King Zeno, by Nathaniel Rich

35259559Nathaniel Rich’s King Zeno is the second novel I’ve read recently that takes on the Axeman Murders of New Orleans—which is fitting since it’s been a century since the still-unsolved murders were committed. (Read my review of The Axeman, by Ray Celestin.) This fictional take on the murders rotates between a police officer with PTSD, a widow who heads a major construction project in the city, and a jazz cornet player. King Zeno is stuffed with the sights and sounds of New Orleans in the winter of 1917-1918. At times, the Axeman Murders get a lost as the characters witness the evolution of hot jazz, weather the Spanish Flu epidemic, and the construction of the city’s industrial canal.

New Orleans police officer Billy Bastrup, one of our three narrators, is having a hard time doing his job. Being a cop in New Orleans has never been easy, but Billy is haunted by an incident that happened while he was a soldier in France during the Great War. He’s not always sure he’s not hallucinating. Meanwhile, his marriage is falling apart, two Black men are committing armed robbery on the city streets, and the Axeman Murders are immanent.

Beatrice Vizzini has all the makings of a criminal mastermind. She inherited her husband’s “shadow business” after his death, but now she wants to go legitimate by having her company build a canal connecting the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Unfortunately, her disturbing son is reluctant to let go of the shadow business because it gives him such an excellent outlet for his violent urges.

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Kid Ory, seen here with Louis Armstrong in 1918, appears as a character in King Zeno.

Our last narrator is Slim Izzy Zeno, a jazz musician who has a gift for making his trumpet talk and shout and howl. While Billy and Beatrice are interesting, fully realized characters, I really enjoyed reading about Izzy because he provides an entrée to the world of hot jazz, one of my favorite music genres. Whenever I read an Izzy chapter, I wanted more and was kind of reluctant to go back to reading about the other narrators’ woes.

King Zeno is a bit of a mishmash. If you’re not familiar with the Axeman Murders, it might be hard to see how things are going to link up. Because I read Celestin’s The Axeman, I knew about some of the intersections in advance. I’m actually glad about this. Knowing ahead of time about some of the book’s twists kept me from getting frustrated with Rich as more and more things happened to his characters that weren’t about what I would’ve thought was a major point in any story set in 1917-1918 New Orleans.

Perhaps a better way of selling this book is to say that it’s a story about a time and place, not about any particular event. King Zeno is a book to slide into and is one of the best representations of the idea of what New Orleans is (at least to people who don’t actually live there). This book is full of sin and music and I enjoyed those parts immensely.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 9 January 2018.

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The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey

35133064Sujata Massey’s The Widows of Malabar Hill rings a lot of my bells: tough, original female protagonist; intriguing mystery; and a richly described setting that teaches me about a time and place I’ve never read about before. In this book, we are whisked away to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1921 to tag along with the first female lawyer. Perveen Mistry, a Parsi woman, usually works on contracts, wills, and other legal paperwork (since she’s not allowed to appear in court) when she finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation.

Perveen has a protective streak when it comes to women who have been wronged by the legal system. (We find out why in increasingly heartbreaking flashbacks to Perveen’s marriage.) When she sees some suspicious things in paperwork asking for three widows’ dowries to be transferred to a wakf (Muslim charity). The signatures are wrong and the whole thing seems strange. So, Perveen takes her briefcase and heads over to their home to start asking questions. The widows live in purdah, which means that Perveen’s gender is a virtue for once. She can enter the zenana, the secluded part of their home. Unfortunately, Perveen’s questions stir up trouble. When she has to return to pick up her misplaced briefcase, she discovers that the man who runs the household for the women has been murdered.

Even though the practice of purdah is meant to keep women hidden away from the rest of the world, these widows’ zenana is full of secret scandals. Each chapter takes us deeper into the three widows’ lives and their worldly concerns about money, security, and their children’s futures. Perveen is a sensitive advocate for the widows. Because of her upbringing as the daughter of a renowned Bombay lawyer, she’s grown up knowing that lawyers have to weave between secular, traditional, colonial, and religious legal systems. Where another woman might have tried to push the women out of purdah, Perveen understands the widows’ boundaries and acts as a fierce advocate for them as the police blunder their way through the murder investigation.

