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Roundup of mystery books: Mystery MTlange
by Robert Allen Papinchak

Howard Engel certainly knows how to entertain. He ought to. For many years, he was a producer for the CBC. He uses that setting to its best advantage in a thoroughly enjoyable tenth outing for his P.I. Benny Cooperman, in The Cooperman Variations (Penguin Books, 279 pages, $18.99, ISBN: 0140297448).
Benny's old high school friend, Vanessa Moss, is now the head of entertainment at The National Television Corporation. It's a working environment "as packed with false friends as a pinata." Vanessa suspects her head might be the next one to be cracked open. She has good reason to worry. She enlists Benny's undercover investigative services after a colleague of hers is killed while staying at Vanessa's and wearing one of her dressing gowns.
It's good timing for Benny. He's at loose ends. Diana Sweets, his favorite restaurant source where "gossip was retailed, deals made, plots plotted," has shut down. Anna Abraham, "the light of his life," is "tramping over Tuscany with graduate students." And his case load has dwindled enough so that he has instituted "summer hours" and spends that time reading mystery novels.
Hired on as Vanessa's "new executive assistant"/bodyguard, it's not long before Benny is immersed in the cut-throat television industry. The technicians at the studio see him as one of the guys and provide him with insider gossip. One odd piece of information that keeps cropping up involves a deceased cellist, Dermot Keogh. Keogh can "out Casals Casals." He dies in what appears to have been a rare diving accident involving a faulty aqualung.
It's up to Benny to make the connection between Keogh's accident, a legacy of a new concert hall, and Vanessa's heightened fears of being murdered. In the process, Engel relies on a good deal of local color and regional details when he takes a side trip north to Vanessa's summer cottage on Lake Muskoka. Though the conclusion happens in one of those conveniently confessional conversations, Engel does manage to provide an ingenious manner of death and choice of weapon before calming Vanessa's nerves. The Cooperman Variations is a speedy enjoyable read, certainly worthy of a reader's summer down time.

One of the mystery writers Benny Cooperman is reading during his slow period is Eric Wright. He couldn't do much better than pick up Wright's eleventh Charlie Salter mystery, The Last Hand (The Dundurn Group, 232 pages, $29.99, ISBN: 1888822391). This one has an intricate plot involving politics, sex, journalism, and the law. What more could you ask for?
Sixty-year-old Salter, head of Toronto's Special Affairs Unit, is going through a personal crisis as he tries to cope with the ageing process and all the side effects that come with it. He misjudges boat docks, sprains his wrist, and must wear special goggles when he plays squash. At work, where sixty is the limit for active duty, he has been assigned a desk job and finds himself shunted by colleagues.
Salter is thrown a bone by the staff inspector of the homicide division when the department seems stumped by the stabbing death of a prominent attorney. The main suspect appears to be a hooker in "big silver boots." The lawyer's sister is a Member of Provincial Parliament and potential candidate for Attorney General. It would be to everybody's best interests to solve the case quickly.
Cards, canoeing, gambling, a lawyers' book group, and some fast hands at the poker table lead Salter to a "gang of suckers conned by their own greed." Along the way, there's some good, solid humor as the "lucky and crafty" Salter uncovers the surprise identity of the costumed prostitute. There's also an engaging sub-plot with Salter's 22-year-old son, Seth, an actor with prospects at Stratford, whose situation adds to the detective's pending age issues with the imminent emptying of the familial nest. Ripeness becomes all for the sly Salter. Age does not wither him as his old but reliable police procedural practices prove rewarding.

Put Liz Brady on your shelf next to Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretsky. Her investigative journalist Jane Yeats is as feisty as any Stephanie Plum or V.I. Warshawski. The debut novel in which Yeats appeared, Sudden Blow, won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel from the Crime Writers of Canada. In her second outing, Bad Date, (Second Story Press, 294 pages, $13.95, paper, ISBN: 189676438X) the true crime free-lancer takes lessons in Prostitution 101. The breezy crime caper will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the mean back streets of Toronto.
Bad Date takes Wright's instruction to cherchez la hooker to the extreme. What do you do when the hooker turns out to be the next door neighbor and her body turns up on your front lawn looking like "a Modigliani nude in serious distress?" If you're Jane, you get yourself a mentor from the Sex Workers Alliance of Toronto (SWAT); you get a makeover with "major curb appeal" from Miss Lucy's Finishing School For Boys Who Want To Be Girls; and you go out on "the stroll."
You also try to find out who has a serious "hate-on for hookers" and is responsible for the unsolved double digit murders of Toronto prostitutes. This means you have to go through cold case files and wade through a pile of Department of Justice reports. It also means you have to confront Quasimodo, the "Satan spawn" who doubles as your neighbor's pimp and drug dealer.
Comic relief in the novel is provided by several scenes with Jane's "hypervibrant" mother, a "brassy smoker" who opens her club Sweet Dreams dressed as Opryland's Minnie Pearl. There are also walk-ons by k.d.lang and John Wayne Bobbitt. Despite the general grim nature of the subject of Bad Date, Brady manages to temper the tawdriness with an astute sense of social consciousness. Jane Yeats should have a long shelf life.

