she is forced to stick around until the culprit is found.

Rader-Day writes beautifully about grief and fear, but I feel like the novel could have been a little tighter and the killer’s motive a little clearer. Still, Under A Dark Sky did make me want to visit a dark sky preserve someday. The one in the book is based on the real-life Headlands Park in Mackinaw City, MI, and yes, it has a guest house, though anyone who reads this book will no doubt think twice before agreeing to share it with a group of strangers.

“Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads SingI try to keep tabs on the latest hot crime fiction, but I’ll admit that Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing wasn’t on my radar at all until I noticed it had started climbing the New York Times bestseller list. Credit Reese Witherspoon’s book club for making it a hit. I do think Reese has good taste, and it’s wonderful that she’s using her celebrity to spotlight new fiction by a diverse range of mostly-female authors. I’ve reviewed several of her selections, including recent picks The Proposal and One Day in December.

Where the Crawdads Sing has likely continued to sell well because it has all the ingredients of a word-of-mouth hit. It’s a coming-of-age story, always a popular genre; it tells the tale of a poor, neglected young girl conquering difficult circumstances; and there’s a murder mystery, to boot.

I found the book extremely compelling, and whenever I had to put it down to go do something else, I felt its pull—returning to Owens’ lovingly-described North Carolina marshland felt like a reprieve from the hectic modern world. “The wind picked up, and thousands upon thousands of yellow sycamore leaves broke from their life support and streamed across the sky,” goes one lyrical passage. “Autumn leaves don’t fall; they fly. They take their time and wander on this, their only chance to soar.”

Owens, who spent decades living in isolation as a wildlife scientist in Africa, writes with authority about Kya, a young girl whose entire family abandons her, one by one, until she is left alone. Managing to avoid school except for one traumatic day when the kids in town made fun of her for being “marsh trash,” Kya eventually learns to read from a sympathetic young man who begins to pay visits to her remote cabin and slowly gains her trust. Chapters depicting Kya’s childhood and teen years alternate with ones taking place several years later, in the immediate aftermath of the suspicious death of the privileged Chase Andrews, who is everything that Kya is not: popular, well-off, with loving parents. Eventually, the two timelines intersect.

This is definitely not a conventional mystery novel, but it’s a lovely, sometimes heartbreaking work. And I hope the fans who have made this book a bestseller will go on to discover Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter, which also features a young woman growing up in a wild, beautiful and lonely place.

“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.