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.

 

Mysteries With Humor

Mystery and humor make up just about my favorite combination in reading for pleasure (which, come to think about is, is just about all of my reading). Here are the latest installments in three series I really enjoy (and usually preorder).

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Killalot is the sixth entry in Cindy Brown’s wonderful Ivy Meadows mystery series. Ivy is a hard-working but underemployed actress in Phoenix, where she also works for her Uncle Bob as an apprentice private investigator. This time around she’s investigating a death at the local Renaissance Faire (jousting accident or murder?) and auditioning for the role of Marilyn Monroe in a potential Kennedy era version of Camelot, called Kennelot by its playwright, John Robert Turner, formerly of the very successful Broadway team of Turner and Toe (think about that one).

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The RenFaire setting is great fun, as Ivy goes undercover as a belly-dancing mime (or is that a mute belly dancer?), meets a very smart but somewhat addled wizard, and learns about the jousting circuit. Meanwhile, the three-person cast of the potential Broadway play (staying with which would bring Ivy another set of problems involving her loyal boyfriend Matt and her special needs brother Cody) is also full of surprises. There’s something odd about Jackie, and just how is JFK connected to the falcon handler at the RenFaire? And how did the missing jousting horse end up in the playwright’s pool in the middle of the Arizona desert?

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I love this series, which scatters some serious issues among the delightfully wacky settings and stream of hilarious song, movie and play titles. Cindy Brown is one of several cozy authors I follow who write for Henery Press (others include Julie Mulhern and Susan Boyer).

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The Long Paw of the Law (don’t you love those titles?) is Diane Kelly’s seventh novel featuring Fort Worth Police Officer Megan Luz and her K-9 partner, Brigit. This time the action begins when a man drops a newborn baby off at the fire station where Megan’s boyfriend Seth and Brigit’s boyfriend Blast work. This is perfectly legal under Texas’ Baby Moses law, but when Megan unfolds the beautifully hand-made quilt the baby is wrapped in, she finds an embroidered plea for help. There just may be something going on outside the law after all, and Megan intends to find out.

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But Megan’s not a detective—not yet, anyway— and she has the usual patrol cases to follow, including a pair of thieves who specialize in stealing garage door remotes from parked cars. Along the way she meets a cosmetics and clothing consultant and an elderly dressmaker, both of whom would love to give Megan a makeover, goes to a car show with Seth and his cranky grandpa, and helps her mom study for an American History exam. Meanwhile with the help of Detective Audrey Jackson (her mentor), Frankie (her roller derby star/fire fighter housemate) and explosives expert Seth, Megan and Brigit pursue the case of the abandoned baby.

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As always, Kelly alternates police work with humor, and tells the story from three viewpoints: Megan, Brigit (who is mostly interested in food and chasing perps), and the villain. Paw Enforcement continues to be a most entertaining and enjoyable series.

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Stephanie Plum returns in Janet Evanovich’s Look Alive Twenty-Five, tracking FTAs and generally getting into trouble, with Lula at her side. This time around she’s dealing with a deli that can’t seem to hang on to a manager—they keep disappearing out by the dumpster, leaving one shoe behind. Stephanie and Lula find themselves working at the deli (Lula’s approach to sandwich production is especially memorable), hunting for a local rock musician (whose charges include peeing on a dog), and driving a burrito truck. Stephanie’s family are minor players in this installment, but Morelli and Ranger are front and center. There are feral chickens. And a catnapping. A number of seemingly unrelated cases manage to come together by the end of the book.

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Look Alive Twenty-Five made me laugh out loud several times. That’s exactly what I expect from Stephanie, and exactly why I continue to follow her adventures.

Recent Reading: Cozies

I have found so many enjoyable cozy mystery series, it’s hard to keep up. Oh, all right, it’s hard to keep up with any section of my To Be Read shelves. But I’m a real sucker for first-in-a-series sales, and then I get hooked. Here are three from series that have held my attention past the first entry.

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Chihuahua Confidential is the second entry in Waverly Curtis’ Barking Detective series. Chihuahua ConfidentialThis time Geri and Pepe, the talking chihuahua that only Geri can understand, are in Los Angeles for the taping of Dancing With Dogs, the pilot for a potential reality TV series. Dance lessons, costume fittings, dognappings, and the occasional murder keep Geri and Pepe on the go, even more so when Geri’s PI boss, the notably eccentric Jimmy G, shows up looking for a missing package. Pepe and Geri even find some answers regarding Pepe’s rather mysterious past life. The characters, both human and canine, are totally entertaining.

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In Better Dead, the first in Pamela Kopfler’s B&B Spirits Mystery series, Holly Davis helped the ghost of her late (and largely unlamented) husband move on. But with Burl’s departure, her haunted B&B and ancestral home, Holly Grove, is no longer haunted. Or is it?

