Fiction Review

“The Scold’s Bridle” by Minette Walters

Walters, Minette. The Scold’s Bridle (1994)  
St. Martin’s, 365 pages, $5.99  paperback  
ISBN 0 312 95612 6


Nobody is very concerned when the body of Mathilda Gillespie, a venomous old woman, is discovered in her bathtub. Mathilda apparently has committed suicide by slitting her wrists while wearing her scold’s bridle, an ancient iron instrument that fit around the head and into the mouth to immobilize the tongue and therefore bridle the speech of a scold—a nagging, cantankerous woman. Mathilda used the scold’s bridle, which had been in her family for generations, as a room decoration.

But an inquest determines that Mathilda’s death was murder, not suicide. Both Matilda’s daughter, the strikingly beautiful Joanna, and Joanna’s daughter, Ruth, are suspects; the three generations of women apparently hated each other and argued constantly. But when Mathilda’s will is read, the prime suspect becomes the old woman’s physician, Dr. Sarah Blakeney, to whom Mathilda leaves her entire estate. The only way that Blakeney, who had known Mathilda for only a year, can prove her innocence is by discovering who the real murderer is.

© 2001 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“The Sculptress” by Minette Walters

Walters, Minette. The Sculptress (1993)  
St. Martin’s, 308 pages, $5.99 paperback  
ISBN 0 312 95361 5

Rosalind Leigh is a blocked writer given an ultimatum by her publisher: write a book about a sensational murder that occurred several years earlier or be dropped from the publisher’s list.  Roz grudgingly accepts the assignment to interview Olive Martin, a woman in prison for the murder of her mother and sister. Olive is called “the sculptress” because she admitted to hacking her mother and sister to death, then trying to reassemble the severed body parts; in prison Olive also uses wax candles and bits of clay to sculpt dolls that she dresses to look like the people in her life.

Olive Martin is an obese, ugly woman whom Roz finds innately repulsive. But as Roz begins to talk with Olive and to interview other people about the crime to which Olive has confessed, she begins to think that Olive may be innocent. If Olive didn’t kill her own mother and sister, who did? And why would Olive confess to a crime that she didn’t commit?

© 2001 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“The Ice House” by Minette Walters

Walters, Minette. The Ice House (1992)  
St. Martin’s, 301 pages, $5.99  paperback  
ISBN 0 312 95142 6


When a decomposing body is discovered in the ice house on a British estate, two cynical detectives arrive to investigate. They’re certain that the body must be that of the husband of the household, who disappeared 10 years earlier. Furthermore, they wonder, along with all the residents of the town, why the missing man’s wife and two female companions—all women approaching middle age—live together in seclusion in the house. As they dig more deeply into the problem of the body in the ice house, they discover that things may not be as they seem. The reader also discovers that appearances can be deceiving.

What makes Walters such a popular writer is her ability to probe the psychological complexities of her characters at the same time that she creates spellbinding plots to hold readers’ interest while allowing the characters to reveal themselves. Time after time a Walters novel reveals that things are not always as they seem and that, by making and acting upon assumptions, we often miss the truth.

© 2001 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“P” Is for Peril by Sue Grafton

Grafton,Sue. “P” Is for Peril (2001)  
Putnam, 352 pages, $26.95 hardcover 
ISBN 0399147195

Dr. Dowan Purcell has been missing for nine weeks by the time his ex-wife, Fiona, hires Kinsey to find him. The 69-year-old doctor, a respected member of the local medical community, is director of a nursing home. He’s now married to a much younger wife, Crystal, with whom he has a 2-year-old son. Fiona thinks Purcell might have deliberately disappeared. Crystal thinks he must be dead. Kinsey doesn’t think she’ll find out much that the cops haven’t already discovered in nine weeks, but she agrees to look into the disappearance despite her instinctive dislike of the austere Fiona.

Kinsey soon learns that Dr. Purcell’s nursing home is being investigated for Medicare fraud. But beyond this there doesn’t seem to be much information about the doctor. In the meantime, Kinsey looks for new office space to rent and is excited to find what she thinks is the perfect place.

