Category Archives: Crime Fiction

3 Mini New England Mystery Reviews: The Big Dig, Rogue Island, & Steamed

Three of the many older mysteries that I read this year for book clubs and for a genre study. These are all set in New England.

The Big Dig by Linda Barnescover image (Macmillan, 2002)
Carlotta Carlyle used to be police and is now a private investigator. A tall redhead, she has to disguise her striking looks to go undercover, as she does here, when she’s hired by another former cop, Eddie, to investigate possible criminal activity such as fraud, theft, or graft, on one of the many Big Dig construction sites in Boston in the year 2000. Posing as a new secretary and nosing around, she soon notices signs of a much more serious crime, especially after the dead body of a complaining construction worker is found on the site. The Boston setting, the gritty violence discussed matter-of-factly, and the first-person narration make this a good readalike for anyone who likes the Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker. (Like Spenser, Carlotta can be something of a smartass and follows her own rules.) The Big Dig is 9th in the series, but can be read on its own.

coverRogue Island by Bruce DeSilva (Forge, 2010)
With a blurb from Dennis Lehane and its Providence, Rhode Island setting, this hard-boiled, noir-ish mystery has a headstart on being popular in the Boston area. Judging from the check-outs in our library system, this series featuring an old-fashioned, investigative journalist, Liam Mulligan, seems to be taking off.
Throughout a frigid New England winter, buildings in the neighborhood Mulligan grew up in are being burned down and the politically appointed arson squad doesn’t seem to be doing much to find out who’s doing it. This story of politicians and crooks (often one and the same, according to Mulligan) is populated with colorful characters and told in Mulligan’s voice. I enjoyed the audiobook edition, narrated by Jeff Woodman, and the book was popular with our library mystery book club.
First in Mulligan series that’s now up to three, Rogue Island won the 2011 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

cover image

Steamed by Jessica Conant-Park & Susan Conant (Berkley, 2006)
Discovering a murder victim on a first date can be very upsetting. Chloe Carter, a 20-something foodie living in Brighton, finds this out as she tries to make her cheating ex jealous with a guy she found on an online dating site who turns out to be a jerk. All isn’t lost as the chef at the restaurant is extremely hot. However, he also happens to be the prime suspect.
Steamed is half chick lit, half culinary cozy. Humor and recipes –along with a murder – make it a cozy, but the first-person voice, a sprinkling of spicy language, and the romantic comedy will appeal to chick lit readers. (First in Gourmet Girl series)

How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny (Audio) & Musing About Series @BlackstoneAudio

cover image of How the Light Gets InHow the Light Gets In, published by Blackstone Audio at the end of August, is another fine example of the great partnership of author Louise Penny and audiobook narrator Ralph Cosham. It’s the ninth novel about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec.

If you haven’t heard of these books yet, where have you been? The author writes a unique blend of police procedural and cozy mystery that seems to please both literary fiction fans and suspense fans, as well as readers who “don’t read mysteries.” Louise Penny blends dark and light themes, using humor and the fully developed personalities of her characters to keep death and its attendant depression and despair from overwhelming the reader.

Also, the audiobook narrator Ralph Cosham, as I and many other audiobook listeners have said before, IS Armand Gamache. No other voice will do.

These books about Chief Inspector Gamache and his fellow homicide detectives, their families, and their friends in the remote village of Three Pines, are also a good example of why they should be called a sequence, not a series. “Series” used to mean that you could pick up any book – the first or the thirty-first – and find a complete story with just enough about the characters to get by on, and you would get the skinny on the characters in every book, because they stayed pretty much the same from one book to the next. It was often even different authors writing the books, all under the same pen name. Series books were formulaic, so readers familiar with the series would get what they expected and new readers could jump in any time with no problem.

Series books are different now. They are sequential in more ways than by publication date. Characters develop. Circumstances change. If you read a book out of order, you’re going to hit major spoilers for the book that came before. The main character could be married or newly divorced, thought dead, gone into retirement or come back out of retirement; secondary characters could actually BE dead, or be double agents, or be having an affair.

This is a problem for publishers, and librarians, and probably booksellers too. And not just because publishers seem to be unwilling to print the series titles in order inside the book anymore. We all want people to be as excited as we are that the latest book in one of our favorite series is out, but a reader who starts reading Louise Penny with How the Light Gets In is not going to have the benefit of understanding how events in the earlier eight books have built up to the crucial moments for Chief Inspector Gamache and his department that take place in How the Light Gets In.

So the bad news about these books being a sequence and not a series is: you need to start with Still Life and keep reading until you get to this one. The good news is: you’re going to love all of them.

If you’re an audiobook listener, you will want to listen to these! Even if you don’t like mysteries.

