Elective Procedures by Merry Jones (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) sees us back in the confusing world of Elle Harrison. For those of you who have yet to read The Trouble With Charlie, the first in the series, a few words of explanation are in order. This is a woman formally diagnosed with dissociative disorder. This means her awareness of events around her can abruptly cease and then restart some little time later. If she’s involved in conversations or listening to others speak, that means she can miss vital elements in what’s being said. If there are high stress events, she’s likely to suffer amnesia. Indeed, at times, her grip on her own identity can be less than secure. The author, in other words, has carefully decided to feature an unreliable narrator. To add a further layer of confusion, there’s also the suggestion of possible supernatural powers at work. In particular, the first-person narrator regularly sees her husband Charlie whom we know from the first book to be dead. In this book, there’s a similar confusion as to whether she’s seeing real people, or ghosts, or merely hallucinating. To compound this confusion, she and a friend consult a fortuneteller who makes the usual generic predictions for the friend, but asserts our protagonist attracts the dead to her and that she’s likely to be in some danger (now there’s a surprise).
This is a kind of cozy mystery masquerading as a thriller. We have four women who decide to go to Mexico. One has decided to have cosmetic surgery (without telling her husband). She wants moral and physical help from her friends to get her through the door of the operating theatre and then to recover from the surgery. One of the remaining three is a lawyer who finds herself online for most of the time in the resort, dealing with urgent problems from the firm she works for. This leaves the other two with the chance to engage in a little holiday romance. The “other” decides one of the entertainment officers is for her. Our hero finds herself involved with the cosmetic surgeon who sees nothing ethically wrong in dating the friend of a patient rather than the patient herself. So far, we’re running along fairly predictable lines.
Early in the book, our hero finds herself attempting to rescue the woman occupying the next suite in the hotel where they are staying. But before our hero can cross from her balcony to the next, the woman falls to her death. At this early stage, it’s uncertain whether this is a murder, accident or suicide, but since the victim has just had cosmetic surgery and should be feeling good about herself, suicide looks unlikely. When another woman is killed in the same suite two nights later, we have the mystery set up and ready to run. However, our author obviously believed the plot would not sustain itself over the usual running length of a mystery novel, so there’s a further level of complexity introduced. For the record, it’s obvious from quite early on, given this particular protagonist, who the killer in the hotel suite must be. This leaves it up to the grafted element to carry the thriller aspect of the novel. Unfortunately, this is less than successful, leaving the whole novel somewhat thin. The romance plays out along predictable lines as well, so on balance, Elective Procedures is not a particularly impressive second book in what’s obviously intended as a growing series.
For a review of the first in the series, see The Trouble With Charlie.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
I recently read an article discussing which reviews “go viral” and achieve a readership unexpectedly high. The answer according to this author are reviews which find fault with whatever product or service is being discussed. The alleged reason is that the vocabulary available to explore the depths of badness are far more engaging than the choice of words and phrases to say how “awfully jolly good” the thing or service is. After finishing Murder on the Hoof by Kathryn O’Sullivan (Minotaur Books, 2014) I find myself having to write a bad review and face the problem of how vicious to make it. Let me start with the decision of the publisher to accept such a work for sale to the unsuspecting public. I often choose to review Minotaur Books because they are reasonably consistent in standard. This book, however, fails the taste test so spectacularly that everyone in the commissioning and editorial staff should be taken into a dark room (waterboards optional) and interrogated to determine their thinking processes. Hopefully, this will encourage them never to accept such a dire book again. I shudder to think how many innocent book buyers will pick up this book and find themselves either deeply depressed or spectacularly angry at having wasted their dollars on something so awful.
As to the book, I almost gave up after the first sixty or so pages. This is a story that elevates pedestrian and boring to new heights. As a cozy mystery (BTW a tea cozy was a knitted abomination using any leftover wool which was put on to keep the pot hot while the tea mashed) it panders to all the worst possible clichés. A tough woman in a physically demanding job as a fire chief is distantly enamoured of the local chief of police. When his ex comes on a visit to the small town (an ex he failed to mention in any of their not-quite dates) her head is put into a whirl. Were it not for two deaths in quick succession, she would be completely derailed. Yes, our doughty fire fighter is going to outsleuth the chief of police and, by completely upstaging him, show why he should run screaming from her presence.
