Back at the end of last year, I posted a link to VOYA’s top adult mysteries for teens. Since, as I said at the time, this blog hadn’t gotten to many (read: almost any) of them, I thought I would take a closer look at the books on VOYA’s list. But since I am somewhat obsessive these days about only reading new titles, I looked for 2013 books by the same authors. VOYA broke their list into seven categories, and I decided I wanted to read at least one book from each of these, excluding Short Stories, since VOYA only listed one book, and Thrillers. I skipped Thrillers for two reasons: 1) this blog reviews tons of thrillers as it is, and 2) while I understand the impulse, I don’t really agree with the idea of lumping thrillers and mysteries into the same category.
So, that left me with five categories:
1) Amateur Sleuths–From VOYA’s list I chose the newest book in Mary Jane Clark’s Piper Donovan series, Footprints in the Sand, and I also grabbed the newest Flavia de Luce novel, Speaking From Among the Bones by Alan Bradley, which I loved, but I asked our much more talented (and much more Flavia-versed) reviewer Jane Ritter to write up for us.
2) Historicals–I read the second book in Frances Brody’s Kate Shackleton series, A Medal For Murder, along with the newest Maisie Dobbs book, Leaving Everything Most Loved.
3) Police Procedurals–I read the newest in CJ Box’s Joe Pickett series, Breaking Point (Putnam, 2013), which has a lot of positive buzz, but I found to be just too laden with purple prose, and chose not to review it.
4) Private Investigators—VOYA only listed two titles, and I couldn’t find new titles by either author, but I picked up the new Thomas Perry, The Boyfriend, which features a PI.
5) Genre Blends–I read the newest by Simone St. James, An Inquiry into Love and Death, which is not a sequel to, but takes place in the same world as her highly lauded The Haunting of Maddy Clare. I also read the newest in Heather Blake’s Wishcraft series, The Good the Bad and the Witchy (NAL, 2013) which was great fun but a bit too precious, so I chose not to review it.
Obviously, there is a lot of cross-over among these categories–Kate Shackleton and Maisie Dobbs are PIs, and Alan Bradley’s and Simone St. James’s books are both Historical, but I think I did a good job of hitting all of the main lines, with the exception of police procedural, which I will have to attempt another time.
My history of reading mysteries is basically confined to classic cozies–Christie and Sayers; and classic hard-boiled–Chandler and Hammett. I do read a little modern mystery, but my tastes here run to the more postmodern–Chandler send-ups like Richard Yancey’s The Highly Effective Detective (Thomas Dunne, 2006) and Christie send-ups like Gilbert Adair’s The Act of Roger Murgatroyd (Faber, 2006). So it was quite a month or so of reading relatively straightforward modern mysteries, and as you can see below I was able to recommend six of the eight books I read.
I can’t say that reading eight mysteries makes me much of an expert, but I’ll report my thoughts anyway. First, I find it interesting that three of the books I read take place in the post-World War I era, with the War playing a significant role in all three. My favorite of these (and note the starred review below) is A Medal For Murder, which also focuses on the 1899-1902 Boer War. I also note that these three novels, plus Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novel all take place in England. I wondered whether I stumbled onto a cultural trend of some sort–after all, “Downton Abbey” is examining the same place and period right now–or if this setting is just a result of the genre’s deep and abiding reliance on the example of Christie and Sayers.
Aside from that, my main discovery was how quickly I found myself at home with these novels. For the most part, all of books I read hewed very closely to the rules established by the classic novels in their field: the reader has access to all the clues; the killer is a character the reader knows; etc. That’s not to say they were derivative, though. All of the recommended books were, most importantly, very well written. And beyond that, they were all more than happy to tweak genre conventions for their own needs. Aside from the obvious–the supernatural elements in St. James and Blake–the most telling innovation in these novels was their emphasis on societal and cultural messages, especially those post-WWI novels which across the board had much to say about immigration, PTSD, class, race, and more. But even on a structural level, again, I was especially happy with A Medal for Murder‘s judicious parsing out of flashbacks to avoid the genre’s typical pitfall of excessive exposition in the final reveal.
I’ll leave more in depth analysis to those with a deeper knowledge of the genre. For now, suffice to say that you probably can’t go wrong recommending any of these six books to teens looking for a good mystery.
Adult/High School–Flavia de Luce, the brilliant and fearless 11-year-old detective first introduced in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Delacorte, 2009), stars in her fifth novel set in 1950s England. Each novel can stand alone, but Flavia fans will savor new details revealed about her family. The de Luce family lives in a rambling but shabby estate that soon may be lost due to Father’s continued financial woes. Flavia’s incredible sleuthing skills and her vast knowledge of chemistry are put to the test once again as she discovers the dead body of the missing church organist. So begins the mystery that involves a diamond, an impressive cast of eccentric characters, and the exhumation of the patron saint of the church. Flavia feels “torn apart from the inside” with the changes that happen to her family and is emotionally confused by the sporadic closeness she feels with her sisters. Bradley’s knack for period detail, his plot twists and turns, and his great humor will charm Flavia fans, mystery readers, and those who love an endearing and cunning heroine. The stunning ending leaves readers wanting more.–Jane Ritter, Mill Valley School District, CA.
Adult/High School–Desperate for cases for her fledgling investigating firm, Kate Shackleton takes on an innocuous job involving a fairly petty theft. It takes her to the wealthy community of Harrogate where she stumbles across two more crimes, a murder and a missing person, which–in a neat change-up for the genre–may have less to do with each other than first appears. What all three eventually prove to have in common is a connection with three retired soldiers from the Second Boer War, one of whom has been dead for 20 years, another of whom is the murder victim. Though initially reluctant, Shackleton eventually gets involved in all three cases, with some time set aside for romance with a detective from Scotland Yard. Brody breaks from Shackleton’s first-person narrative to give readers just enough information so as not to fall into the common trap of overwhelming the novel’s ending with exposition. And these separate perspectives help highlight the sensitive portrayal of the devastation of the Boer Wars, and the class and ethnic conflicts it caused both in South Africa and back home in England. With its post-World War I setting and its heroine a former nurse with a lost love, the novel’s similarities to Jacqueline Winspear’s “Maisie Dobbs” books may be a bit too close for comfort for some readers. But more forgiving readers should realize that the period and themes in question are rich enough to fill several series, and Brody’s elegant prose and attention to gently pushing back at genre conventions make this novel (and series) a more than welcome entry.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA
Adult/High School–Piper Donovan is back to solve another murder with a fabulously implausible connection to a wedding. This time she is the maid of honor at her cousin’s wedding in Florida when one of the bridesmaids turns up dead, followed shortly by an attempted murder on a potential witness, another possibly related murder, and a mysterious suicide. Piper’s attention is divided among her role in the wedding, supporting her cousin; the ever increasing body count; and the impending meeting between her parents and her new boyfriend (conveniently an FBI agent). As in the other Piper Donovan mysteries, Clark keeps the pace lightning fast and the suspense high through exceedingly brief chapters that change perspective among all the major players, including the murderer (though his identity is kept safely secret). Though Clark’s prose can be too utilitarian, with dialogue tending to the expositional, the clockwork precision of her plot can only be admired, and her characters, particularly Piper’s parents, shine through. Clark is not the equal of, say, Alan Bradley, but this novel and the previous one in the series are still excellent recommendations for teen fans of cozy mysteries.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA
Adult/High School–Perry’s latest novel begins as a fairly typical PI-procedural, with ex-police officer Jack Till searching for the killer of a high-end escort. But as Till quickly realizes that the murder is just one in a series, and just as quickly deduces the reasoning behind the killings, the narrative abruptly switches to the killer himself, where Perry relates not only his identity but much more about his background and psychology than readers ever learn about Till. From this point, the narrative becomes a cat-and-mouse game between the two as Till chases the killer throughout the country, getting ever closer to him. Perry’s take on the killer’s perspective is hardly unique, but it is still impressive how much sympathy he is able to generate for a man who is essentially a sociopath. And though Perry never explicitly endorses a moral equivalence between the two antagonists, readers cannot help but notice certain similarities in their thinking, and especially in their detailed knowledge and love of firearms. With its casual murder and sex, and hard-boiled take on police work and death, this is a book that evokes some of the grittier Coen Brothers films–a nearly existentialist style that many teens will love.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA
Adult/High School–St. James, author of The Haunting of Maddy Clare (NAL, 2012), returns to that novel’s 1920s ghost-hunting world with a new cast of characters. Jillian Leigh is summoned to a tiny village in Devonshire to identify the body and collect the belongings of her ghost-hunting Uncle Toby, who has died in a seeming accident. She quickly makes the acquaintance of a dashing Scotland Yard detective and together they decide that Toby was murdered and that the ghost he was hunting, the spirit of a centuries-old bootlegger, is real. As Jillian digs deeper, she realizes that she may be at the heart of at least one of these mysteries herself. St. James’s prose can be maddeningly uneven, veering from gorgeous to awkward far too frequently, and her mystery falters a bit near the end. Nevertheless, with its historical mystery, romance, cursed ghost, and crumbling vicarage, the novel brings to mind some of the best elements of Elizabeth Fama’s Monstrous Beauty (Farrar, 2012), without the mermaids. And while St. James cannot match Fama’s prose or deftly constructed mystery, her fans should find more than enough to love in this novel.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA
Adult/High School–Still reeling from the horrible attack on her assistant Billy and her inability to bring a murderer to justice in Elegy for Eddie (HarperCollins, 2012), and unsure of her relationship with too-wealthy James Compton, private investigator Maisie Dobbs wants nothing more than to travel the world and take stock of her life. But when Scotland Yard brings her the case of a murdered Indian governess, whose race and class seem to have caused her case to be mishandled, Maisie must see that justice is done. Meanwhile, as Billy’s head-injury leaves him more and more confused, Maisie also takes on his work, tracking down a missing teen. Against all odds, the cases seem to be connected, and Maisie soon finds herself entangled in loose ends and too many suspects. Winspear handles the intertwined mysteries with all of the grace her fans have come to expect, but the real attraction here is the sensitive portrayal of immigrant life in London in the 1930s. Maisie becomes entranced by the victim and her community and neither she nor readers can help but contrast them with Maisie’s boyfriend and his powerful business partner, who Maisie knows has gotten away with murder. Though this is the 10th in the “Maisie Dobbs” series, it requires no knowledge of the prior volumes, and indeed Winspear’s fantastically light touch with exposition is one of the novel’s many strengths.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA