Anyone who’s eternally time-strapped will treasure Kenneth C. Davis’ Great Short Books. This nifty volume highlights 58 works of fiction chosen by Davis for their size (small) and impact (enormous). Each brisk read weighs in at around 200 pages but has the oomph of an epic.
“Short novels,” Davis writes in the book’s introduction, “have been shortchanged. They occupy the place of the neglected middle child of the literary world.” With its eclectic roster of authors (Sandra Cisneros, Stephen King, James Joyce, Nella Larsen—the list goes on), his volume challenges this perception.
Davis’ picks include something for every reader. Classic selections such as James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway are spotlighted alongside contemporary offerings like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. The entry for each title consists of a plot summary, an author bio, suggestions on what to read next and—the perfect bait for hooking book lovers—the work’s first lines.
Davis, the bestselling author of the Don’t Know Much About series, delivers readerly insights and plenty of literary trivia in this handy guide. Outside of extra time, it’s the perfect gift for busy bibliophiles.
Reading the Stars
Readers in need of a little inspiration should try tapping into the power of the zodiac. That’s the premise behind Reading the Stars, the new release from the literary website Book Riot.
This quirky title encourages readers to connect with their astrological signs as a way to deepen and enrich their relationships with books. Astrology, according to Book Riot, can “give you some hints about what kind of books you like to read, what books can help you grow as a person, and how you engage with the reading world.”
The volume covers the basics of astrology and provides an intriguing profile of every sign in the chart, with details on the characteristics and reading styles of each. Aries readers, for instance, focus on meeting their reading goals, while Virgos read to destress and love getting lost in a good fantasy. Cancers savor extended story arcs and happily ever after endings.
Filled with atmospheric illustrations, Reading the Stars offers sign-specific reading recommendations and reveals which signs are compatible with one another—from a literary standpoint. Sure to pique the interest of bibliophiles, this delightful title will give them a whole new way to think about books.
Here’s a merry surprise for mystery fans: Miss Jane Marple is back. Marple is a collection of new stories featuring Agatha Christie’s widely hailed detective written by some of today’s top thriller writers. Ruth Ware, Lucy Foley, Dreda Say Mitchell and Alyssa Cole are among the dozen authors who salute the sleuth in this spine-tingling anthology.
Christie introduced Jane Marple in the 1927 story “The Tuesday Night Club.” An elderly spinster and first-rate cracker of crimes from the quiet village of St. Mary Mead, England, Miss Marple appeared in 12 Christie novels, becoming one of the most beloved figures in detective fiction.
In the new volume, fresh mysteries take Miss Marple to far-flung locales. A cruise ship headed for Hong Kong is the setting for Jean Kwok’s “The Jade Empress,” which finds Miss Marple investigating the death of a fellow passenger. In Alyssa Cole’s “Miss Marple Takes Manhattan,” sinister events plague a Broadway rehearsal, where the lady detective is providentially in attendance.
Miss Marple logs many a mile in these new adventures, and fans will be elated to find that she remains a redoubtable force when faced with a case. The new stories are suspenseful and—of course—deliciously cozy. What’s not to love about more Miss Marple?
★ Revenge of the Librarians
Bibliophiles will find a kindred spirit in cartoonist Tom Gauld, whose clever new collection, Revenge of the Librarians, is all about books and the literary life.
The setting of the volume’s opening strip is a world taken over by librarians—a what-if tale of terrific proportions compactly recounted in five panels. “With superior organizational skills, they quickly seized power,” Gauld writes. “Opponents were mercilessly shushed. Every building was converted into a library.”
Gauld’s perfectly pithy cartoons feature soft background colors and emphatic silhouettes. Arch humor abounds as he drops amusing author allusions, spoofs the literary establishment and plays with writer stereotypes. Ardent memoirist and precious poet, tormented novelist and cutthroat critic—none are exempt from his pen. Gauld also lampoons hallowed literary traditions. The titles in the cartoon “Summer Reading for Conspiracy Theorists” include Slaughterhouse 5G and The Old Man and the CIA. In “Waiting for Godot to Join the Zoom Meeting,” Vladimir and Estragon sit expectantly before their computers, but alas: “Nobody comes. Nobody goes.”
Gauld, whose work has appeared in The Believer and the New York Times, gets up to all manner of literary mischief in this quick-witted, must-have collection for book buffs.
If you’re shopping for someone who always has books on the brain, we’ve got your gift needs all wrapped up.
Elly Griffiths’ third Harbinder Kaur mystery finds the detective inspector eager to prove herself after relocating from West Sussex to London. Her latest case begins when a reunion at the posh Manor Park School in Chelsea results in politician Garfield Rice’s murder.