The mystery and Perveen are wonderful, but what I liked most about The Widows of Malabar Hill was the way it took me back to the Bombay of 1921. This book brings a world back to life, full of sights and smells (there are a lot of meals in this book that made me want to rush to the nearest Indian restaurant). This book will be a great read for people who want to be transported while they try to out-investigate a mystery novel’s protagonist.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 9 January 2018.

The Coroner’s Daughter, by Andrew Hughes

32191820Andrew Hughes’ The Coroner’s Daughter is an entertaining book about a girl who refuses to stay put or stop asking questions. Abigail Lawless, unlike many other girls in early nineteenth century Dublin, was indulged by her coroner father, so she never “learned her place.” It’s a good thing she didn’t, because then the deaths of an infant, his mother, and several others would have remained a mystery.

In the Dublin of 1816, a ruling of death by suicide not only meant that cause of death might not be determined but also that the body could not be buried in consecrated ground. I bring this up because it encapsulates the major conflict in this book of science and rationality against religious fundamentalism. Abigail and her father get caught in the middle because they have to tread lightly between a powerful religious cadre, the status quo, and their determination to see justice done and truth outed.

I enjoyed the irrepressible Abigail a lot, but I found myself disappointed by the conclusion to The Coroner’s Daughter. At the risk of saying too much, I think the solution to the mystery was too muddled and too much of a commentary on the conflict between religion and science. When I thought the solution was a matter of human failings, I was much more engaged in the story. That said, Abigail makes up for a lot on this book and I’m glad that the coda at the end leaves an opening for a sequel.

Beloved Poison, by E.S. Thomson

28933550E.S. Thomson’s Beloved Poison is a slow burn of a mystery, at least until a third of the way through and someone finally gets murdered. Then the corpses proliferate and our protagonist gets followed by thugs and it’s clear we’re finally off to the races. In addition to the twisty mystery, Beloved Poison offers a look inside a London hospital in 1846, a time when the old guard surgeons (with coats so stiff with blood they could stand on their own) were starting to lose ground to up-and-comers who talked about radical notions like antisepsis.

St. Saviour’s Hospital is almost in worse shape than many of the Londoners who come there for treatment. The hospital governors have made a deal to sell the land to a railway company and rebuild elsewhere. Jem Flockhart, our protagonist, is not happy about this. Jem grew up in the hospital, working for her apothecary father, and does not want to start over somewhere else. (Jem is disguised as a man so that she can work. This isn’t a spoiler since Jem’s biological sex is revealed fairly early in the book.) She’s even more annoyed when she has to share space with Will Quartermain, the young architect who’s been hired to relocate the bodies in St. Saviour’s cemetery.

In the first third of Beloved Poison, we learn a lot about Dr. Bain and why several people at the hospital might want to kill him. He’s the first victim in this book, but only because Jem and Will discovered six strange, witchy paper coffins with dolls behind a decaying wall in the hospital chapel. Jem has an inquiring mind and she immediately starts to ask questions about where the dolls came from. Unfortunately, the dolls turn out to be the tip of a gristly iceberg. The mystery is baffling—both to Jem and Will, and to me—and it takes a lot of investigating, interviewing, and ratiocinating to get to the bottom of everything.

I really liked Jem. Her gender and sexuality are fascinating. She can’t fully be a Victorian man (because so many of them expect to spend time at the local brothels), but she can’t become a woman because she has neither the interest or the talent for it. Jem’s outsider status gives her a critical eye for how men and women relate to each other in her narrow, hierarchical world. The fact that she’s in love with the top surgeon’s daughter is a tantalizing addition to the story.

Between the setting and the unusual mystery, I was quite entertained by Beloved Poison. It could have used a bit more editing, I think, to smooth the rough transitions and develop the ending a bit more. I feel that the characters and their backstories threatened (often) to become more engrossing than the actual mystery. Beloved Poison could easily have become a sprawling, Dickensian slice-of-life bildungsroman—and I think I would have loved the book even more for it.

