David Handler’s Stewart Hoag Mysteries

The Man Who Would Be F. Scott Fitzgerald is David Handler’s third Stewart Hoag mystery, this one set in the cut throat world of New York publishing back in the early 1990s. Hoagy has been hired to help write the memoir of a young literary star who can’t seem to produce a second novel (booze, cocaine, and women may have something to do with that—or maybe not). The young writer reminds Hoagy a bit too much of himself and his own tanked literary career, so it takes him a while to see what’s really going on.

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I enjoy Handler’s technique of telling part of the story through Hoagy’s taped interviews with his subject and others. Handler also enjoys sprinkling real people though the story, an immediacy which seems to work with the basic ghost writer premise. Whoever had the print version scanned for digital publication, however, should have read through the manuscript. The formatting is fine, but there are a lot of scan-induced typos. On the other hand, I’m delighted to have found a mystery series that I missed when it was published on paper.

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Hoagy’s next adventure is told in The Woman Who Fell From Grace, centered on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication and subsequent filming of an immensely popular Revolutionary War epic called Oh, Shenandoah (any resemblance to Gone With The Wind both intentional and amusing). The author’s daughter and heir is fronting the sequel, which Hoagy has been hired to ghost. No interview tapes in this one, but Hoagy tracks down everyone he can who remembers the movie set to discover the truth about the death of its star. With a blend of fictional and real movie folk (Errol Flynn, who was rumored to have been considered for the part of Rhett Butler, opposite Bette Davis!) and the eccentric family of the long-dead (and possibly murdered?) author, Hoagy opens more than one can of worms. (Yes, typos from scanning, just make allowances.)

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The Boy Who Never Grew Up takes Hoagy and Lulu (his eccentric and somewhat star struck basset hound) to Hollywood, to help a highly successful but socially inept director write his memoirs—that is, until people around him are murdered. Lulu takes a more active roll in this installment, helping to capture the killer. As usual, Handler sprinkles real characters of the early nineties through the Hollywood parties and events Hoagy and Lulu attend.

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The sixth entry in the series, The Man Who Cancelled Himself, is set in Manhattan, where Hoagy is attempting to ghost write a book with Lyle Hudnut, the star of a popular sitcom called featuring his popular (and possibly stolen) character Uncle Chubby. Hudnut’s moods change so fast that Hoagy can barely keep up. Between actors, writers, producers, and network reps, there’s no shortage of suspects when the murders start.

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The first eight books in this series were written in the 1990s, but Handler picked it up again in 2017 and has added (so far) three more. I’m reading them in order (not necessary, but there is a continuing subplot regarding Hoagy and his actress ex-wife) and enjoying them all.

Paranormal Suspense

I’m not at all sure that “paranormal suspense” is considered a subgenre, but perhaps it should be. It’s as good a way as any to describe these two recent reads.

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Mind Shadows is a reissue (new title, new cover) of Irresistibly Yours, the second installment in Lark Brennan’s fascinating Durand Chronicles (after Shadows in the Deep), romantic suspense with more than a touch of the paranormal.

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When Tate Fulbright wanders into a shop in Paris, looking for an entomological collection she’d heard about from her scientist mother, she finds instead an amazing collection of taxidermied animals, as well as Adrien Durand, who seems just as amazing to a girl from Indiana, in the City of Light for a pharmaceutical convention. But despite her inexperience with the high society and wealth that Durand represents, Tate isn’t just another tourist from Indianapolis. She communicates with animals at a deep level, hears voices in her head, feels the emotions of the crowds around her, and has no idea where these abilities—or disabilities—come from.

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Adrien Durand, head of the far-flung Durand clan and its many commercial and charitable interests, doesn’t know where Tate’s talents come from, either, and that worries him. Is she a wild talent, or someone sent to spy on the Durands by one of the other psychic clans, some shaky allies, some outright enemies. For the Durands and their counterparts fight a long and continuing battle to either protect or enslave the ordinaires of the world.

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Adrien finds himself increasingly attracted to Tate, but his responsibilities—and his family—throw barriers between them. Tate has her doubts, too, tossed as she is into a world she never suspected and doesn’t understand. But Adrien’s world may hold the answers to the mysteries in her head, and give her a new purpose in life—if they can both survive.

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The world of the Durands, with its wide array of psychic powers, Protectors and Dissemblers, and family connections—and secrets—going back generations, expands with each installment. If you missed this one, grab it now, and watch for more to come.

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Ari Mason, the heroine of R.R. Born’s debut novel, May Day, is a gray witch. Born into a coven of black witches, Ari left the practice of black magic, cutting ties with much of her family. Now she tends bar by night and reads Tarot in the park by day. She volunteers for children and senior citizens, and generally keeps her distance from the magic community in her home town of Houston.

