Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Odd, But Charming

Detective Varg # 1
Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon Books
April 16, 2019

The Department of Sensitive Crimes is the first in a new series from the internationally bestselling Alexander McCall Smith. To be honest, I thought I was one of the few readers on the planet who had not read any of his many books. I remember trying the audio of the first in his No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series, but I couldn't get into it for whatever reason. But when this book was offered by the First To Read program, I read the description and thought it might be time to try again.

The Swedish city of Malmö has a department devoted to the investigation of crimes that appear to be somewhat off-beat. Crimes that just don't fit into the usual robbery/drugs/murder mode are investigated by lead detective Ulf Varg, and his colleagues, Anna Bengsdotter, Carl Holgersson, and Erik Nykvist. His colleagues are all individuals; Anna a married woman who works closely with Ulf, Carl the workaholic, and Erik the department clerk obsessed with fishing. However, Anna and Ulf are the closest; and Ulf is in love with her. Being the kind and gentlemanly man he is, he knows that he can't act on that and break up a family. Then there is the uniformed policeman, Blomquist, whose dearest wish is to be part of the department. The three cases investigated in The Department of Sensitive Crimes are indeed off-beat; the stabbing of a merchant in the back of the knee with no witnesses, a missing imaginary boyfriend, and possible supernatural goings-on at a spa. Ulf has other problems too. His dog, Martin, is suffering from clinical depression.

The Department of Sensitive Crimes is a charming if slightly odd book. I was captivated by the characters and the gentle philosophizing of Ulf. It doesn't fall into the Scandinavian "noir" category that we are so used to. I kept turning the pages late into the night just to see what might happen next and McCall Smith has a new fan. Thanks to the First To Read program for an advance digital copy. The opinions are my own.

RATING- 4.5 Stars

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Power of Denial

Michael J. Malone
Orenda Books/Trafalgar Square
March 1, 2019

After He Died opens at the funeral of Paula Gadd's husband of nearly thirty years, Thomas. Paula is almost completely overcome with grief, not only for her seemingly fit husband's death by heart attack, but for the loss of her only child, Christopher, nearly seven years before by hit-and-run. Paula's life has been built entirely around both son and husband, and she has no idea what she will do. The service is packed with mourners, mostly business associates of Thomas, but few who have any real connection to Paula. Thomas' older brother, Bill, and his wife, Daphne are there, but that relationship is distant, at best. Paula's only real support is that of Thomas' other brother, a Catholic priest, Father Joe. What little composure she has is cracked when a young woman approaches and whispers in her ear, "You need to know who your husband really was.", slips a note in Paula's pocket and moves away quickly. It takes several boozy days and an odd visit from Thomas' business partner, Kevin Farrell, who is carrying a palpable air of desperation to prompt her to call the number on the young woman's note. She is Cara Connelly, who comes from the slums of Glasgow and has raised herself to the position of a social worker in those same slums. She accuses Thomas of being an organized crime lord, and of a horrific crime. Paula dismisses this out of hand, but events conspire to make her and Cara uneasy partners to find the truth. Paula begins to see that she and Thomas had drifted apart since Christopher's death, especially in the last two years. Always a hard worker and very successful, Thomas was a full-blown workaholic at the end. Could Thomas have actually hidden a secret life from her?

I admit that when I requested a galley of After He Died, I had the mistaken impression that it was from North Carolina author, Michael Malone, whose books I have also enjoyed. That was a fortunate mistake for me. After He Died is a real page-turner, with fleshed out characters to both like and hate. Paula is someone I understand and empathize with, despite a tendency to ignore coincidences that would be red flags to anyone thinking straight. Paula, however, is so sunk in grief and denial that it takes a while for her to see facts for what they are. Cara, on the other hand, is so confident of what she knows, and so resentful of the "moneyed classes" she becomes blind in her own way. Both are complicated and ultimately likable women caught up in events, not of their making. 

I highly recommend After He Died for fans of psychological suspense. Thanks to NetGalley and Trafalgar Square for a digital copy. The opinions are my own.

RATING- 4.5 Stars

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Veronica Speedwell # 4
Deanna Raybourn
Berkley Books/Audible
March 12, 2019

Downloading the newest book from the talented Deanna Raybourn on the publication date is a must for me, as it was for her earlier Lady Julia Grey mysteries. A Dangerous Collaboration begins with our intrepid globe-trotting lady lepidopterist packing to return from an extended "holiday" in Madeira with her patron's sister, not with her partner Revelstoke Templeton-Vane (Stoker). In fact, she has received not one letter from him, but numerous letters from his older brother, Tiberius. Stoker is distant upon her return, refusing to discuss the Madiera trip or anything else for that matter. A visit from Tiberius brings Veronica a new opportunity: an old school friend owns a secluded island off the Cornish coast with butterflies that are seen nowhere else. The friend might be willing to let Veronica establish a habitat on the mainland in the interest of averting eventual extinction. It's an opportunity not to be missed, but Stoker is not invited.

On the journey to the island, Tiberius explains that Veronica will be posing as his fiance to avoid offending his host, Lord Malcolm Romilly's, Catholic sensibilities. Lord Malcolm's fiance, Rosamund, disappeared from the island three years earlier on their wedding day and the resulting scandal drove the family into exile from society. It is clear that this island visit is about more than butterflies, and Tiberius' motives are murkier than we thought. Not unexpectedly , Stoker shows up on the train at the journey's end and continues to the island. Superstitious villagers, devoted housekeepers, a bride who was not so innocent, an unconventional sister, and a castle riddled with priest's holes all play a part in the story, along with escapes from sure death; all leading to an unexpected solution. At least to me.

As always, I found A Dangerous Collaboration most entertaining. The prickly, stubborn Veronica and Stoker are two of my favorite characters. However, I thought the ongoing "will they, won't they" bogged down the story somewhat. Especially since it's clear that they will when they get over themselves! Narrated by the excellent Angele Masters, I recommend the audiobook, but at some point, I will read the book as well.

RATING 4.5 rounded up to 5 Stars