In the Woods, by Tana French

237209It should come as no surprise that the people who are tasked with finding out the truth get lied to constantly. What came as a surprise, as I read Tana French’s masterly In the Woods, was how much a detective might struggle with discerning truth from lies. Throughout the novel, Dublin Murder squad detective Robert Ryan is lied to by witnesses, suspects, and his own memory. It’s fascinating to spend time in his head as he tries to work out what happened to a small girl found dead at an archaeological dig and what happened to his friends twenty years ago.

Knocknaree, near Dublin, has been a no-go area for Ryan ever since his two friends disappeared and he was found clinging to a tree with blood in his shoes. He and his partner, Cassie Maddox, have the sheer bad luck of landing the case because they weren’t busy with anything else when Katy Devlin’s body is found on an altar stone at an archaeological dig near the housing estate. Just being back in the little development gives him the terrors and sets his judgment askew.

Because we’re riding along in Ryan’s head for a month, we are treated to the full tension and tedium of a murder investigation. Ryan and Maddox chase down dozens of leads, some more plausible than others. We are so close to the action that it’s just as hard for us readers to tell what piece of information is actually relevant to what happened and what is just more of the useless data churned up with detectives come in to shine bright lights into every dark corner. As if this wasn’t enough to deal with it, Ryan is wracking his brains to try and recover lost memories about what happened in the woods when he was twelve.

Ryan is a strangely self-reflective detective. Most of the ones I’ve encountered in fiction are oblivious to their personal failings. He’s eloquent on the workings and failings of his brain. That brain often seems like an adversary, as weird as that is. He knows that his past trauma is leading him to make mistakes but he seems helpless to stop himself from yelling at witnesses or devoting time to leads that don’t pan out. We know he’s going to crash and burn if he keeps it up, but if he doesn’t, we might never find out what happened twenty years ago and if it has anything to do with what happened to little Katy Devlin.

Once the twists start, however, the fog that surrounds Katy’s murder starts to lift. I love it when mysteries manage to both confound me but, once the solution is revealed, make me look back and see how inevitable it all was. In the Woods did both for me, as well as give me a well-spoken, emotionally hapless narrator to follow through the entire investigation. This book is one of the best mysteries I’ve read in a while.

Somebody at the Door, by Raymond Postgate

21992879Like his thoughtful Verdict of Twelve, Raymond Postgate’s Somebody at the Door serves as both an intriguing puzzle to solve and as commentary on mysteries in general. The novel begins with a character sketch of the disagreeable town Councillor Henry James Greyling. We follow him from work to the train home, where he shares a compartment with eight others. The next thing we know, Greying is dead of gas poisoning. Investigator Holly begins asking questions, only to find that most of the people in that train compartment plus two others have motive to kill the man. So, who done it? And, which of the several motives is enough to drive someone to kill?

Motive, means, and opportunity form a trio that police and detectives have used to narrow down a list of suspects and find the actual criminal(s). In the case of Henry Greyling’s murder, all of the suspects seem to have equal access to the mustard gas that did the councillor in as well as plenty of opportunity to have administered the fatal dose during the hours between the train’s arrival and Greyling’s appearance at his home. It all comes down to motive.

Postgate was clearly enamored of writing character sketches. After we meet Greyling and find out how he died, we are treated to a series of long biographies of all the suspects. These biographies don’t point to a clear murderer. Greyling might have been killed because he knew too much about someone’s troubles past, criminal activities, adultery, to conceal his own crimes, or because he caused a lot of trouble for someone. Each of the motives seems more or less plausible. But at the same time, what motive is enough to justify—at least to the murderer—killing another human being? I thought about this over and over as I met each new suspect.

It’s a pity Postgate wrote so few mysteries. Both Verdict of Twelve and Somebody at the Door have much to say about why people do what they do when it comes to crime and justice. I feel like I’ve walked miles in characters’ shoes while I read and I loved the opportunity to really examine how past events affect those characters. Most mysteries I’ve read from the Golden Age focus almost entirely on the means and opportunity, the how of the crime, rather than the why. Postgate’s novels are all about the why. So, instead of having just a clever brain teaser to work out, I’m left thinking about the kind of questions I’ve always enjoyed pondering about justice, ethics, motivation, and vengeance.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 5 December 2017.