How the Light Gets In
Penny, Louise
Cosham, Ralph
Blackstone Audio
August 2013
$39.99 US
approx 13 hours on 11 CDs

Disclosure: I borrowed this audiobook from the public library.



Trouble on the Vineyard: The Caretaker by A.X. Ahmad (Audio) @MacmillanAudio

cover image of The Caretaker audiobookMost of this intriguing literary thriller, The Caretaker by A. X. Ahmad, takes place in the off-season on the island of Martha’s Vineyard and in the Boston and Cambridge area, where the author (now in Washington, DC) attended MIT, so there are many familiar references for readers familiar with Massachusetts, but also an added layer of difference – a slight foreignness – because the places are seen through the eyes of the main character, Ranjit Singh, a Sikh from India – ex-Indian military – who has been in the U.S. for under three years.

Ranjit (pronounced with the “a” as in “arm” and the “i” as in “it”, emphasis on the first syllable) and his family have struggled to start a new life in the U.S. after a career disgrace in the military. For the past six months on Martha’s Vineyard, Ranjit worked as an independent landscaper, but now winter is coming on, the tourists have left, and it looks as though he will be forced back to working in his wife’s uncle’s cramped Cambridge shop. So when the wife of a popular African-American senator he did landscaping for offers him a job keeping an eye on their expensive house during the off-season, he leaps at the chance to stay on the island.

When he lands a second caretaking job on the strength of the senator’s reference, things seem to be looking up for Ranjit, his unhappy wife Preetam, and his Americanized young daughter Shanti. The prejudice and suspicion that his dark skin, beard, and turban engendered in parts of Boston he has infrequently encountered on Martha’s Vineyard, where there is a longstanding colony of African-American elite and a tradition of what the author describes as “the island’s easy tolerance.”

From this somewhat hopeful beginning, the story covers a lot of ground in 10½ hours of audio (or just under 300 pages) including flashbacks to Ranjit’s time as an army captain on the Siachen Glacier – a high-altitude Himalayan battleground on the disputed border of India and Pakistan – and problems mount quickly for Ranjit, who hadn’t realized how expensive life on the island would be. (Now he understands why most of the foreign migrant workers leave in the winter.) Amid a rash of burglaries on the island, the senator’s house is broken into, but this break-in doesn’t fit the pattern. In the senator’s house, the thieves seemed to be looking for something in particular. When they don’t find it, they decide Ranjit must have it. Now they need to find Ranjit.

Sam Dastor, a British actor, narrates the audiobook; he was surprisingly hard to find information about. He was born in 1941 in Mumbai (known to the rest of the world as Bombay, at the time), and has played roles both of Indians and of Englishmen. This explains how he does the voices of the Indian characters in The Caretaker so convincingly, while the American accents seem a little less natural. The rest of the book is narrated with a British inflection that is very well suited to the story. The women’s voices (Ranjit’s wife and the senator’s wife) verge on the falsetto and, unfortunately, makes the American-inflected voice of Ranjit’s spirited nine-year-old daughter Shanti really grating in a way I couldn’t put my finger on, until I read the AudioFile review which called it “singsong” and that’s it, exactly. In the end, I decided, the excellence of the male voices (which make up the bulk of the story) and the rest of the narration, outweighed the shortcomings in the female voices, but I wouldn’t recommend The Caretaker to someone venturing into audiobooks for the first time.

I enjoyed The Caretaker as a thriller-style variation on the Indian-immigrant-to-America theme. The numerous Indian references are easy to understand from context or get explained. Even though, as in most thrillers, some of the plot points seem a little unbelievable and there are (inevitably?) a couple of sex-in-times-of-danger scenes, the author brings in issues of undocumented immigrants, international politics, personal ethics, race relations, Sikh religious beliefs, patriotism, and the delicate balance of individual initiative and subservience in military and public service – without slowing down the action of the book too much.

Over all, the book’s themes are dark and complex, and the distinctions between good characters and bad characters are, at times, murky, which would be why this book is billed as a “literary” thriller. (By the standards of the American thriller genre, the guy in the turban who looks like he might be Arabic is probably going to be the bad guy, not the main character.) It’s not literary enough to make this a personal favorite, but the author has made a successful leap into popular fiction and I would happily listen to The Caretaker‘s sequel, which I would bet is in the works.

Listen to an excerpt from The Caretaker from Macmillan Audio here.

Read the AudioFile Magazine review of The Caretaker here.

The Caretaker
Ahmad, A.X.
Dastor, Sam (narr.)
10.5 hours on 9 CDs
$39.99 US/$45.99 CAN

Sound Bytes badgeThis review is linked up to Sound Bytes, a weekly link-up of audiobook reviews at Devourer of Books.