Donna Leon – Give unto Others

Donna Leon – Give unto Others

When Commissario Guido Brunetti is contacted by his childhood neighbour, he is a bit perplexed and does not know what to do. Elisabetta Foscarini is worried about her daughter Flora. She does not provide any real details but Flora’s husband Enrico Fenzo makes her feel uncomfortable. The accountant has helped her husband Bruno to set up a charity but then suddenly left the project to take care of other clients. Her feeling might stem from Fenzo’s business contacts but she cannot really nail it down. Brunetti promises to look into the matter even though he is not convinced of any threat. Since life has become slow in Venice due to the pandemic, he and his team have got the time to investigate the matter. Just when the start digging, Flora’s veterinary clinic is vandalised and some animals are seriously harmed. Soon after, clever Signorina Elettra finds some remarkable facts about „Belize nel Cuore“, Bruno del Balzo’s charity.

Not a classic murder investigation for the Venetian Commissario. However, Donna Leon cleverly integrated the pandemic into the plot which slowed down life in the Italian city due to the lack of tourists. Thus „Give Unto Others“ differs quite from the other crime mysteries in the series but in my opinion, it is a lot more complex and interesting since it is not that obvious where the investigation will lead to and the characters, too, have a lot more depth.

What brings Elisabetta to Brunetti is quite vague at the beginning, neither does she really know where her uneasy feeling comes from nor does the detective know where exactly to start and to look. As it turns out, things are not what they seem and people have motives they successfully hide for a long time thus exploiting others reach their questionable aims.

Rapidly, the story develops into a financial crime novel which is complicated on the one hand, and, on the other, tells you a great deal not only about people but also about legislation. At the end, you have learnt a lot of things you actually did not really want to know and again, the thin line between legal and illegal reveals itself to be quite flexible depending on the point of view: what is morally questionable might be perfectly legal.

A thought provoking crime mystery that, again, I thoroughly enjoyed.

Greer Hendricks/Sarah Pekkanen – The Golden Couple

Greer Hendricks/Sarah Pekkanen – The Golden Couple

When Marissa and Matthew Bishop contact Avery Chambers for counselling, she senses immediately that they are hiding something but believes that the couple is perfect for her ten-step-therapy programme. First, it all goes according to plan. Marissa confesses her affair with somebody from her gym and Matthew reacts as one would suppose. But then, the picture blurs and Marissa’s employee Polly appears on the scene, as well as Matthew’s ex, and the couple is more and more under stress. Avery gets stressed, too, since she has her own battles to fight while caring for her clients. When Avery’s private life suddenly mixes with the Bishop’s, it becomes obvious that there are a lot more secrets than you would ever have expected.

I have already enjoyed “The Wife between Us” and “You Are Not Alone” by the writing duo Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen and quite naturally was curious to see what their latest mystery “The Golden Couple” would come up with. I was not disappointed, a complex story which only slowly unfolds it whole potential and develops into a web of lies and secrets not easy to untangle.

The protagonist Avery is an interesting character. Admittedly, I’d say her professional approach might be questionable, but she is really concerned about the people she works with and puts a lot of effort in the counselling. Why she herself is always close to freaking out and on high alert only becomes obvious after some time, adding another aspect to her personality.

The couple at first seems to be rather average but then develops into a fascinating pair which oscillates between fighting together and fighting each other. The other characters at some point become highly suspect in the way they act, what they obviously hide and the links they have which are not apparent at first.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the novel and I am eager to any further read of the duo.

Peter Swanson – Nine Lives

Peter Swanson – Nine Lives

Nine people, seemingly chosen at random, get the same letter: no sender or return address and in the envelope just a sheet of paper with nine names. One of them is theirs.  They have no idea what this is supposed to mean and react quite differently to it. Some of them are worried, others just throw it away. But when the first person listed is murdered, mood shifts a bit. When the second body is discovered, they get nervous as it becomes more and more obvious: this is a kill list. And the strangers will all be dead just a short time after. FBI agent Jessica is among them and she is the first to discover a possible connection: the reason for the murderer lies in the past, many decades ago, there must have been an event that links them.

