A solid mystery consists of five basic but important elements: character, setting, plot (the story’s beginning, middle, and end), problem (usually who committed a crime and why), and solution. Thankfully, authors differ in how they incorporate and emphasize these components in their novels in ways that are logical and intriguing to readers.
For some mystery writers, their characters are the raison d’être for their fiction. Case in point: the protagonists of Elly Griffiths’s Smoke and Mirrors. Inspired by her grandfather’s experience during World War II, Griffiths created a pair of sleuths, Edgar Stephens and Max Mephisto, who had served in the Magic Men special-ops troop, which staged illusions to trick the enemy. Now they use their wartime experiences to solve crimes.
For others, the setting is almost as important as the whodunit. Shannon Baker’s series launch, Stripped Bare, introduces the magnificent and stark beauty of Nebraska’s Sandhills. A fast-paced plot is the driving force for other authors, such as that found in the white-knuckle ride that is Chris Holm’s Red Right Hand.
Whatever the combination of elements, if it’s done well, the result is an unforgettable story that keeps mystery fans coming back for more.
Pick of the month
Baker, Shannon. Stripped Bare: A Kate Fox Novel. Forge. Sept. 2016. 288p. ISBN 9780765385444. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9780765385451. M
Kate’s husband, Ted Connor, is running for sheriff of Grand County in the Nebraska Sandhills. When he’s shot and critically injured, Kate’s life goes south quickly. Ted is a prime suspect in the murder of ranch owner Eldon. When Kate discovers Ted was at the victim’s estate to sleep with former girlfriend Roxy, she is devastated. The suspect list expands after it’s learned that Eldon was considering selling his property: the billionaire environmentalist, who planned to buy the ranch; various women around the county who were in love with Eldon; but, worst of all, perhaps it was Kate’s niece, Carly, Eldon’s granddaughter, who stands to inherit Eldon’s gigantic spread. Baker’s writing evokes the beauty of the Nebraska Sandhills, and her colorful cast of secondary characters adds a depth of charm. VERDICT The author of the “Nora Abbott” mysteries launches a new Western series headed by a sympathetic female protagonist who must deal with her husband’s infidelity and her own feelings of inadequacy. Devotees of Craig Johnson’s “Walt Longmire” series and fans of Judy Clemens are sure to appreciate this title.
Check These Out
Bolduc, Mario. The Kashmir Trap: A Max O’Brien Mystery. Dundurn. Sept. 2016. 424p. tr. from French by Nigel Spencer. ISBN 9781459733480. pap. $17.99; ebk. ISBN 9781459733503. M
Professional con man Max O’Brien loved his big brother, Philippe, a Canadian diplomat who died at the hands of terrorists in El Salvador. When Max hears that his nephew David, also a diplomat, has been assassinated in India, he vows to find the perpetrators. Wanted in several countries for his scams, Max loves his nephew and is willing to risk his freedom to uncover the truth about his death. Along the way he unearths many secrets floating around the Canadian Consular Office in Delhi. VERDICT First published in Quebec in 2005, Canadian screenwriter and director Bolduc’s international thriller has been served well in this English translation. Political junkies and history buffs will enjoy the way Boldoc expertly weaves history with politics into a colorful tapestry of intrigue. Two more books featuring Max will follow.
DiSilverio, Laura. Close Call. Midnight Ink. Sept. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9780738749204. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780738749624. M
Heading home from work, Sydney Ellison stops at a deli to pick up dinner for herself and her fiancé. She bumps into a stranger, and that chance encounter irrevocably changes her life. For Sydney accidentally picks up the man’s burner phone and discovers an assassination plot against a senator. Before she can call the police, the assassin kills her fiancé. Sydney must now turn to her journalist sister Reese, from whom she has been estranged after a personal betrayal 15 years ago, for help in identifying and finding the unknown killer before he can get to them. VERDICT DiSilverio’s (Swift Edge; “Mall Cop” mysteries) excellent plotting in her stand-alone thriller will keep readers on the edge of their seats rooting for Sydney to triumph. A treat for Megan Abbott fans.
