Characters


REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


CAMILLA T. CRESPI – The Trouble with Thin Ice. Simona Griffo #4. HarperCollins, hardcover, 1993; paperback, 1994. iUniverse, trade paperback, July 2003.

   This is the fourth in this series, but it’s my first, and it almost wasn’t that. When I read the description of Griffo is “an ad exec … who loves to cook and solve murders” I nearly wimped out right there. Then I thought, well, maybe it’s the copywriter here who’s an idiot and not the writer. Let’s see.

   Simona and her New York Detective lover (and his 14 year old son) are spending Christmas in Connecticut, where a black friend of theirs is marrying a white man, and the couple is buying one of the town’s old mansions. The lady selling it to them is a member of the tows ruling class, and her announcement of the sale at dinner is greeted with something less than pleasure and acceptance.

   The same night she is drowned in an icy pond, and the bride-to-be is arrested for the murder. Simona’s lover is called away by a family injury, and she and the son are left to soldier one.

   It should be noted that there’s at least one facet of the book of which I heartily approve: a Cast of Characters at the beginning which should be de rigueur for any story with over five characters.

   Praise ends here. The blurb was right — Simona really does love to (*gag*) cook and solve murders. This is a better written version of the nonsense that people like Mary Daheim and Valerie Wolzien perpetrate, and while I recognize that there are those who like such, their rationale remains incomprehensible to me.

   I like my fiction to either be amusing or about people and premises that I can at least temporarily believe in, and neither of these attributes is in the slightest evidence here.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #14, May 1994.


       The Simona Griffo series —

As by Trella Crespi:
   The Trouble with a Small Raise. Zebra 1991.
   The Trouble with Moonlighting. Zebra 1991.
   The Trouble with Too Much Sun. Zebra 1992.

As by Camilla T. Crespi:
   The Trouble with Thin Ice. Harper 1993.
   The Trouble with Going Home. Harper 1995.
   The Trouble with a Bad Fit. Harper 1996.
   The Trouble with a Hot Summer. Harper 1997.

IT IS PURELY MY OPINION
Reviews by L. J. Roberts


JAMES W. ZISKIN – Cast the First Stone. Ellie Stone #5. Seventh Street Books, softcover, June 2017.

First Sentence:   Sitting at the head of runway 31R at Idlewild, the jet hummed patiently, its four turbines spinning, almost whining.

   Los Angeles. 1962. Tony Eberle, a boy from upstate New York, is about to appear in his first Hollywood film and small-town reporter, Ellie Stone, has been sent West to do a story on Tony. One problem: Tony is missing, the director is desperate, and the producer has been murdered. Can Ellie solve the murder and find a hopefully innocent Tony?

   Ziskin has truly captured the time and details of the early 1960s. How refreshing to not have cell phones, GPS, the internet, and all the rest of today’s technology. Instead, there are pay phones, telegrams, Thomas Bros. Guide maps, and good old legwork. And twenty-five cent tips; an element that is really is overworked. There are excellent cultural references to the music, actors, and locations of the time, as well as emerging stories of the homosexuality of Rock Hudson, Tony Perkins, and others.

   Ellie is a really well-drawn character; she’s smart, clever, independent, and resourceful. As she is also the author’s narrator, she is also the voice of some great lines— “The same waitress from the day before asked me how my fairy tale had worked out. I shook my head and said it had turned grim.”

    Cast the First Stone has a very good plot with unexpected twists, including the killer one doesn’t predict. What was particularly nice was that there was never an obvious suspect, and the ending was delightful.

— For more of LJ’s reviews, check out her blog at : https://booksaremagic.blogspot.com/.


       The Ellie Stone series —

1. Styx & Stone (2013)

2. No Stone Unturned (2014)      Nominated for Anthony, Best Paperback Original.
3. Stone Cold Dead (2015)      Nominated for Barry, Best Paperback Original.
4. Heart of Stone (2016)      Nomintated for Anthony & Edgar, Best Paperback Original.

5. Cast the First Stone (2017)
6. A Stone’s Throw (2018)

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


GEOFFREY NORMAN – Deep End. Morgan Hunt #3. William Morrow, hardcover, 1994. Avon, paperback, April 1995.

