Book Bytes

by Marylaine Block

Books Too Good To Put Down: Mysteries


note: if you want to get your hands on any of these books, and they're out of print, click here for suggestions on how to find them.

Donna Andrews. Murder with Peacocks. A very funny murder mystery centering around a much put upon and highly competent heroine who is maid of honor and general factotum for THREE weddings in a row. She does an extraordinary amount of the work the brides should by rights be doing and would no doubt do more if she didn't keep finding bodies, and her father didn't keep poking his nose in, leading the killer to try to knock him off too. She's funny, and her family is a mite crazed, and a most unlikely suitor is both charmed and amused without ever being able to get her alone long enough between disasters to tell her so. Among several sequels, I think the best is Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon. Meg is drafted to work the switchboard for her brother's computer game company, Mutant Wizards. As if coping with weird programmers isn't enough, she also answers the phone and becomes enmeshed in the lives of the therapists who share the building. The population includes a variety of dogs, a one-winged buzzard, and too many "Affirmation Bears" to count, both the official ones, programmed with soothing self-help bromides and the ones that have been altered by the programmers. Throw in a murdered blackmailer, who Meg has to identify because the local cops have decided her brother is the best suspect, and you have a rare treat. Another sequel, Owls Well That Ends Well, centers around the lawn sale from hell. Meg and Michael have bought an old house fully loaded, with the condition that the sellers get a percentage of the profits when they sell the tons of junk. The lawn sale swells to a family event, with every one of her relatives showing up to dispose of their own junk. When someone is murdered in the barn, the lawn sale becomes a crime scene and is closed down, but that doesn't stop other people from setting up shop just outside their fences. The confusion makes it difficult but not impossible for Meg to figure out whodunit. In a complete departure, You've Got Murder begins a series about the adventures of AI personality Turing Hopper, who's alarmed when Zack, the guy who created her vanishes from work without any notice; she's even more alarmed when evidence that he ever worked there starts disappearing from the computer system, which she has nearly complete access to. As she starts scouring the records, she finds a plot to discredit the profits generated by her and the other AI personalities so that that part of the company can be sold off cheap, and most of the AI personalities dumped. Lacking a physical body, Turing enlists Maude, an administrative assistant, and Tim, who runs the copy center, to do some outside research that leads them to Zack's whereabouts. This turns out to be more dangerous than she'd thought.

Marian Babson. Murder at the Cat Show. A must for those who love both mysteries and cats. The cat here, Pandora, is the central character. She convinces the heroes to adopt her, and she helps them solve the murder. Babson has done an utterly convincing mind-meld with a cat, and a charmingly unscrupulous cat at that. This is a very funny book. Not all Babson's mysteries feature cats, but another of her funniest, Nine Lives To Murder, is about a Shakespearean actor who has through an odd accident, traded brains with the theatre cat; while the cat's brain ambulates the actor's body, the actor's brain, inside the cat, has to figure out who was trying to kill him and why. This requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, but it's worth it.

Fredrick Barton. With Extreme Prejudice. Newspaper film critic Mike Barnett has not remotely recovered from the death of his wife Joan, a lawyer killed in an apparent accident when she was out running. When Mike finds his house burgled, and nothing gone except the file for the case she had been working on, involving corruption in the locating of a new magnet school, he starts suspecting her death might not have been an accident. He pursues the case aggressively, trying to find out why an upright judge would have accepted obvious the injustice done to a man who had effectively been promised that the school would be on his property, and why the judge would not have excused himself from ruling on a case in which he had a conflict of interest. As he pursues the case, his own life is threatened. Worse, he comes into conflict with his friend and boss, a black man, and realizes that race is a dividing line that even the best intentioned people cannot cross.

Jack Bickham. Double Fault. Brad Smith, aging pro tennis player and sometime CIA agent, finds Vietnam returning to haunt him in the form of people who think he might know the whereabouts of his old friend, helicopter pilot Kevin Green. He had been listed as killed in action, but a recent photo of him has turned up; furthermore, someone has been working on wiping out every surviving member of a Vietnam combat unit that Green was involved with. Brad has no idea where Green is, but the killers don't believe this, and they're after Brad, so both the FBI and the army are using Brad as bait to catch the killers. Unfortunately this only works if they manage not to lose track of Brad. This is one of several novels about Brad Smith and his occasional CIA assignments. I also recommend Breakfast at Wimbledon, about an IRA plot to explode a bomb in the stands during the Wimbledon finals.

Steven Bochco. Death by Hollywood. Down on his luck scriptwriter Bobby Newman, spying on his neighbors through his telescope, sees a hot sex scene followed by murder. Instead of telling the cops, he visits the scene and removes the extraordinary collection of videos of the dead Lothario's sexual encounters, including the one that was running while the murder was committed. Set on writing a script about it, he sets out to befriend the detective on the case and the woman who committed the murder. Bad idea. Funny, cynical, and raunchy.

Frederic Brown. The Shaggy Dog and Other Murders. Here are some of Brown's funniest mystery short stories, including the priceless one about the insurance agent who wanders into the middle of a kidnapping and persists in trying to sell life insurance to the kidnappers.

P.M. Carlson. Bad Blood. The daughter Maggie Ryan gave up for adoption long ago shows up on her doorstep, chief suspect in a murder. Maggie takes her in, and in a rare act of trust, leaves the girl to mind her other children while she goes off to find the real killer. Maggie is a remarkable and interesting woman, and her adopted daughter learns a great deal from her.

Beverly Connor. Dressed To Die. My favorite of the series about forensic investigations. Lindsay Chamberlain, professor of forensic anthropology, has several problems - boxes full of valuable artifacts delivered to her office from a stash found in a run-down kudzu-covered cabin on her grandfather's property, the fact that those artifacts, and others from the lab and elsewhere on campus, have been disappearing, and an assistant dean who's trying to blame it all on her. Meanwhile, she's trying to figure out the identity of the well-dressed skeleton among her grandfather's artifacts, and solve the mystery of the death by burning of a faculty member four years previously. Also see Questionable Remains. Lindsay Chamberlain's "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" is more thrill-packed than most. After giving testimony in a trial that all by itself convicts the killer, she has incurred the undying hostility of the defense attorney, who spreads nasty stories about her incompetence in the news media. Turns out she has more reason than that for hostility, since she's involved with another murder, a conveniently misidentified body found in a cave, a puzzle Lindsay has been asked to solve by a nice woman who thinks her sister-in-law might have her brother's death.