Anyway, having got these two dead folk, she and the police chief put aside their difficulties over the arrival of the ex and begin the investigation. To say this is tedious is an understatement until we arrive at a piece of absurdity that leads to the final debacle. At this point, I’m going to break with convention and insert a SPOILER. Do not read on if you are minded to read this book despite my previous four-hundred words of praise. One of the deceased anticipated his demise. Having already picked out a coffin with a secret drawer, he hid the evidence in that drawer. So here comes the undertaker. He removes the coffin from store and checks it out before dressing the body after the autopsy and inserting it inside the box in preparation for the lying in. Our hero visits the mortuary, opens the coffin and discovers the secret drawer. The fire chief has special powers which enable her to detect hiding places when opening and closing coffins with dead bodies inside.
From all this, you will understand Murder on the Hoof is so bad that were Ray Bradbury writing Fahrenheit 451 today, he would want this to be one of the first books burned. Not that I blame the author. Everyone is capable of writing rubbish and it takes a dispassionate third party with some experience to save the author from his or her excesses. Thus my anger is really directed at Minotaur Books whose editorial staff should have instructed the author to rewrite until it was readable.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Hit and Run by Sandra Balzo (Severn House, 2014) is the third Main Street Mystery and sees AnnaLise Griggs hired to do a biography of Dickens Hart. Back in the 1970s, he achieved some degree of notoriety by opening the White Tail Lodge, a copy of the Playboy concept with scantily clad women waiting tables for the edification of the male (club) members. He has records and diaries. She’s to edit them into a coherent story of his experiences. That he also happens to be her biological father came as a surprise, but she’s adjusting to the idea, particularly as it helps pay her bills. As part of this foray into the past, Dickens wants to track down all the women he has slept with (at least sixty-three before the cut) and any children he might have sired. There’s a plan to remember his children in the will. Yet bringing everyone together over Thanksgiving may be a little dangerous. So the invitations are limited to just those three women who might have produced his children, those children, and assorted ex-wives.
We’re then briefly back in the small town of Sutherton in the High Country of North Carolina to catch up with the extended family of Daisy Griggs and her best friend Phyllis ‘Mama’ Balisteri, before heading back for the Thanksgiving from Hell. Think of it this way. We have a relatively isolated house with a limited number of people to create the Golden Age situation. The invitees are all actual or potential gold-diggers, with a few ex-wives thrown in for good measure, a lawyer, and AnnaLise taking the moral high road, claiming she don’t want none of her natural father’s money. Except, early on in the holiday, she discovers one of the two women she relates to as her mother has run up major medical bills ($83,000 to be precise). Although AnnaLise has been paid half her fee for writing the biography up front, the $50,000 in hand is going to be swallowed up. Ironically, she discovers she may actually not want to share Dickens’ estate with anyone else if Daisy Griggs is really ill. So we get through the first day and early the next morning, the Chef has disappeared and the inevitable body is discovered. Predictably, Dickens is found naked on his bed with the back of his head smashed in by the bottle shown on the jacket artwork.
This gives us the classic murder mystery scenario with almost everyone in residence having a motive for wanting the old man dead. The plot is meticulously put together but I confess to finding it slightly difficult to relate to the geography of the house itself. Since a part of the solution depends on where everyone is, who can see what from where, and where corridors and doors lead to, a floor plan might have been useful. Although I concede that since the journalist as sleuth only discovers some features of the house quite late on in the book, having a plan might enable us readers to pre-empt the solution of the crime. That may be a bad thing. I’m not sure.
