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BOOK REVIEWS>>

Insightful Books Reviews 
New Book Reviews

Our reviews section examines the latest mystery offerings, covering books, anthologies, audio books, and videos. 

Updated Review Pages from 2005
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New Review: Page 4
More Reviews: 2005/2006

3RD DEGREE

by James Patterson and Andrew Gross

New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004.  $26.95

This third installment in the “Women’s Murder Club” series finds James Patterson and Andrew Gross’ four heroines engulfed in a drama influenced by both the terrorism of September 11, 2001 and the protest movements of the 1960s.

An Internet millionaire and his wife have been killed by a bomb, their deaths followed, three days later, by the murder of a prominent businessman. Additional killings are promised every three days unless the delegates of the upcoming G-8 summit denounce the abuses of multinational corporations and implement policies designed to improve the lives of people worldwide. As in the previous books in this series, San Francisco Police Lieutenant Lindsay Boxer once again unofficially enlists the help of three of her women friends—a medical examiner, an assistant district attorney, and a crime reporter—in the investigation. 

While the majority of the story focuses on Boxer, the authors often shift the point of view to other members of the Women’s Murder Club and to the killers.  The story is at its best when the characterization of the killers is being developed and their level of commitment to the protests and the reasons for the killings are being explored.

In addition to dealing with the criminal investigation, Boxer begins to move beyond the personal trauma she endured during the first book in the series, 1st to Die—a portion of the story which closely resembles the first book’s romantic subplot. 

Much of the advertising for this book focused on the death of one of the continuing characters.  While that death is indeed a turning point in the story, 3rd Degree doesn’t need a marketing gimmick to sell it.  Patterson and Gross keep the action moving quickly with several twists and turns.  The first two books show the authors learning about their characters and how they interact.  3rd Degree finds Patterson and Gross now comfortable with their playing field.  They’ve delivered a very satisfying reading experience.

 —Neal Alhadeff

DOUBLE PLAY

by Robert B. Parker

New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 2004.  $24.95

Robert B. Parker adds another heavy hitter to his literary lineup with Double Play, a multilevel thriller starring Joseph Burke, a bodyguard hired to protect Jackie Robinson during his historic rookie season with the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers.

The story begins with Burke awakening in a naval hospital some time after being seriously wounded at Guadalcanal.  Burke had gone to war at age 18 and has returned much older than any calendar could ever measure. 

Along with recovering from his wounds, Burke must deal with the pain of being abandoned by his wife, a woman Burke met and married shortly before leaving for the Pacific theatre of World War II.  This double trauma leaves Burke an unfeeling husk, moving through life like a leaf in a breeze.

Aimlessly, Burke becomes involved with a local Boston mobster, first as a boxer and later as the mobster’s collection department.  Ultimately, Burke finds himself moving to New York to work for political figure Julius Roach.

Roach hires Burke to serve as a bodyguard for his daughter Lauren, who has a history of rebellion against her father and who has recently ended a messy affair with the son of a local mobster.  Burke succeeds at this job, but ends up in an affair with the needy Lauren.  Roach fires Burke but recommends him to Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Rickey is about to bring Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers, breaking Major League Baseball’s long-held color line.  Burke’s job is twofold—protect Robinson from those who don’t want that line broken, and protect Robinson from defending himself as a man of Robinson’s strong character and moral fiber might.

As Robinson and the Dodgers move through that historic baseball season, Robinson and Burke must deal with racially motivated threats as well as those from a mobster who feels Robinson has slighted him.  Additionally, Lauren Roach has returned to her former boyfriend, who is seeking revenge against Burke.

In some ways Double Play reads like Parker’s Spenser books.  The noble characters on both sides of the law follow an unwritten code.  The relationship between Robinson and his unseen wife, Rachel, is much like that between Spenser and Susan Silverman.  And the verbal interplay between Burke and Robinson, and later between Burke and gunman Cash, is reminiscent of Spenser and Hawk.

In other ways, though, the clean slate of this stand-alone book frees Parker.  He’s able to develop his characters in ways and at a pace that series fiction often prevents.  Through the bonding of Robinson and Burke and Robinson’s fight to integrate baseball and advance racial conditions in America, we see Burke evolve from that floating leaf to a caring person who has found things worth believing in and fighting for.

Interspersed throughout the book are seemingly autobiographical chapters where a Parker-like character reminisces about learning to love baseball and specifically the Brooklyn Dodgers.  By 1947, the two most important things in this teenage character’s life are sex and baseball.  For this book’s purpose, the focus remains mostly on baseball.

Parker’s love of baseball has been evident throughout his career, with the national pastime playing both prominent and background roles in many of the Spenser books.  (Spenser frequently wears a Brooklyn Dodgers cap, as does Parker in some of his dust jacket photos.)  This successful melding of baseball story and crime thriller is one of Parker’s strongest efforts.

