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Steeplechase by Jane Langton

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press  ISBN: 0312301952

Reviewed by Robin Thomas, New Mystery Reader

In Steeplechase. Homer Kelly is suffering from his success as an author when his novel Hens and Chicks tops the New York Times bestseller list.  His editor wants the next book sooner rather than later in order to maintain Kelly’s current wave of popularity and he tells Homer that he needs to find a scandal to spice things up.  Homer and his wife Mary commence their research for the next book by visiting historic churches in the New England; the trek leads to the town of Nashoba.  The present and the past (post Civil War) merge as Homer finds artifacts that inspire more questions than answers about an enormous chestnut tree and a church that seems to have disappeared.  Will these unknowns lead to the scandalous tale that Homer needs for his next book?

Steeplechase, the 18th installment in the Homer Kelly series, is a wonderfully enchanting novel that only loosely fits the mystery genre; the whodunit does not include a murder.  The most interesting parts of the novel take place in the past where the reader meets the townspeople of Nashoba at the end of the Civil War, a massive chestnut tree that is a town landmark, and a tale of two churches.  The past melds into the present as Homer searches for a historic scandal to include in his novel while trying to figure out what happened to one of the churches and the chestnut tree.  Jane Langton is a fantastic storyteller and Steeplechase is a very enchanting read that I highly recommend.

 

 

 

Kingdom of Lies by Lee Wood

Publisher: St. Martin’s Minotaur. ISBN: 0-312-34030-3

Reviewed by Tim Davis for New Mystery Reader

Sergeant Keen Dunliffe of Leeds is summoned to investigate a mysterious death. A woman has apparently drowned in a pond on the grounds of the estate of George Lascelles, the 7th Earl of Harewood. And because of Lascelles’ status—he is, after all, 1st cousin to the Queen of England—Dunliffe is under considerable pressure from superiors to handle the case quickly and quietly.

As he begin his investigation, Dunliffe soon discovers that the dead woman—Dr. Christine Swinton of London—was, by all accounts, a highly esteemed university professor whose research specialization was Georgian English history. Swinton had been in Leeds to participate in a medieval conference at the university, and it is there that Dunliffe develops his first meaningful lead in the case: Dr. Gillian Waltham, an American professor who is also at the conference, was Swinton’s very good friend, and Waltham believes that Swinton’s death was no accident; moreover, Waltham claims that Swinton, in her research, may have recently uncovered controversial information about King George III that could adversely affect the entire subsequent history and legitimacy of the English monarchy. And those research findings, claims Waltham, may have been the catalyst for what Waltham believes was Swinton’s murder.

With very little initial evidence to support Waltham’s theory, however, Dunliffe is skeptical. But then Dunliffe’s interest in the case changes dramatically when some highly placed British government officials—inexplicably intent upon micromanaging a local investigation in Leeds—put peculiar pressures on Dunliffe, and they “recruit” him to conduct a covert investigation of someone they believe might be very much involved in Swinton’s death: Waltham.

So, as Dunliffe follows orders and gets closer, so to speak, to Waltham, and—ironically—at the same time as Waltham herself offers to help Dunliffe find out who was responsible for her friend’s death, Kingdom of Lies becomes more and more interesting. Dunliffe thinks the stories about research and Georgian corruption of royal legitimacy are mere smokescreens for something far more ordinary but nevertheless powerfully malignant. However, before he is finished, Dunliffe—eager to protect himself, friends, family, country, and his own principles—will have run headlong into deceit, political intrigue, and even more murder.

Lee Wood’s highly recommended Kingdom of Lies is an effective mystery thriller that showcases two compelling characters—Dunliffe and Waltham—and embroils them in an intricately crafted plot embellished with fascinating historical details and vividly portrayed contemporary English settings. Readers who carefully follow the abundant clues (and avoid the numerous red herrings dragged across their paths) will, I think, still be pleasantly surprised when Dunliffe finally solves the case, and those readers will say, “Ah, but of course! Now it all seems so obvious!”

 

White Tiger by Michael Allen Dymmoch

Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur ISBN: 0312323026

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader

Michael Allen Dymmoch has brought together Chicago police detective John Thinnes and psychotherapist Jack Caleb for the fifth time in White Tiger. By combining two concurrent murder investigations with echoes of Vietnam that may have everything to do with the crimes, Dymmoch has produced a compelling read that crosses traditional genre boundaries and will interest more than the usual mystery-reading suspects.

Thinnes is about to investigate the killing of a Vietnamese woman in the Uptown section of Chicago when he realizes he knows her from his tour in Vietnam. Hue An married Thinnes’s best friend, but they lost contact with each other after the war. How Hue came to Chicago is as much a mystery as who killed her at first, especially after questions arise whether her son may be not just the prime suspect, but Thinnes’s illegitimate son.

Thinnes is removed from the case and assigned to investigate the shooting of a troubled Vietnam vet. Similarities in the killings bring Thinnes back to the original case, where his Vietnam memories and the flashbacks of Caleb are juxtaposed to keep the reader off-balance throughout while the relative importance of events is sorted out.

Dymmoch is an obvious graduate of the Ed McBain school of writing. She has the terminology, the titles, and the procedures of Chicago law enforcement under her fingers and summons them up effortlessly, investing the story with a fluidity and realism difficult to duplicate. She lacks McBain’s ability to gracefully inject humor and narrative asides, but saying any writer is almost as good as Ed McBain is still high praise.

Dymmoch has the narrative chops to keep the book moving forward without a lot of “action” in the contemporary sense of the word: violence and chases. Most of the book’s action comes in the form of the characters’ recollections of Vietnam. These lack the immediacy of the present  and serve more as background to explain motivation than to keep the reader turning pages. It doesn’t matter; the pages will get turned. Too much is going on for them not to.

