Getting ready for one last trip to the beach? Have a long plane ride coming up? Or are you just ready to become engrossed in a good book? Try these mysteries you may have missed:
'The Manual of Detection'
The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry, Hardcover, 288 pages, Penguin Press HC
Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection is the sort of novel that is impossible to characterize with any accuracy. An amalgamation of literary fiction, fantasy and mystery, it echoes with tributes to the writing of Borges, Calvino, Auster and Kafka. But for all that it may resemble, The Manual of Detection is entirely original. Set in in a building known only as The Agency in an unknown, somewhat eerie city, the novel features Charles Unwin, a finicky, routine-driven clerk who works for a famous detective named Sivart.
One day, everything in Unwin's ordered life is thrown into disarray when Sivart's boss is murdered, Sivart disappears and Unwin is unwillingly promoted to detective from his lowly position as a clerk (a job he looks forward to every day). The only way Unwin can get his beloved clerkship back is to find Sivart, but while trying to do so, he uncovers the existence of a dastardly plot to take over the world by an organization bent on infiltrating people's dreams. Can a simple clerk find his famous boss, prevent the worst from taking place and retain his integrity and what sanity he has? Mix in a cast of truly evil thugs, an attractive assistant with more than assisting on her mind, a puzzling woman in a plaid coat, a ventriloquist who's up to no good and many thousands of stolen alarm clocks and you get a mind-blowing novel that's both fun and thought provoking.
'The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie'
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, Hardcover, 384 pages, Delacorte Press, List Price: $23
It's been a long time since I've encountered a more delightful young sleuth than Flavia de Luce, the 11-year-old bicycle-riding chemistry whiz who narrates Alan Bradley's first novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Early one summer morning in 1950, Flavia discovers a man dying among the cucumbers in the garden of her family's estate in the British countryside. When her reclusive father is arrested for the man's murder, she takes it upon herself to discover the real perpetrator of the crime.
Here's how Flavia describes how she knows that her adversary is lying to her: "It was a lie and I detected it at once. As an accomplished fibber myself, I spotted the telltale signs of an untruth before they were halfway out of his mouth: the excessive detail, the offhand delivery, and the wrapping-up of it all in casual chitchat."
Flavia's detecting skills would be the envy of Sherlock Holmes (or at least Watson), and her bravery is amply demonstrated during a frightening encounter with a dastardly villain who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie makes perfect summer reading — it's gore-free, very funny in places, nicely written, not too sweet (despite the title) and narrated by a real charmer. I can't wait for Bradley to write the sequel.
'The Case of the Gilded Fly'
The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin, Paperback, 237 pages, Felony & Mayhem Press, List Price: $14.95
In Edmund Crispin's recently reissued mystery novel, The Case of the Gilded Fly, murder most foul occurs in a theater company, and it's up to an Oxford don, Gervase Fen, to unmask the miscreant. The dramatis personae are all introduced in the first chapter as they travel to Oxford via train from London. Crispin's cast of characters include — but are not limited to — Yseut Haskell, a wealthy but mediocre actress; the playwright she once had a fling with; a brilliant musician who's in love with Yseut; and Oxford's chief constable. In three days' time, three of Crispin's characters will be dead — crimes complicated by the fact that nearly everyone has a motive, and definitely everyone has an alibi.
Crispin's mysteries, which date back to the 1940s and 1950s, are cleverly plotted and highly literate. Written in the style of the golden age of British mysteries (generally thought of as the 1920s and 1930s), Crispin allows readers to learn clues along with his detective — giving us an equal opportunity to logically deduce just who did the deed. They're often humorous, and there are several recurring quirky secondary characters, such as the deaf and edging-toward-senility (or perhaps he's there already) Professor Wilkes, as well as Fen's long-suffering wife.
'The Caveman's Valentine'
The Caveman's Valentine by George Dawes Green, Paperback, 336 pages, Grand Central Publishing, List Price: $13.99
If you want an exciting mystery and well-developed characters, but nothing absolutely too awful to happen, take a look at George Dawes Green's very first novel, The Caveman's Valentine, which was published in 1994. Romulus Ledbetter, the caveman of the title, is a Julliard-trained classical pianist. He's also homeless and a paranoid schizophrenic, though Romulus would argue that he isn't, technically, homeless, since he lives in a cave in Manhattan's Linwood Park.
When he's not spending his time searching for food in dumpsters, Romulus is waging war against the sinister Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant, whom Rom believes is beaming down ultra dangerous Y rays from the Chrysler Building. These rays are the direct cause of all the ills facing humankind, and Rom is convinced he must find Stuyvesant and stop him. But Romulus is diverted from his quest one Valentine's Day morning when he finds a dead body lying in front of his cave. Driven to find the murderer, he must reconnect with the world he'd long ago left behind, all the while coping (or not) with his schizophrenia, his hatred of Stuyvesant and his discomfort with the "civilized" world.
Living Witness by Jane Haddam, Hardcover, 400 pages, Minotaur Books, List Price: $25.95
Truly character-driven, deliciously slow-paced and intricately plotted, Jane Haddam's books aren't for thriller readers looking for adrenaline-charged page-turners. Living Witness, her most recent novel featuring ex-FBI agent Gregory Demarking, is centered on the controversy over the biology curriculum in a small, very conservative town in Pennsylvania.
Newly elected member of the school board, 91-year-old Ann-Victoria Hadley has initiated a lawsuit that would forbid the teaching of intelligent design (synonymous with creationism in her mind), and thus require the teaching of evolution, in the local schools. When Ann-Victoria is found beaten nearly to death, and shortly thereafter two fellow plaintiffs to the lawsuit are found murdered, the local police chief, no fan of Darwin's theory himself (and thus a possible suspect in both the beating and the killings), calls on Gregory to take over the investigation.
