Mystery

“The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” by Alexander McCall Smith

 

Book Cover - No1LadiesDetectiveAgency

 

Smith has written a series of much-admired bestsellers based in Gaborone, Botswana, where life is enjoyed most when sitting on a porch sipping red bush tea, enjoying the view of acacia trees, listening to Go-Away birds calling, and watching people from the village stroll past. The ‘No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ in the fourteen books, is run by Mma Precious Ramotswe, a sensible woman of traditional size (translation – big woman), so no slinky, svelte types will be found between the pages, unless they happen to be up to no good. Makeup is more or less dismissed as unnecessary (or mostly for those women who are up to no good).

 

Ramotswe guarantees satisfaction for all parties, and as the clever owner of the first detective agency in Botswana run by a woman, that’s a standard she is happy to apply as a matter of personal principle. In “The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” she must find a missing husband, follow an errant teenager, and search for a missing child, while keeping her clients happy and herself safe – not easy when witch doctors and cobras might be involved.

 

The feel-good mystery series has been a worldwide phenomenon and has inspired a BBC TV series as well as a movie. Smith writes from his experience of living and working in Botswana. His descriptions of the countryside make the reader feel that looking for the hippos around the next bend of the river is the natural order of things, where going to the next town is a really big deal and making a 97 on a final exam is cause for endless celebration. Smith has successfully conveyed his love of Africa through Ramotswe’s unabashed pride in her beloved Botswana, whether speaking of snakes or diamonds or witch doctors or the cattle used to buy her business.

 

Happily, the main supporting characters are well drawn and we as readers are pulled into the relationships as Ramotswe makes her decisions. I was angered, dismayed, touched, and ultimately quite pleased by the behavior of the men in her life.

 

A later book in the series (from 2010) “The Double Comfort Safari Club,” is not quite as successful as the earlier titles because of one case involving an inheritance to be delivered to the correct person. The resolution seemed to be an odd stretch and made me question whether I could trust Mma Ramotswe’s usually sound judgment. Perhaps it’s a cultural disconnect, but I kept re-reading that section of the book to see if I had somehow misunderstood the issues surrounding the choices.

 

With that exception, “Double Comfort…” is pleasant, and often demonstrates Mma Ramotswe’s loyalty to the people in her circle. Having been in difficult situations herself, she helps and encourages those in need. Another case, involving a trusted employee whose fiancé has a tragic accident and afterward becomes virtually imprisoned by an aunt, is resolved rather deliciously, underlining Ramotswe’s basic decency. She isn’t always correct in her assessment of the clients, but she is fiercely protective of the ones who need her the most.

 

No shoot-outs, no car chases, no bloody murders, just enjoyable reads about a woman with common sense born out of an abusive early marriage and a knack for understanding the quirky bits of human nature – important characteristics for the head detective in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.

 

For more information about Alexander McCall Smith and his other famous series, please visit www.alexandermccallsmith.co.uk

 

 

 

 

“Speaking of Murder” by Tace Baker

Book Cover - Speaking of Murder

 

A college professor has an affair with her student, keeps it a secret to protect both of them, and finds that student dead on campus one evening after class. His killing has protected someone’s secret, and Lauren Rousseau is afraid that the murder investigation will uncover her own indiscretion. But, she’s not the only one with a secret, as the lives of those around her are revealed, layer by troubling layer.

 

Rousseau is an interestingly flawed character, with fits and starts of conscience as it applies to her love life. And, her love life is further complicated by her relationship with a man to whom she cannot commit. He wants more, she doesn’t, as evidenced by the affair. Their off and on relationship rings true as Rousseau sorts out her feelings and he can’t understand what’s wrong. He’s a good man and Rousseau is screwing it up. She almost recognizes that fact and the reader sees the changes in the independent Rousseau as she deals with her fluctuating heart.

 

A mentally unsteady friend mysteriously goes missing from rehab. Basically dismissed by the police, Rousseau is unwilling to leave the case alone. She hopes someone will care enough to rescue her if she ever gets into trouble and wonders if her friend’s disappearance is somehow related to the murder.

 

The murder and the disappearance are set against the crucial backdrop of college interdepartmental politics, with a masterful inside look at the life of a college professor – the power plays inherent in the tenure track and staying published in order to appease department heads. Having visited a few college profs’ offices over the years, I chuckled at the plot point that a missing thesis might be the key to everything. Trust me, those offices are stacked with hundreds of papers near exam time and it’s nearly impossible to find anything unless you know the professor’s filing system. Perfect!