Susan Rogers Cooper. One, Two, What Did Daddy Do? First of a series about romance writer E.J. Pugh, who is an ordinary housewife until she finds her best friends and next door neighbors murdered, except for the traumatized four-year old girl who remains mute. Police and everyone else assume that the father murdered the family and then killed himself, but neither E.J. nor her husband Willis believe he could have done that. So E.J. sets to work trying to find out who did do it, while at the same time she and Willis have adopted the orphaned child and are trying to make her feel secure and loved. In Hickory Dickory Stalk E.J. is being harassed. Her phone lines and computer and bank account are being played with, and the police won't take it seriously, even when one of her children finds and eats a piece of candy filled with crushed glass. In Home Again, Home Again, E.J. has to find her missing husband, since the cops believe he's simply run out on a bossy, mouthy wife (and when she does find him, they have to do a little work on the marriage). Not in My Back Yard deals with what happens when a convicted pedophile moves into a neighborhood and the neighbors set out to drive him out -- the effect on the pedophile's blameless family, and on the good neighbors who don't realize they're turning into a dangerously self-righteous mob. There are three more books in the series.

Bill Crider. The Texas Capitol Murders. A vagrant who sleeps in the Texas capitol building whenever he can witnesses the murder of a cleaning woman. He then discovers the body of a state senator's assistant in the men's room. A stupid capitol policeman is convinced the vagrant is the killer, but Texas Ranger Ray Hartnett thinks the murdered woman had dangerous knowledge--she was pregnant, and the father of the child was an anti-abortion legislator. But there is no lack of other people who had reason to fear her. There are a number of political murder mysteries out there, and this, along with John Feinstein's Running Mates [described below] is among the very best, full of corruption, power struggles, deception, and general skullduggery.

Barbara D'Amato. Hard Case. One of several novels about Cat Marsala. Here, she's writing a story about trauma centers. She's enormously impressed with Dr. Hannah Grant, who manages the trauma center she's studying; when Dr. Grant is murdered in the lounge, Cat takes a personal interest in finding her killer. In a place as busy as a trauma center, pinning down people's movements is tricky, but finding motives is even trickier. In doing the interviews for her story, Cat learns who had both the opportunity and the reason. Hard Tack is an equally engrossing novel in which Cat is writing a story about the Illinois lottery, and walks into the middle of a murder. Fascinating information about state-run lotteries, too. See the other Cat Marsala books, including Hard Bargain, in which Cat comes to the aid of old friend Harold McCoo, Chief of Detectives. There's been a police shooting incident that is becoming a high profile news story-a female police officer shoots another police officer, who is her brother-in-law, while he is in the act of knifing her sister. Her version of the event doesn't match all the evidence, and the police are ready to hang her out to dry-she may be a police officer, but she's a girl, and she killed a REAL police officer. One of McKoo's enemies uses the opportunity for a political backstabbing. Cat needs to figure out what really happened in the shooting incident, who left a letter bomb that killed McKoo's assistant, and who's been leaking key evidence to what police top guy. Also Hard Evidence. Cat buys a soupbone for a visiting dog she's taking care of, and her doctor friend realizes that it's a human leg bone and reports it. As a consequence, the Spenser and Angelotti store, a supermarket of classy cuisine, has to be totally investigated, and all the meat sold in the previous two days recalled. Meanwhile, Cat is asked to work for the catering service at S&A to see if she can gather some clues about who might have done this. For a complete change of pace, though, the non-series Death of a Thousand Cuts offers a murder at a reunion of patients and counselors at a residential clinic for autistic children. The unfortunate investigators must gather their evidence from traumatized adult autistics, which makes it a fascinating exercise in linguistics, psychology, and mutual misunderstanding.

William DeAndrea. Killed in the Act, Killed in the Ratings, Killed on the Ice, etc. These are all stories about Matt Cobb, in charge of "special projects" for a major television network--usually involving hushing up scandals, avoiding potential problems, and, in these novels, finding out why somebody got murdered. Matt Cobb is a smart-mouth, tough guy, with a great knowledge of television history and lore, and an interesting mind. The stories are fast-paced and well-written.

Jeffery Deaver. The Blue Nowhere. A hacker who's also a serial killer is using his hacking to lure people to their deaths, and the police suspect he has far more destructive aims in mind. They enlist convicted hacker Wyatt Gillette, freeing him from prison for the occasion over the nearly dead bodies of the FBI whose secure systems he cracked. Gillette, as it happens, was the guy who turned this cracker in to the police years ago when he was doing malevolent things, so there's plenty of personal animosity as well as the cat and mouse game, lots of violence, and a situation where nothing you think is true turns out that way. Deaver is also known for his series about the quadriplegic criminalist Lincoln Rhymes. If you're up to dealing with grisly serial killings, start with the first of the series, The Bone Collector, in which Rhymes, whose mind is imprisoned in a useless body, wants only to find someone who will help him kill himself, until he is presented with a mystery that challenges his skill: a serial killer who shares Lincoln's knowledge of NYC history, and whose clues to his next victims can be read only by somebody with his mental database of the soils, buildings, geology and history of NYC. He enlists police officer Amelia Sachs, who's never done a crime scene investigation in his life, to be his eyes and ears, and changes her life forever, just as she changes his. The other books in the series deal with equally twisted killers and equally brilliant forensic investigation, as the relationship between Rhymes and Amelia deepens. Also, The Vanished Man in which the serial murders Rhyme and Amelia are investigating are committed by an illusionist of the first order. He plants misdirecting clues all over the place, so even Rhyme's theories are mistaken, at least until, with the help of an apprentice magician, he finally gets the hang of the illusionist's mind.

Jane Dentinger. Murder on Cue and First Hit of the Season. These are the first two books about actress Jocelyn O'Roarke. They are actually murder mysteries, centered around the theater, but Josh helps a hunky detective solve the mysteries, and they fall for each other. Josh is a wonderful character, not only a good actress but an inspired teacher. She and her detective exchange a lot of witty dialogue, and the relationship's a good one.

