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Dharma: A Rekha Rao Mystery

Vee Kumari. Great Life, $14.95 trade paper (302p) ISBN 978-1-938394-42-3

Set in Southern California, Kumari’s fascinating debut and series launch introduces art history professor Rekha Rao, who failed to get tenure at UC Irvine and is now struggling with a part-time position elsewhere. The Pasadena police need Rekha’s help determining who used a statue to batter in the head of archaeology professor Joseph Faust, who was her mentor as well as a father figure. Rao easily identifies the murder weapon as an image of the Hindu goddess Durga, “the most powerful female deity in the Hindu pantheon.” But figuring out why that particular idol was used to kill Faust is trickier, and Rekha’s shaken when she sees a photo of the dead man that reminds her of the bludgeoning murder of her own father, a killing that the police, but not Rao, deemed solved. The mystery deepens when she learns that there were rumors that the Durga statue was stolen by Faust from its excavation site in India. Rheka, a domestic violence survivor with PTSD, is a well-developed lead more than capable of sustaining a series. Kumari is off to a strong start. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Darkest Evening

Ann Cleeves. Minotaur, $27.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-250-20450-9

CWA Diamond Dagger Award winner Cleeves’s superb ninth novel featuring astute, irascible Det. Insp. Vera Stanhope (after 2017’s The Seagull) finds Vera driving home late one night through rural Northumberland in a blizzard when she comes upon a car that’s slewed off the road. The driver is gone, but Vera discovers a toddler strapped into a car seat. Soon after she transfers the child to her own car, she realizes that she’s close to Brockburn, the once grand family home of the Stanhopes, and decides to go there. She last visited the place with her father when she was 15, and remembers that “the family had been unfailingly polite. That branch of the clan used politeness as a weapon of mass destruction.” At Brockburn, the abandoned car’s driver, a young woman, is found murdered behind the house. Vera assembles her loyal, if at times exasperated, homicide team to investigate, and comes to realize that the “whole case... was about families, about what held them together and what ripped them apart.” This fair-play mystery brims with fully developed suspects and motives that are hidden in plain sight. Skillful misdirection masks the killer’s identity. This page-turner is must reading for fans as well as newcomers. Agent: Sarah Menguc, Sarah Menguc Literary (U.K.). (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Promises to the Dead

D.M. Pirrone. Allium, $18.99 trade paper (325p) ISBN 978-0-9996982-5-9

Two stories intertwine in Pirrone’s engrossing third historical featuring Chicago police detective Frank Hanley and the woman he chastely loves, Rivka Kelmansky (after 2015’s For You Were Strangers). The first starts in 1870 and centers on Ezra Hayes, a freed slave who’s forced into hard labor on a sugar plantation, and follows him through his escape and journey to New Orleans and on to Chicago, where he crosses paths with Hanley in 1872. In the second, Hanley’s search for missing Lawrence O’Shea, a clerk for the Illinois, St. Louis and Grand Southern Railway, ends with Lawrence’s body being pulled from the Chicago River. The police determine Lawrence was dead before he hit the water. Why murder a lowly railroad clerk? And what’s the relationship between Ezra and Ada, the wife of Rivka’s brother, Aaron? Pirrone dramatically highlights the racism, corruption, and greed that marked post–Civil War America through the travails of her heroic characters. Readers will hope to see more of Hanley and Rivka soon. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Case Pending

Dell Shannon. Poisoned Pen, $14.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-4642-1301-4

First published in 1960, this series launch from Elizabeth Linington (1921–1988) writing as Dell Shannon was an Edgar finalist, but it hasn’t aged well. Los Angeles homicide lieutenant Luis Mendoza, one of the first fictional Latino detectives, fears that an unknown murderer has struck again. Six months after someone killed chambermaid Carol Brooks, damaging her left eye, 18-year-old window dresser Elena Ramirez is found dead with a similar wound. Mendoza and his team investigate, starting with Ramirez’s family and friends. That the killer’s identity is signaled early on limits suspense in a plot driven by following routine police procedures. Leslie Klinger’s informative introduction concedes that the author employs racial stereotypes, and Mendoza has groan-worthy attitudes toward women (he wonders whether a witness he’s attracted to might possess “that great rarity in a woman, a sense of humor”). This Library of Congress Crime Classics selection is more a curiosity than anything. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Tea & Treachery

Vicki Delany. Kensington, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4967-2506-6

Former Manhattan pastry chef Lily Roberts, the heroine of this well-crafted series launch from Delany (the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop mysteries), has opened Tea by the Sea next door to Victoria-on-Sea, the bed-and-breakfast owned by her 85-year-old British grandmother, Rose Campbell, in North Augusta, a town on Cape Cod. Slimy real estate developer Jack Ford wants the town council to rezone nearby land for a major resort development, but spunky Rose lets him and the council members know exactly how she feels. When Ford sues Rose and winds up dead on her property, Det. Chuck Williams, of the North Augusta PD, regards the aggrieved Rose as the sole suspect. Refusing to be put out of business or bamboozled by a slippery small-town detective, Lily and Rose start their own investigation, aided by Lily’s friend. Along the way to the satisfying solution, the women find time to consume a variety of tearoom delicacies. Fans of culinary cozies will be sure to come back for more. Agent: Kim Lionetti, Bookends. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Elixir

