Category Archives: Mysteries

Hi, Hannah


Title: Birth Marks

Author: Sarah Dunant

Published: 1992

Series: The Hannah Wolfe Crime Novels

Summary: Hannah, back in London, is hired to find a missing ballet dancer, Carolyn Hamilton.  When Carolyn is found dead only days after, under the assumption of suicide, Hannah is asked to find out why.    What she uncovers, layer by layer, is a truth that reveals more about herself than she was looking for.

This book was lent to me, highly recommended, by a friend [thank you, Lisa!] who knows my love of mysteries, and my general Anglophilia, so I eagerly began reading it nearly as soon as it was in my hands.  I was hooked after the opening paragraph:

Mistake number one: I should never have sublet the flat.  Mistake number two was letting myself be taken in by appearances.  With a job like mine, you’d think I would have learnt by now.  But she had seemed such a shrinking violet, an anthroplogy student with so many religous books that she was clearly having trouble with Darwin.  Obviously somewhere over the last three months the evolutionists had struck back.  The kitchen smelt as if a dinosaur had died there and the bed looked as though it had been used to test out the survival of the fittest theory.  Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll   It had all happened here.  And I hadn’t had any of them.  Ah, these young people.  As a woman on the wrong side of thirty I could feel disapproval coming on.[1]

Hannah Wolfe’s strong narrative presence is a constant throughout the novel.  She was the reason I kept reading, as her desire to know the truth about the dead dancer fueled the narrative onward.  Hannah’s a professional private eye, and a darn good one.  After reading long series of cozy mysteries where the “detective’s” involvement must be contrived, it was utterly refreshing to have Hannah investigating because it was her job.  Hannah rather reluctantly takes the case because she needs the money and because it’s the better of several rather dreary alternatives.   

Also making a nice change is that Dunant’s novel is peopled with three-dimensional characters, who don’t exist soley to drop the detective a clue.  These characters’ lives continue on while Hannah is not around, and when we revisit them, events in which we’ve played little or no part have altered their willingness to discuss Carolyn’s life. Hannah’s connection to the case grows while she slowly attempts to bring the thusly divergent pictures of the lost Carolyn into focus.  And yes, I am attempting to review this without given away any of the clues that Dunant went to such effort to skillfully scatter throughout her pages.

Being a single woman on “the wrong side of thirty,” Hannah also finds herself particularly vulnerable to the choices that various characters, particularly Carolyn, have made about motherhood– leading us into the central theme of the novel.  This is where Dunant gives herself away as a serious novelist [which she has now become], rather than simply a weaver of mysteries. Hannah’s narration becomes replete with womb imagery (a little heavy-handed, frankly) and her scrutiny of Carolyn’s life and death become a reflection upon her own life’s choices.  Certainly, I think, most women can relate, at least in part, to Hannah’s conflicted thoughts about the single, career-driven, independent life she has (and enjoys) and the children/ marriage/ domestic life she both admires and fears.  However, the existential angst with which Dunant wraps this internal narration had me checking the copyright date.  Yup, I confirmed to myself, 1992 sounds about right– and it also explains some of the ‘decadant eighties big business’ overtones.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed Dunant and Hannah, and will be eagerly adding the other two novels in the series, “Under My Skin” and “Fatlands” to my TBR list.

Sarah Dunant’s official website:

repost: review of “The Shortest Way to Hades”


Title: The Shortest Way to Hades

Author: Sarah Caudwell

Series: the Hilary Tamar mysteries

Summary: A group of young London barristers, along with their former tutor Tamar, set out to investigate the suspicious death (deaths?) of one of their clients.  Half of the story happens in London, while the other half is in Corfu, Greece.

Once again, a fabulous and unique narrator.  Hilary Tamar is carefully written with intellectual language, elegant sentences, and a complete ambiguity about gender.  All of the other characters are clearly men or women, but Hilary is deliberately never defined.  Oh, there are clues, of course, but just when you think you have Hilary nailed down, something else slips in– and your ideas fold away.  People who review this book, like I am, often make a big deal about this, as it is so unusual, but I think the point that Caudwell is trying to make is that it doesn’t really matter to the story, so why include it?  And, she has a point. 

