Baltimoreans may be tired of winter, but that shouldn’t stop you from reading Jennifer McMahon’s latest book, The Winter People, a ghostly tale of small town legends and entangled tragic family history. West Hall, Vermont, has always been a locus of strange sightings and disappearances. Many of the local legends feature Sara Harrison Shea, a farmer’s wife who in 1908 was found dead shortly after her daughter’s sudden death. The tragedies of the Shea family perpetuated rumors of curses and other odd occurrences that continue to resonate in the town.
In present day, Ruthie, whose family lives “off the grid” in the old Shea farmhouse, is puzzling over the disappearance of her mother and has just discovered an old copy of Sara’s diary hidden in the farmhouse. Katherine, a Boston transplant who moved to West Hall after the deaths of both her son and husband, comes across a copy of the same diary in her husband’s belongings. Slowly, through the chapters that alternate among Sara’s, Ruthie’s and Katherine’s stories, the mystery comes to light, and the shadowy links between all the characters are revealed.
McMahon spins an intriguing and unique story with smart, resourceful characters and whispers of old magic and ghosts. Love and strong familial bonds are at the heart of all three stories, making this a good pick for anyone who likes family sagas as well as mysteries. As each new layer is revealed, readers will be further drawn into the enigmatic world of West Hall and its dark history. Although the story is not overburdened with descriptive details, a harsh early 20th century farming existence and an artsy present-day New England town are skillfully conveyed. In fact, McMahon does such an exceptional job penning a New England winter landscape that you are bound to feel the chill of frozen Vermont while reading. Best to read in front of a fire – or someplace with warm weather if you’re lucky!
The Mangle Street Murders is the first in the Gower Street Detective series by M. R. C. Kasasian. London before the turn of the century could be a dismal place. Luckily, London has personal detective Sidney Grice. Grice is pompous, arrogant, irascible and overly fond of drinking a perfectly brewed cup of tea. He will take anyone’s case for a price. March Middleton has lost her immediate family and is sent to live with Sidney Grice as his ward. March is kinder and gentler than the great detective and is keen on getting involved in his cases. When a woman of limited means comes to Sidney’s office to hire him to clear the name of her son-in-law, Sidney and March find themselves with a curious mystery that becomes more complicated at every turn. Sidney is unwilling to allow a woman to take part in an investigation, but March holds fast and quickly begins to assist with the case. Will March’s kind demeanor be able to withstand the arrogance held by Sidney Grice?
Grice is an even ruder version of the famous Sherlock Holmes, and Kasasian pokes fun at the famous detective with this similar character. March becomes the female Watson and, as the story is told through her narrative, she holds her own as an interesting and compelling character. The mystery itself is well thought out and complex enough to keep any mystery lover guessing. Kasasian is good at detailing life in 1880s London, and readers who enjoy a mystery rich in historical detail will not be disappointed.
In addition to her busy career as a reporter for NBC’s Boston affiliate, Hank Phillippi Ryan has made a name for herself as a bestselling author of suspense fiction. In Ryan’s most recent novel, The Wrong Girl, reporter Jane Ryland is contacted by a former co-worker who asks for Jane’s help because she believes that she was reunited with the wrong birth mother. At the same time, Detective Jake Brogan is investigating the brutal murder of a woman who was found in her house with two young children and an empty crib. He believes that it’s more than the simple domestic violence case that it seems to be. Soon, it becomes obvious that the cases are linked. Ryan’s writing is pitch-perfect as she builds suspense and continues to develop Jane and Jake’s will-they-or-won’t-they relationship.
Ryan generously agreed to answer a few questions for Between the Covers readers. She tells us about her lifelong love of mysteries, her inspiration and why she writes page-turners but not “stomach-turners.”
When you wrote your first novel, you already had a very successful career as a television reporter. What made you take that leap? Did you always want to write fiction?
I grew up in very rural Indiana ... so rural you could not see another house from our house. My sister and I used to ride our ponies to the library – we’d get books and put them in the saddle bags and then read them up in the hayloft of our barn. (Yes, I know I look like a city girl now! But that’s how it all started.)
