by Joan Leotta
Here is the latest installment of our new column, Top 5 Mysteries I Have Read During the Pandemic, this one from mystery author Joan Leotta. As we continue to spend most of our time at home, we are all looking for book suggestions so we asked mystery authors and reviewers to share the top 5 mysteries they have read during this pandemic.
While my own personal supply of mysteries was on hand to take me not only to a land of satisfying puzzles but also allow me to make guided (by Author) to American Southwest (Hillerman), Venice, (Donna Leon), Sicily (Montalbano) and a few more. Still craving new books to read but facing a limited budget and closed library systems in both North and South Carolina left me without resources—until I learned how to use the virtual libraries in both systems. This kept me going until they opened for call in and pick up. (Now I can even go in and browse!) During this time I discovered I liked the novellas that some favorite authors like JA Jance are putting online to introduce a new series and characters. I discovered ways to mitigate the eye issues of reading online. I was able to keep up with a couple of series, discovered two new series and read through to the current volume, and was captivated by a stand-alone from Cara Black. My reading reaches far afield into biographies, non-mystery novels, nature, science, history, current affairs, poetry, and essays, but mysteries are one of my favorite reads and far and away dominate my list.
Here are my five top choices read between late March when North Carolina went into lockdown to the first of September:
I’m starting with my “discovery.” Tracy Clark is a Chicago writer and has written Cass Raines, a street-smart, ex-cop turned P.I, into three mysteries. Broken Places is the first in the series, establishing a firm bond between reader and this heroine who has battled prejudice, misogynism, and the after-effects of taking a bullet to found her own business. In this volume she takes on the death of Father Heaton, a friend whose death is being treated as burglary gone awry by the Chicago P.D. Character is great, plot is well constructed, well-paced—all the elements you want in a mystery—and yes, it leaves you wishing to see this heroine in action again. Borrowed Time (book 2) and What You Don’t See (book 3) fulfilled that wish, and I’m waiting for Clark’s pen to produce more. I am a fan!
Death in the East, the fourth in Mukherjee’s Wyndham and Banerjee series, came out in May, just in time for me to pick it up from the library in hardback form (still my preferred way to read). Abir Mukherjee turns the usual white detective in Raj India on its head with the Indian sidekick as principal, and in fact as the series progresses, the caretaker of the white policeman. This latest entry into the series takes the duo beyond crime solving in the essence of friendship. I don’t want to say too much and give away anything crucial. But start with the first, A Rising Man, read the other two, and then come to this one, prepared for all of the nuances of the pair’s relationship, as well as a group of well-crafted mysteries in an new-to-me place and a time of unrest and great importance in India—the 1920s when unrest was paving the path to independence.
No, Cara Black has not deserted her Aimee Leduc series to write travel guides. I’m only a so-so fan of the series, but when I saw this one, Three Hours in the Paris, on the shelf and realized it was about World War II, I decided to give it a try. Warning! I could not put it down! This mystery/spy novel set in Paris in WWII involves a plot to kill Hitler, a deep dive into the morality of sending agents into hopeless situations (as potential collateral damage) and the ability of a young woman to rise above expectations to push the Allied war effort ahead. If you have WWII fatigue from reading too many set in that period, take a deep breath and make time to add this one to your TBR list anyway. You will thank me.
In July 2019, Andrea Camilleri died. His books continue because he planned ahead. This one, The Safety Net, came out on March 17, 2020. I was given a copy of this, book 25 in the series, by the publisher to review (which I did, for the Washington Independent Review of books), thanks to an article I did on the series translator, Stephen Sartarelli. I’ve been a fan of these books since discovering them in the early 2000s, not long after they came out in English. Inspector Montalbano brings, good sense, a love for the classics, and a fondness for food to bear on the murders and other crimes of the fictional Vigata in Sicily. Camilleri, with the deft strokes of a painter, brings us to the island and holds our attention as Montalbano works his way through the “problem/mystery,” his personal demons, and his relationship with his team of detectives. I always like starting a series with the first, The Shape of Water, I must say for those who might pick this one up first, you will find before you, a problem of history, a question of family, and the need to keep ourselves and our children safe on the internet. In a time when we all need a safety net, or wish for one, I would not blame you if you started the Montalbano with this one. Of all the ones I’ve read, about eighteen of them (neither of my libraries stocks these so I buy them), this is one of my favorites. Plus, fear not. Before he died, Camilleri put several into a vault! Number 26 is coming in the fall.
For many years, I have happily dipped into the Victorian era on a regular basis in the company of the Pitts or Monk via Anne Perry. I was less charmed by her Christmas series and WWI novels, but when she came out with a new series set between WWI and WWII featuring a female photographer, I gave it a try. I was soo disappointed. Indeed it was so bland, I forgot about it. When I saw this one, A Question of Betrayal, on the list of new books at my local library, I became a bit confused, thought it was the first in the series that I had not read it yet, and took it out. I was happily surprised. All of the problems in the first book were resolved. Elena Standish, in this volume is a well-developed heroine, strong and capable. Plot, villains, and supporting heroes are also well crafted. Elena, at the behest of MI6 heads into Mussolini’s Italy to, amazingly, rescue the heel who betrayed her in the first book! You don’t have to have read book one to catch on the nuances of the relationships spread before you in this entry into the series. Young Elena is smart, lovely, and knows how to handle herself on the wild ride of twists and turns in the clever plot. And, she is tackling a period in history that is not often a mystery backdrop unless the setting is Spain or India. But the late twenties early thirties were a delicate mix of horror unseen and the suffering of those who saw what was coning on the world stage. This is Perry at her best.
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