Snowbound in a former sanatorium, now luxe resort, emotionally fragile Elin must rally her rusty detective skills to stop the perpetrator of a series of ghastly murders.
The Sanatorium—Sarah Pearse, 2021. Rating: 3/5
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Elin and her boyfriend Will travel to the Alps to celebrate the engagement of Elin’s brother Isaac and her former childhood friend, Laure. Le Sommet is a gleaming, minimalist architectural achievement. Once a tuberculosis sanatorium, it is now an opulent destination, albeit one that is so remote it quickly gets cut off from civilization by a major avalanche.
Elin, a police detective on leave, is prone to panic attacks after nearly dying while working a case. And after the death of her mother. And after the death of her little brother Sam, for which she blames Isaac. Elin hasn’t told patient, well-adjusted Will that she plans to accuse Isaac of Sam’s murder on this vacation. Complicating their stay, mutilated bodies wearing vintage gas masks keep turning up, and, with the staff and most of the guests evacuated because of the weather, people now depend on Elin, the only quasi-police presence available. The result is a potentially awesome locked room mystery.
Except that it doesn’t hit the awesome mark. I was primed to love The Sanatorium: I expected (hoped for) a twisty, spooky mystery for cold autumn nights. I felt let down. Here is the good bit: the atmosphere did not disappoint. One can easily visualize the isolated resort, its echoey empty halls, the blizzard raging outside. It calls to mind the classic Overlook Hotel. Props for spectacular mood.
Unfortunately, the characters and the story don’t live up to the spectacular setting. We are supposed to like Elin, empathize with her losses, and understand that this investigation is a journey back to confidence or whatever, but her righteous self-pity is off-putting. Elin’s absurd go-it-alone investigative approach has predictable adverse effects. The rest of the characters walk stiffly through their roles as suspects. We don’t care about much about them, either. Or really, any of the dead people, whom we hardly know. The entire mystery itself strains credulity all the way to the end, with a long-winded windup by the villain and a confusing epilogue that (may?) be a teaser for the next novel.
The Sanatorium is not horrible. The writing is solid, and there are some nicely creepy scenes—by the pool, and other lonely places—that create enjoyable tension. I am just crabby because I had such high expectations, and the book felt like opportunity lost.
A series of deadly bombings and sightings of a terrifying, futuristic creature stalking the streets of London have the city on edge. Holmes and Watson must hurry to foil a dastardly plot that could plunge England into anarchy.
Sherlock Holmes: The Stuff of Nightmares—James Lovegrove, 2013. Rating: 4/5
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With London reeling from the latest bloody terrorist attack on Waterloo Station, Mycroft Holmes entreats his brother, Sherlock, to investigate. Sherlock reluctantly agrees but is more interested in pursuing an apparently unrelated phenomena: Baron Cauchemar, an otherworldly vigilante who is wreaking havoc on London’s criminal enterprise. Thieves and pickpockets live in terror of the figure with its glowing eyes, insectile carapace, and advanced weaponry. When Watson and Holmes encounter the mechanical avenger, Watson also leans towards a supernatural explanation—but Holmes knows better.
As the bombings circle closer to Buckingham Palace, endangering the Queen, Sherlock and Watson add names to their growing list of suspects: malevolent Professor Moriarty; the wealthy French emissary, De Villegrand; and “One-arm” Torrance, former sailor turned human trafficker. Together, Holmes and Watson discover the connection between Baron Cauchemar and the evilly ambitious individual behind the attacks.
I am a die-hard Sherlockian. I am not so much into steampunk. I was hesitant to pick up this book, thinking two would combine about as well as orange juice and toothpaste. Happily, I was wrong! The combination is as satisfactory as bacon and eggs. (I mean that as a good thing. If you’re not into bacon and eggs, substitute your own copacetic combo.)
