MW Craven: The Washington Poe series Wednesday, Oct 28 2020 

MW Craven’s Washington Poe series features two highly unusual and creative characters: Poe himself, whose origins he wants to unearth, and Tilly Bradshaw, the sheltered genius who works as a civilian analyst and can run rings around any computer or hacker.

Starting the series off, which won multiple awards including the CWA Gold Dagger Award in 2019, is The Puppet Show, which introduces the suspended detective Poe.

In Cumbria, a serial killer had taken to burning people alive amongst the many stone circles in the area. There is no forensic clue left, and no doubt in anyone’s mind that these victims suffered terribly before their deaths. The press have dubbed the killer the Immolation Man.

On suspension from the National Crime Agency for a previous decision, and enjoying his time at the croft he’s bought in rural Cumbria, Poe and his springer spaniel, Edgar, have settled into a routine that doesn’t include policing one whit. Then his former sergeant, Stephanie Flynn, now in his old position as DI, shows up at the croft and proffers an Osman Warning.

When police receive information that a person is in significant danger, they issue an Osman Warning, which informs that person of the threat against him or her.

Flynn explains that her best civilian analyst at the Serious Crime Analysis Section has found multiple slashes on the third victim’s chest, which a multi-slice computed tomography has revealed, despite the heavily charred tissue, as spelling out “Washington Poe.”

Back working the case as a sergeant under Flynn is not only a new experience, it brings Poe into contact with Tilly, a young woman whose brain has allowed her to advance through universities and degrees at a young age but who has missed any chance of having a youth, and the social clues that go with it.

Tilly is direct, follows orders to the point of rudeness, and the smartest person Poe has ever met, with a mind that sees patterns. This is whom Poe will grudgingly come to respect in their hunt for the madman setting people on fire after torturing them.

The plot is carefully constructed, a real tour de force, as Poe and Tilly, aided by Flynn, try to find the thread that connects the victims. The resolution is as startling and sad and it is inventive. No wonder it won the CWA Gold Dagger!

Carven followed this series debut up with Black Summer, another compelling plot that seemingly has no solution.

One of Poe’s old cases put a celebrity chef, Jared Keaton, behind bars for life for the murder is his daughter, Elizabeth, despite no body being found. Poe had recognized the man as a psychopath and convinced the CPS and a jury that the man had killed his own daughter.

Then a young woman turns up at a police outpost and claims to be Elizabeth Keaton, abducted and kept prisoner for years. Blood DNA proves she is telling the truth. How is this possible, if is?

And if Elizabeth is alive, Poe is in deep trouble when the young woman once again disappears. Now he’s suspected of killing Elizabeth. Once again, he will depend on his own smarts and those of Tilly to figure out the workings of a psychopath.

The third installment finds Poe and Tilly investigating a strange case of body parts left in different parts of Cumbria with only the message “#BSC6” accompanying each one.

It appears some victims received anesthetic before being separated from their body part, while others were not. The only clue Tilly can unearth is that each victim took the same two weeks off work several years earlier. Then an FBI agent horns in on their investigation, saying that in the US they’ve had similar deaths.

It’s a slim lead, but it’s all they have to work on. Using the victim’s lives as the catalyst, Poe and Tilly will find their way through the labyrinth plot.

As the relationship between Poe and Tilly relaxes, he helps her grow her social graces while she grows to be someone he and Flynn can depend on. All three books in the series show original plots, based on the characters and their histories, and with such creativity that Auntie M is anxiously awaiting the next outing of Washington Poe and Tilly Bradshaw.

This entire series is Highly Recommended.

Nicola Upson: The Secrets of Winter Tuesday, Oct 6 2020 

Nicola Upson’s ninth historical mystery novel featuring Josephine hey, The Secrets of Winter, takes readers to a Cornish Christmas in December 1938 with a devastating opening that will proved to be key to the resolution.