Sue Grafton is somewhat off in her latest alphabet mystery. The first problem is the pacing. Kinsey spends an awful lot of time learning virtually nothing about Purcell’s disappearance; I kept waiting for something—anything—to happen. 

A second problem is the subplot of Kinsey’s relationship with the landlords of her newly rented office space. Grafton usually makes her subplots relate somehow to the main plot, but there’s no such connection between the two elements in “P” Is for Peril. And the subplot is never adequately resolved. (After the scene in the Hevner garage, would one of the brothers simply get into his car and drive off without doing anything about Kinsey?) Further, the subplot probably would have made a more interesting main plot than the story of Dr. Purcell turns out to be.

The third problem with this novel is its dénouement, which reveals the killer but fails to answer a lot of questions about the crime. Exactly how was the murder committed? Did one of the minor characters help out, as certain incidents suggest? Also, the apparent motivation for the crime comes out of nowhere and, without adequate preparation, is not at all convincing. Sue Grafton usually ties all the story’s loose ends up in a way that explains them all and brings closure to the various characters and events. But in this novel she simply stops.

One challenge of writing a continuing series is adding the nuances necessary to keep the recurrent character fresh for readers. At the end of “O” Is for Outlaw Grafton introduced a kinder, gentler Kinsey, but there is no trace of that persona in this next installment. Nonetheless, devotees of Kinsey Millhone will be glad of another chance to spend some time with her.

© 2001 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Angels Flight” by Michael Connelly

Connelly, Michael. Angels Flight (1999)  
Little, Brown, 393 pages, $25.00 hardcover  
ISBN 0 316 15219 6

Howard Elias, an attorney well known around the LAPD for bringing charges of police brutality, is found murdered in Angels Flight, a small two-car train that travels up and down a hill in Los Angeles. The murder investigation falls to Harry Bosch, even though Angels Flight is not located in his normal beat, because Elias was due to start a trial the following week against some of the regular detectives on this beat. 

Dead with Elias in the Angels Flight car is Catalina Perez. “He [Bosch] studied Catalina Perez the way someone might study a sculpture in a museum. There was no feeling for the object in front of him as human. He was studying details, gaining impressions” (33). However, this picture of the cold, unfeeling detective contrasts with the other, the personal, Bosch, who must continue the murder investigation against the backdrop of the dissolution of his marriage.

© 2001 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“The Black Echo” by Michael Connelly

Connelly, Michael. The Black Echo (1992)  
St. Martin’s, 412 pages, $7.50 paperback  
ISBN 0 312 95048 9

Harry Bosch of the LAPD, newly demoted to Hollywood detectives after 10 years in RHD—Robbery Homicide Division—catches what looks like a routine homicide. Soon, though, Bosch realizes that the corpse is Billy Meadows, whom Bosch had known 20 years earlier in Vietnam. Meadows and Bosch had both been “tunnel rats,” scouts who went down into the tunnels that connected villages throughout Vietnam:

Out of the blue and into the black. That’s what he said going on a tunnel mission was. We called it the black echo. It was like going to hell. You’re down there and you could smell your own fear. It was like you were dead when you were down there (174).

There was no name for it, so we made up a name. It was the darkness, the damp emptiness you’d feel when you were down there alone in those tunnels. It was like you were in a place where you felt dead and buried in the dark. But you were alive. And you were scared. Your own breath kind of echoed in the darkness, loud enough to give you away. Or so you thought. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. Just . . . the black echo (324).

In trying to discover why Meadows was murdered, Bosch has to go back down into the hole, where he once again hears the black echo.

The Black Echo, which won the Edgar Award for best first novel, is based in part on a real robbery that took place in Los Angeles in 1987. Although complex, the plot never seems convoluted. This is a first-rate thriller in which Connelly combines a superb plot and a dynamic character.