I fell in love with Nancy Drew, then, soon after, Sherlock Holmes. Then soon after that, all the wonderful Golden Age mystery authors – Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey and Dorothy Sayers ... and of course Agatha Christie. And I think that’s where my love of mystery storytelling was born.
But I went on to be a journalist – starting in radio in 1971! Then in TV in 1975. (So far, I’ve won 30 Emmys for investigative reporting, and I am still on the air at Boston’s NBC affiliate.) And when you think of it, journalism is also storytelling, right? It’s just stories that are true. I never gave up my love of mystery and thriller reading, but – okay, I’ll admit it. I just never had a good idea for my own fiction.
Then in – 2005, maybe, I had a great idea. I knew it instantly, and from that moment on I was obsessed with writing what turned out to be the Agatha Award-winning first novel, Prime Time. (It’s a great story – maybe invite me to visit the library, and I’ll tell you the whole thing.)
After that, I was completely hooked. Now I have the joy of juggling two fabulous careers – stressful, and high-stakes and unpredictable, yes – but I am very lucky.
How does your work as a reporter influence your writing?
Well, it’s all about telling a story, right? Whether you’re making it up or not. I am well aware as a TV reporter that if a viewer isn’t interested, entertained, informed and riveted, they can simply zap me away with the click of a remote. So I have learned over all these years to tell a good story.
Happily, I get to use the same skills in crime fiction. I know if you don’t love the characters and the plot, if you’re not riveted to turning the pages, you’re going to close the cover and find another book. I do my best not to let that happen! And that’s all about the story.
I’ve also wired myself with hidden cameras, confronted corrupt politicians, gone undercover and in disguise, been tear-gassed and at hostage situations, at fires and crime scenes, had people confess to murder, seen how people behave when they’re lying or terrified. So there’s an authenticity from my day job that I bring to my crime fiction. The things that happen to Jane could happen to me! And some of them certainly have!
So having this career which brings me into places the public can’t always go and into situations that can be exciting and high-stakes gives me a never-ending (I hope) source of inspiration. I don’t take my TV stories and fictionalize them, but I do use the real-life experience to make it genuine.
While crime plays a major part in your novels, the violence takes place “off the page.” Was that a conscious decision or just something that evolved as part of your writing style?
Oh, interesting. When I read a particularly ghoulish and violent book – confession here – I sometimes skip the graphic parts. (Yes, I know, it’s funny, since my real life shows me a very dark part of the world.) Did I decide – oh, I’m not going to go graphic? No. But they always say to write the kind of book you love to read – and for me that’s Lisa Scottoline, Linda Fairstein, Sue Grafton, Laura Lippman, Meg Gardiner, John Lescroart, Harlan Coben, Steve Hamilton. Very, very suspenseful, yes, very high stakes, yes. But gory/bloody/violent? No. So I write my books to be page-turners – as Library Journal called The Wrong Girl “stellar” and a “superb thriller” – but they are not, um, stomach-turners!
Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write The Wrong Girl?
It’s a great story. I got a call at my TV station – and this is the perfect example of what you were asking – from a woman who said, “Hank! You’ve got to do a story about my cousin. She was given up at birth to an adoption agency 25 years ago and got a call from them asking if she wanted to be reunited with her birth mother. She said yes – but you know, when they met? Turned out they weren’t related! The agency had sent that woman the wrong girl!”
I’m laughing now, even as I type this. I remember thinking, “Thank you, universe! The Wrong Girl! There’s my book!” A book about mothers and daughters, the struggle of adoption from all sides, the need for a family. What if someone made up a family history for you – would you believe it? What if you didn’t know the truth about your own family? How would you recognize your own daughter? Fascinating and relevant questions. And I was off and writing!
What’s turned out to be just as timely and fascinating – there’s a huge problem, making headlines right now, about the chaos in the Massachusetts foster-care system. A completely fictional version of that is key to The Wrong Girl. Amazing, huh? That book as written way before those headlines.
