Mystery and Humor

If you stop by here often, you know that mysteries and humor are two of my favorite reads, all the better if combined. Here are three more I’ve enjoyed.

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A Novel Way to Die is the second in Tamra Baumann’s bookshop mystery series, following Plotting For Murder and continuing the misadventures of Sawyer Davis, an accomplished chef who has found herself back in the small northern California town where she grew up, running the mystery bookshop she inherited from her mother, trying to understand the fifteen-year-old girl her mother had adopted, fighting her uncle over the very strange terms of the family trust, and making sense of her feelings for the local sheriff, the man who jilted her years ago.

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As if that weren’t enough, Sawyer keeps stumbling into homicides. This time the husband of an author signing her books at Sawyer’s shop turns up dead in the freezer of Sawyer’s best friend Renee’s ice cream shop. The victim and Renee once had a bad break up, too, and all the evidence points to her as the killer. But Sawyer knows that’s impossible. Now all she has to do is prove it.

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That requires the computer expertise of Brittany, Sawyer’s adopted sister and ward, inside information from Madge, the gossip loving manager of the sheriff’s office, and support from the members of the shop’s book club. Even Max, Sawyer’s third-rate magician dad, pops in with a few good ideas.

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A Novel Way to Die is a thoroughly entertaining tale, solving the mystery but leaving that strange family trust begging for another installment.

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Stayin’ Alive is the latest installment in Julie Mulhern’s Country Club Murders, set in Kansas City in the mid 1970s. The setting here is part of the fun, taking the reader back to the days when people did not carry cell phones or while away their time on computers. Ellison Russell is an artist, the mother of a teenage daughter, and a widow, and her talent for stumbling over bodies matches that of Jessica Fletcher. This horrifies her mother, who regards Ellison’s involvement in murder investigations—and her friendship with homicide detective Anarchy Jones—as a threat to her social standing.

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In Stayin’ Alive, Ellison chairs a fund raising gala for a local museum’s touring display of Chinese funerary art—and finds a body during the festivities, albeit in a closed section of the museum. And that’s not the last body. Meanwhile Ellison’s relatives and friends contribute both information and aggravation, and Max, Ellison’s incorrigible dog, falls in love. It seems like nothing surprises Ellison any more—until she finds out that even Anarchy Jones has been keeping a secret from her.

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This is number 10 in the series. I recommend reading the Country Club Murders from the beginning, because it’s so much fun getting to know the characters and following the threads running through Ellison’s adventures. Number 11 is due out in late June.

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Twisted Twenty-Six is, not surprisingly, Janet Evanovich’s 26th Stephanie Plum novel. I’ve been reading them since the first one came out in 1994. I recently replace my shabby paperback copy of that first one (One for the Money) with a newer trade paperback edition, and I have all the rest in hardback on my keeper shelf. Clearly, I’m a fan.

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When I opened Twisted Twenty-Six, the first line rang a bell: “Some men enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.” One for the Money opened with almost exactly these words, referring to Stephanie’s relationship with Joe Morelli (I, by the way, am Team Morelli: Ranger has his charms, but Morelli is the keeper). In Twisted Twenty-Six the line refers to Jimmy Rosolli, and his forty-five minute marriage to Stephanie’s Grandma Mazur.

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The aftermath of that brief union leaves Grandma Mazur at the center of a complicated web of intrigue involving missing keys, the Jersey mob (or at least a small, elderly, but definitely dangerous branch called the Laz-Y-Boys), Rosolli’s ex-wives, and random enemies. While Stephanie and Lula, Morelli, and Ranger try to figure out who is gunning for Grandma, life goes on at the bail bond agency, and Stephanie and Lula search for the usual motley assortment of oddballs who Fail To Appear for their hearings.

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Twisted Twenty-Six continues with Evanovich’s trademark combination of humor and mystery. It’s the characters that keep me coming back year after year, and Grandma Mazur has always been a favorite. She’s front and center in this one, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Nero Wolfe Lives On

When Robert Goldsborough took over Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series in the mid 1980s, he brought Wolfe and his crew forward into the age of the personal computer (for the orchid germination records) without aging any of the characters. He wrote seven books, the last in 1994, before taking a break.

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Wolfe and Goodwin reappeared—and met—in the 2012 prequel Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, and Murder in the Ball Park, published in 2014, drops Wolfe and his usual crew, Archie, Lily Rowan, Fritz the chef, Lon Cohen from the Gazette, and Cramer and Stebbins from the NYPD, back into the mid twentieth century, a few years after the end of World War II. The ball park in the title is the old Polo Grounds (demolished in 1964), and Goldsborough has fun with NYC baseball of the period. He also delves into what we now call PTSD and the difficulties of men returning from combat.