Griffiths alternates between Harbinder’s perspective and that of Cassie Fitzgerald, a former student at Manor Park who was a member of “The Group,” a clique of popular students. When they meet for their 21st class reunion, there is a fair amount of tension. Some of the friends have moved abroad, others have found fame in writing and popular music and some have gone into politics. Cassie is the odd duck: She became a police officer and now works under Harbinder.
This makes Cassie’s dark secret even more shocking: She committed a murder at age 18, and she can’t help but wonder if Garfield’s death is related. Harbinder, of course, doesn’t know that one of her subordinates is a killer, but readers can count on her to methodically unbury the past and untangle the crimes of the present.
The small, intimate collection of suspects makes this mystery perfect for fans of Agatha Christie: Rather than a wide-ranging hunt for a killer, Bleeding Heart Yard feels cozy and local. However, the book is also filled with unreliable narrators, as members of The Group struggle to determine which of their memories are real since they may have been tainted by time or trauma or lost to time all together. Old diaries offer clues, but many of the characters have the same amount of questions as Harbinder herself.
While this book is accessible for newcomers to the series, established fans will be especially pleased with how Harbinder grows as a character and becomes more comfortable in her own skin. Harbinder is a lesbian, and in previous installments, her sexuality was a source of tension, especially when it came to her conservative family. But living in a larger urban environment allows her far more freedom, and she is able to explore a liberated life on her own terms.
Solid plotting, an intrepid sleuth and a group of well-developed suspects make this whodunit a must-read.
Detective Inspector Harbinder Kaur has to investigate one of her subordinates in Elly Griffiths’ must-read blend of thriller and police procedural.
If I had to sum up Lisa Unger’s Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six in 10 words, I would say “Cast of ‘Friends,’ dark and stormy night, soundtrack by Disturbed.” This friend group is much more disturbed than Ross, Chandler, Monica, et al., but there are parallels: a sister/brother pair; a female friend from the past; some canoodling that is, shall we say, detrimental to the group dynamic. Siblings Hannah and Mako are celebrating Christmas at their parents’ house when their father finds an unusual gift under the tree: DNA genealogy kits for the whole family, from an anonymous Santa. A few months later, when Hannah, Mako, their respective spouses and another couple head up to a remote cabin to unplug, the other shoe drops. Some of them did the kit and were unexpectedly proven to be the progeny of the same man, and they are not happy to know who (and what) their biological father was. Secrets abound in this psychological thriller; even the cabin itself harbors a hidden history, giving off unnerving vibes to renters and readers alike. At 400 pages, it’s a long book for a one-sitting read, but you’ll be sorely tempted.
1989 is Val McDermid’s second installment of a trilogy (which this reviewer hopes will become a quadrilogy or even a quintology) featuring Scottish investigative reporter Allie Burns. The series began with 1979, and in the sequel, readers are mired with Allie in the late ’80s, when mobile phones were the size of lunchboxes, when AIDS was ravaging the U.K., when a jetliner was bombed out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, and when the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. All in all, not a time to be nostalgic for, and true to form, McDermid spins the tale without a whiff of sentimentality. Allie works for media mogul Ace Lockhart, who bears more than a passing resemblance to newspaper publisher Robert Maxwell (father of Ghislaine, of Jeffrey Epstein-associate infamy): flamboyant, bullying and destined for disgrace. Lockhart, who has a number of business ventures based in the Eastern bloc, senses the upcoming upheaval and sends his daughter to secure his interests in the changing political landscape. When she is kidnapped in East Berlin, Lockhart sends Allie Burns on a rescue mission, and in short order, things careen out of control. You don’t need to read 1979 to hit the ground running with 1989, but you will want to have Wikipedia open to look up all the fascinating historical and cultural moments McDermid references along the way.
Viviana Valentine Gets Her Man
Emily J. Edwards’ Viviana Valentine Gets Her Man is, hands down, this month’s most entertaining mystery. Set in 1950 New York City, it chronicles the adventures of a plucky Pennsylvania country girl, the titular Viviana Valentine. Upon arriving penniless in the Big Apple, Viviana sweet-talks her way into a girl Friday job for Tommy Fortuna, a Philip Marlowe-esque private investigator who calls her dollface. But after Tommy goes MIA and a dead body is found on his office floor, Viviana is forced to take the helm of the agency, clear Tommy’s name and crack the case he was working on. Whatever she lacks in experience, Viviana more than makes up for with her in-your-face attitude, wicked sense of humor and snappy one-liners. Her friends and acquaintances include high society debutantes, models, mobsters, cops both arrow-straight and morally flexible and a host of other ’50s types that would slot neatly into a black-and-white detective film. Edwards nails the tone, with dialogue and milieu evocative of classic noir, and presents the era warts and all: conversations that are a bit politically incorrect; men behaving toward women in ways that are borderline or flat-out predatory; and a towering amount of smoking and drinking.
