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The Jury Box

by Steve Steinbock

When I heard about the Apple+ TV series Slow Horses based on the novels of Mick Herron, I was excited to realize this was the same Mick Herron whose short stories have appeared in EQMM since 2006. I don’t intentionally show favoritism, but I enjoy reading novels by writers whose short work has appeared in EQMM or our sister magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. In addition to Herron’s latest spy thriller, this installment of The Jury Box includes reviews of debut novels by Tom Mead and Joseph Goodrich, who have both graced our pages in the past. Both Goodrich’s and Mead’s novels are historical mysteries, as are several other books reviewed below.

***** Mick Herron, Bad Actors, Soho, $27.95. A special advisor to the British prime minister has gone missing and various government agencies, both on and off the books, are eager to find her. But only the spurned MI5 rejects of Slough House have the wherewithal to solve the mystery that threatens the very integrity of the British government. Because of its large cast of characters, a plot that races in every direction, and Herron’s rambunctiously erudite style, Bad Actors was initially hard to follow. But I quickly found the book to be incredibly funny and difficult to put down, reading like a grafting of Donald Westlake to John Le Carré. One of the most entertaining plot threads involves a “slow-horse” member whose drug habit lands her in a private psychiatric facility for spies. Despite being exiled from what was already a state of exile, her actions ultimately help save the day.

**** Brian Klingborg, Wild Prey, Minotaur, $27.99. Inspector Lu Fei is a Chinese cop with a conscience, reassigned to a remote village near Harbin due to his insubordinate inability to toe the Party line. His relentless search for a missing waitress leads him into the world of illegal wild-animal products. Despite being threatened by mobsters as well as wealthy Party bureaucrats who enjoy the forbidden delicacies, Lu’s pursuit takes him undercover to an exotic animal farm in the Burmese jungle. The details are fascinating and the story fully engaging. Klingborg does an excellent job bringing to life many of the subtle details of Chinese life and culture.

**** Tom Mead, Death and the Conjuror, Mysterious Press, $25.95. The body of psychologist Anselm Rees is found in his study with his throat cut, the only two ways in or out of the room, a door and window, secured from the inside. In addition, a valuable painting was stolen during a party under apparently impossible circumstances. Inspector George Flint calls on retired stage magician Joseph Spector to get to the bottom of a confounding sequence of events. Written in the spirit of John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, and Edward Hoch, Death and the Conjuror features a sleuth reminiscent of both Queen’s character Drury Lane and Hoch’s mystical detective Simon Ark. The novel is unapologetically formulaic, written in classic style as a contest between reader and author, and features a challenge to the reader followed by a distinctly Queen-like denouement in which Spector gathers the suspects for a reconstruction of the crime.

**** Joseph Goodrich, The Paris Manuscript, Perfect Crime, $17.00. American journalist Ned Jameson and his wife Daisy are living in Paris in 1919 when world leaders are in France for the Paris Peace Conference. A blackmailer who had been extorting money and political secrets from Daisy’s brother is shot during a social gathering, and in his dying breath, names Daisy as his killer. The narrative goes back and forth between 1919 and 1979 when Ned, his memory fading with age, recalls how his friend, author Marcel Proust, took on the role of detective to clear Daisy’s name. The Paris Manuscript is more a love story than a mystery, but one with a fascinating historical background and several clever twists in its resolution.

**** Juliet Blackwell, The Paris Showroom, Berkley, $14.99. Better known for her various “cozy” mystery series, Blackwell is the author of several mainstream and historical novels set in France. The Paris Showroom is a historical drama with suspense elements, told from the perspective of two women, mother and daughter, whose differing experiences of Nazi-occupied Paris ultimately collide. Due to her political associations, the mother is serving in a labor prison located inside a former department store, sorting and repairing confiscated Jewish property for redistribution. Her estranged daughter, by contrast, lives comfortably under the Occupation until she is drawn into the Resistance.

**** Nev March, Peril at the Exposition, Minotaur, $27.99. Last year I reviewed March’s debut novel, Murder in Old Bombay. Her latest book picks up a year later in 1893 Boston where Diana Framji and her husband Jim have settled. But when Jim goes missing, Diana follows the trail to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago where he had been investigating a murder. March’s writing not only evokes the world of international intrigue, political unrest, and the threat of anarchist terrorism, it also explores the life and beliefs of a unique hero, a Parsi Zoroastrian woman from Bombay. The book also includes a cameo appearance of a historical figure: the actor who would eventually become the face of the world’s greatest detective.

**** Lorenzo Carcaterra, Nonna Maria and the Case of the Missing Bride, Bantam, $27.00. On an island off the coast of Naples lives a woman always dressed in black, known for her generosity, her strong coffee, and the wisdom she dispenses. Known to all as Nonna Maria, this character is based on Lorenzo Carcaterra’s own grandmother. Equally friendly with the local police and old gangsters, Nonna Maria helps a young woman who has been coerced into marriage as well as a young man struggling with gambling debts. She helps the local police captain prove that a sailor’s death was not an accident and helps the same police captain trap his sister’s murderer. I’m accustomed to Carcaterra’s more gritty storytelling, but found Nonna Maria, with all its sentimentality, refreshing.

*** Jason Starr, The Next Time I Die, Hard Case Crime, $14.95. I’m drawn to “alternate reality” stories, a science-fiction trope that often intersects with crime fiction. In The Next Time I Die, criminal defense attorney Steven Blitz is stabbed during an altercation at a gas station, but when he wakes up, he is in a hospital in an alternate world in which Al Gore is the president, war rages in India and Pakistan, and the World Trade Center still towers over New York. Before, his marriage was doomed to failure, but in this world his relationship with his wife is blissful and they have a daughter. Most significantly, the serial killer who had been Steven’s client in this world had never been arrested. Stories like this are usually mind-bending and sometimes inspiring. The Next Time I Die is neither. The Steven Blitz we meet is often clueless about his surroundings, and the Steven Blitz whose world he now occupies is an unscrupulous scoundrel. Both make bad decisions; neither is likeable. Nevertheless, Starr has created a solid work of noir in a supernatural setting.

*** Rob Hart, The Paradox Hotel, Ballantine Books, $28.00. January Cole is chief of security at a unique hotel, a nexus for time travel where wealthy guests can catch “flights” into the past and experience their dreams. January’s job is to minimize the chance of anomalies, making sure the guests follow the rules and prevent historical distortions. But “distorted” describes January’s own state of mind, as her long-term exposure to time travel has left her chronologically unhinged. For her, time hiccups back and forth as she glimpses “slips” of past and future. With the government-run hotel about to be privatized, January discovers the body of a man who has yet to be murdered.

A number of other historical mysteries deserve mentioning. Forever Past by Marty Ambrose (Severn House, $28.99), set in 1873 Italy, features the historical figure Claire Clairmont, stepsister of Mary Shelley and mother of Lord Byron’s daughter Allegra. In the novel, Clairmont seeks the truth behind her daughter’s death. Jeanne Matthews’s Devil by the Tail (D.X. Varos, $18.95) explores the long-term effect of the American Civil War on the lives of Chicagoans and features a detective team of Quinn Sinclair, a young widow whose husband died fighting for the Union, and Garnick, a former POW who fought for the Confederates. The Fervor by Alma Katsu (Putnam, $27.00) is a suspense novel set primarily at an Idaho internment camp where Meiko Briggs and her daughter are imprisoned as Japanese “enemy aliens” even while her husband is serving in the U.S. Air Force. What makes The Fervor different is its incorporation of supernatural horror derived from Japanese folklore.

Copyright © 2022 Steve Steinbock

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