IYCRMM: The hunt for literary suspense

Book reviews on "The Book of Doors," "Edith Holler," "The Antique Hunter’s Guide to Murder," "The Woman On the Ledge," "Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect," and "Death and Fromage"

IYCRMM: The hunt for literary suspense

Excellent literary fiction about life in the theater, a fantasy adventure set in the world of books, plus wonderful examples of the scope and depth of today’s crime fiction - that’s our lineup for this month. Happy reading!

The Book of Doors by Gareth Brown 

Cassie Andrews works in a Manhattan bookstore. One winter evening, a favorite and loyal customer of the store passes away in its confines, bequeathing an ancient leather-bound book to Cassie. It’s the Book of Doors, possessing magical powers; the phrase "any door is every door" becomes a transportative reality. By thinking of any door from her past or one she has seen, and holding the book, Cassie can open any closed door in front of her, leading to that world. Her roommate, Izzy, accompanies her on these trips. At one point, they are spotted by Drummond Fox, revealing the existence of several such books, each with a specific purpose – a Book of Despair, of Pain, of Light, and more. The harmless, innocent use Cassie attaches to her possession of the book is worlds apart from how others would use it.

Soon, Cassie and Izzy realize they are in danger, as there are forces willing to kill to obtain the book. Most dangerous among them is a young, beautiful, yet sadistic woman who seeks to collect all the magical books in the world. Drummond reveals the woman's ruthlessness through a past incident in Washington Square Park, where she confronted Drummond's friends and took their lives without remorse. Brown does an excellent job fleshing out the characters in this first novel, providing each with a credible backstory to better understand their motivations and origins. This blend of fantasy, magic, and adventure engages the reader. Highly recommended.

Edith Holler by Edward Carey 

Carey was the author of the fantastical biography of Madame Tussaud in his novel, "Little". Here, he transitions from France to Norwich, England, and utilizing a gothic framework, presents us with the story of Edith, a child of the theater in more ways than one. The daughter of Edward Holler, who runs the famous Holler Theater in Norwich, Edith loses her mother at birth. During a christening, she is cursed by an aunt who then explodes, literally. The curse dictates that if Edith ever leaves the confines of the theater, she will cause the demise of both the theater and the company. Thus, she is raised within the four walls of the structure by her overprotective and unreliable father. Her knowledge comes from the plays presented and newspaper clippings.

Missing children over centuries, an urban legend of a witch/harlot, swarms of beetles, and a father now looking for a new wife - these are just some of the elements fused together in this entertaining, macabre novel. Think Charles Dickens taking on Christopher Bond’s "Sweeney Todd", and setting it in 1901. At the center of all this is 13-year-old Edith, who knows the theater and all its rooms and subterranean passages like the back of her hand. When Margaret Unthank arrives as the fiancée of Edith’s father, the story takes an even darker and more grisly turn. Could Margaret be the living embodiment of the witch legend, and is she responsible for all the missing children? To find out, one must enter this strange Carey world.


The Antique Hunter’s Guide to Murder by C. L. Miller 

When Freya Lockwood’s mentor, Arthur Crockleford, passes away in what appears to be an accidental death, the past Freya had hoped to put behind her comes screaming back into her life. Arthur was an antiques collector known for dabbling in the shady retrieval side of the business. Freya’s eccentric Aunt Carole, who raised her, was Arthur’s best friend in the southern English town where they all hail from. Now residing in London, Freya has no choice but to return to the Suffolk village when Carole calls. It isn't long before the 'game's afoot' as the suspicious nature of Arthur’s death is confirmed. He’s even left coded messages for the two, and in a big surprise, has left his antiques shop to Freya. All of this comes to light as a will, created just a week before his death, is read.

A visit to Copthorn Manor, the recently deceased Lord Metcalf's estate, presents an opportunity to join other antiques enthusiasts, with the knowledge that Arthur’s killer is most likely present at the old manor house as well. As with these drawing-room mysteries, a colorful cast of characters at the Manor is conjured up - Phil, an American gardener, Giles and Amy, the children of Lord Metcalf, Bella, the girlfriend of Giles, and the lawyer Franklin, who seems too much at home in the Manor. It doesn’t help that Freya notices how the mansion is filled with poor, worthless reproductions. How was Arthur involved with all this? Why kill him? And what connection may it have to the reason why, 20 years ago, there was a falling out between Freya and Arthur? It’s a dense mystery, and the team-up of Freya with her Aunt Carole is a pleasure to read and unravel.