Lovegrove stays true to tradition while breathing new life into beloved characters. We are treated to Holmes’s brilliant deductions (though a little too fallible in spots for me), disguises, pursuits, pitched battles, Watson’s engaging and drily humorous narration, lovely period detail, and an enjoyable if not particularly twisty mystery. Holmes fans will find all their boxes ticked (and we’re picky fans). The sci-fi element—using Victorian steam technology for then-radical inventions, a la Jules Verne—teeters on the edge of fantastical, especially in grand finale, but adds an imaginative, future-forward layer that meshes with Holmes’ own practices. The Stuff of Nightmares is a fun addition to Sherlock Holmes pastiches. I look forward to reading the second in series, Gods of War.
An insidious force stalks passengers and crew on a perilous ocean passage in this genrebending gem.
The Devil and the Dark Water—Stuart Turton, 2020. Rating 5/5
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It is 1634 and the abusive and power-hungry Governor General of Batavia, Jan Haan, is making the long voyage to Amsterdam aboard the United East India Company ship, the Saardam. Accompanying him are his wife Sara Wessel, their too-intelligent inventor daughter Lia, and Haan’s mistress Creesjie and her sons. Also aboard are the legendary sparrow and the bear: Sammy Pipps, a dapper English detective facing execution in Amsterdam for reasons unknown, and Sammy’s protector and friend, the massive mercenary with a conscience, Lieutenant Arent Hayes. When a tongueless leper impossibly pronounces that the ship is cursed and then promptly bursts into flame, Hayes and Pipps are rightfully convinced someone is trying to sabotage the voyage. Everyone aboard has secrets: some of which are more Machiavellian than others. Fellow traveler, the Predikant Sander Kers, is convinced that the demon Old Tom is aboard. Soon, Old Tom begins to whisper to the volatile blend of musketeers, sailors, and passengers, offering them infernal bargains. Demonic symbols, unholy miracles, and mysterious deaths plague the ship. It is up to Arent, Sara, and Sammy to uncover the truth.
The Devil and the Dark Water is a treat. It is a seafaring tale, with knife fights and killer storms and desperate conflicts in reeking cargo holds; it is historical fiction, in that it takes place long ago; it is a romance; it is a tale of friendship and family and betrayal; it is a philosophical puzzle about the nature of good and evil and revenge; it is suffused with supernatural suggestion. In short, it’s lit.
As the story rockets along we become helplessly, deliciously caught up in the myriad of mysteries and superstitious paranoia until we are nothing but a twitchy, hand-wringing ball of anxiety. One that tersely—but lovingly!—tells one’s significant other to leave us alone so we can finish this book. Glorious suspense! But as clever and brilliant as the plot is, the characters carry the novel. The diverse cast is nuanced and profoundly human and relatable despite 400 the years separating us.
In a closing author’s note, Turton hints at a keen understanding that makes The Devil and the Dark Water such a successful genre-defying tale. Turton explains, “You see, I believe a book is whatever you decide it is” (454). Everyone reads a story differently, taking away what they need and want. It speaks to Turton’s immense talent that The Devil and the Dark Water is so widely satisfying.
A cold case turns hot for a newbie FBI agent when she runs afoul of the military while chasing clues to a murder and a long-lost treasure.
The Scorpion’s Tail—Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, 2020. Rating: 3/5
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Corrie Swanson is bitterly sure that her pitiful assignment in nowhere New Mexico is a punishment for her ineptitude on her last case. Now, she is stuck with cowboy Sheriff Watts trying to figure out what a treasure hunter was doing searching the remote High Lonesome ghost town. Corrie calls in a favor from archaeologist Nora Kelly and together they discover a corpse—one that clearly died a gruesome death—and a priceless Spanish gold cross. Corrie, Watts, and Nora follow rumors of a golden fortune and uncover a decades-old military conspiracy at the nearby White Sands Missile Range.
I was poised to be super-enthusiastic about this read because I have enjoyed many (most) of Preston and Childs’ other titles; but the book fell a little flat. Here are the pros: The story is satisfying. It is a slower build, but the pacing is solid, and the tension increases nicely as our heroes get closer to solving the mystery. The authors successfully weave together fascinating historical elements from the atomic era and early Native American history. There are some fun shootouts. The desert southwest landscape is beautifully realized. I have been to several of the locations depicted in the book, and Preston & Child so exquisitely capture the colors and silence and sheer vastness of the high desert that I felt transported back, which was a lovely gift.