Charles Atkins. Severn, $28.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0-7278-9050-4

Boston pediatric oncologist Frank Garfield, the hero of this implausible medical thriller from Atkins (Ashes, Ashes), believes his experiments with bits of protein on the ends of DNA strands show promise for eliminating cancerous tumors. His publications have brought him to the attention of Leona Lang and her son, Dalton, the evil leaders of UNICO Pharmaceuticals, who want to recruit him and profit from his discoveries. Dalton, who hopes to unseat his mother, electronically eavesdrops on Frank’s conversation with Frank’s mentor, Jackson Atlas. Jackson warns that Frank’s treatment could be weaponized by unscrupulous corporations, and also reveals he had an affair with Leona decades earlier. Dalton’s subsequent murder of Jackson brings Frank into contact with a potential love interest in the form of the hunky homicide detective assigned to the case. The overly busy plot gets more so after Atkins tosses in a threat related to Frank’s troubled childhood. Awkward prose (“Like a white-coated rat led to cheese, he headed towards the elevators”) doesn’t help. Michael Crichton this isn’t. Agent: Al Zuckerman, Writers House. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Widening Stain

W. Bolingbroke Johnson. Penzler, $15.95 trade paper (264p) ISBN 978-1-61316-171-5

First published in 1941, this sparkling academic mystery from Johnson (the pseudonym of Cornell professor Morris Bishop) takes place at “the University” (a stand-in for Cornell), home to self-absorbed professors, anxious instructors, and quick-witted Gilda Gorham, the chief cataloguer at the University Library. When French instructor Lucie Coindreau, “the oomph-girl of the Romance Language Department,” leaves a party at the university president’s house suspiciously early, curious Gilda follows her to the library. Inside, Gilda hears a scream and a crash. Lucie is lying dead on the marble floor below a high gallery, having apparently taken an accidental fall over the gallery railing. When a professor is later strangled in a locked room filled with ancient erotica, Lucie’s colleagues have to wonder whether Lucie, too, was murdered. A master of lively word play, Johnson exposes the foibles of his characters with sly wit. Readers will regret that this funny, erudite novel was poet and scholar Bishop’s only foray into fiction. This is a most worthy addition to the American Crime Classics series. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Music Box Enigma

R.N. Morris. Severn, $28.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0-7278-8955-3

On Dec. 19, 1914, Lady Emma discovers the body of her choirmaster husband, Sir Aidan Fonthill, the principal victim in Morris’s limp sixth mystery featuring Det. Chief Insp. Silas Quinn (after 2019’s The White Feather Killer). Sir Aidan is “sitting upright,” a bloody turning fork in his ear, with his hands resting on the piano in the venue where he was due to lead a Christmas concert to benefit Belgian refugees. Flashbacks present a number of people with possible motives for killing Sir Aidan, including a singer he fired after impregnating her. His receipt in the mail of a music box with four German words scratched into the underside, from an anonymous sender, adds some intrigue, but too many pages pass before Quinn, of Scotland Yard’s Special Crimes Department, enters the action. Another murder and the disappearance of the choirmaster’s corpse complicate Quinn’s inquiry, which comes to a disappointing solution. This gifted writer has done better. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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An Accidental Murder: Death on Fireplace Road

Helen A. Harrison. Poisoned Pen, $14.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-7282-1397-2

The car crash on Long Island in 1956 that killed artist Jackson Pollock—which his lover, Ruth Kligman, survived, but Ruth’s roommate, Edith Metzger, did not—propels Harrison’s enjoyable sequel to An Exquisite Corpse. Unlike in real life, an autopsy shows that Edith was strangled before her body was put in the car. Fortunately for local patrolman Earl Finch, two NYPD officers, Capt. Brian “Fitz” Fitzgerald and his wife, Det. Juanita “Nita” Diaz, are vacationing in the East Hampton hamlet of Springs. Fitz and Nita happily rub shoulders and share drinks with bemused artistic luminaries and speculate a good deal as to who the killer might be, but the charming couple do little detective work. Indeed, chance leads to the apprehension of the culprit. The juicy period gossip and the lively characterizations of the artists and their entourages more than compensate for the paper-thin mystery. Harrison, the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs, knows her history and what the Hamptons were like when living there was cheap. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Hidden Bones: Dead Remaining Series

Vivian Barz. Thomas & Mercer, $15.95 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-5420-0578-4

Barz’s brisk sequel to 2019’s Forgotten Bones takes Officer Susan Marlan of the Perrick, Calif., PD and schizophrenic college professor Eric Evans, who has developed a gift for seeing the dead, to Clancy, Wash., where musician Jake Bergman, a former student of Eric’s, will be performing with his band. Susan and Eric are looking forward to a restful holiday, but soon after their arrival, Eric’s visions of the dead intensify, and Jake’s band mates start to disappear in the forested areas of the Olympic Peninsula. The two paranormal investigators and Jake get no help from the residents of Clancy, who refuse to cooperate in what turns into a murder case. The tension builds as Susan and Eric each cope with internal demons and they realize they’re on the trail of a killer more dangerous than any they have ever faced before. The twisty action builds to an electrifying conclusion. Fans of Wendy Corsi Staub will be pleased. Agent: Paul Lucas, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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