—Neal Alhadeff

 

 

RAGTIME IN SIMLA

by Barbara Cleverly

New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003.  $24.00

British author Barbara Cleverly debuted her magnetic Scotland Yard hero and World War I British Intelligence officer Joe Sandilands in 2001’s The Last Kashmiri Rose, a book set in exotic 1920s India in which Sandilands was called on to help modernize the Bengal Police. Staying on longer than he had originally expected, in this second book of the series Sandilands goes to Simla in the cool Himalayan foothills (the summer capital of the British Raj) to vacation as a guest of that “devious old bastard” Sir George Jardine, Lieutenant Governor of Bengal.  Sandilands has a scarred soul which is echoed by his face—once handsome and tanned, now split brutally into two halves by a terrible wound received during trench warfare.  A face, as Cleverly says, “with two sides, one serene, the other scarred, distorted—hard to read.”

On his way up to Simla in Jardine’s elegant open-topped Packard limousine, his fellow passenger—the famed baritone Feodor Korosovsky—is shot dead while bursting into operatic raptures at the view.  Sandilands soon discovers that Korosovsky’s murder is only the latest in a string of sniper homicides at that very spot, called the Devil’s Elbow.  With the help of congenial Simla police superintendent Charles Carter, Sandilands untangles a welter of crisscrossing motives involving captivating women on both sides of the law. 

A detective in the classic Golden Age mode, the complicated and sophisticated Sandilands proves just as resourceful and insightful as Kipling’s Kim (who had kept Sandilands’ morale up “through four years in the hell of France”), using both his objective reason and the empathy he gained in the war to emerge from this perilous case touched, but not tainted, by regrets.  In addition to being an interesting character study, Cleverly’s book is also a brilliant evocation of a little-known historical and geographic milieu.

            —Mitzi M. Brunsdale

 

 

 

THE RAILWAY DETECTIVE

by Edward Marston
London: Allison & Busby Limited, 2004.  $25.95

Edward Marston is a prolific author of historical mysteries, with series set in the Elizabethan theater world, at the time of the Norman Conquest, and during the Regency.  This latest, The Railway Detective, is set in mid nineteenth century London. 

It is 1851 and railroads are expanding throughout England, though many do not like the expansion or the idea of traveling on a train.  In the first case of its kind in England, the London to Birmingham mail train—traveling on the London and North Western Railway—is robbed when a gang of criminals, several disguised as railway police, stop the train and steal its shipment of gold coins.  The engineer is pistol-whipped when he defies the bandits, and the fireman barely escapes with his life when he is forced to drive the engine towards tracks that have been tampered with.

Detective Inspector Robert Colbeck of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate the case.  Though he dresses like a dandy, he is highly competent, and with his sergeant, Victor Lemming, sets about examining the scene and interviewing witnesses to the crime as well as everyone involved in shipping the gold. Colbeck and Lemming soon find out who leaked the information about the shipment, but before they are able to apprehend those who sold out to the criminals, both suspects are murdered.  Even with his leads cut off, Colbeck is able to deduce what type of man could have led this criminal gang, which eventually leads to his solving of the case.

This is a fast-paced and thoroughly enjoyable mystery.  Inspector Colbeck is very much in the form of Sherlock Holmes, bemoaning other police ruining the crime scene, finding clues others miss, using disguises, using a magnifying glass, and, of course, making accurate deductions about the criminal’s next move.  (This is especially interesting since the book takes place in 1851, over thirty years before Holmes’ ‘appearance’ on the London criminal scene.)  Unlike Holmes, however, Colbeck is obviously attracted to the opposite sex, and the developing attraction between him and the engineer’s daughter adds a nice subplot to the story.

All in all this is a very enjoyable read with likable main characters, an interesting story, and a beautiful development of the historical background.  I hope there will be more Inspector Colbeck mysteries to follow.

—Martin Friedenthal

 

 

THE RETURN OF

THE BLACK WIDOWERS

by Isaac Asimov, edited by Charles Ardai

New York: Carroll & Graff, 2003.  $24.00

With over five hundred books to his credit Isaac Asimov is best known as a writer of science fiction, but he delved into other fields as well, including mystery writing.  Among his greatest achievements in this field were the stories featuring the “Black Widowers,” most of which were originally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and then republished in five volumes of twelve stories each.  Now we have a posthumous volume, The Return of the Black Widowers, edited by Charles Ardai.  If you have read the stories, you’ll want to run out and get this volume because it not only contains eleven previously collected stories, but also six stories that have never appeared in book form before and two “Black Widowers” homages by other authors.

The Black Widowers are six men who meet once a month at a restaurant for drinks, a meal, conversation, and to ‘grill’ a guest (usually beginning with the question “How do you justify your existence?”)  Each story involves the guest presenting to the members a problem he cannot solve.  Usually this problem it not a crime, but instead a strange occurrence of some sort.  After all of the members have made suggestions as to the solution of the problem (none of which solves it to the guest’s satisfaction), Henry, the sixtyish waiter considered by all to be a member of the Black Widowers, comes up with the correct solution.  Sometimes the solution involves an esoteric bit of knowledge that the reader is unlikely to be familiar with, but more often it just involves common sense and fair play.

