Fabulous Fiction Firsts #495 - “It's the questions we can't answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think." ~ Patrick Rothfuss

The Question of the Missing Head: An Asperger's mystery by E.J. Coopperman (as Jeff Cohen when he writes nonfiction) introduces a new series featuring Samuel Hoenig, a man with Asperger's Syndrome - "an increasingly popular diagnosis given to people displaying a constellation of behaviors often associated with autism—inflexible thinking, reduced ability to read social cues, constricted range of interest." But Samuel's observational skills and heightened cognitive and linguistic functioning make him an ideal owner (and sole employee) of his New Jersey-based business called Questions Answered.

When Marshall Ackerman, chief administrator of the Garden State Cryonics Institute insists on him solving the mystery of a missing preserved head in their high-tech laboratory, Samuel, being a non-driver, conscripts his current client, a Miss Washburn to accompany him to the scene of the crime. Upon arrival, the urgency of finding the missing head is overshadowed when Dr. Rebecca Springer, one of the facility's scientists, is found murdered, in a locked room.

"In this well-crafted story, the Asperger's element, rather than becoming a distraction, provides a unique point of view on crime-solving, as well as offering a sensitive look at a too-often-misunderstood condition. "

"(A) delightful and clever mystery".

Readalikes for Serial Fans


Millions of people are hooked on the new Serial podcast, in which journalist Sarah Koenig attempts to unravel the 1999 murder of Baltimore-area high schooler Hae Min Lee and the subsequent conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed for the crime. New episodes are released each Thursday, and binge-listeners of the show are eager to listen, re-listen, and debate the findings and their suspicions.

Here are a few nonfiction titles that might help pass the time between episode releases - each title features a crime, compelling characters, and an attempt to piece together the clues to make sense of the whole picture.

Blood Will Out - Walter Kirn's examination of a con artist who posed for years as "Clark Rockefeller," an ambiguously wealthy member of the upper crust, heavily features Kirn's own multi-year friendship with the man who turned out to be not just duplicitous, but dangerous as well.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil - John Berendt's story of Savannah is unique in that the crime around which the book is centered almost gets lost amid the outsized personalities of his cast of characters, which includes a flamboyant antiques dealer, a voodoo priestess, and the unforgettable scene-stealer Lady Chablis.

The Monster of Florence - author Douglas Preston becomes spectacularly entangled in this investigation of a violent serial killer stalking couples in the Italian countryside. The extreme ineptitude of the police force on this case is as appalling as the dedication of journalists like co-author Mario Spezi is admirable.

People Who Eat Darkness - award-winning journalist Richard Lloyd Parry traces the disappearance of a young woman in Japan through the search and investigation phases which lead finally to her murder trial, even at the risk of his own safety.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher - Kate Summerscale dissects Britain's infamous Road Hill House murder case which featured a locked room scenario, mishandled evidence, and in an unusual addition for 1860 - a detective, one of the first eight members of the newly-formed Scotland Yard.

What addictive stories have been satisfying your Serial cravings? Share them in the comments! Also - Adnan: guilty or no?

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #490

Librarian (Louisiana) Ashley Weaver's stylish and charming debut Murder at the Brightwell features "a spunky heroine, a tense romance and red herrings galore" that would bring to mind Agatha Christie who created some of the most endearing and enduring amateur sleuths.

1932 England. Young Amory Ames, on impulse, accepts an invitation from her former fiance Gil Trent to vacation at the Brightwell, a luxurious seaside resort catering to the society set. The express purpose is for Amory to intervene in the forthcoming marriage of Gil's sister Emmeline to Rupert Howe, a disreputable ladies' man. No one sees the sharp prick of the irony more then Amory whose floundering marriage to the notoriously charming playboy Milo is a constant source of sorrow.

But when Rupert is found murdered and Gil is arrested for the crime, Amory must set aside their marital ennui, and reluctantly enlists Milo's help in finding the killer and clearing Trent's name. Soon, the pair's sleuthing puts them at the scene of a second murder, and in harm's way.

"A pleasant debut novel, nicely evoking the 1930s with strong atmosphere and the beginnings of some intriguing characters."

