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All , Coverage

All Mystery Coverage

Alicia Bessette’s first Outer Banks Bookshop Mystery, Smile Beach Murder, brings readers to Cattail Island in North Carolina, where the sun shines and murder is in the air.

After losing her job, former reporter Callie Padget begrudgingly moves back to Cattail. Callie has a complicated relationship with the coastal community: While she loves the people and history of the island, her mother died after falling from the town’s famed lighthouse when Callie was just 12 years old. Everywhere she goes, she’s reminded of her mother and the life they might have built together.

Callie gets a job at the local bookstore, where she runs into Eva Meeks, the older sister of one of her school friends. Eva’s searching for books to help her with a treasure hunt and invites Callie to join in the fun. But the next day, Eva’s body is discovered at the base of the lighthouse. While local police believe she killed herself, Callie doesn’t, and she sets off to uncover a murderer on Cattail Island.

Bessette captures the charm of the Outer Banks with her vivid descriptions of laid-back island life. It’s easy to root for Callie, who’s resourceful and brave even when she finds herself staring down confessed killers and deadly sharks. And readers who have lost a loved one will relate to her journey to process the loss of her mother. Callie is still surprised by the depth of her grief, despite the time that’s passed, and her emotional development throughout the novel is made all the sweeter as she slowly embraces Cattail Island and all it has to offer. Readers will finish Smile Beach Murder cheering for Callie and eager for many more cases to come.

Alicia Bessette’s first Outer Banks Bookshop Mystery, Smile Beach Murder, captures the charm of island life even as it offers a moving perspective on grief.

Claudia Gray’s The Murder of Mr. Wickham is a cozy locked-room mystery set in a world populated by Jane Austen’s beloved characters.

Emma and George Knightley have decided to host a monthlong house party at their estate, Donwell Abbey, and have invited some of their closest friends: the Darcys (including their son, Jonathan), the Brandons, the Wentworths, the Bertrams and Juliet Tilney, the daughter of Northanger Abbey’s Catherine and Henry. During the first days of the party, the very-much-not-invited George Wickham makes an appearance to collect a debt from Mr. Knightley, and we quickly learn that every person in attendance has a grievance with Wickham. Austen fans will already know from Pride and Prejudice that the Darcys’ interactions with Wickham were the opposite of pleasant, and he is still up to his nefarious ways in Gray’s novel: An investment scheme has robbed some couples of their wealth, he is blackmailing Fanny Bertram, and Colonel Brandon has a particularly heartbreaking past with the scoundrel.

When Wickham is found dead one stormy night, it is apparent that someone staying or working at Donwell must have committed the crime, as the muddy roads were too impassable for a stranger to arrive. After witnessing the local magistrate’s bumbling efforts, Juliet and Jonathan form an unlikely partnership, as both are determined to solve the crime.

Claudia Gray reveals why Mr. Wickham had it coming.

The Murder of Mr. Wickham is not a novel for Austen purists. The reader must accept the conceit that the characters are all acquainted (in a foreward, the author explains how she tweaked the timeline) and, furthermore, that one of the beloved characters may be a murderer. On the way to reaching the mystery’s satisfying solution,, readers also get to see that all the couples still have struggles within their marriages. Those who believe Austen’s novels ended with a firm happily ever after may be dismayed by this development, while others will be fascinated by how Gray complicates the relationships between the various characters.

Readers looking for a charming mystery will adore this book. Gray captures Austen’s tone perfectly, allowing fans to step back into the Regency author’s beloved world. And despite the presence of iconic characters such as Emma Knightley and Lizzie Darcy, the newly invented characters of Jonathan and Juliet are dynamic in their own right. They quickly become adept at working together, and there is a hint that romance is on the horizon.

The Murder of Mr. Wickham will allow many Austen fans an opportunity to revisit the characters they treasure, and solve a mystery to boot.

Claudia Gray’s The Murder of Mr. Wickham is a cozy and charming mystery set in a world populated by Jane Austen’s beloved characters.

