The Waxman Murders

The Waxman Murders by P.C. Doherty

For medieval murder, you can’t do better than Paul Doherty, whose Hugh Corbett series brings 14th-century England to life.

The Waxman was a ship carrying a collection of valuable charts and maps that was waylaid a few years before the start of the present tale. It turns out a lot of people want those papers—if they still exist—and don’t mind shedding blood to get their way.

Corbett is sent to negotiate with a member of the Hanseatic League, an alliance of trading cities and guilds. But murder intervenes, and Corbett is left to pick up the pieces.

While Doherty writes historical mysteries, their strength is in the characters, who are strong and believable. So while there is plenty of history here, all of it interesting, it never overwhelms the story.

 

Wanting Sheila Dead

"Wanting Sheila Dead” by Jane Haddam
Minotaur Books, 340 pages, $23.99

sheilaThe Gregor Demarkian series (this is No. 25) is based in Philadelphia and focuses on the retired FBI agent known for his Armenian background. This latest foray finds Gregor involved in a shooting in a reality show being shot in a home belonging to his wife Bennis’ family.

The show features an unpleasant woman, the Sheila of the title, who mistreats just about everyone. But she isn’t the victim. In the house are a number of young women hoping to be chosen for instant superstardom.

It is one of Haddam’s strengths that she can tell the back story for many of these contestants, and make them discrete and interesting to us.

A subplot deals with an elderly woman found unconscious in her home in Gregor's neighborhood. The local women want Gregor to investigate what happened. This fits right in since, as always, much of the book revolves around life on gentrifying Cavanaugh Street, the church and the residents.

More power to Haddam for giving us something comfortable and familiar, as well as new and exciting.

 

Theodore Bone, Kid Lawyer

theodoreboneSince the new Grisham book was written for tweens, I gave it to the best tween reader in the state. The following is her review:

I just read a book called Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer, which was written by John Grisham. The publisher is Dutton, it costs $16.99 and it has 263 pages.

I liked the book.  It was sort of suspenseful, which I don’t usually read, but it was worth it. The main character, Theodore Boone, is 13, growing up in a house full of lawyers, and knows a lot about the law. At the beginning of the book a case comes up that a man killed his wife!  It’s kind of boring at that part, because the whole town is wondering if he’s guilty or not.  Then Theo and his class visit the courtroom on the first day of the trial. There it’s just the usual guilty/not guilty stuff.

That was boring, as there was too much description.

Then it gets good. Turns out Theo has a friend who knows the truth, but won't say anything to the judge because he's an illegal immigrant, and might get in trouble. That was my favorite part, because everyone doesn't know what to do. Some of it was hard to believe because this kid is involved in law way too much, along with the rest of the town. Being a lawyer isn’t the only profession in the world.  It wasn’t very funny or scary.

But the characters were good, it was well written, and besides the fact that he was too concerned about the law, he seemed like a real kid.  He had a crush on someone, rode his bike to school, had friends, and worried about upcoming tests.  I suggest this book to pre-teens because you can relate to some of the characters, and you can learn a little about the law.

 

Delicious and Suspicious

Delicious and Suspicious by Riley Adams (Berkley, $6.99, 278 pages)

I rarely suggest starting a book at the end, but in this case I'm making an exception. There are some great-sounding recipes at the end, and I'm convinced that having some pulled pork barbecue or gingerbread treats would make the book go down more easily.

deliciousThis story, set in Memphis, focuses on the family-run Aunt Pat's barbecue place. A visit from a scout from the Cooking Channel is a classic case of setting the cat among the pigeons.

The scout, Rebecca Adrian, is arrogant and rude, so perhaps it is no surprise that not only does she upset almost everyone she meets, but she also comes to a sticky end.

The problem of figuring out whodunit takes it toll on Lulu Taylor, the restaurant's owner; her son Ben, the chief cook; her son Seb, who does the books; daughter-in-law Sara, a waitress and unappreciated artist; Sara’s nine-year-old twins and an assortment of other characters, including the owner of a competing barbecue place, a gallery owner and a group of Elvis devotees.

Characterization is  thin, and the writing is marred by lines like this: "Unfortunately for her, Rebecca Adrian was one of those less-perceptive types who would make the fatal mistake of underestimating Lulu."

Too bad Adams violates the classic writers' rule: "show, don’t tell."  It weakens the book.

Still, there’s that nice Southern background and those recipes to enjoy.

 

Death in North Beach

"Death in North Beach" by Ronald Tierney. (Severn House, $28.95, 214 pages)

death-in-north-beach-coverTwo San Francisco private investigators—Carly Paladino and her partner Noah Lang—get involved in the murder of novelist said to be writing a tell-all memoir.

Carly's client, a gigolo, hopes she will turn up enough information to take the heat off him as chief suspect.

