Mystery at the Spa – Keep Her Safe

4124dC61QCL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Sophie Hannah was chosen to continue the legacy of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot in two novels following the grand Dame’s style, and when you finish Keep Her Safe, you will understand why.  Murder, kidnapping, a distraught pregnant British mum, an arrogant American former prosecutor/talk show host, and a few policemen – set in a posh Arizona spa – come together to offer an entertaining mystery, Agatha Christie style.

Several plot lines intersect to keep the reader off balance but the main focus targets the murder of a young girl whose body has never been found.  The girl is spotted at the luxury spa after a flustered hotel clerk hands out the wrong room key to a jet-lagged British customer who not only becomes the instigator for the search of the girl but also becomes a victim.  As the story goes in and out of the possibilities, Hannah has the characters dancing in a complicated and sometimes confusing maze.  I lost patience with long pages of letters, interview transcripts, and descriptions of towels and pools at the luxury spa worthy of a marketing ad.    When the action finally picks up, the flashbacks, journals and court documents come together in a clever reveal of the true villain.

Just as Agatha Christie neatly summed up the action, laying bare the motivations of all the characters in her last chapter, so does Hannah.  Just in case the reader lost the thread of who did what to whom, she clearly explains it all in the end, exposing the villains and restoring faith in the system.  Except – there is an added surprise – leaving the ending with an uncomfortable and shocking revelation.

Although mystery books are not the best focus for a book club discussion, Sophie Hannah’s twists and surprise ending in Keep Her Safe might make the exception.  The ending would be worth discussing.  If you’ve read it, let me know how you feel about the ending.

 

Review of The Monogram Murders

 

 

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Cocoa Beach

Unknown   Despite Beatriz Williams’ complicated plots with murder, deceit, and harrowing escapes, she always delivers a happy ending, and Cocoa Beach is no exception.  With American volunteers in London during World War I, wealthy aristocrats in Cornwall, and rumrunners at a posh plantation in Florida during the Prohibition, the varied settings add to the historical context of a fast-paced melodrama of romance and intrigue.

Virginia Fortesque, young American volunteer ambulance driver, meets Simon Fitzwilliam, the tall dashing British doctor, and, of course, they fall in love as she drives him across the battlefields.  Their lives are complicated by their families.  She has a wealthy father who has been imprisoned for murdering her mother; he has a wife and son, with a huge debt attached to the ancestral home.

When the war ends, he divorces his wife, marries Virginia, and leaves to make his fortune at the downtrodden family investment in Cocoa Beach, Florida, while she returns to her family in New York.  When he dies suddenly, she and their two year old daughter travel to Florida to settle the estate.  And so the real story begins.

Williams cleverly changes tacks frequently, as she alternates between the war years and the present in 1922.  No one is who they seem, and the intrigue hardens into murder for greed, with lies about everything.  The reader is never sure who is telling the truth until the end.

Virginia remains the only character who is decent and true, the victim of the villains surrounding her.  If you read Williams’ A Certain Age, you may remember her as a minor character whose father is accused of killing his wife, Virginia’s mother.  Williams fleshes out her story in Cocoa Beach, with her usual successful combination of romance, mystery and murder, adding a dash of prohibition and infidelity, and the compelling formula of distracting foils and dangerous tension.

Fun and compelling – Cocoa Beach is a great beach read.

Review: A Certain Age

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

225x225bb     In telling the story of a small community overrun by gossip, prejudice, and secrets, Joanna Cannon humorously reveals the dangers of obstinate righteousness through the voices of two ten year old girls.  In The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, a series of mishaps and strange occurrences threaten to upset the quiet row of British country houses in a small neighborhood – small enough that every knows every one else’s business, and if they don’t, they are willing to create their own versions of reality.

The driving focus of the story is Mrs. Cleasy’ s sudden disappearance.  As the search for her continues throughout the story, Cannon introduces a series of related incidents as possible clues to the mystery through the voice of ten year old Grace.  Mrs. Cleasy’s disappearance could be simply escape from her life or something more sinister.  The neighbors fear she may have uncovered a secret that could expose their past shameful action.  Ignorant of the adults’ trepidation,  Grace, a resourceful 10-year-old convinces herself and her loyal friend, Tilly, that everything might go back to normal if only they can find God.

