• A Disappearance in Fiji *** (of 4)

    Sargent Akal Singh has been banished to desk duty in Fiji. The year is 1915 and Britain rules its colonies with guile, brutality, and economic mastery. Singh, the educated son of an Indian villager figures his one way out and upward is to become a policeman. Sikhs are respected by the British, and expected to fulfill that role. He is sent to Hong Kong, but after a professional misstep lands in Fiji.

    Befriended by a native Fijian on the police force and a compassionate English doctor, but overseen by a condescending British officer, Singh is sent to wrap up a case of a missing Indian “coolie” woman. Wealthy British plantation owners imported hundreds of indentured Indians to work sugarcane fields without pay. Living conditions for Indian laborers, we learn in great detail, are miserable, and British overseers mete out punishments and abuse without fear of accountability or retribution. A missing Indian woman should be meaningless, but Akal Singh, and his friends, are so conscientious and likable that we root for their success while learning about colonialism in very personal ways.

  • The Last Devil to Die by Richard Osman *** (of 4)

    In this fourth installation of the Thursday Murder Club, Richard Osman’s four 80-year-old residents (plus or minus, but who can keep track at that age when there new aches to fend off and fresh gossip to keep abreast of) of Cooper’s Chase senior living center find themselves engaged in a drug smuggling scheme.

    As the book opens, another senior citizen, still working as the proprietor of a nearby antiques shop, is murdered. And also a newcomer to Cooper’s Chase has succumbed to on-line romance fraud. In the first case it becomes quickly apparent that the murder is instigated by a drug deal gone wrong and in the second it is going to take some persuasion to convince Mervin that continuing to send money to Tatiana in Moldova is not likely to bring the author of carefully crafted love letters, and accompanying generic Internet photos, to England anytime soon.

    True to the best of crime fiction, Osman’s mysteries are compelling, but the real joy is what is learned in the surrounding milieu. In this case, it is Richard Osman’s kind and poignant descriptions of the four octogenarian friends that remind us that entrance to a senior living center is not a death sentence. On the contrary we are given ample opportunity to observe lives well lived even as the participants know their remaining days are limited. Maybe their lives are so rich precisely because they know. A lesson for all of us.

  • The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith

    On the plus side there are very few writers who can match JK Rowling’s (writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith) ability to capture personality, dialogue, and character. In this, the sixth in the series of crime novels involving private detectives Robin Ellicott and Cormoran Strike, Rowling takes on the viciousness, malignancy, and unbridled misogyny of internet communities that spiral downward into the Dark Web.

    What begins as a quirky YouTube cartoon grows in popularity among an on-line fandom. Only the fandom becomes so opinionated about the direction, and Directors, that the power of the fans overtakes the show itself. The anonymity of the internet allows people to form relationships they might not in real life, but it also permits abusers to mislead, harass, intimidate, and threaten. All of that secrecy and privacy makes for a compelling mystery when one of the directors is murdered. In a cemetery!

    On the downside, as happened in the Harry Potter series, Rowling’s editors were unable to push back. The number of potential suspects is so large that it is likely the only way to keep them all straight is to be staring at Rowling’s diagrams pasted across her walls. Likewise, the number of pages has grown to an overwhelming 1,462. The book should have been tighter.

  • Only to Sleep by Lawrence Osborne **** (of 4)

    In 1939, Raymond Chandler wroteThe Big Sleep featuring, Private Investigator Philip Marlowe. Marlowe was the original world weary, cynical PI: hard drinking, self-mocking, and a womanizer. He wore a fedora and could only have existed on a black and white screen played by Humphrey Bogart. In Only to Sleep, it is now 1988 and Marlowe is called out of retirement to traipse across Mexico for an insurance company that thinks one of its clients has just duped them out of a couple of million dollars.

    Marlowe takes the job because he’s bored and wants one more run at his old job. Only his knees and arthritis are bothering him and he’s old enough that the appeal of femmes fatales is more instinctual than physical. Osborne’s Marlowe is a deep philosopher with insights about human nature, decadal changes in Mexico, loneliness, landscape, and growing old. He is also funny and difficult and Osborne’s joy at turning out this novel is infectious. The audiobook is excellent.

  • The Poison Machine *** (of 4)

    Some authors of historical fiction (see Geraldine Brooks) are so caught up by their research that plot and characters are afterthoughts or cliches applied to hold together what really ought to be nonfiction. Robert J. Lloyd, in contrast, paints 1679 England, and in this caper, France, too, with effortless ease. Homing in on a mysterious murder of the Queen’s dwarf, the author sets Robert Hooke and his assistant Harry Hunt on the investigatory trail. They are a perfect duo, because Hooke was, in real life, one of the first scientists of modern history. He and Hunt use the scientific method and are slowly breaking the shackles of one thousand years of church indoctrination.

    Roiling in the background are deadly conflicts between Anglicans and Papists. Isaac Newton makes a guest appearance as do other scientists of the day while poor Harry, in love with Hooke’s niece, Grace, has to uncover the mystery of the murder while learning to stand on his own two feet. The plot is preposterous and believable at the same time and local color is imparted so seemlessly that the somewhat complex question of how the dwarf met his demise is not that important.

  • The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman **** (of 4)

    This is the third installation of an investigation by four elderly Brits living in Cooper’s Chase retirement community. The four are all a little stiffer, a little harder of hearing, and a trifle more likely to forget where they put down their reading glasses, but they remain just as full of verve and curiosity as ever. They are grateful, too, for their camaraderie and their weekly gatherings dedicated to investigating unsolved crimes. All of which is to say that the characters are so warmly presented and so lovable that Osman’s books would be worth reading even if his mysteries were only mediocre.

    Fortunately, his mysteries are equal parts intricate and intriguing. The case under the careful scrutiny of the Thursday Murder Club is Bethany Waites’ untimely murder. Waites was a young investigative reporter closing in on the criminals running a huge money laundering scheme, when lured from her home one evening, she never returns. Her empty car is located the next day at the edge of a cliff over which her body must have been tossed, only the body never emerges from the sea, the laundered money is never located, and the Thursday Murder Club cannot let it go.

    It is as rewarding for us as readers to be reuninted with Ron, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Elizabeth as it must be for them to see one another in the Cooper’s Chase dining room.

  • The Word is Murder by Antony Horowitz *** (of 4)

    Antony Horowitz – a prolific writer of mysteries for adults, children, and television – definitely had fun writing this one. He cast himself as one of two main characters; the other is a taciturn, deeply-intuitive, non-communicative, sharply intelligent, ex-dectective, called Hawthorne. Together, Horowitz writing himself as Dr. Watson to Hawthorne’s Sherlock Holmes, they dig about in the case of a woman who arranges her own funeral and is then found strangled to death six hours later. Horowitz’s description of himself falls in the category of auto-fiction, meaning a majority of events and relationships he uses to characterize his life are quite accurate (and the point at which he invents things about himself is unknowable). Nonetheless, Horowitz is a master of misdirection, red herrings, and reliable characterizations. Hawthorne is a terrific detective insofar as he always seems capable of seeing the larger picture, but keeps his cards so close to his chest that as readers we think we know what cards he is holding, but for the most part see nothing until he lays them on the table.

  • Thief of Souls by Brian Klingborg *** (of 4)

    It would be a cozy murder mystery from which a lot could be learned about the culture of modern day China, if not for the fact that the female victim was not only sexually assaulted, but also eviscerated and sewn back together. The fact that harvested organs are for sale in China is part of the cultural education of Klingborg’s readers and worth knowing about as are the depths and origins of corruption in Chinese government. Under today’s communist regime, it seems almost anything is tolerated in exchange for so-called stability.

    Inspector Lu Fei stands apart from his peers in wanting to pursue justice and truth over convenience and a successful case file. In between drinks at the local bar in a small (by Chinese standards) backwater city, Lu Fei does what good detectives should do while keeping an open mind and collecting evidence. We observe him rub up against climbers, superior officers, and sycophants who show us rather accurately how Chinese police forces supported by a government sponsored justice system manage crime in China with a heavy hand and only a passing acknowledgement of due process.

    China does not feel like a place where rule of law can be counted upon to spare the falsely accused. Or a Uighur.

  • The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman *** (of 4)

    This is the second book in the series, meaning it is the second set of murders that need to be solved by the four septuagenarians of the Thursday Murder Club: Joyce, Ron, Ibrahim, and Elizabeth. It is no small feat to present old people with so much grace and humor even though you can just tell that the author periodically has to yell at his characters so they can hear him, wake them up from time to time, even when they insist they are just resting their eyes, and urge them to get to the points of their digression-filled stories.

    The mystery and suspense in Book #2 are even better than they were in the first as are the quibbles and unspoken affections on display amongst the four friends who, enjoying the fortune and suffering the misfortune of having outlived so many of their loved ones, are discovering they are one another’s newfound family. Suffice to say that gossip in the senior center’s dining hall over whether the new, young waitress, Poppy, would look better without her nose-ring is a great opening scene for a book that will involve spies, the mafia, local drug dealers, and more than a little shopping for something for my daughter, who never really tells me anything, but I’ll get this for her, anyway.

  • A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie R. King ** (of 4)

    The second in the series of mysteries solved by the retired Sherlock Holmes and his young, sharp, eagle-eyed female assistant, no, make that coequal, Mary Russell. The first World War has just ended, the influenza pandemic is receding, shell-shocked soldiers are returning from the front, and British women having recently received access to suffrage but are disappointed that their advancements in the workforce during the war are now in deep recession. Women’s rights are not what they hoped they would be.

    Marjery Childe, a charismatic lay-preacher at the primarily-for-women New Temple of God, holds sway over hundreds of disillusioned women with the oratory skill of a revivalist pulpit banger. Mary Russell, who it turns out is Jewish, finds herself carried along, but suspicious, becoming more so as accidents, some of them mortal, befall Marjery’s disciples.

    So much time is setting the scene that half a book needs to be finished before a crime is clearly in need of investigation and all the while Sherlock is mostly away on vacation removing the most engrossing part of these mysteries: the interplay of Holmes and Russell as they connive and deduce. I would read the next in the series because the characters and writing are so appealing, but it’s going to be awhile, because this book was reaching in so many directions at once it stumbled and tripped into a street puddle on a foggy London night.