William Deverell's The Laughing Falcon (McClelland & Stewart, 385 pages, $34.99, ISBN: 0771027044) is an exciting adventure thriller but suffers from having too much of a good thing. There's enough plot here for three novels. What starts off as a kind of Romancing The Stone quickly segues into a kidnapping potboiler and finally resolves into a high jinx political scam job.
Deverell sets up a convoluted conceit in the opening two pages. An editor named Rocky solicits a manuscript from a poet named Jacques, asking for an "old-fashioned thriller." Throughout the novel, Rocky continues to make plot suggestions which are quickly incorporated into The Laughing Falcon. Twenty-nine-year-old romance writer Maggie Schneider dreams of leaving sub-zero weather in Saskatoon for a "pen and a pad and a pina colada" in balmy Costa Rica. Forty-eight-year-old poet and eco-warrior Slack Cardinal is already there as a tour guide awaiting the "annual swarm of locusts in their bikinis and Birkenstocks." Senator Chester "Chuck" Walker (with visions of the Republican nomination for the United States presidency) and his flirtatious wife, Gloria-May, soon find themselves stranded in the dense forest of "immense oak trees festooned with moss and red-tinted bromelaids, the understory thick with stunted bamboo." Add a native kidnapper named Halcon (the "laughing Falcon" of the title), his band of revolutionaries, several action sequences, a heartstopping rescue scene and the denouement quickly winds down. The whole concoction ends with a boy gets girl, girl gets boy scenario, complete with a poem and the lingering scent of tropical splendor.

Looking for some good, old-fashioned adventure tale in the manner of Arthur Conan Doyle? Then you can't go wrong with either of these two modern pastiches of tales of Sherlock Holmes: Tracy Cooper-Posey's The Case of the Reluctant Agent (Raven Stone, 224 pages, $14.95, ISBN: 0888012632) or Philip J. Carraher's The Adventure of the Dead Rabbits Society (1st Books Library, 142 pages, $8.95, paper, ISBN: 0759605130). Both are succinct, satisfying forays into familiar territory.
Cooper-Posey's first Holmes narrative, Chronicles of the Last Years, won the Best Pastiche prize from the Sherlock Holmes Society. This one carries on in the tradition of "secrets within secrets, within more secrets [with] everyone wearing two or three faces." Sorting out who is who doing what to whom turns out to be another variation of cherchez-ing la femme¨this time, of a different sort.
Sherlock is the reluctant agent of the title, unwilling to go to Constantinople in November of 1917 despite the fact that his brother, Mycroft, suspects some double-crossing in progress. But when Mycroft is shot and may be dead, Sherlock heads to the exotic locale to find the turncoat. He arrives in one of his customary disguises only to discover a lost love he met at the Reichenbach Falls. She, too, is masquerading as a special agent. But that's not the only secret Sherlock learns about Elizabeth Sigerson. She has a special connection with Mycroft.
It's a year later before everything is sorted out in the novel but in the meantime the reader is in for a rollicking tale of vengeance in a locale suffused with the whiff of anticipatory excitement.
Carraher's reconstruction of "The Lost Reminiscence of John H. Watson, M.D." is even more authentic than Cooper-Posey's. The Adventure of the Dead Rabbits Society purports to be a lost, last manuscript which details the events of the "missing years" after Sherlock apparently died at the Reichenbach Falls. Where was he all that time? In New York City, known as Simon Hawkes.
In 1890s New York, a "dead rabbit" is a "best formidable opponent." Holmes's case starts after a young pregnant woman's suicide from the Brooklyn Bridge. Ensconced at the gentleman's club of the title, he overhears an argument between two brothers, Franklin and Charles Dunsmore. In short order, after two attempts on his life, Franklin hires Sherlock to seek out the culprit, all the time suspecting his brother. Charles accuses an embezzling accountant at the family business and Holmes has to deduce the truth. Everything happens swiftly in this slim novel. Deaths, murders, attacks quickly add up. Even with his mind on the blackmail of the Police Commissioner, Holmes manages to investigate households with nefarious secrets. As one of the other characters remarks, Holmes/Hawkes is remarkable because he "sees puzzles and solutions where others see rain and muddy boots."
Though The Adventure of the Dead Rabbits Society takes many twists and turns before Holmes solves the puzzle, morality and justice prevail in this appealing recreation of the Doyle genre.

