Recommendations from the SMSA Crime & Mystery Book Club

This month the theme was architecture and the range of books read and recommended reflect big cities and small towns both in modern times and days gone past. Quite a few are Australian authors and there are a couple of debuts. Enjoy.

City of Ransom by Robert W. Walker
City of Ransom is the first novel to feature Inspector Alistair Ransom of the Chicago Police Department. Set in 1893 during the Chicago World's Fair, the world wary Ransom is hunting for a killer who is using the hustle and bustle of the great Exhibition to cover their tracks. If you like The Alienist by Caleb Carr and similar novels that delve into the advances in forensics, change in policework, and the rise of big Amercian cities at the turn of the 20th century, this is the book for you. 

According Harper Collins Publisher, "Robert W. Walker, a graduate of Northwestern University, is the author of thirty-six novels, including the acclaimed PSI Blue featuring FBI Psychic Rae Hiyakawa, the Instinct Series with FBI Medical Examiner Dr. Jessica Coran, and the Edge Series featuring Texas Cherokee Detective Lucas Stonecoat and psychiatrist Meredyth Sanger. He has also recently published the serialized thriller set in India entitled Fleshwar on\shorts. Robert was born in Corinth, Mississippi; grew up in Chicago, Illinois; and currently resides in Chicago and Charleston, West Virginia. In between teaching, lecturing, and book touring, Rob is busy tackling his next two novels, City of the Absent and Deja Blue."

The Bookseller by Mark Pryor
The Bookseller is Mark Pryor's debut featuring Hugo Marston, the head of security at the US Embassy in Paris, France. Marston is ex-FBI and has friends in the CIA. Through his friendship with the bookseller of the title, a riverside bouquiniste who runs one of the stalls on the River Siene near Notre-Dame Cathedral, Marston is drawn into investigating the deaths of these bouquinistes. The book is well researched and learning about the history of this unique aspect of Paris is very interesting. The is a great sense of place, and the backstreets of Paris come to life. The plotting of the story is a bit movie of week by numbers, and Marston is a nice enough protagonist, who is from Texas, so is a straight shooter and heroic in a traditional way.  

According to goodreads, "Mark Pryor is a former newspaper reporter from England, and now an assistant distribut attorney with the Travis County District Attorney's Office, in Austin, Texas. He is the creator of the nationally-recognised true-crime blog D.A. Confidential." So it looks like he knows his Texans. 

Angels in the Architecture by Mary-Rose MacColl
Australian author MacColl has written three novels, Angels in the Architecture (1999) in her second book. She contributes to Australia's leading literary magazine, Griffith Review. The blurb discribes the plot as "In a secret chamber uncovered by a fire that nearly destroys the nineteenth-century chapel at Archangels University, architect Harriet Darling finds a skull. The police have a body and murderer in mind, and on campus, rumours are rife. But Harriet wants to save the chapel from further harm, and hse has ideas of her own. She has a blue rosary and a Black Madonna, and they take her back, to a girls' school, a powerful nun, and a time of innocence lost and found." It is a well written story which delves into a fictional university and school in Australia and uses this premise to explore gender politics, moral responsiblity and how much trust you put in the person telling a story.

MacColl (yes this is the correct spelling, even though this picture says different) writes standalone novels with strong female protagonsts who are well educated and cerebral. As she sets her novels in Australia, you also get a slice of life from late 1990s/ early 2000 Australia city life. 

There is No Place Like Holmes by Derham Groves
Senior Lecturer in Architect at University of Melbourne, Australia and author Dr Derham Groves is a crime fiction fan, especially Sherlock Holmes, and has combined his two main passions in this book. There is No Place Like Holmes explores the impact of the settings and sense of place to Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. 

Here is an endorsement from some of Groves' colleagues from the University of Melbourne:

"Derham Groves has had the brilliant idea of considering architecture as a detective story. It is a fascinating thought—that buildings might be crime scenes: in both bodies go missing—and Groves unfolds it in fascinating ways. If modern architecture has notoriously failed to make places where people can live, perhaps it is time architecture was put on trial. If so, the designs of its rooms are vital clues! Derham Groves is on the trail of a particular lost body: the home of Sherlock Holmes. He has students design buildings constructed like brilliant deductions. He designs a Sherlock Holmes Centre where the great man is absent but clues to his presence lie everywhere. An absorbing meditation on the way we read architecture, an engaging challenge to designers and the stories they tell, There’s No Place Like Holmes possesses the rare quality of making what seemed cryptic in architecture elementary, and the obvious once again filled with enchantment."
Paul Carter, Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne.

