The Jury Box

by Steve Steinbock

As this issue comes off the press, the thirty-first annual Malice Domestic convention in Bethesda, Maryland will be just around the corner. Malice celebrates the traditional detective story, which includes cozies, fair-play mysteries, and historical whodunits. Several of the books in this installment of The Jury Box fit squarely in that category.

***** Alexander McCall Smith, The Department of Sensitive Crimes, Penguin, $24.95. Master storyteller Alexander McCall Smith has a curious new series set in Sweden, which he has labeled as “Scandi blanc” (in contrast to Scandi-noir). The cops and criminals are sensitive and sympathetic, and the crimes hardly headline-worthy. But the story itself is quite worthy nonetheless. Lead detective Ulf Varg, considered “the kindest man in the entire Swedish police service,” leads a team that is investigating the disappearance and possible murder of a young woman’s imaginary boyfriend, a midget who stabbed his rival in the back of the knee, and a spa that is losing customers due to werewolf rumors. On top of all this, Ulf’s dog is suffering depression. As always, Smith’s storytelling is offbeat and thoroughly human.

***** Bruce Robert Coffin, Beyond the Truth, Witness Impulse, $11.99. A Portland, Maine police officer responding to an armed robbery manages to corner the suspects. But when one of the suspects appears to fire a weapon, the cop shoots back and kills him. Detective Sergeant John Byron arrives at the site to learn that the suspect’s weapon can’t be found. The news turns worse when Byron learns that the dead suspect was a seventeen-year-old high school basketball player. It’s unclear whether there was a second gun at all. This is the third in the series written by a retired Portland, Maine detective, who brings a high level of realism to his expert storytelling. The book is riveting from the start and leads to an explosive and very emotional conclusion.

**** Kaitlyn Dunnett, Crime & Punctuation, Kensington, $26.00. Here’s another new series from an old favorite. As Kathy Lynn Emerson, she’s written historical mysteries set in Elizabethan England as well as late nineteenth century America, and under the pseudonym Kaitlyn Dunnett she’s written a dozen Scottish-themed whodunits set in Maine. This first book in the Deadly Edits series features Mikki Lincoln, a widowed former English teacher who moves to the Catskills and opens shop as a freelance book editor. When a nice young woman hires her to edit her first novel, Mikki is surprised to find it a graphically violent historical thriller set in their town. She’s even more surprised when the woman is found dead a few days later.

**** Katrina Carrasco, The Best Bad Things, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27.00. The Pacific Northwest in the late nineteenth century is the setting for this stunning debut historical thriller. Various underworld players are vying for control of the opium trade being smuggled through Port Townsend, northwest of Seattle. Former Pinkerton detective Alma Rosales is working every side she can. An expert in disguise with a penchant for fighting and sensual passion, she poses as a scrappy dockworker to infiltrate opium dens, whorehouses, and smuggling operations. The book is smart, evocative, and well researched. Alma is an ambiguous character, sexually and otherwise. It was hard to decide whether she was a good guy or a bad guy”—which I suppose was the point.

**** Mario Giordano, Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24.00. In Giordano’s second novel to be published in the U.S., the titular eccentric Bavarian Auntie Poldi is back. During a session of pillow talk with her handsome police detective Vito Montana, Poldi learns of the murder of a female district attorney who had been heading an anti-mafia task force. A short time later, while walking through the vineyards on the lava fields below Mount Etna, Auntie Poldi comes across the body of an itinerant fortuneteller, and begins to wonder how the two cases might be connected. The story has plenty of action and mystery, but what readers will most enjoy are the exotic setting and the quirky characters.

**** Martin Limón, The Line, Soho Crime, $26.95. Military police George Sueño and Ernie Bascom are called on for a delicate matter. The body of a South Korean working with U.S. Security Forces has been found bludgeoned to death in the Korean Demilitarized Zone. In the midst of a standoff between North and South Korean soldiers, Sueño and Bascom are ordered to drag the body to the South Korean side. They soon identify a suspect in the murder, but Sueño begins to doubt the young soldier’s guilt. As with all of Limón’s novels about Sueño and Bascom, we get a fascinating inside look at Korean culture as well as the world of overseas Army personnel in the late 1970s.

**** Brendan DuBois, The Negotiator, Midnight Ink, $15.99. The unnamed hero of DuBois’s new thriller is a negotiator. He negotiates deals, often involving stolen goods and a lot of money. He’s good at what he does. But when the object of his negotiation is a priceless stolen Rembrandt, his partner is shot by the seller. Bent on revenge, the Negotiator goes on a quest to find the killer. DuBois writes noir fiction very well, but he has fun doing it, and the fun comes across in the writing. The story moves quickly, leaving several surprising twists in its wake.

**** Barbara Allan, Antiques Ravin’, Kensington Books, $26.00. Written by Barbara Collins and Max Allan Collins (under the byline Barbara Allan), the thirteenth volume in the Trash ‘n’ Treasures series has an Edgar Allan Poe theme running throughout. Newly elected sheriff Vivian Borne has dragged her daughter Brandy and dog Sushi to Antiqua, Iowa for the annual Poe festival. Each year, to attract visitors to the town’s many antiques shops, a valuable Poe-related item is hidden among the stock of one of the shops, with coded clues handed out hinting at the location. But this year, someone is murdering citizens using methods straight out of Poe’s stories. The book is zany fun, with witty book-collecting tips at the end of each chapter.

**** Takemaru Abiko, The 8 Mansion Murders, Locked Room International, $19.99. Detective Kyozo Hayami and his accident-prone assistant Kinoshita are called to the site of a crossbow murder at a house with a unique figure-eight design. According to the testimony of two witnesses, the crossbow was shot from a room that at the time was locked and unoccupied. The unusual setting is reminiscent of other Asian locked-room scenarios such as in Yukito Ayatsuji’s Decagon House Murders and Szu-Yen Lin’s Death in the House of Rain. The solution is based on contrivances and Abiko makes no pretense otherwise. The storytelling is embellished with clever dialogue, comic moments, and plenty of references to classic detective fiction, making it a treat for fans of the subgenre.

**** Lynne Truss, A Shot in the Dark, Bloomsbury Publishing, $17.00. Truss is best known for her 2003 book about punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. But her BBC comedy radio series Inspector Steine is the basis for this wacky novel set in Brighton in the 1950s. Young Constable Twitten, inspired by a film depiction of Inspector Steine’s (exaggerated) involvement in a 1951 gangland massacre, comes to work with the dull-witted inspector and the demoralized Sergeant Brunswick. The plot and the storytelling meander like a roller-coaster, so readers need to execute some patience and enjoy the humor until the bizarrely unlikely denouement.

**** Lawrence Block, A Time to Scatter Stones, Subterranean, $25.00, Kindle $6.99. Block launched the Matthew Scudder series more than forty years ago. After an eight-year hiatus, Scudder is back in a novella that echoes elements from his previous books (most notably Eight Million Ways to Die, in which Scudder had attracted clients from AA meetings). In A Time to Scatter Stones, his client comes to him from a church-basement group of ex-prostitutes. Ellen Lipscomb has retired from the life, but a former client can’t let her go. When he begins to threaten her, Scudder steps in. Block is a master storyteller, and he’s also pretty good at titillating his readers. In this book, he flexes both those muscles.

Copyright © 2019 Steve Steinbock

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