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All Mystery Coverage

Many novels conclude with the wedding of characters we care about, but Crimes and Covers, the fifth book in Amanda Flower’s Magical Bookshop Mystery series, begins with one: the Christmastime union of Violet Waverly, the charming owner of Charming Books in the charming village of Cascade Springs in upstate New York, to the drop-dead gorgeous police chief, David Rainwater.

Among the guests are Violet’s energetic Grandma Daisy, the village mayor and former “caretaker” of the magic-infused bookshop; Violet’s warmhearted friend Sadie; and, to the bride’s astonishment, her elusive dad, Fenimore. But alas, the newlyweds don’t get to make merry post-ceremony because murder most rude pushes all else aside.

Blame Henry David Thoreau. As in previous volumes in this series, a literary classic lies at the mystery’s center. The murder victim is a strange woman who tried to sell Violet a signed first edition of Walden. Violet is an English professor, Thoreau scholar and bookseller, so she was able to discern that the book actually belonged to someone else, Imogene “Thoreau,” whose life is devoted to establishing her blood relationship to the author. Would Imogene spill blood to prove her claim?

Violet puts her honeymoon on hold and dives into a search for answers, some of which come from “the essence,” the magic that oozes from the ancient birch towering in the middle of the bookshop. Along with ensuring that the right books land in just the right hands (Violet’s customers are always so impressed with her recommendations!), the essence conveys clues to help Violet in her amateur sleuthing. (The bookshop’s star tenants, Faulkner the sharp-tongued crow and Emerson the tuxedo cat, also help.) Copies of Walden periodically float through the air, opening to pages that offer transcendental words of wisdom.

Crimes and Covers hits the right cozy notes: an appealing setting (with snow to boot!), a close community and a credible yet unchallenging plot that includes romance and deaths that break few hearts. Although not all the characters are fully drawn, threads occasionally dangle in ways that don’t feel intentional, and moments of tension or heart-stopping thrills are few, this is a satisfying read, providing hours of quiet pleasure rather than the “quiet desperation” Thoreau speaks of. The whimsical touches of bookshop magic are skillfully balanced by plot lines with more gravitas, like the publish-or-perish element in Violet’s academic community and the challenges of relationships, particularly between parents and children. Most importantly, Violet herself is a winning character and narrator: warm, witty, principled and smart, someone you’d enjoy meeting again. So if the tall birch in my backyard, stubbornly short on essence, were to toss another Magical Bookshop Mystery my way, I would be, well—charmed.

Crimes and Covers hits the right cozy notes and will provide hours of whimsical pleasure.

Find Me

Three women take center stage in Alafair Burke’s latest thriller, Find Me: NYPD detective Ellie Hatcher, attorney Lindsay Kelly and amnesiac Hope Miller, who remembers nothing of her life prior to a devastating car crash she survived 15 years ago—or so she says. Now, sans ID or history, Hope works under the radar for a real estate agent, getting paid under the table to stage houses for prospective buyers. Then, as often happens in novels about amnesiacs, a random aha! moment triggers a memory, and we’re off to the races. Hope disappears, blood is spilled and the DNA found at her last-known location matches that of unidentified blood found at an old crime scene halfway across the country. The crime in question is one of a spate of killings thought to be the work of a serial killer, and the case was supposedly solved 15 years ago. Lindsay, who has been Hope’s friend ever since her accident, begins to investigate her disappearance and eventually draws Ellie into the fray. Ellie’s father, who was also a cop, was assigned to the same serial killer case that’s somehow connected with Hope’s disappearance. The two women feverishly piece together the disparate parts of the story, and Burke’s masterful control over pacing and plot reveals will make readers just as anxious to uncover the truth. 

A Narrow Door

Joanne Harris’ darkly humorous and deliciously evil A Narrow Door is a quintessential and unputdownable English mystery. Rebecca Buckfast, headmistress of noted Yorkshire boarding school St. Oswald’s and one of the first-person narrators of this tale, is nothing if not straightforward. She recounts the steps she had to take to become the first female head of the school in its 500-year history. Rebecca doesn’t sugarcoat anything, including the two murders she committed (“one a crime of passion, the other, a crime of convenience”), and yet it is difficult not to respect her motivations and even like her. Sort of. Meanwhile, a parallel tale is offered up by St. Oswald’s teacher Roy Straitley, in the form of a diary that outlines the discovery of what appears to be human remains in a construction site on the school grounds. As Roy’s and Rebecca’s stories unfold, both of the narrators take satisfaction in the secrets they are hiding from each other—or, more precisely, the secrets they think they are successfully concealing. A Narrow Door is an exceptionally good novel, such a masterpiece of storytelling that when Rebecca likens herself to a modern-day Scheherazade, it doesn’t feel like hyperbole in the slightest.