Joanne Dobson. The Raven and the Nightingale. Third in a series about English professor Karen Pelletier. This one centers around a collection of papers sent to her for the Women's literature center she's to head. The papers are those of an obscure female poet who was said to have carried on a flirtation with Edgar Allan Poe and eventually committed suicide. The poet's journals and a book of her verse disappear from Karen's office, and the professor who is a Poe specialist is murdered; once again Karen is drafted to figure out why academic passions have risen so high, and in the process she finds the secret of the lady poet's life and death - that she believed Poe had stolen her poem and turned it into the Raven, and that she was in all probability a murder victim, not a suicide. Don't miss her earlier books, either, including Quieter Than Sleep, where Karen investigates when a boastful fellow English prof falls out of a coat closet, strangled, into her arms. Later a student is also found murdered. Because ultimately the case revolves around the research passions of scholars, the police hire Karen as a consultant, and she finds the clues in a collection of manuscripts and papers of dead literary giants..

K.J. Erickson. The Dead Survivors. Something is just a little off about an apparent suicide, and since homicides are down in Minneapolis, Homicide detective Marshall Bahr has the time to pursue the case. Turns out another midwest town has had a similar suicide, and this victim also had a mysterious number marked on his arm. Mars figures out that it has to do with the last battle of Gettysburg, in which the Minnesota volunteers wiped out Pickett's men and took home the battle flag as a trophy. Somebody is out for not just the return of the flag but revenge, and is picking off descendants of those Minnesota Volunteers.

John Feinstein. Running Mates. Bobby Kelleher, a political reporter covering the Maryland legislature, is present when the governor is assassinated, making 32-year-old Meredith Gordy the new governor. Bobby recognizes the killer as Bobby Dumont, a KKK organizer from their student days at the University of Virginia. His investigation leads not only to the KKK but to a radical feminist group. He finds plots within plots that lead to a plan to assassinate Gordy, and only Kelleher has enough information to have a chance to stop it.

Dick Francis. Decider, or Tiebreaker or almost any of his 50 or 60 novels. They're all pretty good and they all follow the same formula: a horse-racing setting (Francis used to be a jockey), skulduggery by incredibly vicious, violent people, usually trying to win money by fixing races or crippling horses, and an incorruptible hero who takes a lot of punishment before bringing the bad guys to justice. His heroes are always interesting, likeable people, and his books make words like "honor" seem not so old-fashioned after all.

Hal Friedman. Over the Edge. A long-time highly regarded teacher plunges over a cliff to her death on a class trip. Her replacement teacher, Meg Foley inadvertently opens a can of worms when she starts talking about the teacher. Somebody really doesn't want her to do that, and she starts being the target of increasingly nasty and even dangerous tricks. She enlists her dead father's police partner, Dan Jarrett (on suspension for killing the punk who had killed his partner) in finding out what's going on, and soon he too is a target, though attempts to kill him result in other people dying. The kids are suspect, but so are relatives and teachers. They sort it out, but not without the violence driving them apart.

Michael Geller. Three Strikes, You're Dead. The Mets ask Slots Resnick, ex-ballplayer, ex-cop, now a private investigator, to go out to Colorado to do a background check on a hot prospect--who turns out to be a girl. She's got outstanding talent, but she's also suspected of murdering her adoptive mother. Slots is sure the girl is innocent, and sure that the answer to this murder lies in the long ago night when her mother, father and brother all died; jogging the girl's memory, Slots finds the truth about those deaths, as well as the present one.

Dorothy Gilman. Any of the Mrs. Pollifax novels. She's an elderly lady who becomes a CIA agent. She's amazingly successful, because nobody would for a minute take her for a spy; in fact, they no sooner meet her than they start confiding all their problems to her ( she is very motherly). Whether she's smuggling out papers or secret agents, or using karate on the bad guys, she's resourceful and competent and lovable.

Noreen Gilpatrick. Shadow of Death. Kate McLean is assigned to investigate the murder of a sweet young girl, universally loved, product of a closed Christian community which allows its children and teenagers NO time unaccompanied by an adult. Therefore, members of the community insist it had to be the work of an outsider, and refuse to cooperate with her investigation of the community itself, even though the fact the girl was pregnant suggests strongly that the motive lies inside the community. There are two likely candidates for father of the child-and both of them end up murdered as well, murders which could have been prevented if anybody had been willing to talk. In the process of investigating, she learns what most members of the community do not know about the financial basis of their church-it harbors a home for unwed mothers whose babies are sold. But even this does not account for the murders--the explanation is a LOT grimmer and harder to take. Gilpatrick has done some other excellent books.

Joseph Glass. Eyes. Psychiatrist Susan Shadler is also psychic. For some time she has assisted the police as a criminal profiler. When 3 co-ed athletes are murdered, and their eyes gouged out, a serial killer is assumed, and indeed she senses someone who's been spying on the girls in the locker room; he's found with a large collection of illicit photos and pornography, but when he kills himself in his cell, more similar murders are committed, of a middle-aged woman and a working class black girl. Excoriated by the press, Susan finds the factor that unites all of them, being present at the scene of the murder of a computer genius who alone is able to put a master criminal behind bars. Now that his identity is known and he's sought all over the world, he needs a hostage - and takes Susan's son. Also see Blood, another suspense novel featuring Susan Shader. She has helped to put one killer behind bars, but he wins an appeal and is released to his lawyer's custody and then vanishes. Enough of a threat in and of itself, but Susan is also on the trail of a serial killer with a religious bent who carves his victims up and intermingles their blood with his own and those of his other victims. He seems obsessed with virginity and abortion - each of his victims has had one - so the search veers toward anti-abortion activists. While she's still trying to make sense of all her enigmatic visions, her friend, an attractive broadcast journalist, is seized by the killer.

Ed Gorman, ed. Solved. Here mystery writers tackle some of the great unsolved mysteries of history and present quite plausible solutions. Particularly interesting: Barbara Paul explains who Jack the Ripper was, David Everson reveals the identity of Deep Throat, Brian Hodge explains why he believes John Belushi's death was murder, and John Lutz explains the conspiracy to kill Martin Luther King.

