Category Archives: Fiction — mystery

Genuine Fraud, by E. Lockhart

genuinefraudReading Lockhart’s We Were Liars was an amazing, almost overwhelming experience for me a couple of years ago, so I had high expectations for Genuine Fraud and picked it up as soon as it was available.

Genuine Fraud is a thriller, a genre I don’t normally read much because I don’t usually find them, well, all that thrilling. I was drawn into this book not only because I trusted the author, but because I found the main character, Jule, intriguing (though by no means likable — liking her is not the point) and I wanted to know how she got into the situation she was in as the novel opened, and what secrets she was hiding. The novel’s unusual structure — essentially the story is told in reverse chronology, each chapter taking us a little further back into Jule’s story to explain what happened — kept me turning pages through this quick read.

Because of We Were Liars, I expected a big twist at the end and kept trying to guess what it would be (thus making the plot even more complicated in my head than it actually was). But there isn’t one bit surprise reveal; there are a series of gradual reveals along the way that all add up to a genuinely intriguing thriller. 

The two main criticisms I’ve seen of this book are that 1) some of the things Jule gets away with are pretty implausible, which I think is true but also probably true of most mysteries and thrillers, and 2) it is not inspired by, but far too closely modelled on, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. As I haven’t read that book, I can’t comment on that, but I will say that if you cite another author’s novel in your afterword as being a major inspiration, you do need to at least make sure there are significant differences between your work and theirs. Otherwise, you might just want to say that your book is a modernized, gender-swapped retelling (told in reverse) of a classic thriller. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re clear that’s what you’re doing.



Filed under Fiction -- mystery, Young Adult

The Murder of Mary Russell, by Laurie R. King

maryrussellOther than having a deliberately misleading title (Mary Russell’s the hero of the series — she obviously isn’t murdered in this book, but is it about an apparent murder of our Fearless Heroine, or is it about Mary Russell murdering someone else? The ambiguity is not accidental), this is another good addition to King’s series about the intrepid Mary Russell and her May/December marriage to an aging Sherlock Holmes. What the novel really is, regardless of whether Mary apparently gets murdered or murders anyone, is “The Backstory of Mrs. Hudson.”

As in the original Conan Doyle novels, Mrs. Hudson is Holmes’s landlady at Baker Street; in the Russell/Holmes series, she has followed Holmes into retirement in Sussex where she serves as his housekeepeer. She is also something of a maternal figure to Russell, who was taken in by the kindly Mrs. Hudson when she was a teenager, so when a mysterious stranger shows up with a possible threat to Mrs. Hudson several years later, it’s not surprising that Mary swings into action to protect the older woman.

Most of the story unfolds through flashbacks into Clara/Clarissa Hudson’s early life, tying together threads from two Conan Doyle short stories and weaving them into the Holmes/Russell canon. The short stories contain characters named Hudson with no suggestion that they are related or connected to Holmes’s Mrs. Hudson. But in King’s retelling, they are all connected, and the backstory adds layers not only to Mrs. Hudson but to her long relationship with the great detective, explaining why she has stood by him so faithfully for so many years.

Sandwiched in between some heavier books I’ve been reading over the summer, this was a great, light diversion, and a worthy addition to the extra-Doyle Holmes cannon, as are all the Laurie King books.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical, Fiction -- mystery

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew J. Sullivan

midnightbrightideasI’ll pretty much pick up any book with the word “bookstore” in the title, or any book that’s set in a bookstore (whether wholly, or just in part). In the cast of Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, with its appealing title and cover, the titular bookstore provides the backdrop for a story that takes the main character, bookstore employee Lydia Smith, on a reluctant journey into her own past.

Lydia enjoys her quiet life — a steady relationship with her kind and undemanding live-in boyfriend, and her work at a bookstore where she finds pleasure not only in the books but in the patrons, including the many outcasts, misfits and homeless (or nearly homeless) people who take shelter there. When tragedy invades the bookstore one night and a man hangs himself among the upstairs bookstacks, Lydia is horrified. But the horror becomes more personal when she realizes that the dead man not only has ties to her, but to a past she has done everything possible to distance herself from.

It was at this point (as often happens with me in reading) that I realized I was reading a mystery novel, even if it’s not marketed primarily as such. Lydia has to follow a trail of clues to find out the connection between the violent death in the bookstore and another act of terrible violence in her own past — and to find out who committed the original crime, and why.

This is the sort of book that, midway through avidly turning the pages, I found myself thinking, “This author has set up SUCH an intriguing mystery — can he possibly resolve it in a satisfying way?” The answer is almost yes … everything is resolved and does tie together, but the author has to introduce a couple of pretty big coincidences to make the resolution work, and I’m always wary of staggering coincidences. There’s also a method of leaving clues that is way too clever to be believable … but I still found the story enjoyable, and thought Lydia, in particular, was a very likeable and relatable character, as a person who has tried to construct a new life amid the ruins of tragedy. I don’t agree with every choice Lydia makes (especially a big one at the end) but I always empathized with her.

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Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin

artofdeathMistress of the Art of Death is the first in a series of four medieval mystery novels about that rarest of creatures, a medieval woman doctor. Trained at the University of Salerno, Italy, Adelia finds herself on a mission in Henry II’s England, where the Jewish community in the town of Cambridge is suspected of being behind a series of child murders. Adelia is a forensic expert, a “mistress of the art of death,” but she has to conceal her knowledge and pretend to be only an aide and translator to her Moorish servant, who masquerades as the real doctor, since no-one in twelfth-century England can wrap their heads around a woman physician. 

The research into the time period is well done and feels authentic, though Adelia is perhaps a little too much of a “woman ahead of her time” to be entirely believable. Her story is continued in three further books, of which I read the next one, The Serpent’s Tale. I enjoyed both books, but wasn’t so engrossed that I felt I had to go on and read the rest, though I probably will do so eventually, when I feel like travelling back to the 1100s again.

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The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge

lietreeThis was an absolutely intriguing book. It’s a YA novel, but more than compelling enough to hold the attention of this adult reader. The Lie Tree is set in Victorian England and told from the perspective of a young girl called Faith Sunderly. Faith’s father, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, is a natural scientist, and Faith wants to be a scientist too. She is fascinated by her father’s fossils and specimens, but keenly aware that she lives in a world that doesn’t encourage such interests in a woman. While Faith tries to impress and emulate her brilliant, distant father, her model for how to be a woman is her mother Myrtle, who uses her good looks and charm to cajole favours from men around her, and who tries to mold her daughter into a proper young lady.

When the Sunderly family arrives on the remote island of Vane, where her father has been invited to observe some excavations for new fossils, things take a sinister turn. The novel moves from being simply a well-developed piece of historical fiction to being a murder mystery with a strong thread of fantasy or magic realism. I’ve also seen it described as “horror,” but I didn’t find that it fit that description well. There’s no gore here, but plenty of dread, as Faith discovers and learns to use her father’s most shocking and carefully guarded discovery: the Lie Tree of the title.

What I really loved about this book is that it’s one of the rare times a writer of historical fiction really gets that “strong female character” thing dead right, and you know it’s right. Faith is everything a modern reader wants in a girl character: she’s brilliant, she’s rebellious, she hates the constraints her society places on women. But she also understands and, on some level, buys into those restraints. Hardinge totally avoids the trap of making Faith a twenty-first century girl in a Victorian dress. She is absolutely a real nineteenth-century woman, looking for a way out of the box her society has placed her in — but the reader never doubts for a second that that box is real, as real as Faith’s intelligence and ambition.

This is the kind of story where there are many twists and turns at the end; situations and people will not turn out to be what we thought they were. Most importantly, Faith’s view of the women in her world, including her mother, shifts as she comes to understand them better and see in a new light what is (and is not) possible for a woman.

My dearest hope for Faith is that she grows up to be Alma from Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things (but with a less tragic love story, if she has to have one at all). There were, of course, Victorian women who managed to carve out a place for themselves in the world of science despite all the odds stacked against them, and once you’ve seen Faith Sunderly solve the mystery that engulfs her family on Vane, you can believe she will have the grit and tenacity to be one of those women.

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Filed under Fiction -- fantasy, Fiction -- historical, Fiction -- mystery, Young Adult

Claws of the Cat, by Susan Spann

clawsofthecatFor those mystery lovers who are always looking for a new and intriguing setting for mysteries, Susan Spann is an author worth checking out. Her Shinobi mysteries, of which Claws of the Cat is the first, are set in 16th century Japan, and the crime-solvers are Hiro Hattori, a ninja, and Father Mateo, a Portguese Jesuit missionary. 

When a samurai is found dead in a teahouse, Father Mateo gets involved because the young geisha accused of the murder is one of his converts. The dead man’s son insists that his father’s death be avenged, and sets a deadline: if Father Mateo cannot prove the girl’s innocence within three days, he will be killed along with her. This lends some urgency to the mystery as Hiro and Father Mateo work together to find out who the real killer is.

I loved the detailed setting and the sense of stepping into another world. I would have liked to get to know both Hiro and Father Mateo better as more fully fleshed-out characters, but as this is the first in a series, more character development may follow in the later books I haven’t read yet.

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Dead Before Dying, by Kerry Schafer

deadbeforedyingFor everyone who’s ever said, “Why aren’t their more paranormal thrillers with kickass older women as heroines?” … and you know you’ve said that once or twice … Dead Before Dying is the book you have been waiting all this time for.

Maureen Keslyn is an FBI investigator, nearing sixty, recovering from a devastating attack in the last case she investigated. Maureen specializes in investigating paranormal phenomena, and that near-deadly attack was carried out by something … not quite human. Now, instead of a quiet recuperation, Maureen is off to a mysterious retirement home called Shadow Valley Manor at the request of a former colleague and lover. And while some of the Manor’s residents may be nearing death by natural means … there are forces at work that may want to push them over the edgea little ahead of their time.

Maureen is a smart, sarcastic, no-nonsense first-person narrator, an action heroine with creaky joints and a wound that hasn’t healed properly. She doesn’t trust anyone, and as the story unfolds we start to see that might be Maureen’s smartest quality. In the shadowy world of the Manor, with a cast of mysterious characters, it’s hard to tell who, if anyone, can be trusted.

A paranormal thriller is not a genre I’d normally pick up to read, but, as you know if you read this blog, I often read books outside of my usual reading comfort zone when the book is by someone I know. Kerry Schafer is a very old friend whose previous books, which fall closer to the “urban fantasy” genre, I’ve greatly enjoyed. So it was no hardship to follow her into slightly unusual territory, especially in the company of a heroine as engaging and funny as Maureen. As long as you can suspend your disbelief long enough to visit a world where FBI investigators may end up tangling with vampires, werewolves and ghosts, you will thoroughly enjoy Dead Before Dying.


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