A Spider on the Stairs: A (relatively brief) Review

A Spider on the Stairs by Cassandra ChanChristmas in England this year is dismal. The foul weather in Yorkshire does little to help Phillip Bethancourt’s mood as he faces the prospect of poor weather and poor company in the form of his stodgy relatives. Happily, for Bethancourt at least, his holiday is soon sidetracked by his friend’s investigation of a suspicious murder.

Detective Sergeant Jack Gibbons is sorry to miss Christmas with his family but after weeks recovering from gunshot wounds at his childhood home, Jack is also eager to get back to work and his own flat in London. Although Gibbons does finally get back to Scotland Yard, his time in London is cut short when he is dispatched to York to determine the connection, if any, between a body found in a York shop and a serial killer who has been striking throughout Southern England.

The murder was likely the work of the Ashdon Killer. But then another murder is discovered at a well-respected York bookshop. As Gibbons and Bethancourt investigate the bookshop killing it seems less and less likely the murder has any connection to Ashdon though the case does raise its own fair share of questions. Bringing the murdered to justice might not catch the Ashdon Killer, but it is still a murder and one both Gibbons and Bethancourt would like very much to see solved in A Spider on the Stairs (2010) by Cassandra Chan.

A Spider on the Stairs is Chan’s fourth book featuring Gibbons and Bethancourt (preceeded, in publication order, by The Young Widow, Village Affairs and Trick of the Mind) and possibly the best so far.*

Chan manages to keep the plot fresh and original without departing completely from the aspects that regular readers already find so appealing. Of particular interest is the emphasis on Jack and Phillip’s friendship–a theme often lacking in other traditional mysteries. A Spider on the Stairs presents readers with the perfect blend of murder, intrigue, humor, and plain old good characters in a thoroughly enjoyable and well-developed story.

*Now might be a good time to mention that, insofar as a traditional mystery with no romance whatsoever can have teams, I am Team Gibbons. My mother is Team Bethancourt. I loved this book. She did not. We suspect this had to do with the fact that Gibbons featured more prominently and, in my view, is more awesome. Anyway, draw your own conclusions.

Our Lady of Immaculate Deception: A (brief) Review

Our Lady of Immaculate Deception by Nancy MartinRoxy Abruzzo lives and works in Pittsburgh where she runs an architectural salvage business. Her shady uncle Carmine (mostly) leaves her alone while he tends to the family’s less than legal dealings. Which is fine because Roxy has enough on her plate with her business and raising her seventeen-year-old daughter. Problems arise when Roxy absconds with a statue that isn’t actually hers and winds up in the middle of a murder investigation to boot in Our Lady of Immaculate Deception (2010) by Nancy Martin.

I was so excited when I first heard about this novel. My mom and I had started reading Martin’s Blackbird Sister mysteries together and we both really enjoyed them. The combination of down-on-their-luck blue bloods with madcap humor, a fun mystery, and some romance now and then was a real winner. It was, therefore, a sad day when I realized Murder Melts in Your Mouth might very well be the last of the Blackbird mysteries.

Hearing about Our Lady of Immaculate Deception helped ease the blow because the main character of this new series would be none other than Roxy Abruzzo, half-sister of Michael Abruzzo–love interest to Nora Blackbird and a crucial character in the Blackbird Sister series. Surely this was a good sign! Martin wanted to move on, but I felt certain Michael, and maybe even a Blackbird or two would show up in the story. Since Roxy lives in Pittsburgh and the Blackbirds call Philadelphia home it wasn’t entirely out of the question.

Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be.

My mom was immediately turned off by the title and, in the end, her first impression was right. All of the polish Martin used so well in her previous mystery series is gone. Roxy is a brash, not entirely likable character. As my mother put it, she winds up sleeping with every man in sight, her seventeen-year-old daughter is pregnant, and she’s basically a thief. In other words, Roxy has little in the way of redeeming qualities. And, I don’t know about you, but what’s the point of a book without a character you can actually like?

Worse still to me is the fact that Martin makes no references to her previous characters. If a book is going to tie in with the setting of a previous series, it should go all the way. It shouldn’t tease faithful fans with what sounds like a connection only to entice them to read the book and finally leave them hanging. Poor form all around. Hopefully Martin has more Blackbird Mysteries up her sleeve.

Reduced Circumstances: A Review

Reduced Circumstances by Vincent H. O'NeilVincent H. O’Neil‘s inimitable beach bum/amateur sleuth Frank Cole is back in Reduced Circumstances (2007), his followup to Murder in Exile (2006). Things have quieted down for Frank since solving the Eddie Gonzalez case in Exile. In fact as fast as fact checking is concerned, business is just about non-existent.

Although Frank’s peculiar bankruptcy case prevents him from earning too much money, he does still have living expenses. So, to deal with the light times as a fact checker, Frank finds himself working as a night dispatcher for the Midnight Taxi Service near his home in Exile, Florida.

The taxi stand is where Frank first hears about the kid. The young man was seen hailing a Midnight cab near a drug bust the night before–interesting but not exactly big news. Of course that’s before a parade of visitors drop by the cab stand trying to find the kid and the MIA driver who picked him up the night before. First there’s the private investigator from Atlanta, then the possible bounty hunters from Mobile, and finally the kid’s girlfriend–a blond femme fatale of sorts who never seems to leave a fingerprint in her wake.

Suddenly Frank finds himself a person of interest on all side of the investigation despite having little in the way of information to share. Urged on by equal parts curiosity and necessity, Frank begins to investigate the kid and his mysterious disappearance trying to figure out why exactly so many people want to find him. And who, if any of them, want to find him alive.

Murder in Exile was a lot of fun. Amazingly, and happily, this installment in the series is even more enjoyable. The narrative also provides ample yet brief recaps of Frank’s adventures in the first book for anyone who might be fuzzy on those early details. Reduced Circumstances is an interesting blend of character study and mystery. The elements for both are here and used well to create a breezy read that leaves readers with a satisfying investigation and more insight into Frank’s personality and life.

Because Frank comes to the world of investigation from a fact checker’s side of things, the novel also provides a unique look at the world of online research and a commentary on just how much information can be found online. O’Neil keeps these segments just the right length to stay interesting for the typical readers and any information professionals who should happen to pick up the book.

While the investigation wraps up nicely, the novel does still end with a slight cliff hanger that will leave readers eager for the next installment in the series Exile Trust (2008).

Murder in Exile: A review

Murder in Exile by Vincent H. O'NeilWhen Frank Cole’s business went belly up, he had hoped bankruptcy would provide him with a fresh start. Instead, thanks to a bizarre court decision, Frank’s future earnings above a certain level are attached to his past debts. Partly to wait out an appeal and partly to spite his creditors, Frank moves down to the small town of Exile, Florida to begin his own exile of sorts until his appeal is resolved one way or another in Murder in Exile (2006), Vincent H. O’Neil‘s first Frank Cole mystery.

Still wary of his time as a company head, Frank doesn’t much mind the easygoing, low responsibility lifestyle he’s created in Exile working odd jobs as a fact checker and playing the odd chess game with Gray Tolliver, a local retiree. In fact, the mellow pace is a nice change from the hectic life he left behind.

When an insurance company hires Frank to do some fact checking on a hit-and-run, he expects a routine case. But the more Frank investigates, the more obvious it becomes that there is more to this case than meets the eye.

O’Neil’s writing is refreshingly original. On top of that, he’s created a really fun protagonist in Frank Cole. The narrative is breezy, light, and willing to crack a joke when necessary. The premise that brings Frank to Exile is not, it is true, the most probable. But it is most enjoyable, as is  Murder in Exile itself–a quick, delightful read that delves into the world of fact checking and research just as easily as the world of murder and mystery. On top of that, this novel was also the winner of the Malice Domestic/St. Martin’s Press Best First Traditional Mystery Contest.

Franks adventures continue in Reduced Circumstances (2007).

Trick of the Mind: A(nother Cassandra Chan) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Trick of the Mind by Cassandra ChanTrick of the Mind (2008) is Cassandra Chan‘s third book in her Gibbons and Bethancourt mystery series (preceded by their debut in The Young Widow (2005), and Village Affairs (2006)). This book starts with the unthinkable. Detective Sergeant Jack Gibbons has been shot twice. Worse, no one knows why, least of all Jack who has no memory of the preceding events or the shooting itself.

With mere fragments, Gibbons’ best friend Philip Bethancourt and Chief Inspector Carmichael try to put together the events that led to this brutal attack. As the investigation leads to a seemingly unrelated jewel robbery and a dodgy London neighborhood, Bethancourt begins to wonder if any of the pieces will fall into place without Gibbons’ own memories to connect things.

Initially I was profoundly worried when I heard that Gibbons began this book by being shot. Was he being killed off? Would he go through the book in a coma? Would he be okay? (Gibbons is, incidentally, my favorite of the duo.) Upon actually reading the book, I was deeply relieved to have to these questions answered to my liking. Although Gibbons is necessarily on the sidelines for much of the action and investigation, he did play a key role.

In fact, both Bethancourt and Carmichael spend a significant amount of time bemoaning Gibbons absence and the lack of his excellent investigative skills. After Bethancourt often taking the lead in the first two novels, it was nice to see Gibbons’ role (and importance) acknowledged by the other characters.

Although the case here is as intricate as in her earlier books, Chan spends a fair bit of time on characters here. Much of the novel offers a study of the friendship between her two protagonists–one that neither man is ashamed to admit is a close bond. Written in third person, this book also follows a lot of the characters around in the narrative. Almost anyone who has a piece of information about the shooting also gets a piece of the narrative. The structure is complex and fragmented, but works well with the general chaos of the first pages and the gaps in Gibbons’ own memory.

The design of this book is also different from earlier volumes in the series. The chapters here are shorter and always named (although not in a table of contents). The general span of the book also seems to take place over a shorter amount of time though that, to be fair, might be because of the urgency lent to the shooting case. These changes seem deliberate on Chan’s part although I am still not sure to what end.

Extracurricular Activities: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Extracurricular Activities by Maggie BarbieriExtracurricular Activities (2007) is Maggie Barbieri‘s second mystery novel featuring English professor Alison Bergeron. It is the sequel to Barbieri’s debut novel Murder 101.

A few months have passed since Alison was cleared of the murder that ocurred at the small, secluded college where she works. It has been about as long since Alison last saw her married (sort of) boyfriend Detective Bobby Crawford. Everything about Alison’s life seems to be back to normal–leaving her plenty of time to focus on her work and best friend Max’s upcoming nuptials.

That is until Alison finds herself at the center of another murder investigation when her ex-husband’s body is found in Alison’s house. The more Alison learns about the case, the more convinced she is that a local Mobster is responsible, specifically the one that has been harassing Alison since last spring. Alison wants nothing more than to solve the murder for her own sanity and be done with the Mob once and for all, but how do you threaten a Mob boss with no qualms about killing the people who get in his way?

Chronologically this book picks up very close to where the first book left off, making it easy to deal with the loose ends and unresolved issues that carried over from Murder 101. While Alison struggles with her decision that she and Crawford should take a break, she finds herself receiving attentions from another very attractive, and available, man. This creates a moral dilemma as Alison tries to figure out where her heart lies and whether the best route is also the easiest one. This side plot of sorts adds more dimension to Alison’s character and her dynamic with Crawford as well as bringing a lot of humor into the story.

Something that Barbieri has changed in this installment is her narration technique. In the first novel, Alison narrated in traditional first-person, past-tense style. That narration works for the story allowing readers to get inside Alison’s head and hear all of her funny asides during dialogue sequences. Most of Extracurricular Activities is told in the same way. However, interspersed with Alison’s narrations are sequences from Crawford’s point-of-view written in the third-person, past-tense. I liked this addition simply because it helped to flesh out Crawford’s character by showing events from his perspective. In terms of the plot it was also the best way to tell the story since there are events that would be impossible for Alison to witness firsthand. Thus, without Crawford’s segments, the story would have had a lot of talking back and forth about events.

I respect Barbieri for trying something new with her writing in this novel and am intrigued to see what she has in story for her next mystery. That said, the writing in Extracurricular Activities was not as good as its antecedent. This novel came out one year after Barbieri’s first book and, to be blunt, it shows. The writing often felt slapdash with repeated phrases and awkward sentences that were not an issue in the the first novel. That is not to say this is a bad book, it isn’t. Extracurricular Activities was actually a lot of fun, an ultimately cheerful and optimistic mystery. That just didn’t always coincide with the smoothest writing.

Alison’s adventures continue in Quick Study (2008).

Murder 101: A chick lit Wednesday review

Murder 101 coverMy mom reads a lot of mysteries. I don’t, but I do pick up and bring home all of her books so I have some familiarity with the genre. Along the way I also have become interesting in a few series. When Mom finished Murder 101Maggie Barbieri‘s debut mystery novel released in 2006–and recommended it to me, after laughing through most of it, I decided to give the book a try.

Alison Bergeron is an English professor at St. Thomas College, a small Catholic school located just outside New York City limits. Unfortunately, that does little to keep Alison’s car from being stolen. Matters only worsen when two homicide detectives with the NYPD inform Alison that her car has been found with a dead body inside–a body that belongs to one of the students in her Shakespeare class.

Being car-less and newly divorced isn’t bad enough, now she finds herself at the center of a murder investigation. Possibly as the prime suspect. Alison has no choice but to try and clear her name, even if the attractive Detective Crawford would prefer she stick to the classroom–for both their sakes.

Murder 101 was really enjoyable. With Alison’s first person narration, Barbieri has created an authentic and hilarious protagonist. The novel blends the madcap, action, quotidian, and even some romance to create a great story. The chemistry between Alison and Detective Bobby Crawford actually verges on the tangible it is so well written.

Her characters are also loads of fun, each being fully realized and adding their own charm to the story. Alison’s best friend, Max, provides an amusing counterpoint to Alison’s more grounded and logical personality. My personal favorite character might have been Detective Wyatt who, though he did not get the most “air time” did have some of the best lines.

Praise aside, it was not until a hundred pages into the story that I actually made a commitment to stick with the series in its later installments. Murder 101 is one of those novels that gets better, along with the plot gaining momentum as it moves along. Barbieri’s narration and dialogue are witty and snappy to keep readers’ attention and to keep them laughing.

This is also the first mystery I’ve encountered with a college professor as the main character. As someone who briefly considered a career in academia, I was intrigued to see behind the scenes of a college professor’s life. While the murder investigation is, of course, a big part of this book is Alison’s life both at school and in terms of her budding relationship with Crawford. All in all, a really fun read.

Alison’s adventures (with and without Crawford) continue in Extracurricular Activities (2007).

Village Affairs: A (murderous) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Village Affairs by Cassandra ChanMy mom reads mysteries, nothing else. Over the years, I’ve gained a fair bit of knowledge about the genre from performing reader’s advisory for her to bring home books she would enjoy. When a book is especially enticing, I will also try to read it. Such was the case with Cassandra Chan‘s debut novel The Young Widow and, now, her second Bethancourt and Gibbons mystery Village Affairs (2006).

Detective Sergeant Jack Gibbons usually works on cases surrounding the London area under Detective Chiefe Inspector Carmichael. However, when a small town in the English Cotswolds delegates an investigation to Scotland Yard, Gibbons finds himself driving the Chipping Chedding to investigate.

Man-about-town Philip Bethancourt, Gibbons’ close friend (though not close to Jack’s social status), is in Chipping Chedding before the investigation starts accompanying his girlfriend, Marla Tate, on one of her fashion shoots. Already being on the scene, Bethancourt sees no reason to not try and help the police investigation along. Bethancourt has, after all, been known to help Gibbons in past cases–no matter how much his dealings with murder might enrage Marla.

In the beginning, the police are hard-pressed to even say there was a crime. The middle-aged victim, Bingham, appears to have suffered from an unfortunate accident rather than foul play. As Gibbons and Carmichael go about tying up loose ends, they unearth more questions than answers. Who was the secret girlfriend that Bingham had driven to see on the night of his death? How had the quiet man managed to hide his vast fortune from all of his neighbors? Even though evidence is thin, it begins to seem that this routine investigation of accident is fast becoming a murder investigation.

The primary risk of a mystery series is that the plots, and on some level the characters, will veer toward the formulaic. Happily, Chan has no such problems. Village Affairs creates an entirely different plot and, to a lesser extent, a different tone than that found in The Young Widow. Even the landscape, Chipping Chedding instead of London, is unique.

While this novel continues to deal with Gibbons’ and particularly Bethancourt’s personal lives, Chan also dedicates a fair bit of time to creating entertaining characters to populate the story. A personal favorite is Clarence Astley-Cooper who acts as Bethancourt’s gracious if eccentric host during the investigation.

My only qualm is that Jack Gibbons, my favorite of the duo, did not get as much “air time” during this installment as during The Young Widow though, of course, both characters were still extremely entertaining. Chan’s unique verve and dry wit are once again present in her dialogue, once again providing a unique writing style in Village Affairs.

It was also interesting to see more about Philip and his girlfriend Marla, who actually plays an active role in the investigation this time. Their relationship, falling somewhere between ideal and dysfunctional, adds an interesting facet to Bethancourt’s otherwise impeccably together character while acting as a foil to Gibbons (whom Marla hates). Unlike Bethancourt or Gibbons, Marla still seems to be proving herself as a character worthy of continuous appearances. Time will tell if her part will grow more prominent or less as the series continues.

While the core plot of Village Affairs is entirely self-contained, readers would be advised to start the series at the beginning as certain recurring themes might be spoilers if read out of order. Bethancourt and Gibbons can next be seen in Trick of the Mind (2008).

The Young Widow: A (mostly) Chick Lit Wednesday review

Annette Berowne had a sweet, heart-shaped face. She had honey-blond hair and wide brown eyes. She was not beautiful, and certainly not glamorous, but only Phillip Bethancourt noticed that.

The Young Widow by Cassandra ChanSo begins Cassandra Chan‘s debut novel, The Young Widow (2005), in her debut mystery series of Phillip Bethancourt and Jack Gibbons mysteries. But before discussing Annette Berowne, it is important to know about Gibbons and Bethancourt.

Bethancourt and Gibbons could not be more different. Everything comes easily to Phillip Bethancourt, a young and wealthy Englishman with a model girlfriend and posh apartment to match his high standard of living. Jack Gibbons, on the other hand, is more of an everyman–an ambitious detective sergeant at Scotland Yard, Gibbons has his eye on more important things than parties and women: he’s watching for a career-making case. Despite their differences the two men strike an easy friendship, largely because of Bethancourt’s interest in all things criminal and his knack for helping Gibbons with his more, shall we say, complex cases.

Annette Berowne, meanwhile, is the not beautiful nor glamorous widow of the murder victim in Gibbons’ latest case. From the start, Annette Berowne seems like the obvious suspect, a young woman married to a man who could be her father usually is. Especially when that woman has been married to two other older men. Men who also died under unique circumstances.

However, as Jack and Phillip soon realize, Annette is not the only one who would benefit from Berowne’s death. In fact, the small town near the family estate is ripe with suspects, as is the family itself. Still, the investigation seems to perpetually turn back to the enchanting Annette Berowne. No matter how desperately Gibbons tries to find a more likely suspect.

As Bethancourt observes his friend’s, indeed everyone’s, growing infatuation with the young widow his initial detachment becomes worry as Bethancourt begins to wonder if his friend could be walking down a path that will shatter his ambitious career before it’s really begun.

The Young Widow is what I would call a quiet book. Chan’s prose is witty and sharp, but it is also subtle. The book is rich with humor, but it is the restrained kind so usually associated with the English. The writing here cannot be devoured, rather it has to relished–readers have to linger. Both myself and my mother found the characters and the plot to be thoroughly enjoyable even with slight confusion at the beginning due to an influx of many characters’ names over a short number of pages.

One of the particular strong suits of the writing here is Chan’s use of dialogue where she mixes humor, plot, and character interaction in perfect combination. One of my favorite excerpts will hopefully illustrate that point with a conversation between Bethancourt and his young nephew:

“I’ve got to dress,” said Bethancourt, stubbing out his cigarette. “Then we’ll go for a drive in the country.”

“I just came in from the country,” said Denis.

“I can’t help that,” answered Bethancourt. “Anyway, this will be different country and you can ride in the back with Cerberus.”

He fled to his bedroom.

Although the story centers on the murder investigation, Chan’s characters are fully-realized in her crystal clear representations of Gibbons and Bethancourt who seem ready to walk right off the page and into real life. This novel falls into the mystery genre without being formulaic (although I did guess the murderer, but since that rarely happens it was more enjoyable than annoying). Chan gives equal time to plot and characters to create not only a wonderful first book but strong footing for a series that already has three books to its credit.

You can read more about Gibbon’s and Bethancourt’s investigations in Village Affairs (2006) and Trick of the Mind (2008).

Murphy’s Law: A (brief) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Murphy's Law by Rhys BowenMurphy’s Law (2002) is the first novel in Rhys Bowen‘s series of Molly Murphy mysteries. (Bowen was previously known for her popular Constable Evan Evans mysteries.) Set in New York City at the turn of the century (ie. the 19th century), this mystery is rich with historical details about New York and the immigrant experience while also being an entertaining, suspenseful read.

Although Molly Murphy dreams of leaving behind her small life in a small Ireland coast town, she never really thinks she’ll get away. Certainly not to bustling New York City. But, when Molly kills a man (in self-defense), fleeing the country seems to be her only option.

Traveling under a false name, Molly gets to Ellis Island only to become a suspect in the murder of a fellow immigrant. With the help of dangerously charming police captain Daniel O’Sullivan, Molly has to try to clear her name in this crime before her past catches up with her.

Having studied New York City history in college, I’m always interested in novels with historical New York as a backdrop. Bowen’s prose brings the city as it was to life from her depictions of Hell’s Kitchen to discussions of New York’s notorious Tammany Hall government. The city is brought to life as carefully as any of the books characters, and I might add, to great effect.

In 2002, Murhphy’s Law won the Agatha Award for best novel, and it shows in the writing and storyline. The cover art and titles add to this novel’s charm. Named for a popular saying (Murphy’s Law: If anything can go wrong, it will.) the title does, unfortunately for Molly, tie into the plot. The same goes for latter books in the series.

If you want to read more about this determined Irish redhead, she was next spotted in Death of Riley.