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Archive for the ‘Mysteries’ Category

unfortunateMeet Barb Colby and Lily Stanton, longtime friends and heroines of Amanda Filipacchi’s sharp and witty fourth novel, The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty. Barb is a costume designer and Lily is an acclaimed pianist. Despite their talents, their lives are defined more by their physical appearance than their accomplishments. In response, Barb and Lily set out to subvert society’s perceptions and expectations of their looks.

Barb Colby is in her late 20s, but she looks like an unattractive 40-year-old with bad teeth and unkempt hair and clothing. Strangers typically regard her with a mix of pity and contempt; however, Barb’s appearance is actually a skillful disguise. In reality, Barb is a stunning beauty, but instead of flaunting her appearance, she hides it because she believes it was responsible for the death of a close friend. Gabriel, a successful chef, killed himself after falling in love with her. In his suicide note he wrote that her beauty had “grown so painful for me to behold.”

Wanting to be loved for who she is and not her beauty, Barb uses her design talents to create a fat suit and a wardrobe of dowdy clothing. Whenever she goes to bars or restaurants with her friends, she makes a point of engaging men in conversation then exposing their shallow views on beauty before removing the costume to reveal her true appearance. Her resolve is tested when she meets a man who may be in love with more than her physical beauty.

Lily Stanton is also in her 20s, but her appearance is very different from Barb’s. Her friend very bluntly describes her as being “extremely ugly—the kind of ugliness that is inoperable.” Lily is deeply in love with a former co-worker named Strad, a fellow musician who’s only interested in dating beautiful women. One afternoon, Strad and Lily attend a recital and he’s so moved by the music he tells her that he could “fall in love with—and marry—any woman who could create music like that.”

Realizing that her talent may be the only way she can attract Strad, Lily resolves to compose music that’s so alluring he has no choice but to fall in love with her. She starts by composing music that will make people desire objects, such as office supplies or books, and soon develops a lucrative career composing music for companies seeking to increase sales through the suggestive power of music. The piece she composes for Strad brings success; however, complications cause her to reconsider her plan.

Barb and Lily are supported in their artistic and personal endeavors by their close friends: Georgia, a successful novelist; Penelope, an aspiring potter who survived a horrific kidnapping; and Jack, a former police officer who rescued Penelope. Collectively, the group is known as the Knights of Creation, and they meet regularly to work on various artistic and literary projects. Gabriel was also a member, and before his suicide he arranged for the group to receive a series of letters. These letters reference Lily’s hopeless crush on Strad and an unsolved murder that was allegedly committed by a member of the group. His final letters warn the group that the killer has planned to murder Strad if Lily doesn’t get over him. The group’s attempt to protect Strad leads to a strange dinner party that serves as his introduction to the Knights of Creation.

Filipacchi’s breezy narrative is pitch perfect and never gets too heavy-handed. Barb and Lily’s attempts to transcend their physical appearances result in provocative and often hilarious situations as they struggle to find love and acceptance for who they are, not how they appear. Several intriguing subplots, including one concerning a missing laptop, help flesh out the secondary characters.

The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty succeeds as both a quirky mystery and a meditation on beauty itself.

Check the WRL catalog for The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty.

 

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MangleStThis is a completely serendipitous discovery which I feel fortunate to have stumbled across. This is a new Victorian-era murder mystery series, set in London, featuring a brilliant, eccentric detective with few social skills and his feisty young ward who gives him a run for his money. The most obvious comparison is with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, especially Laurie King’s version with Mary Russell. The author does not shy away from this but rather seems to take great pleasure in inserting sly references here and there—such as a suggestion that Grice is Conan Doyle’s inspiration for Holmes!

With all of the obvious similarities, I found this a refreshing, funny read and a good mystery to boot. It has more of a modern feel to it than King’s, or Conan Doyle’s, narratives. The great detective, Sidney Grice, is not nearly as likeable a character as Sherlock Holmes. He is rude, unkind, contemptuous and heartless. Loathsome as he is, the reader becomes quite attached to him (and his glass eye, which becomes a surprisingly successful running gag). His new ward, March Middleton, gives it right back to him without flinching, making their interactions entertaining and very often humorous.

When the unfeeling Sidney Grice refuses to take the case of a penurious woman whose son-in-law stands accused of murdering his wife, March takes pity on her and offers up shares in a portfolio inherited from her father to pay the fee, provided she is allowed to co-investigate the case. Thus an uneasy and contentious alliance begins. March finds herself at odds with the conclusions drawn by Grice, and a battle of feminine logic and intuition versus cold reason and science marks most of the narrative. In the end both are right and wrong; it’s an auspicious beginning for this formidable team.

