by Robert C. Hahn
In his debut novel, The Bloody Black Flag: A Spider John Mystery (Seventh Street, $15), Steve Goble combines two well-established traditions—the pirate novel and the mystery—for an unusual, engaging book.
Set in the early eighteenth century, Spider John Rush and his friend Ezra Coombs have signed aboard the Plymouth Dream under the command of Captain William Barlow. They join the crew at sea north of Boston.
Aboard the ship the rules are simple. Captain Barlow and his mate Addison are the only ones who carry pistols other than when the ship sees action, and Barlow rules absolutely—and at times ruthlessly. One of their new shipmates is Peter Tellam, who knows and hates Ezra Coombs for his “witch blood.” Another shipmate, known as Scrimshaw, had served with Rush and Coombs on another ship and is still angry over his gambling losses.
Tellam wastes no time in picking a fight with Coombs and telling everyone that Coombs is “a witch’s son.” Soon afterwards Ezra Coombs is killed, and Spider knows it was not the accident it was designed to look like. Spider seeks to discover the killer—not for justice but for vengeance—but there are few on board he can trust, and Barlow’s autocratic rule makes it difficult for him to ask questions.
Goble shines bright when he describes the motley crew that Barlow encounters early on: “Some chose this life, some did not. Makes no matter. We are outlaws, marked men . . . If we are caught, we will swing.” He shines even brighter when he describes the fearsome action of ship-to-ship or hand-to-hand combat, detailing the terrible wounds, the primitive medical care, and the sad aftermath of battle.
The author paints a more realistic picture of the usually brief, usually violent, and always difficult life of a pirate and eschews the typical romantic twaddle. If the mystery itself is less compelling than one might like, it still suffices to make Spider John a character worth meeting—and following in future stories.
Wendy Corsi Staub is the author of numerous stand-alones and several series, including the Lily Dale series about the psychics and mediums who congregate in Lily Dale, a small town in western New York. Dead of Winter: A Lily Dale Mystery (Crooked Lane, $26.99) is the third volume in this series after Nine Lives and Something Borrowed, Something Blue.
Lily Dale was founded in the nineteenth century by spiritualists and is still populated by a number of eclectic, if not weird, psychic mediums. Bella Jordan and her six-year-old son, Max, are neither psychic nor mediums; they arrived in town mainly by accident and stayed. Bella is a young widow trying to make a living as manager for Grant Everard’s Valley View Manor.
Bella is spotted looking out her window by a killer in the act of dumping a body into Cassadaga Lake. The next day, Bella discovers the tarp-wrapped body and calls police, who send Lieutenant John Grange to investigate. Eventually the body is identified as that of Yuri Moroskov, a mobster belonging to the international crime network Amur Leopard, and what he was doing in Lily Dale is a mystery.
Staub has fun with the quirky psychics and their customers. There is the matronly Odelia Lauder, Pandora Feeney who reads people’s aura, and ditzy Mary Ellen Arden a.k.a. Misty Starr, as well as Lauri Wierzbicki and Dawn Tracy, who want help locating something that belonged to deceased rock star Sean Von Vogel. And with Christmas approaching even Bella hears someone or some spirit whistling carols while mediums like Calla Delaney hear carols such as “Blue Christmas” being sung by Elvis.
But the real star of this novel is Max’s young friend Jiffy Arden whose psychic abilities are strong and who foresees his own kidnapping and shares that information with Max. But when Jiffy does disappear, Max remains silent about what Jiffy had told him. While police and others, including Bella, search for Jiffy, the killer is searching for four gold rings he lost in the snow—rings already found and hidden by Jiffy.
Lily Dale is a strange and funny little community where Bella lends a grace note of normality and sense as she tries to make a life for herself and Max. If only she could steer clear of the crimes that seem to find her even here.
by Jackie Sherbow
Meredith Anthony’s page-turner of psychological suspense, Hellmouth (Author House, $19.95), is a darkly funny novel that begins and ends in the domestic realm, but explores the relationships between good and evil, violence and love, and the nature of power.
Helen Goode is smart, sexy, and pleased with her life: Her husband Beau is a prominent judge in their Western Pennsylvania county and together they are a community force, both admired and courted. “Beau and Helen,” we learn, “were never ordinary.” They are dedicated to each other and to their small town. Darkening the horizon, though, burns the Hellmouth, the smoldering aftermath of an underground mine fire, a disaster that had claimed the lives and livelihoods of the neighboring town of Defiance. Likewise, a dirty seam of corruption runs underneath Benedict County’s doings, from local law enforcement to union reps to Congress. In the shadow of the Hellmouth, Beau vied for office on the platform of cleaning up the courthouse (“Law and Order Is Goode,” reads his slogan and a sign at the county’s border).
Smoky tendrils of doubt begin to seep into Helen’s mind when she is advised by a trusted confidant of her husband’s supposed infidelity with a young employee. When that employee is found murdered, Helen is suddenly very aware of Beau’s dark side: his mercurial nature and his physical as well as mental dominance.
Meanwhile, a couple of “good old boys” from out of town approach with instructions from a mysterious higher-up, and before the week is done, more people die.
Helen is clever and determined to “play detective” to uncover her husband’s involvement—if any—in the affair and deaths, and to determine if the deaths are even related. She is warned time and again to stop, for her own good, and for the town’s. Further complicating things is the fact that she is known wherever she goes. She is required by her status to uphold a certain behavior, even down to her manner of speaking—full of measured charm, even as fear and anger simmer within. She has close friends and countless acquaintances—but there are off-limits topics she can’t broach even with those closest to her, and ultimately she is isolated when she faces mortal danger.
Anthony ventures from humor to gravity throughout the novel, as light and dark characters and imagery play off one another. With place names like Benedict, Prosperity, and of course Defiance, there is a certain biblical effect to the depictions of small-town good-doers and wrongdoers.
Anthony’s storytelling and characterization are sharp, funny, and cheeky. Intertwining points of view illuminate the emotional struggles and strengths and limitations of the characters, and cultivate tension by plunging the reader into different characters’ thoughts, sometimes frightening ones and often in medias res. Reading Hellmouth (which is an expansion of the author’s fiction debut: “Murder at the Butt End of Nowhere,” EQMM, December 2006) felt like spending time with a friend who always makes you laugh but is likely to get you in trouble.