Posing as Brownies seeking badges, Grace and her friend Tilly, pursue their own investigation, and as they interview each neighbor they slowly uncover the neighborhood’s secret – an insidious plot against one resident that happened nine years earlier.

The title refers to a biblical verse:

“…He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left…he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire…”

The trouble, Grace discovers as she interviews her neighbors,  is deciding who are the goats and who are the sheep.  Under the guise of a quiet existence, each has a secret misery:  Dorothy, bullied by her husband, Eric; Brian, who cannot escape his overbearing mother; John Creasy, husband of the missing woman, who fears his wife has discovered what he has done. Each character is concealing a secret, but not necessarily the one you suspect.  In addition, two unexplained scandals lurk in the air – a kidnapped baby and a house fire – as well as the neighbors anxiety and anger over two who do not fit into their expectations – an Indian family newly moved in and a bachelor with long hair who likes to take photographs.

With so many diversions, the story may seem overwhelming.  Cannon’s wry humor, however, manages to expose human frailty while cautioning the reader to beware of making assumptions.  Her diversion into a creosote stain on a drainpipe that looks like Jesus is hilarious, with the neighbors keeping watch and fighting over the placement of lawn chairs to keep vigil.   In her review for the New York Times last year, Samantha Hunt noted:

Jesus’ manifestation births a driveway vigil, a Chautauqua of folding chairs and a struggle. Who sits closest to Jesus? This caldron of neighbors grows hot. At what temperature will community boil over into mob violence? Fear is contagious in small spaces… What belongs where? Who owns what? And what hollow treats will be developed to distract us from the real crimes committed in the name of safety?

Joanna Cannon is a psychiatrist, privy to many secret fears; she has said her book was inspired by her patients and by the story of Christopher Jefferies,  the retired teacher and landlord who was falsely implicated in the murder of Joanna Yeates in Bristol in 2010, and later won libel damages for the way he was portrayed in some newspapers.

In The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Cannon may be sharing her insights about inner miseries and hypocrisies,  and their manifestations on others – and perhaps, cautioning that we may not know our neighbors as well as we think.

Although a friend recommended this book a year ago, I returned my library copy unread – just could not get to it.  I was reminded of it recently from an interview on By the Book, and glad I read it – a book full of humor and profound moments worth thinking about and discussing.

Cannon has another book due to be published in January – Three Things About Elsie.  This time I’ve preordered it.

 

 

Summer Thrillers

When the sun is hot, I like fast and furious stories I can read in a sitting. Here are a few:

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

If you are a fan of Paula Hawkins, Ruth Ware, or Gillian Flynn, Lapena’s thriller has the same riveting flair. The drama centers around the kidnapping of a baby left alone while the parents attend a dinner party next door. Lapena switches tracks often, teasing the reader with possible motives and perpetrators. I read the book in one sitting to confirm my suspicions, but the villain was a surprise.

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

With the famous New York Barbizon Hotel as the setting, Fiona Davis connects women pursuing careers as secretaries and models in the 1950’s to a twenty-first century journalist looking for a good story. When modern day Rose Lewin discovers the past of an elderly woman who has remained living in the hotel now converted into condominiums, she uncovers a possible murder and switched identities within the historic context of the hotel’s glamour. The story seems too long, but Davis offers historically correct content about the era and enough drama to sustain the reader’s curiosity. 

Now Reading: Sting by Sandra Brown

and Listening to: The Breakdown by B. A. Paris

The Lying Game

shopping-1   Ruth Ware is back with another quiet and tense thriller – The Lying Game.  With an eerie Gothic setting, human bones found near a boarding school, and a group of schoolgirls who made lying an art, Ware creates a murder mystery with enough red herrings and sudden reveals to keep the reader wondering about the girls’ secret. In a clever twist of plot, the crime seems to be revealed early in the book, but the wary reader will be justified to hold back judgment.  Everyone is lying after all – even the author.  Not as riveting as Dark Dark Wood or The Woman in Cabin 10, but The Lying Game has Ware’s steady hand as she mystifies and teases; the ending is almost an afterthought as the secrets unravel; a great book to read on a dark and stormy night.

Review of Other Ruth Ware Mysteries: