Recommendations from the SMSA Crime & Mystery Book Club

In the May meeting, the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts’ Crime and Mystery Book Club discussed novels featuring an unusual crime solver who is not with the police, a private investigator, lawyer or forensic pathologist.  Here are our recommendations:

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Father Crumlish Celebrates Christmas by Alice Scanlon Reach
This is a short story in the January 1968 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  Written by Alice Scanlon Reach, who, according to www.detecs.org, “began her writing career as a reporter on a Buffalo, New York, daily paper.  During the Second World War, she became the Assistant Director at the Office of War Information in New York.  In 1961 she won Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s best first story award for In The Confessional and went on to publish a total of thirteen short stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazines in the 1960s, all featuring Father Francis Xavier Crumlish.”   She sounds like a really interesting woman.   The character of Father Crumlish is described as “the old, compassionate, Irish Catholic parish priest, who limps ‘a little from the arthritis buried deep in his ancient roots’, and suffers from a corn on his left toe.” 

In this short story, Father Crumlish gets involved when he has to talk one of his parishioners, Charley Abbott, down from a roof.  Charley is scared that he will be charged with a murder and Father Crumlish gets to the bottom of the matter. 

Themysteryplace.com is the website for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and it states that the magazine “was launched in the fall of 1941 by Lawrence E. Spivak of The Mercury Press.  It was heralded as the brainchild of Ellery Queen himself, really the two-cousin writing team of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. Even in the early years, however, Frederic Dannay assumed primary responsibility for the magazine, serving as its editor-in-chief from 1941 until his death in 1982.”  The magazine mixes a tradition of literary excellence and top-notch crime and detective writing.  It is still published today.

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The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas

‘Vargas’ is a pseudonym, but the ‘Fred’ is short for ‘Frédérique’.  Fred is a best-selling author in France as well as a historian and archeologist.  She also comes from a family of academics, and in The Three Evangelists she introduces three historians (Marc, Mathias and Lucien) who share a ramshackle house in the very posh suburb of Paris with Lucien’s godfather Arman Vandoosler (a retired policeman).  Mathias’ area of expertise is pre-history, Marc is a medievalist, and Lucien studies the First World War.  Vandoosler keeps referring to them as three of the disciples, Mark, Luke and Matthew, which is how they become known as the three evangelists. 

Their next door neighbour, a Greek opera singer, disappears overnight and once her body is discovered burned in a car, months later, the three evangelists and Vandoosler start their own investigation into what happened.

This book was originally written in 1995 and translated into English in 2006.  This translation by Sian Reynolds went on to win the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger in 2006.  Mostly known for her series about Commissaire Adamsberg, Vargas introduces The Three Evangelists as the beginning of another series.  

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Gently In Trees by Alan Hunter

Written in1974, but set in the 1960s, this novel part of the Inspector George Gently series by Alan Hunter.  Set in East Anglia like most of the other 45 Gently books, it is also known as Gently Through The Woods.  Gently investigates the apparent suicide of a film director in Latchford Chase and discovered more to the story in the shape of a love triangle.  The language in the book dates it, like it is the 1970s man, and the asides about being one with the trees takes the story structure in a meandering way.  If you like the Gently series and a quick paperback read, this is for you. Man.

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A Free Man of Colour by Barbara Hambly

This is the first in a series about Benjamin January, a free man of colour, who has returned home to New Orleans from Paris, where he has lived for the past 10 years.  Set during Mardi Gras in 1833 in a city that is governed by strict rules of conduct and interaction based on the colour of your skin, but is also known for its decadence and wild night life, A Free Man of Colour deals with the murder of a notorious octoroon at the ball at the Salles d’Orleans.  Benjamin January is a Creole physician and music teacher, playing piano at the ball and one of the last people to see the victim. He starts to investigate the murder to clear his name, because, as a man of colour, the police would be happier to see him hang than put a white man in the frame for murder.   There is a lot of detail about the era and the background of the community and the societies in which January slips in and out of.  The plot gets bogged down in this detail and I sometimes wonder if that was intended as the red herring to distract the reader from spending time working out the murder.

Hambly is a prolific writer of fantasy, science fiction, mystery and historical novels. In addition to the Benjamin January novels, she writes a crime series featuring Abigail Adams (a fictionalized version of the President’s wife, a novel about Mary Todd Lincoln, the Darwath Triology, the Windrose Chronicles and many others.

