River Road by Carol Goodman

9781501109904_p0_v2_s192x300   Carol Goodman’s mysteries cannot come fast enough for me, and her latest – River Road – has all the plot twists and Gothic flavor of her earlier books – The Seduction of Water and The Lake of Dead Languages.  Goodman once again mixes grief and revenge with office politics and murder.  Her mystery thriller brought back memories of the politics and secrets of academia, most notably the English department.

Nan Lewis, an English professor up for tenure at a state college in upstate New York, hits a deer on her way home from the department Christmas party.  The next day, Nan learns from the police that her favorite student, Leia Dawson, has been killed the night before on that same road.  The site is the same bend in the road where, years earlier, Nan’s 4-year-old daughter, Emmy, had been killed by a hit-and-run driver. Nan becomes the main suspect in the death of her student, but the investigation quickly spreads to include students and other professors in a tale full of unreliable narrators and red herrings.

As mysterious clues appear linking her daughter’s and her student’s death, a handsome police chief comes to Nan’s rescue more than once – adding an inevitable romantic storyline to the fast-paced killer pursuit.  The unforgiving cold weather adds to the drama, as well as Nan’s guilt over her daughter’s death.

A quick and satisfying read, River Road joins Goodman’s prolific output of books with murder, ghosts, and secrets.

Related ReviewArcadia Falls

The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill

9780062060747_p0_v1_s260x420Through a long, convoluted maze, Reginald Hill leads the reader through decades of mystery and intrigue in his 2011 thriller The Woodcutter.  The prolific crime writer draws from his Cumbrian background in his tale of a young woodcutter’s son who defies his humble origins and wins the landowner’s daughter.  The book is targeted for discussion by one of my book clubs.

Wealthy, handsome, and knighted,  Sir Wilfred Hadda – known as Wolf from his wild boyhood days – is almost fatally injured when a bus stops him as he tries to escape arrest.  Miraculously recovering, minus an eye and a few fingers, Wolf faces the betrayal of friends and family and is jailed for crimes he did not commit, losing his wife, his daughter, his business, and his good name.

And the story begins.  Mirroring the “Count of Monte Cristo” book he prominently displays in his prison cell, Wolf plots his escape and his revenge.  Through interviews with a young prison psychiatrist, Alva Ozigbo (called Elf), Wolf reveals his background, his pursuit of Imogene – the love of his life, and his successes.  Recognizing that the truth will not set him free, Wolf reverts to deceiving the doctor – convincing her that he is repentant and admitting to crimes he never actually committed.  Gaining an early release from prison on the doctor’s recommendation, he returns to his roots in the woods and plots the destruction of his betrayers.  When Wolf’s traitorous friends begin to die, Hill inserts enough ambiguity to make the reader wonder about Wolf’s innocence.

The story is constantly shifting perspectives and timeframes, and can be hard to follow in the beginning.   Eventually, the plot gains a rhythm of pursuit, sprinkled with murders and lies driving the theme of vengeance.  Russian drug dealers, international spy rings, and shady finances add to the mystery of Wolf.   Supporting characters follow models of movie villains and spymasters, but no one is who they seem.

If you can manage to get past the first confusing chapters and have the stamina for a marathon read,  you will be rewarded with a fast-moving and intriguing mystery from a master of the genre.

Related Article on the Author Reginald Hill (Crime writer best known for his novels about the detectives Dalziel and Pascoe):         Reginald Hill

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Amanda Cross – The Collected Stories

As an academic, Carolyn Gold Heilbrun was a Guggenheim Fellow, a Senior Researcher at the National Endowment for the Humanities, President of the MLA (Modern Language Association), an English professor at Columbia University, and author of texts as well as a biography of Gloria Steinem, but most fans of her mystery stories know her as Amanda Cross, creator of fictional sleuth and English professor Kate Fansler.

Although she kept her identity secret from her colleagues, Cross used her erudite characters to reveal the cynicism inside the ivy-covered walls – and maybe get a little quiet revenge. The Kate Fansler mystery series started in 1964 with The Last Analysis and ended in 2002 with The Edge of Doom.

In 1997, Heilbrun had promised herself to not write fiction until she finished her memoir – The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty. But Kate would not be denied, and a series of short stories emerged – written by Amanda Cross and published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery magazine and other collections. “The Disappearance of Great Aunt Flavia” caught my eye, the name reminding me of that perspicacious eleven-year-old star of Alan Bradley’s mysteries. Cross has her elderly Flavia saving the residents of Merryfields nursing home from an unscrupulous television evangelist of The Divine Church of the Air who traded heaven for their money. Cross offers ten short mysteries in this collection; you can dip in anywhere.

