Seasonal Work – Short But Not Sweet

I am usually not a fan of short stories, unless they are by Saki or O’Henry, but my tastes have changed during the neverending pandemic. Laura Lippman’s collection of sassy and wry short stories in Seasonal Work has small bites of reality mixed with humor, and sometimes horror. Just right for the impatient cynic who needs a bit of time being in somebody else’s world – but only for a short time. Lippman notes her stories were written between 2007 and 2019 but her Baltimore settings are often much earlier – before the world turned upside down with the pandemic but also before awareness of language and ideas became more carefully adjudicated.

Lippman offers a peek into the lives of children, a grifter stepfather, a woman in her prime, a book stealer, a con artist, victims who get revenge, a ghost who finally escapes into the light, and more.

One of my favorites is “The Everyday Wife” with references to watching the Watergate trial and The NewlyWed game on TV in the seventies. Judith, the young bored wife, has a mother who calls her every morning to check in. Judith walks the neighborhood and soon discovers its secrets with an exciting event leading to Judith working for NSA. I have a friend who worked for NSA and her response was close to Judith’s when asked what she did: “I can’t tell you…”

Having recently seen the movie “Enola Holmes” about Sherlock’s younger sister who yearns to be a detective like her brother, I had high expectations for eleven year old Sheila Locke-Holmes in Lippman’s collection. With “Harriet the Spy” as her tutor, Sheila snoops but accidentally uncovers a piece of her father’s past in her mother’s jewelry box. The ending has a poignant lesson in growing up.

The collection is divided into four sections, with three stories in each section. The last section has “Slow Burner,” about a cheating husband, a suspicious wife, and an extra cell phone. The last story, “Just one More,” the only story updated to today, is set during the pandemic. Amazing what people will do to stay entertained during lockdown.

All the stories feature strong women and follow the O’Henry model of ending with a surprise but more in keeping with Edgar Allan Poe. In some cases, you will know it is coming, but others are unexpected.

A great colllection of short stories. I thought I might just read one and come back later, but I found myself looking forward to the next and the next, until I’d read them all. But, beware, if you are looking for a cozy mystery, Lippman does not go there. Revenge and murder are more her style.

One of my favorite books by Laura Lippman is “Sunburn” – here’s my review from when it was first published in 2018:

In Sunburn, Lippman keeps the reader off balance, acknowledging as the story opens that Polly Costello has killed her abusive husband and abandoned her two girls, one disabled with cerebral palsy. Nevertheless, Polly seems to be a sympathetic character – her life sentence is pardoned by the governor, and she wins an insurance settlement against the hospital where her disabled daughter was born. The handsome private detective, hired by a crooked insurance salesman for his share of the money, falls in love with her. Will he turn her in or run away with her? Lippman’s clever twists are not that simple, and she maintains the suspense – juggling the good guys and bad guys, and flipping intentions back and forth with another murder in the middle of it all. It’s fun to read, and the ending is a satisfying surprise I did not predict.

Mysteries with Ghosts, Murder and Magic

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts

With a cast of quirky characters, including a handsome stranger, a dead billionaire, and a weird heroine, Kate Bacculia creates a puzzle-solving mystery through a citywide treasure hunt in Boston in Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts.  The promise of a fortune, as well as the possibility of finding a murderer, drives Tuesday Mooney,  clever and intelligent researcher, who dresses in black and usually tries to avoid most social contact. Her sidekicks, a gay friend and a teen neighbor, help her face a painful past as well as propel her to a future with promise as they search out strange clues and coded messages.

Not for everyone, this story has elements of Edgar Allen Poe mixed with Agatha Christie, with a touch of Sophie Kinsella, and allusions ranging from Ellen Raskin to King Arthur.  I’m not sure I caught them all but the ones I did connect were hilarious.  Suspending belief is key as the reader gets involved in these strange and sometimes nefarious doings.

The Last House Guest

Megan Miranda’s The Last House Guest involves a mystery in Maine with tension between the rich with summer houses and the locals. The death of Avery’s best friend, Sadie, triggers the story, with the action going back and forth over the years. Eventually, Sadie’s suicide is ruled as murder, with Avery as prime suspect. As she works to clear her name, Avery solves not only the mystery of her friend but sadly discovers more deceit leading back to her parents’ car accident when she was a teenager. A whodunit with a sad twist.

 

Ninth House

Leigh Bardugo’s strange tale in Ninth House involves ghosts and dangerous magic at Yale University. Galaxy “Alex” Stern, a high school dropout, has a second chance at the good life with a scholarship to Yale; the quid pro quo requires her using her powers (seeing ghosts) to watch over the famous Yale secret societies. The most well known “Skull and Bones” can read the future of the stock market in blood and guts (both Bush presidents were members).  Bardugo lists all the societies at the end of the book, with the names of the famous alums.

Alex’s freshman outsider problem – the poor girl who doesn’t fit in – quickly gives way to her struggles to solve a murder noone wants solved, with ghosts hovering nearby.

