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The Hell Screen by I.J. Parker

Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur  ISBN: 031228795X

If you are looking for something really different, and yet strangely familiar, get a copy of this book and settle down where you won’t be disturbed for a few hours, and let I J Parker take you back to Eleventh Century Japan. 

Akitada Sugawara, a young government official on his way up the ladder, stops overnight at a Buddhist monastery on his way home to Kyoto from an arduous posting in the far north of Japan.  During the night he hears a woman’s scream, but passes it off as something to do with a visiting group of unruly actors. 

Later Sugawara has reason to recall the night at the monastery when his own sister becomes entangled in a murder case being investigated by his sometime-friend Inspector Kobe.  Appalled that his timid sister could possibly think she would be allowed to marry the accused man, Sugawara nevertheless sets out to find the truth, partly to clear her of the smirch of criminal association, and partly for his own sense of justice, which tells him the hapless Kojiro Nagaoka is not a murderer. 

While trying to discover the real murderer, Sugawara has to deal with the slow dying and eventual death of the family matriarch, who turns out to be not what he thought she was. He must also investigate  the potential scandal hanging over the house of Toshikage, his other sister’s husband.   Toshikage reminds one forcefully of Nigel Bruce’s playing of Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Holmes: a bit of a bumbling naif sometimes, but with the occasional flash of useful insight. 

There are a number of characters trying to help Sugawara: the old tutor Seimei, the tough guys Tora and Genba who snoop or fight as required, and quick-witted Tamako, Sugawara’s wife.  There’s a varied supporting cast:  Dr. Masayoshi the Coroner, Noami the mad genius painter, the seemingly senile ancient abbot, the gigantic Plumblossom, and a host of others. 

The first chapter of the book gives a strange sense of déjà vu: this book is very reminiscent of Robert van Gulik’s “The Haunted Monastery”.  It’s only when you cheat and fast-forward to the author’s notes at the end of the book that you discover the inspiration came from the same collection of Chinese criminal cases that van Gulik translated and used as the base of many of his Judge Dee stories.  Parker has clearly read  extensively, one senses the thick underlay historical fact, although the author doesn’t beat you over the head with it.   Even if you don’t usually read historical mysteries, try this one. 

I J Parker is a worthy and most welcome successor to the mantle of van Gulik.  Highly recommended.

                                                                                       Karen Treanor

 

DreadfulWater Shows Up by Hartley Goodweather

 Publisher: Scribner  ISBN: 0743243927

Thumps DreadfulWater, an ex-cop, is now living the quiet life in Chinook, a small town in the West.  A fine-art photographer, he also earns some money by taking pictures of crime scenes for the local police force.  When he’s called in to photograph the latest crime, the murder of a local computer programmer for the new casino being built on the reservation, he can’t help but do some personal sleuthing as well.  His infrequent girlfriends’ son is the chief suspect, and he hopes that by clearing his name, he might score some points with mom.  But the trail is murky at best, and when even more people get hurt, solving the crime turns into much more than the prospect of romance. 

An investigative procedural with plenty of humor and small-town shenanigans, this is a sure-winner for author Goodweather, a.k.a. Thomas King.  Sly asides of the occasionally portentous Caucasian viewpoint of the naiveté of the Native American are thrown in, and add an intelligent kick to the story.  Thumps himself is an engaging character and is worth the read alone, with his wily sense of humor, indolent ways, and overly optimistic view of his weight and physical fitness.   All in all, a tantalizing and sure-footed beginning to what we hope becomes a popular series.        

 

Old Scores by Scott Mackay

 Publisher: St. Martin's Press ISBN: 0312308418

Toronto Detective Barry Gilbert’s life is about to take a drastic turn for the worse.  His daughter has just found out that she might be HIV positive, and he’s assigned a case that has far too many personal repercussions.  Music promoter, and bad-boy extraordinaire, Glen Boyd has been murdered, and while there are numerous suspects, the number one suspect is none other than Barry’s own wife.  Years before she had a serious romantic affair with the victim, and evidence seems to indicate the affair may have been recently resumed.  So Barry and his partner must now follow a trail that will take them back to the heydays of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, where even the famous can become deadly.   

Barry Gilbert, simply put, is a very nice guy.  Some might argue perhaps he’s too nice. Forgiving his wife for her past and present mistakes, many would say he’s blinded by love.  However, it may be he’s just one of the last of a breed of man who sees loyalty, love, and family as the ultimate values.  And so we root for him, although sometimes it’s difficult.  So as police procedurals go, it’s Barry who distinguishes this from the standard.  And while some of the writing seems a bit unsophisticated and simplistic, it’s still a pleasure to have such an appealing hero to root for.        

 

Death at the Door by K.C. Greenlief

Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur  ISBN: 031231809X 

It’s summertime in Door County, a beautiful resort town in Wisconsin.  When a man is found murdered at the golf course, Sheriff Lark Swenson, who happens to be vacationing there, is called into assist on the case, as his partner in a previous case, State Detective Lacey Smith.  And when a rash of burglaries of priceless antiques begin to occur at the summer homes, the two are even busier.  With a little help from their friends, Ann and John Ranson, they scour the picturesque little town in search of clues, and run into secrets that stretch back many years.   

The second in the series, this latest from Greenlief is a simple and undemanding little mystery.  Naturally, Swenson and Smith are fighting a mutual attraction that is still not admitted to, adding a bit of tension to the story.  Otherwise, the characters are a bit one-dimensional, and the ultimate resolution to the cases a bit dull.  Not a story to become emotionally involved in, it will still do for a quiet afternoon when something light and breezy appeals.