For readers who relish a traditional mystery with a satiric edge, perfect for a cozy fireside read, try G.M. Malliet’s “Wicked Autumn.’’ It’s set a world away from London and a breath away from Agatha Christie’s St. Mary Meade in Nether Monkslip, a quaint, isolated village with copious bucolic charm but not a smidge of ethnic diversity. Where once there were blacksmiths and wheelwrights, now shopkeepers peddle New Age crystals and organic jellies and jams.
The story opens with the formidable Wanda Baton-Smythe organizing the village’s annual Harvest Fayre as if she were staging Sherman’s March. With her “face framed by a starchy collar over a dark summer wool dress that Cotton Mather would have approved,’’ her hair “a testament to the efficacy of Final Net,’’ she alternately bullies, belittles, and flatters her minions into giving their all “for charity.’’
Wanda is so colorful that readers will be disappointed but not surprised when she meets an untimely end. It falls to the vicar, the Rev. Max Tudor, to help the local constabulary find her killer. Max is a former MI5 agent with enough mayhem in his past to make his current post feel like Nirvana. His biggest challenge in his three years serving as the village priest has been evading relentless speculation regarding his professional celibacy.
The characters here would be very much at home in a delicious comedy of manners by Barbara Pym or even Jane Austen, and there’s plenty of wit to cut the treacle.
Miranda Corbie, the character at the heart of Kelli Stanley’s “City of Secrets,’’ combines the tropes of femme fatale and wisecracking private dick. She’s a hard drinking, chain smoking, spunky dame who would shoot me as soon as look at me for calling her spunky.
This sequel to Stanley’s “City of Dragons’’ is set in 1940 in San Francisco at the World’s Fair where Miranda provides private security. There, Sally Rand runs the cooch tent and calls Miranda “the best protection my girls got on the Gayway.’’ But Miranda fails to prevent the murder of a dancer, who was discovered stabbed to death on the spotlit stage, an anti-Semitic slur written on her naked body in her own blood.
Against a backdrop of Nazis invading Europe and Americans in a state of denial trailing an unmistakable scent of anti-Semitism, cops and World’s Fair management are determined to hush up the murder. But that only makes Miranda more determined to investigate.
Stanley has a distinctive writing style, conveying thoughts and ambience with poetic brush strokes. She describes downtown San Francisco: “Cable cars panted, slow climb uphill, last gasp and a bell at the top, salesman from East Los Angeles hanging off the side while his wife holds the camera, kids chasing tracks down Powell Street.’’ These telegraphic riffs can be mesmerizing, but when they go on for too long they bog down an otherwise briskly paced story.
Stephen J. Cannell, the novel and TV writer who died a year ago, leaves his readers panting for breath with “Vigilante,’’ a signature final thriller in his Shane Scully series. One expects Scully to any minute emerge from a downtown Los Angeles alleyway and run smack into Joseph Wambaugh’s Hollywood Nate or Ed McBain’s Steve Carella.
The novel opens with Scully, a detective in an elite investigations unit, watching a rug-wrapped bum urinate against the side of a landmark downtown building that is home to LAPD’s Internal Affairs. Scully’s “first cop dilemma of the day’’ is whether to arrest the guy and stink up the inside of his Acura. He’s rescued by an urgent call to a homicide scene so sensitive the dispatcher won’t give the victim’s name over cell transmission. The address is on a block ruled by Evergreen, one of city’s notorious Hispanic gangs.
When Scully gets there, the scene is already staked out by “Vigilante TV.’’ Its on-air celebrity, Nixon Nash, is a former cop and disbarred attorney whose favored tactic is putting arresting officers on trial.
Scully soon realizes why Nash and his cameras are there. The victim, Lita Mendez, has been a vocal police critic and gang activist, personally responsible for hundreds of complaints that led to the demotion of numerous officers. Nash has hot tips he’s eager to pass along, but Scully is wary of being set up by a man more invested in taking down the police than tracking down killers.
With its meticulously crafted plot fueled by adrenaline and crackling dialogue, this novel could be used to teach a TV scriptwriting class. The shoes keep on dropping right up to the final page.
Hallie Ephron is the author of “Come and Find Me.’’ Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.