There are a lot of potential suspects, and Carly and Noah talk to them all. It's a little hard to keep them all straight as we move from interview to interview.

But the real juice in this story is the author’s love affair with the city of San Francisco. You can walk the streets, smell the restaurant offerings and savor the delights—and deterioration—of a neighborhood that may have gotten too popular for its own good.

 

Cruel Intent

janceci"Cruel Intent" by J.A. Jance. (Simon & Schuster, $7.99, 376 pages)

The prolific Jance opens a new series here, featuring former TV journalist Ali Reynolds, trying to remodel a home in Sedona, Ariz.

Everyone knows remodeling can be tough … but not everyone finds their contractor the prime suspect in the murder of his wife, Morgan. Ali doesn’t think Bryan Forester is guilty, even though Morgan was known to be sleeping around.

The widowed Ali soon discovers a website for “married singles” like Morgan. It might turn out to be a very dangerous investigation.

But the best thing about a Jance book isn’t just the plot, inventive as it might be, but the characters and relationships. Here we meet Ali’s son, a teacher, and his girlfriend, a wounded veteran of the Iraq war. Then there’s a young computer genius and the butler   she inherited from the house’s former owner.

The book is exciting and fun, just what we’ve come to expect from this author.

 

The Morning Show Murders

rokerbook1My response to celebrity books is kind of the opposite of what the publisher hopes for. I don’t say, "Oh goody, Al Roker written a book. I bet it’s wonderful." Instead, I think about all the not-famous writers I know who can't find a publisher. My attitude did not improve when I saw the celebrity's name was four times the size of his co-author.

Billy Blessing is a celebrity chef who divides his time between a gig on a morning news show and running his restaurant. When his not-well-liked producer dies after eating Billy’s coq au vin, he becomes the prime suspect.

The best part of this book is the obviously knowledgeable background about how a TV show works. Less successful are the characterizations; Billy comes across as too-nice-to-be-real, for example. And the handy coincidence of him finding the victim's little black book … puh-lease!

So my verdict is: this celebrity book is no better, but also no worse, than a lot of what's out there.

 

The Pendragon Murders

pendragonJ.M.C. Blair's unusual take on the King Arthur legend takes some getting used to.

Not because Merlin is a scholar and minister instead of a wizard, but because the language is modern and rather casual in feeling. (Penguin, $7.99, 312 pages)

The end result is that, instead of being caught up in the story and the period, you are constantly reminded that you are reading a book.

Arthur, never free of plots and insurrections, often led by his sister Morgan, is alternately regal and whiny. Meanwhile, Merlin’s assistant, a girl disguised as a boy, comes across as a contrivance rather than a person.

The story itself is well told. When a member of the nobility and his sons is found dead at Stonehenge, and reports of plague are noted throughout the country, Merlin has his hands full.

If you don’t worry too much about characterization, it’s a good story.

 

Death Will Help You Leave Him

deathwillhelpElizabeth Zelvin’s second novel makes me wish I’d read the first, Death Will Get You Sober.

Bruce Kohler, a recovering alcoholic, and his friend Jimmy, a computer whiz with 15 years of sobriety, and Jimmy’s girlfriend Barbara, an addictions counselor, are faced with murder, alcoholism, co-dependency, drug dealing and a slew of other issues in this dynamic and thoroughly enjoyable novel.

Set in New York City, the story focuses at first on Luz, suspected of killing her married, drug-dealing boyfriend. Barbara, who is Luz’s sponsor in Al-Anon, rushes to her defense.

These three unlikely investigators decide the best way to protect Luz is to find a better suspect. To that end, they attend the funeral in Brooklyn, where the intermingled Italian families present a classic picture of one segment of the Big Apple melting pot.

In fact, Zelvin nails both New York and the recovery community.

That wouldn’t matter unless the story worked as well, and it does. Bruce, with his shaky sobriety and his continuing addiction to his bipolar ex-wife, is a believable character who is easy to root for.

My only quibble is that there are too many car accidents: twice Bruce rescues women who are struck, and once he doesn’t. Surely there are other ways to demonstrate danger.

 

Double Black

doubleblack "Double Black" by Wendy Clinch (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 306 pages) is a new series focusing on skiing. It's the latest in the spunky-heroine-leaves-bad-domestic-situation-and-gets-involved-in-murder sub-genre.

Stacey Curtis is in Vermont, skiing all morning and bartending at night, when she finds a dead man in a condo. Homeless, she’d been squatting in empty units, something she can’t admit to the investigating sheriff.

The complications soon multiply, and involve the dead man’s wealthy family, valuable real estate and a good-looking ski bum who catches Stacey’s eye.

The story is fine, if not remarkable, and the major characters plausible enough. The book’s big selling point is its loving depiction of the skiing fanatic’s life.

