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The Jury Box

 By Steve Steinbock

My Jury Box columns often come out quite different from the way I first plan them. I’ll add one title, save another for later, and make adjustments to the opening paragraph. This month hit me like a surprise verdict: of the twelve books I originally planned to review, only two remain in this version of the column. Never fear, though: Most of the others will appear in future columns.

I begin with two books that feature  characters with Asperger Syndrome. A form of autism, Asperger’s is characterized by difficulty perceiving non-verbal cues from others.

Michael A. Kahn, Face Value, Poisoned Pen, $24.95 (HC), $14.95 (TPB). The book’s title hints at the paradox that people with Asperger’s often take things at “face value” because they’re unable to read facial expressions. Stanley Plotkin, a socially awkward mailroom clerk at a law office, is obsessed with the science of facial muscles and the nonverbal and involuntary messages they send. When a young lawyer falls to her death, the police deem it a suicide. But Stanley believes otherwise, and quickly convinces lawyer Rachel Gold, the hero of eight earlier novels by Kahn. The bounds of plausibility are tested by Rachel and Stanley’s process for interviewing suspects, but  Kahn’s characters are believable, and the application of the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) is fascinating.


E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen, The Question of the Missing Head, Midnight Ink, $14.99. Jeffrey Cohen is the author of several mystery series as well as two nonfiction books on Asperger Syndrome. For this new series, he has teamed up with his own alter ego, E.J. Copperman (the pen name under which he’s written five paranormal mysteries). The book’s narrator, Samuel Hoenig, answers questions for a living. What he lacks in social skills he makes up for with keen observation and a steel-trap memory. Hoenig’s been hired to find out who stole a frozen human head from a cryonics institute and soon comes across the murdered body of one of the institute’s physicians. Copperman/Cohen succeeds in providing a glimpse not only of the challenges experienced by those with Asperger’s, but also of their unique gifts. 

Mysteries with paranormal elements have been accumulating on my shelf. The following six books approach magic and mystery in fresh and unique ways.


Steve Hockensmith with Lisa Falco, The White Magic Five and Dime, Midnight Ink, $14.99. When her con-artist mother is murdered, Alanis McLachlan inherits an Arizona psychic bookshop and fortunetelling practice. As Alanis begins learning the psychic trade, secrets to her mother’s murder unfold, and there is no shortage of suspects. The story is fun and light, and the mystical background and details of Tarot reading are treated with good-natured scepticism. Each chapter is prefaced with an explanation of one of the cards of the Major Arcana and an accompanying illustration.


Helen Smith, Beyond Belief, Thomas & Mercer, $11.99. The irregularly employed writer and amateur sleuth Emily Castles has been invited to attend a conference on spiritualism. Also attending, and on the hate list of almost everyone else, is Edmund Zenon, a magician and celebrated debunker of the paranormal. An oddball fortuneteller has predicted that someone will be murdered at the conference, with Zenon the likely victim. Smith writes in a style that can sometimes be disjointed and confusing, but is nevertheless spritely and enjoyable.


Ari Marmel, Hot Lead, Cold Iron, Titan Books, $14.95. This witty hard-boiled P.I. novel, set in 1930s Chicago, has a unique twist: The P.I. isn’t human. Mick Oberon is an ageless, wand-wielding fairy with a hard-boiled attitude. He’s been hired by the wife of a mob boss who believes her daughter has been replaced by a shapeshifter. Marmel, a veteran of the video-game field and author of numerous game-based novels, succeeds in capturing Chicago in the age of Al Capone, while imbuing it with medieval hexes and spells.


Jonathan Wood, No Hero, Titan Books, $7.99. In the first of a new series (two more titles will be released by the time this review appears), Oxford police detective Arthur Wallace finds himself at the center of a series of bizarre killings. Together with his attractive sergeant and the secret British crime division MI37, Arthur goes head-to-head with a sword-swinging killer and a disturbing bunch of monsters. If Douglas Adams had written a procedural with a Lovecraftian premise, it would look a lot like this.

Lara Parker, Dark Shadows: Wolf Moon Rising, Tor, $15.99. A few months back, I reviewed a mystery by Kathryn Leigh Scott, the actress who played Maggie in the late 1960s Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. Before the ink had a chance to dry, I was given a novel by Scott’s costar, Lara Parker, who played the witch Angelique. Like the TV series, her three Dark Shadows novels are filled with mystery and romance. Wolf Moon Rising opens in 1973, several years after the events in the TV series, as a werewolf plagues the woods of Collinsport. Sixteen-year-old David Collins takes his bewitching girlfriend on a joyride in an old Duesenberg, and they find themselves back in time, to the age of bootleggers, the Depression, and Klansmen, where they encounter a young Liz Collins. In the TV series, Joan Bennett played the Collins family matron, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. It was delightful imagining her at the beginning of her film career, playing a younger version of one of the last roles she would play.

Sam Cabot, Skin of the Wolf, Blue Rider Press, $26.95. Edgar, Anthony, and Nero Award winner S.J. Rozan has teamed up again with Professor Carlos Dews for a second thriller written under the pen name Sam Cabot. Art historian and vampire Livia Pietro is visiting Sotheby’s to preview a Native American wolf mask. The ancient mask is reputed to have been used for ritual purposes, but Livia is certain the mask is a forgery. After Livia’s scholar friend is attacked by a wolf, the pair team up with a Jesuit priest to delve into Native American relics and lore.

Sheila York, No Broken Hearts, Five Star, $25.95. Many have tried to emulate Chandler’s style and capture his feel for Los Angeles. Sheila York accomplishes it without seeming to try. No Broken Hearts is neither a pastiche nor a P.I. novel, but the author has recreated a postwar L.A. in which Raymond Chandler would feel at home. Like Chandler, York’s heroine Lauren Atwill is a reluctant screenwriter. On loan to a second-rate film studio, tasked with scripting a light romance, Atwill quickly finds herself playing sleuth when a young ingénue is apparently murdered. The huge cast of characters makes the story hard to follow at times, but York’s style is concise and she delivers plenty of surprises.

Loren D. Estleman, Don’t Look For Me (Forge, $26.99). A job to locate a missing wife turns international when Detroit P.I. Amos Walker finds himself going up against an Asian crime queen, a pair of Israeli Mossad agents, and an herbal boutique. As always, the dialogue is crisp, and Walker is sarcastic enough to make Sam Spade weep. More than once I found myself stumbling over and trying to make sense of some of Estleman’s more obscure wisecracks, but I’d be hard pressed to find a better contemporary P.I. novel. Last year also saw the publication of Estleman’s Ragtime Cowboys (Forge, $24.99) in which real-life P.I.s Dashiell Hammett and Charlie Siringo expose the Teapot Dome conspiracy. Set in 1921 L.A., the book includes appearances by Wyatt Earp, Joseph Kennedy, and Will Rogers.

In Estleman’s latest novel, You Know Who Killed Me (Forge, $24.99), which arrived too late to review here, Amos Walker, struggling with his own addictions, gets at cross purposes with government operatives while looking for the killer of an ordinary suburbanite.

 © 2014 Steve Steinbock



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