Ok, remember what I said a few posts ago about not like Literature ?  Well, I do like feeling smart about literature, I just don’t care, particularly, for reading it in my spare time.  The beautiful thing about Hilary, Cantrip, Selena, Timothy, Ragwort, and Julia is that they feel like an exclusive, academic club to which you, the reader, are also invited– meanwhile, you’re reading a mystery book.  I admit, I had to go back to my old copy of “The Odyssey” for a few of the more obscure references, but that’s what makes this worth the read– that plot elements of classical Greek literature play an essential part in the plot of the story.  Speaking of plotting– Caudwell’s plot construction is so tight, you don’t even realize what she’s done until the very end when every piece falls neatly into place.  If you don’t know your “Odyssey,” though, don’t worry.  The relevant passages are made clear enough without background reading.  Also, Caudwell thankfully DOES include a family tree at the front of the novel to help the poor reader keep track of the various members of the Jocasta clan.

Now, onto the dialogue, which is my favorite thing about this book & this entire series.  Each character speaks with a lovely, high-lettered way.  Other reviews have called their tone “ironic,” but I feel it is more Wodehousian– calling it irony takes away from the beautiful playfulness of the novel.  The interplay of each character’s speaking style, along with the “come on, gang!” element makes it feel like a more serious version of one of his best novels.  I actually read most of the dialogue aloud, just because it was fun to say. Cantrip’s speeches, in particular, stand out.  It’s a pity that Caudwell only wrote the 4 books in this series, a bit of short story, and one play.  We won’t get any more, either, because she died 9 years ago.  (I know, she was busy being a tax barrister and all, but it’s a shame).  For example, Hilary doesn’t want to grade final exam essays (I know the feeling).  She explains this as follows: “The suggestion had been made by some of my colleagues that I should participate in the marking of the summer examinations which in Oxford we refer to as Schools.  Much as I was honored by the proposal, I had felt obliged to decline: who am I to sit in judgement on the young?  Moreover, the marking of examination scripts is among the most tedious of occupations.  I had accordingly explained that the demands of Scholarship– that is to say, of my researches into the concept of causa in the early Common Law– precluded any other commitment of my time and energies.”  Now, don’t you wish you would write that way when turning down an assignment at work?

Overall: Anglophiles– you’ll love this series.  Nicely, too, you don’t have to read them in order. 

For more see below:

a sweet treat of a novel


hi, ya’ll!  This was the last book I read during the summer, and the tiny bit of the review I wrote has been sitting here in the draft box and taunting me for weeks to finish it– so here it finally is!

Title: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Author: Alan Bradley

Pub date: 2009

Series: (the bio at the end of the book promises a sequel)

Summary: In the summer of 1950, Flavia de Luce, an eleven-year-old chemist (specializing in poisons), is living in her expansive but crumbling ancestral home out in the English countryside.  One afternoon, a dead rook with a stamp on its beak is found on the kitchen doorstep.  By the end of the week, there is a dead man in the cucumber patch, her father has been arrested for murder, and Flavia has taken up the job of solving the mystery in her own inemitable way.

What first attracted me to this novel was its perfect size and cover.  It’s just the right size, as a hardback with nice rounded edges, to fit in a purse or a coat pocket.  The cover art is simple but intriguing, and it contains an essential clue to the story’s plot.  (No, I’m not going to tell you what it is.)  It’s also long enough that I couldn’t finish it in one sitting, but it was still a fairly quick read.  Towards the end, I actually slowed myself down to savor it, as the sequel is not yet available, and I wanted to spend more time with Flavia.

Speaking of the heroine/ detective Flavia…I don’t know how Alan Bradley did it, but he somehow went back in time, read my eleven-year-old mind, and then created just the sort of girl I really, really wanted to be!  She rides her bike everywhere, lives in a sprawling, crumbling mansion, is clever, solves mysteries, and is a chemistry prodigy (ok, that last part I didn’t dream about).  She’s a delight to read about, and precocious in just the right amount of way.  I didn’t get sick of her or find her too adult-like, as is often the case with child-heroes.  Spot on, Mr. Bradley!