Paula Gosling. Fair Game. Please disregard the movie that was made of this book; by all accounts, it was dreadful. The book, on the other hand, is quite suspenseful. The heroine sees something she shouldn't, done by somebody she should by rights recognize. In fact, she doesn't realize she saw a contract killing, and she didn't recognize the killer, but he doesn't know that. He thinks she jeopardizes his lucrative career as an assassin, and he sets out to kill her. He misses, but cheerfully takes out a number of innocent bystanders. The police detective assigned to work with her is an ex-sniper himself, a psychologically damaged man who is able to think like the killer. Together they run, pursued by the assassin, and fall in love along the way. If you don't have a problem with blood and gore mixed with a little romance, this is a knockout of a book. I also strongly recommend her Solo Blues, about a musician and composer suspected of murder. The hero is a very interesting, likable man.

Stephen Greenleaf. Blood Type. One of several murder mysteries solved by private investigator John Marshall Tanner. When Tanner's friend Tom is found dead in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco, the police are willing to write it off as a suicide, but Tanner doesn't believe it. At first he thinks Tom's wife's rich lover killed him because he wanted the wife; but then Tanner discovers that Tom was a far more serious obstacle to this man because he knew the man was deliberately killing people in order to create a market for his company's product before his company went under. Tanner is a tough-guy detective, but a thoroughly decent one, akin to Robert B. Parker's Spenser.

Elizabeth Gunn. Triple Play. Detective Jake Hines, of Rutherford Minnesota, rarely deals with violent crime. He and the rest of the department are stunned by the viciousness of the murder of a man found in softball uniform in a softball park, with his genitals missing. Their horror is compounded when a second man is found in another softball park, with his hand cut off - and the missing genitalia stuffed inside his catcher's mask. It's clear to Jake that a message is being sent, though he doesn't know who the message is for. A third dead body, an apparent suicide, seems to fit the bill for a killer who killed himself, but Jake is not convinced. And he's right.

Michael Hammonds. Edge of Fear. Sarah Campbell finds it impossible to believe her beloved Aunt Louie threw herself off a building. And when a man tries to throw her off the roof of a building, telling her she should "fly like Aunt Louie," Sarah needs no more convincing. She has escaped the killer, but the police don't believe her. Looking into her aun't past, she finds that members of Aunt Louie's close circle of friends have also been dying, of apparent accidents or suicides, and she realizes that one of the remaining members of that group has to be the killer. Sarah is both thoughtful and likable, and the book is suspenseful.

Ron Handberg. Savage Justice. Emmett Steele, a respected judge just named to Minnesota's Supreme Court, has been molesting children for years. When a reporter learned about it and tried to publish the story, he turned up murdered. Newly arrived Minneapolis TV anchor Alex Collier learns about this and tries to pin the story down. The judge is very well connected, and this turns out to be an extraordinarily risky story to pursue, but Alex persists nonetheless. This is an extremely violent and suspenseful novel.

James Neal Harvey. Painted Ladies. Lt. Ben Tolliver is given a political hot potato when a high priced call girl is found murdered in a hotel room, with her body painted; since she is the daughter of a major Democratic party contributor, nobody wants to pursue the case, even though other call girls start turning up dead and decorated. In spite of city hall, Ben pursues the case and tracks down the killer.

April Henry. Circles of Confusion. First of a series. Claire Montrose inherits her aunt's pathetic estate, a trailer packed to the roof with trash -- and a suitcase under the bed containing her diary from her days as a WAC in Munich at the end of WWII, and a small, exquisite painting. When the woman tries to get the painting identified, she finds at least two and maybe three sets of villains pursuing her for what they believe to be a Vermeer painting. Trouble is, she can't tell the good guys from the bad guys, and the bad guys are REALLY bad -- perfectly willing to blow up cars with people inside them, and brandish guns. The little embedded joke in all this is that the heroine works for the license plate bureau in Oregon, accepting or rejecting people's requests for personalized license plates (which requires one to have an outstandingly dirty mind, and slang dictionaries from a wide variety of languages to make sure they aren't accepting anything that is grossly offensive to somebody somewhere). Each chapter closes with an appropriate license plate tag line, such as KPASAMD .

Alan Jacobson. The Hunted. Dr. Lauren Chambers, psychologist, is alarmed when her husband Michael doesn't return from a skiing trip. When she sets out to look for him, aided by investigator Nick Bradley, she discovers he's a former FBI agent who testified against a powerful determined assassin named Scarponi, newly released from prison and hunting for Michael, and threatening the family of the head of the FBI if he doesn't turn Michael over to him. Meanwhile, Michael has been injured in an accident and has lost his memory; all he knows is that he doesn't like the people who are pursuing him, FBI agents and Scarponi alike. A very complicated story, where every time you think you know what'' happening, you find another level of deception.

Jeannine Kadow. Burnout. Lacie Wagner still bears the crippling scars on her hands from the fire that killed her father when his car crashed. She has been haunted by nightmares about it, and a belief that the crash was not an accident - that it was caused by somebody who ran and hid and watched and gloated. Now Lacie's daughter has been kidnapped, and she's sure it's by the same person. FBI agent Jack Stein thinks she's on to something and helps her figure out who the killer is and why he hates her.

Michael Kahn. Death Benefits. Lawyer Rachel Gold, a St. Louis native, has been asked by her Chicago law firm to solve a problem at their St. Louis office; the managing partner has committed suicide. Rachel learns that the man had smuggled into the country a valuable Mexican historical artifact, (a gem-encrusted knife) and that many people, including the Mexican government, were very interested in getting their hands on it. An exciting chase through underground caverns leads to the discovery of the knife, and a battle between numerous villains and a few desperately outnumbered good guys (including the intrepid Rachel). See also Bearing Witness, in which Rachel takes on the unpromising case of her mother's friend, fired from her job at Beckman Engineering because of age discrimination. When the company plays dirty to fight the case, the woman won't back off; instead she raises a bounty case as petitioner on behalf of the government, claiming that Beckman conspired with several other midwest engineering firms to rig bids and defraud the government. In trying to find connections between the companies and their executives, Rachel discovers a connection with the investigation her Orthodox Jew boyfriend is conducting of who is financing a contemporary aryan organization. Rachel appears, just as satisfactorily, in Due Diligence, Firm Ambitions, and Grave Designs.

Rob Kantner. Concrete Hero. Ben Perkins is asked by a widow to find out whether her husband really died by accident or might have been murdered. It looks like he died of autoerotic strangulation, but then why did somebody mess with his computer files? When Ben has the files reconstructed, he learns the man was trading porn on a computer etwork; furthermore, he learns that the man's online partners have been dying like flies also. Pursuing it farther still leads to the trail of a senatorial candidate's campaign staff, and Ben arranges a sting to catch the killer. Kantner also wrote The Red, White and Blues, in which Ben Perkins investigates a pattern of disappearances of patients from hospitals, and finds a conspiracy to provide organs for transplantation for profit. Ben takes a lot of risks, and a lot of punishment, but he's tough and he's honorable.