I have read all of the previous Black Widowers volumes, and was happy to find, in reading this book, that the stories were as good as I remember, with the “new” ones being on the same level as the sixty previously collected stories.  In fact, in rereading them I realized that these classic armchair mysteries (everything occurs in the dining room and the answers all come from Henry’s brain) are similar to the Sherlock Holmes stories, with the Black Widowers playing the part of Watson, expounding erroneous answers that help lead Henry, our Sherlock Holmes, to the correct solution.

Included with the volume is an excellent introduction by Harlan Ellison, two homage stories which Dr. Asimov would have not been ashamed to have written himself, and Asimov’s own explanation about how the Black Widowers came into being.  This book is a joy, and a must for those already familiar with the stories as well as those who want an excellent introduction to Isaac Asimov’s world of mystery.

—Martin Friedenthal

 

 

R IS FOR RICOCHET

by Sue Grafton

New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004. $26.95

Sue Grafton’s march through the alphabet continues with R is for Ricochet, the 18th installment in her Kinsey Millhone saga.  In this case, though, Grafton delivers a nice change-of-pace story.

Kinsey finds herself hired by wealthy Nord Lafferty.  Nord’s free-spirited daughter, Reba, is about to be paroled from prison after serving time for embezzlement.  Kinsey’s job is to babysit Reba, ensuring she doesn’t get into trouble during her reacclimation to the free world.

Kinsey takes the job, thinking it to be an easy paycheck.  Instead, she finds herself playing the wild and impulsive Reba’s sidekick in a game of paybacks and double and triple crosses.

While Grafton’s Millhone series has always had an element of humor, “R” is a much lighter book than most of the others.  There are still plenty of thrills, murders, and life-threatening situations, but the entertaining interplay between Kinsey—who never fails to over think her relationships and actions—and the spontaneous Reba form the heart of this book.  R” also includes some of the best dialog Grafton has written.

Under Reba’s influence, Kinsey finds herself changing, taking chances with her long neglected romantic life and her wardrobe (yes, her famous all-purpose black dress gets some company).  In short, Kinsey begins to recognize how her personality has affected her life and she begins to address this.  Hopefully, “S” will not be for status quo and Kinsey will continue to evolve.

—Neal Alhadeff

 

 

THE SHIFTING TIDE

by Anne Perry

New York: Ballantine, 2004.  $25.95

Anne Perry’s William Monk series is considerably darker than her popular Thomas and Charlotte Pitt Victorian mysteries.  Monk, a former police detective, makes his living as a private inquiry agent investigating crimes in Britain’s teeming capital while he struggles to unearth the memories he lost in a London carriage accident.  Monk’s wife, the former Crimean nurse Hester Latterly, is an incorrigible do-gooder passionately dedicated to helping the poor and downtrodden victims of Victorian hypocrisy and social injustice, like the prostitutes for whom she has set up a free clinic in a London slum.

In The Shifting Tide, Monk and Hester face a financial crisis because Hester contributes her services gratis to the clinic and Monk’s income is at best sporadic.  Worse, their wealthy friend and principal benefactress Lady Callandra Daviot is leaving for Europe to be married.  Monk, in desperation, takes on a job in a fearsome area unknown to him, the London docks—complete with exotic cargoes, menacing intrigues, shady deals, and wharf rats—where “mudlarks” (impoverished slum children) eke out a precarious living scavenging lumps of coal and other jetsam washed up on the reeking flats of the Thames.

When shipping magnate Clement Louvain engages Monk to investigate the theft of a load of African ivory from the Maude Idris, a recently docked schooner, Monk soon discovers there’s been a murder, which Louvain warns him not to investigate.  Meanwhile, at her clinic Hester is tending a critically ill woman Louvain claims is the discarded mistress of an old friend.  When the woman’s illness turns out to be the horrifying bubonic plague, Monk and Hester risk everything to contain the menace that could devastate all of England. 

Full of local color, familiar characters, and trademark plot devices, this typical Perry mystery offers Monk under pressure, Hester self-sacrificing to the point of heroism, a stark portrait of a Mammon-worshipping upper class drunk with power and blind to the suffering of its workers and its poor, and a handily contrived dénouement.

—Mitzi M. Brunsdale

 

 

SNAP HOOK

by John Corrigan

New Hampshire: University Press of

New England, 2004.  $24.95

The Russian mob, dyslexia, and the PGA tour.  They may seem like strange bedfellows, especially when you toss in romance and a kidnapping.  But John Corrigan weaves these elements into a clever tapestry with Snap Hook, his second mystery featuring pro-golfer hero Jack Austin (the first being Cut Shot in 2001), a man whose career suffers because of his inability to ignore others in need.

As the novel opens, Jack is meeting in Florida with Brian Taylor, director of charities for the PGA.  After discussing Jack’s recent act of philanthropy—hiring a disadvantaged youth as his caddy—Brian invites the golf pro to work with him on the PGA’s goodwill effort to bring American-style golf to the former Soviet Union.  But just as the PGA tour begins, Brian Taylor’s infant daughter is kidnapped, and Jack finds that some things are more important than the tournament.