Heaven’s Crooked Finger, by Hank Early

34507291It’s not unusual for fictional characters to have issues with their parents. Parental drama is a great way to create a fraught backstory for a character. But Earl Marcus’ issues with his father are rather more spectacular in Hank Early’s mystery, Heaven’s Crooked FingerEarl has not returned to the mountains of northern Georgia since he turned 18, a few years after his father handed him a cottonmouth snake in an attempt to prove Earl’s godliness (or lack thereof). He didn’t even go back when his father died. But now that there’s a possibility that Earl’s father faked his death, Earl reluctantly returns to investigate.

Things haven’t changed much in the Finger Mountains of northern Georgia in the thirty years Earl’s been gone. The Church of the Holy Flame, his father’s snake-handling, fundamentalist church, is still running the show. The local sheriff is a partner with the church’s leaders. No one wants to talk to Earl about his father’s possible “resurrection.” His only ally is also the only black, female sheriff’s deputy in the county. Between the two of them, Earl and Mary slowly start to figure out what happened to Earl’s father and a few other people who’ve gone missing since.

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Snake-handlers in Kentucky, 1946. (Image via Wikicommons and the National Archives)

While the mysteries are certainly interesting, and Mary and Earl have a tricky time solving them considering their lack of support from the rest of the sheriff’s department, I was more interested in Earl’s biography. When we meet him at the beginning of the novel, Earl is a struggling private investigator and alcoholic. He is haunted by his memories of what his father did to him and the rest of the congregation: the snakes, the fire and brimstone, the obsession with sin. Not only does Earl’s return to the mountains mean a chance to solve some mysteries, but it means a chance for the detective to try to come to terms with his past and the damage he suffered.

Earl’s home county is a very sick place. Earl and his partner, Mary, blow through it like a whopping dose of penicillin. Between Earl’s originally awful backstory, the mysteries, and the strangeness of the Church’s tenets, I found Heaven’s Crooked Finger an intriguing read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. It will be released 7 November 2017.

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew Sullivan

32620349In a strange bit of serendipity, I finished watching Mindhunter on Netflix last night before I dove into Matthew Sullivan’s Midnight at the Bright Ideas BookstoreAt the center of this twisty mystery is a horrific multiple murder that seems straight out of the dark heyday of the axe murders. Lydia Gladwell, now a humble bookseller at the Bright Ideas Bookstore in Denver, was the only survivor of the Hammerman. She’s been successfully hiding ever since, but a suicide in her bookstore starts to bring everything out into the open.

It takes a chapter or two for us to learn this. The opening of Midnight in the Bright Ideas Bookstore made me think that this might be another dark, quirky tale like The Stopping Place. Lydia is the favorite employee of a lot of the homeless and odder customers at Bright Ideas, including Joey, who hangs himself on the upper floor of the store. When she finds a photo of herself at her tenth birthday party plus a lot of strangely damaged books, Lydia has a mystery on her hands. Her compassion for the lonely, troubled young man leads her to pursue the messages he left, to find out why he would take his life. Then we learn about what happened the night Lydia survived the Hammerman and it’s clear that this book is not a dark but quirky tale.

Even though it only unfolds over a couple of days, the plot feels leisurely. There are plenty of red herrings and clues that turn out to mean a lot. It’s a wonderful brain teaser, especially since I binge-watched ten hours of men in a basement trying to figure out what makes serial and spree killers tick. The more I thought about the Hammerman murders, the more I was stuck trying to make it all fit. So when it all did fit, it felt hugely satisfying.

I picked up Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore because I wanted a book-based story of people with haunting backgrounds and literary clues. I didn’t find that. What I found was something equally interesting: a tangled tale of family and murder and defensive independence. I really liked this book.