One of the things I especially like about Haddam is the way she develops her characters. All of them — both major and minor, and on both sides of the controversy — are fully developed and treated with respect. It's easy to imagine them having real lives both before and after we meet them in the pages of this book. (Two other novels by Haddam that I've read recently and would recommend wholeheartedly are The Headmaster's Wife and Cheating at Solitaire.)
'A Darker Domain'
A Darker Domain by Val McDermid, Hardcover, 368 pages, Harper, List Price: $24.99
Though Scottish crime writer Val McDermid is much better known in the U.K. than in the U.S., I'm hoping that her new novel, A Darker Domain, will attract a huge readership on this side of the Atlantic. Set in 2007, the novel features detective inspector Karen Pirie, who finds herself working with two cases that originated in the 1980s — one concerning a missing man; the other a missing baby.
When Misha Prentice comes to the Fife police station to report her father missing, Pirie learns to her surprise that Mick Prentice actually disappeared in 1984 — more than 20 years earlier. Mick's case was never reported to the police, since he disappeared at the height of a coal miners' strike, and everyone simply assumed that he had left town to look for work elsewhere. But now Misha's son needs a bone marrow transplant, and Misha wants him found since he may be a potential donor.
As she tries to figure out what happened to Mick Prentice, Pirie is simultaneously working on a 1985 kidnapping case, in which an attempted ransom payoff had gone terribly wrong. As a result of the mistakes made, the mother of the victim had been killed and her baby son disappeared along with the kidnappers, never to be seen again. Now, more than two decades later, new information has unexpectedly come to light, and the case has been reopened.
The complexities of these two cases keep Pirie well occupied, and will keep the reader turning the pages of this nicely written, complex story. This is a novel that reinforces my belief that you learn something from every book you read. It was fascinating to me to read about the terribly difficult lives of the miners (McDermid's knowledge of the miners' experiences come from stories that her miner grandfather told her as a child) and how, in their strike of 1984, the miners were betrayed by both their union leadership and the British government.
'The City and the City'
The City and the City by China Mieville, Hardcover, 328 pages, Subterranean
China Mieville's The City and the City is a police procedural set in neighboring, nearly identical fictional cities. The catch is, these cities — Beszel and Ul Qoma — co-exist in the same physical space, and their separation ultimately depends on how well each city's citizens do in ignoring the existence of the other. Sound a little complicated? Leave it to Mieville to make it work superbly.
Police Inspector Tyador Borlu is assigned to find the murderer of student Mahalia Geary. She was a member of an extremist group who believed that there is actually a third city — Orciny — that exists in the interstices of the first two. As more murders occur, Borlu is reluctantly forced to consider that the outlandish views Geary held might actually contain some truth. But with Mieville, weird as the plots of his novels might sound, it's actually the setting that seems to matter most to him, and, ultimately, the reader. While I was engrossed in this quite compelling mystery, I found myself thinking of the many parallels that Mieville's notion of separate cities (each with a different currency, economic level, religion, governmental structure and ways of life) that are separated only by a longstanding habit of belief, have in the modern world. One could (and perhaps should) read this as a parable of segregation reduced to its most elemental form. You might have to work a bit harder with a book like this — maybe read it more than once — but it's totally worth it.
'The Skull Mantra'
The Skull Mantra by Eliot Pattison, Paperback, 416 pages, Minotaur Books, List Price: $14.95
I'll never stopped suggesting Eliot Pattison's first thriller, The Skull Mantra, to mystery fans. In his first novel, Pattison introduced Shan Tao Yun, who has been sent from his job as the inspector general of the Ministry of Economy in Beijing to a forced labor camp in Tibet, where his fellow prisoners include Tibetan monks and other dissidents.
Then a local Chinese official is discovered — headless — near the road construction project Shan has been assigned to. A Chinese colonel assigns Shan to solve the case, then bribes him with food and better living conditions, making it clear that he expects the murder to be blamed on a specific monk. As we follow Shan in his attempts to remain true to his conscience, appease the colonel, survive inhumane conditions and, finally, solve a complex mystery, we are introduced to a singular and singularly beautiful country, its people and its customs. I've seldom read a novel that more effectively captures the soul of its setting, in all of its contradictions, difficulties and beauty. The real hero of this novel is Tibet during its struggle for freedom from China.
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey, Paperback, 288 pages, Touchstone, List Price: $14
If I had to choose a favorite mystery novel, I think I'd pick Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar. I've always heard that Tey — who published little more than a handful of novels between 1927 and 1952 — frequently borrowed stories she had read in newspapers. Brat Farrar, for instance, features a young man masquerading as the heir to a fortune.
But though she starts from a familiar place, Tey turns this summary on its head with an emotionally satisfying novel that answers less who-done-it than how-and-why it was done. The title character returns to England after spending many years in Canada working as a ranchhand. He is sitting peacefully in a restaurant one day when a total stranger comes up to him, addresses him as Simon, and asks him why he's lounging in London when his 21st birthday is rapidly approaching — which means that as eldest son he'll come into a not-inconsiderable inheritance.
At first Brat is merely surprised at being mistaken for Simon Ashby, heir to Latchetts, an English country estate devoted to horse breeding. But when the stranger comes up with an apparently perfect plan — one with a big financial payoff for both men — he's intrigued. He agrees to pretend to be Patrick, Simon's first-born twin brother, and the rightful heir to the family fortune. Patrick disappeared when he was about 13, and has long been presumed dead. The plan is for Brat, as Patrick, to return to the family, collect his inheritance, split it with the stranger, who turns out to be a close family friend of the Ashbys, and then disappear again. After some intensive coaching, Brat infiltrates himself into the life of the Ashby family, only to discover that things are seldom what they seem — and an easy con turns potentially deadly.