“Nine Lives” is only the second novel I read by Peter Swanson after “Before She Knew Him” which I also thoroughly enjoyed. His newest novel, too, keeps you long in the dark, just like the police, you wonder what the characters might have brought on the list, how nine – why nine and not ten? – people spread all over the country might be linked. What I liked especially and what came to my mind immediately after starting to read, was Agatha Christie’s crime mystery “And Then There Were None” which is referred to several times throughout the novel. A tricky puzzle where the pieces do not seem to fit for quite a long time and while you still ponder about the reason behind it all, you can only watch how one after the other is killed.

“It wasn’t simply revenge. It felt like something much more than that. Karma, maybe. I had the money, and I had the will, to do what the natural world would never do. I could set the world to rights, in one small way.”

What I appreciated most was how the people reacted to their death announcement. Swanson created quite diverse characters who cope with this challenging situation in very different ways. Ethan and Caroline’s way of bonding over the shared fate was for me the most loveable story as I could relate to this most – just having the feeling of not being alone in it, of having somebody to share the fears and thoughts with, and somehow accepting fate or whatever it is.

There are some noteworthy minor characters – a wannabe victim, a contract killer – whose motives and points of view bring some new spin to the plot, too. However, what is most remarkable is the personality of the character who is behind it all. Normally, you come to hate a serial killer who takes himself for God, emotionally, I found it not that easy here, which alone already makes it a great read since life is never just black and white, good or bad.

A very cleverly composed plot which is not totally nerve-wrecking but full of suspense and also thought-provoking: what would you do if you were on such a list?

Sarah Vaughan – Reputation

Sarah Vaughan – Reputation

Emma Webster is a backbencher but she gains publicity after a Guardian interview with striking photos and especially when she makes the case of a girl who committed suicide after being cyberbullied with a private video of her ex-partner her prime topic. But then, things go quickly down the hill, she is harassed and threatened increasingly by frustrated men, her daughter Flora becomes the victim of bullying at school and online and makes a huge mistake. Emma, too, loses her temper and thus becomes the prime suspect in a murder case. How could this all go so wrong when she just wanted to protect her own and her daughter’s reputation?

I totally adored Sarah Vaughan’s novels “Notes on a Scandal” and “Little Disasters”. Her latest, “Reputation”, too, did definitely not disappoint. The author greatly used an important topic to fire up the plot and brilliantly outlines how, still in 2022, there is much more men can do than women and how fragile their public picture is. With Emma, she created an authentic protagonist whose point of view shows the contradictory feelings and constraints a woman in a public position is under.

On the one hand, the novel is a murder mystery in which you are repeatedly surprised as little bits and pieces surface unexpectedly making things appear in a different light. On the other hand, the novel lives on the personal perspective of Emma and her daughter being subject to bullying and harassment. Sarah Vaughn greatly develops the characters who come under ever more pressure until it gets too much and they do things they themselves would have considered unimaginable. The female characters are brilliantly developed since they have mixed feelings which make it all but easy to decide what to do and thus underline that life is far from being just black and white.

A great read with an important topic that outlines how cruel people can be and how important it is to have good friends you can rely on.

Fiona Leitch – A Cornish Christmas Murder

Fiona Leitch – A Cornish Christmas Murder

Jodie Parker and her catering team – consisting of her 13-year-old daughter Daisy, her mother and her right hand Debbie – have taken over a job at short notice at Bodmin Moor, an old abbey about to be turned into a guest house. Millionaire Isaac is hosting a Christmas party for kids with a Santa and all it needs to have a great event. The food is great and they all have a wonderful day. Yet, when they want to leave in the evening, it turns out that due to heavy snow fall, all roads are blocked. Thus, Jodie and her team, Isaac with his assistant and his son as well as Santa Steve have to stay overnight. Two knocks on the door bring more stranded people: a group of four Japanese women and a mysterious couple. They make the best of the situation, but when a dead body is discovered the next morning, they realise that a murderer must be among them.