Kasasian illustrates the poverty, desperation and griminess of London in this era with a brilliant blend of mordant humor and poignancy. He also hints at a tragic secret in March’s past, of which the reader hopes more will be revealed in further series entries. More loose ends remain to be addressed as well, such as how Grice came to be March’s guardian after the death of her father, and—last but not least—

“I have not seen him this way since…” Molly said, but could not finish her sentence. “Oh, I do hope he is not indulging in his secret vice.”

The idea of my guardian having a vice was rather appealing.

“But what is this vice?” I asked.

“I can’t say I know, miss.” Molly screwed up her pinafore. “For it is a secret.” Her eyes filled and she scurried off.

Check the WRL catalog for The Mangle Street Murders.

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Cover art. Watson and Holmes standing before crime tapeSherlock Holmes and John Watson have been repeated, revived, and reimagined countless times in literature, in addition to TV and movies. Whatever dreams Arthur Conan Doyle had for his creation, I doubt he could have foreseen the wild success and immortality his work has achieved. As a mystery lover and a graphic novel lover, I was intrigued by the combination of my two favorite genres, and I love a good twist on a classic.

In this iteration, writer Karl Bollers conceives both characters as modern African Americans living in New York’s Harlem district. Watson, not yet a doctor, is an Afghanistan war vet working in a clinic. Sherlock is a dreadlocked, fedora wearing PI who steps easily into the storied role from the first “Elementary…” that passes his lips. The game is indeed afoot.

A seemingly unconnected string of murders and kidnappings brings the two together. The duo dash through the streets of New York, chasing clues and hoping to stay one step ahead of their increasingly desperate quarry. The Baker Street Irregulars make an appearance, as well as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, although he quite understandable prefers the nickname “Mike.”

Why does Watson join Holmes in his quest? I think this is the crux of any successful remake of Sherlock: tying the two characters together not only in their interactions with each other, but making their collective motivations realistic and sympathetic to the reader. As this volume only covers the first arc of the series, much of the interaction between the two characters is a slow buildup of that relationship, and the acknowledgement that sometimes what drives you can’t be easily explained, even to yourself.

My only issue with this title is that the author did such a fantastic job of echoing Sherlock’s unique way of speaking, that I couldn’t help but hear his voice in my head with an English accent, which jarred against the setting. However, since this is such an intrinsic part of the character, I can’t really knock the authors for being too successful.

The art in this series has a rough quality, with some lines still maintaining the attributes of a sketchbook rendering. At times the faces of characters are executed in detail, at others they are kept fuzzy as the viewer’s eye is pulled back to take in more of the scene. The coloring is downright phenomenal, with scenes moving fluidly from night to day or outside to computer-screen lit inside. I eagerly look forward to a second volume.

Recommended for readers of mysteries, graphic novels, and crime fiction.

Check the WRL catalog for Watson and Holmes: A Study in Black.

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DefendingJacobA middle-school teen living in a comfortable suburb in Massachusetts is murdered in broad daylight on his way to school. A neighborhood is in shock and the police and local assistant district attorney, Andy Barber, immediately starts investigating. Andy’s son is the victim’s classmate, but Andy doesn’t see the connection as a problem until rumors, and then evidence, suggest his son is the murderer. He is immediately taken off the case. The story is told from Andy’s perspective as his life and his family’s lives unravel. Andy has come a long way from a murky past to get to his current position – a lovely wife, fine son, highly respected job and upper middle class suburban house. He doesn’t want intrusion from his past, some of which he hasn’t even shared with his wife.
Defending Jacob has a breathtakingly fast plot, twisting and turning in all directions. The reader is left wondering what actually happened – which I think is more like real life than some novels with omniscient narrators who know more than any real person could.
Family is a huge thing to risk losing, and Defending Jacob is wrenching as it deals with issues about the relationships between spouses, parents of dependent children, children on the way to adulthood, grown children, estranged parents and more.  The book asks the questions about what is the best and moral way to relate to your own family. It even asks is the most moral course of action always the best course of action? Is it okay to keep long-term secrets from those you love best? What if the secret may be to protect them (or you) but the lack of displayed trust feels like a betrayal?
Don’t expect everything to be tied up neatly. Defending Jacob is a domestic suspense novel that is often seen as part of the Gone Girl phenomenon, the best-selling suspense novel that is now a movie. The reader is not only wondering “who did it” but since it is about everyday people we can picture ourselves in the same situation and wonder what we would do. Like several recent popular books such as The Dinner, by Herman Koch, Defending Jacob addresses the heritability of criminality. My recent non-fiction reading of books like The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience, by Kent A. Kiehl suggest that there often is a genetic component to antisocial behavior. On the other hand I firmly believe that genetics is not destiny. These points have led to some interesting discussions with my colleagues about these books, and for the same reason I think they make great book group reading choices.

Check the WRL catalog for Defending Jacob.

