California Literary Review

Mystery

The Scarpetta Factor by Patricia Cornwell

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November 4th, 2009

She’s developed an enjoyable way of beginning novels in the middle of a story, letting her audience watch the characters carry out conversations and actions which they don’t yet understand, but which will be unravelled as the book continues. This must be an even harder trick than it looks, and The Scarpetta Factor is driven by the reader’s need to find out what the heroes know, as well as what the villains have done.

The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan

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August 25th, 2009

She sees faces in the flaking walls of the kitchen, fears for the soul of a matriarch’s fox fur, and interprets the ever-changing moods of the decorative beer steins on the mantle. Gwenni is a contradictory combination of fearlessness and naiveté, unable to discern the boundary between her imaginative world and the real one. In this way, she recalls such classic girl heroines as Anne of Green Gables or Jo from Little Women. But it’s her similarity with another classic heroine, Nancy Drew, which really draws readers into her world.

The Language of Bees by Laurie R. King

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August 20th, 2009

Most of the narratives are first-person accounts by Mary, so readers get to know her very well. She is a strong, resourceful, intelligent, and fascinating character in her own right. Sometimes, she can seem a little too perfect: she speaks ancient Greek, Latin, and Hebrew (from her theology studies), French and German, and manages to pick up a good speaking ability in Arabic and Hindi during their adventures overseas. Her throwing arm has deadly accuracy, and on occasion she uses it to great effect with knives, darts, or just rocks. She is a great picker of locks.

Rain Gods By James Lee Burke

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July 30th, 2009

Burke’s life has provided ample experience to draw from for his mysteries that feature world-wise and often world-weary characters that have come to the points in their existences where doing the right thing, helping others and standing up to evil sometimes just seems like the path of least resistance.

Shadow and Light by Jonathan Rabb

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June 17th, 2009

A man is found dead in a bathtub, brandy is poured and the whodunit game grows darker with every turn. Throw in a gritty 1927 Berlin, a major film studio and a chief inspector who never misses a beat and the pages practically turn themselves.

Castle by J. Robert Lennon

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May 13th, 2009

For all his derision, arrogance, and unreliability, Eric Loesch is not an unsympathetic protagonist. In fact, as readers are slowly fed morsels of Loesch’s violent past (Lennon reveals himself here as a master of seamless flashbacks), they find themselves saddened rather than horrified at the person he has become.

The Roar of the Butterflies by Reginald Hill

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May 5th, 2009

Hill has written far fewer books about the black Luton lathe operator turned PI, but The Roar of the Butterflies displays the same qualities which make the Dalziel and Pascoe series so notable: a remarkable turn of phrase, a generous tone and persistent pushing at the boundaries of what crime fiction can encompass.

Scarpetta by Patricia Cornwell

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March 16th, 2009

There are flashes of wit – the description of the morgue as a “deconstruction site”, for example – and a sense of the book probing its own genre at times. A particularly striking passage involves faked emails, supposedly sent by Scarpetta, which purport to “dish the dirt” on autopsies at which the medical examiners mock the corpses, take souvenirs and generally act callously.

Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong by Pierre Bayard

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December 7th, 2008

These books are indeed a kind of witty parlor game, certainly. But though Bayard occasionally gallops into the high alpine meadows of literary and psychoanalytic theory, he still sticks closely to the text he’s given. And though he probably doesn’t believe half of what he’s saying, it does pass the logical plausibility test.

The Right Side of the Tracks

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May 20th, 2008

Detective fiction revels in the possibilities offered by railway travel, but it also expresses some anxiety about them. The ability to travel across Britain at such speeds was exciting, but also potentially unsettling for a social system which still, in many ways, preferred that people remained “in their place”. When Sir Henry Baskerville is being followed by an unknown bearded man in London, he suspects it may be the butler from Baskerville Hall, and sends a telegram to check whether or not “Barrymore is at his post in Devonshire.”

Double Cross By James Patterson

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March 18th, 2008

I love John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series but always thought that his love scenes were clunkers to the point of being embarrassing. Compared to Patterson’s portrayals, MacDonald comes off like Arthur Miller.

Lots in a Name

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January 21st, 2008

Rather more subtle is Hercule Poirot, whose name contains elements of both “Hercules”, the classical hero, and “Pierrot”, the Italian clown – an interesting combination of heroism and buffoonery. The name reflects Christie’s practice of presenting Poirot alternately as a figure of fun and a stern emissary of justice. Dorothy L. Sayers balances her detective hero in a similar way – Peter Wimsey’s name has all the connotations of his silly-ass-about-town persona, but he is shadowed by his middle name – “Death.”

The Tin Roof Blowdown By James Lee Burke

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December 3rd, 2007

Because he’s a damn good writer James Lee Burke knows how to keep a plot going from start to finish with no loose ends or out-of-the-blue surprises that amateurishly attempt to explain and finish off a narrative.

City of Fire By Robert Ellis

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November 19th, 2007

There are red herrings aplenty, but once finished reading the novel I’m left with a sense of annoyance at these diversions, so often delightful necessities in other mysteries, but close to being filler in this one.

Gentlemen and Players

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November 13th, 2007

Yet it is the amateur, the eccentric and the outsider who plays the hero in the whodunnit. Lord Peter, with his silly-ass-about-town front, Holmes, with his Goethe and cocaine bottle and Poirot with his obsessive neatness and ostentatiously Gallic egotism, all seem pretty unlikely champions of order and public safety.

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