The Jury Box

by Steve Steinbock

A few weeks after the last issue of EQMM—with my annual Sherlockian column—went to press, I found that I’d missed a book that offered a unique twist to the Sherlock Holmes mythology. Sherry Thomas’s The Art of Theft is part of a series that has received high critical acclaim, but somehow flew beneath my radar. Rather than wait a year for the next Sherlockian roundup, I open this installment of The Jury Box with its review. The second title to be discussed, Pretty as a Picture, is also oddly Sherlockian in that its hero shows an analytic prowess that left me dazzled and mentally gratified.

***** Sherry Thomas, The Art of Theft, Berkley, $16.00. A foreign woman appears in the Baker Street parlor of Charlotte Holmes, asking the Great Detective to steal something in order to avert a scandal and a possible international incident. Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series, of which this is the fourth title, is about Charlotte—a Victorian-era woman with remarkable talents of observation and deduction and a skill with disguises—who has created the alter ego of Sherlock Holmes in order to work as a consulting detective. Her client is a woman of the Indian royal class, who has a personal connection to Charlotte’s friend Mrs. Watson. Theft is not Charlotte’s métier, but she takes on the case and travels to France with her entourage in a caper that comes to a climax during a masquerade ball at a medieval chateau, pitting her against her greatest adversary. Thomas’s writing is full of adventure, quirky romance, and ratiocination.

***** Elizabeth Little, Pretty as a Picture, Viking, $27.00. Socially inept film editor Marissa Dahl has a penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. She has a difficult time reading other people’s nonverbal cues, but she makes up for it by seeing what other people don’t see and catching subtle details that others miss. Marissa is hired to take over the editing job for a film, but not told anything about the project until she arrives at an island off the coast of Delaware. The film is a reconstruction of a true crime story, but both the original crime, and the disasters that strike the crew, are not what they seem. The story is filled with a lively cast of characters, including a pair of precocious teens, daughters of the island’s staff, who, when they’re not sneaking food from the kitchen are sleuthing on their own. But the standout feature of Pretty as a Picture is its idiosyncratic heroine, whose observational skills and deductive reasoning make her a true twenty-first century rival of Sherlock Holmes.

**** Keigo Higashino, Newcomer, Minotaur Books, $16.99. In a neighborhood of Tokyo’s Nihonbashi business district, a middle-aged woman is found strangled in her apartment. To Detective Kyoichiro Kaga, this woman—a newcomer to the neighborhood with no enemies—is an unlikely victim. As Detective Kaga questions various merchants in the neighborhood, what unfolds is a uniquely Japanese tale of detection. The novel is comprised of nine separate stories in a narrative structure similar to Akutagawa’s In a Grove (the basis for Kurosawa’s film Rashomon), each a portrait of the lives of the local shopkeepers and employees. Higashino is the author of the Detective Galileo series (The Devotion of Suspect X, Salvation of a Saint) as well as the Detective Kaga series (Malice). His hero is an insightful detective whose disarmingly awkward charm helps him uncover the truth. Higashino’s writing is emotionally charged and intellectually rewarding.

**** Charlaine Harris, A Longer Fall, Saga Press, $26.99. Lizbeth Rose is a gunslinger in a world in which history has taken an alternate route, hired as part of a crew guarding a cargo in transit from Texoma to Dixie in the Deep South of the former United States. When the train derails, hundreds are left dead or injured, and the cargo has gone missing. Stuck in a traditional, racially divided territory where women don’t wear pants or carry guns, Lizbeth is assisted by her lover, a Russian aristocrat who also happens to be a wizard. Sequel to An Easy Death (2018), A Longer Fall is a weird Western set during the first half of the twentieth century in an alternate world in which FDR was assassinated, the former U.S. has been Balkanized into separate independent territories, and the Russian royal family has set up a new empire in what was formerly Oregon and California. Harris, who is no stranger to blending the supernatural into her mysteries, has created an edgy, sexy, Western-style crime adventure.

**** Julia Spencer-Fleming, Hid from Our Eyes, Minotaur, $27.99. In the long-awaited ninth title in the Agatha and Anthony Award-winning series featuring Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne and Episcopal Priest Clare Fergusson, three unsolved murders spanning half a century affect the lives of the police. In 1952, and again in 1972, a young woman in a party dress is found in the middle of a highway with no shoes, purse, or ID, and no apparent cause of death. In the 1972 case, a twenty-year-old Russ Van Alstyne, just back from Vietnam, is the key suspect. Thirty-four years later, Van Alstyne is the chief of police facing a hostile city council that wants to close down the police department. When the body of a woman is found on the highway in circumstances too similar to the earlier deaths to be a coincidence, Van Alstyne is forced to confront secrets in his community’s past.

**** Erica Ruth Neubauer, Murder at the Mena House, Kensington, $26.00. Erica Neubauer’s debut novel is a Roaring Twenties adventure set at Cairo’s historic Mena House hotel at the feet of the Pyramids of Giza. It’s 1926, and young widow Jane Wunderly is on vacation with her meddling, hard-drinking Aunt Millie at an exotic Egyptian resort. She’s having a wonderful time except for the spoiled London debutante who has taken it upon herself to make Jane her rival. When the girl is found dead in her hotel room, all evidence points to Jane as the killer. Amidst a world of Egyptian antiquities, blackmail, and smuggling, Jane must prove her innocence.

**** Alan Orloff, I Know Where You Sleep, Down & Out Books, $17.95. A restaurant hostess taunted by a stalker comes to the offices of P.I. Anderson West and his loose-cannon sister, Carrie. The detecting team look into their client’s sordid past as well as her current situation as a restaurant worker and a church volunteer. With its alternating viewpoints, I Know Where You Sleep manages to succeed as both a novel of suspense and a P.I. whodunit. Orloff is the author of eight previous novels, as well as numerous short stories that have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and various anthologies.

**** T. Jefferson Parker, The Last Good Guy, Putnam, $27.00. Three-time Edgar winner T. Jefferson Parker is one of the best hardboiled-detective writers in the biz. In his latest, P.I. Roland Ford is hired by a young woman to track down her missing fourteen-year-old sister. It’s a familiar trope in private-eye stories. Raymond Chandler did it several times. But Parker’s take is fresh and moving. To find the girl, Ford, who must confront an evangelical preacher and attend a white-supremacist rally, is brutally beaten by a team of security guards and performs high-tech surveillance on a date farm that is hiding something secret in its freezers. While I was distracted by Parker’s over-the-top portrayal of the villains and their far-fetched scheme, I found the storytelling to be moving and powerful, at one moment laughing aloud at Parker’s wit, and at the next, wiping away tears.

We close with a roundup of other recent titles worthy of mention. Andrew Grant’s Too Close to Home (Ballantine, $28.00) is the sequel to last year’s Invisible, about former intelligence agent Paul McGrath, who uses his nondescript persona as a courthouse janitor to dole out justice and vengeance. In Killing Quarry (Hard Case Crime, $9.95), the sixteenth book to feature Max Allan Collins’s irresistible hitman, Quarry finds himself in the sights of a beautiful hit woman. Gigi Pandian tackles a locked-room mystery in the latest Jaya Jones novel, The Glass Thief (Henery Press, $15.95), which takes the treasure-hunting sleuth to a mansion in Paris and a Cambodian temple tracking an elusive statue.

Copyright © 2020 Steve Steinbock

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