Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The New Mystery Trifecta

I really hit the jackpot this week on the New Books shelves--I went looking for something to read for the weekend and found not one or two but three of my favorite mystery writers' new books!

First up was Deborah Crombie's latest in her Kincaid and James police procedurals, The Sound of Broken Glass. This is number 15 (listed in order here), and I think Crombie is so smart to have created this couple who are both detectives, because with each book she can decide to trade off and make one the lead while holding the other in reserve, giving the secondary just enough involvement in the case to keep continuity between books, but delivering some variety to her readers. Although there are detectives I love to follow, book after book, it's nice to have this experience of foreground / background with alternating protagonists. I also like the degree of personal life with which she infuses her mysteries--although everyone has one (to a greater or lesser degree), many writers leave that out, and I think the stories are so much richer and more layered with at least a hint of back story and maybe more.

In this one, Duncan Kincaid is at home being the primary caregiver to his and Gemma's mixed household of children--Kincaid's teenage son (Kit) from a long-ago liaison (Kit's mother's death occurred in a previous book), James's son (Toby) from her first marriage, and their recently acquired three-year-old foster daughter (Charlotte). Meanwhile, Detective Inspector Gemma James takes the lead on the death of a respectable barrister, who is discovered in compromising circumstances in a seedy motel in the Crystal Palace district of south London. Is it simply a rather unsavory accidental death? or is it murder? The answer to this question will take DI James and newly promoted Detective Sergeant Melody Talbot into the world of the music recording business, where they will discover that their case has convoluted ties to past and present friends and suspects as well as to a raft of new ones.

Second on my list was Cynthia Harrod-Eagles's latest Bill Slider case, Blood Never Dies--also, weirdly, #15 in the series (list here). I fell for her books for so many reasons, and this one confirms them all: the integrity and doggedness of Detective Inspector Slider; the quirky, wonderfully drawn members of his team; the dreadful puns she uses as chapter headings (some of which, I must confess, I don't understand, not being an expert on Brit humor); and, again, the personal life she allows him to lead, with his musician wife, Joanna, his best friend and detective sergeant, Jim Atherton, and his live-in father, always ready to assist with childcare. The case doesn't disappoint either--it starts with a John Doe who's an apparent suicide, and leads to a multi-victimed, many-layered, convoluted plot that keeps you fascinated until the last page.

One of my favorite characters of Harrod-Eagles's creation is Slider's boss, Detective Superintendent Fred Porson, whose malapropisms have me laughing out loud alone in my living room. Porson "used language like a man flailing at wasps--usually effective, but never a pretty sight." Instead of passing muster, the inspection "passes mustard." Instead of ambidextrous, Porson wonders if their victim was "ampidistrous." The challenge for Slider and his colleagues is to figure out what he's trying to say while not laughing in his face. But let us not "cast nasturtiums" on one of the best bosses Bill Slider has ever had, in terms of having his back and protecting him from the higher-ups and politicos while he solves his cases.

One minor criticism, and this is of Harrod-Eagles's publisher, Severn House, is that I find the book covers for this series uniformly ugly, uninteresting, and too vague, and the production values (typeface, page layout, paper quality, etc.) amateurish and cheap-looking. Don't be put off by these details, though--this is a great series deserving of a better presentation.

The third book I scored was What Darkness Bringsnumber eight in the Sebastian St. Cyr Regency mysteries (set in the England of 1812) by talented historical fiction writer C. S. Harris. I like this series (titles in order here) for the storytelling, for the strong and distinct characters, and for the obviously thorough research that takes place behind the scenes.

This one is an intriguing mix of jewel thieves, hookers, royalty, street sweepers, noblemen and women, retired military, and French spies, all centered around the missing Hope Diamond. When a diamond merchant rumored to have the jewel in his position is murdered, Russell Yates, husband of Sebastian St. Cyr's former lover Kat Boleyn, is found standing over the dead body and is slated to be hanged unless Sebastian can back up Yates's claim that he didn't kill the man. Complicating matters, as usual, is the machiavellian power behind the throne, Lord Jarvis, father of Sebastian's new wife, Hero, who has more to do with Yates's predicament than anyone is letting on. Meanwhile, French agents of Napoleon are conducting their own ruthless search for the diamond (which was originally one of the French crown jewels), and Sebastian is discovering that the diamond merchant was such a nasty fellow, the list of suspects who could have done him in numbers more than a hundred. The surprises are unexpected, as are the guilty parties, and there are just enough advances in the interpersonal stories of the main characters to make me spend a Sunday afternoon I had planned to use for other activities getting to the satisfying conclusion of this book instead!

In reading back over this, the common theme with all three of these books is that the detectives are written as real people with personal lives, flaws, and challenges that go far beyond the workplace and the case at hand. If you like that kind of mystery too, then try one (or more!) of these excellent series!

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