And did you see it’s now nominated for the Agatha Award for Best Novel?
What are you working on next? Will we get to see more of Jake and Jane?
Yes, absolutely! (And thank you.) Truth Be Told will be out on September 30. It’s about a mortgage banker who decides to keep her economically challenged customers out of foreclosure by manipulating their records so it looks like they’ve paid – good hearted, of course, but illegal. It’s about a man who confesses to a cold case murder the police have stopped investigating – why would he do that? And about a reporter who makes stuff up.
Will Jake and Jane find a way to be together? We shall see.
What have you read lately that you loved? Are there any authors who are on your personal must-read list?
Personal must read - Lisa Scottoline. John Lescroart. Ian Rankin. Julia Spencer-Fleming. Sue Grafton, the master! I love Nelson DeMille’s John Corey books and William Landay’s Defending Jacob. Dennis Lehane, of course. Gone Girl, I’m a fan.
New books? Look for M. P. Cooley’s Ice Shear, Rachel Howzell Hall’s Land of Shadows. Jenny Milchman’s Ruin Falls and Chris Pavone’s (he wrote the Edgar Award-winning The Expats) new The Accident. (Unique! But great.)
As for me, I’m in the midst of writing What You See – In solving a murder, Jake wonders why cameras don’t lie – but photographs do. And Jane’s own family puts her in deadly danger. That’s what you get when you plan a wedding, right?
Baltimore author Laura Lippman is a favorite of many BCPL readers. Her new stand-alone novel, After I’m Gone, brings together past and present in a suspenseful, character-driven story about the family of a fugitive living their lives in the wake of scandal. On July 4, 1976, Felix Brewer flees from Baltimore rather than face a jail sentence. He leaves behind his wife, Bambi, his three young daughters and his mistress, Julie. In 2012, Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez, a consultant for the Baltimore Police Department, reopens the cold case file of the murder of Felix’s mistress, Julie. Lippman skillfully weaves the threads of what happens to each of the women in Felix’s life with Sandy’s investigation to bring the reader to the unexpected conclusion.
Lippman recently answered some questions for our Between the Covers readers. She tells us more about the inspiration for this story and a new movie adaptation of one of her novels.
Your husband, David Simon, originally suggested that you write about Julius Salsbury, head of a large gambling operation in Baltimore who disappeared in the 1970s rather than face jail time, but you weren’t initially interested in that story. What changed?
I am pretty resistant to other people’s ideas. It’s a personal thing, writing a novel. It’s a year out of my life. And perhaps I wasn’t listening as closely as I should have because David probably did emphasize that he thought the novel would be about the women affected. But it was when I started thinking about the daughters, saw a story beyond a love triangle, that I saw how I could do it.
Felix’s disappearance frames the story, but it’s quickly apparent that the novel isn’t really about him. It’s about those left behind. What is it about these five women that captured your imagination?
We define ourselves by our relationships. We are wives, girlfriends, daughters, sisters. What if one of those relationships is taken away? Who are we then? How do we adjust? The same would be true of men, by the way. Sandy, the retired cop in the novel, very much identifies himself as a widower, as someone who was married and is now alone, unhappily so.
What kind of research did you do for After I’m Gone?
I mainly tried to make sure the pop culture lined up. I remember being very disappointed to find out that Michelle’s bat mitzvah was just ahead of the introduction of the bubble skirt. I wanted all the Brewer women to be in fashion-forward bubble skirts.
Sandy meets Tess Monaghan near the end of the story, and the two of them talk business. Will readers see Sandy again in the future?
The movie adaptation of Every Secret Thing, starring Diane Lane, Elizabeth Banks and Dakota Fanning, is in post-production. What was it like to see that story come to life on film? When will the movie be released?
The film has been accepted by a major film festival, but that’s not official yet. The hope is it will find national distribution there. The whole experience was wonderfully surreal. It was as if the games I played with my Barbie dolls, all those years ago, had come to life.
Are there any authors on your personal must-read list? What have you read recently that you loved?