Now the cons. Characterization is thin. Corrie is the most well-rounded of the group, but she is so rules-based she is not easy to empathize with. The few flashbacks to Corrie’s abusive childhood do not go far enough to flesh out her character. She and Nora both struggle in typical “male” or “moneyed” professions, respectively, and their ultimate successes are empowering, but do not add the needed depth to their personalities. The rest of the cast is largely one-dimensional. The book is so plot-driven, I felt like I was missing entire scenes that would have helped me care more about these people. Early on, for instance, Watts suggests he and Corrie have lunch. Great! I expected a short sequence in a café to get some character background…Nada.
All that said, devotees of Preston and Child and all of us action, thriller, suspense, and historical fiction fans will have most of our boxes checked. Plus, Agent Pendergast makes a brief, deus-ex-machina cameo: enjoyable, if a little contrived. The Scorpion’s Tail is a quick, solid read, but does not rank among my favorites from the extensive offerings of Preston & Child.
Join acclaimed mystery writer and blogger, Jonelle Patrick, for a lively chat about life, Japan, and her new novel, The Last Tea Bowl Thief.
If you’re a mystery buff and you’re not familiar with Jonelle Patrick’s popular Only in Tokyo mystery series featuring Detective Kenji Nakamura and English interpreter Yumi Hata…you’re missing out! In Nightshade, the first in the series, our heroes join forces to investigate a suspicious set of suicides, but end up discovering the dark side of Tokyo’s underground clubs. Good stuff!
The Last Tea Bowl Thief is Jonelle Patrick’s new standalone mystery just released last week. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to connect with the author and get some behind-the-scenes info about her new book!
MHL- You moved to Tokyo in 2003, and I understand you now live part time in San Francisco and part time in Tokyo. What initially motivated you to move to Japan? What was the transition like for you? If you could pick one, or, ok, maybe two things, what do you love most about Japan?
JP – Ha, that answer has changed soooo many times since the first time I woke up in Tokyo with killer jetlag at 3:00 am, and the only food available for HOURS was weird red bean soup from a vending machine!
But there’s one thing I love about Japan that has never changed: I’m still surprised by something eye-opening, every, single, day. Most of the time, it’s something entertaining, like the werewolf shrine or an exhibit of insanely detailed sculptures made from Japanese snack packages. Occasionally, it’s something squicky, like the plastic-wrapped “Seasonal Special” pack of cod testicles sitting right next to the red snapper at the supermarket. And sometimes it’s downright irritating, like noticing the only two empty seats on the crowded subway car are the ones next to me. Again. But they’re all experiences worth having, because it’s the squicky and irritating bits that make me stop and think. I’m sure it’s no surprise that the American character in The Last Tea Bowl Thief suffers the same indignities and makes many of the same embarrassing mistakes that I have, but I think those are the kind of things that give readers a feeling for what it’s like to see a culture from the inside, instead of just pressing their noses against the glass..
MHL- I had fun exploring your blog, Only in Japan. You give your readers the skinny on everything from modern kimono fashions to discovering how lucky your name is. And you treat us to some great-looking recipes—I’ve added your summer rice bowl dish to my must-try list! Japanese culture sometimes seems so dissimilar to American culture. What are some of the differences you notice? Or are we more similar that we think?
