by Steve Steinbock
Twice since I began writing The Jury Box, I was a judge for a literary prize that celebrates suspense novels with female protagonists. Most of the books submitted for the award were also written by women. Reviewing the same book in this column that I’d judged for the contest would have put me in a conflict-of-interest gray area, so during the two years I served as judge, I didn’t review as many titles by female authors as I’d have liked. This month, by contrast, I found that most of the books I’d selected were written by women and featured female protagonists.
We start off with four books set in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.
**** Sujata Massey, The Widows of Malabar Hill, Soho Crime, $26.95. Oxford- trained Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s (modern Mumbai’s) first female lawyer, has the advantage of her gender while handling the estate of a Muslim mill owner whose three wives are in isolation from men. Perveen researches details of the dead man’s estate and will, and interviews the three secluded widows. When she discovers that her own estranged husband is in Bombay, her traumatic past interweaves with the present. Massey’s extensive research of Bombay during British imperial rule, its various ethnic communities and their respective legal customs, is seamlessly folded into the fabric of the story. The book is filled with fascinating bits of culture and history, a look at India’s Parsi and Muslim communities, well-written courtroom scenes, and even a locked-room murder of sorts.
**** Molly Tanzer, Creatures of Will & Temper, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99. Dorina Gray is a precocious and adventuresome seventeen-year-old living in rural Victorian England who wants to be an art critic. Traveling with her older sister to London, the girls stay with their uncle. While the elder sister pursues her passion for swordplay, Dorina explores London’s art world and begins flirtations with the Bohemian aristocrat Lady “Henry” Wotton. What lurks beneath the surface, though, are demons. Infatuations, demoniacal evocations, and the pursuit of love and of truth are all explored in this moral tale inspired by Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
*** Jennifer Kincheloe, The Woman in the Camphor Trunk, Seventh Street, $16.95. Detective Joe Singer and unflappable police matron Anna Blanc scuffle with each other as they face gang wars and interracial relations in L.A.’s Chinatown in 1908. The book opens with Anna racing through streets and train cars carrying a severed head in a hatbox, thus setting a very entertaining madcap tone. She later accompanies Detective Singer to an apartment in Chinatown to investigate a foul-smelling trunk in which they find the body of a white missionary woman. The repartee of Anna and Detective Singer is reminiscent of Moonlighting but set in Gold Rush era California, making this a fast, fun read.
*** Sarah Schmidt, See What I Have Done, Atlantic Monthly Press, $26.00. Debut novelist Sarah Schmidt reexamines the story of Lizzie Borden and the famous ax murders that are forever attached to her name. Told through the alternating voices of Lizzie, her sister Emma, their maid Bridget, and a mysterious wanderer named Benjamin, See What I Have Done is an interwoven tapestry of family dysfunction.
**** Jody Gehrman, Watch Me, St. Martin’s Press, $15.99. Kate is a college writing instructor and successful novelist who assuages the pain of the breakup of her marriage by giving in to the advances of one of her students. But as their relationship heats up, Kate begins to suspect that her young suitor is manipulating her, and his obsession may have turned deadly. The story unfolds with alternating chapters told from Kate’s perspective and that of her student. Watch Me is a tale of obsession and urges, a reversal of the femme-fatale tradition, as if James M. Cain were still alive and writing from a woman’s perspective.
Midnight Ink does not exclusively publish women authors, but their current list includes many strong titles by women. The next four books are among their recent releases.
**** Aimee Hix, What Doesn’t Kill You, Midnight Ink, $15.99. Ex-cop Willa Pennington is doing a favor for her neighbors and family friends: Their granddaughter wants to move out of a house she shares with an abusive boyfriend, and Willa’s task is to assist the young woman in case her boyfriend comes home. But when she arrives, the girl is nowhere to be found, and the abusive boyfriend is dead. An ATF agent shows up and takes a curious interest in the case and a personal interest in Willa. The book has plenty of twists and surprises, but what stands out is the tight writing and fast narrative of the author’s debut novel.
*** Becky Clark, Fiction Can Be Murder, Midnight Ink, $15.99. Denver-based mystery writer Charlee Russo arrives at her writers’ critique group to learn that her agent has been killed. The elaborate murder method used mercury and permanent glue in the victim’s car—exactly the method Charlee used in her unpublished novel. The only possible suspects are the members of her writers’ group who had read the draft, but none of them have motives, and they all have airtight alibis. I was attracted to this book because of the similar title and premise to one of my favorite older novels, Fredric Brown’s Murder Can Be Fun (later reprinted as A Plot for Murder). Clark’s cozier style and the book’s ultimate solution are different from Brown’s. But like the 1948 novel, Fiction Can Be Murder is a fun brainteaser of a story.
**** Sue Ann Jaffarian, Too Big to Die, Midnight Ink, $14.99. Plus-sized paralegal Odelia Grey and her husband come across a dog locked in a Mercedes on a blistering hot day. With the help of a bystander, they rescue the dog, in an act caught on a video that goes viral on the Internet. Not only is the owner of the dog—and the Mercedes—an angry client of Odelia’s law firm, but soon human bodies start piling up around them. Jaffarian’s writing is smart and funny. Odelia Grey and Greg are a unique twist on Nick and Nora Charles.
*** Nadine Nettman, Uncorking a Lie, Midnight Ink, $14.99. In a follow-up to Nettman’s 2016 novel Decanting a Murder, sommelier Katie Stillwell is invited to a dinner party in Sonoma where a $19,000 bottle of wine is being uncorked. But her palate tells her that the wine is a counterfeit. She asks the hosts’ assistant to check the wine cellar, but he never makes it back. Katie suspects that the man’s fall was no accident, but someone doesn’t want her sticking her nose in other people’s wine. Nettman’s writing is fun and informative. The third in the series, Pairing a Deception, should also be available by the time this issue hits the press.
**** Szu-Yen Lin, Death in the House of Rain, Locked Room International, $19.99. The final review in this installment of The Jury Box is our only title written by a male author. In rural southern Taiwan, a mansion built in the shape of the Chinese character for “rain” has been empty since the massacre of its residents a year ago. On a rainy weekend, the current owner hosts a group of young people, including Ruoping Lin, a philosophy professor with a talent for solving mysteries. Over the course of a few days, four people die in impossible locked-room circumstances, and Professor Lin takes on the task of discovering who committed the crimes, and how. Death in the House of Rain is gruesome and atmospheric, and at the same time a pure puzzle novel written in the spirit of Christie, Carr, and Poe.
Copyright © 2018 Steve Steinbock