   Norman’s tales of the ex-con turned private eye in the Florida Panhandle have gotten some pretty good press. I do wish the publicists would stop the comparisons to John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee, but faint hope of that, I’m afraid.

   Hunt was sent to prison for beating his sister’s husband to death after a long history of her being a battered wife. Released early through intervention of a lawyer for whom he now works occasionally, he obtained a PI’s license with the same lawyer’s help.

   As the story opens, he has nothing in particular going, and is out for a pleasure dive with a casual friend when the friend’s boat is stopped by the Coast Guard for a drug search. The Coast Guard people are arrogant and destructive, and Hunt is barely able to hold his temper in check.

   Though the friend is disposed to let it go, Hunt decides to see if he can cause the Coast Guard some trouble, and find out why a man such as his friend should be targeted. The trail leads to a lawyer that his friend has mortally offended. He resolves the problem to everyone’s satisfaction, but then his friend — who has all sorts of financial problems — takes a quasi-legal job diving for sunken treasure, and then he disappears.

   All right, I’ll admit it — there is a faint flavor of Travis McGee in the way Hunt operates and looks at the world, at least in this book. As I’ve said before, Norman is a very good writer even if he isn’t another John D. He has created appealing charcetrs in Hunt, his Cajun lady Jesse Beaudreaux, and the lawyer Nat Semmes.

   The first-person narrative is excellent, as is the feel for the Florida landscape. The story this time is nothing particularly special, but neither is it offensive. If you like hardboiled fiction, Norman consistently furnishes you with high-quality examples.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #14, May 1994.


       The Morgan Hunt series —

Sweetwater Ranch (1991)
Blue Chipper (1993)
Deep End (1994)
Blue Light (1995)

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


DAVID HEWSON – The Villa of Mysteries. Nic Costa #2. Delacorte Press, hardcover, January 2005. Dell, paperback, August 2005.

   If you haven’t read David Hewson’s literate and well written thrillers about Rome’s forensic pathologist Teresa Lupo and detective Nic Costa, you are in for a treat.

   The pair debuted in A Season for the Dead, which was filmed with Mira Sorvino, and now they are back in another dark and forbidding outing with echoes of Dan Brown and the Da Vinci code school, true Gothic atmosphere, conspiracy theory, the detective novel, and taut suspense.

   In The Villa of Mysteries the body of a long dead young woman found partially mummified in a bog leads Teresa and Nic into a similar case that has just happened. How the two cases connected and why spins out of control into violence, Italian history, and adds a twist to the serial killer novel with sacrificial murder and the rituals of a secret society involved.

   The finely detailed background, authentic research, a combination of human drama, and a plot that is complex but never static and combined with a taut line of suspense make Hewson one of the best writers to explore this sub-genre of the thriller.

   Even if like me the words serial killer are enough to turn you off most thrillers, this one is truly different, and if you have grown weary of the Da Vinci Code school and the parade of forensic pathologist sleuths, this offers much more than either. The view of police work in Rome, the use of the cities dark corners, and long buried ancient evils is palpable in Hewson’s writing making his books much more than a rehash of what has been done before.

   For superb use of setting and atmosphere, intriguing plots, believable and attractive (and not so attractive) human characters, and fine writing you can’t go wrong with David Hewson or The Villa of Mysteries.

       The Nic Costa series —

1. A Season for the Dead (2003)

2. The Villa of Mysteries (2004)
3. The Sacred Cut (2005)
4. The Lizard’s Bite (2006)
5. The Seventh Sacrament (2007)

6. The Garden of Evil (2008)
7. Dante’s Numbers (2008) aka The Dante Killings
8. The Blue Demon (2010) aka City of Fear
9. The Fallen Angel (2011)

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


MICHAEL BOWEN – Corruptly Procured. Richard Michaelson #3. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1994. No paperback edition.

   Bowen has another three-book series going about a married couple, plus at least one other book, but the Michaelson books are the only ones I’ve read. None have appeared in paperback, as far as I know, which is a shame.

   Richard Michaelson is a retired Foreign Service man in his early sixties, hoping for an appointment someday to a top policy post at State but so far disappointed. He is approached by a man who once worked for him, now a top DC lawyer, to do some consulting work for which he seems ill-suited, a a price which seems high.