 

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

guitarweepsSan Francisco author Grabien’s series about rock guitarist JP Kinkaid continues to offer a fabulous backstage look at the music world.

Singer/guitarist Vinny Fabiano, who until his untimely demise showed no redeeming traits, has been killed. Among his sins: making an obnoxious pass at JP’s girlfriend, and backing down only when he realizes Bree is JP’s "property."

Yet the whole John-Bree relationship, which along with the murder investigation and John’s ongoing battle with multiple sclerosis is central to the book, is problematic.

She never seems a real person, but rather an idealized projection of a girlfriend: fabulously sexy, a trained chef, a willing driver and completely supportive in all situations. The book may have been written by a woman, but it reads like a male fantasy.

For example, there’s a scene where John fools with Bree under the dining room table to make it clear to one of the guests, the investigating policeman, that Bree is not available. Hello! Can you say “property claim?”

While My Guitar Gently Weeps by Deborah Grabien (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 274 pages)

 

Grace

grace2The most amazing thing about this debut novel by Susan Sherrell is the way it captures the East Bay in the 1970s.  Reading this book brought me back to all these places—the Med, Dave’s Coffee Shop, Eli’s Mile High Club—that I hadn’t thought about in years.

There’s a mystery here too, of course. A young UC student named Leah DeMartino is working at the track (Golden Gate Fields, in fact), where she becomes friendly with fellow-employee Grace. It is clear from the get-go that the older Grace has a troubled history, a lot of it with the Black Panthers, but Leah, the most naïve protagonist I’ve seen in a decade, is unfazed.

In fact, Leah’s naiveté is a problem for this book. Yes, lots of people believed then that racial justice was going to be attained, and that idealistic young people could work miracles. But this is a character who had lived through the tumultuous '60s; she would have been in junior high when John Kennedy was assassinated. In 1972, she’s wearing rose-colored glasses that no amount of experience seems to dislodge.

When Grace is murdered, Leah is drawn into the investigation. Fortunately, or perhaps coincidentally, her cousin Joey is a member of the Oakland Police Department, which seems determined to find a Panther culpable in the death.

So, while the history and the geography of this book are spot-on, the plot and characters have problems. Leah’s remarkable innocence stands in direct contrast to the venality of both the Panthers and the police. I’m guessing that’s supposed to heighten the contrast, but I would wish for a little more subtlety, a little less black-and-white (no pun intended) portrayal.

 

Royal Flush

resize_of_scan0002 Rhys Bowen's charming Lady Georgiana, 34th in line to the English throne in 1932, but struggling to survive without an income or any noticeable job skills, has returned to her ancestral home in Scotland. Castle Rannoch is cold, drafty and run by Georgie’s sister-in-law Fig, who is both parsimonious and cranky.

Georgie is invited to visit her royal cousins at Balmoral Castle, but before she can do so, a series of accidents sets everyone on edge. Georgie has reason to believe they are not accidental, but cannot tell if any of the royals are in danger—or indeed, responsible for the mishaps themselves.

Meanwhile, Georgie is beset by unwelcome suitors. She has a few brief moments with the impoverished Irish peer with whom she is besotted, meets a famous aviatrix and wonders just how strange some of her cousins are. We meet the future Queen Elizabeth II as a horse-crazy little girl and the self-absorbed Wallis Simpson, as well as see Georgie’s ex-policeman grandfather provide support and assistance.

All in all, it’s a lot of fun, and a good read.

 

Reviews in brief


“Her Deadly Mischief” by Beverle Graves Myers. (Poisoned Penn Press, $24.95, 286 pages)

This series set in 18th century Venice features Tito Amato, a castrato who sings lead roles at the Teatro San Marco. On one opening night, the performance is disturbed by the death of a courtesan who falls from a fourth-tier box. Tito is the only witness, and he gets more interested when he learns the victim started life in the Jewish ghetto, where his own wife and adopted son once lived.

As Tito investigates, we learn a lot—painlessly—about the culture and the city.

The most interesting aspect of the book is Tito himself. He is both lionized as a star and vilified as a freak. Both he and the dwarf Pamarino are outsiders who never quite make it all the way into the tent. That gives them an edge, and lends a depth to the storytelling.

“A Slice of Murder” by Chris Cavender. (Kensington Books, $22, 288 pages)

It’s not a new idea in mystery fiction: two sisters work together and get involved in a murder.

Cavender provides a pleasant and readable story in this tale set in a pizza place in Virginia. Eleanor Swift, the widowed owner, is making a delivery when she discovers her customer has been killed. Unfortunately, she had a public argument with the victim only a few days before.

The police chief, whom Eleanor dated in high school, thinks the timing is suspicious. It takes Eleanor and her glamorous sister Maddy to look into who else might have wanted the dead man out of the picture.

As a bonus, there’s a pizza recipe at the end of the book.

