The Big Book of Female Detectives*****

TheBigBookofFemaleDWell now, that was a meal. Penzler does nothing halfway, and this meaty collection of 74 stories took me awhile to move through. I read most, but not all, and I’ll get to that in a minute. First, though, thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The collection begins with Mrs. Paschal, published in 1864, who must find “the cleverest thieves in Christendom,” and it concludes with a piece by Joyce Carol Oates. The stories are broken down into sections, beginning with The Victorians and Edwardians, followed by Before World War I, The Pulp Era, The Golden Age, Mid-Century, and The Modern Era, and concluded with Bad Girls. Says Penzler in his introduction:

“Seeing the Evolution of the female detective’s style as it gathers strength and credibility through the decades is educational, but that is not the purpose of this book, or not the primary one, anyway. The writers whose work fills these pages are the best of their time, and their stories are among the high points of detective fiction that may be read with no greater agenda than the pure joy that derives from distinguished fiction.”

And so the reader must absorb the hallmarks of the time period, and that means the earliest entries carry a certain number of stereotypes, primarily about the nature of women, but in the end, the detective is successful nevertheless. And it’s fun to see historical details written in present tense long ago, and so we know it’s getting to be late out when the lamplighters come out to start the gas lights in the hallways of the manse, for example. It’s also interesting to read authors that were the runaway sensations of their day, the ones that sold the most and wrote the most and were on the tongues of every mystery reader—and yet now they are completely obscure. We can never tell who will stand the test of time until it happens.

And now a confession. The first time I set out to read this tome, I read the entries in the first two sections and decided I would skip the portion devoted to pulp, which isn’t my personal favorite, and I would skip forward to read an entry by one of my favorite present-day mystery writers, and then go back again to cover the sections that come after the pulp section. That was my plan. I’m telling you this because the mistake I made here could happen to you, too, so here it is.

What I did was I skipped to the last section and began flipping through it, and then I was pissed, because I thought the best female detective writers of today had been left out, and in a huff, I abandoned the rest of the book and picked up something else. It wasn’t until I sat down to write a halfhearted review, in which I would explain what I read and what I skipped and why, that I reread the promotional teaser and realized I must have missed something. I went back to the galley, moved back to the second-to-last section that is clearly labeled “Modern”, and there they all were, and it is the longest, most inclusive section in the collection. That changed everything. So reader, if you go for this book, bear in mind that the sections are not completely linear. The “Bad Girls” section at the end, which didn’t do much for me but you may like it, is made up of stories about women criminals from a variety of different time periods. The most recent time period, the one bearing selections by Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, the late and beloved Sue Grafton, Nevada Barr, and a host of others, is second-to-last.

Once I realized my error, of course I returned to read the rest of the book.

The one sorrowful note here is that those of us that love these modern female detectives enough to have bought other anthologies, for example those brought to us by the Paretsky group, “Sisters in Crime,” will run across selections we have already read. I have seen both the Grafton and Paretsky stories already, although the piece by Barr, “Beneath the Lilacs,” is new to me. However, I see authors I haven’t read and will happily watch for now. The end of the mid-century section features “Mom Sings an Aria,” and although it veers a wee bit toward stereotypes, I can’t say I mind too much, because this writer makes me laugh out loud. James Yaffe is on my list now. “Blood Types”, by Julie Smith is likewise pithy, and “Miss Gibson,” by Linda Barnes also cracks me up. And I don’t know why I am still surprised by this. After reading so many anthologies, you’d think I’d realize that the greatest charms are had by finding brand new-to-me authors, but since it’s a good surprise every time, I may allow myself not to absorb the lesson; this way I can still be pleasantly surprised over and over again.

If you buy a holiday gift for a mystery lover, I recommend you get this book. If you try to buy something by your loved one’s favorite author, you may run up against it as I did: they’ve already read it. (And you probably hate returning things as much as I do.) But what are the chances she has this anthology? It’s over a thousand pages of detective fiction, and last I saw, it’s on sale for less than twenty bucks. There, that’s one gift chosen for you, and it’s not even November yet. You’re welcome.

Bad News and Trouble, by Maxine O’Callaghan****

badnewsandtrouble.jpgI am always on the lookout for a new, well written female detective series. There are some Grand Masters out there that I adore, but the problem is that I can read faster than they can write. So when I was given the opportunity to check out Delilah West, a sleuth whose stories originated during the latter half of the 20th century, I jumped on it, and I am so glad I did. Thank you, Brash Books Priority Reviewers Circle, for the free DRC. This book is available for sale now.

