Spring Murder Spree

I don’t know about you, but after I’ve read a few serious or “heavy” novels, I often look for a little murder to cheer me up and clear my mind. What, don’t you?

Of course, I’m talking about murder mysteries. For me, a good murder mystery is a great palate cleanser — the language and pace usually being relatively quick. Also, they’re not typically bogged down by big story arcs, though many that I often read are part of a character-driven series by an author. That usually gives enough continuity to make these books feel like visits with old friends.

Mysterious_affair_at_stylesOld friends certainly feels like it applies for The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie. I got the audio version of this book because I’m a big Poirot fan (as you know) and I learned that this was Poirot’s first appearance. I later found out that it is also Christie’s first novel. I like history and precedent, so I was curious to see (well, hear) how it all started. As you might imagine, Styles is the prototypical Poirot: isolated manor, suspicious death, and a houseful of suspects — each with their own motive. Lt. Hastings and Inspector Japp are also on hand right out of the box. One of the big bonuses of this audio series is that David Suchet (who plays Poirot on Masterpiece Mystery) narrates, which sometimes makes you feel that Poirot himself is recollecting the story for you (even though Hastings is the narrator). In Styles, this early Poirot seems a little more manic than the cool detective we grow accustomed to over time, but the book is a capable mystery that gets a bit of a bump because of its status as Christie’s and Poirot’s debuts. Four stars

200px-TheReturnOfSherlockHolmesThe Return of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Of course, there probably wouldn’t be a Poirot if it wasn’t for Sherlock Holmes. And these days, It seems that we’re in a veritable Sherlockian Revival, what with two popular incarnations of Holmes and Watson on television. (The BBC show Sherlock is probably my favorite thing on TV currently, and the CBS procedural Elementary surprised me with its considerable charms.) So it was with interest that I listened to the audiobook of this Baker(‘s Street) Dozen of short stories read by Derek Jacoby. It’s interesting to compare the language and style of Doyle to Christie, who wrote only a few decades apart. I have to say that I found the stories a little dry (and of course, Doyle’s Holmes is really kind of a prick). Maybe the problem was listening to all 13 back-to-back-to-back as the tone and style got a little repetitive. My suggestion would be to parse this out and read a story here or there so that they have a chance to feel fresher. Three stars.

22681Line of Vision by David Ellis was the 2002 Edgar Award winner for Best First Novel by an American Author. The book is an interesting twist of the “whodunnit” because early on, we learn that Marty Kalish, a prominent attorney, most likely killed the husband of a woman he was having an affair with. The story is first-person narrated by Marty and so becomes sort of a “whydunnit” and “howdunnit” as he seeks to out maneuver the police investigation into the husband’s death. Ellis does a good job of keeping the reader off-center, never really sure that you’re getting exactly the whole story. Different premise and well-executed. I liked it. Four stars.

1-AColdDayforMurder_800x500-150x237A Cold Day For Murder by Dana Stabenow was also an Edgar Award Winner — way back in 1993. Like The Mysterious Affair at Styles, this book introduces a new series detective, Kate Shugak, a former investigator for the Anchorage, Alaska DA who is called in to investigate the disappearance of two men in one of the nearly endless acres of National Parks in northern Alaska. The mystery in many ways takes second place to the description of life in the northern reaches — and the uneasy social and economic balance between the Inuits, the Live-Free-or-Die type Alaskan homesteaders, and State and Federal officials. As an Inuit, Kate’s loyalties are pulled in several competing directions as she follows the clues. I liked this book well enough, but Kate never quite grabbed me as a character, nor the plot as a mystery. One bonus, e-book versions of this book are available for free. Three stars.

3322382Sticking with the cold, cold north, Arctic Chill is the seventh Inspector Erlandur mystery by Arnaldur Indriðason. I’ve always liked this series — it’s always done a good job of combining the grim bleakness of what we’ve come to expect from Scandinavian writing with interesting mysteries. In this story, a young Thai immigrant boy is murdered on his way home from school and Erlandur and his team must unravel the truth from both the private immigrant community and nationalistic Icelanders. I’m not sure why, but for some reason this book didn’t click with me and it felt like we were turning the crank a little with Erlandur and his team — the mystery was somewhat tepid and there was little suspense in the story. Two stars.

if the dead rise notIf The Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr is another late installment (#6) in a long series: in this case, the Bernie Gunther detective series. Kerr has done a good job of aging Gunther — a detective detective in pre-War Germany throughout each succeeding book. Every installment has moved ahead in time and we now find Bernie fleeing South America for pre-Castro Havana in the 1950s. As usual, Kerr combines the “modern” story with one set in Germany and here mid-1930s Bernie must deal with the trouble caused by an idealistic American woman journalist that wants the US to boycott the Berlin Olympic games. I liked the way that these two stories dovetailed and Kerr gave us more development of Bernie and not just another crank-turn. Four stars.

13259975And finally, we come to the most light-hearted of the bunch — A Fistful of Collars by Spencer Quinn. This is the fifth (already?) Chet and Bernie Mystery. In it, our canine and human detective team is called into babysit a temperamental actor during the shooting of a Western in their town. Of course, things go sideways, including mysterious disappearances, underworld murders, and even the presence of a cat. The story was fun and as always it’s mostly because of getting to see things from Chet’s perspective. It’s not the best of the series — probably somewhere in the middle, though it probably has the best title. Still, if you’re a fan of Chet, and I mean, who’s not, you’ll probably enjoy this installment. Three stars.

