What's New?

Mystery review: An English Murder by Cyril Hare

An English MurderAn English Murder by Cyril Hare
Reviewed by CJ Verburg

A compact, engrossing little mystery with just enough social commentary to feel realistic for 1951. I was surprised it’s so hard to find– our SF Bay library system only has 1 falling-apart copy, published in 1984 by “Ian Henry Publications” (not recognized on Open Library / Internet Archive), which looks pirated, like a bad photocopy someone glued together in the basement. I’d rank it with some of Agatha Christie’s mid-level short novels — tight plotting, memorable characters, strong descriptions, and a satisfyingly unpredictable ending.

View all my reviews

Mystery Review by CJ Verburg: Kate Ellis’s “The Merchant’s House,” Wesley Peterson #1

The Merchant's House (Wesley Peterson, #1)The Merchant’s House by Kate Ellis

A well-constructed traditional mystery / police procedural whose possibilities were stronger than its execution. What I liked: a black detective (Wesley Peterson) whose competence, not race, is focal. He’s smart, educated, kind, and his background in archeology opens the door to an intriguing double plot. Also a strong female sidekick who doesn’t instantly become a romantic interest. A non-cozy English village setting; and police who aren’t enemies to each other or the community. All welcome subversions of the standard crime-novel cliches! I especially enjoyed the historical info that came with the 16th-century subplot.

What I didn’t like: the characters aren’t fleshed out enough to have distinct voices or personalities — I had trouble remembering who was who. That includes Wesley Peterson. And the supposed excerpts from a 16th-c. diary which open each chapter sounded gratingly inauthentic — as if the author had learned just enough about period speech to throw “doth” in front of her verbs for present tense and “did” for past. For me that epitomized my general impression of a paint-by-numbers “first in a series” mystery that includes all the right ingredients, but didn’t put them together convincingly enough to make me want to read another one.

View all my reviews

Review by CJ Verburg: Robert Goddard’s The Fine Art of Invisible Detection

The Fine Art of Invisible DetectionThe Fine Art of Invisible Detection by Robert Goddard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An enjoyable mystery, in large part because it follows an unusual main character (Wada, a somewhat reluctant middle-aged female detective) from her native Japan to London to New York to Iceland. Wada has no Hollywood assets, just curiosity, intelligence, and common sense. Her story crosses paths and eventually collides with that of Nick, an Englishman who’s searching for his unknown father.

The plot was satisfyingly twisty without becoming so convoluted as to lose me in the welter of international characters. What bogs it down a bit is the writing, which (like Wada) is practical and workmanlike enough to get the job done but lacks flair or zip. It’s thick with passive structures such as “There was” (as in “There was a street leading to a lane where there were several buildings”), slowing the action and blunting the suspense.

The book ends with what’s obviously Scene 1 of a sequel. I had fun reading this one, but not enough to embark on another.

View all my reviews

CJ Verburg’s Review of Maggie O’Farrell’s HAMNET

HamnetHamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Were the plays of Shakespeare, AKA the Bard of Avon, written by William Shakespeare, a small-town glover’s son? It’s still a moot question after 4 centuries, because we know so little about the man. His father was a social climber. He was considerably younger than his wife, Anne Hathaway. He bought a house and other property in his hometown of Stratford, although his work as a playwright, actor, and theater co-manager in London kept him from visiting very often. His only son died in childhood during the Plague. He left his wife “my second-best bed.”

Maggie O’Farrell weaves these and other tantalizing facts into what you might call a historical novel of domestic suspense. Her Anne Hathaway is called Agnes (the name on Anne’s baptismal record), a semi-orphan with strong instincts about living creatures–including people, including the man she married, after seducing him so as to free herself (and him) from an abusive dead-end future. Agnes is as compelling to the reader of this rich, absorbing, plausible story as she is to her son Hamnet’s father (who is never named, though it’s obvious who he is).

It took me a year to read this book. Hamlet is my favorite play; I’ve seen more than 20 productions as well as directed it myself. I couldn’t read more than a chapter of Hamnet in one sitting because it’s steeped in sorrow, especially if you know what tragedy looms ahead. The Plague, like coronavirus, lurks out of sight most of the time, like a deadly fairy-tale monster. But O’Farrell is kinder in the end than Shakespeare, staging a denoument which amounts to redemption for her characters and a fully rounded, deeply satisfying story for her readers.

View all my reviews

Review by CJ Verburg: Mick Herron’s Slow Horses

Slow Horses (Slough House, #1)Slow Horses by Mick Herron

A slow starter that soon picks up to thriller speed. (Tip: skip the author’s preface–it belongs at the end.) Slow Horses is a sort of 21st-century behind-the-scenes John LeCarre novel, less about the terrifying kidnapping that jolts MI5 into action than the procedural and political machinery that pits its players against each other. Slough House is where the “slow horses” who screw up spy missions go to trudge in circles for the rest of their weary lives. When a real crisis drops in their path, they throw over the traces faster than you can say Derby. Personalities, talents, and zest blossom; and as these dull characters remember to value themselves, we suddenly have a stake in their success. Jump-cuts between the criminals and their rival sets of pursuers keep the pace zippy. This being a battle of secret service vs. underground vs. news media, no one’s real identity matches the role s/he has been playing. I was sorry when the book ended — and glad the author made good use at the end of his yawn-inducing introduction to Slough House.

View all my reviews

Review by CJ Verburg: Rex Stout’s Murder by the Book

Murder by the Book (Nero Wolfe, #19)Murder by the Book by Rex Stout

This is one of my favorites in the Wolfe canon. Not just because it takes place in the literary world, although I loved time-traveling around the postwar New York publishing scene with author Rex Stout. And not just because it’s always a pleasure to hang out in detective Nero Wolfe’s Manhattan brownstone with the eccentric genius and his right-hand man Archie Goodwin. The plot is satisfyingly intriguing: who’s killing every person who’s read a not particularly controversial manuscript? I especially liked the opening twist: Wolfe’s first visit from his friend and rival Inspector Cramer isn’t a request for help solving murder #1, but to figure out why an odd list of names was found on the scratch pad of a dead law clerk. Any writer will immediately have her/his suspicions; but it takes America’s finest Holmes-Watson duo to piece together the series of clues that will unmask the killer.

View all my reviews

Review by CJ Verburg: Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club

The Thursday Murder Club (Thursday Murder Club, #1)The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

An inspired concept — write about a group of contemporary amateur sleuths who are the same demographic as most amateur-sleuth mystery readers. Osman has created a high-end retirement community that’s a 21st-century version of the classic English village; even his title pays homage to the Golden Age mystery that introduced Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s The Tuesday Club Murders. The characters are distinctive enough to tell apart, charming (or anti-charming) enough to be both likeable and suspicious, and similar enough to the traditional ensemble (the mysterious ex-spy, the logician, the friendly knitter, the garrulous working-class dad, the sharp and not-so-sharp local cops) to keep me laughing and turning pages. Osman is a professional entertainer and very good at it. I admired his acrobatic multiple not-quite-endings, though I didn’t entirely follow them, and I look forward to reading more from him — as well as the probable TV series.

View all my reviews

Happy New Year!

We’re looking forward to a brand-new year (play it, Pete Townshend!) . . . hoping it will be full of reignited friendships, collaborations, festivities, and hugs.

While the late winter Left Coast Crime conference won’t resume in person until 2022, mystery writers and fans are still crossing our fingers for Malice Domestic at the end of April. We’re especially excited about the launch of Malice’s 2021 anthology Murder Most Diabolical, presented by Lifetime Achievement Award winner Walter Mosley and featuring CJ Verburg’s story “A Terrible Tragedy.” Set on Cape Cod, this is reluctant sleuth Edgar Rowdey’s first foray into the buzzing local theater scene, when he’s tapped to design the set for a Hollywood director’s production of Macbeth.

Whether Malice Domestic 2021 is 3-D or virtual, keep an eye out for Murder Most Diabolical!