Bits & Pieces: Summer Lesbian Mystery Roundup
With yet another global warming summer upon us, it’s time to head to the beach, the mountains or maybe just to an air-conditioned room with some good suspense reading. And if perhaps there’s a little romance tossed in, who could complain?
Some of us never need an excuse to read mysteries or romance, but for those who do, it’s really too hot to do anything but let the pages turn themselves.
Fortunately, a plethora of super new–and one re-released–lesbian mysteries await.
By J.M. Redmann
Bold Strokes Books
J.M. Redmann’s latest in her Micky Knight detective series is, possibly, her best. Redmann, along with the other two mystery writers in the lesbian triumvirate–Ellen Hart and Val McDermid–is always a reliable choice. Her books are well-plotted, Micky is not-too-nice and not-too-smart-ass-irritating (yes, we’re talking to you, V.I.Warshawski) and there’s always a little something hot and steamy other than the New Orleans setting to further compel the reader. (Redmann always adds a soupcon of lesbian relationship chaos to the mix–Micky contemplating cheating on her partner, Cordelia, or Cordelia actually cheating on Mickey.)
Ill Will is Redmann’s seventh novel featuring the hard-boiled, hyper-sexual P.I. and takes the
reader back to post-Katrina New Orleans. People who haven’t survived a natural disaster like Redmann and her characters can’t quite imagine what it’s like. When I lived in New Orleans, I survived a few hurricanes and tropical storms. The rain is amazing, the wind incredible, the sound of the palm trees clacking terrifying, all kinds of stuff is flying through the air or floating by on what used to be your street. And that’s the fun part. Next comes the clean-up. Mud and snakes, bugs and mold are everywhere and you just want to leave and come back after someone else has made everything livable again.
But in a disaster the breadth of Katrina with the catastrophic collapse of the levees, the clean-up isn’t a few weeks or even a few months long. It’s the new normal. It’s ongoing. And that is the pivot upon which Ill Will revolves. The city is still rebuilding and with the rebuilding come the opportunists. And crime. And killing.
New Orleans was never a particularly safe city nor a city that was good to get sick in if you were poor. We used to joke that the police would wait until all danger had passed before they came, but it was worse than that–some police were involved in crime themselves and it became a national scandal. Post-Katrina, that got a worse, as Redmann detailed in Death of a Dying Man and Water Mark.
In Ill Will she takes on what happens when the hospitals close and the doctors leave town and the desperate turn to people more than willing to prey on that desperation. Sure, there are still selfless people devoted to caring for the sick. But then there are the others who have their own agenda. And that agenda is what Micky uncovers in Ill Will. How to sort the true care givers from the criminals? Will she be able to do so before it is, as they say, too late?
This is a tale about what happens when the infrastructure that we all take for granted crumbles. It’s about what happens when health insurance disappears and there’s no one to call when you are sick and how grateful you are once someone is there to help you.
Or so you think.
As with her other novels, Redmann layers her action. Micky has some recovering to do from her last foray and there’s some new drama with Cordelia that will worry fans till the very, very end. But suffice it to say that Redmann takes her readers on a journey all of us will take at some point–either ourselves or with our loved ones: the trip into the terrifying vortex of ill health and insurance companies and medical professionals and diagnoses we don’t want.
Thus when one’s life is on the line, as is the case for Reginald and Eugenia and someone close to Micky, they will reach out for almost anything to fend off pain and suffering and most of all, death. So when Micky discovers something labeled “The Cure,” she finds herself headed down a path that will lead to perhaps the scariest place she’s been yet.
Fans of the series will be pleased–or perturbed–by the return of some of Redmann’s coterie of secondary characters. I liked seeing one of the good NOPD cops, Joanne Ranson, back on the job right in the first chapter–when Micky pulls a gun on her. That’s the only secret I will give away, since it’s only a dozen or so pages in. For the rest, you’ll have to read yourself. Be sure you do.
The Bad Always Die Twice
By Cheryl Crane
Okay, who could resist reading a mystery by Cheryl Crane?
Who is Cheryl Crane, you ask?
Lana Turner’s daughter. But not just Lana Turner’s daughter. Lana Turner’s daughter who, on April 4, 1958, stabbed her mother’s mobster boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, to death when Stompanato threatened to kill Turner. Crane was just 14.
The case was ruled justifiable homicide, but it thrust Crane into a limelight she never wanted. Fast forward a few decades and Crane is a Hollywood real estate agent who writes her first book at 54. She’s written a New York Times best-selling memoir and also a biography of her mother. Now 68, Crane makes her fiction debut with The Bad Always Die Twice.
Nikki Harper is a Hollywood realtor turned detective. Like Crane, her mother is a former screen
goddess, Victoria Bordeaux, with whom she spends a good deal of time and who becomes a sounding-board to her sleuthing.
Nikki also has a past–a father who was murdered and whose killer got away. So when her friend and business partner Jessica Martin is suspected of murder, Nikki just has to get involved–certain that if she’d done so with her own father’s murder, his killer would be behind bars.
The murder Crane gives us is intriguing: Rex March, a has-been TV star, was found in Jessica’s bed, wrapped in her St. Geneve silk sheets.
Only problem–Rex was thought to have been killed in a plane crash six months earlier.
So why is Jessica being framed for his murder, and by whom?
This is a snappy little whodunit. It doesn’t have a lot of surprises, but it’s got a strangely old-fashioned quality that’s infectiously enjoyable. The story is fast-paced and as steeped in Hollywood frivolities as a Jackie Collins novel.
The way Crane writes makes Bad feel like a Hollywood tale from Lana Turner’s era (not, alas, a James Cain story nor a Dashiell Hammett nor a Raymond Chandler, but nevertheless, a classic). The style is total Hollywood from that bygone era–which is what makes it so much fun. Nikki name drops with her mother and begs her to call a fan on her birthday. The elite shops, restaurants, designers and brands of the very rich appear regularly and the reader gets a real feel for how important those names and places are to the grand facade that is Hollywood.
There are a few points where Crane has characters talking in dialect, which I am not a fan of and is a little cringe-worthy, if in keeping with that old-style feel. One is a black character, Chessy (yikes), another a Southern belle, Tiffany, and the reader can hear the exaggerated words ring a little too loud and grating. But these are minor complaints.
Verisimilitude of the Hollywood scene Crane grew up in and has lived in all her life is one of Crane’s strong suits here. Thus Nikki seems real and true as she pops “extravagant” canapés into her mouth and looks at her Girard-Perregaux wristwatch. (Her father left her rich–“immensely so.”) Yet despite these trappings, there’s an engaging humility about Nikki that is very likable. (The first time she tries to tail someone she realizes it’s really hard and nothing like in the movies.)
At one point Nikki tells the Southern belle, Tiffany, that she learned something a long time ago, the hard way: “Nothing happens in this town, ever, that everyone doesn’t eventually find out about.”
It’s a coda for the story, if not for Crane’s own life.
Crane is working on another Nikki Harper mystery and no doubt the next one will be a little more polished and even more fun.
By Anne Laughlin
Bold Strokes Books
Runaway, the second novel from Anne Laughlin, a 2008 Lambda Emerging Writers Fellow, is quite different from her first. Veritas, which won a Goldie, was a classic cozy, though a dark one. A quote from my review of it for Lambda is on the back of Runaway.
With her new novel, Laughlin takes an entirely different tack.
Jan Roberts is a Chicago PI with a past. But then what PI doesn’t have a past? It’s a staple of the genre. Jan, however, has a past almost no else one has. And it’s about to blow up in her face–maybe literally–because of a new case she’s taken on.
Jan is trying to find Maddy, a missing teenager. But not just any missing person–a young girl who has fled to a cultish community in the land of cultish communities–Idaho. For any other PI this might be a routine assignment. But for Jan, it’s opening a door she had shut firmly and conclusively–a door to her own harrowing story.
Why? Because Jan ran away from the same kind of place that Maddy has run to. Her father was the cult leader of a survivalist camp. Which means that since Jan left, she’s had to pretend to be someone else, in more ways than she can enumerate. It’s a parallel Jan tries not to think about, but as she pursues Maddy, she can’t help revisiting her own painful experience of fleeing her “family” as she ponders why Maddy would be fleeing to such a life.
Complicating the plot for Jan is Catherine, a former MI6 operative from a family of intelligence officers. Catherine loved her job for a decade, right until, as she tells Jan, “the Iraq war happened.” She and her partner were tracking Saddam Hussein. And then it got bad. Very bad.
Runaway is a good read, but Laughlin never quite makes up her mind if the book is a thriller or a romance, which means neither story is completely satisfying. Jan is a well-crafted character–interesting and likable. But Catherine is more telling than showing and the chemistry between the two seemed a little thin. I would have preferred more on the fascinating cult dynamic that is at the heart of the mystery part of the story and less about Catherine’s background or the complications of both Jan’s and Catherine’s other work obligations and office politics. All these details–some rather tedious–seemed to drag the story down rather than add depth. Most problematically, they lessened the dramatic tension that should have been building over the search for Maddy and Jan’s personal conflicts. The complexity of Jan’s feelings about her own past and Catherine’s emotions about hers should have been the focus, but the story gets diluted with the budding romance.
No doubt Laughlin intends to revisit these characters in the future, and Jan Roberts is an intriguing figure who would make a good series detective. But if Catherine stays in the mix, she needs further development. Or killing off. (I recommend the latter.)