Hitler is on the rise, trying to gather friends, even celebrities, for support. But Josephine and Marta have been issued an invitation by their good friend, DCI Archie Penrose, to be part of a special Christmas celebration in aid of charity taking place in the castle high on St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.

Accessed at low tide by a causeway and by ferry boat at others, the Mount has its own medieval church, and the castle, filled with history, seems barely changed from its origins with the exception of a few modern conveniences. The charity being bolstered by Miss Hilaria St. Aubyn of the current family in residence is in aid of bringing thousands of Jewish children out of Nazi Germany to be cared for in hostels and private homes.

When Archie and soon the assorted company, which includes a famous film star, are faced with a murder in the small town at the foot of the Mount and a second murder on the castle premises, it’s easy to feel the chill of the cold stone as a blizzard keeps the gathering cloistered at the castle during what should have been merry Christmas festivities.

Now Archie, aided by Josephine with her keen sense of human nature and her discerning eye, will need all of their attention turned to figuring out who amongst their company is a murderer, before death strikes again.

This is the UK cover for the same book, titled The Dead of Winter. Both covers and titles convey the story inside, based on real history and real people. Auntie M had the great good fortune to visit St. Michael’s Mount, off the coast of Marazion, when she stayed in Penzance on a setting research trip. It’s a must-stop for anyone traveling to Cornwall, despite the steep walk up to the castle. The dizzying height and glorious gardens on the island, plus its innate charm, will surely delight any traveler.

Upson perfectly captures the charm and essence of the community in this era who live and work on the island, and the families who keep the castle at its summit running. A better setting for murder and intrigue could not be imagined, and Auntie M is only sorry Upson got there first.

For this story is full of twists and compelling intrigue, perhaps not quite the Christmas holiday Josephine had envisioned, but one that will have readers enmeshed in the lives of those who have gathered to celebrate Christmas in a castle on top of a high hill. It’s to her credit that Upson manages to create a world where Tey and her friends survive and live on, one that is built on reality but imbued with the authors’ knack for the telling detail and her character’s inner lives.

Another solid entry from an award-winning writer whose work has been shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger, this one is definitely Highly Recommended.

Hank Phillippi Ryan: The First to Lie Friday, Sep 25 2020 

The First to Lie, Hank Phillippi Ryan’s newest suspense mystery, revolves around women and echoes her own life, with the multiple-Emmy and award-winning investigative reporter creating a character who will have that same job. It begs the question about the identities that we show to the world, and what will be believed about us.

Ellie Berensen, new to Boston and ready to start at a brand new channel, takes on an important case that should set her career at Channel 11 off with a bang.

Her investigation is into a drug company owned by a wealthy family, who may be keeping a devastating side effect from the women using it. This has her scrambling for information on the story and for an insider’s view. With her new boss breathing down her neck, Ellie finds herself saddled with a perky producer, Meg.

In their infinite wisdom, the channel has installed Meg in the apartment across the hall from Ellie. Meg Weest is the kind of eager woman who starts to become a pain in Ellie’s side. She asks questions that are too personal, and insinuates her self into Ellie’s story in far too many areas.

Nora Quinn is one of a batch of new sales reps for the drug company Pharminex. Acing her orientation is one thing; dealing with the doctors and the women she meets in their offices is another.

While vastly different, one thing all of these characters have in common are the secrets they are hiding, and the past hurts that have pushed them to seek revenge.

Effective flashbacks tell the story of other women, one whom has been betrayed by her own family; another whom has had her secure future and family yanked away from her.

But just whom is masquerading as whom? And when other women linked to the Pharminex case start to die in accidents, are their deaths really accidental or deliberate?

Ryan brings her own expertise and knowledge of a reporter’s investigation into play in a devious and twisted plot that will keep reader’s flipping pages as the one truth emerges: everyone is lying.

Sophie Hannah: The Killings at Kingfisher Hill Tuesday, Sep 15 2020 

Sophie Hannah’s Hercule Poirot mysteries capture the essence of Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective. She returns with her newest, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, the fourth approved by the Christie estate.

