Sue Grafton: V is for Vengeance Sunday, Jan 29 2012 

FOLKS: Auntie M will be attending the Cape Fear Crime Festival and will return to this spot on Feb. 12th with a great new review for you!

Reading Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is like working your way through a box of Godiva chocolates: you get more and more excited tasting the different flavors and don’t want the box to end. That sums up Auntie M’s feelings after reading her newest, V is for Vengeance.

The talented Grafton just keeps getting better and better. The Wall Street Journal notes: “Millhone’s complexity is mirrored by the novels that document her cases: books that nestle comfortably within the mystery genre even as they prod and push its contours.”

This time the licensed private detective is shopping for underwear when she’s a witness to a woman shoplifting in Nordstrom’s lingerie department. Discreetly enlisting the nearest clerk, the woman is caught by security but not before Kinsey witnesses her companion changing clothes in the ladies room. Said accomplice manages to get away after trying to run Kinsey down in the parking lot. But no, this still doesn’t explain why Kinsey is nursing a broken nose and two black eyes on her thirty-eighth birthday, one hell of a way to remember the day.

The lead up to that broken nose takes us through the details of Kinsey’s latest case, starting with the shoplifter, who has apparently jumped off a bridge in remorse–for shoplifting a lace teddy and two pairs of silk pajamas? When the woman’s fiance’ shows up at Kinsey’s office and begs her to look into the jumper’s death, Kinsey becomes involved in a web of dangerous and toxic relationships that will affect her and those around her in surprising and sometimes deathly ways.

As her investigation grows, so does this web in which Kinsey finds herself entangled, leading her to a ruthless and unfaithful businessman, a woman on the verge of leaving her husband, a young man with a bad gambling habit, and a brutal gangster. Throw in a mob-related professional shoplifting ring, and a dirty, ruthless cop, and you have an idea of what Kinsey’s week has just become. If you thought shoplifting was a minor, irritating crime, you’re in for an eye-opener. This is big business on a world-wide level; and at the heart of this ring is a charming, powerful businessman whose work might be outside the law but whose moral code is above that of the cop who becomes a thorn in Kinsey’s side.

Here’s Kinsey’s telling us about herself in a way that affects the fulfilling ending of the novel: “For the record, I’d like to say I’m a big fan of forgiveness as long as I’m given the opportunity to get even.”

Grafton fans will admire this latest installment, as she’s managed to take her novel a notch higher. Not only do we have Kinsey’s voice and first-person point of view, but we have the added viewpoints of several of the other major players in the story, which adds multiple layers to this very satisfying novel. Then there is the matter of what must be exhaustive research on Grafton’s end into the areas she’s dealing with. The ending couldn’t have been handled better, and that black eye turns out to be a saving grace.

This is a writer at the height of her talent, with a comfortable relationship with her main character that forms the solid foundation of her books. By “V,” Grafton is widening her reach, and we are the fortunate recipients. Auntie M’s only hope is that with only four more letters in the alphabet, Sue Grafton will consider starting all over from A.

Alan Bradley: I am Half-sick of Shadows Sunday, Jan 22 2012 

The delightful chemistry whiz Flavia de Luce is back in Alan Bradley’s fourth mid-20th century series mystery featuring the youngest daughter of Colonel de Luce. The series has won multiple awards, including the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award, the Barry Award, the Agatha Award, the Macavity Award, the Dilys Winn Award, and the Arthur Ellis Award.

It’s near Christmas at Buckshaw, the de Luce’s decaying English estate, and eleven-year-old Flavia is in her chemistry laboratory, whipping up a potion guaranteed to prove once and for all if Saint Nick is a reality by gluing him to Buckshaw’s roof. Her father’s desperate financial situation has led him to rent out his beloved estate to, of all things, a film company.

Flavia’s sisters are enthralled: the flirtatious Feeley and bookish Daphne’s excitement is contagious, and even Flavia becomes a bit smitten when film star Phyllis Wyvern appears, along with the cast and crew needed for the few scenes to be filmed there. When Wyvern’s leading man, Desmond Duncan, is added to the mix, even a few minor crew accidents don’t seem important. Wyvern and Duncan are quickly pressed into performing the classic balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet as a fundraiser for the village church roof.

Unfortunately, a huge blizzard arrives, snowing in most of the Bishop Lacey villagers who’ve arrived for the benefit. A long with the film crew, the heavy snowfall leaves everyone stranded and people sleeping in Buckshaw’s hall.

And then a body is found, strangled with a length of film in a staged scene that has Flavia and her dear Inspector Hewitt carrying on twin investigations into this classic “locked room” mystery.

Readers of the series will have learned by now that the mystery is almost secondary in the series to the inner thoughts and machinations of Flavia’s astute mind. This child prodigy in the realm of chemistry is still learning how to read people’s emotions and decipher her own. Bradley fields her struggle with childish feelings and growing pains against her supreme intelligence and sleuthing skills. Sherlock Holmes would be a fan of Flavia.

Ruth Rendell: The Vault Sunday, Jan 15 2012 

Rendell’s dear Chief Inspector Reggie Wexford has retired–or has he?