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When her best friend, Leise (a non-magical person or dismage), has a problem with an antique amethyst pendant, Ari does her best to help, with the assistance of Remy, the Cajun ghost Ari accidentally summoned during a youthful experiment.

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But when a series of magical murders begins, targeting both witches and dismages, Ari must act, and she must seek allies among the white witches who have no reason to trust her. For that matter, Ari doesn’t know who she can trust—some people aren’t what they seem at all.

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May Day is a fast-paced race through the magical community of Houston, filled with interesting—and sometimes terrifying—characters. Ari’s next adventure, Day of the Dead, has just been released.

Catching Up with Cozies

Telephone Line is the ninth installment in Julie Mulhern’s Country Club Mystery series, set in Kansas City in the mid 1970s. A year after the murder of her unlamented husband (in The Deep End), Ellison Russell finds his sins (which were many) coming back to haunt her, as people mentioned in his secret blackmail files are being murdered. To protect her daughter, Grace, Ellison won’t reveal the existence of those files, even to her boyfriend, homicide detective Anarchy Jones, so she and her housekeeper, Aggie, set out to establish connections between the murder victims that don’t involve Henry’s files.

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As usual, Ellison discovers corpses (much to the horror of her domineering mother) and finds it impossible to “stay out of this one,” as Anarchy frequently suggests. It’s not like she finds bodies on purpose.

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I really enjoy this series. Ellison’s voice is a treat, sharp, intelligent, and often exasperated. The supporting characters are every bit as interesting. There’s a lot of humor, but Mulhern also tackles some tough topics. I hope we won’t have to wait too long for number 10.

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Lowcountry Boomerang is the eighth installment in Susan M. Boyer’s Liz Talbot mystery series, set in Charleston and the nearby coastal islands. When Darius Baker, a local man who left the area after high school, made a fortune in reality TV, and now wants to retire, returns home to the island of Stella Maris, residents, including the PI team of Liz Talbot and her husband Nate Andrews, are curious. When Darius’ high school sweetheart, Trina Lynn Causby, an investigative reporter for a Charleston TV station, is murdered, curiosity turns to suspicion.

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The death of Trina Lynn brings up secrets old and new. Darius has three ex-wives, and Trina Lynn had at least one stalker, two lovers, and a hot lead on an unsolved case. When Darius hires the defense lawyer who keeps Liz and Nate on retainer for investigations, they jump in to search for the truth.

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One of the attractions of this series is the setting. Stella Maris, the other islands, and the city of Charleston play a big part in the story, and Boyer does a great job of bringing them to life. This is a series I thoroughly enjoy and heartily recommend.

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After a long gap, AE Jones has returned to her delightful Paranormal Wedding Planners series with For Better or For Wolf, the story of Olivia Jennings, human psychiatrist, and Connor Dawson, werewolf. Olivia doesn’t know that one of her patients is a fairie—or that supernatural beings exist at all. When she finds out it’s in a big way, and she’s drawn into the affairs of the west coast werewolf pack. It seems they need an unbiased expert to assess the mental state of the new Alpha. What could possibly go wrong?

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Connor is a member of a sort of supernatural special ops team, working for the Supernatural Council, along with his twin brother Jack, Devin the elf, Charlie the nymph, and Giz the wizard. All the characters from the first three Wedding Planner books are back to see what they can do to solve the pack’s problems—and Connor’s.

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The Paranormal Wedding Planner series has one foot in the romance world and one on the mystery shelf, with either foot slipping on the occasional banana peel. The books are bright and funny and thoroughly enjoyable, and I’ve preordered number 5, For Witch or For Poorer.

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And for an extra treat: Caveat Emptor and other stories brings together a handful of short stories by the late Joan Hess, one of my long-time favorite mystery authors. Her novels in the Claire Malloy series and the Arly Hanks/Maggody series are light and funny. Her short stories, in this book and the previous Bigfoot Stole My Wife and other stories, tend to have darker humor and often a twist in which someone gets their just deserts, not usually in any legal way. Two stories in Caveat Emptor, “Death of a Romance Writer” and “A Little More Research,” are tales of writers with problems. Two stories, “Death in Bloom” and “Time Will Tell,” are set in Maggody. “Too Much to Bare,” “Caveat Emptor,” and “All’s Well That Ends” are unrelated but delightfully twisty.

Romantic Suspense Times Two

Here are two great reads mixing mystery, suspense, and romance.

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When Texas Ranger Samantha Goode, the heroine of Leslie Marshman’s Goode Over Evil, returns to her home town of Crystal Creek, she’s only expecting to stay a day or two for her grandmother’s funeral. She’s shed no tears for the old woman who made her childhood miserable, but her grandfather and her Uncle Joe deserve her support.