Deadly Cure, by Lawrence Goldstone

34445246Lawrence Goldstone’s Deadly Cure begins with one of the worst things that can happen to a doctor. Up-and-coming doctor Noah Whitestone is summoned to the home of a wealthy New York couple because the family’s youngest son is very ill. Whitestone thinks this is his chance to become the doctor to the city’s upper crust until the boy dies that night. As far as Whitestone (and the experts he consults) knows, the boy should have been alright. His guilt spurs him to investigate the boy’s death, an investigation that almost immediately turns into a crusade against unethical medical experimentation.

Noah is foursquare against patent medicines. At the time, before the 1906 passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, he has a good point. Most of the “medicines” on the market were full of opium, alcohol, and toxic materials. But the opium and alcohol make people feel better for a while, so they are so popular Noah can’t do much more than admonish people. When he visits the rich family’s boy, he immediately recognizes the symptoms of opium withdrawal. The boy’s mother adamantly argues that her son hasn’t been taking any patent medicines. Noah treats the boy for his withdrawal symptoms anyway and leaves for a few hours to attend other patients. When he comes back, the boy is clearly suffering an overdose of some kind of opiate.

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Bayer started selling heroin in 1895 as a “non-addictive” opiate.
(Image via Wikicommons)

The death of a rich child could end his career, but Noah is more worried about how the boy actually died. He knows it wasn’t his fault. He did what he was supposed to do. Still, he starts to ask questions and learns that some of his rival doctors are handing out mysterious green and blue pills to poor children. They’re clearly testing a new drug and keeping everything under wraps. Then Noah is approached by a journalist for a radical newspaper who tells Noah he has evidence that there is a conspiracy to conduct unethical pharmaceutical tests and keep the patent medicine money wheel spinning. With the help of a group of some anarcho-communists and a curious medical examiner, Noah digs even more deeply into the conspiracy.

Deadly Cure races along, with some pointed comments about the wealth gap, social justice, etc. that read like digs at current events and few research drops, to a conclusion that I found disappointing and confusing because of the choices Noah makes. I enjoyed the characters, especially the women in the book. They are wonderfully take charge and capable. What I liked best about Deadly Cure was the opportunity to dive into a fictional account of the real pharmaceutical race to bring aspirin*, buffered aspirin, and heroin to market. So while Deadly Cure is flawed, readers who like medical mysteries will enjoy it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 November 2017.


* Sawbones produced a recent episode about aspirin that is utterly fascinating.

The Shadow District, by Arnaldur Indriðason

35011768While this latest novel from Arnaldur Indriðason does not feature his well-known Inspecter ErlendurThe Shadow District shares strong similarities. Like many of the Erlendur novels, this one centers on a pair of linked crimes that happened decades apart. The detective here, Konrád, is a retired officer of Reykjavík’s criminal investigation division. He claims to be happily retired, but it’s clear by the way he horns his way into an investigation of the murder of a 90-year-old man that he’s very bored.

The murder of Stefán Thordárson doesn’t leave the police much to go on. He was smothered; that’s all they can figure out at first. Stefán’s apartment has so few personal items that it’s hard for anyone to get an idea of what lead to his death. The man didn’t seem to have any friends or family either. The only thing that keeps his case from being a complete dead end is a trio of newspaper articles about an unsolved murder from 1944. Konrád trades on an old friendship in CID to dig into both cases. Slowly, methodically, he begins to put together the scant clues with luck and plenty of hunches.

Konrád’s chapters alternate with chapters set in 1944 in which Stefán (who turns out to be a Canadian of Icelandic descent) and his detective partner, Flóvent, try to solve the murder of a woman found dumped behind a theater. As hard as Konrád’s job is, at least he has things like databases and CCTV to help him. In the 1940s, police had little more at their disposal than lots of good shoe leather and persistence to get to the bottom of things.

We know from the outset of The Shadow District that the two cases are connect. What we don’t know until the end is what really happened—mostly through careful editing to keep names and bits of evidence hidden for later. Some readers might hate this because it doesn’t really give us a fair shot at solving the crime before Konrád does. For Erlendur fans, The Shadow District might help tide them over until the next one. If nothing else, this novel is a competent mystery set in an interesting country.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 November 2017.