Spellbound Mysteries

Doom and Broom is the second installment in Annabel Chase’s charming Spellbound series. Emma Hart is settling into her new life in Spellbound, a mysterious town populated Doom and Broomby a wide variety of supernatural sorts trapped there by a curse so old no one really remembers the details. Emma, who didn’t even know she was a witch until she wandered into town and found she couldn’t leave (in Curse the Day), now has a house, a vampire ghost roommate (the previous owner), and a job as the local public defender.

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Her first court case involves defending a teenage Berserker accused of vandalism, but the real news in town involves the suspicious death of a soon-to-be-married female werewolf. Did Jolene commit suicide, or is there a more dastardly explanation?

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While investigating that, Emma also deals with her remedial witch training, especially the broomstick course, not easy for someone with a fear of heights. And then there’s harp therapy, ladies poker night, a sexy vampire named Demetrius, and of course Daniel the depressed fallen angel.

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The third book, Spell’s Bells, is every bit as entertaining, as Emma defends a lovesick Spell's Bellsbrownie on burglary charges and tries her hand at speed dating to meet a wereweasel (that dates goes about as badly as one might expect), all the while investigating the mysterious glass coffin holding a comatose dwarf named Freddie. She goes for a hike with a werelion named Fabio and visits a hilariously demented witch in the local retirement home.

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Lucky CharmLucky Charm is another delightfully funny entry, fourth in the series. While searching for a cure for the spell that has the town council behaving like children (and requiring constant supervision), Emma finds new ways to deal with her sometimes scary paranormal neighbors and learns a bit more about her own background. Chase continues to add new and interesting characters to her “cursed” town.

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There are five more books in the series. I think I’ll go download the next one.

 

More Mysteries (To Read!)

No technological enigmas today, just three very readable mystery novels.

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Maggie Doyle is back in a new adventure in Zara Keane’s The 39 Cupcakes. She’s settling into her new life as a private investigator on Whisper Island, just off the coast of Ireland, and into her growing relationship with Garda Sergeant Liam Reynolds (at least until his outspoken eight-year-old daughter comes to visit). The Movie Theater Cafe is hanging on (with a showing of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps) despite the opening of The Cupcake Cafe right across the road. And Maggie’s cousin Julie has recruited her to help chaperone thirty summer camp kids on a tour of an archaeological excavation.

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The 39 CupcakesPeople may call Maggie a Corpse Magnet, but it’s actually one of the kids who discovers the first body. Bones do turn up in archaeological sites, but not with modern dental work. With Reynolds technically on vacation, Maggie and her unofficial assistant Lenny are off and running on the investigation.

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The 39 Cupcakes brings back many of the characters from Maggie’s previous cases and adds a few new ones. The cast and the setting of these books is so much fun, and Maggie works her way through the mayhem around her with great humor, seeing her father’s country with American eyes, struggling to pronounce Irish names, and waiting for those official divorce papers.

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Fortunately we won’t have to wait too long for Maggie’s next case: Rebel Without a Claus, coming this holiday season.

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Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone mysteries never spend much time on my TBR shelf. I’ve been a fan of the series since the first book, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, came out in 1977. Over the years we have met more and more members of Sharon’s large and increasingly The Color of Fearcomplicated family, and a number of them figure prominently in the latest installment, The Color of Fear. When Sharon’s visiting Shoshone father is attacked and beaten on a San Francisco street, the incident appears at first to be a random hate crime, perhaps related to other recent crimes against minorities. But when Sharon and her colleagues investigate, it appears there’s a lot more going on—and someone will go to any lengths to stop Sharon from finding out the truth.

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Sue Grafton also has a new mystery on the shelf, Y Is For Yesterday. I haven’t picked that one up yet, because I’m three behind—V, W, and X are still waiting for me. I’ve been reading Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone novels since A Is For Alibi (1982), and I will catch up. These are two series that will stay on my keeper shelf.

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I missed David Handler’s Stewart Hoag mysteries completely when they were published in the 1980s. I picked up the first one, The Man Who Died Laughing, when it popped up on an ebook sale email recently (I get far too many of those). How could I resist a mystery starring a one-hit wonder writer conned into trying his hand at ghostwriting? Not to mention the basset hound, Lulu.

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The Man Who Died LaughingIn The Man Who Died Laughing, Hoagy heads to California to ghostwrite the autobiography of famous comic Sonny Day. Much of Sonny’s story comes out in the form of interview tapes, but he’s reluctant to answer the one question everyone asks—what caused the public fistfight which ended his partnership with straight man Gabe Knight. That question seems to be at the heart of a whole string of drastic events: death threats, vandalism, arson, and finally murder. Someone clearly does not want the answer to become public.

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The book is set in the early 1980s, and many celebrities of the day wander in and out of the story (perhaps to assure the reader that Day and Knight are not based directly on any real people), lending considerable atmosphere to the setting. There’s quite a bit of wry humor, but the mystery is a bit darker than I expected. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I have another Handler tale (The Woman Who Fell From Grace) waiting on my Kindle. I’ll be watching for others in the series.

 

The Movie Club Mysteries

I am loving this series of cozies by Zara Keane, set on a small island off the west coast of Ireland. The central character, Maggie Doyle, is an American whose father came from Whisper Island, and she has fond memories of spending childhood summers there. So when her marriage and her job with the San Francisco police department both go down the tubes, she goes to visit her Aunt Noreen and help out at the Movie Theater Cafe, just for a little while.

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I had started reading book two, The Postman Always Dies Twice, when I discovered To To Hatch a ThiefHatch a Thief, a longish novella set between the first (Dial P for Poison) and second novels. So I switched over to read it first. To Hatch a Thief involves stolen diamonds and dancing chickens (in leprechaun costumes!), not to mention the intriguing Sergeant Reynolds. 

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The second full-length novel, The Postman Always Dies Twice is another funny, fast-moving entry. This time Maggie and her friend Lenny discover the body of the The Postman Always Dies Twicelocal postal carrier, and Maggie goes undercover at the island hotel in an attempt to find the poltergeist scaring the guests away. Meanwhile Sergeant Reynolds has moved into the cottage next to Maggie’s, but he may not be there long if the postman’s murder gets any more complicated. Between wardrobe disasters, bootleg whiskey, and pot-laced brownies, Maggie’s stay on Whisper Island is far from the uneventful r&r she was looking for–but maybe just what she needs.

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By the time How To Murder a Millionaire rolls around, Maggie has decided to stay on Whisper Island, and has gotten How To Murder a Millionaireherself a private investigator’s license, and her first job—investigating the disappearance of a sheep named Nancy, who went missing twenty-two years ago. When she goes to interview the prime suspect in that very cold case, she finds his body in his barn—clad in a crotchless mankini. (Yes, I had to google that, and even with an intact crotch, a mankini is a terrible thing to behold. You have been warned.) Soon Maggie is dealing with the horrible American family of her late grandmother’s oldest friend, who just may be connected to the mankini murder. And then there’s Sergeant Reynolds . . .

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I’m looking forward to Maggie’s next adventure, The 39 Cupcakes, due out next month.

And More Mysteries

I came back from RWA 2017 last week with a small stack of new romance novels (only eight this year, which is pretty conservative for a conference where free books practically fly into one’s tote bag—and picture 2000 women with identical green and blue tote bags!). I even bought three of them at the Literacy Signing (where RWA raised over $44,000 for literacy organizations).

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I’ll get to those books, and the several new downloads on my Kindle, sooner or later, but in the meantime, here are a few more mysteries. (The biggest mystery remains: when do I think I’m going to read all the books I collect?).

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The Great Detectives: The World’s Most Celebrated Sleuths Unmasked by Their Authors, edited by Otto Penzler, was first published back in the 1970s, so the detectives profiled date back to the early to mid twentieth century. Back in my voracious mystery reader days (how did I ever have that much time for reading?), I ran through the adventures some of these detectives: Roderick Alleyn (by Ngaio Marsh), Lew Archer (by Ross MacDonald), Jose da Silva (by Robert Fish), Nancy Drew (by Carolyn Keene), the 87th Precinct (by Ed McBain), Luis Mendoza (by Dell Shannon), and Mr. and Mrs, North (by Frances & Richard Lockridge), and I at least recognize most of the others (including the Shadow and Dick Tracy).