Much of the novel deals with Jack’s relationship with his new caddy, Nash Henley, a black kid from the inner city with a promising future in football and a crippling case of dyslexia.  Jack takes to the young man immediately, having struggled with his own severe case of dyslexia.  This relationship between pro and caddy—simultaneously tense and tender—serves as one of the major plotlines in the book.

Another plotline follows Jack’s romantic relationship with CBS sports journalist Lisa Trembly, as the two hover on the razor’s edge between matrimony and breakup.

The plotline that should have taken center stage is the one involving Jack’s friend and colleague Brian Taylor, who, it seems, has sold his soul (and his daughter) to the Russian mob.  Unfortunately, this aspect of the story gets lost amid all the golf details.

Thus, Snap Hook is filled with good stories to tell, but the course is so crowded with them that several plotlines get lost in the rough.  Golfers will undoubtedly enjoy Snap Hook for its accurate look at life on the PGA tour.  But even non-golfers will find it worthwhile to sift through the fairway jargon and multiple plotlines in order to follow Jack Austin in this and subsequent adventures.

—Steven Steinbock

 

 

SOME DANGER INVOLVED

by Will Thomas

New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.  $22.95

Some Danger Involved is the first book in what may become an excellent series of historical mysteries.  Set in London during the late Victorian era, it is narrated by Welshman Thomas Llewelyn.  Broke and unable to get a job, Llewelyn answers an ad asking for an “Assistant to prominent enquiry agent.”  The ad also notes that there might be “Some danger involved in performance of duties.”  (A definite understatement as it turns out.)  Picked by Cyrus Barker—who prefers to be called a private enquiry agent, as opposed to a private detective—out of the many who apply, Llewelyn is given new clothes and a place to live in Barker’s household, and is immediately plunged into his first case.

Louis Pokrzywa, a Polish Jew, is murdered and then crucified, his body left by the Petticoat Lane market.  A sign claiming it was the work of the Anti-Semite League is attached to the body.  Barker is hired by Sir Moses Montefiore to find out if the murder is connected to other anti-Semitic acts occurring around London.  Barker and Llewelyn move about London interviewing both Jews and anti-Semites in order to solve the murder and prevent an organized attack against the Jews.

Some Danger Involved is consistently interesting.  Llewelyn is a pleasant narrator with a nice sense of humor.  Barker is filled with eccentricities, and while one can make some parallels to both Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe, he remains his own man.  The book is interesting throughout as both a mystery and a look at Victorian London.  I am looking forward to the promised sequel as I believe the books will only get better.  Definitely worth your while to get in at the start of this new series of historical mysteries.

—Martin Friedenthal

 

 

UNCOMMON GROUNDS

by Sandra Balzo

Maine: Five Star, 2004.  $25.95

Sandra Balzo is no stranger to the mystery world, either as a fan or as a publicist.  Last year her short story, “The Grass is Always Greener,” earned her the Robert L. Fish Award.  Here she serves up a rich blend of mystery, humor, romance and caffeine, with an anti-government militia group thrown in for good measure. 

Maggy Thorson, a divorced, thirty-something former PR executive, and her two partners, Patricia Harper and Caron Egan, are preparing for the Grand Opening of their coffeehouse, “Uncommon Grounds.”  But when Patricia brews up a late-night latte, she gets zapped into the next life when the rigged steam wand of the espresso machine electrocutes her.  Who would want to kill Patricia?  As Maggy probes small town infidelities, financial irregularities, and a local election, she turns up with plenty of suspects.

Before long, Maggy finds herself in an uneasy love triangle, torn between the town’s police chief and the county sheriff.  Meanwhile, Patricia’s bereaved husband apparently commits suicide, opening up a whole new can of worms (or beans, as it were).

Uncommon Grounds is filled with wonderful lore about the coffee world, and includes one of the most clever methods of murder I’ve come across, coffee-related or otherwise-. A coffee house is such an ideal setting for a mystery.

Lovers of traditional “cozy” mysteries will enjoy the book for its small town milieu and the amusing interactions of the town’s people, even though some of the characters particularly the bad ones—are not well developed.  The identity of the killer may strain the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, and the right wing militia group may come across as implausible.  But the high-caffeine energy of this book makes reading it a pleasure.

—Steven Steinbock

 

 

AUDIOBOOKS

 

THE BLACKBIRD PAPERS

by Ian Smith

Read by Brent Jennings

Santa Ana, CA: Books on Tape, 2004.

 $39.95 (8 cassettes) /

$44.95 (10 CDs) 12 hours.  Unabridged. 

Professor Wilson Bledsoe, a biologist at Dartmouth College and one of the college’s few African-American faculty members, is beloved across campus, being a thoughtful, down-to-earth professor.  One night as he is driving home from a party held in his honor for receiving an international award for his research, he stops to assist a pair of men with a broken-down pickup.  It is a good deed that turns out to be his last. 

After Bledsoe goes missing, his younger brother Sterling, a special agent for the FBI, arrives in Hanover to comfort his sister-in-law and ends up taking on the case himself.  When Professor Bledsoe’s body is eventually found, mutilated by racial epithets carved into his torso, Sterling is skeptical that the murder was a hate crime.