I’m also not sure the plot is dynamic enough. Without some of the humour on display in other books she has written to carry us through, I felt this narrative lost pace coming up to the midway point. It does slowly pick up again as AnnaLise naturally comes under suspicion. Since she’s the only proven heir at this point, she would have a motive for killing her natural father before he can change the will to include any other offspring. In the end, the solution to the murder proves rather tragic. There’s a certain quite pleasing malevolence about the plan and, when events don’t quite work out as expected, the cover-up of whodunnit is ingenious. That means I give top marks for the plot in hindsight, but think Hit and Run would have been better if some of the detail had been pruned and a little humour had been injected into the proceedings.
For the review of another book by Sandra Balzo, see Murder on the Orient Espresso.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
I’m starting off this review with thoughts about the relationship between historical fiction and the emerging subgenre which I’ll call Cold Case although, since the idea actually comes from Roy Vickers seminal collection, Department of Dead Ends (1949), we should perhaps find a better label. Anyway, the structure of this group of books has a contemporary detective investigate events which took place in the past. Vickers has a series detective called Rason who looks through old files until he finds something interesting. As in “The Man WHo Murdered in Public” where he puts together reports of deaths by drowning which my have a common denominator. The American television series Cold Case has Lilly Rush (Kathryn Morris) solve a murder a week which, after 156 episodes, grew somewhat monotonous. However, the essential question remains of how best to classify the format. Although we’re looking at older witnesses and suspects now, the primary focus is what happened way back when. We therefore get the best of both worlds by having events from the past acting as a catalyst for contemporary events (or maybe the other way round).
The Coal Black Asphalt Tomb by David Handler (Minotaur Books, 2014) is the tenth in the series featuring ex-film critic Mitch Berger from New York City and Connecticut State Resident Trooper Desiree Mitry. They currently cohabit in the small village of Dorset where he does various odd jobs while she keeps the peace. After many past attempts failed, the election of a new selectwoman brings the men and equipment to resurface the street through the Historical District. As they begin stripping off the old asphalt, they expose a body. It has been there forty-seven years. You can’t get a colder case than this and still have enough living suspects walking around.
The body belongs to a Navy flier called Lance Paffin whose younger brother has been the selectman opposing all attempts to resurface the road — if he did not know the body was buried there, why has he so adamantly opposed resurfacing? Among the other suspects are the elderly owner of the local newspaper, a US Congressman and a number of local women who, for these purposes, have the misfortune to live longer than men. They were all part of a group of bright young things who met at a party in the local hall in 1967. There was an argument which might have been about politics or about the shameless way Lance related to the female sex. The official records from the time showed everyone going home after the party apart from Lance who went out for a midnight sail in his boat. Later the boat was found on the shore. Lance’s body was never recovered and he was presumed dead. Given the body ended up buried outside the hall, there’s obviously been a major cover-up in place all these years. The questions we have to wrestle with are who might have been the killer and how many of the others conspired to conceal it.
Mitch is one of the conversationalists who disarms those he talks with. Once he gets stuck into the local gossip mill, the stories of the past come thick and fast. In fact, he’s almost too good at collecting different stories. Getting them all the fit together is a challenge. Meanwhile Desiree is caught up in a difficult political situation. The US Senator was obviously in on the cover-up because he gave a job to one of the detectives from the original investigation. This raises the stakes for the police department. If corrupt police officers botched the original investigation and a contemporary US Senator is involved, the media interest could be very damaging to reputations. Desiree is therefore under pressure to come up with quick answers to deflect blame.