The mystery itself is quite good, if a bit wrapped up in esoterica, but Bradley gives the reader all of the information they need in simple and natural pieces.  I like learning things from mystery novels, as I’ve said before, and here I learned a bit about rare stamps and British history.  Unlike some authors whose early books contained lessons which are really unnecessary to the plot (yes, Kathy Reichs, I’m talking to you.  You’ve improved now, though, so good job), all of the little lessons here are crucial to the reader’s understanding of the plot– even when they don’t seem to be.  So, pay attention, ladies and gentlemen.

Bradley clearly won the Dagger Award for a reason with this novel.  It’s a good ‘un. 


For more, check out the website below:

a howl on the moor

 Ah, and here it is… the long-awaited second half of my comments on “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

When we left our heroes, Holmes had shed his beggar disguise, and he and Watson were headed back to Baskerville Hall.  As they walk across Dartmoor, suddenly, they hear a howl…

  • How can they “follow” a sound that has stopped?
  • “Notting Hill Murderer”?  Where did this subplot come from?  Are Will & Anna involved?
Should they be worried about the Notting Hill Murderer? 

Should they be worried about the Notting Hill Murderer?

  • Ah, the boot is properly explained.  This was a good clue.
  • Again with Stapleton recognizing people whom he has never before met!  That’s quite a skill.
  • Why is Stapleton not at all shocked by the dead body at his feet?  Shouldn’t he show at least a bit of horror?
  • Holmes is kind when he breaks the news to Mrs. Barryman.
  • Again!  These “upper-crust” types have no lasting sympathy for underlings– they are to be considered and then dismissed.
  • Oh, Rathbone!  That was nearly straight to camera.

  • I like these discussions on the train between Holmes and Watson, explaining the plots & plans.  It is very reminiscent of what I like best about the radio series.
  • Ah– Mr. Franklin, you are so spunky!
  • How unfortunate about the wagon.
  • What a sweet touch with the broach.
  • That’s quite the dress & jewelry Beryl is wearing!
  • The Stapleton’s hall looks like it was designed by a high-school acting company on a budget.
  • Ah– an what is the cunning Stapleton up to now?  Black gloves bode no good.
  • Poor doggie!  But that explains the “grave-robbing” charge.
  • Now, given the size of Dartmoor, I find it rather inconceivable that Holmes and Watson can find the moving dog by his growls.
  • Quite the savage dog attack, actually.  Pretty intense.
  • Again, the poor doggie.  Was it really necessary to shoot at him?
  • “Mr. Holmes…” you were wrong.
  • It was pretty clear that “IT” was a dog, Sir Henry.
  • Nice bit of tracking by Holmes and good sound effect touches in the background– noticable for the general lack of music through the rest of the film
  • Oh, Holmes!  You should have seen that one coming.  We all did.
  • Why aren’t they treating Sir Henry for rabies?  He was just attacked by a vicious dog.
  • Why does Stapleton want him dead?
  • No, Don’t Drink It!

Don't be like Alice, Sir Henry!

  • Awfully clever of you, Holmes!  How did you manage that trick?  {we’re never shown}
  • About that dog:  I seem to recall that the dog in the book was painted to glow in the moonlight. Maybe they couldn’t manage it in the studio?
  • A cute plot, young Stapleton.  Completely mad, but cute.
  • So, where did Holmes get these constables, eh?  He hasn’t been to town since he left with Watson on the return train.
  • Uncharacteristic of Holmes not to go running after his quarry.  The man just disappears, and we never hear about him again.  What an anti-climactic ending.
  • Holmes’s face during Mortimer’s effusions is classic.
  • Wait?  What?!  He just goes to bed?  That’s it?!  And everyone takes this?
  • Wow.  “Oh, and Watson, the needle.” — First off, kudos for sneaking that reference past the censors; Second- -pedants would know that Holmes would never use his needle right after a case– only when he got bored.

Ok– Overall, a decent first-effort towards telling the story on film and contains an excellent pair of Holmes & Watson.  However, the plot is over-simplified and the ending falls very flat.  A shame, that.  It’s a fairly short movie, and there should have been plenty of room to fill in the details.

Holmes and the Hound, part 1


“The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1939) 

80 minutes; black & white

Starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce 

As promised, here are my comments on this film.  I’ll be presenting them in two parts.