Professor Bledsoe had been known for keeping immaculate records, so Sterling is puzzled to find very little of his brother’s research or details of the announcement he had been planning to make.  Just as Special Agent Bledsoe begins to uncover a bizarre environmental situation—massive deaths among the local blackbird population—his face inexplicably appears in a security photo linking him to the death of his brother.  Suddenly, the hunter has become the hunted.  Now a fugitive, Bledsoe must find the actual killer to clear his own name.

Author Ian Smith narrated the abridged version of The Blackbird Papers for Random House Audio, and did a more than adequate job.  He provided the sort of intellectual authority that the book and its characters call for.  Actor Brent Jennings, by contrast, reads this unabridged recording with plenty of street savvy, but with complete disregard for the style and demeanor of physicians and university professors and for the speech patterns of rural New England.  Jennings reads the novel with such a strong inner city Afro-centric accent that some listeners may find themselves wishing audiobooks came with subtitles.

The Blackbird Papers is a good fast-paced thriller peopled with interesting characters and situations.  It is unfortunate that Books On Tape didn’t pay closer attention to the style and setting of the novel when selecting and directing the narrator.

 —Steven Steinbock

LITTLE SCARLET

by Robert Mosley

Read by Michael Boatman

Santa Ana, CA: Books on Tape, 2004. 

$29.95 (5 cassettes)

$34.95 (7 CDs)

7.5 hours.

It is the fall of 1965, a time when the crew of Gemini Five was preparing for takeoff, Martin Luther King was alive and preaching, and the soot, ashes, and broken glass of the Watts Riots had yet to settle in Los Angeles.  Walter Mosley’s ninth novel to feature Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is set amidst racial tensions in the aftermath of the riots that shook Los Angeles and the world for five days.

In the opening chapter of Little Scarlet, Easy Rawlins is helping one of his tenants pick up the pieces of a torched and looted shoe repair shop.  In walks Melvin Suggs, a white LAPD detective, asking Easy to assist the city in a delicate matter.  A young black woman has been murdered, possibly by a white man.  If word of the investigation gets out on the streets, it could easily reignite the embers of the riot.

In a style setting him squarely in the tradition of Raymond Chandler, Mosley brings the greed, corruption, and jaded hopes of the L.A streets alive as he confronts the complexities of race relations, civil rights, and mixed-race marriages.

As an added bonus for Mosley fans, Little Scarlet includes a brief cameo appearance by Paris Minton, the Los Angeles bookstore owner of Mosley’s “Fearless Jones” series.

Actor Michael Boatman delivers Mosley’s story with smooth confidence, and navigates through characters of various races and nationalities effortlessly.  The precise but unselfconscious manner in which Boatman reads Little Scarlet will have the listener hanging on every word.

—Steven Steinbock

THE RULE OF FOUR

by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

Read by Jeff Woodman

New York: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2004. 

$49.95 (9 cassettes) 13 hours.  Unabridged.  

It is April of 1999.  Four college seniors take a much needed break from their studies by sneaking into the utility tunnels beneath the campus of Princeton University for a rousing game of laser tag.  Before graduation, the boys’ experience will be marred by betrayal and murder.  A building will burn down.  A stolen book will be found.  A thesis will be stolen.  Several scholars will lay dead.  Detention is the least of these boys’ worries.

This novel has been compared to Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, which is unfortunate as it slights both novels and cheats the reader.  The Rule of Four contains a coded fifteenth-century manuscript, religious controversy, and suspense.  But the comparison ends there.

The narrator of The Rule of Four is Tom Sullivan, an English major whose father was killed in a car accident when Tom was a teenager.  Tom’s father had devoted his life to deciphering the secret of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a book written in the 1490s that purports to be a tale of love expressed through dreams, but which also contains—hidden amongst its riddles, acrostics, and ciphers—a priceless secret. Tom and Paul Harris (a bookish boy Tom befriended as a freshman, who idolizes the work of Tom’s father) begin working together to solve the mystery of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.

Interestingly, in another parallel to The DaVinci Code, the research of Tom and Paul on the Hypnerotomachia is based on actual scholarship and a very real book.  The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili was actually published anonymously in Venice in 1499.  The book is surrounded by mystery, from the unknown identity of the author to the many coded messages in the text.

Jeff Woodman’s reading is youthful without being trite.  He captures the feel of undergraduate life as he narrates the adventures of the four young men—Tom and Paul as well as their roommates, Charlie Freeman and Gil Rankin.  This is a complex story with many subtle elements.  An abridged version of this audiobook is also available, but listeners are well-advised to stick with the unabridged edition.

—Steven Steinbock

The Game: A Novel of Suspense

featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes

by Laurie R. King

New York: Bantam, 2004. $23.95

Laurie King’s seventh installment in her bestselling Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series has all the magnetic appeal of the best of the original Conan Doyle novels—exotic atmosphere, abundant perils, rich characterizations, dramatic clashes of ideologies and cultures—with the added attraction of the ongoing relationship between the great detective and the years-younger, half Jewish, totally compelling woman he took first as his crime-solving partner, then as his wife.