★ The Devil’s Blaze
In the same fashion that Sean Connery is the quintessential James Bond for many cinema aficionados, Basil Rathbone is widely regarded as the definitive silver screen Sherlock Holmes, even though the most famous films in which he took on the role are not set in the original Victorian and Edwardian eras but smack in the middle of World War II. Author Robert J. Harris expands upon those midcentury films with his Sherlock Holmes in WWII series, the second volume of which (after 2021’s A Study in Crimson) is The Devil’s Blaze. The Germans have developed a truly insidious weapon to use against their English adversaries, a death machine of some sort that causes people to spontaneously erupt into flames. As usual, there are only two people in England clever enough (or devious enough, depending on your point of view) to approach a mystery of this magnitude: Sherlock Holmes (natch) and his longtime archnemesis, Professor James Moriarty. There is certainly no love lost between the pair, but they are forced to forge an uneasy alliance to try and save England from this terrifying new weapon. Harris never lets readers forget that this is a Sherlock Holmes novel, with the narrative turning on a dime—or a twopence, if you prefer—such that only an experienced fishmonger would be able to sort through all the red herrings. Holmes is as cerebral and arrogant as die-hard fans would expect, and Watson hews closely to actor Nigel Bruce’s portrayal in the Rathbone films: thoughtful, taciturn and usually a step behind his mentor. And Moriarty, well, he should be giving TED Talks on the subject of villainy.
Lisa Unger will make you think twice about dabbling with DNA ancestry kits, plus Val McDermid returns with a new Allie Burns novel in this month’s Whodunit.
As the days grow shorter and the nights grow colder, we turn to all things cozy—and we can think of nothing more heartwarming than an unexpected friendship. Here are the platonic pairings that made the BookPage editors feel all snuggly inside.
In Tana French’s The Secret Place, Detective Stephen Moran gets his chance to join the Murder Squad when 16-year-old Holly Mackey brings him new evidence in an investigation into a murder that took place on the grounds of her boarding school. Stephen heads to Holly’s school to investigate alongside Antoinette Conway, the original detective assigned to the case. Their first interactions are anything but promising, given their diametrically opposed approaches to their work. Stephen masks his ambition behind a friendly, unassuming persona, but Antoinette, who is biracial, has long since given up on playing nice with people determined to hate her due to her gender, racial background or both. As they interrogate Holly and her friends over the course of one long day, a tentative respect begins to grow between the two of them, thanks to their mutual intellect and their common experience of clawing their way up the ranks from working-class backgrounds. It could be the start of a beautiful partnership, and French makes readers as invested in Stephen and Antoinette’s burgeoning friendship as they are in the mystery’s solution.
—Savanna, Associate Editor
Frank and the Bad Surprise
I’m going to cut to the chase here. The titular character in Martha Brockenbrough and Jon Lau’s Frank and the Bad Surprise is a cat who lives a good life with his humans, and the bad surprise is a new puppy. The puppy interrupts Frank’s naps, has gross puppy breath and eats Frank’s food, so Frank decides it’s time to move on. “Good luck with that puppy,” he writes in a note to his humans. “You will need it.” There’s so much to love about this illustrated chapter book, from the way Brockenbrough’s wry prose perfectly captures Frank’s feline perspective to the way Lau’s paintings bring Frank’s personality to life. In several images, you’ll swear you can almost hear Frank purring. But the best part is the way Brockenbrough engineers a moving reconciliation between the two former enemies, neatly sidestepping schlock and sentiment and going straight for understated emotional truth. It’s positively the cat’s pajamas.
—Stephanie, Associate Editor
In Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel, an aging woman breaks away from her grating London family and has a go at independent life in the countryside. After keeping house for her father and brother for over 40 years, Laura Willowes feels liberated in Buckinghamshire—finally free to take long walks in nature and enjoy her own company. Until her nephew visits. Suddenly she is reduced to her old Aunt Lolly self again—put upon and bedeviled—and she becomes so desperate that she calls out for help. Luckily Satan answers, and the novel transforms into a fantastical tale of Lolly’s burgeoning talents as a witch. Along the way, the devil turns out to be a chummy pal: giving Lolly the power to hex her nephew, listening to her complaints about society’s treatment of women. (Satan, as it turns out, is a compassionate and attentive listener.) It’s a darkly humorous novel of a middle-aged woman who is so desperate for autonomy that she’s willing to make a deal—or at least make friends—with the devil.
George Saunders’ first (and so far, only) novel brings together some odd characters. In Lincoln in the Bardo, a group of ghosts works together to save Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, from a place between life and death. Here in the bardo, the ghosts know all of one another’s quirks and faults and dreams and regrets. They’ve come to love one another, and as a reader, I found it easy to love them too. The most unlikely best friendship in the bardo is between middle-aged, carnally frustrated Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, a heartbroken young man who took his own life and now bursts involuntarily into poetry about the beauty of the world he left behind. One of Saunders’ most remarkable gifts is his ability to make even unpleasant characters deeply befriendable. He outdoes himself with this book, crafting 166 distinct, compelling voices and interspersing them with excerpts from real and invented historical sources. He fantastically spins a moment in American history into a philosophical exploration of how grief can either isolate or unite us.
People aren’t all that different, even though it often feels that way, and therein lies one of the key superpowers of the “unlikely friendship” trope: bridging polarized experiences to discover where people actually overlap, where one person’s hand fits snugly into another’s. Nancy Johnson’s debut, The Kindest Lie, is one of the novels that most successfully encompasses both the political optimism of 2008 and the insidious racial divisions that were worsened by the economic stress of the Great Recession. Johnson’s protagonist, Ruth, is a Black chemical engineer who returns to her Rust Belt hometown to seek out the child she placed for adoption when she was 17. Upon her return, Ruth bonds with Midnight, an 11-year-old white boy who is mostly being raised by his grandmother but still hopes for connection with his neglectful, bigoted father. Ruth’s and Midnight’s experiences of race, class and privilege are very different, but they’re both lonely, lost and understandably flawed people, and together they find something akin to belonging in a heartbreaking world.
—Cat, Deputy Editor
You’ve got a friend in me! These books feature platonic pairings that made us feel all warm and snuggly inside.
It’s 1952 in San Francisco, and homosexuality is illegal and largely frowned upon by society—except at Lavender House. The home of soap manufacturing magnate Irene Lamontaine has become a refuge for her extended queer family. But when Irene falls over a staircase railing to her death, her widow (in all but name) hires recently fired gay police detective Evander “Andy” Mills to discern if there is a killer in their midst.
The tone of this book is similar to the pulpy, hard-boiled style of your sci-fi mystery, Depth. Was there anything different about your approach this time around? Was there a particular author or series you drew upon to re-create that style of writing? It’s funny. With Depth I was trying to bring the flavor of old-school noir to a futuristic world. With Lavender House, the old-school noir is easier because of the setting. But because we’re talking queer history, which is so often erased, there was a lot more research involved and, weirdly, an emphasis on making sure everything felt believable. With sci-fi, people are either going to buy it or they’re not, depending on what they like and read. When talking about a history that keeps being erased, it’s about proving it—proving we existed.
As for the tone itself, the hard-boiled vibe, I always go back to Chandler. I have his complete works, and I’ve read them several times. There’s just something about the way he cuts a sentence. And, of course, the movies: I was raised on noir of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, so I saw most of the movies before I read the books. The vibe of those movies is what lives in my head when I’m writing, even more so than the books, because the movies sometimes had a bit of hope to them (Laura, The Big Sleep). They’re not happy endings exactly, but there’s a chance for a bright future at the end of them, and I knew I wanted that for this book. I wanted to show that not only did us queer folk exist before Stonewall, but that even though our lives were noir—in the sense that we were sort of trapped and stalked all the time—we still thrived in community. We found each other. We found love. And in that, we found a bit of hope.
How much research did you have to do to re-create the feel and culture of 1950s San Francisco? Are Lavender House and its inhabitants based on any real locations or people? I owe a huge debt of thanks to Nan Alamilla Boyd and her book, Wide-Open Town, for this one. It’s a book entirely about the queer history of San Francisco. Originally, when I was coming up with this story, my instinct was to put it in NYC (or just outside) because that’s where I’m from. But as I did research on the queer histories of various cities, what I found was that in the ’50s, New York’s queer culture was much more stratified. There wasn’t nearly as much mingling of gay communities of different classes or races as there was in San Francisco. And knowing it was going to be a series, I wanted a community that was more fluid. Luckily, for this first book, so much of it takes place outside the city that I could make stuff up—Lavender House itself is pure fiction, as are the characters in it—but I owe a lot not just to Boyd but to several San Francisco historians, photographers and Facebook groups where older people share stories and pictures of their neighborhoods. I’m sure I still got things wrong, but I hope they’re not too distracting.