It's not uncommon for an academic to get stabbed in the back, but when it literally happens to her 27-year-old colleague in the political science department, Ariel Warren, amateur sleuth Joanne Kilbourn is set to solve her seventh case in Gail Bowen's Burying Ariel (McClelland & Stewart, paper, 254 pages, $9.99, ISBN: 0771014988). Bowen introduced the winsome sleuth in Deadly Appearances (1990) and won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Novel of 1995 for A Colder Kind of Death.
There's a birthday party going on for an administrative assistant when another colleague once accused of "attitudinal harassment" informs Joanne of the murder. A young air conditioning repair person found the body in the archive room in the basement of the library. Although he's the first suspect, there is a long line of others. The new head of the political science department, the recently divorced Livia Brook, finds taking charge of the faculty about as "rewarding as herding cats." Solange Levy is one of the herd. A "feminist warrior", she has a "Joan of Arc haircut and a uniform of black T-shirt, black jeans, and ragged Converse high-top runners." Hired at the same time as Ariel, she politicizes her friend's death, using a mourning vigil as a chance to rally an all-female gathering against the common cause of male aggression and domination.
When it's discovered that Ariel was pregnant at the time of her death, an ex-lover, twenty-seven-year-old radio talk show host Charles Dowhanuik makes for an easy target. What complicates matters is that Charles is also the son of the ex-premier who is the newest member of the poli sci department. It also doesn't help that Charles appears to be going through a very public, on-air meltdown. Joanne's reliably even-handed investigation turns up more than the usual skeletons before she sorts out the internal and infernal wrangling. Fans of academic shenanigans and Bowen's legion of followers will be richly rewarded.

Astrologer Katy Klein faces a microcosm of the groves of academe when she agrees to teach a seminar at a weekend AstroFest on a secluded island near Ottawa. But before the first natal chart can be drawn and analyzed, the "assertive to a fault" psychologist sleuth finds herself checking out the suspects for murder in Karen Irving's fast-paced Mars Eclipsed (Polestar paperback, 301 pages, $10.95, ISBN: 1551924765). This is Irving's third entry in the Klein series after the Arthur Ellis nominated Pluto Rising and Jupiter's Daughter.
Although Katy expects to attend the professional conference alone, she agrees to take her 15-year-old vegan daughter, Dawn, with her after Dawn's school trip to France is canceled. A history teacher absconded with $50,000 raised for the tour and then disappeared. Most readers will figure out early on that the death of a man in a wheelchair in the Prologue will dovetail into the main mystery. An overprotective brother, a bitter ex-wife ("like a chihuahua on amphetamines"), and a revengeful old college friend mix with dangerous members of the Russian mafia. An exciting high-speed kidnapping endangers Katy's life before a somewhat anti-climactic resolution leads to an emotional recovery and reconciliation which signals future adventures for Klein's newly employed forensic psychologist.

Peter Robinson's 12th Inspector Alan Banks mystery, Aftermath (McClelland & Stewart, 389 pages, $34.99, ISBN: 0771075774), peels back "layer after layer of lies" before it's finished with numerous grim scenarios which reveal that "something very nasty happened at 35 The Hill." This chilling police procedural deals with the murkiest of several kinds of abuses: child, sexual, domestic, and police. Before Banks sorts out the "odd chain of events" in his North Yorkshire neighborhood many lives, including his own, are changed forever.
Banks gets involved in this convoluted case after Police Constable Janet Taylor and her partner PC Dennis Morrisey answer a domestic dispute call from children's book illustrator, Maggie Forrest. Maggie hears shouts, screams, the sounds of breaking glass, and a thud from the house across from hers. She's heard evidence of domestic violence before coming from the house where Lucy and Terence Payne live. Lucy is 22, a bank loan officer; Terry, 28, a schoolteacher. They have been married just one year and are childless. In response to Maggie's 999 call, Taylor and Morrisey come upon a gory, bloody scene. In an effort to defend themselves, they become part of the grisly scene of the crime that awaits Banks.
By the time Banks arrives, Terry is dead, PC Morrisey is dead, and there are a number of young, female bodies in the basement. He knows he has stumbled on a "logistical and forensic nightmare." He also thinks he has found the answer to a previously unsolved case of a serial rapist. As he sorts through the identities of the discovered bodies, he also realizes that there's a body missing from the case. Something doesn't fit. It's the aftermath of this case that takes him into the past to another horrifying series of murders.
While Banks sorts out the puzzle of the Horror House on the Hill, he's also sorting out a personal crisis. Separated from his wife of more than 20 years, he learns that she is pregnant by her husband-to-be. She wants the divorce that Banks has refused her for too long. He isn't emotionally ready for the final break.
A richly developed plot, fully mature characters with intriguing back stories, and the usual allure of regional details make Aftermath another virtuoso achievement from Robinson. ˛

Robert Allen Papinchak lives in the Seattle, Washington, area. He is an active member of Mystery Writers of America. He has taught the British crime novel in London, chaired national and international sessions at Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime. His critical essay on Dorothy L. Sayers and another on three forgotten female writers appear in the Edgar Award-winning Mystery & Suspense Writers (2 vols, Scribners). His mystery reviews occur regularly in numerous publications.
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