Unexpectedly summoned on January 2, 1924 by Holmes’ brother Mycroft, a powerful shadowy figure high up in His Majesty’s Secret Service, Mary and Holmes learn that a mysterious package has arrived in England purported to contain news of Kimball O’Hara, the prototype for Rudyard Kipling’s famous novel Kim. Once a charismatic spy in the "Great Game" of espionage in the harsh mountainous border region between Imperial Russia and British-dominated India—where Holmes had encountered him thirty years earlier—O’Hara has now been missing for nearly three years. Mycroft needs to know if O’Hara has either been killed or made into a dangerous double agent threatening British interests on the Indian subcontinent at a time when the Indians, led by Mahatma Gandhi, are beginning to clamor for independence.

Dispatched posthaste on the long voyage to India, Mary and Holmes find themselves threatened by suspicious fellow passengers and ominous "accidents" on side trips ashore. Upon their arrival in India, they disguise themselves as itinerant magicians to search for news of O’Hara in the strategic northern principality of Khanpur, not far, as the crow flies, from the Russian border.

King’s prose, always superbly crafted, positively glitters in her depiction of the degenerate maharajah and his faraway realm. While playing Mary Russell’s indomitable and self-reliant pragmatism (she, though a novice, manages to get both first blood and a kill in the maharajah’s favorite sport—"pig-sticking" savage wild boar) against Holmes’ witty and dashing adventurism, King enthralls us with her stunning portrayal of India on the cusp of independence in a world where the first storm clouds of World War II are already forming. A truly bravura performance.

—Mitzi M. Brunsdale

 

Crime Through Time III

edited by Sharan Newman with an introduction by Anne Perry.

New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2000. $6.99

This third volume of historical crime stories adds a number of new names to the ranks of historic detective fiction. Established authors of historical mysteries—such as Miriam Grace Monfredo, Jan Burke, Peter Lovesey, Steven Saylor, and Peter Robinson—are joined by mystery writers Margaret Coel, H.R.F. Keating, and Andrew Greeley, as well as five authors better known for their work in the science fiction/fantasy field. The stories in Crime Through Time III progress chronologically through historical eras beginning with Steven Saylor’s "The Consul’s Wife," a clever tale set in the first century BC in which Gordianus the Finder sets out to foil a murder plot, and uncovers something altogether different while at the chariot races at Circus Maximus. The volume ends with Miriam Grace Monfredo’s "A Single Spy," which is set in rural Pennsylvania during the Vietnam War, where a young widow discovers a document in her backyard that holds the answer to a century-old mystery involving a missing Confederate spy. These two stories—Saylor’s and Monfredo’s—represent not only two ends of a historical timeline, but the two very different styles short crime fiction takes. One is irreverent, clever, and entertaining; the other is emotionally charged and profoundly moving.

The remaining sixteen stories in this anthology cover a broad spectrum of eras. Laura Frankos and Harry Turtledove—a husband and wife who are both prominent science fiction writers in their own rights—each penned stories set in the early years of the Christian Church ("Merchant of Discord" by Frankos and "Farmer’s Law" by Turtledove). Stories by Andrew Greeley ("The Case of the Murdered Pope") and Sharyn McCrumb ("Lark in the Morning") give us surprising portrayals of monastic life during the Middle Ages, while William Sanders’ story, "Smoke," is set in a Cherokee village in the 1790s where a shaman plays sleuth. Peter Robinson and Peter Lovesey have each provided stories set in England in 1874. Robinson, whose In A Dry Season won this year’s Anthony Award for Best Novel, sets his story, "Murder in Utopia," in a "model" mill town where the village physician must find a tenuous balance between the ideals of the village founder and the realities of homicide. Peter Lovesey’s "Dr. Death" is perhaps the most frightening and surprising story in the volume. Like his two historical series (Sergeant Cribb and Bertie, Prince of Wales), "Dr. Death" is Victorian, but its tone and content is far darker as he chronicles a tale of a woman being pursued by a serial slasher.

Two stories give us very different angles on spiritualism and superstition near the beginning of the twentieth century. Eileen Kernaghan, in her story, "Dinner with H.P.B.", takes us to a dinner party at the home of Madame Blavatsky, where a guest has died of strychnine poisoning. In "The Haunting of Carrick Hollow," Jan Burke and Paul Sledzik look into an alleged case of vampirism during a tuberculosis epidemic in a Rhode Island village. This story, among the most powerful in the anthology, is sad, tragic, and poignant, and is likely to stay with the reader long after it has been read.

Two of the lighter stories in the anthology feature historical women as amateur sleuths. Elizabeth Foxwell’s "Come Flit By Me," features a precocious Alice Roosevelt—the daughter of Theodore and cousin to FDR—who solves a mystery while turning life in the White House upside down. In Margaret Coel’s railroad mystery, "Murder on the Denver Express,"—set a decade and a half before the fateful voyage of the Titanic—"unsinkable" Molly Brown witnesses a murder on board the Denver Express.