I hadn’t noticed that “A Cornish Christmas Murder” is the fourth in Fiona Leitch series about the nosey ex member of the Met Police Jodie Parker. Yet, the cosy crime novel offers enough about her backstory to simply enjoy the case at hand. It is a classic setting with a group of strangers gathering in an isolated place where no mysterious intruder could have entered secretly to commit the deed. Thus, you know soon that one of the lovely bunch must be the culprit, only the questions of how and why remain of which the search for an answer is entertaining to follow.

It was especially that Agatha Christie-esque setting that drew me to the novel and I wasn’t disappointed. Christmas time is a jolly period which makes people especially unaware of the dark sides of the world. Despite the unwanted stay at the mansion, the night guests explore the premises and make the best of it. And the house has to offer some secret passages which open room for speculation about past times – and present times, too. Some late-comers about whom we do not learn too much add suspense to the circle of suspects.

The protagonist is a very likable down-to-earth woman – with quite a clever daughter – whom I liked immediately. The case offers some mysteries which are not too obvious to untangle but find a convincing end. A charming and diverting read perfect for the Christmas season.

Megan Abbott – The Turnout

Megan Abbott – The Turnout

Ballet has always been the world of sisters Dara and Marie. Their glamourous mother, a former ballet soloist, had kept them close and after the parents’ death, they have taken over the Durant School of Dance together with Dara’s husband Charlie who had become a family member as a boy. When a fire destroys one of their studios amidst the preparations of their biggest annual event, the performance of “The Nutcracker”, they hire Derek, a seemingly highly skilled contractor, to have everything restored as quickly as possible. Yet, they do not have the least idea of whom they let into their studio and lives. The fire was just the beginning of a series of dreadful events which will change their lives forever.

“No one wanted to face the truth. That every family was a hothouse, a swamp. Its own atmosphere, its own rules. Its own laws and gods. There would never be any understanding from the outside. There couldn’t be.”

Megan Abbott is a master of foreshadowing and again has created unique characters who reveal their full potential slowly throughout the novel. The title – “The Turnout” – is quite ambiguous but perfectly fits in several respects. A turnout is a demanding move in ballet and that’s what the sisters expects from their élèves. Secondly, it is also the moment where you are confronted with different directions and have to decide for one. Thirdly, it is a clearing out, an act of cleaning what has been spoilt. All three can be found in the novel. The preparation for the ballet performance is at the centre when the sisters get into a deep conflict in which they decide for different roads and, in the end, the initial state is restored and all disruptive factors are cleared. At least they might think so.

The novel moves at a rather slow pace but this adds the creepy atmosphere which makes the plot quite authentic. The threat does not come in in an obvious way, it is sneaking into their lives with a friendly and smiling face like a predator who observes his prey, gets closer and tenaciously waits for the perfect moment to attack.

It is also a novel about family structures and sisterly bonds. Quite obviously, their mother’s way of keeping the girls away from other children, of treating them in a special – or rather: strange – way to form them according to her own ideals cannot be healthy. Dara and Marie become like two sides of one coin, an inseparable unit which even cannot be divided by Charlie who integrates into their union. No wonder, at a certain point in life, such a bond is threatened and the lack of experience with people makes them even more vulnerable than others might have been.

From a psychological point of view, an outstanding novel which is also full of spine-chilling suspense.