 

I was struck by the rich texture of the heroine’s life, the fascinating people she meets and the intelligent way she approaches her investigations. The chats about other parts of the world, foreign language phrases sprinkled appropriately during conversations with other travelers, as well as the cooking references, make this a literate mystery, as it should be when a cultured linguistics professor is involved at the core. We discover that Rousseau is a Quaker and while it is an interesting aspect of her persona, the book is not a religious one.

 

Side characters play against each other satisfactorily and the family holiday dinners reminded me of cringe-worthy relatives I have known. There are some wicked bad guys, a surprise twist or two, and even arson tossed into the mix. I would never have guessed where the story would end up when I began and was extremely satisfied at the way Rousseau uncovered the awful truths that got her student killed.

 

I would bet that there are lots of mysteries to be solved on a college campus and many more food insights to be shared by Lauren Rousseau, in future books penned by Tace Baker.

 

A winning debut mystery.

 

Tace Baker is a pseudonym for Edith Maxwell, an author who will soon publish “A Tine to Live, A Tine to Die,” under her own name.

 

For more information about Maxwell/Baker and her upcoming projects, please visit www.edithmaxwell.com

 

 

 

“T is for Trespass” by Sue Grafton

 

Book Cover - T is for Trespass

 

Kinsey Millhone, the prickly star of Sue Grafton’s California based alphabet series, is no slouch detective. She follows the details, writes notes on 3×5 cards as she gathers information, and is great at ferreting out the facts. In “T is for Trespass,” she still eats way too much fast food, cuts her own hair, takes morning runs near the beach when she’s in the mood, but now drives a ’70 Mustang instead of the beat up ‘74 VW that was totaled in the last book.

 

Along with other legal detail work, Kinsey is a process server to take care of the bills in between the big cases, and is conscientious about everything she does in her professional life. So, when Kinsey does a cursory background check on a home health aide as a favor, and unwittingly places an elderly neighbor in harm’s way, she feels obligated to undo the damage. The problem is that no one, especially not the neighbor’s reluctant niece who hired Kinsey, wants to be bothered with the inconvenient truth.

 

The villain in “T is for Trespass,” an evil psychopath, is one of the best that Grafton has written. Grafton has placed us inside the mind of the twisted caregiver and created a chilling character study. I was alarmed, gripping the pages and worried that Kinsey might not survive this one – and we were only up to “T.”

 

The search for a missing witness to a car accident (with surprising results) unexpectedly overlaps the search for the primary villain. Grafton has set the scenes in the two stories in such a way as to make the overlap seamless and absolutely believable.

 

Grafton has taken on two issues that affect enormous segments of the 2013 American population – identity theft and health care for senior citizens. She handles the senior care concerns with ripped-from-the-headlines accuracy as she reveals the stark reality of what can happen when our parents/relatives become the victims of elder abuse. Sobering – and it reads like fact, not fiction.

 

Not too much changes in Kinsey’s personal behavior through the series – the twenty books take place over a five year span in the ‘80s, before cellphones. This way, Kinsey gets shot at, arrested, threatened and harassed, all without backup coming anytime soon.

 

What a life just to avoid a 9 to 5 schedule. What a ride!

 

Grafton received the Ross Macdonald Literary Award in 2004 and was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 2009.

 

For more about Sue Grafton and her most recent work, please visit www.suegrafton.com

 

 

 

 

 

“Innocent” By Scott Turow

Book cover - Innocent

 

When a bestselling author returns to a book he wrote twenty years ago (“Presumed Innocent”) and writes a sequel to it (“Innocent”), we wonder whether he might just have run out of new ideas. In Scott Turow’s case, that wondering would be dead wrong.  What Turow has done is lift the art of the sequel to new heights.

 

Rusty Sabich, now a sitting appellate court chief judge, has been accused of murdering a second woman in his life and Tommy Molto, prosecuting attorney, is out to get him again, this time with a bigger grudge and bigger stakes.

 

Both men are at the top of their careers and neither wants to lose the case, because the loser’s life achievements would be forgotten in the media bloodbath that follows. But, Molto knows in his heart that Sabich was guilty the first time and got away with it. Sabich has secrets to hide and Sandy Stern is back as Rusty’s lawyer, trying to keep his client from tossing away everything.

 

Nat, Rusty’s son, plays a pivotal role in this courtroom drama – no plot spoiler here, but it’s a good one! Can a family ever recover from the fallout of a criminal case? Do the rifts caused by affairs ever heal? Do the children caught in the middle ever forget? Are people doomed to hold onto their flaws throughout life?

