Mystery Matters

These reviews were first published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and in The Minneapolis Star Tribune.


  • Empty Mile

    I know it's only August, but Matthew Stokoe's "Empty Mile" (Akashic Books, $16.95) is a contender for my crime novel of the year. This book has everything a good crime novel should: a suspenseful story with violence at its core, characters driven by lust, love and guilt, propelled with prose that's poetic and profound. Reading its closing pages, I was close to weeping (I'm usually not that kind of reader), and not because of what happens (although that's tragic enough), but because the closing chapters lay bare beautifully what it means to be human when the world is a place "where lives fall apart" and circumstances have stolen what many "assume to be the bedrock of who they are." Johnny Richardson returns to the northern California town of his childhood, a place built on the vestiges of the gold rush. As a young man, Johnny let his younger brother, Stan, swim alone at a lake while Johnny had sex nearby. Stan nearly drowned and was left "challenged." This accident damages every character in the novel in brutal ways. Beneath the raw sex and violence at the surface of this story, Stokoe brilliantly mines what happens to a person when shame and guilt fester.

  • Vermilion Drift: A Novel

    This theme of the past perverting the present runs deep in William Kent Krueger's "Vermilion Drift" (Atria Books, $25). Krueger's novels featuring Cork O'Connor are beautifully written and deeply moving. Despite being miles apart in their settings, I've always thought Krueger has a lot in common in style and sentiment with James Lee Burke. Whereas Burke is a master of the Southern gothic crime novel, Krueger is rooted in what I'd call Northwoods gothic. Krueger's novels are cut from the landscape of the Minnesota Iron Range, its "thick pine" and deep wounds that "bleed iron," and they're steeped in the myths and spirituality of its people. In "Vermilion Drift," the Atomic Energy Commission is considering the Vermilion mine as a waste site. When Cork discovers a mass grave in one of the mine shafts, the secrets buried with those bodies send Cork on a path that leads deep into his own damaged psyche.

  • Bad Things Happen

    "Plans go wrong, bad things happen, people die." If you're David Loogan, the unassuming main character in Harry Dolan's debut mystery, "Bad Things Happen" (Berkley Books, $15), things don't always go hinky in that order. Dolan's novel is a slick, sophisticated crime story set at a mystery magazine in Ann Arbor, Mich. (really). This noir tale has a blackmailer who gives "Hamlet" and Hammett equal respect, a femme fatale who is "sleek and blond" with a "degree in English literature" (my weapon of choice) and more than enough MacGuffins to satisfy any Hitchcock fan. The novel opens with Loogan buying a shovel that "meet[s] certain requirements" for burying a body. The plot gets deeper and dirtier when Loogan is seduced into searching for a manuscript as elusive (and metaphorical) as a Maltese Falcon.

  • The Magician's Accomplice: A Commander Jana Matinova Investigation [Hardcover]

    Michael Genelin's "The Magician's Accomplice" (Soho Crime, $25) is set in post-communist Slovakia, a place I'm guessing most of us know little about. The series features Commander Jana Matinova, an intelligent investigator and an intriguing woman. A university student is assassinated while freeloading breakfast at Bratislava's swankiest hotel (The Grand Hotel "when the Hapsburgs reigned"). That same day someone murders Matinova's fiancé. She's exiled to The Hague under the auspices of finding a missing Slovakian officer assigned to Europol. While in the Netherlands, Matinova reluctantly partners with the murdered student's uncle, a retired magician. Along with the authenticity of place, the relationship between this unlikely duo is one of the treats of this novel. They seem to have little in common except for grief and loss, yet their investigation unravels an international conspiracy that takes them from Amsterdam to Prague and Vienna.

  • Mr. Peanut

    Adam Ross' debut "Mr. Peanut" (Knopf, $25.95) has the sensibility of Patricia Highsmith and the subject matter of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" But funnier. David Pepin, a wealthy video game designer, has Walter Mitty-like dreams about killing his wife. When she's found dead from anaphylactic shock (she has a peanut allergy), Pepin is a suspect. The Pepins, a detective observes, were "like most married couples" and perpetuated "their relationship through games of low-grade deception." Every marriage in this novel is examined through that lens, including the marriages of both the detectives on the case. Ross' writing is darkly funny and beautifully complex. The narrative is influenced by game theory (everyone has an avatar) and the kind of surreal perspective you see in an M.C. Escher print (one hangs on the Pepins' wall). There may be a fine line between love and hate, but in this novel it's the choice between physical or psychological violence "during a moment of terrible privacy" that separates marriage and murder.