JP – After living in Japan for so long, I pretty much think that people are people, all over the world, and every country has some people who are polite, some who are rude, some honest, some skeevy. But there’s one huge difference I’ve noticed in Japan, and it happens every February. Allergy season arrives with a vengeance, and suddenly, everyone is wearing masks. Wait, they wear masks for allergy season? Didn’t anyone tell them that allergies aren’t contagious? But saving others from getting sick isn’t why they do it. It’s because making other people worry that you have germs they might catch is just as bad as actually dosing them with your nasties. Annoying or inconveniencing other people is seriously frowned upon in Japan, and the comfort of all is valued much more highly than the freedom of individuals. As you can imagine, this social pressure goes way beyond concealing the sneezies and snifflies, and it’s got a major dark side. One thing I really enjoyed exploring in The Last Tea Bowl Thief is both the shiny and the tarnished sides of that coin, and all the unexpected ways that way of thinking plays out.
MHL- Your first four mystery novels in the Only in Tokyo series feature recurring characters, the English translator Yumi Hata and Detective Kenji Nakamura. The Last Tea Bowl Thief marks a departure from the series. Your new novel is both a mystery and historical journey spanning different eras in Japanese culture. What was the inspiration for the story? Was the writing process different for The Last Tea Bowl Thief than the Only in Tokyo mysteries?
JP – Writing The Last Tea Bowl Thief was really different from the other books, because they all wend their way straight from crime to solution with a few wiggles and side trips along the way. The Last Tea Bowl Thief has two different storylines that not only have to be engaging and page-turny by themselves, they have to intertwine and come together in a way that builds to a satisfying conclusion for both. The crazy thing is, anytime I changed ANYTHING, it rippled out through both of the stories, rearranging all kinds of stuff that I didn’t anticipate. That’s why this book took twice as long to write, but it was totally worth it, because I got to build in something that has always delighted me as a reader: a character who was quite different in real life than he is remembered by history, and the reader gets to enjoy some knowing laughs at the truth.
MHL- What do you hope that your readers take away from The Last Tea Bowl Thief?
JP – What I really hope is that it will take readers away! Far, far, away from our current reality, if only for a few blessed hours. Right now, I’m devouring historical fiction and international mysteries by the truckload, because my favorite way to escape the doom scrolling is to jump into a book set in a time or place where the worst thing that might happen is a little murder. I’d love it if people feel like they’re living behind the curtain in Japan while they’re reading The Last Tea Bowl Thief, and that it’s a world they can’t wait to get back to.
One tea bowl. Two strangers stuck at dead-end jobs with nothing in common. Except that the mysterious tea bowl may be the key to unlocking both of their futures…
MHL- I know that you’re a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime among other genre associations, so I’m thinking that you read a lot of mysteries? 😊 What else do you enjoy reading for fun? What is your reading “guilty pleasure”?
JP – OMG, I love reading mysteries so much that the walls of my writing cave are lined with more than eight hundred of them (and those are just the ones I might want to re-read AIEEEEE.) But my secret guilty pleasure is…sci-fi. I know you’re a fan of the spooky, and there’s something I think horror and sci-fi share: don’t you love to dive into a beautifully-written reality that resembles ours closely enough to feel at home, but is shockingly different enough to make you think about our own world differently? In my case, truly genius science fiction—like William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”—makes me question everything from the nature of art (can those achingly poignant Cornell-like works still be considered art once you know they were made by an AI?) to how utterly entertaining it would be to imagine how biohacking could be used for body-mod fashion on the black market.
MHL- Can you share any secrets from The Last Tea Bowl Thief—that aren’t in the blurb—with our readers?
JP – Ooo, great question! I’m so glad you asked me that, because I do have a great story for you.
Sometimes I set out to research one thing, then something utterly unexpected ends up being the takeaway instead. For example, one time I tarted myself up for an all-night Tokyo steampunk event, convinced it was sure to be God’s gift to novelists. But at 3:00 am, there I was, out in the rain in Shibuya after the trains stopped running. I finally gave up trying to beat all the other stranded revelers to a cab and found a comic book café instead. That’s where I spent the rest of the night, propped in the corner of a booth, admiring how many different kinds of shoes were left politely outside each cubicle, and how many distinct styles of Japanese snoring there are. Guess which experience ended up making it into a book?
