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.

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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.

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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.

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2 Rex Stout reviews by CJ Verburg: The Second Confession and Death of a Dude

The Second Confession (Nero Wolfe, #15)The Second Confession by Rex Stout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An out-of-town adventure for Archie and then — when the case and the women involved spin out of control — for Wolfe. This plot hinges on the Communist threat, which makes it feel dated in a clumsier way than Stout’s nickel phone calls and $10 steak dinners ever do. Still, as always in this series, a gripping and satisfying read.

Death of a Dude (Nero Wolfe, #44)Death of a Dude by Rex Stout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An adventure at Lily Rowan’s Montana ranch! The setting for me was the greatest fun in this episode of the ever-rereadable Wolfe and Goodwin series. Generally I prefer the mysteries this ace detective team can solve from Wolfe’s Manhattan brownstone; but since Lily is the Queen of Hearts, it’s a pleasure to travel with her and Archie to her most exotic home-away-from-home.

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Spend Your Last Week of Summer on Cape Cod — FREE!

Have you missed those lazy summer afternoons splashing, surfing, and sunbathing at the beach? Long mellow evenings of seafood and tall frosty drinks? We’re here to help!

On Friday, August 28, Boom-Books is giving away CJ Verburg’s 5-star Zapped: an Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod Mystery on Google Play, Apple/iBooks, Kobo, Nook/Barnes&Noble, and Kindle/Amazon. (We’re giving it away, but check before you click — some e-book outlets may charge you a small fee.)

Read a sample of Zapped here.

To stretch out your stretch of summer sleuthing, rejoin Edgar, Lydia, Mudge, and friends in the seaside village of Quansett for Croaked: an Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod Mystery.

Happy end of summer!

Coronavirus: Update

Earlier today we posted “Corona Virus suggestions from Stanford Hospital Board,” which has now been exposed by Stanford Health Care and Mother Jones as a fake press release. Stanford’s actual coronavirus info site is here.

We still want you to keep healthy and happy and reading, so here are the “suggestions” that have been confirmed (or not) by real medical experts.

Tips from us for our readers: When you bring home a book, clean its cover with a disinfectant wipe. Wear gloves to (and inside) the library and on public transit. And turn social isolation into a vacation with our outstanding mysteries, romances, and nonfiction!

1. This coronavirus attaches specifically in the lungs. However, the New York Times reports it also can affect other mucous membranes, starting with the back of the throat.

2. While the CDC still emphasizes fever, cough, and shortness of breath as the main symptoms, Mother Jones cites a not-yet-published study by a group of German researchers suggesting that upper respiratory tract symptoms like runny nose may be more common than previously thought.

3. “If you can breathe fine, do not go to the doctor. Only go if you cannot breathe or are very ill.” — Epidemiologist Loren Rauch, quoted in Mother Jones. If you do go to the doctor, call ahead: they’re swamped!

4. Direct intense heat, such as strong sunlight or a clothes dryer, may kill the virus. By all means, cook your food thoroughly; wash clothes more often than usual; when you’re sequestered at home, relax in the sunshine with a pot of tea. But don’t count on that to keep you safe.

4. If someone sneezes with it, it takes 6+ feet before it drops to the ground and is no longer airborne. If you sneeze with it, sneeze into a tissue and then throw it in the compost bin.

5. How long the virus can survive on any particular kind of surface is not yet known for sure. Wear gloves when you’re out in public. Wash cloth gloves regularly; discard plastic ones. Wash your hands as soon as you get home.

6. Don’t touch your face — your eyes, nose, and mouth are portals for the virus to enter your body.

7. Overall good health is one of the best defenses. Keep your immune system strong: eat judiciously, stay hydrated, get plenty of sleep, and avoid stress as best you can.

8. Drinking water and/or hot liquids will not per se protect you from the virus.

9. Zinc lozenges were indeed recommended by expert James Robb, but not as a “silver bullet.” He writes: “In my experience as a virologist and pathologist, zinc will inhibit the replication of many viruses, including coronaviruses. I expect COVID-19 [the disease caused by the novel coronavirus] will be inhibited similarly, but I have no direct experimental support for this claim.”

A Study in Scarlet by A.C. Doyle; Clara & Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland: Reviews by CJ Verburg

A Study in Scarlet (Sherlock Holmes, #1)A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

Dr. John Watson meets Sherlock Holmes for the first time: 2 young men just starting out, each looking for a flat-mate, little suspect that Holmes’s lab experiments & Watson’s budding medical practice will soon be overshadowed by their shared adventures. I very much enjoyed that part of the book. But once the detecting gets under way, Doyle shifts to an American back story which felt peripheral as well as unrealistically lurid.

Clara and Mr. TiffanyClara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

One of those books I was very curious & hopeful about, but which didn’t get 3-dimensional enough for me to keep reading. Historical novels are hard to write! Although this one is full of plausible, interesting information about the characters, setting, & period, it felt more like a cross between a dissertation & a second draft than a believable story.

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Killers of the Flower Moon: a Real-Live Mystery (Review)

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBIKillers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

Reviewed by CJ Verburg

Writing about a real-life mystery is tricky. In contrast to fiction, the author can’t step into a participant’s narrative voice to help readers feel they’re watching events unfurl in real time. There are too many characters tromping in and out of the story, some central and some not, most of them without enough distinguishing features for a reader to keep them straight. And the plot can take years, even decades, to reach a conclusion — with or without the satisfaction of a climax.

The murderous scheme David Grann describes in Killers of the Flower Moon is shocking and horrifying, but not riveting. Like War and Peace, this is a book I’d have enjoyed more if I’d seen the movie, so as to connect faces and voices with the dozens of characters, and to visualize the parched, inhospitable land whither the Osage were relegated by whites until oil was discovered there. Black-and-white photos help, but not enough.

Just when the first round of slaughter is starting to be recognized and traced to its perpetrators (though in most cases, never avenged), Grann himself steps in. As he describes his own research, we become a Watson to his Holmes. His skills at digging out the truth are awesome; still, I wish he were a stronger storyteller.

Yet the systematic murder of so many people, and the role this case played in the creation of a Federal Bureau of Investigation to expand the reach of policing organizations like the Texas Rangers, is an important piece of American history. I’m glad there is a film in the works. I’ll hang onto the book to read again after I’ve seen it.

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Warning: our email address was temporarily hijacked

We regret to announce that on Tuesday and/or Wednesday Sept. 4-5, nefarious miscreants hijacked our email address to send out a highly sophisticated Spam mailing, with attachments.

Security was re-established by midday Wednesday. However, because the recipients were not on any list of ours, and we have no way to identify either the recipients or the sender(s), we are unable to issue any warning other than this one.


We’re deeply sorry for the intrusion.