The Wild Life

Joe Brody, aka “The Bouncer,” actually holds a more important position in the New York Mafia than that title might suggest: He serves as the in-house “sheriff” for an organization not exactly noted for enlisting the aid of conventional law enforcement. Indeed, Joe even wears a sheriff’s badge, though not the bronze sort that gets pinned to an elected official’s khaki shirt pocket. His is tattooed on his chest, a lifetime appointment, albeit one with perhaps a shorter life expectancy than his counterparts on the other side of the blue line. In David Gordon’s The Wild Life, Joe goes in search of some missing sex workers. Their profession may be known for its high turnover, but this time it’s more troubling: The women have disappeared without a trace, leaving behind their passports and savings. High on the suspect list are Jim Hackney, a well-connected property developer with a history of employing prostitutes, and his namesake son, a daddy’s boy with a penchant for big-game hunting. Joe’s smart-aleck attitude quickly gets him crosswise with the pair, and the situation deteriorates rapidly. Complicating matters is Joe’s budding romance with FBI agent Donna Zamora, a situation that must be kept secret from both their employers—which is not easy when they are investigating the same case from opposing perspectives. I must admit to being partial to mysteries in which one of the protagonists works within the framework of the law and the other suffers no such constraints. I usually find myself more drawn to the outlaw of the pair, especially if they’re as gritty and funny as Joe Brody.

Overboard

At the beginning of Overboard, Sara Paretsky’s 22nd V.I. Warshawski novel, the Chicago PI has just lost control of her two large dogs while walking them alongside Lake Michigan. Scuttling down some treacherous rocks in pursuit of the disobedient doggies, V.I. is horrified to find a battered teenage girl barely clinging to life. At the hospital, the victim’s vital signs are stabilized, but she has no identification and seems unable or unwilling to converse in any language. It is clear that she is terrified of something or someone, and she escapes from the hospital at her first opportunity. As V.I. looks into the case of the missing girl—pro bono, which she can ill afford—disturbing connections come to light in relation to some questionable legal shenanigans involving a synagogue and a prime piece of Chicago waterfront property. And then the murders begin. The COVID-19 pandemic plays a key role in the story’s backdrop, something we will certainly see more and more often in literature as the pandemic wears on. V.I., who narrates in the first person, has some strong left-leaning feelings on how the crisis has been handled in America, but they never detract from Paretsky’s compelling, fast-paced and original mystery.

The Dark Flood

South African writer Deon Meyer returns with The Dark Flood, the seventh installment of his series featuring Cape Town police detective Benny Griessel. Griessel, a confirmed disobeyer of orders from above, is once again in the soup. The commissioner wants to see Griessel sacked, but cooler heads prevail, and he is instead demoted and reassigned to a suburban outpost where nothing much happens. Well, nothing much until Griessel arrives, and then—as has been known to happen before—all hell breaks loose. First, a college honor student goes missing, and then there’s the disappearance of a businessman who allegedly engineered an economy-toppling scheme, but the forensic accountants have yet to sufficiently untangle the multilayered mess. In a parallel storyline, we follow the financial woes of Sandra Steenberg, a young real estate agent who has fallen behind on her mortgage, her car payments and the tuition for her young daughter’s school. Sandra needs some quick cash, and she is willing to bend a few rules to facilitate that end, even if it means covering up an unexpected death. As with the previous entries in the series, The Dark Flood is a character-driven novel, and Griessel’s history of alcoholism is one of the main characters (albeit one without a speaking role). Larceny abounds, and in at least a couple of the cases, readers will almost hope that the perps get away with it. Even the book’s villains are laden with backstory, and it is borderline impossible to avoid feeling some level of sympathy for one and all. Fans of Jo Nesbø’s similarly character-driven Harry Hole mysteries will find lots to like here.

Geiger

Gustaf Skördeman’s debut novel, Geiger, is a first-class story of the modern-day repercussions of Cold War espionage—not the first thing you’d expect from a thriller set in Sweden, which was a decidedly neutral country for most of that conflict. The story centers on the murder of a retired TV personality, Uncle Stellan, who was at one time the Johnny Carson of Sweden, beloved by adults and children alike. The book is not a whodunit in the true sense of the word, as we know who the killer is from the moment the bullet exits the gun. What we don’t know is the reason Agneta, Stellan’s wife of 50-odd years, chose to kill him after answering the phone and hearing a one-word message: “Geiger.” Detective Inspector Anna Torhall has been assigned to the case, and she brings Officer Sara Nowak on board since Sara has known Uncle Stellan’s family since she was a child. The two friends attended police academy together, and they value each other’s insights, at least to a point. Sara and Anna initially presume Agneta was either abducted by the killers or perhaps dead herself, and for quite some time, nobody even floats the notion that she might be the murderer. But as their investigation wears on, some disturbing connections to Communist East Germany come to light—connections that may lay the groundwork for an act of terrorism that would make 9/11 pale by comparison. Geiger is a truly excellent first novel: deeply researched, painstakingly crafted and thrilling on every page.