  • The Case of the Missing Servant: A Vish Puri Mystery

    Don’t tell anyone, but despite my years of grueling literary training, I’ll sometimes pick a book by its cover. This is one of those times. Hall’s mystery featuring Vish Puri, India’s Most Private Detective, is as whimsical and colorful as its cover suggests. Set in contemporary Delhi, this most private detective takes his profession and his place very seriously. He believes it’s the “duty of the privileged to help the underprivileged,” whether they want help or not. Vish Puri is Hercule Poirot channeling the irresistible pompousness of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster. This novel could easily have been just a playful pastiche of the traditional British mystery, but through its comic tone and ironic point of view, the novel becomes a take on justice in post-colonial India, “a time of debauchery and moral breakdown.” 

  • Rain Gods: A Novel

    Rain Gods by James Lee Burke

    Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, said all her stories were “about the action of grace on a character… not very willing to support it.” She could have been describing Sherriff Hackberry Holland and Preacher Jack Collins in Burke’s latest tour de force. Like O’Connor, Burke always sets his characters in a landscape of violence, usually the bayous of Louisiana or the wilderness of Montana, but in “Rain Gods” he uses the “burnt-out” Texas landscape instead. In this epic tale, Burke chronicles a world where the “sun rise[s] on the evil and the good,” where the America with a “fundamentalist religious view and abiding sense of patriotism” lives. Hack is in “his seventies…wearing hand-tooled boots” and “a dove-colored Stetson.” He’s brooding, damaged, and making peace with his world. Preacher Jack is a self-proclaimed prophet with a twisted religious worldview. Their lives tangle when Hack unearths a mass grave behind the “shell of a Spanish mission.” “Rain Gods” is layered with allusions to Whitman, Homer, and the Bible, and, as always, Burke’s dark lyrical language is haunting. 

  • Starvation Lake: A Mystery

    When you’re “peering out “at the world through “the eyeholes” of a hockey goalie’s mask, you may miss a lot of things. In this notable debut mystery featuring small town journalist Gus Carpenter, some of those things may be your own inadequacies.

    Years before, in the final moments of a state championship game, Carpenter lost sight of the puck and missed the save. His team was defeated and his hometown, a “two stoplight town clinging to the south-eastern tip of a frozen lake in Northern Michigan” turned on him. As soon as he was able, Carpenter fled to a newspaper in Detroit, carrying the weight of that loss like two-ton shoulder pads. His plan–some day return with a Pulitzer in his duffel bag and then the town would have to forgive him.

    Problem is that redemption, no matter how heartfelt, doesn’t come easy. In Detroit, Carpenter “lets the big story go between his legs,” and so “after failing miserably”–again– Carpenter returns home, accepting the job of assistant editor at the local paper while rethinking his game plan. Carpenter’s defeats have distorted his perceptions and worn down his fight. When bits of a snowmobile wash up on the shore of a nearby lake belonging to the town’s beloved hockey coach who drowned years before –on a different lake– it takes Carpenter a long time to get the “blurred contours of the truth” into focus.

    Mysteries rooted in a sport, as this one is, can sometimes cling to clichés for emotional depth. Gruley is far too smart a writer for that (he’s the Chicago bureau chief for “The Wall Street Journal”). His characters are genuinely flawed and, Carpenter especially, honestly likable. Gruley’s gripping plot unfolds like a piece of investigative journalism with revelations suggested by small details (a gap in the coach’s past, a number of shady real estate deals, the unscrupulous competition between two resorts) building to a pattern that uncovers some disturbing personal realities for Carpenter as well as the realization that the town’s future is “anchored in an ugly past.”

    The sub-genre of the procedural mystery has long been the bailiwick of the police detective or the forensic investigator, but over the last decade writers like Denise Mina and her Paddy Meehan series, GM Ford’s Frank Corso, and Laura Lippmann’s Tess Monaghan have cut into this mystery territory. Bryan Gruley’s new series promises to be an admirable addition to this field of play.