Jon Katz. Family Stalker. Series hero Kit DeLeeuw, suburban private investigator, is asked by a woman to investigate a new friend of hers, a woman who has befriended her, but now seems to be trying to break her family apart. As he looks into it, he finds that this woman has a history of breaking up people's families, and that she had a horrifying childhood that led her to hate and resent happy families. But he doesn't know what she looks like, so he doesn't realize that the woman is working on his own family almost until it's too late. Also, don't miss The Last Housewife, in which Kit tries to clear a housewife charged with the murder of a feminist high school principal who was going to accuse her son of sexual harassment. The book is particularly strong in exploring changing gender roles and the effects these have on relationships and on children. Kit, himself a house-husband when he's not detecting, understands and likes women. He's a genuinely nice man, and it's a pleasure to be inside his head.

Michael Katz. Murder off the Glass. The color man who covers the Chicago Flames basketball games is murdered at a game. His partner Andy Sussman is a suspect, and since the police are no longer trying to find the real killer, Andy has to, and fast--there are only a few weeks left before the NCAA tournament, where he has a chance to make his career as a sportscaster. Andy is a likeable character, who turns up again in later novels. The basketball action is well described, and the story has plenty of amusing moments.

William Kienzle. Any of his mysteries, all of which center around a priest from Detroit, Fr. Robert Koesler. His friends in the Detroit police department use him as a consultant whenever there's a Catholic angle to the murders they're trying to solve, and his understanding of Catholic dogma, rituals, and traditions invariably plays a key role in tracking down the killers. Kienzle was, in fact, a priest, so he knows what he's talking about. Football fans should start with Sudden Death, which centers around murder on a professional football team in Detroit.

Karen Kijewski. Stray Kat Waltz. Another in the Kat Colorado series. She's a terrific heroine, a private investigator. This latest one has Kat taking on a case against her will at the urging of a good friend; her client is apparently an abused woman, married to a policeman and convinced that nobody will take her word against him. Kat finds that the man is indeed following her, though she is less inclined to believe he is violent. Meanwhile, she is finding her client a complete pain in the ass. This author develops character brilliantly, and you can watch Kat's client becoming more unlovable by the chapter. There are many twists and turns, and what you think you see is not at all what you get.

Victoria Laurie. Abby Cooper, Psychic Eye. The first book in the series, in which Abby, having brushed off a client who is subsequently murdered, feels compelled to get involved in figuring out who killed her. Complicated by the fact that on her first blind date on an internet dating service, with Det. Dutch Rivers, she let him in on what her guides have told her happened on an apparent child abduction that's really the coverup for a child murder. He's a hard sell, but reluctantly concludes that Abby's powers are not only real, they've placed her in danger, because the killer knows Abby did a psychic reading of the victim. In Better Read Than Dead, when Abby tells a client not to wait til night to buy her groceries, it turns out that her spirits are warning the woman that she's going to fall victim to a serial rapist, and she's dragged into the police investigation. But meantime, a ruthless mob boss is violently pressuring her to help him locate his wife who disappeared 20 years ago, and she can't tell the cops, who are suspicious of her. She has to figure out how to stay alive, stay out of jail, and keep from compromising Dutch's safety. In A Vision of Murder, Abby gets roped into buying a fixer-upper haunted by a very hostile ghost. After Abby has a vision of a murder that took place inside the house, she has to find out who the killer is and bring him to justice before the victim's ghost can leave. Trouble is, of course, that a killer has already found murder an effective method for avoiding punishment, so detection is a risky business.

Richard and Frances Lockridge. the Mr. and Mrs. North series: The Norths Meet Murder, Murder Has Its Points, Hanged for a Sheep, etc. Richard North is a publisher and Pamela is his Gracie Allen-like wife, a woman with extremely odd mental processes. She is always making unlikely connections between totally unrelated things, and thereby coming up with the solutions to murders their friend Bill, a police detective, is working on. The Lockridge style is sophisticated and amusing, the characters are likable, and the pace is leisurely. The stories are dated, but then, New York was a lot more attractive place in the '40's and '50's anyway, so it's a fun place to visit. You might also like their stories of innocent people framed, like The Faceless Adversary, in which John Hayward, newly engaged, comes home to find detectives waiting to arrest him for the murder of a pretty young girl. His response is that he's never seen her before. The police don't believe him because she's living in an apartment paid for by John Hayward, there's a picture of him in her apartment, and there is all kinds of other evidence against him. So he and his new fiance investigate together and come up with a reason why the girl was killed - so that when her rich benefactor was murdered too, she would be intestate, and her money split between distant heirs, including one who was not in the mood to wait long for the money.

Charlotte MacLeod. Rest You Merry. This is the first of a series of mysteries set at Balaclava College (an agricultural college) and featuring Peter Shandy, a middle-aged professor with a wry wit. He lacks tolerance for the unremitting Christmas cheer on campus, which requires him, along with other resident faculty members, to decorate his house, so he takes off on vacation, leaving his house glaringly over-decorated, with Christmas music blaring night and day. He comes back to find his decorations turned off. The meddling neighbor lady who presumably did this is lying dead in his living room, the apparent victim of a fall. But Peter has reason to think she was murdered, and, with the help of a very nice librarian (who he marries), he finds out who, when and why. The second novel in the series, The Luck Runs Out is almost as good. After that, MacLeod's style gets a little too mannered and coy for my taste, though the characters remain likable. Any reader who's involved with a college will especially appreciate the campus politics and the amazing president of the college. MacLeod also writes as Alisa Craig, and her The Grub-and-Stakers Move a Mountain is a wonderfully entertaining murder mystery centered around a corrupt businessman, an infuriatingly stupid mayor, and the ladies' gardening club that sets out to solve the mystery and retake control of the town's government.