What was the biggest challenge this book presented? What was the biggest opportunity? The research. So much research. And because queer history is always hidden and rewritten, the research often took me down many paths and led to several answers. There’s one sentence in Lavender House about a woman in a suit that’s changed so many times based on what I’ve learned about cross-dressing laws and ordinances at the time at the national, state and city levels—and I’m still not sure it’s accurate! Information is contradictory. California is so interesting in the early ’50s because of this state Supreme Court ruling in ’51 where a judge said it wasn’t illegal for gay people to congregate at a bar. It was a huge victory for the community, but it was also so small, because while being gay was suddenly legal (only in California), acting gay was not—and that could mean a lot of things. Same-sex dancing was still illegal, and so was touching the wrong way, if a cop decided it was the wrong way. So many cases and laws and the constant harassment of queer bars and people were about what the cop on duty was feeling and if he’d been bribed. So the small legal details were killer to figure out.
The biggest opportunity I’m less sure of! There’s so much I got to do; making a big queer family was such a blessing once I let myself do it. Even those laws being so hard to look up, since they were pretty subjective depending on the police, meant I could have them be as strict or lenient as I wanted (within certain bounds, of course). Sometimes the research being blurry just gives you more room to play. But I think overall the biggest opportunity was to get to the heart of what it means to learn to love yourself in ’52 as a queer man. Because if Andy can do it, I think people today can, too.
Who is your first reader? What is most valuable or useful about that initial feedback for you? It varies, depending on people’s time and schedules. I have a writing group, I have writer friends who will read for me, I have a librarian husband. And I think what feedback is most valuable varies book to book as well. What am I worried about? Should I be, or did I pull it off? With Lavender House, my worry was always that it wouldn’t coast that line between noir and camp noir: the noir that’s a bit bigger and, frankly, a bit more fun. Lauren Bacall asking if you know how to whistle in To Have and Have Not? That’s a little camp at this point, but it’s my favorite thing. Some people see that scene and roll their eyes, but I light up. So did I pull off that tone in a way that feels authentic to a modern reader? Did they get it?
You’ve explored the idea of a sanctuary for members of the LGBTQ+ community before, in your young adult rom-com, Camp (written under the name L.C. Rosen). Why do you think you keep returning to this theme? How did Lavender House allow you to explore this idea further? It’s funny, I hadn’t thought of it that way; the word I’ve always used is community. But sanctuary, yeah, I guess I do write about that a lot. And I write about the push and pull between queer community or sanctuary and the outside world, where we may not always be allowed to be ourselves safely. Part of that is just that I like writing about a bunch of queer people: I think just one or two feels unrealistic, because we tend to find one another. I think it’s interesting the way we can sort of form our own community and deal with our own problems when we don’t have to worry about the outside world. Camp was about figuring out what sort of internal prejudices we bring into that sanctuary, because we all come from a world that tells us to hate ourselves or to only be one kind of gay. But Lavender House is about dealing with the fear of the outside knowing about us at all. That’s partially because of the historical element, of course, but I think it’s something we still see today: How much do we let other people in? How dangerous is it?
Do you see any parts of yourself in Andy? Sure. I see parts of myself in every character I write. I think you have to. Even when you’re writing someone bad, you need to understand where they’re coming from—and I don’t mean they need to be sympathetic or understandable. I think we as a society have actually gone too far, as a whole, in that sense. Sometimes bad people are just bad, and they don’t need a tragic backstory to make you feel sorry for them. We shouldn’t lose sight of that. But as writers, you have to understand their outlook, even if you don’t need to justify it to yourself. So why would someone do this? What are their values? How do they see the world?
With Andy specifically, I think certainly there’s a coming-out element to his story. He’s out, but he doesn’t love his queerness much, and over the course of the novel, he learns to do that. He learns to reconcile with what it means to be queer in 1952, and while that might be very, very hard, there’s a lot of benefit to it, too. I think that’s something every queer person should figure out. You can be out and proud but still not quite know how to love your queerness and the queerness of others. I don’t mean you need to want to clack a fan and wear heels, but you have to love that other guys do in order to really love what queerness is. Once you’ve done that, the world just becomes so much brighter.
