Column: Mysterious Musings

Reviews of "The Last Child," "The Big Dirt Nap," "Deadly Appraisal"
Robin Agnew

Robin Agnew

[Editor's note: Robin Agnew and her husband Jamie own Aunt Agatha's mystery bookstore in Ann Arbor. She also helps run the annual Kerrytown BookFest.] 

“The Last Child” by John Hart (Minotaur Books, $24.95)

Recently one of the VPs at St. Martin’s, Matthew Baldacci, asked if he could swing by the store with author John Hart. I had enjoyed Hart’s first book, “King of Lies,” and enthusiastically agreed – just as enthusiastically, Mathew offered to FedEx me copies of Hart’s new book, “The Last Child.” The book arrived on a Wednesday afternoon for a Thursday visit – I trundled into the store to pick it up, hoping I might get at last halfway through before Hart stopped in – and I couldn’t put it down. I was finished with the book Thursday morning, eager to have a chance to discuss it with the author.

There are few things I enjoy more about bookselling than watching an author get even better, which is the case with this book, one that is tighter that the preceeding books but at the same time is wider in scope. 2009 has only just started, and I think I have already found a contender for next year’s top 10 list. All of Hart’s books are standalones, so no need to start with the first one (though it’s well worth a read). This novel is about 13-year-old Johnny Merrimon, who is obsessed by the disappearance of his twin sister a year ago. As his family has self destructed – his father has disappeared, his mother is lost in a fog of drugs and alcohol, and dating an abusive man – Johnny is left to fend for himself, and one of the things he’s chosen to do is to get on his bike, map in hand, scouring likely neighborhoods where his sister might have vanished. There are red “x’s” all over the map, sometimes with the notation, “Bad men live here.”

As Johnny works on his guide, he’s shadowed by Detective Clyde Hunt, who is almost as haunted by Johnny’s sister as Johnny himself.  His life has taken an almost equally self-destructive turn, as he’s gotten divorced, become estranged from his teenaged son, and gotten on the thin side of legal behavior at work. While Johnny feels alone, he has an ally in both Hunt and his somewhat wayward friend Jack, who helps sometimes when Johnny is off with his map and his bike.

One of the many remarkable things about this book is the fact that though it’s told through the lens of a 13-year-old boy – and they are certainly complicated creatures – it never feels either condescending or false. Johnny is a very believable flesh-and-blood character, and often his desperation and desire to find his sister pulls you through the narrative, though you may know in your gut what the probable outcome will be. Hart manages to both maintain suspense and to describe Johnny’s landscape so fully, fleshed out with the other people and situations that surround him, that sometimes looking up from this book is almost jarring. Hart has put you in Johnny’s world that completely.

When you finish, the characters and story have a real hold on both your brain and your heart – two important things for a good writer to get ahold of, and Hart is a very good writer. He also writes beautiful prose, complete with motifs – in this book the motif is a raven (sometimes ravens plural), which adds an occasional extra note of both poetry and atmosphere. There’s really not too much more to ask for in a good book and I don’t expect to read too many finer books this year.

“The Big Dirt Nap” by Rosemary Harris (Minotaur Books, $24.95), and “Deadly Appraisal” by  Jane Cleland (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $6.99)

Rosemary Harris and Jane Cleland do many book events together, which makes perfect sense, since their books compliment each other beautifully. Harris writes about gardener Paula Holliday, and Cleland about antiques expert Josie Prescott. Both bring real world knowledge to their respective topics (Harris is herself a master gardener, and Cleland has owned an antiques and rare book business), and both women share an obvious affection for mysteries as a genre, which shows in their books. While Harris’ character doesn’t actually have a mystery paperback at her bedside, Cleland’s character usually has a prime Rex Stout title to help her fall asleep. Again, the real world creeps in – Cleland is a giant fan of Stout and Nero Wolfe in real life. The verisimilitude adds a lot to the books.

I’m going to review the books generationally, with apologies to both authors. Harris is a newcomer to the business – her first book,” Pushing Up Daisies,” came out last winter, and her character, Paula Holliday, who has given up a cool job in New York City and moved out to the burbs, is still on the hip side. She might be in her early 30s, but when she needs a “good” outfit she’s actually able to produce a pair of leather pants for the occasion. Paula occasionally becomes upset during the course of the story when various service employees call her “ma’am” or “lady” (all I can say to that is, suck it up, sister!). My point here is that she’s younger than the average mystery heroine and it makes her pretty refreshing as a main character.

In this novel, Paula has agreed to meet her best friend Lucy at the Titans Hotel for an all-expense paid weekend (Lucy still has the cool NYC job) and she’s snagged a few bucks from the local paper to write about the corpse flower the hotel has in the lobby, which is about to bloom. The flowers, which are gigantic, only bloom every seven years, and when they do they produce an odor not unlike decaying flesh (hence the name). Paula, waiting for her friend Lucy to arrive, strikes up a short conversation with a man in the hotel bar, one Nick Vigoriti. Shortly after their conversation (with Lucy still nowhere in sight) Nick turns up dead in the dumpster behind the hotel.

While the story and resolution are in the traditional mystery story mode, the threads Harris draws into her plot are not. As in the first book, the sidebar characters are strong ones: the shady hotel owner; the tormented young Russian girl, Oksana; the young woman in charge of the corpse flower (her enthusiasm seems to exceed Paula’s); even a cashier at the mini mart (he of the “ma’am” remark);  the missing and possibly shady Crawford brothers; and the cranky homicide cop heading up the investigation. The rotating and complex cast of villains, as well as the residents of the small town where the Titans Hotel is located, all add spice to the story. Lucy’s disappearance is of course tied to the central mystery, and Harris’ account of Paula finding her lost friend is a real classic. This is a light, enjoyable, and at the same time thoughtful mystery.

Cleland’s Josie Prescott is a little older than Paula Holliday – she’s been around the block a few times, but not too many. The seasoning gives her character some memorable spice. The set up for her novel truly is classic – the book opens at a Gala antiques auction, sponsored by Josie’s antiques auction house, Prescott’s, and before the night has ended one of the main organizers of the event has succumbed to cyanide poisoning, right before Josie’s very eyes. Josie, who didn’t know or especially like the dead woman, Maisey, is still traumatized by seeing her die right in front of her, and it makes her judgment of subsequent events sometimes shaky. The book actually has a central theme: are perceptions the same as reality? As Josie digs for details of the dead woman’s life, she realizes her perception of her has been all wrong.

The one person who Josie can trust, her boyfriend Ty, is out of town at the deathbed of his Aunt Trina, and isn’t around to tell Josie to snap out of it. That’s left to her practical lawyer, Max. The fact that the boyfriend is out of town downplays the romantic aspect present in the first book, and I thought it was an effective way for the author to delve more deeply into Josie’s personality. As the murder investigation proceeds, it emerges not (as often happens in mysteries) that Josie is the prime suspect, but that she might have been the intended victim. When a car tries to run her down one night, that supposition becomes cemented as fact for everyone but Josie, who still desperately wants Maisey and not herself to have been the intended victim.

Along the way Josie’s perceptions of her co-workers and friends are challenged and tested as she figures out who she can trust and who she can’t. The lesson of this book might be “go with your gut,” but the killer is still unexpected. As it turns out, Josie’s perceptions of the killer were completely off base. I also truly enjoy the detail Cleland includes about running her antiques business, as well as details of the antiques themselves. There are several objects where the provenance has to be traced and verified, and that was as interesting a mystery to me as anything else in the novel. Josie’s practical, generous and intelligent personality win the day, and that makes this series one I’d be happy to revisit.