Michael Malone. First Lady. Sheriff Cuddy Mangum and his chief homicide detective Justin Savile V have what looks like a seriously sick serial killer who's cutting women up in inventive ways. Not only can't they figure out who the killer is, they can't figure out who one of the victims is, and they're getting hell over it, from the press and the city council. Doesn't help that the case they built against a prominent local man for murdering his wife has no chance of swaying a jury because the crime scene evidence was compromised by the incompetent sheriff and couldn't be allowed in evidence. When a famous rock star descends on them and appears to be the fourth victim, possibly because the governor had been visiting her, his honchos compromise that crime scene too, and Cuddy is ordered off the case just as he finally is starting to get a handle on it. He keeps going anyway.

Ngaio Marsh. Light Thickens. Peregrine Jay is staging a marvellous production of MacBeth, and the details of how he is directing it are the meat of the book. So it's horrible that, after a series of small annoying incidents, that fit into the bad luck legend associated with the play, the actor playing MacBeth has his head hacked off for real with one of the authentic claymores being used in the final fight scene. The play closes on its second night after being hailed as the perfect MacBeth. Fortunately Roderick Alleyn was in the audience the night of the murder, with his sons, and he sorts through the complicated relationships and personalities of cast members to deduce who the killer is (with a little help from his son).

Lee Martin. Hacker, or, for that matter, any other of her murder mysteries featuring Deb Ralston, a harried detective, wife, and mother (during one of her investigations, she actually gives birth). In this one, Deb has to solve two ax murders in which computers are hacked to death along with the people. Deb's a good detective, with great intuition and understanding of people, which enables her to make the kind of giant illogical leaps of understanding that Pamela North was famous for (see above, under Lockridge).

Dinah McCall. Storm Warning. Ginny Shapiro learns that of seven little girls who were part of a special class of "gifted" children for one year in a school long since burned down, she is the only survivor. In the last few months, each of these now grown women has received a phone call and then committed suicide, though at least Sister Mary saw what was happening and sent information about it to Ginny and to her old friend turned FBI agent Sullivan Dean. Dean finds Ginny and stays on the run with her while trying to trace the connection. Good setup for a romance.

G.A. McKevett. Peaches and Screams. One of a series of books about ex-cop turned PI Savannah Reid and her crime-solving cohorts. Returning to her Georgia home town for her sister Marietta's third wedding, she finds that most of her family is hopelessly shiftless, continuing to live off of Gran, and allow her to wait on them hand and foot. Among the shiftless is her youngest brother, Macon, who's been indulging in petty theft -- which doesn't mean that he killed the local judge, even if his fingerprints WERE found at the scene of the crime. Savannah, aided by Dirk and Tammy, who come because they know she's got trouble, and by her first boyfriend, now a local policeman, find out the judge had a powerful lot of people who hated him, and figures out which of them was the killer. The first in the series is Just Desserts (In case you couldn't tell from the food-centered titles, Savannah likes to eat and cook.) The story begins when she's still on the police force and explains how she came to be fired, for pursuing a murder investigation just a little too conscientiously for the chief of police, who's implicated. There are several more books in the series if you get hooked.

Judy Mercer. Fast Forward. Ariel Gold wakes up, injured, in a ransacked house, with no idea who she is or what happened to her. Playing it by ear, she tries to go along with the people who seem to have an idea who she is, and figure out her past as she fakes her present, but someone is desperately afraid of what she knew, and ready to kill her if the memory starts to come back. Ariel remembers nothing about her career as a TV producer of an unsolved mysteries program, but she does remember how to do research, and she starts figuring things out. In the process, she discovers she doesn't much like the person Ariel Gold had been, and she is free to create a new, much improved version. Amnesia is a hackneyed theme, but here leads to an interesting voyage of self-discovery.

Frank Orenstein. Murder on Madison Avenue. The spinster who trains an ad agency's survey takers has been murdered, and someone has broken into her files. Ev Franklin, chief researcher for the agency, tries to find out who killed her and why. Ev and his fiance are bright, amusing people, the dialogue is witty, the advertising agency politics are intriguing. Ev and his fiance turn up again in The Man in the Grey Flannel Shroud and Candidate for Murder, in which Ev gets involved in a political polling operation.

Sara Paretsky. Tunnel Vision, or any of her other novels about V.I. Warshawski, a tough middle- aged private investigator in the seamier areas of Chicago. You'll learn a lot from her novels about the power structure of city government, and its alliances with the Catholic Church, the business community, and organized crime. Vic [Victoria, but don't call her that unless you want to die young] is not afraid to take on any one of these entities. In Tunnel Vision Vic tries to find an abused young girl, who has fled with her brothers into the tunnels beneath Chicago; unfortunately, she has done this at the exact moment when the tunnels flooded. Vic pursues City Hall officials above ground, and tracks the family through the tunnels below. See also her new one, Hard Time, her best yet. This time VI's "who the hell do you think you are" genes are activated by a crooked cop who tries to make her take the fall for a woman whose dead body Vic nearly ran over in the dark. The cop is a vicious thug, who then burglarizes her office and plants cocaine in it; when Vic manages to discover the coke first and dispose of it before she calls the cops, he's ready to kill her when he doesn't find it there. As she investigates a big security company and a major entertainment company that somehow seem related to this, she befriends a bright but plump young boy whose family persecutes him. When he runs away to her, Vic is hauled off to jail for kidnapping. She could get out on bail but decides to stay in and find out more about the woman whose dead body started all this. Truly powerful stuff. If you don't have much tolerance for blood and violence, avoid Paretsky; Vic doesn't mind mixing it up with really tough guys. Also, try Total Recall. Vic's friend Lotty remains haunted by her holocaust memories. When a recovered memory patient claims to have been part of the same kindertransport as Lotty was, it terrifies Lotty, who doesn't want to deal with this past. Meanwhile, Vic is finding that two separate cases are fitting together - the false insurance claim made 10 years ago that results in her client not being paid when his father died is part of a larger systematic scheme to file claims on the deaths of holocaust victims, a scam insurers don't want revealed now as Jewish groups are filing class actions against the insurance companies for return of the money.

Robert B. Parker. Early Autumn. All of Parker's novels about tough private eye Spenser are good (despite his tendency to litter the landscape with corpses), but this one is my favorite. It's about a teenage boy who is used as a tool by his parents, in their escalating war against each other. Spenser takes the boy in hand and teaches him the rules for being a man. Spenser is an educated tough guy, who reads and brawls and kills and loves with equal ease. His code is always in evidence, but here, in teaching it to a young man, he lays it out clearly and in detail.