Poirot and Inspector Catchpool are to take a coach to the private gated community at Kingfisher Hill. The Belgian detective has been begged by Richard Devonport to visit his family home with an eye to finding the real murderer of his estranged brother, Frank.

Frank Devonport had just reconciled with his family and a few hours later was dead after a fall from a high staircase. His fiancee, Helen, has confessed to pushing Frank over the banister, but Richard is convinced she is innocent, and hires Poirot to prove it while he’s convinced Helen to marry him.

After a startling and almost bizarre coach ride to journey to Kingfisher Hill, Poirot and Catchpool start their investigation and meet the unpleasant Devonport family and several close friends. With strong personalities dominating everyone’s actions, the red herrings abound. And then there is a second murder . . .

This is a mystery of the mind, with alibis crisscrossing each other and secrets being held. Hannah does a fine job of capturing Poirot’s voice, and has created her most twisted plot yet, one even Christie would find complex.

Catchpool is not Hastings, but he is coming into his own with his relationship with Poirot deepening as the detective mentors the young man to impart how the inspector can better use his little grey cells.

What could be better than an outing with Poirot under the skilled pen of Sophie Hannah. Now who will tackle Miss Marple?

Highly recommended.

Alexander McCall Smith: The Quiet Side of Passion and The Geometry of Holding Hands Sunday, Sep 6 2020 

Auntie M loves Alexander McCall Smith’s series set in Scotland. Today she’s caught up on two Isabel Dalhousie novels. The Quiet Side of Passion takes the philosopher to new territory. Working from home has its challenges, as does Isabel’s inability to say “no” to her niece whenever she asks for help.

The wife, mother of two, and editor of a philosophy magazine clearly needs help around the house. With her husband, Jamie, suggesting they go forward with help, Isabel soon finds her life turned upside down.

The new au pair from Italy has a very different idea of what an au pair should do or behave. And is she giving Jamie the wandering eye?

The young woman who seems the perfect fit as an assistant editor is intelligent, and seems dedicated to her work and her studies. But does she place too much emphasis on her work?

Alongside these distractions, Isabel meets the single mother of one of Charlie’s friends at nursery. Raising her son without help from his father, Isabel soon finds herself entangled in the kind of mess only she can get herself into. It’s her unfailing kindness, often in short supply at times in others, and her ability to question both sides of every question, that is Isabel’s undoing.

The Geometry of Holding Hands brings Isabel several of her most difficult decisions. A wealthy Edinburgh gentleman who has large land holdings and once knew Isabel’s father asks her to be the executor of his will.

After initially thinking she was not the person to do this, she soon learns he has little time left to live, and seeks her guidance on which of three cousins would be the best to leave his large Highland estate in care of.

Then, too, her niece, Cat, has increased her demands on Isabel’s time at the deli she runs. This seems tied in to her new man, the leonine Leo, who looks as lion-like as his name, with the same cunning attitude. Is Leo sincere in his affection for Cat, or for her part of the family trust?

These are the kinds of dilemmas Isabel most navigate with her usual intelligence and grace, and often a major jolt of good sense from Jamie. Set these inside a loving and realistic portrayal of Edinburgh, and you have books readers will enjoy and often think of long after the last page is turned.

One of the hallmarks of the series is Smith’s ability to illustrate the character’s and their personalities. His dialogue is astute and often hilarious. But it’s his warmth toward Isabel and her determined search for what she sees as the truth to complex situations where Smith shines and makes reader return again and again.

Margaret Murphy: Before He Kills Again Thursday, Jul 16 2020 


Margaret Murphy has a strong history in writing chilling psychological novels. Known for the Clara Pascal, and Rickman and Foster series, Murphy has also written as AD Garrett, and with a partner as Ashley Dyer. All of her books feature realistic characters and chilling plots that will have readers leaving the lights on long after they should have been asleep.

Now she brings DC Cassie Rowan to the page in a complex psychological novel that is tightly woven in Before He Kills Again.

