by Steve Steinbock
In this issue’s The Jury Box installment, I revisit some old friends and discover some new ones. Readers may notice that I rarely give five-star reviews. I also almost never give one- or two-star reviews, because if I’m not enjoying a book, I won’t take the time to finish and review it. This month I open with three books that were so moving, and so original in the telling, that I felt obliged to give them top score.
***** Sarah J. Harris, The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder, Touchstone, $26.00. Jasper Wishart is a young autistic teenager with prosopagnosia (face blindness) and synesthesia (in his case, he experiences sound visually). He cannot distinguish the faces of his neighbors and classmates, but he experiences voices, noises, and music as a kaleidoscope of color. A troubled young woman with promiscuous habits moves in next door, and Jasper is drawn into the role of go-between between his neighbor and her lover. When she goes missing, Jasper believes that he killed her. All he remembers is hearing “ice blue crystals with glittery edges and jagged silver icicles.” The story, as told through Jasper’s vivid perception, is a unique coming-of-age drama.
***** Sarah Sparrow, A Guide for Murdered Children, Blue Rider Press, $27.00. Possibly the strangest book of the year, with its eerie, thought-provoking premise and hardboiled style hidden under a disarmingly pink cover embellished with a unicorn and jeweled stars. The story follows a cold-case detective recently out of rehab and two Michigan deputies who have recently had near-death experiences. The three find themselves involved in a twelve-step group whose members serve as hosts to the spirits of murdered children seeking closure—and, at times, retribution. Guide is a dark but often uplifting crime fantasy.
***** John Straley, Baby’s First Felony, Soho Crime, $25.95. Coinciding with the reissue of Straley’s first six books about Alaska P.I. Cecil Younger, Soho Crime is publishing a new book by Straley, his first to feature the troubled detective in seventeen years. Cecil is now working for a Sitka public defender. His daughter Blossom, an infant in the previous novel, is now thirteen. The story is told in the form of Cecil’s offbeat testimony to a three-judge panel about a series of crimes he has been accused of. As Cecil visits a client accused of domestic violence, he is handed a package of drug money and is asked to commit a murder. The story goes fever-pitch when Cecil’s daughter and her best friend disappear. Straley writes noir with a poet’s ear and a quirky, Zen sense of humor. The story is at times brutally violent, but never gratuitous, and is as entertaining as it is moving and honest.
**** Edwin Hill, Little Comfort, Kensington, $26.00. Little Comfort is the first novel of Edwin Hill, whose fiction debut appeared in our last January/February issue in the Department of First Stories. Hester Thursby is a Harvard librarian who uses her research skills to track down missing people. She meets with a client whose brother, Sam, ran away twelve years earlier when he was a young teen. The missing brother has left a trail of clues in the form of postcards with cryptic messages. But in spite of his cat-and-mouse game, Sam doesn’t want to be found, and is willing to go to extreme measures to keep it that way.
**** Craig Johnson, Depth of Winter, Viking, $28.00. A few months back I reviewed Johnson’s thirteenth book about Absaroka County sheriff Walt Longmire. That book ended with a shocking cliff-hanger: the abduction of Walt’s daughter Cady by the head of a Mexican drug cartel. In Depth of Winter, Longmire goes vigilante, heading alone across the border. Longmire has accumulated more than a few enemies over the years, and crime lord Tomás Bidarte is readying to sell Cady to the highest bidder. Depth of Winter is more an adventure than a mystery. I missed the ensemble of regular series characters, but enjoyed watching Longmire go in with guns blazing and a few tricks up his sleeves.
**** Margaret Mizushima, Burning Ridge, Crooked Lane, $26.99. Set in the Colorado high country, Burning Ridge is the fourth book by Mizushima featuring Deputy Mattie Cobb and veterinarian Cole Walker—as well as Mattie’s partner, a German Shepherd named Robo. During a hike with his daughters, Walker’s dog uncovers a charred shoe containing the remains of a human foot. What unfolds is a decades-old murder tied to a present-day killer with connections to Mattie’s past. Burning Ridge is a well-told, solid mystery peppered with fascinating details of K-9 police work.
*** Doug Preston and Lincoln Child, The Pharaoh Key, Grand Central Publishing, $28.00. Adventurer Gideon Crew, suffering from a vascular anomaly in his brain, has only two months to live. When the research firm he works for mysteriously locks its doors, he and a colleague steal some computer files that may lead to treasure. Their journey takes them to a remote desert on the disputed Egyptian-Sudanese border, where they are robbed, buried alive in a sandstorm, and taken prisoner by an ancient Egyptian tribe in a hidden oasis. The Pharaoh Key is a fun adventure story loaded with cliff-hanging moments. The writing team of Preston and Child are consummate storytellers. But the Gideon Crew series—of which this is the fifth novel—lacks depth. The characters, including the hero, are not particularly believable or likeable.
**** Fred Van Lente, Ten Dead Comedians, Quirk, $14.99. I couldn’t help but enjoy this book. While the plot is not original—it’s an unapologetic borrowing of Christie’s And Then There Were None—the presentation is fresh, funny, and entertaining. Veteran comedian Dustin Walker has invited nine of his colleagues to his island retreat to work on a “project.” But when the guests arrive, they discover that the estate is abandoned, and they are forced to witness a video of Walker’s suicide. One by one the guests are killed by methods that reflect each one’s own trademark shtick.
*** Fred Van Lente, The Con Artist, Quirk, $26.00. Also new from Van Lente is this aptly titled mystery set at the San Diego Comic-Con, the world’s largest science fiction and comic industry event. The convention is barely underway when comic-book artist Mike Miller finds himself the number-one suspect for the murder of his former editor and archenemy Danny Lieber. Miller’s only alibi is a cute missing rickshaw driver. The Con Artist is filled with lively dialogue and an inside look at the comic industry drawn from Van Lente’s experience writing for comics. Most readers will find themselves mired in the comic book and SF references, leaving the mystery itself often hard to follow.
**** Amnon Kabatchnik, Blood on the Stage, 1800-1900, Rowman and Littlefield, $150.00. Theater director and historian Kabatchnik has previously written six encyclopedic works chronicling the milestones of crime and mystery plays spanning more than two thousand years, as well as a volume about Sherlock Holmes on the stage. This newest book, more than 700 pages in length, covers plays of the nineteenth century, including Goethe’s Faust, Lord Byron’s Cain, several plays by Wilkie Collins, and adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula. It concludes with the 1899 play Sherlock Holmes written by and starring William Gillette. As usual, Kabatchnik provides detailed synopses, background, and fascinating anecdotes for each of the fifty-one plays. This book completes the series, unless Kabatchnik sticks around to do a volume about the twenty-first century, which at the rate he’s going, is a genuine possibility.
Copyright © 2018 Steve Steinbock