Readers eagerly anticipating a follow-up might want to get cozy with Dashiell Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man series (and the 1934 film adaptation that is now a classic); the Australian Miss Phryne Fisher series by Kerry Greenwood (adapted into an exquisitely-costumed period television series); and the Dandy Gilver series by Catriona McPherson, set in Scotland.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #489 -“Perhaps it's impossible to wear an identity without becoming what you pretend to be.”~ Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game

In The Distance, a "dark, ultra-contemporary and relentlessly paced debut thriller by Helen Giltrow, a London socialite, desperate to put some distance from her criminal past must contend with the outrageous demand of a hit man.

Behind the closed door of her sleek, high-security London apartment, Charlotte Alton is Karla - who, with a few keystrokes and for the right price, could make anyone disappear. The only mistake she'd ever made in an otherwise perfect career is revealing her face to a man named Simon Johanssen, an ex-special forces sniper turned killer-for-hire. Now, after a long absence, Johanssen has resurfaced with a job, and he needs Karla's help. This time - to take out an inmate inside an experimental prison colony, against impossible odds.

"Written in stylish, sophisticated prose, The Distance is a tense and satisfying debut in which every character, both criminal and law-abiding, wears two faces, and everyone is playing a double game."

"The graphic violence and torture has this thriller bordering on horror, like the work of Chelsea Cain, so be forewarned that it is not for the squeamish."

Gangsterland * * * by Tod Goldberg. Like Karla, Sal Cupertine, legendary hit man for the Chicago Mafia, has only made one mistake in his line of work, but it is a big one - killing 3 undercover FBI agents in a botched sting operation. To stay alive, he agrees to "the family's" radical idea. After a few surgeries and some intensive studying, Rabbi David Cohen is born, spouting quotes from the Torah or the Old Testament, leading a growing congregation in Las Vegas, and overseeing the temple and the new cemetery - a convenience both as a money and body-laundering scheme for the Mob. Meanwhile, a rouge FBI agent is on his trail, seeking vengeance for the murder of his three fellow agents.

"(W)ickedly dark and funny, Gangsterland (is) a morality tale set in a desert landscape as ruthless and barren as those who inhabit it."

"Sal's transformation and intermittent edification into Rabbi Cohen is brilliantly rendered, and Goldberg's careening plot, cast of memorably dubious characters, and mordant portrait of Las Vegas make this one of the year's best hard-boiled crime novels."

* * * = 3 starred reviews

Strange Shores by Arnaldur Indriðason

Detective Erlendur is back! Fans of Arnaldur Indriðason’s popular Icelandic mystery series will be happy to know that the beloved brooding Erlendur is back in Strange Shores. The past two novels in the series (Outrage and Black Skies) have featured his colleagues, Sigurdur Óli and Elínborg, while Erlendur was on holiday in the East Fjords of Iceland. In this newest book Erlendur is at the focus again, and of course he’s thinking of the past. Set in eastern Iceland, this book is a bit of a twist from the usual police procedural from Indriðason.

Detective Erlendur is still on the hunt for his brother who disappeared in a snow storm when they were both small boys. It has haunted him his whole life as a dark shadow and he continues to search for him. Since then Erlendur has been obsessed with weather related missing persons cases.

Decades ago in the frozen fjords of eastern Iceland a woman disappeared. And Erlendur finds himself searching for her and learns a story of terrible lies and deceit. He also comes closer than he ever has to finding out what became of his little brother in that terrible blizzard long ago, and we learn more about the emotions that drive Erlendur's deep search.

If you’re not hooked on this series yet… Read them in order. The first three are amazing. If you're looking for more Nordic crime fiction authors... Check out this list.

Foyle's War - A New War, A New Enemy

As a serious fan of the Masterpiece Theater series, Foyle’s War, which ended a few years back with Foyle's retirement from the Hastings police force at the end of WW II, I was shocked when I recently discovered that a new series about Foyle began a whole year ago. I thought I must be the last person on the planet to find this out, but when I mention this to other known fans, I find that many of them are unaware of the news. For anyone out there who was absorbed by, (and practically addicted to), the first 22 episodes of Foyle’s War, which traced DCS Foyle’s police activities through the five years of WW II on the coast of Britain, know that there is now more. We own the first three episodes of the new series from last year and more are coming.