The Dancing Floor by John Buchan
The Dancing Floor (1926) is the third Edward Leithen novel - he wrote five about this character in total. Leithen is a lawyer who befriends the young and handsome Vernon Milburne, who confides in Leithen about a recurring dream he has at the same time each year. The dream reveals details about an impending threat each time he has it and when Leithen and Milburne meet again on Plakos, a Greek Island, it seems that Milburne has enough information to figure out what is of threat to him.   We have written about John Buchan before and you can read more about him here.

One of the commentors on the Good Reads page about this book give us some extra information about how the story developed. Jayaprakash Satyamurthy says

"This is an expanded version of a short story, first published in 1914, called 'Basilissa'. I've read it in a volume of Buchan's weird fiction published by Penguin Classics, 'The Strange Adventures of Mr. Andrew Hawthorn and other stories'. Edward Leithen, Buchan's barrister/MP protagonist isn't present in the original story, which may explain why his role in this narrative isn't really pivotal so much as that of a fly on the wall, albeit a fly whose paths intersect with those of the main players in a number of ways."

The Mystery of Cloomber by Arthur Conan Doyle
A non-Sherlock Holmes story from Arthur Conan Doyle. Yes, he did write them. The Mystery of Cloomber is actually one of the first novels he wrote, but only published in 1888 (two years after A Study in Scarlet, his first Sherlock Holmes novel). Cloomber Hall is in a remote county in south-west Scotland and it has been standing empty for many years until General Heatherstone, who used to be part of the Indian Army and fought in the First Afghan War (1839 - 1842), takes up tenancy. The closest neighbour to Cloomber Hall is John Fothergill West whose adult children start to forge friendships with the General's adult children. These relationships are used to open up and explore the General's past in India and how that impacts the mystery of what is happening at Cloomber Hall now.  

Conan Doyle was renowned for believing in an afterlife and communicating with people who have died. This belief is a viable explanation for the going ons at Cloomber Hall and it is up to the reader to either explain the mystery this manner or in another less mystical way.  

The Marx Sisters and All My Enemies by Barry Maitland
The Marx Sisters (1994) is Barry Maitland's debut novel and introduced his detective duo, Brock and Kolla, two Scotland Yard detectives. Set in London, the Brock and Kolla novels use the setting of the city as another character. His books are known for their atmosphere and intricate understanding of the area of London in which it is set. The plot of The Marx Sisters is as follows - Brock and Kolla 'investigate the murder of Karl Marx's great-granddaughters (via an illegitimate son) and the theft of the unpublished manuscript of a fourth volume of Das Kapita.' The area of London that is explored in this book is Jerusalem Lane, near Clerkenwell Road in Farringdon.  

Born in Scotland during World War Two, Maitland studied architecture at Cambridge University and was a practicing architect in the UK and in Australia, which he immigrated to in 1984. He became the professor of Architecture at the University of Newcastle in Australia until he retired in 2000, whereby he started writing full time.


The Tower by Michael Duffy
The blurb on the back describes the plot as follows: It's going to be the biggest skyscraper in the world. One rainy night a young woman falls from an unfinished upper story, landing on a ploice car. Detectives Jon McIver and Nicholas Troy think it will be a pretty simple investigation, but all is not what it seems...' You are just waiting for the intro music from a song by The Who aren't you? Or at least a voiceover from the movie trailer guy. This is a Michael Duffy novel and he writes very visual, airport thrillers that could be commissioned into a TV or movie very easily. The Tower (2009) is the first in what is hoped to be a series featuring Detective Nicholas Troy and set in Sydney, Australia. 

Michael Duffy is a former journalist and editor. He wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald and presented ABC Radio National's Counterpoint, and edited The Independent Monthly.

Have Mercy on Us All by Fred Vargas
We have recommended French author Fred Vargas before, and this novel was published in 2001, translated into English in 2003 and made into a movie (French) in 2007. Set in Paris, it features Chief Inspector Adamsberg and his team. It is the fourth in the Adamsberg series and focuses on a the possiblity that the black death may have returned to Paris when a flea-bitten corpse with plague like symptoms is found in a derlilect building. 

Fred Vargas is the pen name of French historian and archeologist Frederique Audoin-Reuzeau. She is seen as an expert on the Black Death and bubonic plague.  So she knows what she is talking about when she references the plague in this novel. In addition, there are excellent historical detail and a sense of place and culture. 

