In the difficult times of the past, many mystery enthusiasts sought comfort more than obscurity – Agatha Christie’s biggest sales, for example, began during World War II. It’s an understandable urge: as readers, sometimes we want our escape to be a little softer, a little less violent, not marred by so much blood and gore. So, in a nod to our current tough times, this column is moving to the more comfortable side of the genre aisle.
Speaking of Christie, early in her career she was known to participate – and sometimes win – in puzzle contests sponsored by local newspapers. One of them involved figuring out the solution to a 1926 serialized story by one of his fellow mystery writer peers, Anthony Berkeley. It was so devilishly difficult that Christie couldn’t solve the case. Now THE MYSTERY OF WINTRINGHAM (Harper 360 / Collins Crime Club, 236 pp., $ 16.99), which was originally published in book form in 1927, was eventually rediscovered, and it’s as much of a treat as Berkeley’s biggest mystery, “The Affair of Poisoned Chocolates.”
Here, a young woman named Cicely manages to disappear during a session, along with other people, with no visible way to escape. Yes, this is a closed bedroom affair. Berkeley perfectly overlays the puzzle with a poignant portrayal of the thwarted love between amateur sleuth Stephen Munro, an army officer turned footman, and Pauline Mainwaring, engaged to an older and richer brute. It’s a reminder that the best puzzle mysteries require characters to care about, which Berkeley (like Francis Iles) would further develop in his “Malice Aforethought” and “Before the Fact” novels.
I applauded Lori Rader-Day’s new novel, DEATH AT GREENWAY (Morrow, 414 p., $ 27.99), as soon as I realized that although the title refers to Agatha Christie’s beloved rectory, Lady Agatha does not appear in the book in any meaningful way; the estate itself is the star. It’s not that Rader-Day couldn’t breathe life into Christie, but why do it when there are other stories to tell? The most interesting detail is that Greenway became a home for evacuated children during WWII, and a detective story with that backdrop proves to be compelling.
Greenway is an immediate refuge for Bridey Kelly, a nurse fleeing terrible mistakes and seeking to save her professional activities. She feels recovering from taking care of a dozen children, and quickly befriends another nurse, the glamorous and mysterious Gigi. The war casts a lot of dark shadows, but the discovery of a body floating in the river near the estate tears Bridey’s calm. What follows is a tribute to the Golden Age, an elegantly constructed mystery that, on every page, reinforces the message that everyone matters.
It only took two books for Richard Osman to climb into the top leagues of mystery authors. His debut, “The Thursday Murder Club,” was a delightful introduction to a quartet of seniors discussing – and then solving – murders, and if the pace wavered a bit, that was more than made up for by the enthusiasm of the characters and the vocals. ironic of the author. . THE MAN WHO DIED TWICE (Pamela Dorman / Viking, 352 pp., $ 26) dispenses with the nervousness of the new series and plunges straight into joyous fun, even as Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron once again learn that murder is not and can never be a game.
The mystery begins when Elizabeth receives a missive from a “Marcus Carmichael” – curious, for she saw his corpse 40 years ago. This enigma revolves around a twisted yet perfectly controlled plot featuring spies from the past and present, missing diamonds, unexpected romance, surprise attacks, and killings with the power to shock.
Osman’s writing reminds me of Anthony Berkeley’s in its blend of sparkling humor and resonant emotion. Members of the Thursday Murder Club don’t take themselves too seriously, but they care deeply about each other, their friends, and those whose deaths they are tasked with investigating. No wonder the readers, myself included, have surrendered to their abundant charms.
Finally, the first series of Raquel V. Reyes, MANGO, MAMBO AND MURDER (Crooked Lane, 325 p., $ 26.99), reinforces my conviction that the cozy mystery has become one of the most diverse and dynamic of contemporary detective fiction. This book doesn’t break new ground, but it carries out its mission – mixing standard tropes, memorable characters, the importance of family, and murder in unexpected neighborhoods – with panache.
Food anthropologist Miriam Quiñones-Smith has returned to her hometown of Miami, but this time to the Coral Shores neighborhood where her white husband’s family resides. Culturally, it is “a world apart – no, a galaxy far ”from the Miami she knows. Such differences will soon be the least of Miriam’s problems. At a country club lunch with her mother-in-law, a woman sitting next to them plants her chicken salad and is soon pronounced dead.
Understandably, it’s murder, and Miriam is determined to find out who did it and why – and if her husband’s former (and possibly current) lover could be connected. Reyes handles the mysterious elements well and cleverly devotes the same time to Miriam’s struggles with parenthood in an unfamiliar setting. There is also an unexpected career change which will certainly feature in future volumes.