Crime Through Time III offers stories that will please many tastes. The stories by Robinson, Lovesey, Monfredo, and Burke and Sledzik are powerful, memorable, and highly accessible and will appeal to every reader. Other stories—Greeley’s as well as several by science fiction/fantasy writers—may be too dense for the casual reader, but will be a treat for historical aficionados. On the whole, Crimes Through Time III is a very well designed and enjoyable anthology.

—Steven Steinbock

Guilty Parties: A Mystery Lover’s Companion

by Ian Ousby.

New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997. $24.95

If you are a mystery lover (and if you’re reading the Strand Magazine you probably are) run, do not walk, to your closest bookstore and grab a copy of Ian Ousby’s Guilty Parties: A Mystery Lover’s Companion. At $24.95, this large size paperback is well worth the price for the illustrations—all one hundred and ninety-five of them—alone.

Guilty Parties is a chronological history of the mystery story from Poe’s "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" to today’s new crop of female and foreign detectives. Ousby gives wonderfully clear descriptions and definitions of the various trends in the mystery genre, from the origins, to Sherlock Holmes, the Golden Age, the Hard-Boiled School, film noir, and modern day mystery fiction. The book is interesting and informative even without the illustrations, but it is the illustrations that make it so wonderful. Covers of pulp magazines and original book jackets, stills from movies and TV shows, and pictures of authors fill every page. The book ends with lists of mystery awards around the world and a dated chronology of mystery fiction—all valuable and interesting information which points the reader in the direction of many new and unexplored authors.

This is a valuable, entertaining, and beautiful book that belongs on every mystery lover’s bookshelf. If your bookstore doesn’t have it in stock, ask them to order it. You’ll be glad you did.

—Martin Friedenthal

The Hindenburg Murders

by Max Allan Collins.

New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2000. $6.50

Within the calm elegance of the Hindenburg’s port observation deck, the impossibly debonair creator of The Saint mystery books, Leslie Charteris, looks out on churning black clouds set off by flashes of lightning that could, at any moment, ignite the hydrogen-filled airship on its last flight across the Atlantic. The Hindenburg floats as though untouched, belying the potential for destruction in the air. The atmosphere in the ship seems suspended in an uneasy calm as well. It is nothing like Charteris’ trip on the Hindenburg’s maiden voyage just a year before. Then, everyone sang songs together around the piano. Now passengers, unnerved by the rising political unrest of a continent on the edge of war, eye each other with suspicion, wondering just who among is a Gestapo informer. When an informer goes missing, the possibility of murder is literally in the air, all it would take for the whole thing to go up in flames is a single match.

Edgar-nominated Max Allan Collins’ The Hindenburg Murders presents a beautiful, almost nostalgic portrait of Europe that also conveys the tension which would soon explode into war. His crisp prose drives the story and his craftsmanship reminds one of the fine elegance he describes. Remarkably, Collins follows his previous historical novels—Saving Private Ryan, The Titanic Murders, and the Nathan Heller series—with an equally strong effort, expertly working the machinations of his plot within the very tight confines of both the airship and the events that ended with the premiere symbol of the Third Reich, aflame. The skill with which Collins weaves cultural references around what may be the most visually compelling image of disaster of the twentieth century will leave fans of history, intrigue, and, of course, mystery wishing the flight had lasted longer.

—William Eggers

The Reaper

by Peter Lovesey.

London: Little, Brown and Company, 2000. £16.99

Lovesey’s latest unveiling of the criminal mind at work underscores the venality lurking in the depths of even the most apparently innocent of creatures—in this case the charming young Anglican rector of Foxford. In a quintessentially cozy atmosphere, Lovesey takes a big risk in showing the crime taking place quite openly in his first chapter, when bumptious Bishop Marcus Glastonbury descends from his BMW upon Foxford Rectory to accuse the Reverend Otis Joy of absconding with forty percent of his former parish’s income. In less experienced hands, beginning a murder mystery by having one’s clerical protagonist joyfully brain his bishop with a paperweight replica of St. Paul’s Cathedral, dump the body in a quarry, leave the BMW parked at the brink with a copy of Men Only on the front seat, then use the bishop’s credit card to spend a quarter-hour on Madame Swish’s love-line might seem a bit over the top. However, Lovesey’s dead-on wit, his unerring nose for exact detail, and his perfect timing make this some of the most satisfying noir novel reading imaginable.

In an interview some years ago, Lovesey stated that he likes to look into the dark side of human nature. Best known for the Sergeant Cribb series set in the Victorian period and for his more recent series featuring the Victorian "Bertie," (the popular Prince of Wales who became Edward VII) and the contemporary series featuring a sleuth named Diamond, Lovesey has earned the Gold and Silver Daggers of the Crime Writers’ Association and the prestigious CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger.

Despite The Reaper’s unconventional structure and its reprehensible yet utterly engaging protagonist, this novel unerringly maintains suspense until its last shocking (and quite credible) twist of plot. Only a few practitioners of the art of the murder mystery could pull off this tour de force so convincingly. Only Lovesey could portray evildoing as so inevitable, so entirely possible, so irresistibly tempting, and such a perfect illustration of the epigraph he chose from Samuel Butler: "Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without being found out."