Silent Parade

By all accounts, 19-year-old Saori Namiki was on track to become the next big thing in the world of J-pop music. And then, inexplicably, she vanished, and stayed missing until her remains were discovered three years later in a suburban Tokyo neighborhood. Another body is found at the same place: Yoshie Hasunuma, an unremarkable woman save for her stepson, Kanichi, who is widely believed to have skated away from a murder charge years ago and looks pretty good for this latest double homicide as well. In the same way that Scotland Yard Inspector Lestrade often sought the assistance of supersleuth Sherlock Holmes, Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Chief Inspector Kusanagi regularly summons brainiac physicist Manabu Yukawa, known as Detective Galileo, to consult on particularly difficult homicides. Keigo Higashino’s Silent Parade showcases the fourth such pairing, and is in many ways the most intricate. Detective Galileo must reconsider his theory of the crime again and again, tweaking it repeatedly until he is more or less satisfied with his assessment. He is a very clever man, smart enough to stay a step or two ahead of the police department, the perpetrator (or perpetrators?) and the reader, and that is no mean feat.

BOX 88

The title of Charles Cumming’s latest espionage thriller, BOX 88, refers to a fictional clandestine ops organization that is jointly operated by the United States and the United Kingdom. BOX 88 does not possess a license to kill a la James Bond, but the management certainly utilizes a “license to look the other way” on occasions when wetwork is required. BOX 88 begins a series starring Scottish spy Lachlan Kite, who in this book must come to grips with a very cold case: the 1988 downing of PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Close to half the narrative consists of flashbacks to immediately after the plane crash, when Lachlan was a green recruit. In the present day, Lachlan lets down his guard at the funeral of his old friend, with disastrous results. He is kidnapped by an urbane-seeming Iranian man who turns out to be anything but urbane when it comes to securing intelligence from a perceived enemy combatant. Worse yet, the kidnapper’s team has also captured Lachlan’s very pregnant wife. If torture will not get them what they want, perhaps threats to Lachlan’s family will do the trick. Despite his mistake at the funeral, Lachlan is a seasoned operative and, if anything, more dangerous to his captors than they are to him. Meanwhile, British intelligence agency MI5 is in hot pursuit, not to help Lachlan but rather to out him as an operative of a rogue agency. The suspense is palpable, the characters flawed but sympathetic in their own ways and the story gripping. In a month of really excellent reads, BOX 88 is a clear standout.

In a month overflowing with superb mysteries and thrillers, a deliciously evil boarding school-set thriller and a pitch-perfect espionage novel rise to the top.

Must have typing speed of 55 words per minute. Must not be emotionally affected by violent or traumatic reports. All hired candidates will be required to swear an oath of confidentiality. 

When I first read the job description for a police transcriber, I could hardly believe it was legit. This suspended belief percolated within me even as I applied, tested, interviewed, got hired, and sat down to type my first report. 

Hello, Transcriber. 

Those two words welcomed me into a world I’d never been privy to before—a world rife with death and derelicts and drugs. So many drugs. In my two years of having lived in that industrial Wisconsin city, I’d been oblivious to the underground economy that flourished there, the biggest players being heroin and crack cocaine. Sometimes prescription pills made their way into the mix. Suddenly, I knew every bad thing that happened before it hit the news. If it hit the news. 

In the days and weeks that transpired as I transcribed case after case—suspects in interview rooms, search warrants, homicide investigations, cell phone logs and more—I realized something: I had become the proverbial fly on the wall. I was a nameless, bodiless thing who stole into the police department at 10 p.m. and left before most people punched in for the morning, the only trace of my having been there a stack of perfectly typed reports and completed arrest paperwork. 

I slept by day and typed by night, utilizing my in-between hours to write another novel that would ultimately go nowhere. But if nothing else, it kept me afloat during a time when I was untethered and adrift. This dream of becoming a published author was my lighthouse when I feared I might never find my way out of the dark. 

Read our review of ‘Hello, Transcriber.’

My office was a terrarium, a narrow space with an outside wall that was a sheet of glass—the only shield between me and the horrors I typed up every night. I learned more in that small space, in that small slice of time, than I learned during any other period of my life. 

First, I awakened to the fact that I now existed in two parallel realities: one in which I was oblivious to the murders that happened just a few houses down from mine, the drug deals on the sidewalk, the car chases down Main Street; and the other in which I was the conduit between an investigator’s report and a criminal going to jail. I learned that just because the police arrest a violent criminal one day, it doesn’t mean they won’t be walking the streets the next. It’s up to the district attorney’s office and the judges to make the charges stick. 

