City of the Dead
Author Jonathan Kellerman published his first Alex Delaware mystery more than 35 years ago, but entries such as the stellar City of the Dead prove that this popular series has done anything but run out of steam. In the wee hours of the morning, in a tony neighborhood of Los Angeles, a naked man is struck headfirst by a moving van, rendering the now-corpse’s facial features totally unrecognizable. Meanwhile, a few doors down, a woman is found murdered in her bedroom. Veteran Los Angeles police homicide detective Milo Sturgis does not believe in coincidences, and as he is wont to do in these situations, he quickly solicits the aid of his longtime friend, forensic psychologist Alex Delaware. Alex is quite surprised to discover that he knew the murdered woman, Cordelia Gannett, a popular self-help influencer who once appeared as an expert witness in a court case Alex was involved in. Unfortunately for her, she was subsequently exposed as a charlatan who had created fake credentials in order to pose as a licensed psychologist. Despite this fraud, there is remarkably little evidence to suggest a motive for someone killing either Cordelia or the unknown man. This, of course, is where Alex steps in, probing the psychological profiles of everyone involved in the case, pulling on loose threads to see which ones might unravel and turning up damning evidence of previous murders in the process.
A Game of Fear
Charles Todd’s latest Ian Rutledge mystery, A Game of Fear, finds the intrepid Scotland Yard investigator chasing ghosts. This is fitting in a way, as Rutledge is no stranger to the otherworldly. The World War I veteran carries with him the “presence” of Corporal Hamish MacLeod, a man he was forced to execute for insubordination on the battlefield who now provides a snarky counterpoint to every one of Rutledge’s moods, reflections and decisions. An Essex noblewoman, Lady Benton, has claimed she witnessed a murder; the catch is, she has positively (-ish) identified the killer as someone who is already dead. In 1921 England, even an unlikely claim made by a member of nobility warrants at least a token investigation, so Rutledge is on the case. Another murder follows, seemingly unrelated save for proximity, and then there’s a too-convenient, evidence-erasing fire. The tension ratchets up when Rutledge himself bears witness to an event that seems to mirror Lady Benton’s apparition. Perhaps it’s a warning that he is getting too close for the comfort of resident evildoers, whichever side of the shadowy spectral divide they may inhabit.
Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose
T.A. Willberg’s debut, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder, generated a fair bit of buzz in literary circles and among mystery aficionados. Now she returns with the second volume in the series: Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose, named for “The Florist,” a serial killer who brands his victims with a rose. The aforementioned Marion is an apprentice at Miss Brickett’s Investigations & Inquiries, an underground (literally) and quite clandestine detective agency in 1959 London. In the grand tradition of English mysteries dating back to Sherlock Holmes, Miss Brickett’s serves as consultant to Scotland Yard when a case proves too baffling for the authorities’ plodding detective work. This time out, Marion is summoned to assist in bringing “The Florist” to justice. Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose’s central mystery is as strong as that of any traditional, beloved whodunit. The book also features a cast of well-crafted characters, including a delightfully despicable villain, and a host of unexpected twists and misdirections. But the similarities to other mysteries end there, as Willberg takes readers on a wild, genre-bending ride with touches of steampunk, a dash of sci-fi tech wizardry and plenty of dry British humor. Willberg has noted in an interview that her first book was rejected numerous times for not fitting neatly into any category. I trust that the authors of those rejections have since sought more appropriate employment opportunities.
★ One Step Too Far
In my review of Lisa Gardner’s first Frankie Elkin novel, I opined, “Before She Disappeared is billed as a standalone, but I’m thinking it would be the perfect setup for a terrific series.” In revisiting that sentence, the only thing I would change is to replace the word setup with springboard. As good as the first book was, One Step Too Far is better in every regard, a tour-de-force in suspense and red herrings with a twist ending I did not even begin to anticipate. Frankie Elkin is a finder of lost persons. She does this on an ad hoc basis, for the satisfaction of doing some good but also to atone for some of the damage wrought in her 20s, when she was addicted to alcohol. Frankie, who has no fixed address, no car and no possessions to speak of, is a Jack Reacher-esque loner (minus the military connections and the musculature). This time, she joins a search party about to embark on their fifth expedition into the Wyoming wilderness to search for the remains of Tim O’Day, who went missing on a bachelor party camping trip, never to be seen again. Other members of the party include Tim’s father; his companions the night he went missing; a well-respected wilderness guide; a cadaver dog trainer and her golden retriever; and a noted—albeit thus far unsuccessful—Bigfoot hunter. Virtually all of them have secrets and underlying motives, as Frankie will find out, initially to her dismay and then to her peril.