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In Archie in the Crosshairs, Goldsborough stays in the mid-twentieth century, which was perhaps the peak of Nero Wolfe’s (and Rex Stout’s) career, the period many fans seem to prefer. All the usual characters are present, trying to figure out who is taking pot shots at Archie (apparently in revenge aimed at Wolfe) and who is blackmailing a naive young heiress. Could these cases possibly be connected?

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Stop the Presses! is set in the late 1970s, when Nero Wolfe is asked to determine whether or not a highly popular but widely detested muck-raking columnist committed suicide. Before his death he told his colleagues at the New York Gazette that he had been receiving threatening phone calls, and that he believed they were the work of one of five people he had gone after in his column. Inspector Cramer of the NYPD is convinced of the suicide theory, but the owner and the editor of the paper believe the columnist was murdered. As usual, Wolfe solves the case without ever leaving his brownstone. Archie, however, does a bit of traveling.

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I know there are Stout/Wolfe purists who decry the continuation of the series, but I’m enjoying the books. I read all the Stout novels (long ago) and I think Goldsborough has done a fine job recreating the characters and atmosphere. There are three more in the series waiting on my Kindle, and yet another scheduled for May 2020 (and Goldsborough is 82 years old!). Cheers to Open Road Press for making so many mysteries, both vintage and new, available.

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.

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.

New from Kate Parker

Kate Parker’s Deadly Deception is the latest installment in the adventures of Olivia Denis, part-time journalist (limited by the mores of late 1930s London to the Women’s Pages) and part-time unofficial spy and investigator. As the book opens, Olivia finds her father (with whom she does not have a particularly warm relationship), kneeling over a corpse, blood on his hands, his knife in the man’s chest.

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Her father may have his faults, but Olivia doesn’t believe for a minute that he killed the man lying on the floor of his house, especially since the victim is an old friend who had been reported drowned two years earlier. But her attempts to prove his innocence clash with his refusal to cooperate and lead Olivia deeper into the maelstrom of pre World War II security.

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I’ve enjoyed all of Parker’s books, but Deadly Deception proved to be a real page turner; I had trouble putting it down, and read it over a weekend (when I should have been doing other things).

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Parker’s The Mystery at Chadwick House is part mystery, part ghost story, and part romance. Emma Winter is helping her best friend renovate a Victorian mansion, but so much goes wrong that it seems as though the house itself is fighting the work. Or is it someone in the house—that face in the window that shows only in Emma’s photographs? What about the mysterious man who may—or may not—be the last of the Chadwicks, or Emma’s childhood friend, now a police officer? And what really happened in the barn back in 1904? It all adds up to a thoroughly entertaining novella, quite different from Parker’s excellent historical mysteries.

Mysteries: Three Firsts and a Third

Diane Kelly begins a new series with Dead as a Door Knocker, featuring apprentice house flipper Whitney Whitaker and her cat Sawdust. Whitney is an experienced carpenter and property manager, but the house on Sweetbriar is her first attempt at rehabbing a house. With the help of her cousin Buck, she dives into the project, dealing with one disaster after another. But a corpse in the flower bed might just be too much—especially since Nashville police detective Collin Flynn thinks Whitney just might have her own motives for putting that corpse under the topsoil. Every bit as enjoyable as Kelly’s previous series: the Death and Taxes series featuring the hilarious misadventures of IRA special agent Tara Hollway and the Paw and Order series featuring accidental K9 officer Megan Luz and her furry partner Sergeant Brigit. I’ll be looking forward to the next installment.

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Nancy Cole Silverman’s Shadow of Doubt is the first in a series of mysteries featuring Carol Childs, a radio station news reporter in Los Angeles. When her neighbor, a talent agent, is accused of murdering the head of her agency (who is also her rather controlling aunt), Carol jumps to her defense, while balancing her relatively new job, her young teenage son, and her FBI agent lover. The “Hollywood Bathtub Murders” soon become a sensation; the case involves agents, actors, scandal, bath salts, and more than a touch of Hollywood noir. An entertaining beginning to another series from Henery Press.

