By Steve Steinbock
It’s the first Jury Box of 2017, and to start off EQMM’s 76th year I’ve read a number of novels set all over the world. Several books are volumes from favorite series, while others are by authors new to me. In this issue, once again, we celebrate the birthday of Sherlock Holmes. Over the past two years we’ve been showered with Sherlockian material—pastiches, tributes, reference books, and guides—and I’ve shared samples of these with you in nearly every installment of The Jury Box. Ironically, as I prepared for this January/February column, I had to scramble at first to find books about Sherlock Holmes that I hadn’t already reviewed in previous columns. But as you’ll see, the game is always afoot.
Craig Johnson, An Obvious Fact, Viking, $28.00. Sheriff Walt Longmire takes a long-needed vacation with his best friend, Henry Standing Bear, to the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota’s Black Hills. When they arrive, they have a run-in with an old flame of Henry’s whose son, a member of an outlaw biker gang, lies in a coma from what looks like an intentional hit-and-run. Mayhem ensues when an undercover ATF agent is killed, and local politics get mixed in along with an influx of one million visiting bikers. Throughout the adventure, Henry Standing Bear quotes from a volume of Leslie Klinger’s Annotated Sherlock Holmes. This is the fourteenth title in a series that inspired the Longmire television series, now in its sixth season.
Barry Lancett, Pacific Burn, Simon and Schuster, $25.00. Family, international politics, and nuclear policy converge with the art world in Lancett’s third novel featuring Asian art-dealer P.I. Jim Brodie. A Japanese national is found dead, his body draped over a sculpture in a Napa Valley art gallery. Along with the victim is a cowering eight-year-old child, repeatedly asking in Japanese for Jim Brodie. The victim turns out to be the son of Brodie’s friend, sculptor Ken Nobuki. A stealthy ninjalike killer known as the Steam Walker is targeting members of Nobuki’s family. When Brodie’s name is added to the hit list, a cat-and-mouse pursuit takes him from San Francisco to a climactic chase at one of Japan’s most active volcanos, Mount Asama.
Susan Spann, The Ninja’s Daughter, Seventh Street Books, $15.95. A Portuguese priest and his ninja bodyguard delve into a murder case involving love, political tensions, and classical Japanese theater in Spann’s fourth novel set in sixteenth-century Japan. A young man appears before Father Mateo and Hattori Hiro, distraught after waking to find his girlfriend dead at his side, a victim of strangulation. The dead girl is connected to a Kyoto theater family, and a valuable Noh theater mask is missing, but the authorities have other things on their minds. Nothing is as it seems in this nicely written historical novel.
Christopher Fowler, Bryant and May: Strange Tide, Bantam, $27.00. The body of a young pregnant woman is found chained to a post on the Thames River, where she was left to drown in the rising tide. Yet, evidence confirms that even before the tide came in, the only footprints in the sand were the victim’s own. A peculiar crime like this is the sort one would expect to find in a novel by Agatha Christie or R. Austin Freeman. It’s also precisely the type of crime to be investigated by London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit and its lead detectives, the octogenarian team of Bryant and May. As always, Fowler peppers the story with fascinating tidbits of London’s archeology and architecture. An important theme of Strange Tide is the advancement of Arthur Bryant’s unusual dementia, which sends him into a fugue state in which he apparently travels through time. Fowler’s storytelling manages to be wryly funny while at the same time humanely sensitive.
Cara Black, Murder on the Quai, Soho Crime, $27.95. Just as Fowler does with London, Cara Black weaves the history, culture, and geography of Paris throughout her series about private investigator Aimée Leduc. Murder on the Quai serves as a prequel to the fifteen earlier books in the series. Set in 1989, the novel opens with Aimée still a young medical student whose research has been sabotaged. With the backdrop of the Berlin Wall coming down, Aimée assists her private-detective father in a case involving the murder of a distant cousin and a treasure of Nazi gold.
Melodie Johnson Howe, Hold a Scorpion, Pegasus Crime, $25.95. Actress Diana Poole is standing in front of her Malibu home holding an unwanted bouquet from a beseeching ex-boyfriend when a woman on the other side of the Pacific Coast Highway waves at her, then fatally dashes into oncoming traffic. Longtime EQMM readers will recognize Poole from the series of short stories Johnson Howe has written about her. This is the second novel-length mystery featuring Poole. The writing is sharp and smartly edgy, with an insider’s peek into Hollywood and a Ross Macdonald sensibility. Once started, I found this book hard to put down, grasping it just as Diana Poole held to the scorpion pendant of the book’s title.
Gigi Pandian, Michelangelo’s Ghost, Henery Press, $15.95. Art historian Jaya Jones is approached by her former professor who claims to have found a link between India and an artist from the Italian Renaissance. But shortly after giving the artist’s notebooks to Jaya, the professor dies under suspicious circumstances. Together with her brother and his new girlfriend, Jaya travels to Italy on a treasure hunt for a cache of unknown sixteenth-century paintings that she believes is hidden near the gruesome statues in Bomarzo’s Park of Monsters. But Jaya’s quest is haunted by local ghost legends and modern art thieves in a story that hits close to home. Pandian’s fourth book in the series is a delightful flight of fancy filled with historical curiosities, magic, and misdirection.
Elly Griffiths, Smoke and Mirrors, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25.00. “Once you eliminate the impossible,” DI Edgar Stephens tells his friend magician Max Mephisto, quoting Sherlock Holmes, “whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” During the war, Max and Edgar had been part of a secret division called The Magic Men. Now, it’s winter 1951, and Stephens and his team are investigating the murder of two children, posed in what appears to be a tableau from Grimm’s fairy tales. As with Griffiths’ earlier The Zig Zag Girl, the magical lore and misdirection is fascinating, and the characters and situations are richly drawn.
The Baker Street Jurors (Minotaur Books, $24.99) is Michael Robertson’s fifth novel about Nigel and Reggie Heath, brothers and law partners who have their office at 221B Baker Street, where they frequently receive letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes. This time, the letter is a summons to jury duty. On trial for murder is England’s most popular sports figure.
To follow up on last year’s The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories, Otto Penzler has assembled more than fifty stories and historical documents in The Big Book of Jack the Ripper (Vintage Crime, $25.00). The thick volume includes pieces by Anne Perry, George Bernard Shaw, Daniel Stashower, Robert Bloch, Edward D. Hoch, and Ellery Queen.