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The authors’ essays range from biographies of their characters to interviews with the detectives (a technique many authors favor) to discussions of how these fictional people were created (some well planned in advance, some appearing on the page with no warning). For me, those peeks into the minds of those writers was the most interesting part of the book.

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I know some Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe purists are not thrilled with Robert Goldsborough’s continuation of the series, but I’ve been enjoying his efforts. The Last Coincidence was published in 1989, and, although the characters have not aged over several decades, they are now living in the late twentieth century, and Archie is keeping the orchid records and doing other office tasks on a computer. His relationship with long-time lady friend Lily Rowan gets a bit more attention, too, although Archie remains a gentleman and never goes into detail.

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The Last CoincidenceIn this installment, Wolfe and Archie investigate the murder of a young man who assaulted Lily’s niece. For a moment even Archie might be a suspect, but attention soon turns to a collection of Lily’s relatives and their friends. The novel ends, as Wolfe’s cases often do, with all the suspects gathered in Wolfe’s office, as the great detective drinks beer and explains all.

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Many years ago, when I was a book-a-day reader, I barreled through all the Nero Wolfe novels. I’ve picked up and enjoyed a few of those more recently, but I’m also happy to see the cases continue. I’ve managed to accumulate all of Goldsborough’s entries on my Kindle—now I just need more reading time.

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Watching the DetectivesWatching the Detectives is the fifth entry in Julie Mulhern’s Country Club Murders series, Set in Kansas City in 1974, in that bygone era before computers, the Internet, and cell phones changed our lives. Ellison Russell has developed a remarkable talent for discovering bodies, sometimes in her own house, while juggling her teenage daughter Grace, her overbearing mother, and two attractive men, police detective Anarchy Jones and attorney Hunter Tafft. This time around, Ellison discovers an interior decorator whose life is as much a mystery as her death, contributes to a luncheon without finding out who the guest speaker is, and delves into some dark domestic secrets. Excellent as always. I’ve just preordered the next book in the series, Cold As Ice, available in October.

Mystery Roundup

I seem to be reading a lot of cozy mysteries lately (when I’m not solving logic problems on my new tablet and telling myself it’s good mental exercise). Here are the three latest offerings in series I enjoy a lot.

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Ivy Get Your GunIvy Get Your Gun is the fourth installment in Cindy Brown’s mystery series set in and around Phoenix and featuring Ivy Meadows (nee Olive Ziegwart), a working actress who moonlights with her private investigator uncle to make ends meet. But it’s one of her theatrical friends who asks her to check out the situation at a newly opened Wild West tourist attraction, where she finds herself in a two-actor, four-character melodrama, and in the middle of trouble. Meanwhile, she’s auditioning for the lead in Annie Get Your Gun, researching the real Annie Oakley, and tracking a pack of feral chihuahuas across the golf courses in pursuit of a missing (male) pug named Lassie. And then there’s her sort of secret relationship with her boyfriend Matt.

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I really love this series. Jump on board now and read them in order: MacDeath, The Sound of Murder, and Oliver Twisted. Great fun.

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Murder, Curlers & Canes is Arlene McFarlane’s second Valentine Beaumont mystery, and it’s just as much fun as the first (Murder, Curlers & Cream). This time around, Valentine’s salon is doing well, thanks in part to the sexy new stylist she’s hired. He’s not only Murder, Curlers & Canesdrawing in a bevy of clients who look like supermodels even before he does their hair, but he’s almost enough to take Valentine’s mind off Detective Romero, who’s been missing with no explanation for a couple of months.

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But then Phyllis, the world’s worst salon employee, marches back in, and Valentine finds one of her retirement home clients, Sister Madeline, dead in a plate of lasagna. The police are ready to call that natural causes, but Valentine suspects something else. But who would want to murder a retired nun?

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Everyone has a secret: the dead nun, the sexy stylist, the returning Romero, and practically everybody at the retirement home. Only one of them is threatening Valentine as she gets too close to the truth, but who is it?