One aspect of the plot is nicely obscure although it may be fairly obvious who must have been the killer. Whether this spoils your enjoyment really depends on why you read books like this. Those who switch off their brains and just enjoy the ride will find this book a delight. Some of the character we meet are fascinating and given enough space so we can watch their development from smooth purveyors of the cover story to embarrassed old folk shifting from foot to foot like naughty children caught out in a lie. Should you want to second-guess the series characters so you can claim bragging rights for having solved the case before they did, this book is also for you. It’s not that difficult to identify whodunnit. The uncertainty is more as to motive and opportunity. Going back to my opening salvo, this is more a contemporary mystery than historical fiction. Although the characters talk about their lives forty-seven years ago, it’s all seen through today’s lens. Some might see this as a cozy mystery in that we have a pair in a romantic relationship investigating crimes together in a small town. This just goes to show that once you start trying to attribute labels, it grows rather annoying. So let’s conclude with the good news that The Coal Black Asphalt Tomb is a distinctly above average murder mystery with minimal police procedure thrown in to add political realism.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Leave Tomorrow Behind by Judy Clemens (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the sixth in the Stella Crown mystery series and something of a novelty for me. I’ve been dipping an experimental toe into the so-called cozy mystery market scene. So far, the temperature has been very variable from the tepid to just right on the Goldilock’s scale of readability. I’ve yet to find anything outstanding. I think it would be fair to brand this novel as my first truly bucolic mystery. This refers both to the subject matter which revolves around dairy farming, and to the pace of the book which is at a shucks y’all meander while the reader meditatively chews on a random straw plucked from behind an ear. At this point, I need to declare a special interest because I spent years living in an isolated house completely surrounded by dairy farms with cattle in all the fields during the summer months, and sheep taking over for grazing during the winter. I’m therefore used to dealing with cows which are prone to wander when given the chance. Let’s just say, cows and I get on whereas sheep are the most intensely stupid animals I’ve ever had to deal with. I’ve also spent weeks of each year in agricultural shows and have watched the judging of animals and other competitive aspects of country life — at least with the cooking by farmers’ wives, you could enjoy the fruits of their labour once the judging was over.
Now we’ve got my prejudices out into the open, I can talk about the book and you can judge whether I’m being fair. The bulk of this book is set in a county fair and revolves around two aspects of local life. The first is a program specifically designed to encourage the next generation to put down their smartphones every now and then to care for calves. This is a canny strategy to help preserve some continuity in the farming community, giving the young a chance to feel pride in their accomplishments when animals they have cared for are shown in a ring for judging. In this case, her young protégé and employee Zach is showing a calf and his rising hormone levels as various degrees of feminine pulchritude parade about the fair. The second is the polar opposite — the Lovely Miss Pennsylvania Pageant. I share the same prejudices as the author against beauty pageants and the appalling competitiveness of mothers who primp and preen their daughters so they become caricatures of femininity who know nothing more than how to twirl a baton and embrace world peace as their passion in life.
All this would be just a part of life’s rich pattern but for the arrival of handsome Nick in her life. Unfortunately with great male beauty comes the heavy responsibility of dealing with Miranda, her future sister-in-law. This monomaniacal woman is fixated by the competing ideas that Stella is only after Nick’s money, and that if she can’t talk them out of marrying, they will at least go through a marriage designed by her. As a biker chick when younger, Stella’s idea of a wedding is turning up in front of a local judge still wearing her boots and jeans, saying the words in the right order, and then getting back to the farm in time to do the milking. The battle lines are therefore drawn as they descend upon the fair only to find distractions, first with the Gregg family who cheat to win the cattle judging competitions, and the impressive Rikki Raines, a new country singer being groomed for success by Mr Gregg. When the songstress ends up dead after her concert, Stella finds herself in the limelight thanks to an abrasive young homicide detective and a YouTube video. To get people to leave her alone, she therefore sets out to solve the case.
The structure of the book is slightly unusual in mystery terms because the murder itself is almost peripheral to everything else going on in Stella’s life. This would not be a problem if the character of Stella was completely engaging, but while she’s very knowledgeable about farming in general and understands how other people relate to each other, her interpersonal skills are less than endearing. She’s obviously lovable because she has a solid relationship with Nick and one or two others in the local community. But she’s immensely prickly and not a little quirky making it difficult to like her. In particular, the running battle with Miranda, while no doubt not unrealistic when two families are coming together, dominates and distracts from the more interesting events at the fair. Even though Miranda does prove useful in engineering a number of meetings at the end of the book which help finally resolve the mystery, I suspect many readers will feel profoundly grateful when she’s abandoned at the end.