But this time, the opposite thing happened. While I was writing The Last Tea Bowl Thief, I discovered something amazing, but I couldn’t put it in the book. I was visiting the convent outside Kyoto that I’d chosen as a setting because it checked all the boxes: old enough to have been well-established in samurai times, within a few days travel from the character’s hometown, and a pilgrimage destination with a famous Jizo figure known for healing. But while I was roaming the grounds and dutifully noting benches for characters to sit on while waiting and settings for fraught conversations, I discovered that it had been the site of a terrible tragedy. The convent had been standing in that same location for 1200 years, but in May of 2000, an arsonist burned it to the ground. Worst of all, the famous centuries-old wooden Jizo figure perished in the fire too. But as the sorrowing nuns sifted through the ashes, they discovered a secret so deep it had been kept even from the convent’s founder—the sculptor who carved the Jizo figure had secretly concealed a metal box inside it. Inside the box were over 3,000 tiny carved Jizo figures, all of which survived the fire. So, out of that dreadful act of destruction came a profound message of rebirth! A faithful replica of the original wooden Jizo figure continues to dispense hope and healing to this day. But alas, as much as I was dying to weave that into The Last Tea Bowl Thief, the convent and its healing saint are part of the samurai era characters’ reality, so I had to regretfully leave that Jizo unburnt and allow it to keep its secret for three hundred more years before being reborn by fire.
MHL- Finally, fans want to know: Will readers see Yumi and Kenji return?
JP – Yumi and Kenji will never disappear for long! I’m not sure what book I’ll be starting next, but just last month they resurfaced in a little novella called “It Was You” that’s not for sale, but can be had for free by Japanagram newsletter subscribers and the lovely readers who host pop-up book clubs for The Last Tea Bowl Thief.
Jonelle, thank you for a great interview!
If you want visit more with Jonelle, connect with her on social media:
When the egotistical Sir Adrian gleefully announces his intentions to remarry, he sends his avaricious children into a tizzy—now who will be first in line to inherit? They should worry: Sir Adrian is promptly and violently sent to meet his maker by someone near and dear. It is up to DCI St. Just and Sergeant Fear to ferret out the killer.
Death of a Cozy Writer—G.M. Malliet, 2008. Rating 4/5
Sir Adrian gained his fabulous wealth by penning a series of wildly popular cozy mysteries, although apparently borrowing liberally from the likes of Agatha Christie. The snug, homey nature of Sir Adrian’s stories is especially ironic given own his own vile personality. Sir Adrian summons his grasping brood to his estate to introduce his fiancé. Outraged and nursing grudges from their dreadful childhoods they arrive: Sarah, an overweight author of biblical cookbooks, George, a handsome artist accompanied by his svelte girlfriend Natasha, Albert a bit part actor, and Ruthven, the eldest, a chip off Adrian’s ruthless block.
Because Sir Adrian was universally detested, suspects abound. Was it his new bride, Violet accused of murdering her first husband years ago? The Italian cook and her brooding son? The irrepressibly energetic American secretary? The bitter ex-wife? One of Adrian’s business associates-slash-sexual flings? Stoical St. Just will have a tough job cutting through sarcasm and secrets.
Death of a Cozy Writer is delightful. A clever, sophisticated twist on the traditional British country house mystery. While the plot has enough red herrings to satisfy genre buffs, it is the characters that make the story a standout. Snarky and unlikeable, they’ll earn your eye-rolling, withering asides, but yet somehow manage to grow on you. Malliet weaves her web with wit and a devilish sense of humor. She caught me. This description alone cracks me up: “Her voice when she spoke, was deep, seductive, whiskey-soaked, like Lauren Bacall doing voiceovers for cat food” (151). Death of a Cozy Writer pays homage to mystery greats but is stylishly original. I can’t wait to read the next in the series.
A search for her long-lost aunt leads Carly to a decrepit—and haunted—motel in this atmospheric supernatural mystery.