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As Downright Dead opens, the reality show producer who made Holly Grove famous is Downright Deaddemanding a sequel episode, spurred on by a dedicated debunker who plans to expose the whole story as a fake. The original haunting was real, but with the ghost gone, Holly does feel like a fake, and has no idea how to honor her option contract without destroying her business.

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And that’s not Holly’s only problem. Her handyman has an accident, her ICE agent boyfriend is AWOL, and her cook has taken an inexplicable dislike to a perfectly inoffensive guest. The portrait of the Unknown Ancestor keeps jumping off the wall, a visiting psychic predicts a dire future for the debunker, and Bayou St. Agnes rises, cutting Holly Grove off from any way out.

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And then there’s a murder. Or two.

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What’s a girl to do? Holly deals with it all with charm and aplomb, and help from her band of loyal friends—and a ghost or two.

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In Back Stabbers (number 8 in Julie Mulhern’s Country Club Murders series), Ellison Back StabbersRussell discovers a body. Not a surprise. Ellison has developed quite a reputation for discovering bodies. This time it’s her stockbroker, siting behind his desk, with his pants around his ankles. And that’s not the last of the disasters plaguing the firm.

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Meanwhile, Ellison’s half-sister Karma comes to visit, staying with Ellison at her dad’s insistence. After all the only other choice would be for Karma to stay with Ellison’s parents, and if Ellison is surprised by Karma’s existence, she can hardly imagine how her mother will react.

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And then there’s Ellison’s relationship with Anarchy Jones, who is all too previously acquainted with Karma. And Ellison’s daughter Grace, who has brought home a rescue cat. Max, the dog in residence, does not approve.

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As always, Mulhern has written a good mystery, populated with quirky and amusing characters, and set in the upper social circles of Kansas City in the early 1970s, back before cell phones and computers changed life so much.

 

Mysteries & Mayhem

The Man Who Lived By Night is David Handler’s second mystery featuring ghost writer Stewart (”call me Hoagy”) Hoag and his basset hound Lulu. Hoagy’s celebrity assignment The Man Who Lived By Nightthis time around is faded rock star Tristam Scarr, now living in isolated grandeur on his estate in the English countryside. Originally published in 1989 (most of the series was republished in ebook format by Open Road Press in 2012), the book is a travelogue through the music scene of the 60s and 70s, British and American, peppered with real people. Handler tells chunks of the story through tapes of Hoagy’s interviews with Scarr and his associates, peeling away the past until the motives for current murders are revealed.

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Somehow I missed this series completely when it was first published, but I’m enjoying it now: I identify with both writers and basset hound owners.

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I haven’t missed one of Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone mysteries since the first one came out in the 1970s. The latest, The Breakers, follows Sharon’s search for a missing friend. We first met Chelle Curley in earlier books as an enterprising teenager who often pet sat for Sharon’s cats. Now she’s in her early twenties and has had some success The Breakersrehabbing old buildings in run down sections of San Francisco. When her parents call Sharon from Costa Rica because they haven’t been able to get in touch with Chelle for days, Sharon takes up the search.

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The investigation leads to an assortment of characters, friends and/or possible suspects, and to other crimes. Sharon’s husband Hy and her various employees work mostly in the background on this one, which is primarily Sharon’s story. The Breakers, the one-time hotel, now a deteriorating and nearly empty apartment house that Chelle is living in while rehabbing it, holds a number of clues, if only Sharon can puzzle them out in time. A little slower and less complex than some previous entries (and fairly short at 260 pages), The Breakers is still a solid addition to the series.

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Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin investigate the advertising business in Robert Goldsborough’s Fade To Black. I read all of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series back in the day (when I apparently had more time for reading), and I enjoy Goldsborough’s continuation of the series just as much, as he brings Wolfe and Archie into the computer age (without aging them a day). In this one Archie and Wolfe work to discover who’s passing ideas about the ad campaigns for one cherry soda (yuck) to the ad agency for another. Lots of familiar characters, and the routine at the brownstone never changes.

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In their next adventure, they become reluctantly involved with murder at a megachurch in Silver Spire, but only because long-time associate Fred Durkin is accused of the killing.

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In The Missing Chapter, Goldsborough has a little fun with his own career, as Wolfe and Archie investigate the possible murder (or was it really suicide?) of a “continuator,” an author who has taken up the pen of a well-loved mystery writer, producing new cases for the homespun Sergeant Barnstable and making lots of enemies, including his editor and agent, a fellow writer who borrows his “word processor” (this one was published in 1993), a missing cousin, and even his fiancee. Needless to say, Wolfe and Archie winnow out the truth.

 

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