Posts Tagged ‘mystery’

A Question of Belief: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery by Donna Leon. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010.

On August 6th, I caught the rebroadcast of Jian Ghomeshi’s interview with mystery writer P.D. James, now 90 years old. The interview was recorded in March in connection with the release of her latest book, Talking About Detective Fiction. James notes that there is plenty of evidence that suggests detective fiction is often favored by intellectuals with demanding lives, some of whom can be described as addicts of the genre! You can listen to the podcast at CBC.ca, the August 6th episode, starting about the 38 minute point.

I am pleased to include myself with other intellectuals, at least as identified by P.D.James, as a fan of detective fiction. I started reading Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and Agatha Christie when I was twelve and have loved the genre ever since. One of the outstanding detective series I enjoy is Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti mysteries. Leon is an American, but has lived in Venice for many years. Her stories really capture the essence of life in Venice and give a view of the city that tourists might not see. A Question of Belief is the 19th outing for Brunetti.

Each of Leon’s mysteries focuses on a particular aspect of society and explores the related ethical boundaries. In this outing, the story follows two threads. One centers on charlatans, in this case a fortune-teller, who bilk customers out of large amounts of money through deception. The other thread looks at corruption in the court system and how difficult it may be to find a cure. As always, the characters are well-developed, the setting atmospheric. If you haven’t met Commissario Brunetti, you might start with one of his earlier adventures and you can then enjoy many hours with the Commissario and his family and colleagues.

Barrington Street Blues by Ann Emery. ECW Press, 2008.

While Donna Leon’s series has been around for quite a few years, Anne Emery’s series was new to me. It came to my attention when I read a review about her latest book, Children in the Morning. I backtracked and read one of her earlier Monty Collins mysteries. Collins is a Halifax lawyer. In Barrington Street Blues, Collins can’t feel comfortable with the police finding of suicide-murder after two men are found dead in an alley. He undertakes his own quiet investigation to track down the truth.

The Halifax legal scene should be familiar territory for Emery. She herself is a Dalhousie law graduate and Haligonian. This is a bit worrisome, because boy, Collins and his colleagues sure can drink! They show up for work after wild nights out, half asleep and hung over. Collins has family problems. He is separated from his wife Maura, and just when things seem to be improving between them, he learns that Maura is expecting another man’s baby. This didn’t strike me as the dire event that Collins makes it out to be, and I found some of his antics to be a bit over-the-top. Still, Barrington Street Blues is a satisfying mystery, nicely resolved. I plan on following up with another Collins outing.

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December Heat by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza. Henry Holt and Company, 2003.

I follow a few different detective series and am always on the lookout for someone new and interesting. I read about Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa mysteries in a book review in the Globe and Mail, and thought I’d give him a try. December Heat happened to be the title available at the local library, and the exotic-sounding title appealed to me. Heat in December, certainly not something Ontarians expect. I like the cover photograph as well, the city of Rio de Janeiro at night, as seen from the beach.

Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa, a middle-aged man, certainly has a great deal of company in the ranks of detective fiction. Even on television there are any number of entries in the division. In British series currently available alone, Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby of Midsomer Murders, Inspector Morse, and Jack Frost of A Touch of Frost spring to mind. Given Garcia-Roza’s setting, I was expecting something more like an Italian series, Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti, maybe, or perhaps Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano.

Sadly, Inspector Espinosa is no match for either of those great Italian detectives. The character of Espinosa is not well-developed. We learn very little about him, although it is possible that Garcia-Roza fleshes out his character over the course of several novels. In this investigation, Espinosa falls for a young woman showing her art work on the street and their relationship and that of an old, retired policeman with a young prostitute seemed to enter into the realm of male fantasy.

The story begins with the murder of a prostitute and the loss of a wallet containing a retired policeman’s ID. Garcia-Rosa takes a brief look at the lives of street children, as one such youngster, who witnessed the theft of the wallet, is threatened. Espinosa’s investigation seeks to link the initial death with subsequent events. In the end, the author takes the easy way out: it seems the murder isn’t linked to the theft at all.

I did enjoy some elements of this story but probably wouldn’t seek out sequels based on this entry in series. On the other hand, I could see the story benefitting form the visuals of television. Inspector Espinosa might make a better detective on TV than he does in print.

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Gold Digger by Vicki Delany. RendezVous Crime, 2009.