“The Extra” by Elizabeth Sims. (Minotaur Books, $25.95, 394 pages)

Although actress Rita Farmer is going to law school, she’s still working on movie sets.

She’s playing a cop on a movie that is shooting in a rough corner of L.A. When she wanders off the set, she comes upon a boy being assaulted. She chases off the assailants, and so becomes involved in a complex case that focuses on a mission that once helped down-on-her-luck Rita and her small son.

Although the story is interesting, and I liked the alternating focus between Rita and the private investigator who has become very fond of her, I had problems from the get-go. I mean, Rita jogs several blocks, by herself, in her cop uniform, because she doesn’t like the food offered on the set. Really?

She forgets she is in costume? She forgets she’s in a bad neighborhood?  I know writers need creative ways to put their amateur sleuths in harm’s way, but I could not suspend my disbelief. Still, I particularly enjoyed the subplot in which the lovelorn PI looks for a missing dog.

“Who’s Buried in the Garden?” by Ray Villareal. (Arte Publico Press, $10.95, 160 pages)

I wasn’t sure what to make of this mystery geared to middle school Hispanic boys, although I did think it looked interesting.

The story focuses on two boys who have reason to believe there's a body buried in Mrs. Foley's garden.

So I got some help from a precocious fifth grader, who happens to be female, which may account for some of her comments:

Firstly, it would definitely appeal to middle school boys because it’s full of dumb boy humor.

I did indeed like it because it was a mystery. The character’s actions were suspicious, so I could see why the boys were concerned.

I think it also had to do with friendship and believing people.

It was a really good book. It could appeal to young high schoolers as well as fifth graders. Tomboy-type girls would like it too.

 

The Eye of Jade

The Eye of Jade"The Eye of Jade" introduces a new series by Diane Wei Liang, set in Beijing, and featuring Mei Wang, the Chinese capital’s first female private detective.

The fact that Mei can’t call herself a private detective, since such jobs are banned, symbolizes the complex factors that make this debut mystery so intriguing. A former employee of the Ministry of Public Security, Mei is independent, contrary and persistent.

She undertakes a search for a rare piece of jade at the behest of a family friend she knows as “Uncle Chen.”

The search will take her to someplace she doesn’t want to go—her own family history. In the process, we get a front-row seat on the struggle between China’s old networks of family loyalties and its new embrace of free-market capitalism. Obscuring everything is the communist superstructure, and the dark shadow of the Cultural Revolution.

Mei, who has flouted convention once again by hiring a male assistant, faces criticism on the home front, as her mother pressures her to get married. Her younger sister has not only become a TV celebrity, but has married well. Then Mei’s mother is hospitalized.

Liang writes, “Nothing had prevented Mei from being at her mother’s side. She didn’t have a career, as such. She had no family, no one to protect or please. Yet she had still failed to do the one duty required of a daughter: to care for her mother. She regretted not going to the hospital the previous night; she wished more than anything else that she had.”

Old China, new China, Communist rule, history, family duty, independence, all vie for attention in this gripping and fascinating story.

 

The Rubber Band & The Red Box

The Rubber Band & The Red BoxThis spring, the Bantam Dell Publishing Group brought out a new edition of two Rex Stout stories, “The Rubber Band” and “The Red Box.”

If you have never read Nero Wolfe, this would be a great chance to catch up. The stories are classics, and still eminently readable more than 70 years after they were written.

The stories are set in the 1930s. We know that World War II will soon overwhelm the world; in these stories there are inklings of what is to come.

But for the most part, life is orderly in Wolfe’s New York brownstone. He has his legendary habits—9 to 11 a.m. working on the orchids, for example—and his assistant, Archie Goodwin alternates between prodding Wolfe to do some work and marveling at what the great man comes up with.

“The Rubber Band” focuses on a long-ago pact that might involve a lot of money, and the repercussions among a group that includes a titled Englishman in New York on a diplomatic mission. Wolfe’s client is a young woman who becomes one of the few females ever invited to stay, or rather hide out, in his house.

In “The Red Box,” Wolfe actually leaves his private lair to visit a business establishment where a young woman has died after eating poisoned candy. He is cajoled into doing the visit by a solicitation from an orchid grower he respects.

Who poisoned the candy is one question. Other deaths follow, including one in Wolfe’s office.

All the Wolfe stories follow the same pattern: he is eccentric to a fault, but he is also brilliant. The pleasure for the reader is seeing what the author can do within the parameters he has established.

There are a few notes that jar … the casual racism and sexism of the ’30s clangs on the modern ear, for instance. But in other ways, the stories are strikingly prescient. In a time when torture has been considered necessary to national security, it is instructive to hear Wolfe say he doesn’t see the point of the police mistreating one of the suspects since violence as a way of extracting information remains “an inferior technique.”

But the best reason for reading this book is to enjoy these stories written by one of the masters in the field.