Barbara Paul. The Fourth Wall. This is one of the best theatrical murder mysteries available. All the murders center around a play written by Abby, who suspects that the reason for the killings lies in a repertory company she and many of the current cast and crew members were involved with years ago. She has to find out soon before her entire cast is maimed or killed, and her play forced to close. Paul's other novels are equally excellent: Liars and Tyrants and People Who Turn Blue, about a woman used by police as a kind of human lie detector, Your Eyelids Are Growing Heavy about a woman who finds she was drugged and had her mind programmed to sabotage her own company, But He Was Already Dead When I Got Here, a farce about the police investigation of all the people who tried and failed to kill a rich relative and of the one who succeeded. The Renewable Virgin introduces a series featuring Detective Miriam Larch. Here she meets Kelly, a soap opera actress who may have been the real intended victim of a murder. In working together, they become friends. Kelly turns up in a later theatrical murder mystery, The Apostrophe Thief. In Full Frontal Murder, an apparent kidnapping turns out to be a slugfest between the bitter wealthy parents, each convinced that it's one more tactic in the custody fight. When one of them is murdered, the other is almost too obvious a suspect, and Marian Larch detects a strong smell of fish.

Suzanne Proulx. Declared Dead. One of a series of books about Vicky Lucci, former nurse turned hospital risk manager (and unofficial detective). Here Vicky is trying to get Jenna McLaren declared alive, because her hospital had issued a death certificate in her name rather than her sister's name. But the doctor who issued the certificate is at first elusive, and then mysteriously dead. Meanwhile, and apparently unrelatedly, Vicky gets a job offer from a nearby research institute which, coincidentally, hired that doctor as part of the team to test their new drug. See also Bad Blood, where Vicky is concerned that her hospital gave the wrong blood to four patients, two of them dying as a result. Nobody can explain how it's happened, and it might have been deliberate. Vicky wonders if it could have anything to do with the fact that the hospital is the object of a merger offer, which means due diligence examination of the books will be in order?

17. Dolores Stewart Riccio. Charmed Circle. Cassandra is a middle-aged, divorced Wiccan herbalist whose occasional visions get her into trouble. A local family has disappeared, and she has a vision of the little girl's sneaker sticking up out of the ground in the forest near Bangor. She and her Wiccan friends, each with her own talent, start sleuthing along with the family's dog, who goes bananas when he sees Thomas Gere, who becomes their prime suspect -- especially since he goes to Bangor frequently and hunts in the nearby forest, was an explosives expert in the military, and may well have blown up his ex-girlfriend. They find the bodies (except for the daughter -- Cassandra has a vision of her whereabouts), but in the process, Gere catches on that they're on to him. They're now all in danger, including the young girl with extraordinary psychokinetic powers who has come to Cass to learn witchcraft. In Riccio's Circle of Five. Cass Shipton sees an ordinary looking middle-aged man in the grocery store and has a powerful vision of a murdered child. She enlists her fellow Wiccans to investigate, and they find evidence that the man is a serial killer of young boys, including a local one. But since much of their suspicion rests on Cass's visions, it's a little difficult to convince the police to act. The killer isn't wasting any time responding to their threat and trying to kill all the Wiccans. Because of Cass's vision os impending danger, he doesn't succeed, and they do. Chris Roberts. The Rage Factor. Bounty Hunter Dixie continues to be in love with the man she hunted down in the first book in this series, The Bitch Factor, which is also terrific, but Parker is having an increasingly difficult time living with the fact that Dixie regularly puts herself in harm's way. She becomes involved in the case of sadistic rapist Lawrence Riley Coombs when she catches him after he'' skipped out on bail and he beats her up. He remains vindictive toward her and her friend DA Brenda when the jury finds him not guilty. When Coombs and some other violent offenders start turning up hoisted by their own petards by a vigilante group, Dixie's afraid Brenda had something to do with that. Meanwhile Dixie is asked to guard a movie star's daughter, and finds herself liking the kid and sympathizing with her interest in becoming a special effects wizard. But the kid lures her back into the way of Lawrence Coombs.

Nora Roberts & J.D. Robb. Remember When. Two installments of the same story, by romance writer Nora Roberts and her alter ego, futurist mystery writer J.D. Robb. Laine Tavis, daughter of a petty thief and con artist, has built herself a respectable life as an antiques dealer, until the day her father's longtime partner Willie comes into her store, speaks to her briefly, rushes outside in terror, and is killed by the car he runs in front of. A mysterious, handsome stranger tells her her father and Willie were part of a major diamond heist. Together they figure out what happened to most of the jewels, and put the evil murderous man behind the scheme in prison. Fifty years later, when their granddaughter writes a book about the mystery, another killing spree begins; someone wants the remaining jewels and is willing to kill anyone who stands in the way of following the clues to find them. Lt. Eve Dallas, Robb's brilliant and complicated series heroine, is the investigator who tracks down the killer. If you like this one, go back and read the J.D. Robb books in order, starting with the first book in the series, Naked in Death. The series reminds you a really fine TV show with a brilliant ensemble cast and great dialogue, except it's better.

Richard Rosen. Strike Three, You're Dead. The first of several murder mysteries featuring Harvey Blissberg. Here he is in the last year of his baseball career, the old pro on a struggling expansion team in Providence, when a hot shot young pitcher is murdered. Because Harvey understands the team dynamics, he helps the police figure out who, of all the people who had reasons to kill the kid, actually did it. Harvey retires from baseball and becomes an investigator; further novels in the series include Fadeaway, an excellent murder mystery centered around the murders of basketball players, Saturday Night Dead, about murder at a late night improvisational comedy show, and World of Hurt, about a therapist whose irresponsible conduct ruined a life and led to his own murder.

Alan Russell. The Hotel Detective. Am Caulfield doesn't want to be a hotel detective - he wants to be the manager of the large hotel in San Diego where is he assistant GM, but the jerk who is GM makes him take on the duties of the disgusted head of security who has quit. So when one guest apparently commits suicide in a dive from a 7th floor balcony, and two guests are found murdered, and a thousand pastries disappear, they are all his problems, as are the difficulties presented by a convention of 175 Bob Johnsons. Pretty funny. As is the sequel,The Fat Innkeeper, in which Am Caulfield deals with the murder of a professional skeptic during a conference of people who've had near-death experiences, and an attempt to discourage a convention of swingers somebody booked inadvertently (which a man trying to seduce a sweet rich girl gets sucked into), and a failed grunion run fun day that produces a dead beached whale instead.