Yukito Ayatsuji – The Decagon House Murders

Yukito Ayatsuji – The Decagon House Murders

Murder and mystery are what they are all interested in as the members of the so called Mystery Club of their university. They like to delve in the classic stories and to solve the puzzles of crimes. They have even given themselves nick names after the great classic writers of crime novels:  Ellery, Carr, Leroux, Poe, Van, Agatha and Orczy. When they are invited to the remote island of Tsunojima, they are thrilled. It has been the place of a quadruple murder the year before and thus promises an interesting week which they want to spend with writing and enjoying themselves. Yet, they did not count on somebody waiting there for them to settle an old bill which is to be paid with their lives. In the meantime, on the mainland, three people receive letters insinuating that something strange might be going on and that a presumably dead killer might still be around.

“Even if the world were viewed as a chessboard, and every person on it a chess piece, there would still be a limit as to how far future moves could be predicted. The most meticulous plan, plotted to the last detail, could still go wrong sometime, somewhere, somehow.”

Yukito Ayatsuji’s debut novel is clearly inspired by the novels of the Golden Age of crime using the classic setting. “The Decagon House Murders” was first published in Japan in 1987 but only now the English translation is available. The reader alternatingly follows the evens on the island, where one after the other student finds his/her death and on the mainland, where they do not know what exactly happens there but try to combine the murders of the year before with the current events and the mysterious letters they got. Even though both lines of enquiry provide numerous ideas of what could be happening, the reader remains in the dark until the very end, just to discover what can only be called the perfect murder.

The novel is a homage to the classic crime novels and mystery readers who have always enjoyed Agatha Christie and the like will be totally enthralled. The plot, first of all, lives on the atmosphere of the island which is not very welcoming and cut off from the outside thus strongly reminding of “And Then There Were None”. The fact that it was the scene of a dreadful murder only months before adds to the its mysterious vibes. The murders seem to be carefully planned, no repetition in how they students find death and therefore leaving you pondering about one person could manage all this without being detected.

A classic whodunnit I thoroughly enjoyed.

Ajay Chowdhury – The Waiter

Ajay Chowdhury – The Waiter

His former life a total mess, detective Kamil Rahman quite unexpectedly finds himself waiting tables at an Indian restaurant in London. Her literally had to flee from Kolkata since he totally messed up a high profile case. Now, an old friend of his father’s boards and employs him. When they cater a party at the multi-millionaire Rakesh, Kamil senses a lot of hatred coming from that man towards him even though he has never met him before. A couple of hours later, Rakesh is found dead in his mansion’s swimming-pool and his current wife Neha, three decades his junior and close friend of Kamil’s hosts’ daughter Anjoli, is accused of murder. Immediately, Kamil’s instincts jump in and he tries to figure out what has happened. But with the start of his investigation, also the memories of what drove him from his home town comes back.

Ajay Chowdhury’s novel is a very cleverly constructed mystery which links two seemingly unconnected crimes and events on two continents in a skilful way. By telling bits of both stories alternatingly, you advance and yet, for quite a long time, do not really get the whole picture which keeps suspense high at all times. At the same time, the story lives on the characters and their live between two cultures which are not always easy to bring together.

Without any doubt, the protagonist and his conviction of law and order and fighting for the right is the most striking feature of the novel. Seeing how his world view, which was more or less just black and white, slowly becomes blurred and he starts to question all he has ever believed in, is a great character development, especially for a mystery novel.

Both murder cases are highly complex and can only be sorted out by a very sharp mind – yet, knowing the truth does not mean that it will also win ultimately. A lesson which Kamil learns the hard way.

An intriguing read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Gilly Macmillan – To Tell You the Truth

Gilly Macmillan – To Tell You the Truth

Lucy Harper has achieved what many writers dream of: her detective novels about Eliza Grey have become highly successful and she built up a huge fan base. Her husband Dan supports her and takes care of their finances and everyday life. When he, without asking her first, decides to buy a house, she gets angry, even more so when she learns where exactly the house is located: close to where she grew up, next to the woods where her younger brother once disappeared and which she connects with her most dreadful nightmares. How could he do something like this, knowing about her childhood? Quite obviously, he is gaslighting her – that’s what Eliza tells her. Eliza, not only the protagonist of her novels but also the voice that has been in her head as long as she can remember. What has been useful for her writing now becomes complicated when Lucy struggles to distinguish between what is real, what is fiction and what is only in her head and when her husband is found murdered, the writer finds herself the main suspect of a story just like her novels.