The Sun Down Motel—Simone St. James, 2020. Rating: 4/5
Viv Delaney left home in 1982 determined to make it in New York City. Instead, she landed in Fell, a small, nowhere town in upstate New York. Working as a night clerk at the Sun Down Motel, she learns two things: first, the hotel is definitely haunted, and second, there are a surprising number of women being murdered around Fell. Viv starts her own investigation—and then vanishes.
Fast forward to 2017. Viv’s niece Carly is obsessed with finding out what really happened to her aunt. After the death of her mother—Viv’s sister—Carly goes to Fell to investigate, taking the same job Viv had at the now even more decrepit Sun Down Motel. Helped by a new roommate equally obsessed with true crime, and a handsome, if testy young man with his own tragedy, Carly works her way doggedly toward the truth.
St. James effectively builds suspense by switching the first-person perspectives back and forth between Viv and Carly, neatly bringing the cold-case story to life. As each woman digs deeper into the local murders decades apart, they both become targets, leading to some nail-biting moments for the reader. Several additional strong female characters who seem helpful—but may just be hiding something—provide effective misdirection. The motel ghosts are satisfyingly creepy, and we’re not certain of their motivations, either, until near the end, which has a neat little twist. A dramatic denouement, involving both human and ghostly bad guys, leads to a satisfying conclusion (though personally, I felt the punishment of one the characters seemed a little severe). A perfect read for these darker, spookier evenings…
Mycroft Holmes and his younger brother, Sherlock, become entangled in an insidious case of ritual murders. Their investigations pull them deep into the shadowy world of the London opium trade in this first-rate Holmesian pastiche.
Mycroft & Sherlock – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse, 2018. Rating: 4.5/5
For those not quite as steeped in the Sherlock Holmes canon as some of us uberfans, Mycroft is seven years older than Sherlock, enjoys a mysterious position in the British government, and is reputed to have even greater powers of deduction than his famous brother. Mycroft plays a role in only four of Conan Doyle’s sixty (4 novels, 56 short stories) original Sherlock Holmes tales.
Abdul-Jabbar, a Sherlock enthusiast since 1969, brings Mycroft into the limelight in his new crime series. Mycroft is recovering from the betrayal and loss of his fiancé and a traumatic adventure in Trinidad (Mycroft Holmes, 2017). Now, his good friend Douglas, the successful African American owner of a high-end tobacco and spirits shop, needs his help. Douglas runs Nickolus house, a home for orphaned boys. When one of the boys dies from a suspicious drug overdose, Douglas and Mycroft suspect something even more nefarious is at play. Sherlock thinks so also. To Mycroft’s irritation, the nineteen-year-old runs his own clandestine investigation, and Mycroft can’t keep him out of danger.
In Mycroft & Sherlock, Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse hit all the notes a Sherlockian desires: a twisty mystery, lots of brilliant deduction, realistic period detail (you can almost feel that choking yellow London fog) and above all, excellent characterization. Mycroft emerges as an intriguing, well-rounded character in his own right. He struggles to find direction in his own life, while trying to guide his precocious, acerbic younger brother. We empathize with Mycroft’s frustration and increasing isolation as he devotes himself to the War Office and service to the Queen. There are some genuinely poignant moments as the two brothers struggle with emotions they refuse to reveal to each other. Douglas is a strong investigative partner and Mycroft’s best (and one of his only) friends. Although independent, intelligent, and savvy, Douglas nonetheless is a victim of the racism of the era. He must employ an elderly white couple to pretend to be his shop owners and poses as the forward face of a fictional white owner of his orphanage. While never losing the thrust of the mystery, Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse delicately explore the marginalization of African Americans, Chinese immigrants, and women.
Mycroft & Sherlock is a terrific addition to the body of Holmes literature. Fans of Conan Doyle will approve, and if even you’re not familiar with his work, Mycroft & Sherlock stands very successfully on its own merits. I look forward to reading next in the series: Mycroft & Sherlock: The Empty Birdcage (2019).
O.k., folks! I’m back after a brief hiatus and kicking off the New Year (albeit a little late) with my top five recommendations from all the books I reviewed for 2019. And yes, this time I actually kept it to five. Wonders never cease. All of these are great reads: inspiring, scary, funny, thrilling, oddly beautiful…they run the emotional gamut. Enjoy.
Text links go to my full reviews, cover images link to Amazon.
FBI agent Will Brody is dead: killed pursuing a shooter. But Brody quickly learns that there are bad guys in the afterlife, too, and they’re threating the living—including Brody’s soulmate, Claire. Non-stop thriller action meets a thoughtful, deeply touching exploration of death, and love.
Cryptozoologist, parkour queen, and almost-professional ballroom dancer, Verity Price carries on the family business of protecting the monster communities in New York City from the humans. And vice versa. If that’s not challenging enough, things get complicated when Verity and a handsome enemy must work together to save disappearing cryptid virgins. Fast-paced and filled with fun characters and great monsters.
A suspenseful, whimsical, stunningly beautiful Victorian mystery about a musical telegraph operator who is befriended by a Japanese watchmaker. There are secrets. Bombs. Clockworks. Gilbert and Sullivan. And magic. Exquisite.
Violence and panic erupt as a pandemic sweeps through the US. Only Wynter Roth, who has lived most of her life in a doomsday cult, has the key to a vaccine. As society rapidly deteriorates, Wynter must cope with present-day lawlessness and past traumatic memories of the cult while she rushes the precious medical samples across the country. Gripping read.
Down-on-her-luck Hal is barely scraping by as a tarot reader when she learns she’s listed as a beneficiary in her recently deceased grandmother’s will. Impossible, since her grandparents died long ago. Despite pangs of conscience, Hal decides to scam her way into the inheritance. Gathered with the family in the lonely country house, Hal uncovers family secrets and finds herself in deadly danger. Engaging, classic mystery with well-drawn characters and a touch of almost-supernatural.
Ghost of the Bamboo Road—Susan Spann, 2019. Rating 4/5
A murderer stalks an isolated Japanese village. Is the culprit a vengeful spirit or an all-too-human killer? It is up to Master ninja Hiro Hattori, and his companion, the Jesuit priest Father Mateo, to find the truth in Spann’s latest historical mystery.
Wintertime finds Hattori traveling to Edo, warning other ninja along his way that that their hidden identities may have been compromised. One kunoichi, or female ninja, is stationed at a village tea house on the mountainous travel road. Closed by a landslide for many months, the reopened road is almost deserted, as people prefer the less challenging detour. Hattori, along with Mateo, his housekeeper, Ana, and their cat, Gato, brave the cold and difficult journey only to find the village almost abandoned.
Things get off to an ominous start at the ryokan when the proprietor’s wife fearfully warns them not to stay the night. The inn’s owner, Noboru, urges them to stay; a decision they soon regret. The kunoichi Hattori seeks is nowhere to be found, Ana is accused of theft, and Noboru’s mother, Ishiko, is murdered—posed to look like a yūrei, an angry ghost. The villagers believe the spirit of Noboru’s dead sister is the yūrei, responsible for murdering those who wronged her during her life.
As Hattori and Mateo work to clear Ana’s name, find the kunoichi, and uncover the truth behind Ishiko’s death, they find themselves untangling a mesh of lies, jealousies, and old grievances involving everyone from the village samurai, to a half-mad mountain ascetic, down to the teahouse entertainers.
Ghost of the Bamboo Road is a unique spin on a closed-circle mystery. The snowbound village, a finite group of suspects, and just a tease of the supernatural makes this a satisfying fireside read for a winter’s night. Spann brings the largely unfamiliar but fascinating world of 16th century Japan to life with rich cultural and historical detail. Hattori, with his cool logic and refined warrior skills, nicely complements Mateo, with his faith and warm nature. The two make for an unusual, but successful detective duo. Ghost of the Bamboo Road is the seventh in Spann’s Shinobi Mystery series. After Ghost of the Bamboo Road, I look forward to starting the series at the beginning, with Claws of the Cat. Full disclosure: I received a publisher’s copy of the book for my honest review.