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The Marijuana Murders: A Nostalgia City Mystery

Mark S. Bacon. Archer & Clark, $14.99 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-0-9660000-4-7

A death at the garage complex of Nostalgia City, an Arizona theme park that simulates an American town in the year 1975, propels Bacon’s charming third Nostalgia City mystery (after Desert Kill Switch). Kate Sorensen, the park’s PR representative, is there when the automobile hoist holding a 1975 sedan rises to reveal the flattened body of a mechanic. It appears to be an accident—but is it murder? Either way, the publicity could be bad for Nostalgia City’s bottom line. Kate joins forces with Lyle Deming, a former cop, to find out the truth. A subplot involving the efforts of the directors of Nostalgia City to push for cannabis legalization raises the stakes. The pace picks up as Lyle and Kate get on the trail of a drug smuggling operation that takes them to Mexico. Bacon at times has trouble balancing the novel’s various elements—the mystery, social commentary, and romance between Kate and Lyle—but readers looking for escapist reading will be satisfied. (Self-published.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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An Artful Assassin in Amsterdam

Michael Grant. Severn, $28.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-7278-8904-1

David Mitre, the narrator of Grant’s amusing sequel to 2018’s A Sudden Death in Cyprus, describes himself as “a (retired) thief and grifter, and currently an author. If that seems an unlikely collection of occupations, consider that a grifter is by definition a storyteller.” He’s in Amsterdam, “land of legal weed and tall, gorgeous women riding bikes,” to participate in a writers’ conference. However, someone is determined to kill him. Fortunately, FBI agent Delia Delacorte, who has used Mitre’s special skills before, is also looking for him and saves him from yet another attempt on his life. They make a deal: she’ll find out who’s after him and he’ll help her with a tricky potential art theft. A wealthy and powerful man, known as United States Person One, has hired a gang of professional thieves to steal a Vermeer, looted by the Nazis during WWII, from the Rijksmuseum. Delacorte is confident Mitre can figure out the thieves’ plan and stop it without them or USP One getting arrested. This is sheer high-speed fun. Readers will hope Mitre has a long career. Agent: Robert Kirby, United Agents. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Spy in a Box

Ralph Dennis. Brash, $17.99 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-941298-89-3

A disciplined focus on atmosphere bolsters this previously unpublished spy novel from Dennis (1931–1988). In 1980, Will Hall, a CIA agent stationed in the South American country of Costa Verde, witnesses the killing of Paul Marcos, a prominent political figure Hall strongly supported for his moderate views. Angry and disenchanted, Hall quits the agency, but is framed to seem like a whistle-blower when a magazine article is published bearing his name and exposing a definitive account of the CIA’s involvement in Marcos’s murder and the region’s political affairs. Hall subsequently becomes a target for assassination by dangerous enemies, including members of his former outfit, and finds himself “boxed in tighter than a coffin.” Calling in favors from ex-agency associates, Hall fends off numerous attempts on his life while trying to uncover the truth and prove his innocence. Dennis’s stark, impassive prose will appeal to noir fans, but readers should be prepared for an absence of genuine suspense. Nevertheless, steady plotting and authentic characters hold the story together. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Beating About the Bush: An Agatha Raisin Mystery

M.C. Beaton. Minotaur, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-250-15772-0

At the start of bestseller Beaton’s winning 29th Agatha Raisin mystery (after 2018’s The Dead Ringer), Albert Morrison, the chairman of an English company that manufactures batteries, hires PI Agatha to find the saboteur responsible for burning down the company’s R&D department and with it the prototype of a highly anticipated new product. In the course of her investigation, Agatha comes across the body of Mrs. Dinwiddy, Morrison’s longtime assistant. The blunt-force trauma to the head in the shape of a hoof points to the company’s pet donkey, Wizz-Wazz. Agatha concludes Wizz-Wazz is innocent after discovering an ashtray made from a donkey’s hoof. Disapproving of the subsequent save-the-donkey PR campaign Agatha initiates, Morrison fires her, but this only strengthens her determination to solve Mrs. Dinwiddy’s murder. The obnoxious, rude, and outspoken Agatha may not appeal to every reader, but cozy fans with a taste for the silly and the offbeat will be gratified. This long-running series shows no sign of losing steam. Agent: Barbara Lowenstein, Lowenstein Assoc. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Music Macabre

Sarah Rayne. Severn, $29.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-7278-8896-9

In Rayne’s enjoyable fourth Phineas Fox mystery (after 2018’s Song of the Damned), London music researcher Phineas has a new commission—writing a “light-hearted biography about the life and loves of virtuoso composer-pianist, Franz Liszt.” His research turns up evidence linking the aging Liszt with a notorious young English music hall dancer, Scaramel, who reputedly was connected to a murder. Phineas and his neighbor Toby Tallis visit a newly reopened restaurant, Linklighters, where Scaramel performed in the late 19th century. Flashbacks told from the point of view of Daisy, Scaramel’s maid, include edifying glimpses of the inside of a madhouse, feisty bickering between rival performers, and a terrifying confrontation with the most fearsome of all serial killers. Meanwhile, Phineas’s probing into this eventful past puts his life in danger. Rayne provides vivid descriptions of Victorian London along with fascinating details of the life of Franz Liszt and insights into the cultural significance of music hall songs. Those who like their mysteries erudite will be well satisfied. Agent: Jane Conway-Gordon, Jane Conway-Gordon Ltd. (U.K.). (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Dead Girls Club