Starting from its powerful opening, readers will be hooked immediately with the powerful image Murphy creates.

There’s a sadist on the loose named the Furman, who targets prostitutes and pretty young woman, terrorizing them then raping and beating them before leaving the victims to be found. DC Cassie Rowan spends her evenings undercover, trying to get picked up by this maniac.

And one night she almost succeeds in catching him, where it not for the incompetence of two of her team members. All the while, she juggles being the responsible adult for her teenaged brother after the death of their parents.

Then someone who’s become a friend is savaged by the Furman. Frustrated, Cassie becomes even more determined to bring this maniac to justice, despite at times feeling sabotaged by her own team.

Alan Palmer is a psychologist with his own fraught home situation. Separated from his wife, trying to mend fences to have access to his young daughter, he has private and NHS patients he’s trying to help, but one in particular has caught his attention. Could this young man be the Furman?

Then someone dies, and all bets are off for Rowan and Palmer, all the while bringing the danger closer to home than they would like to believe. The incidents ratchet up in intensity; someone is losing it, and Cassie and Alan are at the heart of it all.

How these two professionals lives intersect forms the basis for a quick-paced psychological thriller, part police-procedural, all parts skillfully written, that heralds the start of a complex new series from this accomplished author.

Highly Recommended.

Mark Billingham: The Killing Habit; Their Little Secrets Wednesday, Jul 8 2020 

For some reason, Mark Billingham’s last two Tom Thorne novels didn’t make it to Auntie M’s To Be Read shelf, but she’s bought them herself to catch up.

The Killing Habit bring Thorne at first into the world where pets are being killed. A classic sign of a psychopath in the making, his goal is to find the culprit before his crimes can escalate.

To that end, he enlists DI Nicola Tanner, a welcome addition to the series. With her own quirks and the secret that binds them together, she’s working her own murder, a shooting by a motorcyclist that has drugs at its heart.

When the two find a serial killer is using a dating agency to target his victims, the chase is literally on before more women can be killed.

The opposing natures of Thorne and Tanner make them a dynamic couple with their interplay and dialogue some of the best in the book. Both are struggling with their personal lives, too. A great installment in one of Auntie M’s favorite series.

In Their Little Secret, with the personal aspects still looming for Thorne and Tanner, they duo become involved in the tragic suicide of a woman who has been the victim of a swindler.

At the same time, readers follow Sarah as she drops her young son off at school. She’s a devoted mum, has a strict routine, and couldn’t appear nicer.

When a young man’s bloodied body is found, CCTV shows a woman he was with shortly before his death. The reader knows more about how these two cases overlap than Thorne and Tanner do, and only heightens the suspense.

Coroner Phil Hendricks is back, too, a great character who manages to stay friends with Thorne and now Tanner. It’s a race to the finish between a couple who bring new meaning to the term psychopath.

This one is the 16th in an a police procedural series that is as authentic as it is filled with humanity.

Both books are Highly Recommended.

Sara Paretsky: Love & Other Crimes Wednesday, Jul 1 2020 

Sara Paretsky brings out a collection of stories she’s written over the past twenty years in Love & Other Crimes. There are fourteen stories in the collection, which include eight featuring her creation, VI Warshawski.

It’s a mixed collection, all with that twisting plot that has been the hallmark of her books. They range from a very young VI’s first investigation, to the title story, where a modern VI uses her investigative experience from the years to clear a family friend of a murder charge, and end with a surprise twist.

In the introduction, Paretsky notes her early reading of the Golden Agers, and her love of late Victorian and early 20th-century crime fiction. Notes at the end of the stories describe their genesis and often give clues to bits within the stories.

Her story “Murder at the Century of Progress” pays homage to two greats: she brings back Race Williams, the first hardboiled detective originally created by Carroll John Daly (1923) and mixes his investigation with that of a woman who is the ultimate mix of Miss Marple and Amelia Butterworth, another favorite.