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Night Mares by Manda Scott

Written in the mid 1990s and set in the outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland, the plot of Night Mares is centred around the deaths of every horse that passes through Dr Nina Crawford’s operating table at her veterinary surgery.  However it is more than the sum of its plot as the book delves into the psychological torment of Dr Crawford as she is pushed to the brink of suicide and the title, Night Mares, is a play on words for a female horse and the nightmares that are plaguing Dr Crawford that causes her to seek help from her psychiatrist and friend Dr Kellen Stewart. Kellan also owns horses and one of them is in need of surgery, so she is not only helping her friend but also ensuring that her horse is not the next one to die.  

Night Mares is the second book in the series featuring Kellan Stewart, and Manda Scott who is a veterinarian, goes into quite a bit of detail in the surgery scenes that may put you off.  In addition to crime fiction, Scott writes historical novels and publishers under the name M.C. Scott.   

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The Critic by Peter May

The Critic is the second novel of the Enzo Files series, which focuses on Scottish sleuth (of Italian descent) Enzo Macleod and his quest to solve the greatest unsolved murders in France.  Macleod is a former forensics expert now teaching at a small French college who heads to the wine region of Gaillac to see if he can solve the cold case about the death of the world’s leading wine critic, Gil Petty.   There is a lot of detail about wine making and the mystery itself is not that hard to figure out.  If you are interested in the deepening of the relationships between Enzo and the secondary characters who were introduced in the first novel, you will like this.

Peter May was born in Glasgow and has had a couple of careers, as a journalist writing for The Scotsman and The Glasgow Evening Times, a TV producer and writer, and finally as a crime author.  He has written stand alone novels as well as two other series, The Lewis Trilogy about the remote and weather-beaten Isle of Lewis off the coast of northern Scotland, and The China Thrillers which features ‘the tempestuous relationship between the enigmatic Chinese detective Li Yan, and Dr Margaret Campbell, the acerbic pathologist from Chicago.’

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Sister Pelagia and The White Bulldog by Boris Akunin

This is the first in a series set in a remote province of Russia in the nineteenth century. In the tradition of Father Brown and other cozy crime novels, Sister Pelagia is a physically unassuming and often over looked amateur investigator who looks into difficult situations for the Bishop Zavolzhie, the Orthodox Bishop Mitrofanii.   

Boris Akunin  is the pen name of Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili, an essayist, literary translator and writer of detective fiction. He is a Russian writer of Georgian origin and is known for his layered novels filled with details and descriptions. This one is a prime example with meanderings and digressions that inform the reader of the Zavolzhie region, religious beliefs and social lives of the characters. 

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A Simple Death by Carolyn Morwood

A Simple Death is a Marlo Shaw mystery set in Melbourne, Australia. It is the third in the series and it starts with Marlo, a professional cricketer, and her friend and colleague Harold walking through a Melbourne park where they find the body of a man Harold knows.  The man is a tramp that has been bludgeoned to death.  There is quite a bit of emotional baggage for the main character of Marlo, as she is coming to terms with the death of her aunt Jenny and the suicide of her cousin Cate.  Her relationship with Harold is questioned as she investigates the death of the tramp and subsequently his connection to Harold.

A Simple Death won the Davitt Award for the best work of crime fiction by an Australian woman in 2002.  I think only Australia would give an award for writing based on gender.  It must be commonly known that your gender directly impacts your talent and capability in writing a crime novel if you live in Australia.   Carolyn Morwood has also written a historical crime series set from 1919 to 1924 in Melbourne featuring Sister Eleanor Jones who has returned to Melbourne after nursing in France during the First World War. 

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The Collaborator by Gerald Seymour

The Collaborator is a thriller about the modern day mafia in Italy in the guise of the Camorra, a crime network that has the Borelli clan at the centre of it. One of the daughters of the Borelli clan, Immacolata is sent to London to learn about accountancy so that she can work in the ‘family business’ back in Naples.  Eddie is an Italian translator who helps Immacolata with her homework and becomes her boyfriend.  He is pulled into the web of the family when he travels to Naples with Immacolata to attend the funeral of her best friend as suspicions of betrayal and vendettas start to come into play. 

This is a dense novel that keeps you on the edge of your seat.  None of the characters are nice, but you are compelled to find out what happens in the end.  Gerald Seymour has written 24 novels, six of which have been made into TV programs.  He is best known for his first book, Harry’s Game (1975), about a British cabinet minister being gunned down by the IRA.