This leaves me thinking Leave Tomorrow Behind is interesting as a mystery with the strands of motive nicely interwoven into the broader narrative, and some of the observational content on the young of this rural area is just right, but you need a little patience to get through all the “cow” stuff and Stella herself is not always as likeable as you might expect from the protagonist of a bucolic mystery.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Heirs of the Body by Carola Dunn (Minotaur Books, 2013) is the twenty-first in the series featuring (The Honourable) Daisy Dalrymple (Fletcher) and has us firmly back in historical times all wrapped up warm in what approaches the status of a cozy mystery. As to era, we’re firmly located in the Britain of the 1920s in which wealth and privilege were still hanging on by their fingernails. Thematically, we’re caught up in the problems of the primogeniture rule for succession to a title. In the days before the suffragette movement was alarming the horses on race courses and straining conversations over tea in country houses, titles passed down the male line. In the best regulated families, husbands would bear down on their wives on a regular basis and, in due course, lots of little heirs would populate the nurseries, thereby ensuring a smooth transition of the title and the lands entailed with it. Except not all households were successful with problems of fertility, lack of interest in sex, or worse, the production of female offspring only, blighting succession. It was at this point that lawyers with an interest in genealogy came into their own, delving into dusty records in colonies and other less likely places around the world, to find the nearest male relative who might be elevated to the ranks of the nobility. In this case, the current Lord Dalrymple has reached the age of fifty and, having spent his life in pursuit of butterflies and moths, decides the chances of catching an heir are remote. He therefore sets the wheels in motion to find the male with the best claim to the title and the estate that goes with it.
Meanwhile Daisy continues in domestic bliss with her husband who, breaking the cozy rules, is a senior police officer at the old Scotland Yard. This gives our heroine the perfect excuse to get involved in all the more interesting cases falling into her husband’s care. Indeed, she’s been at this so long, not only the younger officers but also the more senior officers of London’s finest are aware of her ability to make pertinent suggestions on whodunnit. This time, the family solicitor comes up with a list of four possible claimant to the title. They are an unpleasant South African who appears to be moderately wealthy thanks to his trade as a diamond merchant, a British man and his French wife who run a hotel in Scarborough, a mixed-race boy from Trinidad, and a Jamaican sailor — his pregnant wife comes to England to protect his claim since no-one is entirely sure where he is.
This starts well. There’s a very nice sense of the style and manners of the time with the stratification of social class ringing true. The interest is maintained as we begin the search for the heirs and first impressions as the early claimants appear are auspicious. Unfortunately, the central section loses it way. In part, this is a direct result from plot choices. In the classical detective story, we reestablish our core of series characters, meet the newcomers for this book and, usually no later than one third of the way through the book, the first body appears. This gives our heroine plenty of time to flex her mental muscles, decide what to wear for dinner, and solve the case in the library over a snifter or two. But this case is about succession. One of the claimants must think he has a poor chance of meeting the criteria for being the first male heir and so decides to eliminate the competition. The most amusing version of this trope is Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) in which the predatory Louis Mazzini works his way through the ranks of the D’Ascoynes.
Allowing for the film being somewhat over the top, this is completely free of tension as there are reports of “accidents”, or we see the donkey race to disaster, or the butterfly net of doom almost strikes. When we do get to a death, it appears to be natural causes. Although once you put it in context, it does look suspicious. Of course it heats up again as we come into the final bend but the feeling as we cross the line is that the criminal(s) is/are remarkably amateurish — this is just too cozy with very little of the killer mentality we associate with the British nobility. Having taken the decision to eliminate the competition, you would expect the villain(s) to be better organised and leave nothing to chance. Indeed, continuing in the ineptitude stakes, the professional police officer who married into this clan of noble eccentrics comes out of this book looking less than effective. Although we’re not supposed to blame him — he’s distracted — his failure to examine the key evidence is woeful. Perhaps he’s more on the ball in earlier books.