With a nod to Harry Potter some of the magic seems harmless at first, like the library conveniently shaking its stacks to deliver books requested through a special portal, but Bardugo has a flair for more adult consequences.  When the magic goes awry, lethally burying someone under books cascading down from the walls, she notes ironically “Suffocating beneath a pile of books seems an appropriate way to go for a research assistant.”

Although Bardugo is noted for her children’s fantasy books, Ninth House is for adults only.  As the story gets more complicated, so do the magical malfunctions, often with lethal results.  I enjoyed following the witches, demons, and ghosts, and if you are a fan of Deborah Harkness books, you might too.

 

Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman

shopping   If you remember Laura Lippman’s Sunburn, you will recognize the same venue – Baltimore – and a similar woman in crisis manipulating the suspense in her new novel – Lady in the Lake.  Lippman calls this a newspaper novel, using real sources for credibility, while imagining an attractive thirty-something woman’s climb to popular columnist, deftly using the bodies she finds along the way to further her career.

I can think of a number of actresses who might want to play the role of Madeline Schwarz; she’s attractive, smart, feisty, and sexy.  Once she decides to leave her comfortable twenty year marriage with Milton, nothing will stop her from pursuing her dream job of being a journalist.  After she and her friend discover the dead body of Tessie Fine, she finesses her correspondence with the accused murderer in jail to get a low-level position at the Star, Baltimore’s afternoon newspaper.  With this taste of success, she decides to pursue another death of a young girl, Cleo, found in a city park lake fountain and nicknamed the lady in the lake.  These two murders drive the plot, while Maddie’s struggles with herself and the system capture our attention.

Although Maddie is the main voice in the story, Lippman cleverly diverts to others who connect with her, giving short chapters to their voices: Maddie’s lover, the newsman who covers the police beat, a Baltimore Orioles baseball player after a game, the mother of the murder victim, a psychic, and others.  The most persistent voice is Cleo’s ghost, as she reacts to Maddie’s interviews with family and friends, and her message is consistent – stop prying.

Maddie appears needy and coldly ambitious. She manages to ruin a few lives as she uncovers the truth, and she pays for her mistakes in blood.  Lippman ties up the loose strings, answering all questions in the end, but not without a double twist I did not see coming.

Related Review:  Thrillers with Heat

The Suspect

9781101990513  I have an App on my phone called Libby, my link to ebooks on my library system.  I often browse and intermittently find books, but sometimes Libby magically produces an ebook I’d forgotten I ordered.  Fiona Barton’s The Suspect caught my eye when it was first published in January.  By now, most of you have probably read it but no spoilers here just in case.

Every parent’s nightmare may be having their teen age girls go backpacking in Thailand on their own, and when the two young girls in Barton’s story, Alex and Rosie, suddenly disappear, their parents are notably frantic.  The story connects  the lives of the families with both a newspaper reporter, Kate Waters, whose son is also in Thailand working through a break from law school, and with the detective on the case.

Barton informs the reader about how the girls are coping by intermittently backtracking to them in Thailand.  The reader knows more than the parents but it isn’t long before all the characters serendipitously come together.  Comically, the police and reporters are sometime tripping over one another, but Kate Waters is Barton’s star investigative reporter, always a step ahead.

Murder is the focus, with the pursuit of the suspected killers.  The book is a fast read and a fun whodunit, with notable asides on social media, international law, and parental responsibility. The ending pulls the plot together, with a surprise smoking gun.

The Suspect is Barton’s third book in the Kate Water series which began with The Widow in 2016, but you don’t have to have read the first two to enjoy Kate’s detective skills.   Have you read it yet?

 

No Sleep Tonight with “Our House”

328     I should have known better, reading a thriller at night with unreliable narrators and creepy insinuations of how cold and calculating people can be, but I finished Louis Candlish’s Our House at midnight, precluding restful sleep last night.  This new version of Gone Girl includes distracting comments from a twitter-like audience.

Coming back from a long weekend early, Fi finds someone moving into her posh London house.  All her furniture and belongings are gone, the new couple have proof of purchase, and her husband is missing.  This compelling premise then reverts to a he-said/she-said tale of marital infidelity, identify theft, hit and run car crash, and murder with a Greek chorus chiming in periodically.  Although the story is a page turner, many of the twists are hard to swallow.  

Fi and her handsome philandering husband, Bram, separate after she finds him in bed with another woman.  They decide to keep the house for the sake of the children, as well as the increasing equity in the neighborhood.  She stays in the house all week, while he sleeps at a small apartment nearby; on weekends they switch.  To add to the drama, he has lost his driver’s license but drives anyway.  He gets caught in a road rage incident while he is driving drunk and without a license, causing the death of a ten year old girl.

But there is more – the plot twists when a vile witness who helped cause the accident, Mike, decides to blackmail Bram.  Candlish continues to add surprises as the plot develops, and the ending gives everyone their just punishment in an unexpected climax.

I now need a soothing book to cleanse my poor mind from the taste of horrible people.  I found an NPR review of Anne Youngson’s Meet Me at the Museum, and will be reading it tonight – hoping for a more peaceful sleep.