I’ve owned a set of the “New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” radio dramas (1939-46) since high school, so I am very familiar with Rathbone & Bruce’s voices and their acting styles.  In 46, Rathbone bowed out, and Bruce then continued the series for a bit with Tom Conway as Holmes.  I’m considerably less familiar with their film work, though I have seen a few movies.  “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was Rathbone & Bruce’s first movie together, and its popularity inspired all of the later films, as well as the radio series.  So, this is an important film in the Holmesian canon.

 I’m working with a foggy memory as regards the plot of this story, as it has been donkey’s years since I read Conan Doyle’s novel, not since my ill-fated attempt to teach it to seventh graders.  Yeah, it didn’t go well, but never mind.  It wasn’t the book’s fault. And… we’re moving on…

The preceding paragraph will probably be the last truly coherent one in this post.  I could write a sophisticated and erudite analysis of this film’s cinematography and its pivotal role in our modern collective consciousness’s image of Sherlock Holmes, but what fun would that be?


Instead, what follows are my scribbled thoughts as I made my way through the film.


–    As they run the credits, I am reminded that a new Holmes movie is on its way to our theaters.  I’m tentatively anticipating it. 

–    Who is this David Stewart Davies on the optional commentary?  What has he done to make him qualified to comment on this?  The booklet doesn’t say.

–    Bizarre fact: the *stars* of the film are credited 2nd & 4th.

–    I  ♥ Big Ben & foggy Baker Street.

–    Interesting how much these 1930’s movies expected their audience to read.  Not just “oh, look, something is written in the newspaper” but then leaving said paper up on the screen long enough for everyone to read the entire article.  A hold over from silent films, perhaps, or just indicative of their expectations of an intelligent, literate, participatory audience?

–    After hearing so many of the radio adventures, ‘tis strange to SEE the actors speaking with those familiar voices.

–    The bit with Watson’s deductions from the walking stick—I don’t know if I approve of his giving Watson a chance, or if I am annoyed that Holmes so gleefully knocks down his friend’s efforts.

teeth marks

–    Ah, now we know what Doctor Mortimer’s wife didn’t want him telling the coroner, but why was she so interested in keeping it a secret?

–    Ok—this just annoys me.  This “flashback/ reading the legend” scene is presented as the wacky hijinks of drunken frat-boys, complete with “sitcom-esque” music in the background.  Um…hello, Director:  this scene describes the kidnapping, rape, and murder of an under-aged girl by a sadistic aristocrat.  It lays the groundwork for why this sinister, supernatural Hound torments and murders the Baskerville family down the ages.  What WERE you thinking?

–    When compared to the previous sheaf of papers, Mortimer’s “few pages” seem to have expanded to a novella.

–    If I were Holmes, at this point, I would have yanked the pages from Mortimer by now and skimmed them myself.

–    I wonder if Rathbone was actually playing the violin here?  If so… yum!

   {wait for it.  song starts around 1:45}

–    Right off, we establish Sir Henry as handsome, generous, and polite to girls in glasses.  [see Dorothy Parker]

–    Point of order:  how will they know where to send Sir Henry’s luggage?

–    It can’t be easy to throw a stone through the side window of a moving vehicle.

–    More reading for the audience.  I’m going to stop mentioning it, and simply put a count total at the bottom of this post.  Let’s see if your count matches mine.

–    Here’s where I like Watson.  I was wondering that about the boots myself, and he asked it.

–    How much do I love male Victorian garb!  Gentlemen—you should really all wear more of this.

–    Nice bit of tension-building with the pistol, but it got me thinking {too much NCIS, clearly} how good is the sniper’s aim?  How far is the range of that dinky pistol?

–    Realism of the costumes extends to the chambermaid—no modern brassiere for her.  Couldn’t pull off that kind of accuracy nowadays.

–    What’s going on outside the window as Holmes interviews the cabbie?  A thunderstorm?

–    Sir Henry’s “Canadian” accent seems sketchy here.

–    Lovely atmospheric work on the matte paintings & studio-bound Stonehenge.

–    “If I believed all of the legends about this place, I wouldn’t live here.  I wouldn’t have the courage.”

–    Beautifully detailed paintings of Baskerville Hall.

–    I’m going to assume that the casting of Spartan-looking woman= servant who is up to no good.