Delilah West may be cozy at times, but she is never cutesy or smarmy, and “never pert”. She never wonders why she didn’t bring her gun, because she always has the sense to have it with her. In Bad News and Trouble, we are treated to seven short stories, each of which is a separate case that Delilah describes to us. The suspense is thick, but now and then the feverish pace slackens just long enough to bring a good, hearty guffaw from the reader. Each episode is set primarily in California. She is a lone wolf, independent and smart as hell. She knows how to get things done, and she never has to call on a big strong man to save her personal ass. Believe it.

My favorite among the stories is second to the last, “Going to the Dogs”, a case in which a client is convinced that someone out there is trying to steal one of her dogs. I won’t give away the goods, but I will tell you that it kept me on the edge of my seat, made me laugh out loud more than once, and the ending was unusually satisfying.

You’ll have to excuse me now. Brash has more Delilah West stories on tap, and I am going to go find them. You should do the same.

Blanche On the Lam, by Barbara Neely*****

BlancheontheLamI was already a Barbara Neely fan when I received this DRC, courtesy of the Brash Priority Reviewers Circle, in exchange for an honest review. I’ve been reviewing books for Brash Books and others for the past couple of years, and had read three other Blanche White mysteries out of order, so when I saw that the first in the series—which I think was the only one I hadn’t read yet—was up for grabs, I nailed it right away. It’s available for purchase now.

The amazing thing to me is that although these novels were originally published in the ‘90s, they are extremely relevant right now. For those new to this Anthony, Macavity, and Agatha Award winning book and series, Blanche White is author Barbara Neely’s foil for a number of social issues that are best approached with humor, yet also with absolute, stark clarity. Those that have supported the #BlackLivesMatter movement should order this fantastic book right away. It’s a double win, treating those of us that favor social justice and also enjoy strong fiction. On the other hand, those that don’t understand the current of Black anger that pumps through the small towns, fields and cities of the United States may want to read this book and catch a clue.

She makes everything crystal clear.

Here’s the premise: Blanche, who does domestic work and also has custody of her late sister’s children, is in trouble with the law. She has written some checks she can’t cover, and the fact that they’ve all been paid in full by the time she stands before the court doesn’t make much difference to the judge. She is given two months in the slammer, but a much greater disturbance distracts the officer who’s supposed to lock her up, and without a moment’s hesitation, Blanche slips out a side door to freedom. She knows she has to get gone and figures on leaving the state as soon as she has the money for travel, but in the meantime she escapes by using the greatest camouflage possible…because nobody looks a domestic worker in the face.

The family that has hired her has problems of its own, and Blanche can’t leave once the shit hits the fan, because if a domestic worker suddenly disappears when a crime has been committed, the thing will automatically be blamed on them. Instead, she is pinned like a butterfly, stuck in the kitchen of a horribly dysfunctional—and criminal—family. But Blanche is a born survivor, and the cynical things she does in order to keep herself from harm’s way, and ultimately to avenge the death of a nice man that didn’t deserve his fate are both amusing and riveting.

It is here that we meet Mumsfield, an engaging character who will turn up later in the series.

Blanche’s attitude toward the sheriff and the situations that feature him made me want to stand up and cheer!

I took the opportunity to read Blanche White mysteries as they became available, and I am glad I did. Reader, you have the chance, if you haven’t begun the series yet, to read them in order. Neely’s writing is both politically on-point and also seriously funny. What more could you ask for? Once you read this one, you’ll want to continue the series.

Highly recommended!

Practical Sins for Cold Climates, by Shelley Costa*****

practicalsinsWhat a terrific surprise! Shelley Costa is a contender. This is the first of her books that I have read, although she has won the Agatha Award with her first novel, You Cannoli Die Once, which I have to find and read now. For those that love a snarky, spirited female investigator, Practical Sins for Cold Climates is a must-read. Thank you to both Net Galley and Henery Press for the DRC. The title is available for purchase January 26.

Val Cameron has been sent out to Lake Wendaban, which is out in the middle of nowhere way too far from Toronto. Worse, she has been directed by her boss to find Bob’s Bait Shop in order to be directed to the home of a reclusive writer with a hot new book that her publishing house covets. She figures it will take two days to achieve, since the train just goes once each way per day. Get off; take a day to get to the writer and get the signature; and then the next day, she can be back in her own Manhattan apartment, away from the bears, the mud, the snakes, the invertebrates. Done deal. Because the fact is, “She wasn’t a bait-buying kind of gal.”

Of course, it doesn’t go as quickly as she had hoped. What kind of story would that provide us? For starters,

“There had to be some mistake. Where was the town?
“When Peter Hathaway, her boss, first told her she had to get to the town of Wendaban, Ontario, she figured on awnings and sidewalk café seating. Some charming cross between Fire Island and Bedford Falls…Barbershops and garden clubs. …Had the train let her off pre-maturely, say, at a whistle stop? Some little pre-station station where you just had to wait while the moose crossed the tracks?…The town looked like the outskirts of itself.”

