Two Old Favorites Return

Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters mysteries were a pleasure I shared with my mother for years. I still have nearly all of them in paper copies, some from the old Doubleday Mystery Book Club (good paper, small print), and some in paperback (yellowed paper, even smaller print). I have e-book copies of the two I never did find in print. Recently the first one, Bullet for a Star popped up in an e-book sale, and I snapped it up (even though I have that one on the shelf).

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The series starts in 1940. Toby Peters, ex-cop, ex-security guard at Warner Brothers, is a downscale private detective in Los Angeles, when a producer at Warner’s calls him to handle a blackmail payoff involving a photo of Erroll Flynn and a very young girl. That wouldn’t surprise anyone, but Flynn says he’s never seen (or anything else) this particular young girl. And Toby soon finds out someone is willing to kill to get his (or her) hands on the negative, real or not.

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Rereading Bullet for a Star is a bit of a time machine trip for me, back to 1977 when my mother, a great movie fan as well as a voracious mystery reader, and I first discovered Toby, and back to 1940, which Kaminsky renders in delightful detail. Kaminsky was a professor of film studies, and the Toby Peters series weaves together hard-boiled detective action, Hollywood history, and a sardonic sense of humor. At the end of Bullet for a Star Toby gets a phone call from a frightened Judy Garland, leading the way to the next book, Murder on the Yellow Brick Road. These little teasers continued throughout the series.

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The call from Judy Garland leads Toby to the M.G.M. lot and the sets for The Wizard of Oz, seldom used since a year has passed since the picture was released. But there Toby finds the body of a little person in Munchkin costume, something the studio would like to keep as quiet as possible. So Toby takes on the case, interviewing witnesses (Clark Gable and Victor Fleming), aided at one point by an enterprising young suspense writer named Raymond Chandler, harassed by his brother (an irascible LAPD lieutenant), and targeted by the killer. Next: the Marx Brothers. There are 24 books in the series, so it will take me a while to catch up.

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Another mystery series that I have recently picked up in ebook form even though I have old paper copies on my bookshelf is Charlotte MacLeod’s Peter Shandy stories. As the series opens in Rest You Merry (1978), Shandy, a middle aged tenured professor at Balaclava Agricultural College, has overdone the Christmas decorations at his campus home and left town for the holidays, his form of protest over the annual “Illumination” festival. Feeling a bit guilty about his shenanigans, he returns to find Jemima Ames, wife of his best friend and chairwoman of the Illumination, dead in his locked house. Accident, or something more sinister?

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Becoming a detective by necessity is a big change for Shandy, co-developer of the famous and profitable Balaclava Buster rutabaga, but an even bigger change results from the arrival of Helen Marsh, a distant connection of the Ames family, and just what our bachelor professor needs. Together, Peter and Helen investigate deaths, arson, and the mysterious thefts of old books from the long-ignored Buggins Collection. Add in a variety of eccentric faculty members and spouses, students dressed as elves, and a tipped-over bowl of fried marbles, and you have a delightful tale. There are ten books in the Shandy series, but MacLeod wrote many others as well.

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Cheers to Mysterious Press and Open Road Media for making Toby Peters and Peter Shandy available again.

New From Leslie Marshman

The Goode Fight is Leslie Marshman’s second Crystal Creek mystery, continuing the adventures of Texas Ranger Samantha Goode, now stationed in her old home town. While Sheriff Eddie Marshall is out fishing one day, Sam catches a case too close to home: the body of a young woman, clearly laid out to satisfy some bizarre ritual, found on the hunting ranch belonging to Sam’s best friend, Army sniper Nicole Chance.

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Does this murder, or the disposal of the body on the Chance ranch, have something to do with rather heavy-handed offers to buy the property, or is it part of a string of murders scattered between San Antonio, Houston, and Victoria over the last few months? Did some vagrant killer dump the body on the Chance ranch for no reason, or is the killer closer to home?

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Marshman builds a complex mystery, layered with Sam’s personal relationships and ending with a solution I did not see coming. An excellent choice for readers who like a tough professional heroine and a gritty tale of obsession and murder.

Three More Series Cozies

Dead in the Doorway is the second installment in Diane Kelly’s House Flipper cozy mystery series, set in Nashville. Whitney Whitaker and her cousin and business partner Buck have bought a house on Songbird Circle to restore and sell, but their plan hits a snag when Whitney and her cat, Sawdust, find the body of one of the neighbors at the foot of a staircase.

No one on the cul-de-sac liked Nelda Dolan very much, but that hardly seems like a reason to push her down the stairs of an empty house. But what was she doing in the house? Searching for something? The previous owner’s family has taken everything they might want, and their late mother, Lillian, didn’t have much to leave behind, unless you count her recipes for prize-winning pies. There doesn’t seem to be anything else worth looking for—until Sawdust finds a secret hiding place.

Whitney can’t resist a bit of sleuthing between tearing out appliances and re-tiling floors (and she makes that all sound so simple!), and Detective Collin Flynn is pretty hard to resist, too. Between the two of them they’ll surely uncover the secrets of Songbird Circle.

Some Like It Shot is the latest installment in Zara Keane’s Movie Club Mysteries, featuring Maggie Doyle, a one-time San Francisco cop now working as a private investigator on the small Irish island where her father grew up and where Maggie spent summers as a child. Business is slow: her main case involves searching for a wandering Maine Coon cat. Then an American movie company arrives on the island. Maggie’s younger sister, an online “Beauty Influencer” (yes, apparently this is a Thing, although I have trouble wrapping my brain around it), has landed her first movie role—as the female lead.

Maggie is not thrilled; she and her sister have a rather dysfunctional relationship. But the movie shoot has been plagued with “accidents,” and Maggie and her off-the-wall assistant Lenny are hired to sniff out any possible sabotage. Maggie and her boyfriend, the sergeant in charge of the tiny Whisper Island police station, suspect that most of the accidents were just that, but when there’s a death on the set the danger ramps up quickly.

I really enjoy this series (this is the sixth book) with its mixture of mystery, humor, and small town Irish life (I did have to look up the pronunciation of a couple of names: the Irish clearly have their own version of the alphabet) and I hope there will be many more.

The Study of Secrets is the fifth installment in Cynthia Kuhn’s Lila Maclean Academic Mysteries. As it opens, Lila is winding up her sabbatical from Stonedale, staying in a cottage on the grounds of Callahan House, a Victorian mansion associated with Callahan College and now the property of Bibi Callahan. Long ago Bibi published three mystery novels under the name Isabella Dare, and Lila has been researching and writing a book on these nearly-forgotten works, while hoping that Bibi will admit publicly that she is, in fact, the author.

Lila has been organizing Bibi’s study for her, and in a locked drawer she finds the manuscript of an unpublished fourth novel. When one of Bibi’s life-long friends is murdered in the house and the manuscript vanishes, Bibi admits that the novel was a barely fictionalized version of the night when her younger sister disappeared, suggesting that she was killed by one of Bibi’s tight-knit circle of friends during a night of celebration between high school and college.

Bibi never meant anyone to see the manuscript, with its unfounded speculation, but when it gets out, and perhaps causes another death, Lila races to solve the long-ago mystery that appears to be the source of the present trouble.

Lila is still trying to finish her book on Isabella Dare—and find a publisher for it—and she’s also writing a mystery novel of her own, so I hope we’ll see another adventure before too long.

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