  • Go With Me: A Novel

    Cormac McCarthy may have thought this was no country for old men, but he hasn’t met Whizzer, Lester, and the aging members of the Dead River drinking club. In the club’s Vermont town, “everyone’s scared of Blackway.” Along comes Lillian. She’s young, alone, and Blackway is stalking her. Lillian refuses to run. The sheriff is useless. The club’s irreverent and irascible old men decide to try. They appoint Lester and a young logger, Nate the Great, who’s “smarter than a horse, not smarter than a tractor,” to help. While they search for the mythic Blackway, the club drinks beer and ponders life’s big questions. How does a belly button ring really stay in? What makes a man evil? Reminiscent of the sparse prose of Richard Stark’s Parker series and the contained plotting of Scott Phillips’ “The Ice Harvest,” this dark comic thriller is as enlightening as it is suspenseful.

  • When Will There Be Good News?: A Novel

    According to Jackson Brodie, the ex-policeman in Atkinson’s crime novel, “a coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen,” and as if she were writing a classic Greek tale, character’s crash into each other, chance rules, and fates are twisted. In the end, this novel is so satisfying it’ll make you believe the literary gods had their hands in it. Joanna Hunter witnesses her family’s brutal murder when she’s six years old. She spends “thirty years running from the nightmare only to crash headlong into another.” Joanna hires Reggie, a sixteen-year-old orphan who reads Homer and Aeschylus, as her son’s nanny. Fate has not been kind to Reggie but she’s a survivor and throughout the novel, she’s the only one who seems to grasp what’s really happening. Meanwhile, Brodie is tracking a son he’s never met while pining for Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe, who is searching for meaning in her fractured life. When all their lives intersect in absurd and brilliant ways characters concede that “there are no rules–we just pretend there are.”

  • Exit Music (Inspector Rebus)

    Sooner or later this day had to come. Detective Inspector John Rebus faces his nemesis, Gerald Cafferty, for the last time. Like Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, Rebus and Cafferty have been antagonists since they first encountered each other in a Glasgow courtroom years ago. With Detective Siobhan (pronounced Shevan) Clarke’s help, Rebus investigates whether or not Cafferty is involved in the death of a dissident Russian poet. On his way to work each day, Rebus has “passed a statue of Sherlock Holmes, and during the investigation he is reminded of Holmes’ philosophy: “’When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable must be the truth.’” Problem is, this puts Rebus on the firing line of the investigation, and because of his flare for flaunting police protocol, he’s quickly forced aside, expected to hug the mahogany at the Oxford Bar until retirement. Yeah, right. Rebus has to have the “bone-crushing tackle” that’ll finally take Cafferty “out of the game.” He and his Moriarty are not going over the Reichenbach Falls quietly. Like most of the books in this accomplished series, Rebus takes on the “casual arrogance” of the “overworld” because it’s no longer the “underworld you had to fear.” Rebus’s exit music is playing and it’s The Stones, of course. Rebus can’t always get what he wants, but in this, his last case, readers get what they need. Here’s to you, Big Man. Cheers.

  • The Archangel Project

    Since the “X-Files”, the fringe sciences have been creeping in from the margins in our culture’s zeitgeist. Graham’s fast-paced thriller will help their cause. Along with a conspiracy that’s as convincing as anything Dan Brown has given us and a level of plausibility, that, well, is as convincing as anything Dan Brown has given us, the book has a heroine, October Guinness (Tobie for short), who makes this chase mystery one you really want to catch. Tobie’s ex-military, a student at Tulane, and she has the power of “remote viewing.” With concentration she receives “flashes of sights, sounds and smells” of events in the future. This telepathic ability forced her out of the military on a psychiatric discharge and into the lab of a government-discredited researcher in the paranormal. During a lab test, Tobie views something she shouldn’t and her life in post-Katrina New Orleans is under siege. Add to this a covert government operation, a bad guy who went to school on Darth Vader, a renegade ATF agent with a conscience, and Tobie has to run for her life.