Runaway is good beach reading, but despite a solid premise and good execution of aspects of the plot, doesn’t quite hit the high note that Laughlin’s previous novel did. Still, there’s enough here to warrant reading this book as well as watching for Laughlin’s next.
By Sara Marx
Decoded is an action thriller with a lot of romance folded in.
Shay Cooper is an FBI agent. So is Kate Harris. Shay has a horrifying personal story which is part of the plot. Kate has serious issues as well.
The two meet when Shay is lured back to training at the Academy in Chicago. Kate’s partner, a renowned profiler, has gone missing. Kate’s career has been derailed by her search for him.
Shay’s and Kate’s stories are truly fascinating. Especially as they begin to intersect. But that’s where the devil meets the details. Both these women are intriguing characters, the premise is terrific and then…sloppy writing and sloppy execution.
Solid mystery writing–and solid romance writing, for that matter–requires research. And
research is more than taking notes during “CSI” or “Law & Order.”
How many times have we heard actual forensics people say on the news that DNA results take time? And yet here, in an FBI procedural, they are available instantaneously.
I want to recommend this book for the plot and premise, and Shay, who I liked immensely. But in police or FBI procedurals, the facts have to be solid. There is less narrative flexibility than with an amateur detective. New writers who decide to take on institutions like the FBI need to have an FBI source to help them with specifics like how long–and how often–DNA testing is done, as well as how other forensics work. And if you’ve never handled a gun, don’t write about them until you have.
Marx is far from the only mystery writer to be lax about such points and she surely won’t be the last. But these niggling details derail the reader when we should be propelled forward by the story.
There is a scene in Chapter Thirty-One that cries out for more and it’s here that as a reader, not just an editor and critic, I wish Marx had spent just a little more time on her devices and less on her desires.
Marx is great at premise. Execution, not so much. Which is too bad, because her premises are terrific. Decoded is an A+ story with a C+ execution. Let’s hope that in her next book her editor takes a firmer hand and she gets a good source for the specs. Because I definitely want to see more from the writer who thought up this plot.
Hunting the Witch
By Ellen Hart
There’s nothing as reliable as an Ellen Hart mystery for good plotting, fully realized characters and well-crafted prose. (Plus we love how Hart always puts a cast list at the opening of every novel, naming each character and their relationships. If only Tolstoy had been so thoughtful of the reader.)
I was pleased to see Bella Books is re-issuing Hart’s early Jane Lawless novels (previously published by my own former publisher, Seal Press), because unlike many writers, Hart holds up over time and it’s a delight to read these books again–or for the first time.
For those who don’t know Hart–to which we can only ask why?–her signature detective is a Minneapolis restauranteur/amateur detective Jane Lawless. Jane is the daughter of a fairly famous criminal attorney. She has a best friend, the inimitable Cordelia Thorn, who, as her name suggests, is a theatre maven who runs a small repertory company in St. Paul. Drama tends to revolve around Jane’s Lyme House restaurant, Cordelia’s theatre or one of Jane’s close friends and/or former lovers having a problem. But lest you think “oh, just cozies,” Hart takes the cozy out of its comfort zone. Her novels are cozies writ large. Think P.D. James, not Agatha Christie.
Hunting the Witch finds Jane in dire straits. She has been attacked at home and has a head injury. Jane agrees to recuperate with her former lover Julia Martinson in a secluded cabin outside nearby Grand Rapids. Julia is a doctor and Jane needs ministering to, badly. But Julia ended their relationship, so why does she still seem so interested? Why is there still chemistry between them?
Competing for Jane’s affections is Patricia Kastner, owner of the Winter Garden Hotel in Minneapolis and an entrepreneur with other business prospects in the works.
The personal complications for Jane soon become exacerbated by the facts. Someone is calling Julia around the clock and the doctor is evasive about the facts. Meanwhile, who clocked Jane is a compelling question. And then something happens at the cabin regarding Julia’s medical records that propels the two into a mystery that must be solved.
Meanwhile, back in Minn, Minn, Patricia has set her sites on refurbishing a vital building and is in the midst of fundraising toward that end.
Alas, the CFO of an investment group that she was involved with turns up dead. Murdered.
How Jane deals with these disparate cases–bringing in the good Cordelia–is totally engaging. Hart has certainly grown as a writer in the past 13 years since this book was first released, but re-reading Hunting the Witch is a keen reminder that she was a terrific writer from the outset. There’s no down-time in Hart’s stories: the reader is propelled along by pitch-perfect pacing, dramatic tension, just enough romance to be interesting but not enough to interfere and a thoroughly believable and engaging set of characters who make the story seem full and real and worthy.
Hart is one of our best and Hunting the Witch is a seriously good book.