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She knows there’s a risk of running into her old love, rancher Clayton Barnett—it’s a small town, after all. But she can deal with that. Clay doesn’t know why Sam left town without a word to him years ago, and she doesn’t intend to tell him now. Events around them make it hard to avoid one another, but will what they once had together ever return?

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Sam’s plans to head back to El Paso as quickly as possibly change when there’s a death at her uncle’s marina. The local police chief calls it suicide, but Sam and the county sheriff know better. Whatever happened, Clay’s autistic brother, Jordan, may have witnessed it. When Sam realizes that dangers from the drug cartel she’s been fighting have followed her from El Paso to the Gulf Coast, her fears for the people she loves mount.

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Goode Over Evil is a fast-paced roller coaster ride through small town secrets, drug smuggling, and murder, and well worth reading for fans of mystery and suspense.

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Shadows in the Deep is a reissue (new title and cover) of Lark Brennan’s Dangerously Yours, and well worth picking up if you missed it the first time around. The first volume in the Durand Chronicles, Shadows in the Deep is a very entertaining read, but a bit difficult to categorize: romantic suspense, certainly; paranormal elements, definitely; even a touch of science fiction, all in a fascinating Caribbean island setting.

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To outside eyes, Lex Durand is a marine biologist studying whales and dolphins. Only her close relatives in the large and powerful Durand clan know that she is an animal telepath, and that some of her study subjects have gone mysteriously missing.

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Her brother sends Lex to ask for assistance from Bodie Flynn, a near-recluse scientist studying newly discovered forms of energy which may just hold the clue to the disappearances. But Bodie used to be someone else entirely, and he blames Lex’s family for his current situation.

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The scientific puzzles are too much for either to resist (and pretty soon they’re having trouble resisting one another, as well). Off they go, via sailboat and seaplane, to one small island after another in pursuit of missing whales, reappearing (and possibly insane) dolphins, mysterious energy, psychic powers, and the occasional explosion.

A Regency Christmas Novella

Lady Sarah Milton, the heroine of Cheryl Bolen’s His Lady Deceived, has had numerous offers of marriage since her presentation at court five years earlier, but none of those men made her heart sing. She’s reserved that feeling for a man she’s never even spoken to, Alfred Wickham, the son of Viscount Landis. When Lady Landis invites Sarah and her family to spend Christmas at Hedley Hall, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Radcliff, Sarah agrees, but she’s cautious. Lady Landis is convinced that Sarah would be the perfect wife for her only son, Alfred. Sarah longs to meet Alfred at last—but won’t be a party to any marital trap set by his mother.

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Alfred Wickham (known to his friends as Wick) has made it to the age of thirty without a wife, and he’s happy that way. When he gets wind of his mother’s Christmas plans, he agrees to go to Hedley Hall, but enlists his best friend, Lord Hugh Pottinger (known as Potts) to accompany him. Wick claims he doesn’t want to leave Potts to spend Christmas alone in London, but Potts knows better. Wick wants something.

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Wick does indeed want something. He wants Potts to convince Lady Sarah that Wick is a poor marital candidate. He makes Potts (who is hopelessly shy around women) promise to tell the lady that Wick wagers on everything—and always loses, that he fences without a mask, and, worst of all, that he has an “understanding” with an actress. The third, at least, is not true.

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What Wick has failed to realize is just how attractive Lady Sarah is. Alas, Potts finds her attractive, too, and Potts believes that Wick is not interested. Meanwhile Sarah isn’t sure what to think about either one of them. Surely Wickham is out of the question (that actress!), but maybe there’s more to Hugh Pottinger than meets the eye.

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Mix in a house party and a blizzard, a variety of eccentric guests, and a child with a secret identity, and you have a Christmas Regency romp. And if you want to know how the Duke and Duchess of Radcliff (the Duchess is Wick’s cousin) met and fell in love, pick up Bolen’s A Duke Deceived.

Dogged Detectives

I have waited (and I’m sure I’m far from the only one) four years for Heart of Barkness, Spencer Quinn’s ninth Chet and Bernie mystery. The previous installment, Scents and Sensibility, came out in July 2015, and (minor spoiler here) left Bernie, the human half of the team, deep in a coma from which no one expected him to recover. No one, that is, except his canine partner Chet, the narrator of the series.

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Quinn took his time getting back to Chet and Bernie. He also writes for middle graders as Spencer Quinn and adult novels as Peter Abrahams, and the Chet and Bernie stories have moved to a different publisher.