The Diggers Rest Hotel, Blackwattle Creek and St Kilda Blues by Geoffrey McGeachin
Geoffrey McGeachin is an Australian author and according to the Australian Crime Association website, he 'started his working life as a photographer, shooting pictures for advertising, travel, theatre and feature films. He has lived and worked in Los Angeles, New York, Atlantic City and Hong Kong. Now based in Sydney he takes pictures, teaches photography and writes." He wrote his first novel in 2001, followed by three spy novels featuring special agent Alby Murdoch. The three novels listed here are his crime novels featuring Charlie Berlin, an ex bomber pilot and former prisoner of war during World War Two, now a detective in the Victorian police. The Diggers Rest Hotel won the 2011 Ned Kelly Award for best fiction and Blackwattle Creek won the 2013 Ned Kelly Award for best fiction. St Kilda Blues has just been published and we will wait to see if it also wins the Ned Kelly Award for best fiction.  These three crime novels are set in the 1960s in Melbourne and delve into the changes and developments of the city during the massive social and political changes of the 1960s in Australia. 

Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr
Nevada Barr has been recommend before by the book club. Track of the Cat (1993) is the first of 18 novels she has written featuring Angela Pigeon, national park ranger. This novel is set in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas (each novel is set in a different national park in the USA). According to Barr on her website, "this is the book that gave Anna Pigeon life. Guadalupe Mountains was my second duty station with NPS (National Park Service). There are a couple of folks in Texas who really needed to be dead. I spent a lot of time wandering th back country wondering how I could kill them and get away with it. Fortunately, Anna Pigeon came along; otherwise I might be writing you this from the penitentiary." Makes you want to read it doesn't it? 

Cold Smoked by K.K. Beck
Cold Smoked is the fourth novel featuring Jane de Silva, who offers her services as a private detective to solve mysteries for people who cannot afford to hire anyone. She does this because it is a stipulation of her Uncle's will. If she does not offer to do this, she does not receive anything from her Uncle's Trust. Cold Smoked is about seafood, the fishing industry and environmentalism. Jane becomes involved when she is entertaining representatives from the Salmon Industry who are in town for an International Seafood Show and someone runs into the hotel lounge screaming that there is a dead body in their bathroom. Jane's investigation takes her from Norway to the Shetland Islands following the red herrings (yes I went there) before she ultimately solves the crime. 

Katherine Kristine Beck Marris is an American novelist who has written over a dozen novels. She has written to crime series, one featuring Iris Cooper, a young woman who is looked after by her wealthy aunt (set in the 1920s) and the other featuring de Silva. Beck lives in Seattle, USA and was married to fellow crime novelist Michael Dibdin, who died in 2007.

Quota by Jock Serong
This is another debut novel for an Australian author. Jock Serong is a lawyer, features writer and editor of Great Ocean Quarterly. Quota (2014) features barrister Charlie Jardim who snaps after a particulary hard court case. His mentor, Harlan Weir, sends him to Dauphin, a small coastal town in Victoria to check out a witness to a murder. Jardim starts to investigate the story he is told by the witness and finds himself delving into the life of the small town to find out what actually happened. The weather beaten buildings and seaside town life is very much a character in this novel and there is a great sense of place. 


Recommendation from the SMSA Crime & Mystery Book Club

This month the theme was 'far away places' and we have an eclectic bunch of books and one poem that we recommend: 


Prime Cut by Alan Carter

This is the debut novel of Australian author Alan Carter featuring DSC Cato Kwong, a disgraced cop stuck in Hopetoun, Western Australia working in the Stock Squad (focus on horses and ponies).  Set during the recent global financial crisis, seaside town, Hopetoun is prosperous because of the Australian mining boom. With an influx of people and money comes crime and when a torso of a human body is washed up by the sea, Kwong is called on to investigate.  This is a great first novel, and a good look into Australian rural life in the 21st Century.  The juxtaposition of white Australian mythology about the outback with the reality of modern Australia with different cultures and the impact of mining and selling a natural resource to the highest bidder is woven through the investigation. Well worth a read.   


Pick You Victim by Pat McGerr

Another debut novel, Pick Your Victim was written in 1947 and set the Aleutian Islands in the Northern Pacific Ocean during World War 2. The story is known for its plot structure - starting the story with the knowledge of who the murderer is and ending it with the identity of the victim. As reviewer Xavier Lechard describes on "The story opens with a group of Marines, stationed in the Aleutians, whom are threatened to succumb to boredom and the monotony of daily routine, when one of them discovers that his package from the home front is padded with a heaping bundle of torn newspaper scraps. Needless to the say the scraps of paper are eagerly devoured, however, among the bits and pieces on boxing bouts and advertisements for women's garments is an incomplete account of a murder committed at the Society to Uplift Domestic Service (SUDS for short) back in Washington. Paul Stetson strangled one of the SUDS officers to death at their office, but parts of the article, that would've informed them on the victim's identity, are missing." This is a hard book to find because it is not well known. You may be able to find it in second hand book stores or through the internet. If you can find, buy it.


