Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Warm-weather mayhem: summer mysteries


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Summer is the peak travel season. Expect delays, cancellations, long lines, and crowded planes. Reading a good murder mystery is one way to cope.

Classic Hollywood's costume designer Edith Head won a record eight Oscars for dressing the stars. She's one of two amateur sleuths in Renee Patrick's Design for Dying (Forge, $24.99), set in 1937 Los Angeles. The other is Lillian Frost, a once-aspiring actress who finds the financial security of being a department store salesgirl appealing. Alas, she's a suspect in the murder of a former roommate, who was found dead wearing a gown stolen from Paramount Studios, the realm of Miss Head. Miss Head has yet to establish herself. Indeed, her position is far from secure. A scandal won't help. Neither will a Hungarian princess traveling incognito; a private investigator who can't be trusted; or a narcissistic director looking for sexual adventures. Frost and Head get help from Barbara Stanwyck and Bob Hope, but mostly have to rely on their own instincts and courage. Patrick captures the glory and absurdity of Golden Age Tinseltown while simultaneously weaving a very entertaining mystery.

Late Victorian London provides an evocative setting for the latest Charlotte and Thomas Pitt mystery from Anne Perry, Treachery at Lancaster Gate (Ballantine, $28). When an explosion kills two Bobbies and wounds three others, the obvious conclusion is that anarchists have struck. But Thomas, now a Commander of the Special Branch, thinks the bombing may be the work of someone else. His investigation leads him to a  member of Parliament and an opium-using aristocrat, among others. Those doors would normally be closed to him, but Charlotte's upper-class background and her family connections gain the couple entree into the most rarified places. As Pitt digs deeper into what happened, he finds that the establishment's underpinnings are rotting. If they collapse, they may bury him. Perry remains an inventive writer, superbly depicting all levels of London society. It has been a joy watching the orphaned but well-educated Pitt rise from a low-ranking cop in the first of this terrific series, The Cater Street Hangman, where he first met the well-born Charlotte, to his present position.

France's Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret is one of the most admired and original sleuths in the entire mystery genre. Happily, Random House/Penguin has reissued Inspector Cadaver ($12), with a translation by Will Hobson. Maigret goes to a small French town to help an old friend's brother-in-law, who has been accused of murdering his daughter's lover. As Maigret delves into the case, he fears he may harm those whom he has come to assist. Maigret's anxiety increases when he discovers that an old enemy, an ex-cop known as "Inspector Cadaver," is doing everything he can to prevent the truth from being revealed. Simenon's astute psychological portraits and Maigret's remarkable balance of cynicism and altruism remain refreshing. A whole new generation of readers may discover the magic of this series.

In 1948, Gore Vidal (1925-2012) shocked the literary establishment with The City and the Pillar, a landmark novel about homosexuals in and out of Hollywood. The reaction was so intense that The New York Times refused to review his work and publishers closed their doors to him. Needing to earn a living, he, writing as Edgar Box, published three elegant murder mysteries set in the world of classical ballet. He happily acknowledged those novels before his death. 

That was not the case with 1953's Thieves Fall Out , which he authored as Cameron Kay. It has been republished by Hard Case Crime ($9.99). Set in Cairo, where Vidal had spent time in 1948, it shows how the author was able to string together staples of the genre and still entertain the reader. American drifter Pete Wells arrives in Egypt on a freighter he boarded in France. He's penniless and desperate to earn some money. Before long, he's involved with local jewel thieves who want him to smuggle out a very valuable necklace that belonged to Ancient Egypt's Queen Tiy. The hyper-macho Wells battles a local inspector named Mohammad Ali, as well as a variety of local brutes, as he tries to save himself and his beautiful German-born anti-Nazi girlfriend, who is also a singer. (Shades of Marlene Dietrich.) The fast-moving plot is enhanced by the superbly rendered Cairo settings, evoking the era of King Farouk. This curiosity is another clue that helps complete the complex puzzle of Gore Vidal's personality and talent.

Donna Leon's 25th Guido Brunetti mystery, The Waters of Eternal Youth (Atlantic Monthly Press, $26) is cause for celebration and a great read, both for travelers and those staying at home. Leon brilliantly exposes the corrupt world of Venice and how its past and present are often linked. Fifteen years ago, a young girl nearly drowned in a canal. She was rescued by a drunk. Alas, she suffered severe, permanent brain damage. The drunk claimed what happened was no accident – someone tried to kill her. Now, while Brunetti and his socialist, patrician-born wife Paola are at a swank charity dinner, the girl's grandmother asks him to reopen the investigation. The grandmother, who is his aristocratic mother-in-law's closest confidante, is guilt-ridden over the fate of the girl. Brunetti initially feels the situation is hopeless and wonders about the statute of limitations, assuming a crime was committed. But, touched by the elderly lady's pain, he agrees to look into it. To his dismay, pieces of the past begin to fit together. The portrait that results shocks the humane, sympathetic Brunetti. Leon knows Venice and consistently proves that life in La Serenissima is far more complex, troubled, and dangerous than tourists flocking to St. Mark's Piazza can ever imagine.

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