—Mitzi M. Brunsdale

Sherlock Holmes and the Devil’s Grail

by Barrie Roberts.

London: Allison & Busby, 2000. $9.95

Sherlock Holmes and the Devil’s Grail, is an excellent pastiche by Barrie Roberts. It is purported to have been written in 1918 about a case that occurred twenty-three years earlier. Holmes had not wanted it recorded as it could have opened him up for criticism and possibly resulted in his being prosecuted for murder (for which he feels he would have been acquitted). Feeling that the case should be recorded, but not released until after their deaths, Watson wrote this account. With this teaser to pull us in, the author embarks on a fast-moving, well-written Sherlock Holmes adventure.

It is 1895 and Colonel John Vincent Harmen, a rich veteran of the Confederate army, has come to England with his family to take pictures with his stereoscopic camera, which makes inscriptions that are invisible to the naked eye visible. When Holmes and Watson (who are staying at the same hotel as the Harmens while Mrs. Hudson is out of town) are shot at, Holmes realizes that the gunshot was meant for Colonel Harmen. Harmen denies that he is in any trouble, but when his son is kidnapped he sends for Holmes and admits that he has been threatened, since he arrived in England, to leave the country at once. While Holmes is deducing how the boy was taken, he returns—having escaped from the kidnappers. Holmes recognizes the boy’s imitation of the voice of one of his captors as Drew, a disgraced Scotland Yard sergeant who is part of Moriarty’s gang. Finding the house where young Harmen had been held, Holmes discovers that Drew has held orgies there in honor of Demeter—Greek goddess of the harvest—at which Drew’s gang took pictures of the wealthy participants in order to blackmail them. Later, Holmes speaks to Porlock (the informer from Valley of Fear) who reveals that Moriarty and Drew are searching for the Devil’s Grail—what Moriarty calls the greatest treasure in England. Holmes now realizes that Drew sees Colonel Harmen as a threat to his pursuit of the Grail.

Sherlock Holmes and the Devil’s Grail is a fast-moving, intelligent pastiche. Aside from telling a good story in a style close to Doyle’s, Roberts also knows his canon and includes characters from the original stories such as boxer McMurdo, the informer Porlock, and Mrs. Turner the landlady—who turns out to be Mrs. Hudson’s sister. Colonel Harmen himself was the subject of an "unrecorded case" in "The Solitary Cyclist." I strongly recommend this book to anyone looking for a "new" Sherlock Holmes adventure.

—Martin Friedenthal

The Crossword Murder

by Nero Blanc.

New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 1999. $13.00

The temptation in reviewing a book titled The Crossword Murder is to sprinkle the review with questions such as, "What 18 letter book title means fun?" or "Which three words describe a new way to present clues?" Lead us not into temptation!

Thompson Briephs creates crossword puzzles for the Newcastle Herald in the fictional town of Newcastle, MA. He is wealthy, handsome, vain, impeccably groomed, arrogant, and bad-tempered. He is also paying blackmail. Briephs decides not to pay another cent and the blackmailer tracks him to his island home (created to his specifications and based on the labyrinth of the Minotaur). Briephs reveals to the blackmailer that he has created five crossword puzzles which are set to appear in the paper within the next few days—each of which contains clues to his tormentor’s identity. Enraged, the blackmailer kills him—cleverly making it look like a heart attack—and sets out on a puzzle search-and-destroy mission.

Sara Briephs, the strong-minded mother of Thompson, hires retired cop Rosco Polycrates to investigate her son’s death. Rosco discovers that Thompson Briephs’ puzzles will be missed a lot more than Briephs himself will be, except where his mother and his secretary, Jane Alice Miller, are concerned.

Annabella Graham was Briephs’ rival. She’s got some time on her hands and with her solving the puzzles and Rosco running down clues, they become a team of sorts. Happily for Rosco, she’s a lot nicer than Briephs was. Beautiful, too. Unfortunately, there’s a husband.

This really is a fun book. Bella and Rosco have a touch of those old-time movie detective duos about them—a bit crackpot comedy, a bit sexual tension. You root for them to get together in spite of that pesky husband thing. The scenes in Briephs’ island labyrinth home are particularly creepy and there are enough nasty characters to keep you guessing about the murderer until the last few pages.

I’m a crossword fan and when this book hit my desk, I opened it with a bit of trepidation. How, I wondered, do you make puzzles part of a solution without oversimplifying them? Well, the husband/wife team of Steve Zettler and Cordelia Frances Biddle writing as Nero Blanc have not only managed it, they have given us a delightful puzzle book which can be solved in two ways. The six crossword puzzles scattered throughout the book contain clues which will help you solve the crime. Truthfully, if you don’t want to work them, you don’t need to, as the plot stands on its own. But if you don’t work them you’ll be missing part of the challenge. I look forward to book two in this new series by Nero Blanc.

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—Jackie Acampora

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