The Missing Wife by June Duncan Owen

Set in a small farming town in Western New South Wales, Australia, this novel focuses on how a person can never escape the past. Laura is a history teacher in Sydney who is in the middle of school holidays when friends of hers from her time in Sri Lanka contact her to ask for her help. Their daughter,Nilanthi,has gone missing and they ask Laura to find her. Nilanthi is the missing wife of a farmer, a mail order bride who is not welcomed to the community, To find out what has happened to Nilanthi, Laura has to travel to the town in Western New South Wales, which just happens to be her home town. Laura's family history and her own marriage to a Sri Lankan man back into her own tragic past.

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Winter Study by Nevada Barr

This is the 14th novel in the Anna Pigeon series. Anna is a park ranger who works and sometimes investigates murder in the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, USA. In this story, Anna is sent to Isle Royale in Lake Superior near the border between Canada and the USA in January. It is the middle of winter and mischief is afoot where Anna is being housed with the team running the famed wolf study and two homeland security scientists. This is vintage Barr where the study of nature and the environmental impact of humans is mixed with the investigation of a murder.

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O Caledonia by Elspheth Barker

A mixture of a coming-of-age story and a crime novel, O Caledonia is a first novel by writer and journalist Elspheth Barker, published in 1991. It won four awards and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize in the UK. The protagonist of the story is also the victim of the story.  16 year old Janet is found murdered beneath the stairs of a castle in a remote Scottish village. She is not missed by her parents or anyone in the village, just missed by a small black bird.  It is beautifully written and you sink into the vivid imagery and fantastic use of language.  The story of Janet's life is told in flashback so you learn about the world Janet inhabits physically as well as mentally.  Her approach to life and obvious intelligence makes her stick out in this small village in the 1950s. It has a lot of dark humour and wry observations and although it is sad it is also very uplifting.

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Murder on the Iditarod Trail by Sue Henry

The blurb on the back says "The winner of Alaska's world-famous Iditarod -- a grueling, eleven-hundred-mile dog sled race across a frigid Arctic wilderness---takes home a $250,000 purse But this year, the prize is survival". So this qualifies as a far off place. This novel errs on the side of romantic suspense in the mystery/crime genre as there is a central love story.  This is a page turner as the structure of the race keeps the plot tight and moving. 

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The Dark Wind by Tony Hillerman

This is the second novel is the series featuring Officer Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police in Arizona. Chee works to keep the peace between the Navajo and the Hopi when a decaying and unidentified body is discovered in the desert. Tony Hillerman was known for his respect and love of the Four Corners area in the South West of USA which covers Native American tribal lands and the interaction between white and Native American culture. I have written about Tony Hillerman before, click here to read it.

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On the Head of a Pin by Janet Kellough

Published in 2009, this Canadian historical crime novel features Thaddeus Lewis, a 'saddlebag' preacher who is on his way to his new posting in Prince Edward County, Upper Canada.  Set after the 1837 Mackenzie Rebellion, Lewis is convinced that there is a serial killer on the loose. Still in mourning after the death of his daughter, Sarah, Lewis tracks the killer across the colony using the Book of Proverbs and a the small painted pin of the title as the only clues. Janet Kellough is an author and performance storyteller who has a great interest in delving into the everyday life of people rather than dates in a history book.


Silent Valley by Malla Nunn

Set in the 1950s in South Africa in the first years of what is now called Apartheid, this is a Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper novel that explores the Natal area of South Africa and the interaction between the dominant local nation, the Zulus, and apartheid structure. Cooper investigates the death of a Zulu princess in the Drakensberg mountains near Durban. According to publishers Pan Macmillan, "he must enter the guarded worlds of a traditional Zulu clan and a white farming community to gather up the clues Amahle left behind and bring her murderer to justice. But the silence in the valley is deafening, and it seems that everyone - from the uncooperative local police officer, to the white farm boy who seems obsessed with the dead girl - has something to hide."  This series is fascinating as it delves into a certain place and time in history.

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The Blackhouse by Peter May

Peter May is a Scottish writer who started started out as a journalist in Glasgow. He has written for TV and has a successful crime series set in Shanghai, China.  He now lives in France and has written two more crime series, the first is The Enzo Files books set in France and The Lewis Trilogy that takes place on the Isle of  Lewis in Northern Scotland.  The Blackhouse is the first in the trilogy and features Detective Inspector Fin Macleod, a native of the island, who is sent back to the island from Edinburgh to investigate a murder.  Like all novels set in remote areas, the weather and isolation of the communities are integral to the atmosphere and plot of the stories.  Peter May is a veteran writer who knows how to spin a yarn. It is worth spending time in the world he has created.


The Shooting of Dan McGrew by Robert Service  

Watch the poem read by Bill Kerr below: