The Jury Box

by Steve Steinbock

With the deadline for this issue fast approaching, new and interesting books kept landing on my desk, changing the lineup right up to the last moment.

**** Martin Edwards, Gallows Court, Poisoned Pen, $15.99. In a departure from his contemporary mysteries, the president of the Detection Club and former chair of Britain’s Crime Writers Association has penned a thriller set in 1930s London. Despite the violent “accident” of his predecessor, journalist Jacob Flint is following an investigative lead. Flint is convinced there’s a connection between a series of deaths and wealthy heiress Rachel Savernake. But is this woman a brilliant psychopath or a vigilante hero playing a dark game of moral chess? In the background is the world of aristocratic decadence in the period between the wars.

**** Hank Phillippi Ryan, The Murder List, Forge, $27.99. Following on the success of last year’s Trust Me, Ryan’s latest standalone novel may be her best yet. Despite the protests of her husband, a successful criminal defense attorney, law student Rachel North accepts an internship with ruthless district attorney Martha Gardiner. The “list” of the title is of all the murder cases Gardiner is determined to win, at any cost. Rachel begins to question the unscrupulous methods of her boss, but soon finds herself caught in a web. The author weaves together past and present to create a twisty psychological thriller that establishes her as a literary heir to Margaret Millar and Daphne du Maurier.

**** John Billheimer, Primary Target, The Mystery Company, $28.00 HC, $18.00 PB, $11.99 e-book. West Virginia’s political corruption is the subject of cliches and barroom jokes. Primary Target, the sixth book to feature risk-management consultant Owen Allison, takes on those cliches with a twist. Owen had been a partner in a California consulting firm until Governor Red Davison interfered with one of their projects. Ten years later, Davison’s son is making a bid as Democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency. But when one of Owen’s former partners dies, and a portion of the firm’s archives are destroyed in a fire, Owen begins to suspect Governor Davison is up to no good. Billheimer is also the author of Hitchcock and the Censors, reviewed later in this column.

**** Michael Kardos, Bluff, Mysterious Press, $16.00. Has-been magician Natalie Webb has to face hecklers and lechers at her performances in order to make a living, and even that is being threatened by a sizeable lawsuit. Hoping to supplement her income, Natalie sets out to write a magazine article about magicians and card cheating. Her research puts her in touch with a successful poker cheat, and before she has a chance to consider the consequences, Natalie agrees to team up with the cardsharp in a million-dollar hustle in which the stakes are higher than Natalie could predict. The story is told with precision and economy, seasoned with colorful characters and fascinating details about card magic and poker cheating.

**** Nancy Cole Silverman, The House on Hallowed Ground, Henery Press, $15.95 TPB, $39.95 HC, $4.99 e-book. In the first book in her second series, Silverman has ventured onto supernatural ground. When Hollywood psychic Misty Dawn moves into the home of a recently deceased Hollywood set designer, she finds herself with an annoying otherworldly sidekick. In much the spirit (pun unintended) of Topper, Misty is assisted by the ghost of set designer Wilson Thorne (whose given name tips the hat to Topper creator Thorne Smith). Misty is approached by actress Zoey Chamberlain who believes her house is being haunted by the ghost of a four-year-old girl who drowned there eighty years earlier. But when Misty arrives at the mansion, she learns that Zoey’s best friend has just drowned in the mansion’s spa. Silverman’s storytelling is charmingly entertaining and at times touching.

The name Agatha Christie seems forever bound to the “cozy” subgenre. I’ve hinted elsewhere that I feel this connection is oversimplistic. Dame Agatha has inspired generations of cozy writers, and her output includes some of the best traditional whodunits, but her writing was often anything but cozy. Some of her standalone suspense novels, such as Crooked House and Endless Night, are quite dark. Christie’s most widely read book, And Then There Were None, relies on a closed circle of suspects, a common convention in cozies. But its despicable cast of characters, horrific storyline, and moral ambiguity make it far from cozy. The following two books were inspired by And Then There Were None, and each in its own way captures the tone of Christie’s novel.

*** Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli, And Then They Were Doomed, Crooked Lane, $26.99. Buzzelli’s previous books in the Little Library series focus on Jenny Weston, whose mother maintains “little libraries,” along with Jenny’s neighbor, the short-statured Zoe Zola. This fourth book in the series puts Zoe center stage when she is invited to a scholarly Agatha Christie gathering in northern Michigan. Despite her trepidation, Zoe attends, and soon finds herself an unwitting player in a dark drama with possible links to her family history. Buzzelli tells the story in an eerie style with odd and unlikeable characters.

*** Rachel Howzell Hall, They All Fall Down, Forge, $26.99. Miriam Macy is coping with anger, anxiety, and divorce by medicating herself with booze, Valium, and denial. She’s excited about the potential of a new beginning when she is invited to take part in a new reality TV series set on a remote Mexican island. But when she arrives on the island, she learns that she and the six other “guests,” all of whom harbor dark secrets, have been gathered for other reasons. Hall’s book is faithful to the tone and basic plot of Christie’s novel. What made the book challenging for me was the lack of any sympathetic characters.

We wrap up this installment with two new critical/biographical studies. The first involves Alfred Hitchcock’s career, which included the adaptation of the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, and the second is a biography of John Buchan, who wrote the novel on which the film was based.

*****John Billheimer, Hitchcock and the Censors, University of Kentucky Press, $50.00. In the early 1930s, the American film industry established a code of morality that was imposed on all film production in the U.S. between 1934 and 1968—a period covering Alfred Hitchcock’s most productive years. John Billheimer provides the background to the Motion Picture Production Code, then runs through Hitchcock’s entire career—including pre-code films, post-code films, and TV productions—providing production details and anecdotes as well as details of all cuts and changes Hitchcock was required to make.

These included omitting curse words, suggestive scenes, and kisses that exceed the three-second rule. Billheimer describes how, during filming of Rebecca, Hitchcock was caught between the conflicting demands of his producer, David O. Selznick, and the Production Code office over plot changes to du Maurier’s novel and how he dodged the wrath of the Code office with artful editing during the shower scene in Psycho. During filming of The 39 Steps Hitchcock went back and forth with censors over the scene in which Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, handcuffed together, are forced to spend a night together.

**** Ursula Buchan, Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan, Bloomsbury Publishing, $28.00. Despite changes to the plot and the title changing (from The Thirty-Nine Steps to The 39 Steps), Scottish writer and politician John Buchan, upon seeing Hitchcock’s adaptation of his novel, called it “better than the book.” So reports Ursula Buchan in this detailed biography of her grandfather. Drawing on recently discovered family documents, the author provides colorful details of Buchan’s childhood, his friendships and philosophical musings while a student at Oxford, his years in law school, his loving marriage, his long career as a novelist, and his service to the Crown as Governor General of Canada. The picture of Buchan that emerges is one of a playfully hard-working intellectual. The book includes twenty-four pages of photographs.

Copyright © 2019 Steve Steinbock

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