My must-read list includes Megan Abbott, Alex Marwood, Alison Gaylin, Rebecca Chance, Ann Hood, Stewart O’Nan, Tom Perrotta, Dennis Lehane, Georgoe Pelecanos, Mark Billingham, Andre Dubus III, Alafair Burke – shall I go on?
I also just had the privilege of guest-editing Best American Mystery Stories , so I’ve been reading amazing short stories – but I can’t say by whom.
A tight-knit community is turned upside down when tragedy strikes. Carla Buckley’s new novel, The Deepest Secret, shows how a once safe and unsuspecting community can transform when one minor bad decision goes unchecked and snowballs.
Everyone makes mistakes, and Buckley highlights the flaws of all of her characters, but it’s the mistake of one person in particular that propels the plot and changes the dynamic of a whole family. Eve is the mother of a son with a rare condition leaving him unable to come in contact with ultraviolet light. Her family has revolved around the rising and setting of the sun until an error in judgment becomes the center of her universe.
Buckley has a way of conveying guilt and a sense of ambiguity that leads the reader to hope that there is the potential for innocence. Buckley also brings other characters’ mistakes to light, leading the reader to rethink who may be at fault for the crime that shakes this community’s sense of security.
The shame that can be felt while reading this book could be compared to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, while the family dynamics and legal components are reminiscent of William Landay’s Defending Jacob. One minute, incidents seem certain, yet in the next they shift, keeping the reader guessing and eager until the very end.
Alice LaPlante’s latest novel, A Circle of Wives, tells a story of lies, secrets and determination from the perspective of several different women. When Dr. Paul Taylor is discovered dead in his hotel room from an apparent heart attack, everything changes as it becomes clear his death was anything but natural. Married to his wife Deborah for 35 years, Dr. Taylor was a kind-hearted and renowned plastic surgeon who specialized in facial reconstruction for children with birth and medical defects. But his death opens a veritable Pandora’s Box of polygamy and deception when it's revealed that Dr. Taylor had not one, but three wives throughout the state of California.
Detective Samantha Adams is 28 and assigned to her first murder case. She becomes embroiled in the lives of Dr. Taylor’s wives and, while the motive to kill is clear, the question remains as to which wife it could be. They are very different women: the society wife, the hippy accountant and the successful doctor. Two were unaware of their deceased husband’s lies and his “real” wife emerges as the puppet master behind the whole arrangement. Could this make her the most likely suspect?
While LaPlante’s novel initially seems to be a clear cut murder mystery, it quickly evolves into an entirely different story full of psychological suspense, obsession and passion.
From sitcom writer to author of cozy mysteries, Laura Levine has had an eclectic writing career. Her newest novel, Killing Cupid, is a light mystery about a murder in a matchmaking company on Valentine’s Day.
When Jaine gets a call and is asked to write advertising copy for a Beverly Hills matchmaker, all she has to do is consider her meager bank account before quickly accepting the job. Upon starting at Dates of Joy, Jaine quickly discovers that Joyce is as much of con artist as matchmaker. Instead of marketing, Jaine is writing phony bios to go with the head shots of fake clients who happen to be models.
Joyce appears to be a charming woman to anyone seeking love in her matchmaking business, but after she cashes their check, they’re likely to never hear from her again. She cuts corners to save a penny and she isn’t above blackmail, so it’s no surprise that Jaine isn’t the only person who can’t stand her tyrant of a boss. When Joyce turns up murdered by a poison chocolate, the list of suspects is long. Jaine finds herself among them and must discover who the real murderer is to clear her own name.
Whether you're trying to get in the mood for this holiday or find a good distraction from the day, this cozy mystery can help. With Jaine’s quirkiness and the effortless storyline, this book could be a beach read, if only it were a little warmer.
Fans of mystery writer Maggie Barbieri and her Murder 101 series, rejoice! Her newest mystery, Once Upon a Lie, introduces us to her new series featuring protagonist and baker extraordinaire, Maeve Conlon. Readers will empathize with the family challenges that comprise her waking hours. She has two teenage daughters, one completely wild and the other fixated on achieving in school as her ticket out of their small town, an ex-husband who left her for one of her close “friends” and a cancer surviving best friend/employee with love-life issues. Add to this her dear father, a retired cop with Alzheimer’s who resides locally in a nursing home – except for when he manages to escape confinement to take walks along the river. She finds solace in the Comfort Zone, the bakery she owns and loves but which barely provides enough income to pay the bills. Maeve is a kind and compassionate person who tries her best to care for her family but constantly fears that she isn’t doing enough.
The story begins with the murder of Maeve’s cousin Sean, who is found in his car with his pants unzipped and a bullet in his head. Despite being raised in a close-knit Irish family where everyone lives within a block from each other, she feels very little sorrow at his death. She remembers him as a bully who tormented her as a child and only attends his funeral services out of family duty. She doesn’t give his death a second thought until investigating officers start to focus on her father as their main suspect. Unable to understand how the police could seriously believe an old man with dementia could be responsible she is determined to help prove his innocence. Unfortunately, circumstances are such that he could have had the opportunity, and Maeve begins to wonder if her father could be exaggerating the degree of his confusion.
The mystery of the killer’s identity will have readers guessing until the very last page. This novel explores family dynamics and how far a person would go to protect the people they care about. Maeve is a complex character that readers will find captivating, and will make them wish they could stop by her shop for a cup of coffee and a pastry.
When Piper enlisted a local chef to do a cooking demonstration at the grand opening of her spice shop, she had no idea the troubles it would stir up. Chef Barrone and Piper have difficulty seeing eye-to-eye, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t horrified to find him dead the morning of his big demo. Unfortunately for Piper, all the evidence points to her as the murderer and in a small, gossip-ridden town, this can make all the difference to a new business owner.
As a recent divorcee, Piper is trying to find her livelihood through her spice shop, but what should be an exciting time is marred by the town’s suspicions of her murdering Barrone. This, mixed with the fact that she is trying to maintain a relationship with her daughter while beginning to date, is a recipe for pandemonium.
In order to clear her good name and get back to her normal life, Piper enlists the help of her best friend, Reba Mae, to unofficially aid the new chief of police in the murder investigation. Their hapless efforts turn out to be more like Lucy and Ethel than Cagney and Lacey.
Gail Oust creates a cozy mystery in Rosemary and Crime. She combines a dollop of mystery with a dash of southern living and a sprinkle of romance for a recipe that is sure to please those who like a nice light mystery. For those readers who have a taste for Oust, be sure to check out the Bunco Babes mysteries.
Lene Kaaberbøl’s Death of a Nightingale begins with Olga and Oxana, two sisters growing up in the Ukraine during the time when Stalin was considered their uncle, whether they liked it or not. During that time, it was hard to tell what was right and what was wrong because regardless of what one did, there was someone who said it was wrong. Olga and Oxana‘s family did what it had to do to get by during famine, but it’s not until years later that the reader sees the ripples of the sisters’ actions.
In the current day, Nina, a Danish nurse with the Red Cross, has taken charge of looking after the asthmatic daughter of Natasha, a woman who was convicted of attempting to kill her abusive fiancé. When Nina agreed to take extra care of this young girl, she didn’t realize protecting her from harm could include keeping her safe from people trying to kill or kidnap her. She becomes entangled in a situation far more dangerous than she could have imagined.
The timing coincides with Natasha’s escape from custody as she sets off to find her daughter and right the wrongs of her past. It is after Natasha’s escape that her ex-fiancé is found tortured and killed in a similar fashion to her ex-husband’s. Although police suspect Natasha, Nina has suspicions that something more is going on. Now she becomes ensnared with keeping Katerina safe at all costs, even if that means saving her from her own mother.
It’s not until the end of this roller coaster of a novel that the reader sees how Olga and Oxana’s past actions have created this tense situation. Though this novel can be read as a stand-alone book, it’s the third in the Nina Borg series. Those who enjoy Nordic crime novels such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are sure to find edge-of-your-seat satisfaction with this series as well.