–    Love Watson’s pen.  Want one.

–    Great moment with the door handle.

–    Watson and Sir Henry make a good, if bumbling, team.  Watson gets to do a bit of thinking for a change.

–    How far away WAS that light?

–    Gee, let’s hide in plain sight.  I’m sure the villain will return and ignore us completely.

–    Look out, Watson!

–    He’s right, you know.  Holmes would not want clodhopping policemen trouncing all over his investigation.

–    Sounds like a wolf to me.

–    Watson is a bit over-the-top here with Stapleton.  Why are they both so shocked to hear a woman’s voice?  Stapleton knows his sister was right behind him.

–    Was there any chance that Sir Henry WOULDN’T hear her calling him?  They were only about 4 feet apart, and she was shouting quite loudly.

–    No, no, you will not be a love interest at all.

–    Clearly, we are at the monthly dinner meeting of chops and ‘staches.

–    Poor wife looks really frightened of séance.  Why?

–    I like Franklin.  He’s spunky!

–    She does not look like the fisherman-type to me.

–    Nice how the conversation indicates that time has passed.

–    Aww.  Sweet—but awkward embrace there, and distinctly chaste.

–    Way to be prejudiced against the old peddler, everyone in this scene!  Bad!

being mean to beggar

–    Clever observation there, Watson; but you have not redeemed yourself.

–    Nice that his drawing room provides a convenient view of the exact place on all of the entire Moor where Sir Henry happens to be wandering.

–    That’s one long-burning match!

–    “What blasted impertinence!”

–    Ah—he gets you with that old chestnut every time, Watson, my lad.

–    Ok—why is Watson all shocked about “murder.”—isn’t that why ya’ll are out here on the Moor in the first place?  Have you not been paying attention?


So, as Watson & the newly-revealed Holmes head back to Baskerville Hall, we’ll call it a night.  More to come soon.



*** Starting from the beginning, I have so far counted 6 instances of the audience being expected to read from the screen.  Did I miss any?

catch “The Little Sleep”


Title: The Little Sleep

Author:Paul Tremblay

Summary:Mark Genevich, a detective mostly in name only, receives a case he doesn’t understand from a person he can’t remember because he was sleeping at the time.  He’s a severe narcoleptic with all of the symptoms, including hallucinations, sleep walking, and paralysis.  The only clues he has are two scandalous pictures of a girl who looks like the local D.A.’s famous daughter.  No matter how Mark looks at it, this isn’t going to be easy.  He tries to do the right thing and go straight to the D.A.    Then things go very very wrong, very very quickly.

This novel has received heaps of exquisite praise for its take on noir and the crime novel.  Tremblay certainly deserves these tributes, but that’s not what I want to discuss.  I want to talk about the Mark Genevich.  Those of you who have read my previous reviews know that I have an interest in strong, unique narrators.  Additionally, ever since I did a critical reading of “The Fall of the House of Usher” in college, I’ve been especially intrigued by novels with unreliable narrators.  Mark fits both of these categories to a tee. 

Because of his narcolepsy, Mark slips in and out of consciousness throughout the narrative.  When he is not actually asleep, Mark is always exhausted and often hallucinating; so as the reader, you cannot trust what Mark is seeing, hearing, or doing.  Tremblay accentuates these elements in two particular ways: first, he has Mark tell the story from the first-person perspective so the reader has no one else on whom to rely for information; second, Tremblay’s prose flows over and around the reader with soporific, hypnotic phrases which become especially exaggerated as Mark slips closer to “going under.”  Mark’s hallucinations and his resulting confusion keep both him and the reader in a sort of nether-world between dreams and reality.  Since we have to struggle along with Mark through this haze, the actual mystery (which would otherwise be rather ordinary) becomes a giant jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing, no picture on the box, and several pieces from other puzzles thrown about for good measure.    The whole mish-mash makes for an excellent and challenging read.

Mark is a strong voice, and I very much enjoyed spending the story with him.  He is brave against all odds, his sense of humor is sharp, and his life is refreshingly ordinary for a noir detective (aside from his nerological problem).  I particularly relished the parts where Mark talks tough to the bad guys, even though he has no clues and they have guns.  In a prime example, two goons confront Mark in the garden shed just as he discovers a crucial clue.  Mark responds to their unexpected appearance with “If you’re a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses, God isn’t in the shed and I’m a druid” (181).  Ha!  Lovely stuff!