Wexford’s actress daughter owns a home in the posh Hampstead section of London, complete with a carriage house she offers to her parents, where Wexford and his wife Dora are spending time now that the Chief is retired from policing. Trying to fill his days with reading, opera, galleries and walks, he is also trying to cope with missing policing, six months out of service. One of these walks down the Finchley Road leads him to a chance encounter with a bright young detective he knew thirty years ago and instantly recognizes.

But Tom Ede has moved on and is now Detective Superintendent Ede, based at the new Metropolitan Police headquarters in Cricklewood. When Ede promises to phone the next day, Wexford finds himself anxiously anticipating the call. Yet he’s still surprised when Ede indicates he could use Wexford in the role of expert advisor. “Open confession is good for the soul,” said Tom, “and I’ll tell you frankly, I’ve asked for your help because so far we’re getting nowhere fast.”

Despite the lack of renumeration, Wexford agrees when he finds out the particular case Ede wants help with concerns a house in Orcadia Place, where four bodies have been found in an underground vault. Three of the bodies are of vintage variety, and one is new. The house’s new owner had pulled up a manhole cover in the garden with an eye to making an underground room and made the horrific discovery. Readers of Rendell’s 1998 novel A Sight for Sore Eyes will remember this particular house and its grisly climax with three bodies buried, one alive, but now the number is up to four. I hasten to point out that no knowledge of that book is necessary to enjoy this one. But the question for readers of the earlier book will become immediately apparent, as it soon does to Wexford: How did somebody else end up in that chamber? And who knew of its existence?

Wexford’s dogged nature and detecting skills will take him all over London’s neighborhoods as he uses his honed experience to figure out the criminal minds at work here and follows the trail that leads to the original murders over a decade ago. There are neighbors and workers and past owners to be interviewed and investigated. Just when he’s making what seems like progress on the case, a family tragedy brings him back to Kingsmarkham and changes everything. Wexford’s old partner Mike Burden makes his appearance here. Just as that situation looks to be under control, the books powerful resolution brings Wexford himself into physical danger.

This is Rendell at her finest, with masterful plotting and an eye for the details of human nature. Rendell delves into the psychology of her characters as she twists her plots, and twists them again, and that keeps Auntie M reading.

As an aside, it must be noted that many of the Wexford novels were made for television into a fine series called The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, starring George Baker as Wexford. A multi-talented actor and writer, Baker embodied the character, and died last October of pneumonia after a stroke. His third wife, actress Louie Ramsey, had played Dora, Wexford’s wife in the series, and predeceased him in March of 2011. One of Baker’s five daughters told the BBC after his death: “He absolutely loved Wexford and he loved being Wexford.”

How lucky for readers that Wexford’s creator is still going strong and we can only hope Baroness Rendell will keep Wexford alive and sleuthing for a long time to come.

Susan Hill: Betrayal of Trust Sunday, Jan 8 2012 

With the sixth Simon Serrailler mystery, the wonderful Susan Hill has given her readers a New Years gift that’s only missing its red bow. All of the delightful elements are here that make this acclaimed series one of the most highly anticipated in British mystery.

A gale passing through southwest England opens the action, affecting the characters in different ways.  The brooding Chief Superintendent has driven home from a friend’s wedding in Wales with the gale licking his heels. He’s tucked up warm and cozy, when the gale hits his flat in Cathedral Close and town of Lafferton with a vengance. At his sisters farmhouse, Cat Deerborn worries about Molly Lucas, the final year medical student who lives with her. Molly biked to the med school library and hasn’t returned home. Across town, arthritic Jocelyn Forbes faces the storm alone in her bedroom, wishing for someone to talk to about her deteriorating body.

Then just after midnight the river bursts its banks; streets and lanes fill up with flash flooding. Debris washes down the Moor into the road below and the hill becomes impassable, bringing with it stone, soil, branches, and along with this, bones from two shallow graves.

These bones bring Serrailler the chilling prospect of a complicated cold case involving prominent businessman John Lowther. Some of the bones belong to his daughter, Joanne, missing for twenty years, whose supposed death as a teenager led to her mother’s suicide. The others bones owner are harder to pin down and prove to be only the first of the surprising twists Hill has in store for her readers.

Lafferton’s force has been hit with budget cuts, and the shortage of staff finds Serrailler out doing the kind of legwork in this investigation he’s best suited for. The story lines threads and themes that follow Molly Lucas, learning how to manage the end of life in patients, and Jocelyn Forbes, facing hers, weave in and out of Serrailler’s investigation, as he tried to identify the second body while trying to learn what happened to Joanne Lowther.

Hill manages to wrap these disparate threads into a complex and highly satisfying plot, exploring the quality of life, what that really means, and whose decision it is to make that judgment.

A surprising twist in Serrailler’s personal life dovetails neatly with the novel’s theme but is not the only surprise Hill has in for her reader. This is a chillingly well-plotted novel, and Auntie M found the novel’s ending raised more questions than it answered and left her anxiously anticipating the next novel. Hill delves into the psychology of her characters in a way that makes them very human and allows her readers to relate to them with her deep empathy for the human condition.  Never one to take the expected pathway, fans of P D James and Ruth Rendell will find The Betrayal of Trust wholly satisfying and unable to put  down until the shocking last page is turned. It will be difficult to wait for the next installment.

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