The title’s White Tiger refers to a Keyser Sòze-like criminal active during the war years in Vietnam. To speak his name is to die, and witnesses are afraid even in today’s Chicago. White Tiger’s menace runs through the book like another character, a key piece in keeping suspense high. Dymmoch knows how much of him to let out at a time as Thinnes races to piece together how the criminal maintains his grip on the fears of people thirty years and half a world away.

The Vietnam tales are meticulously researched and presented in a compelling way, either in the words of characters who were there, or by going into Caleb’s and Thinnes’s heads as they tell others. It’s hard to say how true the stories are without Vietnam experience; it doesn’t matter, this is fiction. Dymmoch has the ability to make her stories realistic, which is even better than true when writing fiction. The reader will feel as though the Vietnam scenes are happening; it’s easy to see how a movie would cut from real time to flashbacks.

This is not a universally good thing. Dymmoch spends a lot of time in Vietnam, sometimes to the detriment of the plot. Thinnes’s recollections are always germane; some of Caleb’s and those of his therapy group wander. The  Vietnam episodes do a great job of explaining the sources of Vietnam-induced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and go a long way toward creating an understanding of some vets’ continuing issues, but sometimes go on long enough to delay the momentum of the primary story. At times it seems as though Dymmoch has this enormous pile of research and is reluctant to waste any of it, and it’s easy to see why not:  they’re great stories well told. The book’s flow might have been better had they been woven into the story more seamlessly.

To say White Tiger has a weakness seems harsh. It’s an excellent book; some points aren’t as strong as others. As good as the procedural aspects are, key pivot points in the plot are divined too much by intuition. A large body of accumulated evidence sometimes serves as only a backdrop for a daring leap of logic as a name comes out of the blue and a detective has an “Aha!” moment which no one questions.

That’s quibbling. Dymmoch sets the bar high enough for things that might go unnoticed in a lesser effort to seem more important than they probably should be. White Tiger is an excellent read on multiple levels and well worth the time.

 

 

Death by Thunder by Gretchen Sprague

Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur ISBN: 0312347677

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Photographer Janet Upton never figured her return home to the Hudson Highlands in New York State would place her in the middle of a mystery that would end up jeopardizing her life, but after watching a man fall to his death from a renowned cliff in the area, that's exactly what happens.  And when her film from that day turns up ruined, she knows that all these apparent accidents are anything but.  Investigating will take her back to almost a decade ago when a woman fell from the very same cliff, a woman who wanted to build a home that would jeopardize the land, a notion which was being fought by people very close to Janet.  And now the dead woman's son has turned up wanting to build a home in the same place and, once again, people will die to keep the secrets tied to this beautiful land forever hidden.   

This is Gretchen Sprague's last mystery as this author died in 2003 and, appropriately enough, it's a gentle entreaty for respect for a place that was obviously very precious to her.  But, yes, there is suspense too, with plenty of suspects up to no good, and lightly drawn characters that easily flow with the clean and purposeful plot.  A good enough read that her fans will appreciate, this stand-alone mystery effortlessly entertains.            

 

Rendezvous at Kamakura Inn by Marshall Browne

Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur ISBN: 0312311583

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Tokyo Detective Inspector Hideo Aoki and his team of detectives have devoted the last year and a half of their lives to the bringing down of a wealthy and prominent politician and financier.  But when the investigation is abruptly ended by superiors just as they're reaching the pinnacle, things take an ugly turn for Aoki in both his professional and personal life.  Tragedy strikes his home in the cruelest of ways, and with his career now hanging by a thread, Aoki finds only isolation and depression as his new constant companions. 

A supervisor detailing Aoki's despair decides to send him on a recuperative holiday to a resort in the high mountains but, upon arrival, Aoki is soon thrust into another mystery, this once concerning the disappearance of a woman seven years earlier.  And with all the suspects from her disappearance gathered at the Inn, and a blinding snowstorm halting any exit, Aoki has plenty of time to work on this new case.  But things are not as they seem, and the reason for this strange gathering of men may just be someone's last stab at revenge, or is it something else entirely?

This is a highly ingenious and thrilling read that readers will no doubt inhale with unrestrained enthusiasm.  Aoki, a man torn between his Japanese cultural traditions, and his more easily adopted Western ways, makes for a complex and admirable hero.  And while his flaws are many, his dedication to justice knows no bounds, and it is in this that makes the final denouement that much more courageous and heartrending.   A masterful tale, and one that comes highly recommended, we hope Browne brings back this character for another round.         

 

Final Note by Dorothy P. O'Neill 

Publisher: Avalon ISBN: 0803497393

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Liz Roony and her best friend Sophie are off to the Pocono's for a nice relaxing weekend at the luxurious Lorenzo's resort, hoping to do a little hiking and enjoy the beautiful sites of the area.  But all their plans are thrown into a tailspin when Buford Doakes, a famous country star booked at the resort for the weekend, is found murdered in his hot tub.  The list of suspects is plentiful, but the time given to capture the killer short, as the girls only have the weekend.  But when their boyfriends join in the hunt, along with the local police, they may just break the case before they have to head back home to the big city.

Amateur sleuth Liz Roony in her latest mild mystery somehow reads like an adult Nancy Drew, with a very slight emphasis on the word "adult".  This breezy and very short read might appeal to fans who enjoy the lighter side of mystery, but those seeking something deeper and darker will most likely find this one lacking.  And while the investigation is sound enough, the final clues still seem a little weak for a final wrap.  Nonetheless, if you like your mysteries light, violence minimal, and the innocent narration of days long past, this one might do the trick.