How about you guys? Any good murder mysteries out there that I should know about?

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14 thoughts on “Spring Murder Spree

  1. Artic Chill wasn’t one of my favorite Inspector Erlandur mysteries, either. I wasn’t sure if it was because Indridason was just trying to meet his publishing contract however, or if it was because he wasn’t very familiar with the Southeast Asian community in Iceland. Sure, he was looking at the closed culture of an immigrant neighborhood through Erlandur’s eyes, but there were moments where I thought he was flailing around, out of his depth.

    One series I’ve been re-reading is a guilty pleasure for me: Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries. van Gulik was a Dutch scholar of Chinese culture and law; a fluent speaker of Mandarin, he began translating an 18th-century Chinese novel, published as “The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee.” Later he began writing his own take on the stories, which became the Judge Dee series. They’re set in Tang Dynasty China; besides the Judge, who’s based on an actual historical figure, there are several regular characters which form the Judge’s investigative team.
    The stories are also populated with memorable characters and settings. You could start with The Chinese Maze Murders, or The Chinese Bell Murders.

    I called this a guilty pleasure, as some Asian cultural critics have called the books “orientalist,” promoting stereotypes of Chinese culture and hyping its “exoticism” and sensational/erotic aspects. (van Gulik also had a collection of Chinese erotic art and wrote scholarly essays about the genre.) Having just seen a Hong Kong-produced movie about Judge Dee, which was as sensational and erotic as a Hong Kong action flick can get, I have to say all genre fiction does that. But the stories never seem contrived or thin on either plot or character. I also enjoy van Gulik’s fidelity to classical Chinese literature and history, but you don’t have to be interested in either to like the series.

    • HG — I almost felt a little guilty about NOT liking Arctic Chill as much as other books in the series — like I was letting down a friend. It’s interesting to hear that another fan that it wasn’t your favorite either.

      I will definitely check out the van Gulik books — thanks for the recommendation. I think part of the appeal of many of these series is not only the interesting mystery but the exotic locales. And I’m perfectly okay with that — as long as the mystery holds up its end!

    • Oh — I just added Chinese Maze Murders to my Goodreads list (so I’ll remember it) – I didn’t realize that they were written in the 50s/60s — so it’s an interesting time-stamp from that period too!

      • I’ve found the books to be oddly timeless. Maybe because of the subject matter—it’s a historical novel as well, but van Gulik was such a good scholar, many of the details of daily life in Tang Dynasty China have held up to more recent research. You also don’t find the Charlie-Chan “honorable number one son” silliness in van Gulik’s novels. Judge Dee and the other characters aren’t stereotypes, but fully-formed and human. van Gulik grew up in Malaysia with Chinese tutors and friends; he didn’t regard them as different from his European and American acquaintances. The only thing that might seem tame by our standards is the sex, but I didn’t have a problem with that, since my tastes tend to be more modest. :)

  2. I’m afraid I’m a little more low brow right now. Download all the Harry Boash novels by Michael Connolly on to my Kindle and reading them in order between wine tastings here in Italy. :)

  3. 1] Not necessarily a murder mystery series, but Swierczynski’s Charlie Hardie series is fun: http://www.goodreads.com/series/65511-charlie-hardie

    2] I like the Deborah Knott series: http://www.goodreads.com/series/41159-deborah-knott

    3] James Hall’s Thorn series is fun: http://www.goodreads.com/series/52139-thorn-mystery

    4] Gary Corby’s series set in ancient Greece is a lot of fun : http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3449861.Gary_Corby

    5] I’ve enjoyed the first two in the long Billy Boyle series, a series of mysteries set on the front lines during World War 2: http://www.goodreads.com/series/42111-billy-boyle-world-war-ii

    6] And my favorite from recent years, Paul Doiron’s Mike Bowditch series, featuring a Maine game warden: http://www.goodreads.com/series/82800-mike-bowditch

    Yeah, I like my mystery series too :)

    • Jonathan — Great suggestions. I’ll be working on updating my goodreads list this week! Thanks! Coincindentally I just started “The Poacher’s Son” on audiobook this morning.

  4. Not a real big mystery reader, but will indulge at times. “Origin” by Diana Abu-Jaber was a very good story. For lighter fare, I enjoyed “The Terra-Cotta Dog” by Andrea Camilleri. I always meant to read more in the series but have yet to do so.

  5. I just recently got into Poirot (my boyfriend is the real mystery fan). And aw, I was looking forward to Arctic Chill, but I’m glad you reviewed it before I picked it up.

    I didn’t really watch Elementary until F. Murray Abraham guest starred on it. He was freaking brilliant in case you haven’t seen it. Best acting I’ve seen in a while.

    • Amelie — I guess if you’re a fan of the Erlandur series, I wouldn’t say to NOT read it — it just really didn’t do much for me. I don’t think you’d miss much (continuity-wise) if you skipped it though.

      I thought F Murray Abraham was great in Elementary — though I think he’s been pretty great in nearly everything I’ve seen him in.

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