I have several of Gilly Macmillan’s novels, always liking how she plays with the reader’s sympathies for the characters and the unexpected twists which keep suspense high. “To Tell You the Truth” is also masterfully crafted in terms of being vague and keeping you in the dark about what is real within fiction and what is only imagined by Lucy. Just like the protagonist, it takes a long time to figure out where the actual threat comes from, many different leads offer options for speculation which makes reading totally enjoyable.

Having a crime writer who finds herself suddenly suspect in a crime in which the police use her own writing against her, is a setting which has been used before. Yet, Gilly Macmillan added a lot of aspects to make the case much more complicated. On the one hand, the voice in Lucy’s head is quite strong and surely a negative character whom you shouldn’t trust. Again and again, Lucy also seems to suffer from blackouts thus opening the possibility of actions she simply cannot recollect and which therefore remain blank spaces also for the reader. The backstory of her vanished brother and the big question looming over all if she herself might be responsible for his likely death – maybe even willingly – also add to the unpleasant feeling that she might not be a victim in this story at all.

Her husband, too, raises many questions. He is, quite obviously, envious of his wife’s success since he also dreams of a career in writing but lacks talent. The bits and pieces of information one gets directly lead to the assumption of him gaslighting her. However, the possibility of Lucy getting it all wrong due to her hallucinations and the Eliza-voice is also in the air.

A creepy thriller which keeps you alert at all times. Even though I found the end a bit too simply for the plot, a fantastic read I totally enjoyed.

Heidi Perks – The Whispers

Heidi Perks – The Whispers

When Grace returns to her British hometown of Clearwater after two decades in Australia, she hopes to renew the friendship with Anna. As kids and teenagers, the two had been close as sisters, due to her poor family situation, Anna more or less grew up with Grace’s family until they decided to move to the other side of the planet. However, Anna does not seem happy at all about Grace’s return, she has established a small circle of good friends and is reluctant of letting her former best friend join their group of four. After one evening at the local pub, Anna does not come home but neither her friends nor her husband seem to be really concerned so Grace takes over responsibility: she informs the police and starts to ask questions. Why do all people in the small sea-side town behave strangely? It has always been her to be in charge and to take care of the small and big catastrophes, so not much seems to have changed. But on her own, will she be able to find Anna and to uncover why all people are telling lies?

Heidi Perks wonderfully portrays life in a small town. Everybody knows everybody and is keen on spreading rumours, especially if there is something cheesy or malicious to share. As soon as Grace turns up for the first time at the schoolyard to bring her daughter to her new school, “The Whispers” among the mothers start and cannot be silenced anymore. Quite authentically, we hold as true the things we can observe and the bits and pieces of information we get and make sense of the story – and thus fall into the author’s trap since not much is really what it seems at first.

Admittedly, even though Grace as the protagonist is portrayed as a sympathetic woman, I did not really like her as she was, in my opinion, a bit creepy from the beginning. A lot of people live in the past and want to repeat it, therefore, returning to the place where she had a good time is not too strange, yet, the fact that she does not want to accept that Anna does not want to bond with her anymore and that she does not even make the slightest effort to find other friends, I found quite weird and obtrusive.

After Anna gets missing, the other characters indeed do behave inexplicably, yet, it does not take too long until the author reveals the other side of the story. As an experienced crime novel reader, you tend to be cautious and hesitant from the start when you are only presented with one character’s point of view, this is why I did not find it too surprising that not all things are what they seem at first. However, what I totally adored was how Heidi Perks managed to portray especially the small town women and their gossiping and how they make an effort of polishing their own lives to appear as someone superior to the others.

An entertaining read with some unexpected twists which brilliantly captures small town life.