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Add to that a series of disastrous blind dates (engineered by Valentine’s mother), a car chase through the mountains, and Valentine’s improvisational skills with the tools of her trade and whatever else she can lay her hands on, and you have a fast paced and funny mystery with more than a dash of romance.

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Lowcountry Bonfire is the sixth entry in Susan M. Boyer’s series about private investigator Liz Talbot, her husband and partner Nate Andrews, and Liz’s long-dead friend Colleen. Yes, Colleen is the guardian spirit assigned to protect Stella Maris, Liz’s island home off the South Carolina coast near Charleston.

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Lowcountry BonfireThis case stays close to home on the island, when its small community is disrupted by the discovery of a body in the trunk of a burning 1969 Mustang convertible, right across the street from Liz’s parents’ house. The victim (and owner of the classic car), Zeke Lyerly, had clearly not committed suicide. Although Zeke was a Stella Maris native, much of his life was a blank filled with grandiose stories most of his friends took for imaginative fables. But Liz, who doesn’t believe Zeke’s wife knew he was in the trunk (or even that he was dead) when she set the car (filled with Zeke’s clothing) on fire, digs for the truth.

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As Liz hunts through Zeke’s mysterious past, she comes to suspect that the answer to this mystery may lie closer to home, but long in the past.

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Boyer’s Lowcountry series features a great cast of characters and well developed mysteries, but a big part of their charm is the setting. The island community of Stella Maris, which Colleen works to protect from both disaster and development plays an important role in the series, as does the nearby city of Charleston. Very entertaining, and almost as good as an island vacation.

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And a short story bonus, Big Foot Stole My Wife, and other stories: I’ve been a Joan Hess fan forever, and have all the Claire Malloy and Maggody books on my keeper shelf, so I grabbed this collection of short stories when I saw it. The stories were all written in the 90s, but they were new to me. Two are Claire Malloy shorts, two Maggody stories (one with Arly and one with only Ruby Bee and Estelle). The other seven are funny in a very dark and sometimes rather twisted way, most of them rooted in domestic tension. Let’s just say no one in these stories is happily married. I enjoyed them all.

Two Tudor Plots

Steve Berry’s The Tudor Plot is a novella, and a prequel to The King’s Deception, short and entertaining. It almost slides over to the science fiction shelf, because its alternate timeline is so clear. Berry’s American set thrillers have fictional Presidents and Senators The Tudor Plot(which sounds to me like a pretty good idea right now), but we expect that in a political suspense novel. In fact, that’s pretty much a necessity. But the contemporary thriller story line in The Tudor Plot features an entirely alternate British Royal Family, headed by Victoria II, the fourth monarch of the Saxe-Coburg line, who succeeded her father, Edward VIII (who never abdicated, apparently willing and able to rule without the support of his American divorcee). Her Duke of Edinburgh, James, is an actual Scot, and they have tempted fate, unhappily, by naming their children Richard and Eleanor (poor choices on Victoria’s part, good ones on Berry’s). All four of these people are important characters in the story. A plot to disrupt and replace the succession echoes the Tudor replacement of the Plantagenet rulers (which I probably wouldn’t have appreciated as much if I hadn’t just read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time), while the historical story line follows attempts to establish the real existence (and resting place) of the legendary King Arthur in hopes of strengthening the modern monarchy. The connection between contemporary and historical is a little more tenuous than is usual in Berry’s full-length novels, but I enjoyed it.

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I’m sure I read all of Josephine Tey’s mysteries (not that she wrote many) decades ago. When I saw The Daughter of Time on one of the ebook sale emails recently I decided to see if it was as good as its reputation (and as I vaguely remembered). It is, especially for a history geek like me.

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Tey’s detective, Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, is facing weeks in hospital, flat on his back, The Daughter of Timewith a broken leg and a back injury of some unspecified sort (apparently this was possible back around 1950, with no worries about the resulting bill, either). A visiting friend brings him a stack of pictures, including one of Richard III, and Grant whiles away the rest of his stay investigating (with the help of a young American researcher in need of an excuse for hanging out at the British Museum) a very old cold case, the fate of the Princes in the Tower.

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I found the book, and the investigation, fascinating. Tey makes a very good case for Grant’s eventual theories, but what really struck a chord with me was his discussions of various historical “events” that actually never happened, at least not in the form that everyone thinks they did. His examples are largely from bits of English history I know little about (a riot in Wales, remembered as a massacre, in which no one was killed; “martyrs” who not only didn’t die for their faith, but didn’t die at all; vicious religious zealots remembered as heroes). Aha, I thought: Alternative Facts! Not a new concept at all.

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The Daughter of Time was voted Number One of the Best Crime Novels of All Time by the British Crime Writers Association in 1990, rather remarkable for such a non-traditional mystery. Very much worth reading. I may have to rediscover more of Tey’s work.

Three New Mystery Series

I’ve recently read the first installment of three mystery series. They don’t have much else in common (except that I enjoyed them all), but I do my best to find some way to tie these reviews together.

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Curse the DayCurse the Day, by Annabel Chase, is a delightful paranormal cozy mystery, first in a series, set in the small town of Spellbound. Spellbound isn’t just any small town in rural Pennsylvania. It’s populated entirely by paranormals, everyone from angels to vampires, witches to were-ferrets. And none of them can leave—no one is entirely sure how or why, or even when the town was cursed, but cursed it is.

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When underpaid and overworked lawyer Emma Hart stumbles into town (in the arms of a morose fallen angel), she has no idea that she’s anything but an ordinary human being. But when she tries to leave, she walks into an invisible but unbreakable barrier. The curse on Spellbound won’t release her, and the witches of the town recognize her as one of their own—and one badly in need of training. Before she can say abracadabra, Emma finds herself trying to learn the art of spell casting and trying to fill the now-empty shoes of the town’s public defender, a recently murdered vampire.

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Emma is a snarky, self-deprecating, very funny narrator, and the supporting characters, from the apprentice witches (who are sharper than their elders realize) to the cranky centaur sheriff, night-golfing vampires to flea-conscious werewolves, are a hoot. I thoroughly enjoyed Curse the Day, and there are several more installments waiting to be read. Number 2, Doom and Broom, is waiting on my Kindle.

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One of the most enjoyable aspects of the cozy mystery genre is the variety of setting and background. Zara Keane’s Dial P for Poison is the first in a series set on a small island off Dial P For Poisonthe coast of Ireland, featuring Maggie Doyle, who grew up in California but spent childhood summers visiting her Irish relatives on Whisper Island. Recently divorced from both her cheating husband and the San Francisco Police Department, Maggie has come back to help her Aunt Noreen run the Movie Theater Cafe, and maybe to hide out from life for a while. But she’s thrown right back into detecting when someone is murdered during a movie showing at the cafe and Noreen is accused of the crime.

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Surrounded by childhood friends—and enemies—and faced with a local Guard Sergeant who would really rather be playing golf, Maggie recruits a few allies and sets out to clear Noreen.

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I enjoyed both the writing and the setting, and have already downloaded the next book, The Postman Always Dies Twice. Keane’s web site promises at least one more, How To Murder a Millionaire.

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A Study in Scarlet Women is the first installment in Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock series. A Study in Scarlet WomenThomas takes her time setting up the premise for her female Sherlock, Charlotte Holmes, youngest daughter in a thoroughly, suffocatingly Victorian family. When Charlotte deliberately engineers her own social downfall to escape her home life, she inadvertently throws suspicion on her father and sister in the wake of a series of unexpected deaths. Once she gets her now-independent feet on the ground, she falls back on her old penchant of writing letters of detective advice to the appropriate authorities, signing them with the name of her non-existent brother, Sherlock Holmes.

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It took a bit of a stretch for me to buy into a Sherlock Holmes tale in which, let’s face it, Sherlock doesn’t exist, but Charlotte, Lord Ingram Ashburton (who knows the truth), and Inspector Treadles (who doesn’t) combine forces to solve the murders.

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Thomas is primarily a writer of historical romance, and a bit of romance shows up for Charlotte toward the end of the novel, along with vivid descriptions of Victorian London from the viewpoint of a woman who has lost (voluntarily) her social position, and considerable commentary on the situation of Victorian women in general. The next volume in the adventures of Charlotte Holmes is due this fall.

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