In tough times of the past, many mystery buffs sought comfort more than darkness — Agatha Christie’s greatest sales, for example, began during World War II. It’s an understandable urge: As readers, sometimes we want our escapism to be a little gentler, a little less violent, unmarred by quite so much blood and gore. So in a nod to our current tough times, this column moves to the cozier side of the genre aisle.
Speaking of Christie, early in her career she was known to enter — and sometimes win — puzzle contests sponsored by local newspapers. One of them involved determining the solution to a 1926 serialized story by one of her crime-writing peers, Anthony Berkeley. It was so fiendishly difficult that Christie couldn’t crack the case. Now THE WINTRINGHAM MYSTERY (Harper 360/Collins Crime Club, 236 pp., $16.99), which was originally published in book form in 1927, has finally been rediscovered, and it’s as much of a treat as Berkeley’s strongest mystery, “The Poisoned Chocolates Case.”
Here a young woman named Cicely manages to vanish during a séance, in the company of others, with no visible means of escape. Yes, it’s a locked-room affair. Berkeley seamlessly layers the puzzle with a poignant depiction of the thwarted love between the amateur sleuth Stephen Munro, an army officer turned footman, and Pauline Mainwaring, engaged to an older, richer brute. It’s a reminder that the best puzzle mysteries require characters to care about, which Berkeley (as Francis Iles) would develop further in his novels “Malice Aforethought” and “Before the Fact.”
I applauded Lori Rader-Day’s new novel, DEATH AT GREENWAY (Morrow, 414 pp., $27.99), as soon as I realized that, even though the title refers to Agatha Christie’s beloved manse, Dame Agatha doesn’t appear in the book in any significant way; the estate itself is the star. It’s not that Rader-Day couldn’t breathe life into Christie, but why do that when there are other stories to tell? The most interesting tidbit is that Greenway became a home for evacuated children during World War II, and a crime novel with that backdrop proves irresistible.
Greenway is an immediate haven for Bridey Kelly, a nurse fleeing terrible mistakes and looking to salvage her professional pursuits. She feels herself recovering through looking after nearly a dozen children, and finds fast friendship with another nurse, the glamorous and mysterious Gigi. The war casts plenty of dark shadows, but the discovery of a body floating in the river near the estate rips apart Bridey’s calm. What follows is a Golden Age homage, an elegantly constructed mystery that on every page reinforces the message that everyone counts.
It’s taken a mere two books for Richard Osman to vault into the upper leagues of crime writers. His debut, “The Thursday Murder Club,” was a delightful introduction to a quartet of seniors discussing — and then solving — murders, and if the pacing faltered a little, it was more than compensated by the characters’ enthusiasm and the author’s wry voice. THE MAN WHO DIED TWICE (Pamela Dorman/Viking, 352 pp., $26) dispenses with new series jitters and dives right into joyous fun, even as Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron learn anew that murder is not, and never can be, a game.
The mystery begins when Elizabeth gets a missive from a “Marcus Carmichael” — curious, because she viewed his dead body 40 years ago. That riddle dovetails with a twisting yet perfectly controlled plot featuring spies past and present, missing diamonds, unexpected love affairs, surprise attacks and killings with the power to shock.
Osman’s writing reminds me of Anthony Berkeley’s in its mixing of sparkling humor and resonant emotion. The members of the Thursday Murder Club don’t take one another too seriously, but they care deeply for one another, their friends and those whose deaths they are tasked with investigating. No wonder readers, myself included, have surrendered to their abundant charms.
Finally, Raquel V. Reyes’s series debut, MANGO, MAMBO, AND MURDER (Crooked Lane, 325 pp., $26.99), furthers my belief that the cozy mystery has become one of the most diverse, and most vibrant, in contemporary crime fiction. This book doesn’t break new ground, but it executes its mission — mixing standard tropes, memorable characters, the importance of family and murder in unexpected quarters — with panache.
The food anthropologist Miriam Quiñones-Smith has returned to her Miami hometown, but this time to the Coral Shores neighborhood where her white husband’s family resides. Culturally, it’s “a world away — no, a galaxy away” from the Miami she knows. Such differences will soon be the least of Miriam’s problems. At a country-club luncheon with her mother-in-law, a woman seated near them face-plants into her chicken salad and is soon pronounced dead.
Naturally, it’s murder, and Miriam is determined to find out who did it and why — and whether her husband’s onetime (and possibly current) lover could be connected. Reyes handles the mystery elements well, and smartly devotes equal time to Miriam’s struggles with parenthood in an unfamiliar setting. There’s also an unexpected career change that will certainly feature in future volumes.