My only criticism is very mild and really couldn’t be helped.  “The Little Sleep” is Tremblay’s first published novel (though he is well-accomplished in shorter writing forms), and the beginning few chapters do suffer a bit from over-expository syndrome because he has to set-up his characters, setting, and the facts about narcolepsy, as well as the initial clues to the mystery.  Don’t let this worry you, though.  His style soon settles down a bit, and focuses in.  Even these initial facts are laid down with careful touches.  Indeed, I’m very much looking forward to the sequel that Tremblay promises on the back cover, as he will already have laid the groundwork, so he can jump right into the story.

Overall– if you want a quick, fascinating, and fun mystery, go catch “The Little Sleep” from your local bookshop.

For more on Paul Tremblay, check out his blog and his website:

the hand of chance led me to a great mystery


Title: Trace Their Shadows

Author: Ann Turner Cook

Series: The Shadow Series- book 1

Summary: Brandy O’ Bannon, a beginning reporter, needs to write a strong story to keep her job, so she begins to investigate the rumor of a haunting at the old Able mansion, which is about to be demolished.  Reluctantly, John (a cousin of the Ables) agrees to help her.  The haunting rumors quickly turn into a homicide investigation when Brandy and John discover a 45-year-old skeleton.  Now Brandy is determined to find the young woman’s killer, despite the growing dangers.

Randomly cool thing: The author was the model for the Gerber baby!

Four things led me to pick up this novel off of the library shelf: 1- it is a slim, trade-size paperback, which makes it easy to hold and to carry; 2- the author is a local (lives in Tampa, which is close enough), and her novel is set in Central Florida.  It’s unusual to find a cozy mystery set in my neck of the woods; 3– I liked the idea of the ghost story leading into solving a mystery; 4– her title is based on a line by John Keats, one of my favorite writers.  So, this book came home with me.  I’m glad it did.

Now, those of you who are regular readers of my blog know that I am very interested in narrators.  I think that a strong, dynamic, personable narrator is the key to a successful novel.  Cook’s novel is told in first person by Brandy.  Brandy is just out of college, working at a weekly circular-type paper that is distributed for free around the county.  She wants to be a proper journalist, even though her mother keeps encouraging her to become an English teacher.  Brandy is passionate and stubborn, but also making it up as she goes along.  Her vulnerability is one of her most enduring traits.  I also really liked how Brandy’s character changes subtly (as we all do) when she interacts with the different people in her life: her mother, her boss, the people involved in the mystery, John, her boyfriend, etc.  These small shifts in the ways she speaks, thinks, and acts make her seem more real.  I look forward to spending more time with Brandy as I read through the rest of the series. 

{Small note on the Brandy’s mother– according to her biography, Cook is a retired English teacher.  She clearly knows about the life, as evidenced by the fact that nearly every time we see Brandy’s mother, she is grading papers.  Later, another character in the novel says flippantly that teachers get out of school at 3 and have summers off, so why doesn’t her mother have time to do garden club?  Brandy replies, “Teachers work after they get home.  Especially English teachers.”– Preach it, Sister!   If you doubt the truth of this, drop me a comment, and I’ll do the math with you personally.}

This novel is set in the towns of Tavares and Mount Dora, both real small towns in Central Florida, during 1990–just as population and housing were beginning to boom in Florida.  Cook’s prose captures accurately the beauty and danger of the lakes, the Cypress swamps, and the Florida scrub. Her descriptions clearly show her appreciation for traditional Floridian history and architecture, and through the character of John, who is a preservationist architect, she mourns the loss of tradition and uniqueness to the plague of pre-fab, all-look-the-same, gigantic-garaged housing developments– guess I’m not a big fan, either. 