I also learned that people are people, regardless of which role they’re assigned in a report (police officer, victim, suspect, etc.). The word sonder is a neologism from John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows that he defines as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” I think that’s important for writers and human beings in general, having the ability to see things through a different lens. When you do that, you realize how fragile your own circumstances are. 

I picked up a lot of spontaneous knowledge, too, such as learning people by voice instead of face and knowing their pet words; thus, however and indicative are a handful that come to mind. I memorized badge numbers for all 216 sworn personnel, and I could guess the nature of the crime based on the length of the report. Car thefts were generally only a few minutes long, and your average search warrants were in the 7- to 12-minute range, unless you got stuck typing the report for the evidence technician. That could land you upward of 40 minutes, depending on how many items of evidentiary value were found. Homicides tended to be longer, especially if there were interviews or a neighborhood canvas involved. And so on and so on. 

Finally, I recognized that I had accidentally landed in a writer’s dream position: a unique job with behind-the-scenes access to fascinating stories and all the quiet time in the world to come up with a story of my own. This was the spark for Hello, Transcriber, a book that explores this unique and crepuscular work. Contrary to popular belief, there are professions much more solitary than being a writer. Take it from a former fly on the wall.

Author photo by Alaxandra Rutella.

Author Hannah Morrissey explores how her work as a police transcriber gave her the perfect perspective for her debut novel

Everyone loves a legend—until it ends in murder.

“Don’t stare too long at the Witching Tree / Defile it not, or cursed you will be.” So goes the saying behind the spookiest landmark in Burning Lake, New York, a small town with a dark past and an even darker present. Alice Blanchard’s The Witching Tree follows detective and lifelong Burning Lake resident Natalie Lockhart through a murder mystery that deftly addresses what happens when personal trauma and professional responsibility collide in a town steeped in complicated history.

The third book in Blanchard’s award-winning series begins with a horrific awakening. Beloved local Wiccan priestess Veronica Manes awakens from a drugged sleep, dressed in a Halloween-esque witch costume and chained to a railroad track with a freight train quickly approaching—a train she is unable to escape in time. At the same time, Natalie is enjoying a cozy morning with her wealthy boyfriend, Hunter Rose. She’s ready to leave cop life behind after working two disturbing cases, including one that involved her own family. When Natalie learns of Veronica’s murder, she’s as baffled as the rest of Burning Lake, but she knows she can’t quit the force until the mystery is solved.

Natalie is a smart, believable heroine. She’s a skilled detective with an admirable sense of duty to the place that has raised her, even though it spectacularly failed her family. Indeed, Blanchard’s writing shines the brightest when depicting all her characters’ gray areas. Despite the macabre elements of the murder and setting, the people who populate The Witching Tree are realistically drawn: No townsperson is all good or all bad. Could eccentric Marigold Hutchins, who runs the town’s Wiccan shop, be gunning for Veronica’s leadership position in the local historic coven? What about the young couple Veronica befriended, who were dealing with drug addiction and dabbling in dark magic before they disappeared completely? Natalie also can’t forget the legacy of the town, whose the citizens burned three accused witches at the stake in the 18th century. Blanchard crafts a spectacular sense of place, and though readers may fear Burning Lake, they also won’t want to leave.

While it’s the third in a series, The Witching Tree offers sufficient background information for new readers and a town full of complex, dynamic characters, making it an enjoyable novel that stands easily on its own.

Though readers may fear Burning Lake, the creepy small-town setting of Alice Blanchard’s latest mystery, they also won’t want to leave.

Set amid the glitz and glimmer of showbiz, these historical mysteries expose the corruption and abuse that exists after the shine of spotlights go out. But even more than that, they examine critical periods during which women’s roles were shifting as they demanded more freedoms.

As a teenager, Willowjean “Will” Parker literally ran away to join the circus. Stephen Spotswood’s Murder Under Her Skin (the sequel to 2020’s Fortune Favors the Dead) finds her as an adult in 1946 New York City, working at a detective agency with her mentor, the brilliant Lillian Pentecost. Fresh off an arson investigation, Will gets a telegram that her friend Ruby Donner, the tattooed lady of Hart and Halloway’s Travelling Circus, has been murdered and that another performer, Valentin Kalishenko, has been arrested for the crime. Will believes Valentin is innocent, and she and her boss set off for small-town Virginia to meet up with the circus and clear Valentin’s name.