Of all the light mysteries I’ve read lately, this one was the most fun. Set in Dawson in 1898, it features Fiona MacGillivray, a woman with a mysterious past who is now co-owner and manager of the Savoy saloon and dance hall. The action begins in the opening pages of the book. Fiona, returning to the Savoy one Sunday evening, her son Angus in tow, finds a slain body in the dance hall. Angus and his mother recognize the victim as Jack Ireland, a newly-arrived report who has been making enemies in town since stepping down at the docks. The balance of the book retraces events leading up to the murder, and climaxes in Fiona’s abduction as she confronts the killer.

At the end of the book, Delany lists a set of resources for those interested in learning more about the Klondike Gold Rush. I enjoyed her reconstruction of 1898 Dawson, and the rough and tumble cast of characters who peopled the town, both prospectors seeking their fortunes in the gold fields and those seeking their fortune through supplying the prospectors. Delaney includes interesting little details, such as the way the men who handled gold payments kept their nails long, the better to profit from any gold dust that might lodge there. She sends Constable Sterling off into the gold fields at Grand Forks on what seems like a rather unnecessary jaunt, the better to show readers another side of the gold rush.

Fiona and her son are likable and most of the supporting cast is too. I found Constable Richard Sterling a bit of a caricature, rather Dudley Do-Right, or at least Benton Fraser of Due South. He even has a big, white, wolfish dog named Mrs. Miller. Still, as the main potential love interest, he makes a good foil for Fiona’s questionable past and current shady employment. In the end, the mystery is solved and the scene is set for a sequel.

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A Violent End by Maggie Wheeler. General Store Publishing House, 2001.

After Farran Mackenzie’s mother dies in a house fire, Farran is haunted by questions about her mother’s mysterious past and her father’s identity. Taking a sabbatical from her position as a university history professor, Farran travels to her mother’s childhood home to find answers. She ends up uncovering more than she bargained for when murder follows in the footsteps of her inquiries.

The narrative alternates between Farran’s present-day visit to the Lost Villages region and events that took place 40 years earlier when the residents of Aultsville and the other villages disrupted by the St. Lawrence Seaway project prepared for the flooding of their homes. Although based on an interesting premise, the mystery that weaves the story together is a bit transparent. The strength of the book lies with its historical aspects. Wheeler does a nice job of bring to life the events of the era immediately preceding the flooding of the St. Lawrence communities and puts a human face on the impact of the project on their lives.


In the story, Farren rents a cottage on Ault Island for the duration of her visit. After reading the book, I visited Ault Island, a little community comprised of one long road running the length of the small, land-linked island, lined with a mix of cottages, modest homes, and newer, upscale houses. It’s a lovely spot, well-treed, with a peaceful, private feel. Along the road, I encountered this deer, who didn’t seem at all alarmed by my presence.


As the St. Lawrence Seaway is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2009, this is perhaps a particularly appropriate time to look back on its early days. An engaging look at the changes the Seaway project brought is provided in DVD form by A River Lost, which makes a good followup to A Violent End. I found the story as told by Wheeler and the details presented in the video mesh well.

For more on A River Lost , visit their website. For more on A Violent End, and its sequels, visit author Maggie Wheeler’s website.


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A Spoonful of Poison by M.C. Beaton. St. Martin’s Press, 2008.

Agatha Raisin is a fifty-something successful career woman, now retired to a comfortable life in the Cotswold region of England. She has small, bear-like eyes, a generous bosom and a rather thick waist, but good legs. Self-made and shrewd, Agatha nevertheless lacks self-awareness and confidence, owing in part to her difficult early life. It is perhaps these traits that lead her to obsessive relationships with the men who wander into her life. Somehow, murder has a way of stumbling into her life as well, and feeling a need for some excitement to fill her days, Agatha now runs a busy detective agency. In spite of her gruffness, Agatha is a rather endearing character.

A Spoonful of Poison is the 18th entry in the Agatha Raisin series. Having followed Agatha from her first outing in Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (1992), I look forward to each new installment. A full cast of characters support Agatha in each story, including the wife of Carsely’s vicar, kind and long-suffering Mrs. Bloxby, policeman Bill Wong, former-employee Roy Silver, and friend Sir Charles Fraith. In this installment, Agatha sets out to find the truth behind deaths at a neighbouring village’s church festival.

If you haven’t read an Agatha Raisin mystery, its best to start at the beginning and see if Agatha is someone you would like to get to know. I found that A Spoonful of Poison felt a bit rushed and was not one of the best of the series, almost as if Beaton was simply building a bridge to a new storyline for Agatha. A prolific writer, M.C. Beaton is also the author of the Hamish MacBeth series, which was turned into a television series that ran for three years in the 1990s and featured Scottish actor Robert Carlyle.

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