  • Swan Peak: A Dave Robicheaux Novel
    William Faulkner wrote “the past is not dead, in fact, it’s not even past.” In sentiment and style, Burke is Faulkner’s literary son. Burke writes complex morality tales seeped in the dark beauty of the natural world where men and women must confront the legacies of their violent pasts. Dave Robicheaux’s world is usually New Orleans, but in “Swan Peak,” Robicheaux and, his “podna”, Clete Purcell are in Montana. Robicheaux is beginning to believe it “possible to live inside the moment,” when he’s forced into one more nightmare. In the Southern Gothic tradition, Burke’s novels are full of dreams, each one connecting a character to a particular psychic territory. In “Swan Peak,” Purcell’s dreams are “an uncontrolled descent into a basement where the gargoyles turned somersaults like circus midgets.” The crimes that haunt both men are brutal, but Burke gives them a lyricism that’s breathtaking.  Robicheaux and Purcell “spent a lifetime wading across the wrong Rubicon… defying authority, ridiculing convention,” trading “youth for Vietnam” and “a legacy of gall and vinegar” that “we could not rinse out of our dreams.” In this remarkable novel, nothing is past and Robicheaux and Purcell are “condemned to recommit most of its mistakes.”

  • A Common Ordinary Murder: A Novel
    The murder of Charles Carden, a slightly eccentric widower, is described in Donald Pfarrer's mesmerizing new novel as a "common ordinary one" because Carden's "life connected to few others" and it was "brought to a bloody end for no reason by an attacker who stands for nothing."

    The repercussions of Carden’s death shake the novel’s main character to his very soul, forcing him into a nihilistic funk. Using modernist styling and meditations worthy of James Joyce, Pfarrer has written no ordinary mystery novel.

    The brutal murder that opens the novel appears random and its consequences are achingly tragic. Pfarrer’s stream of consciousness narration in “A Common Ordinary Murder” moves seamlessly between the inner thoughts of characters and their external reactions to the events, making the novel’s points of view as compelling as the crime story that frames them.

    Like Joyce’s fictional alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, Pfarrer’s Steven McCord is questioning his existence and he sucks his wife, Nora (also Joyce’s wife’s name), into his existential crisis. McCord’s funk is very male in its nature, but that doesn’t make it less absorbing. He’s struggling to stay connected to his wife and to his essential humanity. His solution — and this is where the book’s maleness comes through most vividly — is to embrace “mad bliss,” thus throwing Nora, a devout Catholic, into her own crisis of faith.

    Pfarrer’s writing has a profound honesty to it, especially the scenes where Nora confronts Steven about the chasm he’s opened in their marriage, and although some of Nora’s religious reflections bog the narrative down, never is the crime story sacrificed. In fact, the poetic elements in Pfarrer’s prose raise Carden’s “ordinary murder” into something extraordinary — its consequences become a metaphor for what’s wrong with our post-industrial world. McCord feels blighted and lost, and so is his community.

    The novel is set in the ’80s in a nameless but familiar Midwestern city — one that built a freeway that “split a neighborhood” and is a plane change away from O’Hare (Pfarrer wrote for The Milwaukee Journal). “No one is more aware of a city as a social organism than a policeman,” reflects McCord, and like his Joycean namesake, McCord returns to the “tract of human misery” that “turned out to be the incubation of his manhood and summary of his philosophy.”

    If your book club is looking for a novel to elicit meaningful conversation about the nature of crime, punishment, love and lust, “A Common Ordinary Murder” would be an uncommon choice.
  • Tethered: A Novel
    “One will die trying to save you and the other trying to kill you.” Such prophecies are the stuff of the Gothic and only one of the literary elements making this debut a haunting read. The other is the main character, Clara Marsh, a young undertaker, “surrounded by spirits,” working in the basement of a funeral parlor, where she fashions flowers from her own secret garden to blanket the caskets of the dead. Clara is tethered loosely to the world above, but she’s trying. Told from her melancholy point of view, the novel is rich in sensory details without losing immediacy in its plotting. Clara’s name means bright, but darkness surrounds her, and when it threatens to suffocate her in the guise of a disturbing pedophile case, she realizes that “monsters really do exist” and must be confronted.
  • Killer View
    In 1991, Pearson was the first American to receive the Raymond Chandler-Fulbright fellowship at Oxford University, and since then his writing has only improved. Pearson’s crime thrillers are set in beautifully realized landscapes and they often have political and ecological overtones. In this taut new thriller, Sheriff Walt Fleming leads a search into the Idaho wilderness to find a friend who’s been kidnapped and “swallowed by the landscape.” The kidnappers are an off-the grid anti-government posse using Shay’s Rebellion as their historical precedent. The narrative is constrained over the course of a few days, which fuels its suspense even more, and it moves swiftly between Fleming’s search and the predicament of his kidnapped friend. At one point a scene with a hibernating bear is so realistic and nail biting, I could smell the bear’s scat. Fleming is a believable and sympathetic character who is trying to come to terms with his new identity as a single dad. Snowshoeing through the wilderness is easy going by comparison.