© 2001 by Mary Daniels Brown

List Year's Best

The Best Books I Read in 2000

Listed alphabetically by author

Gibbons, Kaye. A Virtuous Woman

Hamilton, Jane. The Short History of a Prince

Hegi, Ursula. Stones from the River

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird

McEwan, Ian. Enduring Love: A Novel

Percy, Walker. The Moviegoer

Pipher, Mary. Reviving Ophelia

Shreve, Anita. The Weight of Water

Stansberry, Domenic. The Last Days of Il Duce

Honorable Mention

Berne, Suzanne. A Crime in the Neighborhood

Golden, Arthur. Memoirs of a Geisha

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

McCourt, Frank. ‘Tis

Turow, Scott. Personal Injuries

Fiction Review

“The Run” by Stuart Woods

Woods, Stuart. The Run (2000)  
HarperCollins, 352 pages, $26.00 hardcover 
ISBN 0 06 019187 2

Just in time for the U.S. Presidential election comes The Run, a political thriller about a U.S. Senator’s campaign for the Presidency.  Fortunately, the candidate is not Stone Barrington, but William Henry Lee, IV, of Georgia. A descendant of the first police chief of Delano, Georgia, whom we meet in Chiefs, Will Lee has appeared earlier in Run Before the Wind and Grassroots.

Senator Lee plans to run for the Presidency in eight years, after the current Vice-President has his two terms as leader. But circumstances force Lee into the running much earlier than he had anticipated. Woods paints a picture of political maneuvering that reinforces all of our suspicions about how these things are done, although Senator Lee manages to stay above the slime. 

But if the corrupt behind-the-scenes politicos can’t bring Lee down, a fanatical militia member from Idaho just might do the job for them. This plot complication apparently was too complicated for Woods because he provides a climax that is too abrupt and unconvincing. This ending detracts from what is otherwise a plausible thriller. 

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Worst Fears Realized” by Stuart Woods

Woods, Stuart. Worst Fears Realized (1999)  
HarperCollins, 332 pages, $25.00 hard cover  
ISBN 0 06 019182 1

Stone Barrington is up to his usual activities. At the beginning of Worst Fears Realized, he picks up Susan Bean, a female attorney who was the assistant prosecutor on a recent high-profile case. Susan and Stone go back to her apartment, then order Chinese take-out food. Stone goes to pick up the food, and by page 11 he has returned to find Susan in a pool of blood in her kitchen, her throat slit.

Within another 10 pages Stone has identified the body of his long-time secretary. She had stayed late at Stone’s home office to work on some documents the night before and was apparently hit over the head and killed on her way home. 

Two deaths so close together could be a coincidence. But Stone thinks not when he and his former NYPD partner, Dino Bacchetti, watch from a window in Stone’s house as his neighbor—who happens to enjoy vacuuming in the nude—has her throat slit by an intruder. (This murder occurs on pages 28-29, so I’m not giving much of the story away here.)

Ex-cop Stone Barrington fears he’s now living every police officer’s worst nightmare. As his buddy Dino puts it, “The idea that somebody you’ve busted and sent up will come back to haunt you, to get even. I think that, after getting killed in the line of duty, it’s every cop’s worst fear” (26-27).

Dino’s seductive sister-in-law, Dolce, provides the usual Stone Barrington plot complications as Stone and Dino work to identify the vengeful killer. These novels are becoming standard fare for Woods, and he’s becoming increasingly more formulaic as he continues to crank them out.

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Hard Time” by Sara Paretsky

Paretsky, Sara. Hard Time (1999).  Delacorte, 385 pages, $24.95 hardcover  ISBN 0 385 31363

Whatever demons were haunting Sara Paretsky, she seems to have exorcised them in Ghost Country, for Hard Time brings back V.I. Warshawski in the author’s best novel yet.

When Global Entertainment, a media conglomerate, purchases the Chicago Herald-Star, V.I. Warshawski’s long-time friend, former reporter Murray Ryerson, becomes host of a television show on Global’s network. Driving home from a grand party celebrating Ryerson’s TV debut, V.I. almost runs over a woman lying in the street.

Never one to let go of a question, V.I. determines to find out who the woman was and why she was lying in that street at that time. Her search for answers to her questions takes her from inside the world of corporate glamour, power, and wealth to behind the bars of a women’s prison. As usual, V.I. worries over the fate of the marginal and dispossessed members of society. Fans of V.I. Warshawski won’t be disappointed in her latest appearance.

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown