Staff Picks from March Newsletter
As a teenager I developed a deep affection for Victorian novels, a pleasure I rarely have had time to indulge for many years. I’ve just read the next best thing, however, with Faye’s new novel. Inspired by the superb Jane Eyre and (though unacknowledged), my all-time favorite novel, Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, Jane Steele combines the most delicious elements of those thick, leisurely 19th century novels that are the essence of the cliché of curling up with a good book on a cold winter evening. Jane is not a typical Victorian damsel in distress, though she frequently faces challenges, first as a mistreated child, then as a teenaged waif forced to live by her wits, and finally as a young woman overcome with a love that she assumes to be hopeless because of her exceptionally suspect past. Jane, you see, is a serial killer. Her first victim was a young relative who attempted to force his attentions on her when she was nine years old that she pushed off a cliff. Sent to a brutal school (of the sort made so memorable in Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist and countless other novels), Jane is loving and protective of one of the younger and most vulnerable of the children. As the relentlessly vicious headmaster is clearly trying to starve the six-year-old to death, Jane does what she has to do to save the little girl. I’m giving away a lot, more than I usually do, but so much else happens in this paean to the melodramatic Victorian romantic suspense novel that I’ve barely scratched the surface. Enhanced by truly original and poetic turns of phrase (“an errant laugh,” “a blighted conscience,” “unpredictable and glimmering as a butterfly,” “the velvety wood of the aged banister”) throughout its compelling narrative, Jane Steele pleas for a comfortable chair, a crackling fireplace, and an ideal adult beverage to guarantee a thoroughly pleasurable winter evening (or two, as it generously bestows more than 400 pages on its fortunate reader). Signed copies will be available. $26.95
In a dizzying, lurid fashion, author Nick Seeley brings the Cambodian capital city of Phnom Penh to life like never before. Seeley’s debut novel, Cambodia Noir, centers on a missing persons case, but it contains much, much more. Corruption, drugs, money—these may be the wheels on which the city turns, yet there is also a lively population of locals and expats that gives it an almost carnival-like atmosphere. The colors, the crowds; Seeley throws you in head-first and there’s a real desire to get lost in the tumult. Just in time, though, the plot kicks in and the reader finds themselves hurtling through the streets on motorbike and ducking into seedy bars to find information on young Jun Saito, a journalist intern who has disappeared. At the helm is William Keller, an expat photographer who has a knack for being at the right place at the right time. He also has a knack for getting blitzed on yaba. Hired by Jun’s sister to find out what happened, Keller soon finds himself in the midst of a case that could have broader—and deadlier—ramifications. While fans of John Burdett and Timothy Hallinan will continue to enjoy this jaunt through Southeast Asia, there’s a darker edge here that might speak more to the Tartan Noir community. Either way, Seeley throws a fascinating light on this overlooked city. $26.00
Walt Whitman is the central character in this thrilling historical mystery from first time author Sanders. New York City, 1843. Just over a decade before he would find his voice as a poet, Whitman is working as a reporter for the Aurora. A close friend, Lena Stowe, is about to hang for the murder of her husband. It is hoped she would be granted a stay because she is pregnant. But that is denied her, much to the delight of the crowd, which returns for another pulse-quickening scene towards the end of the novel. People do enjoy a good lynching. But Sanders is not just another thriller writer—he's better than that. I was deeply involved with the characters and the period from the opening paragraphs. In his attempt to clear the name of the Stowes, the couple who together ran a woman's medical college, Whitman is brought into the disturbing world of the Resurrection Men, the group making a lucrative living digging up fresh graves and selling the bodies to medical schools. This is a fast-paced, evocative novel that vividly brings to life nineteenth-century New York and the great poet-be. If you're waiting for another The Alienist, this may be it. PB. $16.00
What comes to mind when you think of a Golden Age crime writer? A stodgy codger with one foot in the past, and the other in the grave? Ha! In 1930, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, and particularly Anthony Berkeley (Cox) formed a Detection Club consisting of mystery writers as a way for the generally reclusive group to meet and socialize and in some cases, write together. Prospective members had to show an ongoing body of work in mystery novels; several celebrated authors were deemed too skewed towards other genres; a few declined membership. Martin Edwards’s history of the Club, The Golden Age of Murder, is an extremely entertaining read and shows us conclusively that truth is stranger than fiction!
The Golden Age of Mystery Fiction is generally recognized to run ‘between the wars,’ that is, from the late teens/early 1920s through the late 1940s, possibly sneaking into the early 1950s. Its authors are too often dismissed as cozy, safe writers spouting the kind of conventional stories that we’ve all heard a thousand times. Think again! Not for nothing is this period called the Golden Age! With the exception of sexuality, many themes common today were showcased during this period, including forensic science, serial killers, abuse of police power, and execution of innocent people, among others.
And behind every book, a story. Prepare, then, to find out fascinating facts about the impetus for creating a crime novel, the writing process, the inspiration for plots, and the sometimes all too human lives of the writers themselves. The author’s research and depth of knowledge is stunning and works well with his gentle skepticism and dry humor. Don’t expect a dry recitation or textbook style deconstruction here—this is a fine read that will educate you as well. What more could a reader ask? $27.99
Tug Wyler is an unlikely and yet completely comfortable protagonist—a lawyer with a strong moral compass who gets mixed up in the slightly odd (but still believable) case of a stripper who slips and falls on a banana peel during her signature act.
Cookie’s Case is a fast, fun read that plays with hardboiled conventions, while pulling the curtain back a little on the law profession—and you know you’re getting the straight dirt, because Siegel is a lawyer by day. Paperback: $14.99, eBook: $9.99
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