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The Crossword Murder is the first in a long-running series by Nero Blanc (a husband-and-wife writing team). I downloaded it because (a) I love crossword puzzles, (b) it was the first installment, and (c) it was on sale. I’m not sure it lived up to my expectations. The story was a reasonably engaging mystery, and I particularly enjoyed the budding (but very low key) romance between the two protagonists, private detective Rosco Polycrates and crossword editor Belle Graham. The book includes several crossword puzzles (which can be downloaded and printed from the OpenRoad Media site, but beware—some of the answers on the site are in error, although they are correct in the back of the book), but I found those too much tied into the narrative to be entertaining as independent puzzles.

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I enjoyed the book enough to finish it, and if I run across another in the series on sale I may download it, but I’m in no rush to do so. (There’s a Hallmark Mystery Movie with this title on the horizon, but it doesn’t appear to be related to this book.)

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The Big Chihuahua is the third outing for apprentice private investigator Geri Sullivan and her talking (but only to her) Chihuahua Pepe, stars of Waverly Curtis’ Barking Detective series. This time around, Geri and Pepe go undercover among the followers of Dogawanda, a cult devoted to the Way of the Dog, with a leader, as you might expect, devoted largely to herself.

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The object of Geri’s investigation turns up dead, and someone from her past turns up very much alive. Geri’s boss, Jimmy G (who only refers to himself in the third person) comes along, hoping to score enough moolah to avoid eviction from his office.

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A talking Chihuahua assistant private investigator is a pretty silly premise, but Pepe is such a charmer (and mostly level-headed Geri is a lot of fun, too) that I enjoy the series. It runs to five books, and I have two more stashed on my Kindle.

An Academic Mystery Series

Cynthia Kuhn’s The Semester of Our Discontent is the first in yet another Henery Press cozy mystery series, and just as good as the others I’ve read from that source. Lila The Semester of Our DiscontentMaclean is a brand new English professor at Stonedale University, trying to get her footing in the other side of Academia, a big change from being a student. But surely walking into a faculty meeting and finding the body of the colleague who has been disparaging her research project and curriculum suggestions is not normal. The violence doesn’t stop there, and somehow Lila always seems to be there, as the detective handling the cases never fails to point out. Throw in mysterious symbols that keep popping up, which no one can—or more likely will—identify, and Lila has her hands full.

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I’ve always loved school-based stories, and I enjoyed this one, with its departmental infighting and an interesting layer of feminist scholarship. So I downloaded the next installment, The Art of Vanishing, which takes an entertainingly different approach to academic mystery.

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The Art of Vanishing throws Lila into an uncomfortable situation: trying to get an interview with the notoriously uncooperative but highly regarded writer Damon Von The Art of VanishingTussel, who is scheduled to appear during Stonedale’s Art Week festivities. But Damon vanishes, and Lila is cornered into recruiting her mother, artist Violet O, into helping her corral Damon, an embarrassing situation, since Violet and Damon are ex-lovers. Oh, what a girl will do to stay on the tenure track.

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At one point Lila mentions that she never had panic attacks until she took up an academic career, reminding me that turning my own education toward commercial ends was a wise decision.

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Although there are threats and apparent attacks on various characters, no one is killed. Instead, the mystery turns on academic infighting and fraud (reminding me a bit of Dorothy Sayers). Lila has another run-in with her nemesis, the manipulative Selene, and a much more pleasant meeting with Detective Lex Archer, who suspected her of murder in The Semester of Our Discontent. The descriptions of academic life and the characters populating Stonedale ring true, with sharp wit and humor.

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In the latest installment, The Spirit in Question, Lila has reached her third year on the Stonedale staff, and has taken on (or perhaps been dragooned into) helping with the production of another professor’s play, Puzzled: The Musical, a barely comprehensible mixture of detectives and dancers. The student actors and crew are having a ball—until murder mars the production.

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The Spirit in QuestionAt the request of Lex Archer, Lila stays (mostly) out of the hunt for the murderer, but there are enough other puzzles to keep her busy. The play is being staged in a deteriorating opera house owned, but not much cared for, by the university and protected by the remarkably officious head of the Stonedale Historical Society. The building not only presents mechanical dangers—what with characters dropping from the rafters and popping up through the trap door, what could go wrong?—but it may be haunted by the ghost of a previous owner, who hanged himself on the stage.

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By the time the production opens, no one, least of all Lila, is quite sure who might be a target, or why. Between accidents, a seance, and a missing journal, the opera house is up for grabs—literally. At least Lila has a chance to rekindle her friendship with Detective Lex Archer—if the ghost doesn’t get her first.

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I’ve enjoyed this series. Alas, looks like I’ll have to wait until next year for another installment.

 

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