This month’s top pick in mystery, Gustaf Skördeman’s debut novel, Geiger, has a beginning you’ll never forget: A woman shoots her husband of 50 years after hearing the titular word on a mysterious phone call.

Vera Vixen, ace reporter for the Shady Hollow Herald, is a very busy bee. Well, busy, yes, but a fox rather than a bee. As in the previous two volumes in author duo Juneau Black’s Shady Hollow Mystery series, Mirror Lake follows Vera as she juggles work, love and crime-solving in her beloved Shady Hollow, which is populated solely by animals.

Although it is technically her day off (try telling that to her boss, B.W. Stone, a skunk in both fact and temperament), Vera’s delight in the annual October Harvest Festival is somewhat tempered as the day progresses. She learns that her burly bear boyfriend, Deputy Orville Braun, is throwing his cap in the ring for chief of the Shady Hill Police. With claws secretly crossed for his triumph, she determines to remain neutral in reporting on the heated campaign.

Vera’s raven friend, Lenore Lee, owner of the aptly named bookstore Nevermore, also needs support. Lenore is all a-flutter over the approaching book-signing event with Bradley Marvel, a bestselling author of thrillers who thinks rather too highly of himself. In his attempt to charm the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Vera, he proves to be a wolf in wolf’s clothing.

But these intrigues pale in comparison to the possible murder of Edward Springfield, a rat beloved by his eccentric wife, Dorothy. “Possible” because, well, Edward himself (or someone who looks exactly like him?) is standing beside Dorothy as she announces his murder! The most likely suspect is Edward’s older brother, Thomas. But he’s dead, too! Or is he? And whose headless body lies in the deep dark woods? All of Vera’s sly sleuthing skills are put to the test as she tries to solve a seemingly unsolvable case.

Mirror Lake opens with the authors’ plea for us to suspend our disbelief as we enter the realm of Shady Hollow. (Would all these animals be found in the same habitat in real life? How do you square carnivores and herbivores living in harmony?) It’s not hard to do: The anthropomorphizing of the cast is so unobtrusive that this reader often forgot the nonhuman nature of the characters. The occasional reminders of their animal nature add charm and humor to this pleasant tail—sorry, tale.

While some readers might roll their eyes at the simplicity of the plot, others will be chuffed as they attempt to outfox the wily Vera and solve the puzzle before she does. Mirror Lake doesn’t offer much emotional or intellectual complexity, but it does offer the pleasures associated with a cozy, close-knit community. Who wouldn’t want a cuppa at the coffee shop owned by Joe, the amiable moose? Who could resist the fine fare offered by panda master chef Sun Li? What could be cozier than a B&B run by the chipmunks Geoffrey and Ben?

Cold comfort is easy to find in our world these days. It’s much harder to find the humor and winsome warmth of the Shady Hollow mysteries.

Cold comfort is easy to find; it’s much harder to find the winsome warmth one encounters in Mirror Lake, a cozy mystery populated by woodland creatures.

The Echo Man

The only thing in this line of work that gives me more pleasure than reading a killer debut novel is reading a serial killer debut novel. The serial killer in Sam Holland’s The Echo Man tallies up an impressive body count, handily surpassing the known body count of any real-life serial killer in the U.K. Detective Chief Inspector Cara Elliott and Detective Sergeant Noah Deakin are investigating a series of murders, deaths they eventually realize are all evocative of different serial killers from history. Meanwhile, suspended cop Nate Griffin spends his downtime ferreting out his wife’s murderer, the same unauthorized inquiry that got him suspended in the first place. After joining forces with fugitive murder suspect Jessica Ambrose, Nate essentially throws the rulebook out the window. They’re a rather formidable pair, unfettered by the constraints of on-duty police officers. As the tension mounts, Holland poses a creative and frightening question: When and how will the killer stop being a copycat and deliver his coup de mort, the deathblow that will cement his legacy in the annals of murder?