   Puzzled, but not enough so to overcome his lack of interest, he refuses. The offer is made at a gathering at a branch of the Library of Congress, and shortly thereafter a bomb explodes, injuring Richard and masking the theft of a priceless Gutenberg Bible. While he is in the hospital a high-ranking Treasury official urges him to accept the consulting job, for reasons left shadowy.

   A hitherto unremarkable German activist group claims credit for the bombing and theft, and vows more. Can it all be connected? Well, of course it can, silly.

   I like the Michaelson books. If Bowen doesn’t know his way around the Capital and its machinations and flora and fauna, he fakes it well. He tells his story form multiple viewpoints — though Michaelson’s is by far predominant — and keeps it moving in a reltively straight but very complex line.

   This one was perhaps a little more complex than usual, and a trifle more melodramatic, but still enjoyable. Michaelson and his bookstore-ownng lady Miranda [Marjorie?] are amiable characters, and I look forward to seeing them again.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #14, May 1994.


      The Richard Michaelson series —

1. Washington Deceased (1990)

2. Faithfully Executed (1992)
3. Corruptly Procured (1994)
4. Worst Case Scenario (1996)
5. Collateral Damage (1999)

   The husband-and-wife series that Barry referred to in his first paragraph must be the Thomas Curry and Sandrine Cadette Curry books, of which there were three (1989-1993). He also wrote five books about Rep and Melissa Pennyworth between 2001 and 2009, and one book (so far) about Josie Kendall (2016). These plus three apparent standalones constitute quite a substantial mystery writing career.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


BENJAMIN SCHUTZ – Mexico Is Forever. Leo Haggerty #6. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1994. No paperback edition.

   For someone who has won both Shamus and Edgar Awards, Schutz isn’t all that well known. After the traumatic events that took place in A Fistful of Empty, I wondered where he would go with Haggerty, and even if he would. As you can see he has, for at least one more book.

   Leo is carrying on with his private detective agency in Washington, DC, still numbed emotionally from the events of the recent past but making do. His current case involves establishing the (preferably false) identity of a young female claimant to a modestly large estate. He manages to pierce the facade of the beautiful and enigmatic woman, but in doing so finds yet anther wall, and behind this one are secrets that in the bringing to light reach the opposite coast and threaten the lives of not only the woman but Haggerty himself.

   For the most part, I think this is one of the better of the Haggerty books. It is atypically for Schutz non-violent until the end of the book, and features a good bit of realistic detective work that is reminiscent of Joe Gores’ DKA stories. Not too surprisingly. Gores’ characters play bit parts in this story.

   Schutz’s first-person narrative skills are excellent, and his prose is clean and lean. While characterization is brief except for Haggerty and the mysterious woman, it’s adequate to the story, and excellent for the two.

   I’m not quite sure what I think about the ending, though it was certainly interesting, and once again raises questions about where we go from here. I understand that Schutz’s next book is non-Haggerty, so we may have to wait a while for an answer.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #14, May 1994.


     The Leo Haggerty series —

          NOVELS

Embrace the Wolf (1985)

All the Old Bargains (1985)
A Tax in Blood (1987)

The Things We Do For Love (1989)
A Fistful of Empty (1991)
Mexico Is Forever (1994)

          SHORT STORIES

“Mary, Mary, Shut the Door” (1992, Deadly Allies)
“What Goes Around” (1994, Deadly Allies II)
“Lost and Found” (1999, Death Cruise)

          COLLECTION

Mary, Mary, Shut the Door (2005; includes among others the three Haggerty stories above)

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


CRAIG McDONALD – One True Sentence. Minotaur Books, hardcover, February 2011. Betimes Books, softcover, revised edition, August 2014.

   The year is 1924 and expatriate Hector Lassiter, one of the “Lost Generation,” is in Paris writing when on a dark night he hears a scream as he walks in the snow on the Pont Neuf bridge.

   He doesn’t see anything that night, but soon enough, he and his friend Ernest Hemingway are up to their necks against a bizarre Nihilists cult called Nada, led by a mutilated man in a black mask calling himself Nobodaddy (from William Blake) who seem to be murdering off the editor publishers of impoverished little small press magazine of the type common in Paris at the time, and eventually playing at detectives under the direction of Gertrude Stein, a fact complicated when Lassiter is also drafted by Commissaire Aristide Simon as an agent of the police.