She uses the cover of the dithering spinster and gives her Charlotte Palmer a more adventurous back story we discover, as the two manage to foil the murder of none-other than fan dancer Sally Rand at the World’s Fair of 1933 called the Century of Progress.

PD James called Paretsky “the most remarkable” of modern crime writers. Readers who sift through this collection will surely agree.

Elly Griffiths: The Lantern Men Tuesday, Jun 16 2020 

NOTE: This review was first published back in April. Auntie M is repeating it today, on its US publication date. If you aren’t already a fan of Elly Griffiths, get on board now! She’ll leave it up for a while so you can look for your copy, and while you’re at it, check out Griffith’s standalone, The Stranger Diaries, too, as well as her Stephens and Mephisto series set in 1950s Brighton.

It’s no secret Elly Griffiths long-running Dr. Ruth Galloway series is one of Auntie M’s favorites. She brings readers the newest, The Lantern Men, as accomplished as any of those preceding, one to read and savor, containing her wit and original and creative voice.

It’s been two years since Ruth left her marsh side cottage and her position at the North Norfolk University and as the police’s resident forensic archaeologist. She’s moved Cambridge to teach, and plan a future with historian Frank, and brought her daughter with DCI Nelson, Kate, and their cat, Flint. But where has she left her heart?

This is the subtext as the current story plays out. Having completed a week’s writing residency to finish what will be third book on forensic archaeology, Ruth is surprised when DCI Nelson appears for a visit.

Ivor March, in prison for life for murder, has offered to give up the site of more murdered bodies than he’s in prison for, but only if Ruth oversees the dig.

Reasonably wary, Ruth can hardly turn down a chance to bring closure to the families of the two missing young women, Nicola Ferris and Jenny McGuire. The Norfolk site where March insists the women are buried borders the fens in an area where local legend has it being haunted by figures holding lights and capturing travelers to bring them to their death. They are known as the Lantern Men.

The cast includes many of those readers will have met before and continues their stories but the case can be read as a stand alone. The setting continues its role as central to the case and to Ruth’s feelings as she becomes immersed in the case. But she’s chosen a new life in Cambridge; so why is she having panic attacks?

When a third body is found at the site, and another young woman is murdered, all bets are off. Nelson isn’t happy to entertain the thought that Ivor March is innocent? But if he isn’t the killer, then who is? While he keeps his feelings for Ruth buried as deeply as one of Ruth’s archaeological digs, he misses her, and that adds to his frustration over her new life with Frank in Cambridge.

It’s a finely wrought plot, with enough suspects to keep the reader at bay, while adding in terrific plot twists that will keep the reader on their toes with a building sense of urgency. Who is really at risk from a killer here?

All the balls Griffiths juggles stay afloat and lead to a stunning climax that finds this one Highly Recommended.

Ngaio Marsh: Black Beech and Honeydew Friday, Jun 12 2020 

Here’s one of Auntie M’s reviews for a book that’s both older and non-fiction: the autobiography Dame Ngaio Marsh wrote of her life, titled Black Beech and Honeydew.

Readers expecting to read a primer on how Marsh wrote her famous series, starring Detective Roderick Alleyn, might be disappointed to find that the books are almost an aside to Marsh.

Her real love was the theatre, acting early on and then directing and producing plays, often her beloved Shakespeare, in her native New Zealand and in the UK.

There are lots of references to her family and its friends who people her life, as well as her travels. There is a center section with a host of photos from various stages of her life.

She admits to feeling somewhat as a poser at times when at literary events, as to her mind the books were a means to an end. Her income allowed her to direct the next play. She was fond of Alleyn, and didn’t take him for granted, but nevertheless was astounded at how popular the books became, for which she grateful.

Her love of the arts also explains why she set so many of the book in theatre settings. It was one she knew well and loved. Her choice of his wife to be a portrait painter was deliberate, too.

It’s a fascinating look at one of the Golden Age authors whose mysteries still serve as a primer for crime writers interested in writing an endearing series. While styles change, and the emphasis on psychology is more modern, the books hold up well in terms of plot and story.

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