Fierce Poison

In Victorian London, one fictional detective stands out from the others: Sherlock Holmes. But author Will Thomas gives a convincing account of why attention should be paid to two others, Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn, whose 13th adventure plays out in Fierce Poison. It starts off dramatically, when a rather unwell-looking man named Roland Fitzhugh enters their office, promptly slumps to the floor, implores, “Help me,” and then dies before their eyes. Senior partner Barker feels honor bound to investigate, especially after it is revealed that his new (-ly deceased) client was a member of Parliament. This is but the beginning of a rash of poisonings that terrorize the citizenry of England’s capital city: first, a young boy selling sweets outdoors, followed by his entire family, save for an infant girl. Then the poisonings get closer to home, targeting the two detectives themselves. On the suspect list are a gardener who maintains a plot of lethal plants, an herbalist well versed in the preparation of illicit potions and any number of people who disliked Fitzhugh, both in his political career and in his former life as a barrister. Narrated in the first person by Llewelyn, who serves as smart-alecky Archie Goodwin to Barker’s Nero Wolfe, Fierce Poison is cleverly told with humorous asides, period particulars and all the requisite red herrings.

Give Unto Others

The COVID-19 pandemic hovers in the background of Donna Leon’s latest installment of the Commissario Guido Brunetti series, Give Unto Others. Tourism is down, crime is down and a kind of malaise seems to have settled over the city of Venice. So when an old acquaintance approaches Brunetti to look into a worrisome family matter, Brunetti accepts, albeit not without reservations. The concern is centered around Enrico Fenzo, an accountant who has been acting strangely of late. When confronted by his wife, he alludes to a “dangerous” situation and declines to say more. As Brunetti launches his clandestine inquiry into the situation, it appears that perhaps he is ruffling some feathers: A break-in takes place at the veterinary clinic run by the accountant’s wife, and one of the dogs lodging there is badly mauled, perhaps as a warning against further investigation into the accountant’s potentially illegal affairs. As is the case with most of the other 30 Brunetti novels that precede it, Give Unto Others is a largely character- and milieu-driven novel. There is a central mystery, to be sure, but the characters and their evolving relationships are the driving force of the series as it explores Venice, its history, its culture and, of course, its crime. 

★ The Sacred Bridge

I was a big fan of Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn/Chee series, so I approached Spider Woman’s Daughter, Anne Hillerman’s first book in the continuation of the series, with a bit of trepidation. Turns out, I needn’t have worried; Anne Hillerman so adeptly channeled her father’s narrative voice that 20 pages in, I had completely forgotten it was not a Tony Hillerman book. She also brought positive changes to the series, giving Jim Chee’s wife, police officer Bernie Manuelito, and Joe Leaphorn’s inamorata, anthropologist Louisa Bourebonette, larger roles in the story. In Hillerman’s latest installment, The Sacred Bridge, Leaphorn’s role is tangential but critical: He sends Chee in search of a lost cave chock-full of artifacts, but before Chee can locate it, he spots a dead body floating facedown in a lake. When the autopsy suggests foul play, Chee is called in to assist. Meanwhile, Bernie pursues a separate line of inquiry into a hemp processing plant on Navajo Nation land after witnessing a deliberate hit-and-run that killed a plant employee. Once again, Hillerman nails her father’s style, fleshes out the female characters and brings the Southwest to life on the printed page.

Two wickedly clever serial killers are at large in this month’s Whodunit column.

The iconic actor Sydney Poitier once said, “So much of life, it seems to me, is determined by pure randomness.” Peter Swanson’s new mystery, Nine Lives, provides a perfect example of this sentiment as it doles out a series of inexplicable murders.

Nine individuals, ranging from an actor to a professor, from a father to a nurse, receive a cryptic one-page letter in the mail containing a list of their names. None of the people on the list are familiar with one another or have any apparent connection, past or present. Most don’t even live in the same state. Swanson swiftly moves from one character’s point of view to another’s, establishing the core cast in short chapters that provide compelling sketches of all nine intended targets. 

Since the letter had no return address or other instructions within, several of the recipients naturally dismiss it. But then people on the list suddenly start dying: A retired bar owner is drowned while another man is shot in the back while jogging near his home. FBI agent Jessica Winslow, who is one of the names on the list, races against the clock to identify the other recipients and the killer before she too becomes a victim.

Nine Lives is in many ways an heir to Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit And Then There Were None, in which eight random individuals are invited to a remote island only to be stalked by a killer. But where Christie made clear that her characters had all committed crimes and the killer was out for revenge, the motives and location of Swanson’s killer are terrifyingly opaque. Swanson creates a rollercoaster for readers, offering clues only to upend everything that was supposedly certain moments earlier. And all the while, the number of remaining victims is counting down, from nine to zero.

Peter Swanson’s latest mystery is an unpredictable rollercoaster that boasts a compelling cast of characters.

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