   One True Sentence is a historical thriller in the nine-book series by Edgar and Anthony award nominee Craig McDonald featuring Hector Lassiter, a crime writer who made his debut in 2007’s Head Games (set in 1957). Now the series has been reissued by Betimes Books in internal chronological order, beginning with One True Sentence. (See below.)

   Lassiter is an attractive protagonist (literally, he looks like William Holden), whose life covers much of American history in the 20th century. Here, amidst poseurs, literary icons, painters, poets, Dadaists, Surrealists, and a cold Paris winter he meets and falls in love with the dark mysterious Blinke Devlin, who also writes mystery novels of the locked room kind, under a male pseudonym, and has other mysteries to hide; Molly Wilder, a beautiful poet with a possibly fatal crush on him; Phillipe her painter boyfriend who involved her with the Nada movement; and the rather nasty Estelle Quartermain, an English mystery writer and expert on poisons.

   One theme running through the book is that almost no one is exactly who they claim to be, leaving Hector stumbling through a maze of aliases, lies, secrets, and puzzles, each arising as another has been seemingly solved.

   One True Sentence is a sexy, fast-paced mystery that generates more than a little suspense and includes appropriately bitchy portraits of actual figures of the era including Aleister Crowley, Ford Maddox Ford, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Beach, and others.

   There is more going on here than just a fine evocation of Paris in that era, though. This is also a funny, tricky, horrifying, sexy, and ultimately involving mystery with enough twists and turns to delight any fan of the Golden Age puzzle school, and a protagonist of the two-fisted hard boiled type who even writes for Black Mask.

   Each book stands alone, but characters, both major and minor weave in and out of the rest of the series and the four books of McDonald’s Chris Lyon series which is also tied to the Lassiter books.

   The background is smartly sketched in, the characters witty and interesting, the action moves fast, the hero and various heroines aren’t eunuchs or virgins without the sex being overly graphic, and the more preposterous elements of the books are done with such sense of fun that only a grouch could really complain.

   I’m looking forward to exploring more of the century with Hector Lassiter. The books are literate without being literary, funny without being silly, and smart without shouting out loud at you how clever they are. Any one of those would be reason to read most books.

       The Hector Lassiter series

1. One True Sentence (2011)
2. Forever’s Just Pretend (2014)

3. Toros & Torsos (2008)
4. The Great Pretender (2014)
5. Roll the Credits (2014)
6. The Running Kind (2014)

7. Head Games (2007)
8. Print the Legend (2010)
9. Death in the Face (2015)

10. Three Chords & The Truth (2016)

       The Chris Lyon series —

1. Parts Unknown (2012)
2. Carnival Noir (2013)
3. Cabal (2013)
4. Angels of Darkness (2013)

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


JANET NEEL – Death Among the Dons. Francesca & John MacLeish #4. St. Martin’s, US, hardcover, 1994. Pocket, US, paperback, 1995. First published in the UK by Constable, hardcover, 1993.

   My only problem with Janet Neel is that she’s just written four books. She’s among my favorite British writers.

   Francesca Wilson, now married to Superintendent John MacLeish, is having a rough time of it. Her 6-month old son won’t sleep, and neither can Francesca. She and motherhood aren’t sgreeing at all. During a more-or-less enforced visit to a health spa, she makes the acquaintance of a woman who is tapped to take over Gladstone University, an all-female College, after the former head is found dead of an overdose of Valium.

   Francesca is asked to assume the part-time and temporary post of Bursar as the school, to straighten out its horrendously messed-up finances. She accepts and steps into a mare’s nest of political intrigue and academic in-fighting. Then two students are attacked, and a professor is almost killed.

   Neel’s major (though certainly not her only) strength lies in her characters. Though Francesca (MacLeish’s role is secondary) is kept at he center of the story, she is only one of the major characters. The story is told in the third person from several viewpoints, and the most prominent one is that of the newly-appointed head, an aging but still strong woman.

   Numerous other characters play significant roles, and all are sharply and convincingly drawn. Francesca and John remain one of the most likale pairs in crime fiction, and their personal lives are mixed unobtrusively with a very good and well-told story.

