by Steve Steinbock
The novels in this installment of The Jury Box all feature strong and colorful female heroines. I didn’t plan it that way, and it surprised me when I discovered this fact. I lead off with two books featuring particularly complex female leads, both living in British-held Asian countries in the early twentieth century. In both of these novels, the cultural landscape is as diverse and complex as the heroines.
***** Sujata Massey, The Satapur Moonstone, Soho Crime, $26.95. When Massey introduced her heroine Perveen Mistry in The Widows of Malabar Hill (2018), I considered it one of my favorite books of the year. Perveen is a Parsi and a female lawyer living in British-held India in the 1920s whose gender provides her accessibility to people and places that would be closed off to men. In The Satapur Moonstone, Perveen travels to a remote state in the mountains several hundred miles south of Bombay to settle a dispute between two women of the Satapur royal family. The widow of the late Maharaja wants her ten-year-old son to attend school in England, while her domineering mother-in-law, the dowager queen, insists the boy remain at home. But the more she learns, the more Perveen suspects that there is more at stake than the prince’s education.
***** Ovidia Yu, The Paper Bark Tree Mystery, Constable, $13.99. Set in Singapore in 1937, The Paper Bark Tree Mystery is the third in a series featuring Chen Su Lin, an enterprising sleuth in her late teens. The newly arrived British official “Bald Bernie” Hemsworth has been an unpleasant presence at Police Headquarters. One of his first tasks is to depose Su Lin from her job as secretarial assistant to the Singapore Detective and Intelligence Unit, deeming it “unfitting for a native girl” to hold such a post. When Bald Bernie’s body is found drugged, stabbed, and strangled in the police headquarters storeroom, Su Lin feels compelled to find the killer. Before she does, there are several more murders and sightings of a fugitive Indian “terrorist.” The story highlights the ethnic diversity of Singapore and the tension it engenders. But the strongest aspect of Yu’s writing is the playful, almost impish voice of her narrator.
**** Thomas Perry, The Burglar, Mysterious Press, $26.00. Elle Stowell is a twenty-something cat burglar whose looks and style allow her to fit inconspicuously in southern California’s wealthy neighborhoods. Her luck runs out when she breaks into the home of an art dealer and finds him in bed with two women, all three dead of gunshots to the head. She has the good judgment to leave quickly, stealing nothing but the video camera that captured the murder as well as her own presence. Elle soon finds herself targeted by a well-trained team of assassins who leave several more bodies in their wake. In order to stay alive, Elle goes on the offensive.
**** Blake Crouch, Recursion, Crown, $27.00. Blake Crouch challenges the boundaries of genre and, with his new book, of our sense of time and reality. NYPD detective Barry Sutton is unable to prevent a woman from jumping to her death. The woman suffers the same condition that plagues Barry: memories of a life that never happened. Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline, neuroscientist Helena Smith is researching a technology to preserve memories in order to help Alzheimer’s sufferers until her technology is hijacked by a mad industrialist. To save the future—and the past—Barry and Helena have to find each other and, in a struggle against time, prevent global catastrophe. The story is at times emotional and at times heart-stoppingly thrilling.
**** Lee Goldberg, Killer Thriller, Thomas & Mercer, $24.95. Killer Thriller is a laugh-out-loud thrill ride in which life imitates art imitating life. Best-selling thriller writer Ian Ludlow is in Hong Kong on the set of a film based on one of his books. Although the screenplay bears little resemblance to his original novel, Ludlow uses the trip as an opportunity to research his next book. His current work in progress involves a Chinese government plot to topple the U.S. Unbeknownst to Ludlow, the Chinese government is preparing just such a plot. Having bugged his laptop and read his manuscript, they now believe Ludlow is a U.S. spy. Before long, Ludlow is dodging bullets and relying partly on his creative wits and partly on the strength and savvy of his research assistant Margo French, a strong female heroine who proves to be more than meets the eye.
**** Max Allan Collins, Girl Most Likely, Thomas & Mercer, $15.95. Chief Krista Larson of Galena, Illinois is the youngest female police chief in the country. The night of her ten-year high-school reunion, a beautiful former classmate is stabbed to death. Krista’s father, a retired Iowa detective, makes a connection between this murder and the stabbing of another classmate in Florida several months earlier. Father and daughter and the small Galena police force interview suspects and follow clues to catch the killer. Girl Most Likely reminded me of Longmire crossed with Grosse Point Blank fitted into a closed-circle plot worthy of Agatha Christie.
***** Hilary Davidson, One Small Sacrifice, Thomas & Mercer, $24.95. Alex Traynor is a photojournalist with a drug habit and PTSD from a stint in war-torn Syria. One year ago, a woman fell to her death from Traynor’s building. Detective Sheryn Sterling of the NYPD had been convinced Traynor pushed her, but has been unable to prove it. Only Traynor’s girlfriend is convinced of his innocence. But when she goes missing, Detective Sterling once again puts the pressure on Traynor to slip up. One Small Sacrifice is an intense page-turner with twists to the very end.
**** Leslie Karst, Murder from Scratch, Crooked Lane, $26.99. At the start of Book Four in Karst’s series about a sleuthing Santa Cruz restaurateur, Sally Solari is up to her eyeballs with restaurant problems. When her estranged cousin, a former restaurant owner and cook, dies of an overdose, Sally is given the responsibility of taking in the woman’s blind daughter Evelyn. Sally isn’t happy about the arrangement until she meets Evelyn, and finds that, despite her blindness, she is a good cook and has surprisingly keen observational skills. Evelyn is convinced that her mother didn’t commit suicide, and certain out-of-place items in her home suggest that it wasn’t an accident either. Karst seasons her writing with an accurate insider’s view of restaurant operation, as well as a tenderness in the way she treats family, death and Sally’s reactions to Evelyn’s blindness.
**** Ellen Byron, Fatal Cajun Festival, Crooked Lane, $26.99. Ellen Byron won the Agatha Award for last year’s Mardi Gras Murder. Her hero Maggie Crozat is back for number five in the series. New Orleans is known for its jazz, but the little town of Pelican, Louisiana is having a festival of its own, “Cajun Country Live.” The headliner for the event is Tammy Barker, a local girl who won a national television competition and went on to stardom. But along with her massive entourage, the prima donna has brought back a nasty rivalry with Maggie’s best friend Gaynell. When Tammy’s lecherous manager is electrocuted, Gaynell finds herself accused of murder. Every line in Fatal Cajun Festival sizzles with Louisiana flavor. But, as Maggie’s grandmother points out, “It’s Louisiana, chère. When do we not celebrate?”
**** Laird R. Blackwell, Frederic Dannay, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the Art of the Detective Short Story, McFarland, $45.00. It’s fitting that we wrap up this column with the review of a book about this very magazine. Blackwell chronicles how Frederic Dannay championed short mystery fiction by reprinting classics from the 1840s through the 1940s, how he provided a venue for the “New Masters” of crime fiction (such as Christie, Carr, and Gardner), and finally how he promoted new talent with stories by Harry Kemelman, Helen McCloy, Robert L. Fish, Edward D. Hoch, and others. He annotates all of the “Queen’s Quorum” stories that appeared in EQMM and provides an entertaining appendix listing the many stories whose titles Dannay changed.
Copyright © 2019 Steve Steinbock