The Avid Reader: Add some literary mystery to your life

  • Ben Conant

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 3/3/2022 1:25:21 PM
Modified: 3/3/2022 1:24:56 PM

As most of my readers have now figured out, I am an escapist reader at least part of the time. For me, this means the occasional murder, followed by at least one psychological thriller and, to keep my pre-teen and teen friends aware, at least one young adult read.

Lisa Jewell, certainly a current favorite author and one who has sold over five million copies of her books world-wide, has penned a new novel titled “The Night She Disappeared.” The setting is at a private preparatory school and surrounding community in England, where a tragedy has occurred. Jewell begins her family saga in June 2017. The evening is hot and Kim a young grandmother is babysitting her dearly loved, only grandchild, Noah. Kim’s daughter Tallulah, 19 and very responsible beyond her years, has gone out on a date night with Zach, Noah’s dad. They are trying to make their relationship work and Kim suspects Zach is going to propose to Tallulah that night.

At some point during that evening Tallulah and Zach disappear without a trace. They were last seen at a party on the vast estate of her friend Scarlett; yet there is no evidence that suggests any dreadful deed occurred. After a year, the case has run cold, Kim now has custody of Noah, and remains convinced something terrible has happened to her daughter – because she knows that Tallulah would never leave her son. Kim will never give up looking for Tallulah.

Right after the one-year anniversary of the couple’s disappearance, a mystery writer and her boyfriend move into a cottage on the school grounds. Sophie, our writer, loves to take long walks and finds the woods, known locally as the Dark Place, around the school very enticing. While on a walk Sophie discovers a note that reads “dig here.” She digs and finds a box containing an engagement ring. The very ring Zach had purchased shortly before that fateful night. This might be the clue to solving the case, and Sophie wastes no time following every lead.

That is the plot – well-crafted and intricate enough to keep our attention. The writing itself is the part that is electric. Between the interactions of the characters,the subtle hints that Tallulah is not just coming into her own as an adult but is also battling demons on many fronts, and the fearful hints that time is running out fast–I was held on the edge of my seat compelled to keep turning the pages. Other reviewers that I communicate with all agree the term “riveting” is perfect for Jewell’s new book. Just be ready to stay up late, with several lights on, so you can finish it.

After concluding this fantastic psychological thriller, I needed to step back a bit in time and breath in a little mystery. Earl Stanley Gardner is one of my go-to authors for these breathing times.“The Case of the Borrowed Brunette” is probably one of his most loved Perry Mason mysteries, and it has just been republished for the first time in over 30 years. There are many reasons Perry Mason mysteries have stood the test of time. Mason’s attitude toward Della Street his secretary is always respectful and kind, the writing is tight, the settings feel contemporary, and aside from the absence of cell phones in favor of reliance on public phone booths, the characters and their predicaments are eternal as well as universal.

In this case, there is a need for a brunette, age 23 to 25, height five feet four and one-half inches, weight 111 pounds, waist measurement 24 inches, bust measurement 32 inches. This need is immediate, and the job is mysterious. She must have a chaperone with her at all times and will be paid $20 a day plus expenses – just to sit in an apartment and pretend to be another brunette of identical proportions. In 1946, when this book was first published, by the way, $20 a day was good money. Of course, this substitute brunette and the chaperone get themselves into trouble when the man who hired them is found murdered – with the chaperone’s gun. The chaperone, by the way, is quite a character and fun in her own right. Even the minor players contribute beautifully to this this story.

With the help of Paul Drake, Mason’s detective, and the ever-faithful Della, our intrepid lawyer faces down the truculent DA, investigates the murder, plots an intricate time line, and as always, clears his clients. The story has a fast plot, the dialogue is typical Gardner, snappy and sharp, and the ending is one I didn’t see coming. Those are my favorite.

Adults are, as noted above, not the only ones who need some escape reading. One of my favorite new writers of young adult fiction is Elizabeth C. Bunce, author of the Myrtle Hardcastle mysteries. The first in this series, “Premeditated Myrtle,” won the Edgar Allen Poe Award, and the third, and newest, “Cold-Blooded Myrtle” keeps the quality just as high and the suspense going very nicely.

Myrtle Hardcastle is a Young Lady Of Quality in Victorian England. This means she needs to learn to speak French, play the pianoforte, learn how to properly use every conceivable eating utensil ever found on a table, carry on inane conversations with men so they are not threatened by a female with intelligence (we still have a few of those men around), dress with decorum, and generallybehave according to Victorian norms. Sadly (actually whoopee! Yeah! And way to go Myrtle!) she does not follow this path. In fact, Myrtle is supported in her desires to become a detective for Scotland Yard, when she grows up, by her very perfect, but enlightened governess Miss Judson.

Myrtle’s widower father, a lawyer and local prosecutor, is the indulgent sort of parent every girl in that era would wish for. He allows her to read his law books,peruse her late mother’s medical texts, and generally get up to whatever suits her fancy. In this book, it is the mysterious killing of Mr. Leighton, the owner of the local mercantile.Myrtle is in her glory, especially after the killer leaves clues to the next crime.Naturally, she runs afoul of a few adults who are not quite in agreement with the notion of a 12-year old Young Lady Of Quality going about solving crimes.

Fortunately, Dr. Munjal, her late mother’s classmate at medical school, is back and ready to help once again. Dr. Munjal is the local medical examiner/police surgeon and Myrtle’s ally in times of need. And, once again, Myrtle gets herself in enough of a fix that she does find herself in need.Altogether, this is a very delightful series and one that young adults (and at least one older adult) will find to be tremendous fun. I am delighted that Bunce is not only continuing this series, but is maintaining the same high quality and spirit for her characters.

So, get that pot of tea, the comfortable spot in the favorite chair, perhaps a few cookies, definitely a pet if you have one, turn on several lights, cuddle in with the book of choice and while away an afternoon of well-spend reading.

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