In 1946, Foyle is assisting British Intelligence (MI5) in a new war, namely the Cold War, and Sam, his trusty side-kick driver, now married to an MP, is his assistant. The somewhat paranoid mood of post-war Britain is exacerbated by the counter-intelligence web of Russian spies, ex-Nazis and atomic secrets. Foyle is enlisted to bring his cool eye and experience to the game-board. Foyle is his usual enigmatic self – thorough, penetrating, deeply humane and intelligent, and never distracted from the path of honesty and justice. Meticulously researched, with the aid of experts at the Imperial War Museum, Foyle’s War is the best of period, British drama. The New York Times called the first series of Foyle’s War, “a gift of the gods”. That says it all.

If you missed the first series, begin at the beginning, and watch them in order!

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #482

Winner of the 2010 Oe Prize, Japan's prestigious literary award, established to honor Kenzaburō Ōe; and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize - The Thief is the first novel by Fuminori Nakamura (in audio format) to be translated into English.

The nameless titular character is a deft Tokyo pickpocket, a loner who moves anonymously at the fringe of society. Through his mentor, he was drafted into an armed robbery by Kizaki, a vicious gangster. A simple job turned deadly when he learned that the old man they robbed was a prominent politician, and that he was brutally killed after the robbery. Meanwhile, his last tenuous connection to society is a desperate young boy forced into clumsy shoplifting by his addicted, prostitute mother. With nowhere left to run, the thief must barter his life with a labyrinthine test of his thieving prowess.

"Mystery/crime aficionados with exacting literary standards, as well as fans of Miyuki Miyabe; Natsuo Kirino; and Keigo Higashino" will find much to like here.

Watch for the October release of Nakamura's next novel to reach these shores - Last Winter We Parted is a "creepy if elegantly-crafted" standalone. The narrator, a nameless writer, gets assigned to pen an exposé of Yudai Kiharazaka, a 35-year-old Tokyo art photographer awaiting execution for burning two models to death.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #480

The Frozen Dead * * by Bernard Minier is the U.S. release of an international best-seller set in the French Pyrenees. Saint-Martin-de-Comminges is a remote small town, reached only by cable car, where winters are harsh and the wind relentless. On a brisk snowy morning, workers arriving for seasonal service of the hydroelectric power station discover a horrific scene - a headless, flayed body of a horse is suspended from the edge of a frozen cliff.

The charismatic, Latin-quoting Commandant Martin Servaz of nearby Toulouse is called on to investigate this priority case since the Thoroughbred belongs to non-other than Eric Lombard, CEO of a multinational company and member of a very influential family with strong political ties to the area.

Just a few miles away on that same day, Diane Berg a young psychiatrist from Geneva starts her first job at the Wargnier Institute, a high-security asylum for the criminally insane. Uneasy with the unorthodox methods used on the patients/prisoners and some alarming behavior among the staff, Dr. Berg teams up with Commandant Servaz when DNA from one of the most notorious inmates (think Hannibal Lecter) of the asylum is found on the horse carcass.

"Complex, fast-paced, and completely absorbing. "

"The pervasiveness of evil in this tense and disturbing novel makes for very compelling reading, with the suspense bordering on horror. It should appeal to those who enjoyed Pierre Lemaitre's Alex (2013) as well as the edgier Scandinavian thrillers."

* * = starred review

South African Crime (and Fabulous Fiction Firsts #479)

The Sunday Times Fiction winner Andrew Brown introduces tormented Detective Inspector Eberard Februarie, in Coldsleep Lullaby * *, an intelligent and compelling police procedural set in Stellenbosch, in the heart of South Africa's wine region. Just released in the U.S., this series opener involves the murder of a young woman in the underworld of an old university town fraught with prejudice and sexual hedonism.

Melanie Du Preez, daughter of a prominent law professor is found floating in a river. DI Eberard Februarie, recently reinstated after an emotional meltdown is called to investigate. Eberard discovers a scrapbook of lullabies that Melanie had collected over the years, which could hold a clue to unlock the case. In alternating chapters, the readers learn of the Dutch East India Company's colonization of the region in the 17th century that ultimately plays a role in the current murder. Two other victims will die in rapid succession before the volatile case is solved.

"With its lush, detailed descriptions, Brown's debut successfully captures both the beautiful landscapes and the violent textures of South Africa's racially charged history."

Cobra (an October release) by Deon Meyer - the "King of South African crime", again probes the social and racial complexities of post-apartheid South Africa. The bodies of three people are found at an exclusive guest house in the beautiful Franschhoek wine valley. Two of them were professional bodyguards, but the renowned mathematician David Adair they were protecting is nowhere to be found. Detective Benny Griessel of Cape Town's elite Hawks found spent shell cases at the crime scene bearing a chilling engraving: the flaring head of a spitting cobra, trademark of an international assassin team.

Meanwhile, a small-time pickpocket Tyrone Kleinbooi who steals to put his sister through med school, inadvertently winds up as the Cobra next target. With the help of his colleagues, Detective Benny Griessel rushes to untangle a case that only grows more complex. From Cape Town's famous waterfront to a deadly showdown on a suburban train, Cobra hurtles towards a shocking finale and someone may not make it out alive.

Needing no introduction is the latest in the award-winning series by Malla Nunn Present Darkness *. With Christmas approaching, Detective Sergeant of the Johannesburg major crimes squad, Emmanuel Cooper's much anticipated vacation plan evaporates when a white couple has been assaulted and left for dead in their bedroom. A witness identifies the attacker as Aaron Shabalala, the youngest son of Zulu Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala -- Cooper's best friend and a man to whom he owes his life.

Readers might also explore the David Bengu series by Michael Stanley; the Jacob Tshabalala series by Richard Kunzmann; and the Heat of the Sun mini television series.

* * = 2 starred reviews
* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #474 - "But mothers lie. It's in the job description.” ~ John Green

Two young women are witnesses to their mothers' murders. One of them might be a killer.

Elizabeth Little, author of 2 nonfiction books knocks it out of the park with Dear Daughter *, an "Agatha Christie meets Kim Kardashian... (a) sharp-edged, tart-tongued, escapist thriller", which Tana French praised as "The best debut mystery I've read in a long time"; and Kate Atkinson called "A really gutsy, clever, energetic read, often unexpected, always entertaining.... In the world of crime novels, Dear Daughter is a breath of fresh air."

After spending 10 years in prison for murdering her mother, former It Girl Janie Jenkins is out on a technicality. Her memory of the night in question is hazy, and there is no love lost between them, but she is determined to chase down the one lead she has on her mother's killer. As Janie makes her way (with a false identity) to an isolated South Dakota town, she discovers that even the sleepiest towns hide sinister secrets, and will stop at nothing to guard them.

On the run from a crime blogger convinced of her guilt, a suspicious police chief, maybe even a murderer, Janie must choose between the anonymity she craves and the truth she so desperately needs.

Set in the frozen tundra of rural Montana, Bone Dust White * is Karin Salvalaggio's literary mystery debut. The insistent pounding on her door brings Grace Adams to her bedroom window where she witnesses a man coming out of the woods, stabbing a woman and leaving her to die on Grace's doorstep. Before help arrives, Grace realizes the victim is her mother, Leanne who disappeared more than a decade before.

A heavily-pregnant Detective Macy Greeley is assigned to the case. She needs to track down the killer and find out what the murder has to do with Grace. But the town of Collier is just as hard-bitten now as it was 11 years ago when Macy worked a still-unsolved grisly sex-trafficking and multiple-homicide case. But no one is talking, least of all Grace, whom Macy believes knows a lot more than she's telling.

"The sharp twists, idiosyncratic characters, and vivid setting should appeal to fans of C. J. Box and Nevada Barr."

"This complicated, peel-away-layers debut procedural intoxicates from the opening page.... Recommend for fans of Archer Mayor, Gwen Florio, and Craig Johnson."

* = starred review

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