With her academic background and reluctance for using her real name when writing outside the Canon – colleagues can be brutal critics –  Cross has a special appeal for me.

Next, I’m revisiting her Death Without Tenure.  Have you read any of her books?

Related posts: Flavia de Luce mysteries

More Clare Ferguson Mysteries – A Fountain Filled with Blood and Out of the Deep I Cry

After reading Julia Spencer-Fleming’s In the Bleak Midwinter, I was hooked on the crime-busting team of Clare Ferguson, Episcopal priest and former Army helicopter pilot, with her foil and possible love interest, police chief Russ Van Alstyne.  Following the advice of the friend who introduced me to the series, I’ve been reading the books in order of publication – although I am tempted to jump to the end to find out how the brewing romance between the Rev. Clare and Chief Russ (married to someone else) turns out.

The second in the series – A Fountain Filled With Blood – has the intrepid team following a trail of homophobic murders in the small upstate New York town of Millers Kill.  Three murders, and Clare keeps getting the leads to suspects that she happily passes on to the Chief – when she’s not busy organizing candlelight vigils or offering pre-marital counseling.

Spencer-Fleming maintains the suspense with gory bodies, likely suspects and clever banter, but also offers some humor:  Clare hiding behind a shower curtain and jumping out the bathroom window to avoid being caught snooping.   She later redeems her flaky behavior with a daring helicopter rescue that reads like watching a good action flick.  And the mastermind to all the murders is not who you think – Spencer-Fleming keeps you guessing to the end.

Mrs. Van Alstyne makes an appearance in this book, but it’s not the Chief’s wife; it’s his feisty seventy-year-old mother.   And the possibilities between Russ and Clare just keep simmering…

Of course, I had to immediately continue with the next installment – Out of the Deep I Cry – a year later and Chief Russ and Rev. Clare now have a regular lunch date.  Spencer-Fleming always uses a current issue to wrap around her murders: abandoned babies, gay rights, environmental pollution. This time the controversy is over baby inoculations, missing husbands, and shady money. Spencer-Fleming, once again, mixes the right formula of suspense and realistic characters to keep the plot flowing with surprises up to the final pages, tapping into the town’s history to solving the puzzle.

And the simmer between her two main characters? They finally kiss.

I’ve already ordered the next two books in the series from the library: To Darkness and to Death; All Mortal Flesh.   I can’t wait…

In the Bleak Midwinter

A newborn baby is abandoned on the church steps…a young woman is found murdered… Julia Spencer-Fleming’s In the Bleak Midwinter begins her Clare Ferguson detective series.

Clare Ferguson, retired army helicopter pilot, and first female priest of the Episcopal church in a small upstate New York town, partners with Police Chief Russ van Alstyne to track the case.  Clare has the strange combination of religious fervor and common sense with a practical view of people and herself; she is not the stereotypical minister in long robes, but she can be.  Spencer-Fleming reminds you of Clare’s “calling,” with careful insertions of praying over dead bodies and counseling sessions with overwrought parishioners, but this attention only adds to the contrast between her day job and the incongruity of her background and personal life.  In her mid-thirties, Clare is cool; she drives a little red sports car, jogs five miles every morning, drinks beer, and grinds her own special coffee blend.  Spencer-Fleming matches her with no-nonsense Chief Russ, who happens to be married, has that determined square-jawed aura that commands respect, but reveals his emotional conflicts in private. Clare and Russ share a military background.  Of course, there is going to be an attraction between the two.

But the mystery demands attention over any romantic sparks.  With subtle wit that lets you in on the insider jokes, Spencer-Fleming develops the plot as well as her main character.  She carefully sustains the suspense, with more murders and new suspects, just when you think you’ve figured out whodunnit.  Claire’s good intentions backfire repeatedly, until a wild chase in a deserted snow-filled forest tests her army survival skills.  Clare won’t be the only one holding her breath, as the killer closes in.  But, it doesn’t end there; Spencer-Fleming works in another harrowing scene before it all wraps up – right before Christmas Eve service at St. Albans.

In the Bleak Midwinter is the first in a series of Clare Ferguson mysteries by Spencer-Fleming.  After winning the St. Martin’s award for Best First Traditional Mystery Award in 2001, she has added six more books to her series.  A friend recommended that I start with her first – and glad I did.  Clare and Russ remind me of Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson in Elly Griffiths’ The Crossing Places.

I’ve found a new mystery author to follow.