  • Expert in Murder, An: A New Mystery Featuring Josephine Tey

    Imagine a dinner party where the matriarchs of the classic mystery gather to discuss their trade. Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, sits at the head of the table. Opposite her, Agatha Christie (1890-1976) holds court, and settled demurely between them is Josephine Tey (1897-1952). Tey’s mysteries are as literate as Sayers’ and as cleverly entertaining as Christie’s, yet Tey is a quiet presence at this table. This may change thanks to Upson’s wonderful debut mystery that imagines Josephine Tey as the protagonist in one of the most original mysteries I’ve read in ages. Upson’s novel has beautifully rendered the modernist atmosphere of Britain between the wars. Her characters are richly developed, each one drawn from a real person who populated the London theater of the1930s, and her plot is a lovely layered puzzle. On a train ride to London, Tey, who has a “puckish, sarcastic wit,” meets a young woman, a fan of Tey’s writing. When the woman is murdered, her body displayed as if in a scene from a play, Tey and her friend, Detective Inspector Archie Penrose, investigate and discover that “death is in the wings” and creeping closer to them. Each character is “crippled by the past,” their lives haunted by the horrors of WWI, but they all are drawn to the theater and its ability to help them see their world anew. P.D. James also presides at the classic mystery table and if this series lives up to its debut, there may be a place for Upson.

  • Still Waters: A Mystery
    Detective Chief Inspector Mark Lapsie suffers from a rare form of synaesthesia. He can “taste sounds.” His sergeant’s voice is “lemon with a hint of grapefruit” and once Lapsie almost crashed his car when a “Beatles song… flooded his mouth with rotting meat.” This neurological condition has isolated Lapsie. He teeters close to madness. The discovery of a corpse with missing fingers and “the taste of lychees” bring him in from exile to find a killer with a wicked sense of irony, scary skills with gardening shears, and an encyclopedic knowledge of horticultural poisons. This exquisitely macabre mystery will keep you firmly planted until the last page is turned.
  • The Forgery of Venus: A Novel

    I’ve always been fascinated with novels whose narrator can’t be trusted or whose point of view forces the reader to question what’s illusion and what’s reality. Gruber’s psychological mystery gave me both–an intriguing narrator whose point of view is thoroughly absorbing and completely questionable. Chaz Wilmot, the main character, is from the New York arts intelligencia of the mid-twentieth century. As an artist and a man Wilmot is struggling to find his own vision. When a lost masterpiece is discovered, Wilmot is convinced that the 17th century painting is a forgery that he painted– in the 17th century. Wilmot dictates the story to an old college friend and through his narration he presents us with the possibility that he may indeed be the artist, Diego Velasquez, and the forgery, in fact, a second Rokeby Venus. Gruber’s ingenious mystery is an art lover’s dream. Mystery and obsession are textured with art history in a plot that explores not only the shifting nature of art, but also the complex nature of identity. The book alludes to Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” I think Gruber’s tale would have mesmerized even Wilde.