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gone girlIn many of director David Fincher’s films, there’s an aura of unease; the sense that what you’re seeing onscreen can’t be trusted and the real story is far more sinister than you’ve been led to believe. In The Game (1997), an investment banker is led down a nightmarish rabbit hole after signing up for a virtual reality game. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), based on Stieg Larsson’s novel, a disgraced journalist uncovers dark family secrets while investigating a mysterious disappearance. A similar sense of unease hangs over his latest film Gone Girl, a dark and haunting adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s equally dark and haunting bestselling novel.

Andrew has already reviewed Flynn’s book, so I will keep the plot description to a minimum. The film opens with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) heading to work at the bar he runs with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon). It’s Nick and his wife Amy’s (Rosamund Pike) fifth anniversary, but he’s not exactly celebrating. Once successful journalists in New York, Nick and Amy lost their jobs and moved to his hometown in Missouri to help take care of his mother, who was diagnosed with cancer. The move was difficult on a marriage that seemed, to outward appearances, perfect in every way.

Shortly after opening the bar, Nick gets a call from one of his neighbors, concerned that there may have been a disturbance at Nick’s house. Nick arrives home to find the cat outside and Amy missing. Worried, Nick calls the police, who discover ominous signs of a struggle. The subsequent investigation into Amy’s disappearance yields clues that the Dunne marriage had its secrets.

Gone Girl is a twisty and lurid tale that transfers well to film thanks to Flynn’s keen screenplay, a stellar cast, and Fincher’s savvy direction. Flynn preserves the structure of her novel, and the story is told from Nick and Amy’s points of view. The well-edited sequences are aided by great visual cues, like Amy using different colors of ink in her diary to reflect changes in the marriage.

The casting is spot-on. Ben Affleck delivers one of his best performances as a man whose attempts to be seen as the good guy often fall short of expectations. Rosamund Pike brings a cool detachment to Amy that serves her character well. The outstanding supporting performances include Tyler Perry as defense attorney Tanner Bolt, and Missi Pyle as Ellen Abbott, the outspoken host of a television crime show.

Fincher’s direction ties everything together. Gone Girl is long, but the pacing is never sluggish. He starts with the central mystery and uses flashbacks and shifts in perspective to provide the background and context. Music also plays an important role in setting the mood of Gone Girl. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is effectively chilling and helps build tension throughout the film.

Taut and well-paced, Gone Girl is the perfect match of director, actors, and source material.

Check the WRL catalog for Gone Girl

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marshOne advantage of our ebook collection is that we can keep older titles that are still of interest to readers without having to worry about shelf space for new items. Over the holiday break, I spent some time in our ebook mysteries reacquainting myself with some early crime writers who I had not read in a while. One of my favorites is Ngaio Marsh. Marsh is often associated with the “Golden Age” of detective fiction, along with Dorothy Sayers, Marjorie Allingham, and Agatha Christie. Marsh’s novels differ from those of Sayers and Allingham however in that her lead character is not an amateur detective but a Scotland Yard official, Inspector Roderick Alleyn.

The pleasure of these books is definitely rooted in character. Alleyn is a deeply appealing figure, bright, witty, tough when needed, but mostly solving crimes by thought rather than action. Alleyn’s aristocratic upbringing gives him connections that would not always be available to Scotland Yard, and he is often called in on sensitive cases. He is ably seconded in most of the novels by Sgt. Fox, a man with a more middle class background, but equally quick and a superb foil for Alleyn.

Although the stories do build on each other, each one can be read alone, and Death at the Bar is a fine starting point. Here, Alleyn and Fox are called to Devon to investigate the suspicious death of a noted lawyer. With artists, surly left-wing rabble-rousers, colorful pub owners, and more this is a classic British crime novel.

Check the WRL catalog for Death at the Bar in print or in ebook format

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mysteriesChristmas is a great time not only for ghost stories but also for mysteries. This collection, gathered by The Mysterious Bookshop’s owner, Otto Penzler, is a fine place to start if you are looking for crime fiction short stories set during the holidays.

Penzler has compiled a selection of mysteries from classic authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Thomas Hardy (of all people), Damon Runyon, G. K. Chesterton, and Ngaio Marsh, as well as contemporary masters of the crime story, including Peter Lovesey, Mary Higgins Clark, Ed McBain, Ellis Peters, Donald Westlake, and Catherine Aird. There are well-known tales here like “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” (my favorite Christmas mystery of all time), as well as a host of excellent stories I have never read before, all set in the Christmas season.

Penzler has put the stories in clever groupings — traditional tales, modern narratives, humorous stories, Sherlockian adventures, noirish pulp fictions, and of course ghost-centered mysteries. There will be something here to delight any crime fiction fan, and if you have a mystery reader on your Christmas list, you can do you shopping early this year and order a copy of The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries for the 2015 holidays.

Check the WRL catalog for The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries

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