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In Heart of Barkness Chet and Bernie become involved with Lottie Pilgrim, a nearly forgotten country singer accused of murder. Bernie is sure there’s more to the story, and Chet, as always, is sure that Bernie is the smartest person in the world. Together they track down the secrets of Lottie’s past, despite her insistence that she’s guilty as charged.

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Somehow Quinn manages to capture the thought processes of Chet (a hundred-plus pound dog of indeterminate breed who flunked out of K9 training—there may have been a cat involved—but landed happily with Bernie Little) without making him sound like a furry human, while still communicating the story. Chet’s memory may be patchy and his attention span short, but he’ll do anything for Bernie. And happily for those of us who love him, a note at the end of Heart of Barkness promises a new adventure next summer.

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The Silence of the Chihuahuas is, alas, the last (to date, anyway) of Waverly Curtis’ Barking Detective series, featuring Pepe, the intrepid Chihuahua private investigator who talks to his human partner, Geri Sullivan. In this installment, however, Pepe has stopped speaking to Geri because other people think she’s nuts when she tries to tell them about it. But never fear: Pepe has taken up blogging instead (although he admits that “some dog named Chet” writes an even more popular blog). In Silence, Pepe and Geri’s search for Geri’s long missing sister and her recently missing friend Brad takes them undercover at a mental hospital. Along the way they attend the disastrous wedding of Geri’s ex-husband, deal with Geri’s somewhat loony mentor Jimmy G., and engineer a better fate for Bruiser, a sad dog they met on an earlier case. There’s a murder, a kidnapping, and, of course, a happy ending. (There’s also a bonus Christmas story, A Chihuahua in Every Stocking.) This series is so much fun—I hope the authors decide to continue it.

A Visit to the DPS, or Really, I’m a Citizen!

A few weeks ago, I received a letter from the Texas Department of Public Safety reminding me that my driver’s license will expire on my birthday next month. And that I would have to renew in person, since I renewed on line in 2013. And that I would have to provide my birth certificate.

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Really? I’ve been a licensed driver and registered voter in Texas for more than forty years (and in Louisiana and Florida before that). Surely the state of Texas knows I’m a citizen. But apparently the TSA doesn’t, and Texas is bringing its driver’s license policy in line with TSA to give us the ID we’ll need to get on an airplane in the future.

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When I mentioned this on Facebook, I heard from lots of friends who’d renewed recently. Some had showed up without a birth certificate and been sent away to find one. Someone was asked for her car title (complete nonsense—you don’t need to own a car to get a driver’s license). The letter also asked for proof of social security number, or of “lawful presence” if not a citizen.

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So I went on line to see the list of acceptable documents. I don’t have a passport (I had one, never used it, and it expired long ago), but I do have my birth certificate, a social security card showing my maiden and married names, and of course my current driver’s license.

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But just in case, I stuffed an envelope with everything I could think of: proof of insurance, car title, voter registration, etc., to take with me. I filled out the application on line and printed it—not only saves time, but it’s a whole lot easier to read. I looked up the nearest DPS office, which has moved since the last time I needed to go there. I read some of the hundreds of on line reviews of the facility.

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The reviews that were good emphasized two things: make an “get in line on line” appointment, and allow time to find a parking space. So this morning about 8:15 I went to the appointment web page, gave it my cell phone number, and it gave me a “approximate service time” of 10:41 AM.

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The office (the Southeast Houston MegaCenter) is about half an hour from my house, so I left about 9:40, got there about 10:10, and spent almost ten minutes cruising the parking lot. When I spotted two women who appeared to be headed for a car, I followed them and snagged their parking space. Apparently when the DPS built the MegaCenter (which truly is mega in its dimensions) they forgot that most of the people wanting to apply for or renew a driver’s license would be arriving in cars.

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I checked in at 10:18. There was a vast area filled with people sitting in chairs, waiting, but I was given a numbered slip of paper and directed to a short row of seats along one wall. A few minutes later one of the nearby clerks (there are a huge number of stations) called my number and I was on my way.

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I handed my application and my current license to the clerk, who was friendly and professional, and she asked for my birth certificate, which she carefully put in a plastic sleeve before running it through her scanner. She didn’t ask for any other papers, just my signature (on one of those electronic gizmos that produce a signature I hope my bank would never accept), my thumb prints, a quick eye test (with glasses on, read row 4), and a photo (with glasses off, no one would ever recognize me, but glasses throw off the facial recognition software we’ve been hearing so much about lately).

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I paid with my debit card, collected my temporary license, receipt, and birth certificate, and got my current license back with one corner snipped off (like a feral cat neutered and returned to the street!), and I was out of there at 10:34, before my actual appointment time.

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Moral of this story, in Texas or, I suspect, anywhere else: bring everything you need, fill out the paperwork on line if you can, and if the location offers it, “get in line on line” before you go.

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