So, onto the mystery itself.  Since the skeleton is 45 years old, the entire investigation centers upon the end of an engagement/ welcome-home party held at the mansion for Brookfield Able.  Many of the participants and servants are dead by 1990, and the others are old, with somewhat unreliable memories of the past.  The readers hear various versions of the party and its ending as Brandy interviews the various witnesses.  I enjoyed playing detective along with Brandy, putting the pieces together to see what didn’t quite fit.  Along the way, family secrets are revealed, and romances surface.  Overall, Cook plays fair with her readers, dropping most of the clues we need; although towards the end she deliberately leaves us in the dark about the theory Brandy has concocted– we get enough to guess at her plan, but aren’t told through Brandy’s internal narration what it will be.  However, we learn soon enough, when her plan goes a bit awry.  The denouement is satisfying and brings all of the narrative’s strings together cleverly.  I particularly liked the final scene. 

Overall, I’m pleased to recommend a local author.  I will be following her series with interest, where shadows conceal secrets of the past.

For more on Cook and her novels, click below:

murder most floral


Title: Rosemary and Thyme

Starring: Felicity Kendal and Pam Ferris

Produced by: Acorn Media/ Carnival Films

Number of Seasons/ Series: 3

Summary: Laura Thyme, a former policewoman and avid gardener, teams up with Rosemary Boxer, a plant biologist.  Together, they solve mysteries both botanical and murderous. 

My favorite element of this series is the beautiful location filming.  The camera captures gardens, fields, waterfalls, meadows, etc with their  gorgeous colors, textures, lights, and patterns.  Watching each show makes me want to  put on boots and tramp through the English countryside (or, alternatively, to finally weed around my rose bushes). 

The music, as composed by Christopher Gunning and performed by guitarist John Williams, provides a charming compliment to the show’s  beauty and simplicity.  He quite naturally based the theme on the English folksong “Scarborough Fayre” (I, like many others, know it from the Simon and Garfunkel album), as the lyrics from the song have inspired the title and the characters’ names.  Gunning also composed and directed the incidental music for the series.  Apparently he has a cd available with music from the series.  I’d quite like to hear that and may look around for it.

The mysteries involved are generally well-crafted and “cozy”.  They usually involve a small group of people, most of whom have motives for the crime.  In many ways, these stories model themselves on the Agatha Christie standard, and they (as I have previously mentioned about other mysteries) “play fair” with the audience as far as clues are concerned.  Like Christies’s televised stories, the viewer must pay attention to each character and their slightest word or movement.  These are not shows that you can just let play in the background while you do something else.  However, given the beautiful photography, who wouldn’t want to feast their eyes, as well as their minds?

So far, I’ve seen seasons/ series (ah, fun with terminology from across the pond) one and two.  I’m looking forward to my local library’s getting the final one.

If you like your mystery dramas soft, character-driven, and absolutely floral– check these ladies out!

For more, click below:

a shrouded mystery


With apologies for the slip into scifi fandom, I’m back on form today with a new book review.  This one is the follow-up to my previous post “a lovely orchid of a novel”   [].  This is the second book in the series.

Title: The Orchid Shroud

Author: Michelle Wan

Series: Death in the Dordogne

Summary: During her renovations of an ancient baronial manor, Mara Dunn and her workmen discover the mummified corpse of an infant.  Wrapped around the child is a shawl embroidered with the elusive orchid that Julian Wood has been searching for.  Together Mara and Julian research the family’s history to uncover the child’s and the orchid’s origins.  Meanwhile, the countryside seems to be under attack by a werewolf.  Could they all be connected?

 As with the previous book in the series, Wan’s descriptions of the Dordogne region of southwestern France are lush and darkly real.  Her forests, here, seem to envelop the novel’s characters, dragging them into the shadows of the trees, where there is both danger and beauty.

Most of the characters introduced in the first novel make their reappearance here, albeit rather briefly.  Having spent significant amounts of time creating and building these people into a community in her first novel, Wan just lets her minor characters be themselves here.  Also, Wan introduces several new and well-developed characters, all involved with Christophe de Bonfond and his extended family, their servants, and their ancestors. 

Julian and Mara spend time during the story considering themselves and their relationship.  These two grow as people.  We, as readers, have also learned to trust them, so when Mara is accused by the police of murder, we know she isn’t guilty.  Now, they just need to learn to trust one another.  There are about 5 levels happening in this novel simultaneously (in no particular order) : 1-the on-again, off-again relationship between Julian and Mara; 2-the investigation into the infant’s death; 3- the hunt for the werewolf (?); 4- the search for the elusive Lady’s Slipper orchid; 5- the historical narrative of Henriette and the De Bonfond/ Verdier family in 1870.  Soon, Christophe’s mysterious disappearance becomes a 6th level and implicates him in the series of recent murders. 