 

As I lay awake through the night reading “Innocent,” I was gripped with the questions: Did Sabich do it this time or didn’t he? And…my mind began to doubt whether he really did do it in “Presumed Innocent” after all.

 

Enough information is given about the case in “Presumed Innocent” to inform the reader, so "Innocent" can be a stand alone, but don’t let it be. The first book was a genre breaker and a great read as well. If you can’t find “Presumed Innocent” on the shelves anywhere, pick up a DVD of the Harrison Ford movie of the same name to catch the dynamics that drove the old rivalry between the major players.

 

For more information about Scott Turow and his body of work, visit www.scottturow.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Alibi Man” by Tami Hoag

Book Cover - The Alibi Man

 

Bestselling suspense author, Tami Hoag, began her professional writing career in the romance genre, but stretched that framework to include everything from comedy to suspense. Her strong female characters were savvy, contemporary types and readers connected.

 

As Hoag’s work shifted into the thriller/suspense realm, it reflected the rising audience interest in forensics and began to include more of the graphic details of the crime scenes and the violence visited upon the victims. Today, her bad guys are darker, more depraved, and her heroines more likely to engage in the kind of retribution that would raise the eyebrows of the faint-hearted. 

 

“The Alibi Man” returns former undercover cop, Elena Estes, to the hard, fast world of Palm Beach society and the nasty secrets lying beneath the surface. When a fellow horse groom and marginal friend is found murdered, Elena is drawn back into the life she’d like to forget and must deal with buried emotions she thought she had hidden from the world. Elena is grippingly portrayed as a deeply tortured soul, and we feel her pain as her personal life is laid before us chapter, by aching chapter.

 

The action in “The Alibi Man” is fast-paced, filling the pages with cold-blooded crime figures snipping off body parts, drug/sex parties, handsome polo stars, and a cop boyfriend.

 

The plot weaving the colorful characters together is less successful, only because I don’t quite buy that the rich and powerful would be dumb enough to get themselves into such stupid personal messes. One at a time, yes, but collectively? However, the name of the book may tell it all. Supreme arrogance probably dictates the need for an Alibi Man. Great read for Hoag fans, with graphic language and adult situations.

 

Written in 2007, “The Alibi Man” was followed by “Deeper than the Dead,” “Secrets of the Grave,” and “Down the Darkest Road.” “The 9th Girl” will be published in June, 2013. Hoag has written over thirty books, with fifteen consecutive titles hitting the NYT bestseller lists. “Night Sins” was made into a memorably chilling TV movie in the late 90s and is still shown in re-runs.

 

For more information about Tami Hoag and her books, visit www.tamihoag.com

 

 

“Dead Cat Bounce” by Sarah Graves

Book Cover - Dead Cat Bounce

The ‘Home Repair is Homicide’ series gets off to a hammering start with this first installment, “Dead Cat Bounce.” Jacobia Tiptree has purchased a fixer-upper on an island in Maine and while handy with a wrench and other assorted tools, she is not prepared for the corpse she discovers in her storeroom one murky morning.

 

When the body is revealed to be that of a local billionaire and Tiptree (the newcomer in town) begins to investigate why he wound up in her house, her safety and that of her son is threatened. Family trust is tested, an ex-husband proves to be a forever jerk, and Tiptree relies on her Wall Street savvy to uncover the truth behind the murder. Graves reveals that ‘dead cat bounce’ refers to stock market jargon for a temporary rise in a stock’s trading price after a sharp drop…“even a dead cat will bounce if dropped.”

 

Along the way, we learn handy home repair tips for old houses. I now know why sagging floors have to be jacked up slowly and that if repairs turn out to be extensive, “you might as well stick your checkbook on the back door and let people fill out their own.” “Dead Cat Bounce” is a witty take on murder in a small town, with home repair as the source for many of the plot twists. A gal with a tool belt cannot be underestimated.

 

This mystery is completely guilty of solid character development and deeply felt relationships, and because of that, Tiptree is someone we’d like to help, invite over for coffee, get financial advice from, and especially have her on our side if we were ever accused of murder. I’ve read several of Graves’ fifteen books in the series and the people surrounding Tiptree are so real, they could be my own neighbors. Except for the killers, I hope.

 

The most recent in the series, “Dead Level,” was published in 2012, and “A Bat in the Belfry” is coming out in April, 2013.

 

For more information, visit www.sarahgraves.net

 

 

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