Unseen by Mari Jungstedt
Swedish journalist Jungstedt's first mystery, set on the island of Gotland, a popular tourist destination, opens with some promise. After a gathering of friends dissolves amid jealous accusations, the source of the conflict, Helena Hillerström, vanishes from her home, only to turn up the victim of a savage ax murder. This violent act shocks the residents of the normally sleepy resort island. Despite the dedicated efforts of Inspector Anders Knutas, the killer strikes twice again. The killer's clichéd motive for these crimes and the police's failure to connect some obvious dots will disappoint those expecting another Henning Mankell. Still, the unusual setting is nicely described, and hopefully, later entries in the series will focus on issues that are particular to Sweden as this debut effort does not.
Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong
Set a decade ago in Shanghai, this political mystery offers a peek into the tightly sealed, often crooked world of post-Tiananmen Square China. Chen Cao, a poet and T.S. Eliot translator bureaucratically assigned to be chief inspector, has to investigate the murder of Guan Hongying, a young woman celebrated as a National Model Worker, but who kept her personal life strictly and mysteriously confidential. Chen and his comrade, Detective Yu, take turns interviewing Guan's neighbors and co-workers, but it seems most of them either know nothing or are afraid to talk openly about a deceased, highly regarded public figure. Maybe they shouldn't be so uneasy, some characters reason; after all, these are "modern times" and socialist China is taking great leaps toward free speech. Chen and Yu make headway when they stumble on Wu Xiaoming, senior editor of Red Star magazine, who apparently was involved with Guan before her death. Tiptoeing around touchy politics and using investigative tactics bordering on blackmail, Chen slowly pieces together the motives behind the crime. The author, himself a poet and critic, peppers the story with allusions to classical Chinese literature, juxtaposing poignant poetry with a gruesome murder so that the novel reads like the translation of an ancient text imposed over a modern tale of intrigue. This is an impressive and welcome respite from the typical crime novel.
The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin
Three million copies of Akunin's Erast Fandorin historical mystery series have been sold in Russia, where the author is a celebrity. This volume--the first of nine installments so far--should get the series off to a rousing start in the U.S. It's set in Czarist Russia and stars the naive but eager Fandorin as a young investigator with the Moscow police. Why would a university student shoot himself in the middle of the Alexander Gardens? Fandorin sets out to find the answer and soon lands in the middle of a far-reaching international conspiracy. Yakunin effectively juxtaposes the comical innocence of his hero against the decadence of nineteenth-century Moscow--aristocrats idling in gambling clubs while the winds of revolution freshen. In his debut, Fandorin comes across as an odd but appealing mix of Holmesian brilliance and Inspector Clousseauian bumbling. Occasionally, Akunin's style seems a bit affected, aping the manner of, say, Thackeray, commenting on the foibles of his characters, but at the same time, that nineteenth-century tone is part of the book's appeal.
The Last Kashmiri Rose by Barbara Cleverly
In an impressive debut, British author Cleverly weaves an engrossing tale of serial murder and the impending decline of the British Empire into a well-written fair-play mystery set in 1920s India. Commander Joe Sandilands, a Scotland Yarder completing a stint with the Bengal Police, is on his way back home when the provincial governor asks him to look into the recent death-by-suicide of an army officers young wife. Nancy Drummond, a close friend of the dead woman, reveals that four other officers wives have also died¢apparently by accident or misadventure¢over a period of 12 years, all in the month of March. Sandilandss investigation reveals further disturbing similarities; the cause of death in each case was the victims greatest phobia, and an unknown person has marked the anniversaries of their passing by placing a Kashmiri rose on their graves. With Drummond as his assistant and love interest, the detective probes beneath the surface of a society attempting to replicate pre-WWI England in a very different milieu. The political tensions of the time are more than mere background dressing, while the clash of cultures is instrumental to the plot. The likable and plausible Sandilands and other characters, both British and Indian, come across as living, breathing people. The killers motivation proves to be more baffling than his identity, but the solution is satisfying, as is Sandilandss handling of the ethical issues that his uncovering of the truth has raised.
No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
The African-born author of more than 50 books, from children's stories (The Perfect Hamburger) to scholarly works (Forensic Aspects of Sleep), turns his talents to detection in this artful, pleasing novel about Mma (aka Precious) Ramotswe, Botswana's one and only lady private detective. A series of vignettes linked to the establishment and growth of Mma Ramotswe's "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" serve not only to entertain but to explore conditions in Botswana in a way that is both penetrating and light thanks to Smith's deft touch. Mma Ramotswe's cases come slowly and hesitantly at first: women who suspect their husbands are cheating on them; a father worried that his daughter is sneaking off to see a boy; a missing child who may have been killed by witchdoctors to make medicine; a doctor who sometimes seems highly competent and sometimes seems to know almost nothing about medicine. The desultory pace is fine, since she has only a detective manual, the frequently cited example of Agatha Christie and her instincts to guide her. Mma Ramotswe's love of Africa, her wisdom and humor, shine through these pages as she shines her own light on the problems that vex her clients. Images of this large woman driving her tiny white van or sharing a cup of bush tea with a friend or client while working a case linger pleasantly.
Reviews pulled from Amazon.com
Plan to join us next month, July 29th at 6:30pm for a discussion of nonfiction titles on ethnic/country histories. I have pulled a selection of topics to choose from but if you have a particular ethnic group you are interested in reading more about, just let me know and I'll be glad to see what is available in the library system!