As before, the narration here is told in third person limited and moves from character to character, as needed by the story.  The narration’s primary foci are Julian and Mara, naturally.  However, because a certain element of the story is dependant on events in 1870, Wan also provides narration from Henriette’s perspective.  This marks a departure from her previous novel, which was all set in the present tense. These glimpses into the past help keep the reader about half a step ahead of our modern characters, and, in fact, provide us with a bit of sastifactory closure that Julian and Mara do not obtain– though they do have the clues to hand.  In addition, because of the werewolf murders, Wan includes a certain amount of wolf narration, which simply adds to the uneasy relationship between the real forest and the dangerous woods of the folk tales.

Once again, Wan lays out her mystery’s pieces carefully.  All of them are there for the reader, but they do take awhile to piece together.  Her red-herrings and misdirections are intriguing, but, as I mentioned before, Wan “plays fair.”  She makes your mind work at solving, which is an excellent trait in a mystery writer.  In fact, several hours after I finished reading, as I was considering the very ending of the novel, a clue came back to me.  It was just a small thing that, at the time, had seemed insignificant, but proves, upon consideration, to crucially point to the infant’s killer.  [No, I am not going to tell you– go and read the book.] 

Overall, I think the second verse is even better than the first, particularly as there is more happening in this novel.  I’m looking forward to reading the third.

For more, see below:

trust me on this one


Title: Trust Me on This (1988)                                                                                    trust me... read it

Author: Donald E. Westlake

Sequel: “Baby, Would I Lie?” (1994)  see my review here.

Summary: As a new “reporter” for the outrageous tabloid “Weekly Galaxy,” Sara Joslyn must track down (or invent) the stories demanded by her irascible editor Jack Ingersoll.  Soon, she is part of a series of increasingly calamitous capers on the Galaxy’s behalf.  One little problem– on Sara’s first day on the job, she discovered a dead body.

I LOVE Westlake’s “John Dortmunder” series!  (If you want to know why they are so good, go and read Laurel L. Russwurm’s excellent post LOL: The Dortmunder Novels.)  Anyway, since this is one of his other caper novels outside of the Dortmunder series, I figured I’d try it out, and I was not disappointed.  Certainly, some of the tricks we see here get used again in later books, but it was great fun. 

Sara and Jack make a strong team, and like most partnerships, theirs gets off to a rocky start; however, Sara soon proves she is very capable of working within the insane and surreal world of tabloid journalism.  For example, instead of cubicles, the editors of the “Weekly Galaxy” work in squaricles, which are made up on black tape outlines on the floor; yet, everyone in the offices treats these lines as walls and does not cross them.  Our narrator is a detached third person limited, shifting between Sara and Jack, with occasional sidelines to other characters.  The author, though, does use the beginning of the book to have “A Word in Your Ear.”

The Jack Ingersoll team engages in anything-goes tactics to get their money shot and quote; the harder the shot, the more they want it.  Thus, the merely difficult quickly rolls into the realms of absurdity.  I found myself laughing out loud at several points.  Through it all, though, Westlake creates characters that the reader can recognize and understand, and (in the cases of Sara and Jack) care about.  They may be on a fool’s errand, but you want them to succeed.

  The novel is divided into sections, beginning with “The First Day,” and chronicling Sara’s adventures with the 100 year old twins, the celebrity wedding, the body in a box, and culminating with “The Way We Live This Instant.”  Westlake weaves multiple sub-plots throughout his main plot, ensuring that the reader doesn’t get a chance to be bored anywhere in the book’s nearly 300 pages.  The story careens like an express train from South Florida (very accurate description of an expressway in the ‘Glades, by the way), to Indiana, Martha’s Vineyard, Chesapeake Bay, and New York City.

The only problem with this novel is that you might have a hard time finding a copy.  My local library had an original hardback from 1988, but they’re good like that.  Looking around online to find the cover art, I had a difficult time even getting anything other than a bibliography to appear.  So, good luck– it’s worth a bit of a search around.

Here are my best online finds: