The Jury Box

by Steve Steinbock

In this installment of The Jury Box we have a number of books that take us around the world: from Laos to Russia, Italy, Egypt, and Japan. We’ll also throw in a touch of magic. To start off, we travel around the corner in New York for what may be the final novel of an EQMM favorite author.

**** Margaret Maron, Take Out, Grand Central Publishing, $27.00. Margaret Maron’s short stories began appearing in EQMM and its sister publication, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, in the late 1960s. Her first novel, One Coffee With, was published in 1981, and introduced us to NYPD detective Sigrid Harald. Maron then wrote seven more novels about Detective Harald, but in the nineties her writing focused on mysteries about North Carolina judge Deborah Knott. The last we saw of Lieutenant Harald, other than one short-story appearance and a couple of cameos in the Knott series, was in the 1995 novel Fugitive Colors. Sigrid Harald has returned in what Maron has announced will be her final novel. In the aptly titled Take Out, two homeless men are found dead on a park bench with a takeout box containing poisoned lasagna. Identifying the second man and determining the intended victim turns out to be a challenge as the case crosses into the world of opera divas, mafia families, and neighborhood history. Take Out is a well-plotted mystery in every sense. If this does, sadly, turn out to be Maron’s last novel, readers can hope for more of her short fiction within future pages of EQMM.

**** Jeffery Deaver, The Burial Hour, Grand Central Publishing, $28.00. MWA President Jeffery Deaver is another author many of whose short stories have graced the pages of EQMM. The latest in his series featuring Lincoln Rhyme takes the quadriplegic criminologist to Italy in pursuit of a serial abductor. A madman calling himself “The Composer” captures his victims, leaving a calling card of a noose made from musical-instrument strings. When he escapes to Italy, Rhyme and team join the politically fettered Italian police. In Deaver’s typical fashion, the book ends with twist after surprising twist.

**** Andrea Camilleri, A Nest of Vipers, Penguin, $16.00. “Charming” and “eerie” are two words that are seldom used in the same description. But they apply equally to Camilleri’s series featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano. In A Nest of Vipers, the sardonic Montalbano investigates the murder of wealthy widower Cosimo Barletta. When Montalbano finds a large collection of photographs of women in compromising positions, he realizes that the dead man had been blackmailing the women. The number of suspects is extensive.

**** Colin Cotterill, The Rat Catcher’s Olympics, Soho, $26.95. The irrepressible Dr. Siri Paiboon, retired national coroner of Laos, successfully gets himself appointed as physician to the Laotian Olympic delegation at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. He and his wife, Madame Daeng, are excited for the trip, despite the low turnout due to boycott by the U.S. and its allies. After a last-minute re-assignment to the shooting team, Siri and his friends are faced with corruption, international conspiracy, and murder. As an adjunct to the regular games, a Lao exterminator participates in a “vermin eradication” contest in which clever strategies are used to catch rats. Cotterill’s storytelling has a zany Zen style that is equal parts Somerset Maugham and the Marx Brothers.

**** Laurie R. King, Lockdown, Bantam, $28.00. The latest novel from Laurie King is a departure from her Mary Russell series. Set in a contemporary California town, it chronicles from various characters’ points of view events leading up to a violent showdown at a middle school. The book explores the inner lives of students, parents, faculty, and police officer Olivia Mendez, among others. In the background is a recent gang-related shooting and the disappearance, apparently by supernatural means, of a sixth-grade girl. Longtime readers of King’s work will recognize the cameo appearance of her earlier heroine, Kate Martinelli, as well as the unique character of Brother Erasmus (who can only communicate by reciting classical quotations) from King’s 1995 novel To Play the Fool. Lockdown contains mysterious elements, but it is less a mystery than a psychological thriller.

**** Elizabeth Peters and Joan Hess, The Painted Queen, William Morrow, $27.99. The estate of Elizabeth Peters asked Joan Hess to complete the late archaeologist’s final work, and it turned out to be a brilliant choice. Hess and Elizabeth Peters (Barbara Mertz, who died in 2013) were friends and frequent plotting partners, and Hess accompanied Peters on one of her annual trips to Egypt. In The Painted Queen, set in 1912, Amelia Peabody is with her archaeologist husband and entourage in Cairo and at a dig in Amarna, dodging a family of monocle-wearing assassins and occasionally being rescued by a master criminal. She is in pursuit of a priceless statue of Queen Nefertiti, but only finding replicas. Hess has succeeded in capturing Peters’ voice, imbuing the narrative with the humor and dry wit that the two authors shared.

*** Sarah Skilton, Club Deception, Grand Central Publishing, $14.99. Next are two new books whose heroines are deeply entrenched in the world of stage illusionists. Club Deception is about members of a private Los Angeles magician’s club, and features the search for the papers of Erdnase (whose 1902 book is the essential Bible of card sleights and cheating techniques), and the fight for ownership of a stage illusion. The details about magical lore and practice are extremely well represented. While the book works well as a novel that features crime, is doesn’t completely work as a mystery or crime novel.

**** Gigi Pandian, The Ninja’s Illusion, Henery Press, $15.95. Treasure-hunting history professor Jaya Jones is in Kyoto to watch her best friend Sanjay perform the Indian Rope Trick alongside Japanese magician Akira Kimura. The arrogant Akira claims to have genuine supernatural powers, but a black-cloaked phantom is determined to prove him a fraud. Jaya and her companions are faced with sabotage and murder, and a missing two-hundred-year-old diary that may answer questions not only about the Indian Rope Trick, but about the location of stolen treasure.The Ninja’s Illusion is a fun, spirited read filled with fascinating details about Japanese history and mythology, and the morality of stage magic.

**** Susan Spann, Betrayal at Iga, Seventh Street Books, $15.95. Ninja bodyguard Hiro Hattori and his Jesuit charge Father Mateo are attending treaty negotiations at the home of Hiro’s cousin when one of the rival clan leaders is poisoned. With members of Hiro’s own family as chief suspects, the Ninja and the priest must discover the true murderer in order to prevent impending war. Spann’s novel, set in sixteenth-century Japan, is notable for its characters, who are both exotic and familiar. It’s also remarkable how Spann has weaved her plot around actual historical events and characters.

Just arrived, but not in time to give it a full review is Death, to Begin With by our Blog Bytes columnist Bill Crider (Minotaur Books, $25.99) in which Sheriff Dan Rhodes investigates a death at an opera-house restoration. Crider is a master storyteller who describes life in a Texas town with endearing humor.

Copyright © 2017 Steve Steinbock