The Woman On the Ledge by Ruth Mancini  

Mancini, a criminal defense lawyer, naturally crafts some of the best scenes in this first novel around interviews conducted by a court-appointed lawyer with the accused. Tate Kinsella, an office temp at an offshore bank’s London office, finds herself embroiled in a gripping tale. During the December office party, she sneaks out for a smoke on the building’s 25th-floor roof terrace and encounters a woman who appears poised to jump. Tate persuades her to reconsider, and they share a taxi home. The following day, Helen, the woman she met, claims to have lost a sentimental earring and convinces Tate to accompany her back. While Tate is in the stairwell, tragedy strikes as someone falls to their death. Subsequently, Tate is arrested and charged with murder.

As an unreliable narrator, Tate takes us on a twisty ride through her past until we arrive at this juncture where she is held under suspicion. She insists she’s being framed, although her lawyer harbors doubts about that notion. What keeps us guessing is how each chapter ends with a new revelation, gradually revealing Tate's unreliable nature and the depth of her deception, surprising even her own lawyer. The grooming of young girls by recidivist perpetrators, who often evade justice, is one of the themes tackled here, presented in a highly creative manner. While readers may initially struggle to determine whether to like or dislike Tate, credit must be given to Mancini for leading us on such a thrilling ride.

Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect by Benjamin Stevenson 

On the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the Australian Mystery Writers Festival, a train ride from Darwin to Adelaide on the "iron horse" Ghan is chosen as the setting for the festivities. Ernest Cunningham, whose published memoir "Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone," was a hit, is joining the group, along with his girlfriend and fellow author, Juliette. It’s an 1,800-mile journey through the Australian desert, with writers, fans, editors, agents, and publishers all on one train - an explosive situation waiting to turn the journey into a real-life tragedy. It’s a locked-room mystery on a train, a theme explored in several books in the past - "Murder on the Orient Express" being one prominent example. The big difference here is that when the first victim shows up, everyone on the train has a motive and the know-how to get away with murder.

There is something very meta in the approach to this novel. It’s as if Stevenson is purposely teasing us while still maintaining his reliable narrator status. So reliable, in fact, that at various points in the novel, he goes off-narrative to remind us if we missed a clue or failed to see the importance of a passage we may have just read. He’s so true to his word that he’ll even confess when the need arises - as later in the novel, when he lets drop that the invite for the Festival was actually sent to Juliette, and not to Ernest. The deadpan humor of the first novel is still part of this book’s DNA, and that is a great thing, as it adds to the magic of the presentation and makes us want to read just one more chapter before closing the book for the night. The sidebar notes about crime fiction writers and how they contend with not being taken seriously are all part of the charm of this second Stevenson work.

Death and Fromage by Ian Moore 

A middle-aged Englishman living in France’s Val de Follet and running a quality B&B, Richard Ainsworth is the wonderful creation of Ian Moore, and we’ve followed his exploits over several installments. 'Fromage' is actually the second in the series, and it wonderfully brings back Valerie d’Orçay, the woman bounty hunter who breathes excitement and life into Richard’s rather too laid-back existence. The running conceit behind this second adventure is the scandal that erupts in the village when the local three Michelin-star restaurant is demoted to two after Chef Sébastien Grosmillard substitutes vegan cheese in the goat cheese dessert he is known for. The village supplier of said cheese, a Monsieur Menard, is subsequently found drowned in the fermentation tank of his cheese-making factory.

While it’s presumed to be a suicide, Valerie has a different opinion and soon drags Richard around while she investigates. It doesn’t help that the local police find Richard’s nervous behavior rather suspicious. The food critic Tartillon is another somewhat shady character we encounter, too friendly with Chef Garçon, a student of Grosmillard who has opened his own restaurant in the same village. Plus, it gets all complicated when Richard’s ex-wife Clare comes to town, with daughter and daughter’s boyfriend in tow, Alicia and Sly. How it all plays out, and the juggling act that’s perfectly executed by Moore as the different narrative strands meet up, is all part of the charm of this entertaining series of books. That Moore has such a wonderful sense of humor is definitely a strong plus.