Beaches and great mysteries go hand in hand
For many people, summer means vacation, and vacation means beach. For readers, the beach in turn means packing books to be read for pleasure, books whose pages can absorb a bit of water or a splash of sun-tan lotion, page turners whose plots drive you through the story.
Vicki Delany’s Elementary, She Read: A Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mystery (Crooked Lane Publishers, 2017, 309 pages) is ideal for reading seaside. The novel is set in West London on Cape Cod, so the sand and ocean are a part of the terrain. The protagonist, Gemma Doyle, a witty English woman living on the Cape to manage her uncle’s Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium, will delight all but the dourest readers. The Sherlock Holmes details and trivia included in the story should entrance those familiar with the detective of Baker Street as well as those who have never read anything about him.
When the story opens, we meet Gemma working in the shop while next door her close friend, Jayne Wilson, operates Mrs. Hudson’s, a teashop and bakery. When a woman who briefly visited the bookshop turns up murdered at a local hotel, possibly in connection with a magazine Gemma finds in her shop — an 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual, the issue containing Conan Doyle’s first published Sherlock Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet” — the local police, one female officer in particular, suspect Gemma of committing the crime.
Accompanied by Jayne, who plays Dr. Watson to Gemma’s Holmes, our intrepid protagonist sets off to solve the murder herself. During this hunt, she encounters an ex-boyfriend, a pushy reporter, various eccentrics intrigued by all things Sherlock Holmes, millionaires with financial problems, and nosey neighbors. The murder of a second woman drives Gemma and Jayne to redouble their efforts to apprehend the murderer before another body finds its way to the morgue.
Though many of the characters in Elementary, She Read are appealing — my own favorites were Jayne Wilson, Uncle Arthur, Moriarity the cat, and even Louise Estrada, the angry police officer — it is Gemma Doyle who brings the story to life. She has the Holmesian gifts for observation and making connections, yet she remains fully a woman, treasuring her friends, enjoying life, and looking for love.
Those of us who take such pleasure in Elementary, She Read can only hope that Vicki Delaney, a Canadian and author of more than 20 mysteries, will continue to bring us tales of Gemma, her bookshop, and her adventures on Cape Cod.
In G-Man: A Bob Lee Swagger Novel (Blue Rider Press, 2017, 449 pages), Stephen Hunter gives us yet another saga of the Swagger clan and their involvement in law enforcement and our country’s wars. When Bob Lee Swagger, an aging veteran of Vietnam and a world-renowned marksman and gun expert, sells his family’s old home to developers, the workers hired to tear down the house unearth a hidden lockbox. The contents of that box — a .45 automatic and a 1934 thousand-dollar bill — lead Swagger on a hunt to uncover the secrets of his grandfather’s past as a lawman and as a father.
Here the story shifts back and forth from the present, which becomes increasingly dangerous for Swagger, to the 1930s and the gangsters who were then making themselves into legends: John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde. Stephen Hunter does a bang-up job creating that era of shoot-outs and bank robberies, that time when the U.S. Division of Investigation — now called the FBI — was first making a name for itself. The FBI recruits Charles Swagger, hero of the Great War and an Arkansas sheriff who helped in the ambush of Bonnie and Clyde, and sends him to Chicago to teach inexperienced agents the proper use of firearms. Here Swagger finds himself not only instructing the agents, but leading them as well against criminals like Dillinger and Nelson, whose real name was Lester Gillis.
Hunter does an outstanding job transporting us back to the ‘thirties, recreating the greasy spoon cafes, the movies, the automobiles, the clothing and the importance, especially for the gangsters, of looking sharp in their appearance. The Great Depression gripped the country, and reading G-Man, we can feel the grit of the Chicago streets and the hardships faced by so many workers and farmers of that era.
In his “Acknowledgements” at the end of G-Man, Hunter shares with us his motivation in writing this novel: “I have wanted to write a Baby Face book for decades, but, as usual, the impetus that turned ambition to labor was ire, a big motive for cranky old men.” He goes on to tell his readers that “the object of my anger was Michael Mann’s movie desecration of 1934 in his idiotic version of Bryan Burroughs majestic Public Enemies,” a nonfiction account of the crime wave of that era and the rise of the FBI. Hunter so loved the book, and was so upset by the movie’s twisted account of events, particularly with its focus on Dillinger, that he gave us G-Man.
Because the Bob Lee Swagger stories are among my favorite suspense novels, I hope Mr. Hunter finds other upsets as well. In this case, ne man’s ire is another man’s pleasure.
Stay angry, Mr. Hunter, and keep the books coming.