Jenny Siler. Shot. Carl Green dies in what appears to be a car accident while he's away on a business trip. But before he died he'd called old friend Kevin, a journalist, asking him to visit and hear about "the story of the century." Kevin asks Carl's wife Lucy what's going on. She has no idea, but after a break-in at her home and a visit by Carl's bosses who take his computer files and hard drive, she wants to know. Together with the woman who'd attempted to steal the files, they follow the clues to figure out the real work Carl's biotech firm was involved in. And the company really, REALLY doesn't want her to find out.

Troy Soos. Hanging Curve. This is a significant step up from the previous five books in the Mickey Rawlings series (Murder at Fenway Park, Hunting a Detroit Tiger, etc.) -- amiable mysteries centering around baseball circa 1910-1921. Rawlings, a much-traded utility infielder, helped solve murders at all the old classic baseball fields. In this far more serious novel, Soos takes on both endemic racism in baseball and the burgeoning KuKlux Klan of the 1920's. Having whiffed against a first class pitcher from the Negro Leagues, Rawlings is angered when that pitcher is found hanged. Was it a lynching? Working with a white anti-Klan activist and a black lawyer, he noses around the white guys on the semi-pro team he thinks might have been involved, and discovers the origins of the murder in East St Louis' vicious race riots of 1918. This is also a story of a deepening respect and understanding between good men of different races.

Erica Spindler. Bone Cold. Anna North was once Savannah North Greil, child of a movie star, kidnapped at the age of 11. She managed to escape, after watching the chauffeur's child who was kidnapped with her die. Now she aims for anonymity, living in New Orlenas under her new name, and writing good mysteries that don't sell that well. But somebody knows who she is and is intent on making sure everybody else knows who she is - and he is killing women who look like her. At first the police are disbelieving, but eventually detective Quentin Malone, who falls for her, is convinced. Together they try to out-maneuver the killer.

Susan Sussman. Audition for Murder. Morgan Taylor, thirtyish struggling Chicago actress has a chance at a meaty part, but the woman who's supposed to audition with her turns up dead in the theatre bathroom, poisoned. Another entirely unlikable actress who resents Morgan getting the part and tries to undermine her, also dies, like the first, from poisoned food. Morgan becomes both prime source of info and love interest for the detective on the case. While she helps figure out who dunnit, she also works out some thorny problems with her family and her best friend. She's smart and sassy and fun.

Virginia Swift. Bad Company. Second in the series about University of Wyoming history professor (and former honkytonk angel and C&W singer) Sally Alder. She and her lover Hawk find the murdered body of a local loser, niece to her good friend the sheriff, and understandably, except to the sheriff's detective, she butts into the investigation, placing her at risk. The investigation overlaps with the story of a local land swap scam that will open up a choice piece of mountain forest to development (and also with an appalling story about the housesitters for her friend Edna which is enough to keep anybody at home permanently). The first book, Brown-Eyed Girl, details Sally's return to Laramie, where she had been well-known in her singing days, as a professor and holder of a distinguished chair in women's history. She's writing a biography of a well-known frontier poet, using the woman's collected papers and manuscripts, which are viewed covetously by both the poet's family and a reactionary millionaire who thinks there's a clue in them to finding a fortune. In the 3rd book, Bye Bye Love, Sally agrees to help singer Thomas "Stone" Jackson put on a benefit concert on behalf of a charity favored by his ex-wife, folksinger Nina Cruz, but that group begins to look pretty suspicious when Nina is shot, possibly by a hunter on her property, but possibly by the unsavory crowd of hanger-ons living there. Since Sally is interviewing people for a book about Nina, the killer thinks, correctly, that she's a threat. The police really don't want her involved with the case, but she just can't help it.

Elizabeth Atwood Taylor. Murder at Vassar. Maggie Elliott, attending a class reunion at Vassar, comes to the rescue of her old friend Pudgie; an heiress, she is the natural suspect when her aunt is murdered; she claims, truthfully, that she had been captured and bound to a tree while the murder was being committed, but since she managed to escape, the police are skeptical about this. Maggie finds a number of other people who would have been equally happy to see the old lady dead, and who would have profited as much as Pudgie.

P.J. Tracy. Monkeewrench. Grace McBride and her four friends, who are on the run from the FBI and have managed to completely erase their past from the computer record, attract the attention of the feds again when they realize that a series of killings in Minneapolis mimic the murders in their new beta game, Serial Killer Detective, and they tell the police. Det. Magozzi, attracted to Grace, doesn't believe she's responsible, and won't turn her over to the FBI but follows the clues himself. Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, a weird elderly couple, who appear to have spent their lives in fear running from something, are shot dead inside a church, and the two cases turn out to be linked, and the police chief teams up with Magozzi and McBride herself to find the killer before anybody else dies.

Derek VanArman. Just Killing Time. Jack Scott is the FBI's head tracker of serial killers. Several killers have a common link in the arson that burned out a small Maryland town whose property was coveted by a rich white developer. Aided by forensic science, but guided by thinking himself inside the minds of the killers, Scott tracks them down. There are a lot of novels out there now about serial killers, and/or those that stalk them, but this is one of the better ones.

Donald E. Westlake. The Curious Facts Preceding my Execution. Westlake's the man you want for funny mysteries. This is a collection of amusing short stories, including the one about the man who would have committed the perfect crime if it weren't for all those people coming to the door, and the one about the woman searching her family tree who discovers a woman in the habit of murdering her husbands.

James Yaffee. A Nice Murder for Mom, Mom Meets Her Maker, etc. Dave is an investigator for the public defender's office in a New Mexico town. His widowed Jewish mother moves to that town and insists on solving his murders for him. She has great instincts about people and makes fantastic chicken soup, and she charms everyone she meets. Dave has mixed feelings about all this, but he can't deny that she's invariably right. These are quite amusing.

The Mystery Reader has current reviews of mysteries in all categories. Also, the Mystery Writers of America site gives an excellent set of links to mystery authors and other mystery sites. Also, check out the Webrary's Booklists, accessible by genre, author, type of lead character, setting, topic, and "best of"s.

Last Updated February 4, 2003

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