A Circle of Wives

9780802122346_p0_v2_s260x420Who killed the plastic surgeon with three wives?  Alice La Plante’s latest who-dun-it expands the likely suspects beyond the obvious possibilities in A Circle of Wives to sustain the mystery until the end.

When Dr. John Taylor, the altruistic plastic surgeon who saves children’s lives, is found murdered in a hotel room, his reputation suffers some tarnishing when his three wives appear at the funeral.  La Plante alternates the action among the three: Deborah, the long-suffering and calculating first wife who holds the ten million dollar life insurance policy and orchestrated her husband’s life; MJ, the seedy accountant who loves to garden and has an abused brother who needs money; and Helen, the ambitious doctor who is pregnant with his child.  The fourth voice in the story belongs to the young detective, Samantha Adams, who pursues the murder, and has her own personal problems, not the least of which is her lack of self-confidence. As she interviews each wife, her own story weaves into the drama and nothing is as it seems.

With La Plante’s style of short sentences and steady dialogue, the story clicks along at a steady pace, and will hook you into solving the crime as you read.  As she slowly reveals the possible motivation that each wife has to kill, La Plante manages to distract and foil the reader through a series of viable possibilities.

Sam Adams solves the case and confronts the murderer, in a scene worthy of Agatha Christie – all questions are answered, all loose ends resolved – yet the story ends on ambivalent note – will the murderer be punished or held accountable?  Unlike Monk or Columbo, Sam Adams seems satisfied without the “admissible evidence to convict.”  You can decide if justice is served.

 

The Cuckoo’s Calling

9780316206846_p0_v3_s260x420Would I have read Robert Galbraith’s detective mystery – The Cuckoo’s Calling – if I had not known J.K. Rowling was hiding behind the words? Probably not.  But having loyally followed her from Harry Potter to her less stellar adult book, Casual Vacancy, I curiously wanted to know what this prolific author would do with a mystery.

The storyline follows a familiar formula. The grizzled war hero detective, Comoran Strike, and his trusty secretary/assistant, beautiful and young Robin, are on the case of a murder that the police have closed as a suicide. The victim is a model with a past and a shady boyfriend.  As the duo fend off red herrings, other characters and the setting offer a distinctive British flavor.

Galbraith/Rowling reveals the clues through endless conversations between possible suspects and Strike.  The tough Colombo-like detective (he is missing a leg, not an eye) with a soft-spot for his bright adventure-seeking new secretary, solves the case about halfway through the book, from crucial but mysterious clues that only he can decipher. What was the significance of the drops of water on the stairs and the victim’s missing note, written on a blue slip of paper?  How did the search for a birth father change the victim’s life?

“The dead could only speak through the mouths of those left behind, and through the signs left they scattered behind them.”

The clues drop out fast, and you might want to use Strike’s note-taking method to keep them all straight.  If you enjoy solving a crime as you read, the author happily gives you all the pieces, and dutifully reveals all in an Agatha Christie wrap-up at the end.  The murderer is a surprise but you might figure it out.

In the book’s last lines, Rowling may be sending fans a message with Comoran’s quote from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses.”

I cannot rest from travel:  I will drink
Life to the lees; all times  have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those 
That loved me, and alone; on shore and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name…

Not as clever as Harry Potter’s magical escapades, but The Cuckoo’s Calling had enough to keep me reading to find out whodunit, and wonder if Rowling/Galbraith has created the beginnings of a detective series.  Comoran Strike and Robin make a good team.

Speaking From Among the Bones

9780385344036_p0_v1_s260x420Eleven year old detective Flavia de Luce is back, solving another murder in Alan Bradley’s new mystery – Speaking From Among the Bones. With her trusty bicycle, Gladys, Flavia is digging into graves, cracking open her chemistry set, and listening through rubber tubing to solve a murder. The family finances are still precarious and Buckshaw, the family mansion, is now up for sale, but Flavia is determined to connect to an old fortune to save the day. With a number of story lines to distract from the villain, Bradley uses his quirky characters to charm his audience, with a lot of humor along the way.

