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Warm weather page-turners: mysteries

by Tavo Amador

Warm weather page-turners: mysteries

Summertime, and the reading is easy - or at least entertaining. A fine crop of murder mysteries is available to keep readers engaged while at the beach, the pool, or flying to an interesting destination.

During the first half of the 20th century, Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia (1901-17), youngest daughter of Tsar Nicolas II and Tsarina Alexandria, was rumored to have miraculously survived the brutal shooting by the Bolshevik Secret Police that killed her parents, three older sisters, and brother. Several women claimed to be the Romanov daughter, but only one mounted a compelling case. In "I Was Anastasia" (Doubleday, $26.95), Ariel Lawhon recreates the life of the mysterious "Anna Anderson" and her decades-long struggle to prove her royal identity. Cousins, aunts, uncles of the imperial family saw her as a threat to their claims to the Russian throne in the event of a restoration. Nor did they want her to have access to an alleged fortune secreted in an English bank. Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna was understandably skeptical that her granddaughter lived, yet was intrigued by the thought. Lawhon's compelling, albeit fictional account raises enough questions to keep the reader guessing.

Christine Mangan's "Tangier" (CCC, $26.95) is set in that fascinating Moroccan city. Alice Shipley and her husband discover more than an exotic adventure when they unexpectedly meet her old roommate and one-time closest friend Lucy Mason there. It's been more than a year since their falling out. But soon the two are once again inseparable. Lucy helps Alice adjust to her new environment. Yet Alice begins to feel uneasy. Then her husband disappears. Is Lucy responsible? Has she once again harmed Alice? This suspenseful, atmospheric debut is a splendid read that builds to a superb climax.

"Memento Mori" (Bloomsbury Publishing, $28) is the latest in Ruth Downie's popular Medicus series. This one is set in the Roman spa of Aquae Sulis (modern-day Bath in England). The intrepid team of Ruso and Tilla is pulled into a murder investigation when the wife of Ruso's friend Valens is found dead - stabbed while taking the waters. This was not the healthy outcome she had expected from her visit. Local officials and priests fear divine vengeance almost as much as they dread a drop in tourism. Their plan to cover up the incident is foiled by the dead woman's father. He thinks Valens is guilty of the crime. Valens realizes that he will be unfairly convicted if he stands trial. If he doesn't, his father-in-law will take custody of his children. Ruso and Tilla will need every bit of their resourcefulness to save their friend, assuming he really is innocent.

Laura LaPlante's "Widows" (Zaffre, $16) brings new meaning to surviving spouses moving on with their lives - in this case, three women whose husbands were killed in a failed security-van heist. One of them, Dolly Rawlins, discovers the detailed plans for the robbery that somehow went astray. Should she turn them over to the authorities? Should she sell them to another crook? Or should she and the other two widows finish the job that their husbands bungled? The last option is irresistible. Dolly and her cohorts rehearse every detail until they are ready for the big day - except for one not-so-minor detail. For the plan to work, four people are needed. But only three were killed. Who is the fourth? Where is he? What does he know? What can Dolly do about it? Another ingenious entertainment from LaPlante.

Napa is one of the world's great culinary capitals, a place where fine food is almost a religion. In Daryl Wood Gerbe's "A Deadly Eclair" (Crooked Lane, $15.95), it's also dangerous. Widowed Mimi Rousseau has always wanted to own and run her own bistro, but her late husband's substantial debts must be repaid before that happens - or so she thinks. Her friend Jorianne James introduces her to wealthy investor Bryan Baker, who finances Mimi's dream. She can run the bistro while repaying his loan. Things get more exciting when Mimi is hired to cater a swank wedding for a well-known talk-show star. But on the morning of the big affair, Bryan is found dead in the bistro's kitchen, an eclair stuffed in his mouth. Mimi is the prime suspect for many reasons, not least of which is that Bryan's will forgives her debt. The restaurant is now hers, assuming she can prove her innocence. Mimi is sympathetic and smart. Gerbe balances culinary information with a clever plot. Recipes are included.

What would summer be without a new Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery from Donna Leon? In her latest Venetian-set novel "The Temptation of Forgiveness" (Atlantic Monthly Press, $26), Brunetti is ordered by his pretentious, vain superior Pata to stop the embarrassing leaks about police affairs coming from the Questura. They make him look bad. This is of far less concern to the compassionate Brunetti than are the problems of an old friend of his wife, Paola, the socialist daughter of a Venetian count. Paola's friend fears her son may be using drugs, Then her husband is found near a bridge, suffering from a severe head wound that has damaged his brain. Is there a connection with the boy's drug problem? Brunetti's investigation leads to discoveries that are as unanticipated and frightening as walking around Venice on a foggy, moonless night. As usual, La Serenissima in all its corrupt, decadent beauty and magic, is as much a character as any of the sharply drawn humans Leon expertly creates.

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