Hart and Halloway’s Travelling Circus allowed Will to escape her abusive father and safely explore her sexuality as a lesbian. Now that she’s returning as an outsider, some of that closeness is gone and, in a melancholy but emotionally realistic twist, Will finds herself trapped between two worlds: She’s no longer completely trusted by her former peers, and she’s still working to gain the approval of her intrepid boss. 

As they work the case, Will and Lillian find the world in flux around them, which Spotswood ably explores without distracting from the central mystery. In the wake of World War II, U.S. veterans are dealing with displacement and PTSD, women are being shunted into more restrictive roles now that GIs have returned, and movie theaters are filling up while circus arenas are emptying. None of the characters in this mystery quite know how to cope with these seismic cultural changes, setting Murder Under Her Skin apart from more simplistic stories set in the same time period. Despite the cultural angst swirling around them, Will and Lillian focus on finding justice for Ruby, a woman many of their contemporaries don’t consider respectable or worthy of their compassion.

Elly Griffiths jumps ahead a few decades (and across the pond) in her snappy new Brighton mystery, The Midnight Hour. It’s 1965, and when theatre impresario Bert Billingham is murdered with rat poison, his wife, actress Verity Malone, is a natural suspect. Worried that the police will look no further than her, Verity hires PIs Emma Holmes and Sam Collins to clear her name. Among their suspects is magician-turned-actor Max Mephisto, who is filming a remake of Dracula along with Billingham’s son and is rumored to have had a fling with Verity.

Much like Murder Under Her Skin, this mystery focuses on a tightknit group of performers. Many of the actors, directors and costume designers in Billingham’s orbit worked together during the war, and everyone seems to have a story illustrating Billingham’s nastiness, giving Emma and Sam no shortage of suspects. 

As they navigate the complex showbiz web around Billingham and his family, Emma and Sam team up with 20-year-old rookie police constable Meg Connolly, which allows Griffiths to explore the experiences of three women at very different stages in life. The growing feminist movement has created more opportunities for women like Meg, but her male-dominated workplace still treats female sleuths as novelties. While Meg is just starting out, Emma struggles to balance her career with being a wife and mother, and she is frustrated that her detective work is treated like a hobby rather than a profession. Sam, meanwhile, worries that her own romantic interest in Max Mephisto could be clouding her judgment.

The sixth book in a series, The Midnight Hour is also full of secondary characters who have appeared in previous Brighton mysteries, so readers may want to start at the beginning before taking a stab at this one. But those who are already fans of the Brighton mysteries will be well satisfied with this installment, which tracks the evolution of Emma and Sam’s characters and careers without sacrificing one bit of Griffiths’ wit and charm.

Beyond being tantalizing whodunits, both Murder Under Her Skin and The Midnight Hour feature dynamic, complicated female characters who unapologetically stand up to and outshine their male contemporaries.

Set amid the glitz and glimmer of showbiz, these historical mysteries examine two critical periods during which women demanded more freedoms.

Beth Rivers stumbles upon more trouble in the tiny community of Benedict, Alaska, in Paige Shelton’s thrilling whodunit, Dark Night. The third installment in the Alaska Wild series finds Beth, who is working as the community’s lone journalist, investigating a case of domestic abuse that may have resulted in murder.

Known to the world at large as best-selling author Elizabeth Fairchild, Beth wants nothing more than to keep a low profile to avoid attracting any attention from her former abductor, who remains at large. Shelton quickly brings readers up to speed on these details and the events of the previous two novels in the series (Thin Ice and Cold Wind) in the opening chapter, just before unveiling the murder of local resident Ned Withers. Ned, who has abused his wife, Claudia, is found dead in what amounts to the town square, having been murdered in the middle of the night.

Initial suspicions naturally fall on an outsider: census taker Doug Vitner, who received a less than hearty welcome from Ned and the community at large and disappeared shortly after Ned’s death. (“We were all a secretive bunch. It wasn’t just me,” Beth muses at one point.) Along with her mother, a self-styled private investigator on the trail of her own missing husband, and police chief Gril Samuels, the only one in town who knows Beth’s secret, Beth begins piecing together the clues that will reveal the killer before they can escape, or worse, strike again.

Though she’s best known for her cozy mysteries, Shelton displays a talent for ratcheting up the tension in this series. As Beth’s fears and paranoia increase, events unravel at a rapid pace. Isolated from the Alaska mainland and cut off by an approaching winter storm, it’s increasingly difficult for Beth to know who she can trust—if anyone. You’ll want to bundle up against the cold dread, suspense and tension that permeate this mystery.

You’ll want to bundle up against the cold dread, suspense and tension that permeate this mystery.

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