Fradkin, Barbara. Fire in the Stars: An Amanda Doucette Mystery. Dundurn. Sept. 2016. 328p. ISBN 9781459732391. pap. $19.99; ebk. ISBN 9781459732414. M
Aid worker Amanda Doucette is back in Canada, fleeing the horrors of her last stint in Nigeria. She anticipates going on a motorcycle trip with her best friend Phil Cousins, but upon arrival in Newfoundland, she learns that Phil and his son, Tyler, have disappeared. Joined by Phil’s friend, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Sgt. Chris Tymko, Amanda begins a search she fears will lead to death and misery as the bodies pile up. Highly competent, Amanda is memorable, adventurous, resourceful and caring; she only needs to regain her footing to recover from her trauma. VERDICT Canadian mystery writer Fradkin (“Inspector Green” mysteries), winner of two Arthur Ellis Awards, launches a new series with a complex protagonist struggling to cope with PTSD. Readers of Tana French and Deborah Crombie may want to investigate.
Griffiths, Elly. Smoke and Mirrors: A Magic Men Mystery. Houghton Harcourt. Oct. 2016. 352p. ISBN 9780544527959. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780544527980. M
Brighton DI Edgar Stephens is investigating the kidnapping and murder of two children during the 1951 Christmas season, their bodies positioned and left in a bizarre scene that brings to mind the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. His old friend, Max Mephisto, is in town to perform magic at the annual Brighton pantomime, a traditional English Christmas stage show. When Stan Parks, a colleague both men knew during World War II, arrives in Brighton to work in the pantomime, he’s reminded of an old murder case that also involved children’s fairy tales. Now, the Magic Men have reunited to find a killer before he strikes again. VERDICT This fascinating sequel to The Zig-Zag Girl further develops the two protagonists, each with their own strengths: Edgar is a puzzle solver and Max is a master magician, who also happens to be heir to a British title. Their admiration for each other lays a strong foundation for their partnership in future cases. [See Prepub Alert, 4/10/16.]
QUOTABLE “Stiff with old gore, Dr. Grave’s coat had a thick, inflexible appearance, and a sinister ruddy-colored patina like waxed mahogany. Dr. Magorian’s was worse, being as dark and lustreless as a black pudding. No one knew how many times he had worn it to amputate. It was said that he had stopped counting when he reached two hundred, but that had been some years ago.”
Holm, Chris. Red Right Hand. Mulholland: Little, Brown. Sept. 2016. 352p. ISBN 9780316259569. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316259545. M
Years ago, FBI informant Frank Segreti was presumed to be dead when his safe house was blown up. Yet, the video of a terrorist attack in San Francisco shows Segreti to be very much alive. Determined to protect her witness until he can testify, FBI Special Agent Charlie Thompson hires Michael Hendricks, a military covert operative–turned–hit man (of bad guys). His best friend and tech guru was killed by the same mob organization that’s trying to take down Segreti, and now Hendricks is determined to burn down the group. VERDICT This follow-up to the acclaimed The Killing Kind (nominated for four major mystery awards, including the Anthony) is a real thrill ride. Jeff Abbott fans and adrenaline fiction junkies will appreciate how vividly the shadowy world of military contractors comes to life in Holm’s skillful hands. [See Prepub Alert, 3/28/16; see author profile on p. 80.—Ed.]
McBride, Susan. Walk into Silence. Thomas & Mercer: Amazon. Sept. 2016. 370p. ISBN 9781503937628. pap. $15.95. M
Det. Jo Larsen moved to Plainfield, TX, to get out of Dallas and make a clean break from her painful past. Plainfield is a small town with small-town problems and little crime, until the day Patrick Dielman claims his wife, Jenny, has disappeared. Jo is skeptical at first, believing Jenny is just taking a night off from her domestic duties. But her investigation reveals that Jenny’s first marriage ended badly after her son died in an accident, and that several people have reasons to wish her harm, beginning with the neighbor who has a crush on Patrick and the second wife of Jenny’s ex-husband. VERDICT McBride is the author of several chick-lit romances and mysteries (To Helen Back), but this dark stand-alone thriller is a departure. Recommend for Faye Kellerman fans.
Thomson, E.S. Beloved Poison. Pegasus Crime. Sept. 2016. 400p. ISBN 9781681772141. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781681772684. M
In 1850s London, Jem Flockhart works as an apothecary at the crumbling St. Saviour’s Infirmary, built in 1135. Still, time marches on, and the hospital has been sold to be torn down to build a new railway bridge. Junior architect Will Quartermain is given the unpleasant responsibility of moving the bodies from the graveyard. Teaming up with Jem, with whom he is lodged, he finds six little coffins in the old chapel, each containing a wood puppet and dried flowers. As the two investigate, their discovery will unleash death and destruction and reveal some secrets (including Jem’s). VERDICT Short listed for the Saltire First Book Award and the Scottish Arts Council First Book Award, this outstanding debut historical enthralls with its meticulously researched details of 19th-century hospitals; the result is a dismal portrait of unrelenting bleakness that will make readers grateful to be living in the 21st century. This is Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, brought to life!
Wild, Elle. Strange Things Done. Dundurn. Oct. 2016. 304p. ISBN 9781459733800. pap. $18.99; ebk. ISBN 9781459733824. M
Josephine Silver (“just call me Jo”) is the newest reporter for the Dawson Daily. It’s 2004 and winter is closing in on the quaint Victorian town of Dawson City, in Canada’s Yukon Territory. When the body of Marla McAdam, a local activist and politician who opposes Dawson’s biggest gold mining operation, is found in the Yukon River, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Sgt. Johnny Cariboo is interested in Jo’s whereabouts on the evening in question. Only problem is, Jo was blind drunk and remembers very little, although she might have slept with town lothario Christopher Byrne. Local politics can be deadly. VERDICT A remote Canadian community hunkering down for a grim, lonely winter is the perfect setting for this atmospheric crime novel, which won the Arthur Ellis Award 2015 for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel. Its claustrophobic mood is well defined and bound to appeal to fans of Dana Stabenow and Steve Hamilton.
Wolf, Kevin. The Homeplace. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Sept. 2016. 272p. ISBN 9781250103161. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250103178. M
Chase Ford left Brandon, CO, on a basketball scholarship and never looked back—until his life imploded. His career is on the downswing, thanks to a knee injury and a prescription drug habit, and his country music star wife is divorcing him amid rumors of domestic abuse. Chase returns home, where high school buddies Birdie Hawkins and Marty Storm now serve as the local game warden and deputy sheriff respectively. Also back in Brandon is Chase’s old high school flame Mercy Saylor, who is interested in rekindling their romance. When Birdie is called to investigate the poaching of four bison, she also discovers the body of Jimmy Riley, a current high school basketball star. Then one of the most popular men in Brandon, Ford’s former basketball coach, is also murdered. Sheriff Lincoln Kendall hates Chase and will do anything to pin the murders on him. VERDICT The elegant writing and clever plotting will carry readers through some unnecessary exposition. Winner of the 2015 Tony Hillerman Prize, this cross between a Western and a murder mystery will please Craig Johnson and C.J. Box aficionados. [Library marketing.]
Angela, Mary. An Act of Murder: A Professor Prather Mystery. Camel. Oct. 2016. 236p. ISBN 9781603813754. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781603813761. M
Emmeline Prather has a degree in French literature, but she settles for teaching English at a small college in Copper Bluff, SD, where she hopes to create a French department. The job grows on her, even when her students object to reading poetry. Austin Oliver meets Emmeline to complain about the assignment, and she reassures him she will help him find something that he will enjoy. Emmeline is horrified when Austin dies while working on a school musical; although his death is ruled an accident, the good professor suspects foul play and wants to protect her beloved college from scandal. VERDICT Debut author Angela introduces a charming amateur sleuth, fun and well read. She so lovingly describes the town of Copper Bluff that readers can feel the breeze and smell the autumn leaves. Cozy enthusiasts who like Joanne Dobson and Sarah R. Shaber will dive into this new series.
Byron, Ellen. Body on the Bayou: A Cajun Country Mystery. Crooked Lane. Sept. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781629537689. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781629537894. M
Introduced in the Agatha Award–nominated Plantation Shudders, Magnolia Marie Crozat, who returned to tiny Pelican, LA, to lick her wounds and help her parents run the Crozat Plantation Bed and Breakfast, now must deal with the dubious honor of serving as maid of honor to Vanessa Fleer, who is engaged to the Crozats’ mortal enemy, police chief Rufus Durand. Vanessa’s bridezilla moments are driving Maggie crazy, and when Vanessa demands her cousin Ginger Fleer-Starke stay at the B&B for free, Maggie is horrified. Then Ginger turns up dead and Maggie is caught in the middle of another murder investigation. VERDICT Cozy readers who fell under the spell of the eccentric and charming Crozat family will welcome their return in this entertaining sophomore effort. The writing is energetic, and the twisty plot includes a touch of romance. Diane Mott Davidson and Lou Jane Temple fans will line up for this series.
Costa, Shelley. A Killer’s Guide to Good Works: A Val Cameron Mystery. Henery. Sept. 2016. 258p. ISBN 9781635110647. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781635110623. M
New York editor Valjean Cameron is called by best friend Adrian Bale after returning from a trip to England to visit her brother, a monk. Someone had placed a rare artifact in her luggage that she wants Val to see. By the time Val arrives at the Coleman-Witt Museum, where Adrian works as a curator, her friend has been murdered. Val is forced into a partnership with Anthony, Adrian’s brother, to find out who killed his sister and what was stolen from the innocuous jasperware vase that she unwittingly brought back from her trip to her brother’s friary. VERDICT In her second adventure (after Practical Sins for Cold Climates), feisty, intrepid Val balances her publishing and sleuthing lives with verve. Dan Brown fans will enjoy this puzzler.
Gordon, Alexia. Murder in G Major: A Gethsemane Brown Mystery. Henery. Sept. 2016. 280p. pap. ISBN 9781635110579. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781635110586. M
Stranded in the Irish countryside with no money to get home to Virginia, African American musician Gethsemane Brown takes a job at St. Brennan’s School, charged with turning a group of schoolboys into a prize-winning orchestra in six weeks. House-sitting in Carraigfaire, the former residence of Eamon McCarthy, a renowned Irish composer and conductor, Gethsemane feels inspired. Then she discovers Eamon’s ghost still inhabits Carraigfaire and he wants her to solve his death. Eamon tells her that 25 years ago his wife, Orla, was thrown off the cliffs and he was poisoned, but the local garda (police) never bothered to investigate and marked the case closed as a murder-suicide. As Gethsemane grows attached to her students and begins to find fulfillment again, a long-dormant killer is stirring again. VERDICT The captivating southwestern Irish countryside adds a delightful element to this paranormal series launch. Gethsemane is an appealing protagonist who is doing the best she can against overwhelming odds.
Copperman, E.J. & Jeff Cohen. The Question of the Felonious Friend: An Asperger’s Mystery. Midnight Ink. Sept. 2016. 312p. ISBN 9780738743516. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780738749051. M
Samuel Hoenig has Asperger’s, which gives him the objectivity to handle his clients’ questions. But he is flummoxed when Tyler Clayton, who also has Asperger’s, asks Samuel to learn if Richard Handy is his friend. When Richard ends up dead and Tyler is charged with his murder, Samuel has to find his own answers. This is the third series outing after The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband.
Ernst, Kathleen. A Memory of Muskets: A Chloe Ellefson Mystery. Midnight Ink. Oct. 2016. 408p. ISBN 9780738745152. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780738749068. M
Historian and curator Chloe works at Old World Wisconsin, an open-air historical park in Wauseka County, which is staging its first Civil War reenactment. When the corpse of one of the participants is discovered, Chloe, in her eighth adventure (after Death on the Prairie), and boyfriend Roelke McKenna are determined to investigate.
Bradley, Alan. Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d: A Flavia de Luce Mystery. Delacorte. Sept. 2016. 329p. ISBN 9780345539960. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780345539984. M
In her eighth series installment (after As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust), Flavia de Luce is back tearing up the roads between her family estate at Buckshaw and the village of Bishop’s Lacey on her trusty bicycle Gladys. The 12-year-old intrepid girl detective and imaginative chemist has returned home from Canada to a grim house with her father in the hospital. On her first day back, Flavia discovers a corpse, setting off yet another investigation employing her considerable wit and unique logic and leading us through another puzzle steeped in English lore. Part Curious George and part Miss Marple, Flavia is also a lonely little girl growing up in post–World War II England with adults who are otherwise engaged. Still, she manages to make her way, and readers can only delight in watching Flavia make sense of her world. VERDICT Mystery fans seeking novels with wit, an immersive English countryside setting, and rich characterizations will be rewarded with this newest entry in the award-winning series. [See Prepub Alert, 3/14/16; a September LibraryReads Pick.]
Cleeves, Ann. The Moth Catcher: A Vera Stanhope Mystery. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Oct. 2016. 400p. ISBN 9781250105424. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250105431. M
The seventh in Cleeves’s series starring Vera Stanhope (after Harbour Street) brings the mystery close to home for the detective inspector. Not far from the isolated Northumberland estate in which Vera lives a lonely life, a body of a young man is discovered on the side of the road. In short order, as the police search the manor where the victim was house-sitting, another corpse is found. The only tie between the two victims seems to be their fascination with moths. Vera’s detectives, Holly and Joe, vie for her approbation as the search for the killer progresses. While Joe is married, both Holly and Vera are single and reflect upon the social impact of their independence. Vera’s moodiness is a hallmark of the series, and here her isolation infuses the plot and most of the characters. When the murderer is identified, the motive seems plausible—if a bit from out of left field. However, the author does not provide enough background for readers to come to that conclusion without the new information provided during the denouement. VERDICT The way that Cleeves brings the rural English landscape to life will appeal to readers who appreciate the atmospheric mysteries of Ruth Rendell and Elly Griffiths. Fans of psychological mysteries or procedurals solved by introspective and curmudgeonly detectives (albeit a woman this time around) will also enjoy this series. [See Prepub Alert, 4/10/16.]
Crime Plus Music: Twenty Stories of Music-Themed Noir. Three Rooms. Oct. 2016. 318p. ed. by Jim Fusilli. ISBN 9781941110454. pap. $19.95; ebk. ISBN 978194110461. M
In this collection, 20 renowned crime and mystery writers have been recruited to contribute music-themed noir stories. Val McDermid shines with the twisted tale “Long Black Veil”; after Jeff walks in on his cousin, Billy Jean, having sex with his wife, Ruth, he frames Billy Jean for the murder of a young man who had raped her after a concert years earlier. Craig Johnson’s “Unbalanced” hits the mark when Longmire picks up a hitchhiker whose sordid past is revealed by songs played on Longmire’s truck radio. Willy Vlautin evokes the dreary side of life on the road in “A Bus Ticket to Phoenix,” in which a band member pilfers gear from his bandmates and sells the stolen goods in order to pay for hookers he meets at concert stops. VERDICT Edited by crime novelist (Billboard Man) and Wall Street Journal rock and pop critic Fusilli, this superb sampling will be appreciated by fans of Akashic Books “Noir” series.
Hart, Elsa. The White Mirror. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Sept. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9781250074966. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466886391. M
It’s the autumn of 1708, and imperial librarian and traveler Li Du, introduced in Jade Dragon Mountain, is on the move again, this time as part of a caravan taking a shortcut to reach the Tibetan trading city of Lhasa. When a bad storm forces the caravan to shelter at a manor house in a remote mountain valley, the group stumbles upon the body of renowned—and reclusive—painter Dhamo, presumably a victim of suicide. Of course, all is not as it appears, and the investigation sets in motion events that lead to escalating danger for the entire valley. The mountains are high, the politics compelling, and the culture fascinating and rich. With so much complexity, the author can be forgiven if there are occasionally too many plot threads going, some of which are resolved rather neatly. VERDICT Fans of the first book who wished to know more about the enigmatic Li Du will be well rewarded here. Readers who appreciate historical mysteries, especially the classic “Judge Dee” series by Robert van Gulik, will be enthralled by this fascinating mystery.