So Heirs of the Body ends up slightly ho-hum. It promises more than it delivers on the mystery front, once the evidence comes in, the question of the heir’s identity is easy to see, and the historical background is impeccable. So if all you want is a gentle outing into the lives of one of the larger British aristocratic families of the latter part of 1920s, this is the book for you. Presumably if you’ve already read the twenty books preceding this, you’ll want this if only to see what happens on the family front.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Shadows of Death by Jeanne M Dams (Severn House, 2013) is the fourteenth Dorothy Martin Mystery. She’s from Indiana but has married an Englishman (well Cornishman which is not at all the same thing) who, conveniently, used to be a policeman (well, Chief Constable), and she’s now gone as native as any willing American can. For those of you less clued into the mysteries of the north of Scotland in general and Orkney in particular, it tends to be quite cold (even in summer) and there are many sites to interest archaeologists. Indeed, with the type of perversity usually reserved to the young of our day, it seems the first people to enter this island of ours came from the north. Yes, I know most people would imagine they crossed over on one of the ferries from France (avoiding King Harold with the arrow sticking out of his eye), but the oldest evidence of human occupation in Britain is in Orkney. When it comes to watching people dig up the evidence of this first batch of illegal immigrants, the first step is to journey north having made arrangements for the cats — the dog is expected to rough it with the humans as they first drive and then fly their way towards the Pole.
When installed in Stromness, they meet up with a local potter called Andrew and, with a minor delay to fit in more local colour including Roadkill, the local feline who’s master of all he surveys, we can get on with the mystery. Yes, everyone has their own irons in the archaeological fire and disagreements over how best to proceed with the dig are growing ever more acrimonious. Now with the death of the American who was funding the excavation, it’s time for our sleuths to get to work (did I mention her dog is called Watson?). When public opinion and some conveniently damning evidence combine, the police arrest the local farmer who had been loudly broadcasting his intention to rid the earth of Americans in general and this man in particular. This, of course, is the signal for our investigative duo (plus Watson) to get started. And then all we need is for the local police to be called away to deal with a major terrorist threat (a very British phenomenon) which leaves our investigators without portfolio to work out whodunnit.
The problem, of course, conforms to the Golden Age formula. We’re stuck on an island with a limited pool of suspects. When we further analyse the situation, there’s motive and opportunity aplenty. Better still, none of the most obvious candidates has a complete alibi. So now it comes down to the core problem. No-one needs to talk to either of our heroes. He’s long retired and she’s, well, American and with the exception of “Mac” Macintyre, all foreigners in the northern reaches of Scotland are sassenach and worse, and so condemned to be ignored. Her status shades even more into despicable territory when Roadkill goes missing and the rumour mill thinks shedunnit. Fortunately, one or two women who are plugged into the innocent until proved guilty mode prevail over the no smoke without fire brigade. With alcohol flowing, communications can be restored. Still the gossip very specifically alleges Roadkill was sacrificed in a ritual. The ladies of the village remember another ritual sacrifice where the one blamed mistook a hen for a cockerel which, no doubt, cocked up the sacrifice when the blood was spilled.
At this point, I need a brief moment to think about classifying this book. Arising on the other side of the Pond, the cozy mystery is selling strongly. This almost always features an intelligent woman as an amateur sleuth who uses her life’s experience to unravel whatever puzzles are thrown into her path. As with the Golden Age format, the setting tends to be a village. That’s why the majority of the key characters already know each other and, exploiting her natural wit and charm, our protagonist infiltrates the gossip circle and roots out the facts necessary to solve the crime. In this case, our stereotypical heroine is married to an ex-policeman whose past record opens doors that would usually be closed to an amateur. Finally, most would characterise this subgenre as being “gentle”. The victim is usually portrayed as seriously unpleasant and deserving to die and, as in this book, the murder method is made to look like an accident. This avoids any real unpleasantness and leaves the readers to focus on the quality of the plot and the development of the characters.
So, for better or worse, Shadows of Death is an English (tea) cozy with a pleasing ramble through village life in the Scottish Islands as our duo filter fact from fiction in the local gossip, excavate the truth from the mass of conflicting evidence, and arrive at the solution to the problem. I suspect I’m not in the target readership for a book of this type. I appreciate it but leave it to female readers to genuinely enjoy the exploration of the relationship between the couple as they navigate the tricky waters of Scottish culture in pursuit of a killer.
For a review of the next book in the series, see Day of Vengeance.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.