   This is an excellent book in all respects, by a writer who deserves to be recognized as one of the best if she already isn’t.

      

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #14, May 1994.


The Francesca Wilson & John MacLeish series —

1. Death’s Bright Angel (1988)

2. Death on Site (1989)
3. Death of a Partner (1991)
4. Death Among the Dons (1993)
5. A Timely Death (1996)

6. To Die For (1998)
7. O Gentle Death (2000)

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


SPARKLE HAYTER – What’s a Girl Gotta Do. Robin Hudson #1. Soho Press, hardcover, 1994. Penguin, paperback, 1995.

   Hayter is a TV newswoman who has worked for CNN and WABC, and this is her first novel. She’s also been a standup comic. Would you believe I actually bought this, on a whim?

   Robin Hudson is a third-string reporter — fallen from better times — for ANN, a news network obviously modeled on CNN. In the process of being divorced from an unfaithful husband, she is not in the mood for a package of material from someone who has fond out a lot about her she isn’t particularly proud of.

   She’s supposed to meet the man at a hotel where the network is having a party, but he doesn’t answer his door. The next day he’s found dead in the hotel room, and it turns out he was trying to blackmail several of the network’s employees. But why, and who was he working for?

   Hayter does have a way with words — “dumber than a sack of hammers” and “a few bees short of a hive” were just a couple of phrases that caught my eye early on. I liked Robin Hudson, and I liked the quick, sure hand Hayter showed with the other characterizations. She writes a bit better than she plots, as is nearly always the case these days with first novelists. This one wasn’t egregious, though, and only broke down a little toward the end.

   I thought is was a strong contender for the First Novel Edgar most of the way through, and I’m not sure I still don’t. I liked Hayter’s maiden voyage a lot.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #14, May 1994.

      The Robin Hudson series —

1. What’s A Girl Gotta Do? (1994)
2. Nice Girls Finish Last (1996)

3. Revenge of the Cootie Girls (1997)
4. The Last Manly Man (1998)

5. The Chelsea Girl Murders (2000)

CONRAD ALLEN – Murder on the Mauretania. George Porter Dillman & Genevieve Masefield #2. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, December 2000; paperback, January 2002. Gerald Duckworth and Co Ltd, UK, softcover, 2002.

   If I can’t read a mystery taking place on a train, the next best thing is one that takes place on an ocean liner crossing either the Atlantic or the Pacific. It’s a happy combination of travel, limited access, and the proximity of new people to meet — and once a murder has been committed, a whole list of possible suspects.

   This second adventure in crime for the detective twosome of George Porter Dillman and Genevieve Masefield takes place in 1906 aboard the maiden voyage of the Mauretania, the pride of the Cunard Line — the biggest and the fastest at the time and for many years to come. They met in Murder on the Lusitania, the first book in the series and are now not only co-workers on board ship, but lovers as well.

   Conrad Allen certainly did his research before tackling this book, and it shows. Details of life aboard all three the ship’s passenger levels are described in detail, from the elegance of first class as compared to the cramped quarters of third.

   The book starts out leisurely enough, with the only crimes Dillman is required to investigate are some thefts of silver jewelry, and he very quickly has his eye on the most likely suspect. But after a hige afternoon squall, the man has disappeared. He’s nowhere to be found. Has it anything to due with a fortune in gold bullion the ship is also carrying?

   You bet it does.

   And lest you think Genevieve Masefield has nothing to with the story, her portion of the job is to mingle with the passengers in first class, and keep on eye on an elegant lady who seems to have nothing in common with the man who is masquerading as her husband.

   A long, nearly 300 pages of fine, sophisticated detective work. I think Dillman and Masefield could not help but love their jobs!

       The George Porter Dillman and Genevieve Masefield series —

1. Murder on the Lusitania (1999)

2. Murder On the Mauretania (2000)
3. Murder On the Minnesota (2002)
4. Murder on the Caronia (2003)
5. Murder on the Marmora (2004)

6. Murder on the Salsette (2005)
7. Murder on the Oceanic (2006)
8. Murder on the Celtic (2007)

NOTE:   Conrad Allen is but one of the pen names to have been used by British author Keith Miles, aka David Garland, Martin Inigo, Edward Marston, and Christopher T Mountjoy.

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