What do you hope readers take away from this novel? The main thing I always hope a reader takes away is the feeling of having had a good time. I believe first and foremost my job is to entertain. If I can make people think or see things in a new light, that’s even better. And for Lavender House, I hope they take away a stronger understanding of queer history—not just the idea that we’ve always been here but also the idea that we’re still dealing with a lot of the same problems. Across the country, people are trying to ban books about queer teens—and often succeeding. They’re trying to prevent kids from coming out, and they’re firing queer teachers or making it illegal for them to talk about their queerness, even casually. They’re trying to make it now like it was in the ’50s, and I hope people see those parallels and understand that there’s still so much work to do if we want to say we’ve moved on.
What’s next for you? Will Andy Mills return at some point? It was a two-book deal, so he’s coming back at least one more time, though I’m hoping he’ll be around for a while. The sequel is titled The Bell in the Fog, and it should be out sometime in the fall of 2023. Before that, though, I also have Tennessee Russo coming out in the spring, which is the start to a YA series about a queer teen archeologist digging up ancient queer history to make sure it’s not erased while avoiding traps and pitfalls. More queer history! Just older.
Photo of Lev AC Rosen by Rachael Shane.
In the 1950s-set Lavender House, the titular home is a haven for the queer Lamontaine family—until one of them is murdered.
In 1952 San Francisco, homosexuality is illegal and largely frowned upon by society. But the gates of the titular Lavender House keep an extended LGBTQ+ family safely tucked away from the persecution and discrimination of the outside world, able to live their lives without judgment or reprisal. This shelter and sense of belonging comes thanks to their benefactor and matriarch, soap entrepreneur Irene Lamontaine.
If only they were able to keep their own petty jealousies and rampant ambitions in check. But this is not the case in Lev AC Rosen’s twisty new mystery. Irene soon turns up dead, and one of Lavender House’s denizens may be responsible for her demise.
Enter Evander “Andy” Mills, an ex-police detective who was fired after being caught in a raid at a gay bar. Irene’s widow (in all but name), Pearl, hires him to find the killer in their midst. The mystery is told through Andy’s point of view, and readers will share his fascination with the unique life afforded the inhabitants of Lavender House and deeply empathize with his position as an outsider struggling to find his own place in the world.
Rosen quickly turns the Agatha Christie-esque elements of the mystery on their head with a dynamic cast of characters and an inimitable take on hard-boiled noir that revels in the foggy atmosphere of San Francisco while also highlighting the characters’ angst and inner turmoil. Readers familiar with Rosen’s young adult novel Camp, which follows LGBTQ+ teens at a utopia-like conclave, will enjoy this deeper, darker examination of what it means to be a queer person in a homophobic world.
In Lavender House, Rosen not only thoroughly entertains mystery lovers but also ups the ante by presenting a thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be free to love who you love.
Mystery lovers will be thoroughly entertained by Lavender House, a thoughtful noir that examines midcentury LGBTQ+ life with a cast of dynamic characters.
Ann Claire’s deeply enjoyable Dead and Gondola transports readers to the fictional mountain village of Last Word, Colorado, where snow is falling and murder is in the air.
Ellie Christie has just moved back home to help her older sister, Meg, run the Book Chalet. The shop has been in their family for generations, and now the two bibliophile sisters are ready to make their mark on the business. When a mysterious man interrupts their weekly book club meeting and leaves behind a rare edition of an Agatha Christie novel, the sisters are puzzled. Spotting him in a crowd the next day, Ellie and Meg try to get his attention to return the book, but by the time they catch up with him on the gondola, the man is dead. Even though the sisters aren’t related to the famed Christie, they grew up reading her novels and are determined to put their sleuthing knowledge to good use by figuring out who the man was, who killed him and why.
Dead and Gondola is a lighthearted, fast-paced cozy mystery with a cast of likable characters. Besides Ellie and Meg, the Christie family includes their beloved Gram, who’s keen to trade baked goods for gossip, and Meg’s tech-savvy daughter, Rosie. Their bookshop cat is also a delight, with a personality as strong as any human’s—she’s named Agatha, of course.
Claire effectively heightens the stakes for the Christie women at the very start of the book, when an unexpected storm cuts off Last Word from the outside world. No one can get in or out, which means Ellie, Meg and their family are trapped in the small town with a murderer. In spite of this, Claire makes Last Word sound awfully appealing: Who wouldn’t want to ride a glass-domed gondola to a historic bookshop and cozy up by the fire with a good read?
Ann Claire’s lighthearted cozy mystery, Dead and Gondola, transports readers to a deeply appealing mountaintop town in Colorado, complete with gondola and historic bookshop.
At the turn of the 20th century, English gentlewomen were meant to be seen and not heard, arm candy for their titled husbands. They were certainly not meant to be amateur sleuths. But Lady Emily Hargreaves becomes embroiled in a murder investigation (again) within hours of arriving in Luxor, Egypt, in Tasha Alexander’s 16th mystery starring the aristocrat, Secrets of the Nile. Lord Bertram Deeley, an antiquities collector of note and the Hargreaves’ host, is found dead on the dining room floor, the aroma of bitter almonds indicating that he was poisoned with cyanide. The Egyptian police identify a suspect in short order, but the suspect bolts, and truth be told, he didn’t fit the profile especially well anyway. As Lady Emily’s private investigation proceeds, it becomes apparent that many of the guests had reason to loathe their host; surprisingly, even her mother-in-law has a motive. In alternating chapters, Alexander tells the story of Meryt, a young female sculptor in ancient Egypt, whose work will play a prominent role in Lady Emily’s case some three millennia hence. Secrets of the Nile has it all: a glamorous locale, plucky heroine and supporting cast worthy of a Kenneth Branagh film.
John Connolly’s latest mystery featuring private investigator Charlie Parker offers an intriguing change of pace for his legions of readers. The Furies is two masterfully crafted novels in one book, with each novel covering a separate but interconnected case. The first novel, The Sisters Strange, tells the story of sisters Dolors and Ambar Strange and their unusual relationship with Svengali-esque ex-convict Raum Buker. Raum is always on the lookout for an easy mark, and it seems as if he may have found it in Edwin Ellercamp, a collector of rare ancient coins. Edwin is soon found murdered, choked to death by a portion of his vast coin collection. Raum has no history as a killer, however, making the mystery of who murdered the collector one that will test Parker’s mettle like very few cases have. The second novel, The Furies, finds Parker in the employ of two women. The first is Sarah Abelli, a mob widow suspected of knowing where her husband hid a fortune in dirty money before he was killed in prison. Extortionists have stolen mementos of her deceased daughter and will not return them until she coughs up the cash, which she maintains to anyone who will listen that she does not have. The other is Marjorie Thombs, whose daughter is trapped in an abusive relationship—a situation exponentially exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Of course, as is the case with all of the Charlie Parker mysteries, there is an element or two of the supernatural to factor in—nothing to the degree of books by Stephen King or Anne Rice, but certainly enough to occasion some vague uneasiness if you are reading late at night.
Archer Mayor’s Fall Guy, the latest in his long-running series featuring Joe Gunther, field force commander of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, opens with a dead body in the trunk of a stolen car. The details of the car’s theft are suspect, however, as its GPS data mark it as being outside a strip club at the time that it was purportedly stolen from the owner’s driveway. Along with the dead body, the car contains a cell phone with evidence of the sexual abuse of a child. An interjurisdictional task force is formed to investigate, which allows Gunther and his subordinates to cross state lines—in this case, into nearby New Hampshire—to follow the clues. Gunther’s team, based in Brattleboro, Vermont, is more like a family than a collection of co-workers. Thirty-plus books into the series, the evolving relationships among the characters never detract from the police procedural structure. In fact, the web of connections enhances the story, showing how the various members of Gunther’s team deploy their strengths and shore up one another’s weaknesses to function as a well-oiled crime-solving machine. If you’re new to Joe Gunther, don’t be surprised if upon finishing Fall Guy you immediately seek out the previous books in the series.
★ Sometimes People Die
Simon Stephenson’s darkly hilarious mystery, Sometimes People Die, harks back to classic English satire a la Kingsley Amis or Evelyn Waugh, perfectly updating their sarcastic yet somehow still endearing tone for modern-day readers. Stephenson’s unnamed narrator is a third-rate Scottish doctor in a third-rate London hospital, on probation for stealing opioids and still dealing with his addiction on the q.t. He has little use for anyone else and typically thinks he is the smartest person in the room—but he usually isn”t. Nonetheless, he is pretty funny and occasionally displays a redeeming quality or two despite himself. Then patients in his ward start inexplicably dying, and he finds himself at the epicenter of the police inquiry into these suspicious deaths. When a suspect is finally arrested, our protagonist has his doubts and launches his own clandestine investigation. His sleuthing skills turn out to be little better than his medical skills, however, and things rapidly go wildly off course. With ten months of 2022 behind us, I am confident this will be a (or perhaps the) best book of the year for me.
When his patients start mysteriously dying, a third-rate doctor has a chance to become a first-rate sleuth in Simon Stephenson's darkly hilarious Sometimes People Die, this month's top pick in mystery.
True crime writer Gage Chandler, the protagonist of John Darnielle’s Devil House, jumps at the opportunity to live at the “Devil House,” a building where two gruesome, possibly satanic murders took place in 1986. Blamed on some rebellious teenagers, the case remains unsolved. Once Gage moves in and starts researching the murders, he’s drawn into a deeper examination of the significance of his own work. At once a magnetic thriller and an intriguing look at the true crime genre, Darnielle’s novel is filled with rich themes for discussion, including the slippery nature of crime reporting and the demands of the artistic process.
In Gilly Macmillan’s I Know You Know, Cody Swift seeks closure regarding his two childhood friends’ murders, which occurred 20 years ago in Bristol, England. Undertaking his own investigation, Cody returns to Bristol in search of new information and launches a podcast to share his story. But then a body is discovered in the same place Cody’s friends were found, and soon a new homicide investigation is underway. Macmillan incorporates flashbacks to Cody’s childhood and episodes of his podcast in this sophisticated, multilayered mystery.
Denise Mina’s Conviction tells the story of Anna McDonald, who loses herself in true crime podcasts as she struggles to put her painful past behind her. After Anna’s husband leaves her for her best friend, Estelle, Anna connects with Estelle’s husband, singer Fin Cohen. Together they delve into the murder case that’s the subject of Anna’s favorite podcast and start a podcast of their own. When Anna realizes that she is linked to the case, a tragic chapter from her life is reopened. Mina’s skillful development of multiple plot lines and crack comic timing will give reading groups plenty to talk about.
In Megan Goldin’s The Night Swim, Rachel Krall, host of the popular true crime podcast “Guilty or Not Guilty,” travels to a small North Carolina town to report on the trial of swimming champion Scott Blair. Accused of raping the teenage granddaughter of the local police chief, Scott and his case have attracted national attention. While in North Carolina, Rachel is also drawn to a cold case involving the drowning of a 16-year-old that took place more than two decades before. As she works to unravel the two cases, she realizes that they share disturbing parallels. Goldin builds a mood of intense suspense in this searing look at how crime can impact a small community.
Go meta with one of these mysteries starring true crime podcasters and writers.
The sleuthing pensioners of the Thursday Murder Club are back and better than ever in Richard Osman’s The Bullet That Missed.
Life in the idyllic Coopers Chase Retirement Village is far from quiet, especially for the Thursday Murder Club. The group’s four members—Elizabeth, a retired MI5 agent with connections across the globe; Joyce, a former nurse with a knack for solving puzzles; Ibrahim, a well-mannered psychiatrist; and Ron, a retired union leader who never backs down from a fight—are trying to crack the cold case murder of TV presenter Bethany Waites. Ten years ago, Bethany was investigating a multimillion-dollar fraud operation. She told colleagues that she was close to unraveling it all, but before she could file her story, Bethany’s car was pushed off a cliff, and her body was never recovered.
As The Bullet That Missed begins, Osman’s septuagenarian sleuths have picked up the mantle. They’re working to uncover who’s behind the fraud and Bethany’s murder, not to mention the more recent deaths of two suspects in Bethany’s disappearance. In a parallel plot, Elizabeth’s past catches up with her when a mysterious man tasks her with carrying out an assassination. If she doesn’t comply, her and her friends’ lives will be forfeit. To protect herself and the people she loves, Elizabeth reconnects with an ex-KGB colonel (and former lover) to lay a trap for the man threatening her.
This intricately plotted novel weaves its multiple mysteries together with aplomb, all while bringing back familiar faces from previous installments such as Police Captain Donna De Freitas; her partner, Detective Chief Inspector Chris Hudson; and Bogdan, who’s still fiercely loyal to Elizabeth and the group. Osman’s wry humor continues to shine, especially in the sections of the story told through Joyce’s lively diary entries.
If there’s a flaw in The Bullet That Missed, it’s that readers need to be familiar with the previous books to fully appreciate some of the characters’ motivations and deepening relationships. However, with only two previous books in the series, it’s easy to get caught up. And mystery fans should absolutely do so, because this latest entry in the Thursday Murder Club series may be the best one yet.
The latest entry in Richard Osman's wry and hilarious Thursday Murder Club series may be the best one yet.
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Leif Enger’s third novel, Virgil Wander, centers on the eponymous protagonist who lives in the quaint, rustic town of Greenstone, Minnesota. By day, Virgil begrudgingly works as the town clerk, but by night, he is the proprietor of the Empress, a fledgling movie theater that specializes in projecting its exclusive and illegal film collection. During a drive one snowy evening, Virgil’s car skids off the road and crashes into Lake Superior. Luckily, he is a saved by Marcus Jetty, the owner of the local junkyard. Virgil emerges from the accident with a fleeting grasp of language and flickering memories of his former life.