If you have not read the first three of Flavia’s adventures, Bradley will fill you in on the background, but it won’t take long to find yourself in the middle of the muddle. In this book, Flavia discovers more about her mysterious mother and older sister Ophelia, and connects to a new character. When the 500 year old tomb of St. Tancred is opened, Flavia is the first to see the dead body – but it’s not the old revered saint. The missing organist has been found.

Mystery and murder and lots of fun.

Gone

Did the carjacker know about the little girl in the backseat?  After the tense hours of searching turn into days, Mo Hadley’s Gone has you hooked on a chase for the monster – who was really after the girl, not the car.  But nothing is as it seems, and Hadley throws in clever distractions to keep you from seeing him – right there the whole time.

Each time, detective Jack Caffery gets a break in the investigation, another clue takes him in another direction.  The Walking Man, a released convict, who avenged the death of his abducted child, wanders in and out of the story, offering advice.  Caffery’s relationship with the underwater investigation team leader, Sergeant (Phoebe) Flea Marley, underscores the action.  Even as they work together, they are pulled apart by Flea’s cover-up of her brother’s hit-and-run, another vein pulsing through the action.

The kidnapper flaunts his cleverness – sending mocking letters, a baby tooth, pictures from inside the victim’s home, and always seems to be one step ahead of the investigation team.   And then he does it again – hijacks a car and takes another little girl.

Hadley’s attention to detail is riveting, and the end is not easily guessed – a fun mystery thriller that will have you reading into the night.  If you need your mystery thrillers to have a British flavor and a happy ending, you will find this one very satisfying.

If you want more, Mo Hayder has two more in the series of mystery thrillers with Jack Caffery, Flea, and the Walking Man: Ritual and Skin.

Instruments of Darkness – A Mystery by Imogen Robertson

The first thousand words of this historical mystery won a prize for its author in London, but I almost stopped reading after the first chapter.  Imogen Robertson redeemed herself  as she continued with a tale of murders and forensic experts in Instruments of Darkness.

Like any good murder mystery, the dead body begins the action; the first is discovered in the woods of Sussex. Robinson infuses a Gothic mood and English society manners into this late eighteenth century melodrama, with the American Revolution and the week-long mob scene in London, called the Gordon Riots, pitting Catholics against Protestants, adding to the excitement.

The key investigators are the unlikely team of Gabriel Crowther, an anatomist (not quite forensic scientist, but close enough) with a hidden past, and Harriet Westerman, feisty and intelligent wife of a Naval officer gone off to fight the war in the colonies.  The two complement each other, straying from British formality only when examining the dead bodies for clues. The action is all very civilized as they investigate key suspects – one, the gloomy and rich Hugh Thornleigh, brutally scarred by the war, who lives on the neighboring estate, and may be related to more than one dead body.

Robertson confounds the plot by flipping back and forth to another murder scene – this time in a small music shop in London; Alexander Adams, the shop owner, is fatally stabbed in front of his two young children.   A family crested ring immediately links the two murders.

The action starts slowly, with Robertson carefully embellishing each character.   As she seems to have so much to tell about each character, she struggles to reveal all the information at once.  Everyone has a past that catches up to the action eventually, and, at times, Robertson allows the historical context to take over the plot.  The think-out-loud conversations of her characters can be more confusing than helpful, as she draws your attention back and forth, and away – red herrings?  She throws in another murdered body now and then to keep your attention.

If you can be patient with the British understatement, and weave through the convolutions, you’ll get to an Agatha Christie type explanation and a surprise who-done-it ending.  The book is more about the relationships and the problem-solving, than it is about the murders.

I did enjoy the repartee between Harriet Westerman, a woman before her time, and Gabriel, a steady and equal partner – at a time in history when it was more likely to be two men on the case.  Robinson has established a new forensic team of sleuths; she is already planning the next adventure of Westerman and Crowther.