  • Head Wounds

    Sam Acquillo, the protagonist in Knopf’s fast-paced mystery reads philosophy, plays pool, has a degree from MIT, is an ex-boxer, a skilled carpenter, and an equally skilled drinker. He’s witty and self-deprecating, but “better at resignation and denial” than “bucking up.” Halfway into this novel, I wanted to have a beer with Acquillo. Maybe even two. Acquillo lives in a dilapidated cottage in the Hamptons where he’s trying to live simply with his mutt, Eddie Van Halen. Acquillo is a modern Marlowe with a humanistic code of honor, but a physical fatal flaw. If Acquillo takes one more serious blow to his head, he’ll die. Of course, this doesn’t stop Acquillo from defending his damsel when she’s in distress and, as a result, getting caught in a brawl. When the guy Acquillo decked is found murdered, Acquillo becomes the prime suspect. Characters surrounding Acquillo are as interesting as he is and Knopf gives all of them depth and distinction. I originally picked up this book because its cover intrigued me, but what was inside kept me reading.

  • Careless in Red: A Novel

    Thomas Lynley is the personification of grief in the latest of George’s literate mysteries. Reeling from his wife’s murder, Lynley has resigned from Scotland Yard and is walking with his anguish along the cliffs of Cornwall, England. For Lynley this is a “a wager with fate.” If he survives the “steep ascents” and the “sharp salt air desiccating his skin” then he’ll know he’s meant to be alive. This beautifully crafted metaphor for the state of Lynley’s soul gives the narrative its mystification and its most engaging details. All the characters are in some way connected to climbing or surfing. Weeks into his walk, Lynley stumbles across a body. This halts his penance and pulls him into the investigation, but as an observer. George takes her time with the development of her characters, exploring details that illuminate not only their relationships to each other and to the victim, but also their relationship with the natural world and how it defines an aspect of their lives. The victim’s father is renovating a hotel on the promontory of a cliff while his marriage teeters on the edge. Another character, Daidre Trahair, loves to garden, “her hands in soil,” and her past just as deeply buried.

  • The Serpent and the Scorpion: An Ursula Marlow Mystery

    If you like your mysteries served with scones and clotted cream, this charming historical novel is your cup of tea. The year is 1912 and Ursula Marlow is attempting to change the world, one vote at a time: hers and all the other suffragettes with whom she organizes and marches, including Emily Pankhurst and her daughter, Christabel. Ursula and her friends are “struggling to assert their independence” at a time when men insist they sit still on their pedestals where their futures seem staid and settled at best. This is the second novel in Langley-Hawthorne’s engaging series set in Edwardian England. Ursula is fighting to keep control of the textile empire she inherited from her father in the first book. When a friend is murdered and the death of one of her female factory workers follows soon after, Ursula’s struggles to remain independent deteriorate. It doesn’t help matters when her Bolshevik boyfriend reappears and she discovers that events in Palestine may be connected to the two deaths. Dorothy L. Sayers seminal female detective, Harriet Vane, has always been a favorite of mine and Ursula reads like she could be her sister in arms.

  • The Headhunters: An Inspector Hen Mallin Investigation

    This English mystery is as satisfying as a strong cup of Earl Grey or a full-bodied pint of stout. Lovesey is a master at the traditional mystery having won almost all the major crime fiction awards here and in the UK, including accolades for his successful Peter Diamond series. This is the second book with police inspector, Henrietta “Hen” Mallin, “a small woman with a substantial presence.” The novel is skillfully plotted with the suspense created, in part, from shifts in point of view between Mallin and a likeable character, Jo. Jo’s friend, Gemma, opens the mystery with the claim she “could cheerfully murder” her boss. The key to the mindset of both these women is not so much that they could “murder” Gemma’s boss, but Gemma’s use of the word “cheerfully.” These two women haven’t got a clue.  In fact, their characters provide much of the book’s dark humor. They make one stupid decision after another until they find themselves in the middle of a complicated murder investigation. At one point, Gemma says to Jo when they hatch a plan to keep themselves out of Mallin’s scrutiny, “Can it go wrong?” Oh, it can and we can’t stop ourselves from witnessing every sordid part of it.

  • Takeover
    Forensic scientist, Theresa MacLean is having a very bad day. She’s called to the scene of a horrible murder in the am and in the pm, in an attempt to save her fiancé, she becomes a hostage in the takeover of the Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland. Not all suspense novels are mysteries, but this one really is. Black skillfully unveils clues about the nature of the takeover while amping up the tension of a hostage negotiation. The plot has a cinematic “24” quality to it. Every few minutes a scene switches bringing a surprising detail or a change in perspective that, along with Theresa, makes you think that “all was not as it seemed.”