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First Clue - Alice Feeney

First Clue
This is the time of the year when the best-of lists come out, including the best of crime fiction or, more frequently, a best of fiction list that includes a few crime fiction titles. It always makes for fun reading, and a few additions to the “to be read” pile.
But too often, crime fiction novels are recommended not on their merit but because they can help you escape the present. Life’s lousy, the message is, try this meaningless mystery and get away for a few hours.
I take umbrage at this notion that crime fiction is the Cap'n Crunch (peanut butter version, please!) to literary fiction’s steel cut oats. After all, aren’t all novels meant to provide escape? Isn’t that, in large part, the point? So why should the burden of escapism be placed solely on crime fiction?
Lots to unpack here, but I’ll just leave it at that for now, lest I begin to sound like a crank.
Enjoy this issue, which is chock-a-block full of suspenseful stories sure to help you escape the present. Ha!
You won’t see us next week, as we are taking some time off to spend with our loved ones, scouring the local pharmacies for COVID at-home test kits.
See you on January 6, and happy holidays! —Brian Kenney

A Caffeinated Crisis
Duncan, Emmeline. Double Shot Death. April 2022. 288p. Kensington.
Coffeehouses are a staple of cozy mysteries, but this follow up to Fresh Brewed Murder takes place around a coffee-cart business. It belongs to Sage Caplin, barista extraordinaire, who’s booked to sling her lovingly created coffees at Portland, Oregon’s Campathon Music Festival. The weekend has to be a success as she dreads telling her financial backers that opening a second cart was a bad decision. Business goes fine, but behind the scenes things get tense as Sage finds the dead body of an unpopular manager of some of the bands that are appearing at Campathon. Sage herself is suspected as she found another body in the previous book—can one person really be that unlucky? Both to clear her name and because she’s determined to find the truth, Sage unobtrusively goes about getting information from the many parties that may have been involved, all the while giving readers delicious coffee details with a side of tentative romance—her new boyfriend is a father, and his little son may be moving in. The possible killers and motives are well juggled and Duncan’s (AKA young adult author Kelly Garrett) writing is fresh and realistic. Readers will look forward to more with Sage and her coffee cart friends and family.—Henrietta Verma 
Almost None
Feeney, Alice. Daisy Darker. August. 352p. Flatiron Books.
An homage to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None that is both wryly humorous and deadly serious. The setting: a Victorian gothic house, named Seaglass, located on a tiny island off the Cornwall coast, accessible only during low tide. The cast: matriarch Nana, her son and ex-daughter-in-law, three adult nieces, a grandniece, and a family friend. The occasion: Nana’s 80th birthday, predicated to be her last. As the sun goes down, the tide rushes in, dinner is served, and then it’s time for Nana to read her will. Our narrator, and very much the center of the book, is Daisy, Nana’s youngest and favorite niece, who was born, in Daisy’s word, “broken,” with a heart condition she could die from at any moment. Nana—a wonder of a character—is a famous children’s book author, and Seaglass overflows with her designs and eerie, Edward Gorey-esque poems. The novel shifts between the family’s painful past and the nerve-wracking present, and as the night grows longer, and the revelations unfold, the carnage increases. The ending manages to shock, and while some readers may feel cheated by the turn of events, others will enjoy having to rethink the whole book. This book isn’t twisty, it’s demonic.—Brian Kenney
Staycations FTW
Mayhew, Julie. Little Nothings. May 2022. Bloomsbury.
Liv, a bored stay-at-home mother, is leading a double life. She’s been friendless for years, so when she meets other women at an overly earnest children’s music class who also think the event is ridiculous, she’s all in. Liv and her husband, Pete, are parents to a little girl, but soon Liv spends most of her spare time with Beth and Binnie, and then with a new addition to the group, Ange. The friends’ partners and children often take part too but are very much beside the point to the women, who seem almost to be reliving their teen years. The suffocating peer-pressured friendship is made worse when Ange joins, as she’s fond of backstabbing comments that are posed as jokes, and Liv walks on eggshells, fearing she’ll be rejected from her only friendship. Soon Liv and Pete, who are struggling financially, get into massive debt keeping up with expensive dinners and designer outfits that their friends insist they deserve. The pinnacle is a three-week trip to Corfu that is set up at first as a locked-room mystery, but then another person enters the drama, leading to a tantrum-and-booze loaded tragedy. This feels like a movie that you watch from between your fingers as everything goes dreadfully wrong, fast. Try if you enjoy girls’ trip stories.—Henrietta Verma  
The French Patient
⭐Shemilt, Jane. The Patient. May. 320p. William Morrow.
A richly imagined novel in which the elements of suspense grow organically from the characters’ lives. Fifty-something Rachel, a doctor, has a tidy, if dull, life with her husband of many years, a medical practice she enjoys, and a beautiful home in the cathedral town of Salisbury. Her one regret is adult daughter Lizzie, who is totally over her mother (“Take a break Mum, stop texting me!”). When French painter Luc walks into Rachel’s office—he and his family are new to town and he’s experiencing psychological issues—the attraction is immediate, although left unfulfilled. Meanwhile, Rachel suspects she is being followed, her husband is acting weirdly, and Lizzie is keeping something from her. Eventually she and Luc reunite and—professional ethics be damned!—initiate their affair while in the south of France. Affairs can peter out, some manage to live on in secrecy, while others are exposed, creating scandal. But Rachel and Luc’s relationship razes their world—leading to murder, incarceration, and abandonment. Way to throw away those middle-class inhibitions! Readers will be seduced by Shemilt’s ability to gradually build a story, leading us from the mundane to the miraculous.—Brian Kenney
Short Stories
Here’s a great list from Book Riot: Crime in Another Time, 17 Historical Mystery Books. “Historical mystery books are a fantastic genre combo that feels like getting two for the price of one: a story set in another time period (most argue at least 50 years past) plus a mystery to be solved.”
From The Toronto Star: “4 New Mysteries to Keep You Reading Late into the Dark and Stormy Night.” Including reviews of the latest books from Michael Connelly, TikTok sensation Colleen Hoover, Darby Kane, and Teresa Dovalpage.
Most of the crime-fiction stories in the media these days are best-of-the-year lists. But the Los Angeles Times put together a really interesting roundtable discussion of the year in crime fiction, calling on several reviewers. Check out: America’s Top Mystery Book Critics Break Down the Year in Crime.
The Guardian weighs in on the ongoing celebrity-author phenomenon with: From Bill Clinton to Robert Peston: celebrity crime fiction on trial. “After you’ve written your memoir, publishers these days want anyone famous to write crime novels. We put 10 of the most well-known in the dock.”
In Salon: “There are some mysteries Patricia Cornwell, crime novelist and creator of Kay Scarpetta, can’t crack.” The profile includes a discussion of her most recent book, Autopsy, and the upcoming TV adaptation with Jamie Lee Curtis.
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Henrietta Verma & Brian Kenney
Henrietta Verma & Brian Kenney @1stClueReviews

The mission of First Clue is simple: to provide succinct reviews of crime fiction far in advance of publication. Our intent is for First Clue to help librarians and booksellers select titles and make recommendations, and readers find that next great read. We’re especially interested in books by authors of color, LGBTQ writers, first novelists, books that are first in a series, as well as translations and titles from smaller publishers. We give stars to books we love or which do a great job at accomplishing what they set out to do.

We are two, New York City-based librarians and former editors at leading review magazines—Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and School Library Journal. We hope you'll subscribe—it’s free!—and after that, watch your email box every Thursday for our recommendations.

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