Damien Angelica Walters. Crooked Lane, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-64385-1-63-1

Maryland psychotherapist Heather Cole, the narrator of this underwhelming thriller from Walters (Paper Tigers), gets a disturbing reminder of her past when someone mails her a half-heart pendant that Heather last saw almost 30 years earlier, on the neck of her best friend, Becca Thomas, after she killed Becca. Flash back to 1991. Heather, Becca, and two other friends form the Dead Girls Club, based on their shared macabre interest in serial killers. The girls became obsessed with an urban legend that one of them shares about the spirit of a woman falsely accused of witchcraft and executed. Meanwhile in the present, Heather is frantic to identify her correspondent. She believes that she has a lead when she learns that Lauren Thomas, Becca’s mother, who was convicted of Becca’s murder, has recently been released from prison. Heather acts increasingly erratically, leaving the reader in doubt as to the reliability of her narration and memories right up to the over-the-top conclusion. This will work best for those who have never encountered a story about a group of women with murderous secrets in their past. Agent: Heather Flaherty, Bent Agency. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Potions Are for Pushovers

Tamara Berry. Kensington, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4967-1963-8

Berry’s sparkling sequel to 2018’s Séances Are for Suckers finds Eleanor Wilde settled in a cottage in an unnamed village in Sussex, England. The cottage is on the property of the new man in her life, Nicholas Hartford III, who hired her to investigate a ghost at his ancestral estate in the first book. Ellie doesn’t really believe in potions and hexes, and she isn’t really a witch, but that doesn’t stop her from telling people she is and earning her keep by selling spells and potions. When shrewish Sarah Blackthorne is poisoned during a meeting in the church basement and the town’s favorite pig is found dead with its heart cut out, the locals suspect Ellie and her witchcraft, until the arrival of an out-of-towner who may be a werewolf. Meanwhile, pets start to disappear, including Ellie’s cat. Ellie and Nicholas’s blossoming relationship provides counterpoint to the spooky goings-on. Along with quirky characters and a twisty plot, Berry supplies a good foundation for more stories to follow. Agent: Courtney Miller-Callihan, Handspun Literary. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Murals

William Bayer. Severn, $28.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0-7278-8973-7

This suspense novel from Bayer (The Luzern Photograph) doesn’t make the most of its intriguing hook—the discovery of a room lined with creepy murals—or the warning in its preface about the reliability of the story’s several narrators. Jason Poe, who’s embarked on a multiyear project he calls Leavings: The Things They Left Behind, enters abandoned houses to photograph “the detritus folks abandon when they hurriedly leave a place.” A friend’s tip takes Poe to a boarded-up mansion in their “rust-belt town, Calista.” When Poe goes to the house and reaches a gazebolike structure on its roof, he’s stunned to find that all the walls are covered with life-size images of intense and unfriendly looking people who seem to be staring at him. Along with two friends, an art teacher and an investigative reporter, Poe looks into the history of the dwelling and the origin of its extraordinary artwork, which may be connected to a cult that targeted runaways. Readers will struggle to stay engaged with the meandering plot and characters who lack resonance. This is a missed opportunity for a gifted author. Agent: George Lucas, Inkwell Management. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Course of All Treasons: An Elizabethan Spy Mystery

Suzanne M. Wolfe. Crooked Lane, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-64385-178-5

Set in 1586 England, Wolfe’s excellent second mystery featuring Nicholas Holt, who works for Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s legendary spymaster, delivers on the promise of 2018’s A Murder by Any Name. Holt’s assignment, to trail a possible Spanish agent, turns deadly when an attempt is made on his own life. When reporting to Walsingham, Holt learns that a fellow spy has already been tortured and murdered. Holt then goes undercover, pretending to join forces with the dangerously ambitious Earl of Essex, to find out who’s targeting Walsingham’s agents. Wolfe vividly brings London to life, from the raunchy taverns to the stages offering plays by Will Shakespeare. But the book’s greatest strength is its characters, starting with the clever but flawed Holt, and including a twin brother and sister team of Jewish healers and a young Irish woman with a talent for disguise. Despite some anachronistic dialogue (“Don’t be a stranger,” the queen calls out to Holt at one point), readers will look forward to spending more time in their company. Agent: Carol Mann, Carol Mann Agency. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Winter Grave

Helene Tursten trans. from the Swedish by Larlaine Delargy. Soho Crime, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-64129-076-0

Det. Insp. Embla Nystrom, who’s also a big game hunter and Nordic light welterweight champion, has a lot on her plate in Tursten’s fast-paced sequel to 2018’s Hunting Game. In Strömstad in western Sweden, she takes on a lethal combination of two missing children, arson, and a policeman’s murder. On the personal side, she has a torrid affair with the married lawyer of a suspect and must cope with nightmares about a lost friend. Though badly injured when assaulted by a man during a moose hunt the previous year, Embla relishes the thrill of the hunt, whether stalking wild boar—or killers bent on gory revenge. Embla and her team manage to create satisfying personal relationships and enjoy some great nights out, and the villains get appropriately punished. Embla also crosses paths with Tursten’s other detective heroine, Irene Huss, and their professional chemistry clicks. Readers will be curious to see how Tursten develops her complex lead in future outings. Those looking for Scandinavian crime fiction that’s not entirely bleak will be rewarded. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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