By the time Val successfully navigates the terrain—think of a cross between Mirkwood Forest and Venice, where the only way through all those hostile damn trees is by all-too-rare boat ride—she has learned of a murder that took place awhile back, but has never been solved. Once she is stuck out there in mosquito paradise, it occurs to her that it would really be a journalistic coup to sign the author AND solve the murder! Her career would take off like a rocket. No more doomed adventures in the hinterland, thanks. She can’t believe people actually paid money to come sit in the middle of the wilderness!

Stuck waiting for a ride out to the author’s almost-inaccessible cabin, “Val spent the night at the Hathaway cottage, listening for noises that portend god-awful death. Snuffling, growling, clawing, heavy footfalls, buzzing chainsaws, that sort of thing. When nothing materialized, she realized she’d been condemned to a day in somebody else’s paradise.”

This book made me laugh out loud all the damn time! I started considering it my reward for slogging through a few pages of a less desirable galley. But at the three-quarters mark, the casual city girl snobbery recedes as one discovery leads to another, and the tension is thick, tight, and unmistakable.

I fell for two red herrings Costa casually dangled, but she did cheat the reader a trifle by introducing late, new plot elements necessary to the solution; we really can’t figure it out without the information provided around the 90% mark. So for this, I should probably lop off half a star, but I’m laughing too hard to change my rating. Sorrr—eee.

When the last page was turned, I wanted more, and I realized that although there was no “Val Cameron #1” below the title, this could indeed become a series; in fact, it could become another Edgar winner. Oh, yes please! And I was gratified to discover while reading the notes that more Val Cameron mysteries are planned. Hell yes! I will be avidly prowling the Henery Press section of Net Galley looking for new opportunities to read and review this series as it unfurls.

In a nutshell: fan-damn-tastic. This is a terrific book in which to bury oneself on a holiday break or even a long, cold weekend. Not a bad beach read, either for that matter. Just buy it. Just read it!

For the Dignified Dead, by Michael Genelin****

forthedignifieddeadThere’s a murderer on the loose, one that has killed across international boundaries. The weapon of choice? An ice pick. Happily, the case is assigned to total bad-ass Commander Jana Matinova, the best new female detective I’ve seen in emerge in crime fiction in decades. Thank you to Net Galley and Brash Books for the DRC. This title will be available for purchase November 3.

Part of what initially attracted me to this novel was the setting. Though Matinova finds herself crossing into various parts of central Europe, she is based in Slovakia, a country not even on my personal radar. By way of apology, I will point out that for most of my life, a giant swath of Europe and Asia was designated as USSR, and the satellite states lined up like faithful guardians around its perimeter included Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, both of which have been carved into different nations since the Stalinist realm crumbled. So I thought I’d learn a little bit about the contemporary contours of central Europe in the most enjoyable way possible—through fiction.

Genelin doesn’t disappoint. Along with Matinova, we have a collection of other cops, some of whom garnered truly fetching descriptions, such as this one: “With his thinning hair and lopsided smile he looked like a harmless, slightly unkempt beagle without its long ears.”

In addition we have the sinister Koba, a master criminal that Matinova considers akin, perhaps, to Holmes’s Moriarty. Koba’s role in Genelin’s story is complex and fascinating.

But most of all, I appreciated the development of Jana Matinova, both for her silver-bullet speed and cleverness, and also for that which is not included. We never hear about her hair, makeup, or her figure; we don’t need to know anything about her love life, and if she experiences any ambivalence about her lack of a domestic life, we don’t hear about it. In fact, Genelin treats his protagonist just as he would a male protagonist.

Now isn’t that a breath of fresh air?

The fifth star, which I would have loved to be able to add to this engaging story, is denied because of problematic passages that popped up often enough to warrant ten different notations in my kindle: “Too wordy! Tighten it up!” It seemed either as if there were two writers, one more capable than the other, co-writing the novel, or as if someone whose mother tongue is not English was struggling to say what needed saying. I noticed this was most frequent during passages of narrative, and less likely to occur during dialogue. Whatever it is, it could benefit greatly from either some rewritten passages or strong editing. But every time I found my eyes jerking through one of these verbose areas in the text, sooner or later we would come out slick as a whistle, and everything would commence to flow again. I don’t think a published text has ever confused me so much in this regard.

That being said, I would cheerfully read other books in this series given the opportunity. Because when push comes to shove, Commander Jana Matinova is a champ!