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First Clue Debut Issue: Mysteries From Agatha Christie's House to Harlem

First Clue
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In this first issue, we spend a lot of time in Agatha Christie’s country house (did you know she loved real estate?), follow Holmes and Watson off to Egypt where the Duke of Uxbridge has gone missing, take a deep dive into the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa, and more.

One Crowded Country House
Cambridge, Colleen. Murder at Mallowan Hall (A Phyllida Bright Mystery, Book 1). October 2021. 304 pages. Kensington.
Rader-Day, Lori. Death at Greenway. October 2021. 448 pages. William Morrow.
Christie fans, rejoice! This fall will see the publication of not one but two novels set in Christie’s Devon country home. Cambridge’s Murder at Mallowan Hall is a near-perfect traditional mystery—the first body is found in the library, stabbed in the neck by a fountain pen—set during a house party in the early 1930s. But Cambridge flips the paradigm and instead of focusing on the posh guests, tells the story from the perspective of the help, most notably Phyllida Bright, housekeeper extraordinaire. Bright, a friend of Christie as well as an employee, models her investigation on Poirot, right down to the classic denouement delivered by Bright in the library. Gender roles, sexual harassment, and same-sex love are key elements, but Cambridge succeeds in keeping the novel squarely in its era. Two words describe this book: absolutely delicious. Greenway was the real name of Christie’s Devon estate, and Rader-Day’s Death at Greenway is painstakingly realistic. The book opens in London during the Blitz—which is wonderfully described—and we meet Bridey Kelly, a nurse trainee who has made a fatal mistake and is banished to the countryside with 10 young children escaping the bombing. Their destination is Greenway, which Christie and her husband have given over to the evacuees. But the Devon countryside offers little solace, with standoffish residents, a coast too close to the war, and the corpse of someone who was clearly murdered. Deeply suspenseful, this novel brilliantly captures the horrors of the war years and how individuals managed to survive through hardships both physical and emotional.—Brian Kenney
It’s Not You, it’s Me
Hancock, Anne Mette. The Corpse Flower. October 2021. 336 pages. Crooked Lane.
Although I’m on a break from Scandinavian authors, I tried Hancock’s debut anyway, attracted by the no-girl-in-the-title title and the promise of a journalist sleuth. It was the right decision, as the violent rage that seeps out of Stieg Larsson’s work and its ilk is here mostly transformed into determination with dashes of scathing honesty, friendship, and love. The misogyny is tempered too: the woman journalist who’s investigating a murderer in parallel with the police is middle-aged (refreshing!), sometimes weary, but realistically tough when it counts. The target of her investigation is also refreshing: a woman on the run for the murder she committed years before of a wealthy young man who, as far as investigators can tell, was a stranger to her. Letters from the fugitive mention a rare flower that smells like death; how this connects to her crime and why she’s remorseless are revealed in an understated way that stops short of the bleakness we’ve come to expect from Scandinavian works. Sure to leave readers wanting more from Hancock.—Henrietta Verma
A Kinder, Gentler Sherlock
Meyer, Nicholas. The Return of the Pharaoh. November 2021. 272 pages. Minotaur.
It’s controversial, but I often enjoy reincarnations of classics more than the originals. For example, Sophie Hannah’s Agatha Christie novels feature the same kinds of characters and plots as the originals but leave out the originals’ antisemitism. Arthur Conan Doyle’s works are less cruel than Christie’s, but they’re still steeped in an English class system that, at best, dismisses women and anyone not white. Nicholas Meyer’s revival, à la Hannah’s Poirot, features the best of the old and makes the stories kinder, yet still imparts the flavor of the beloved detective and his admiring sidekick. In this tale, which follows Meyer’s The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols, Watson again narrates, taking readers to Egypt, where his wife is recovering from TB while the intrepid detectives seek the Duke of Uxbridge, who has gone missing while seeking a pharaoh’s gold. Meyer explores the politics of Egyptology and of nineteenth-century Egypt, where local, Ottoman, and British interests met and clashed, while serving the expected crackling mystery and haughty characters waiting to be brought down. A must for fans of the series and of thoughtful historical fiction.—Henrietta Verma
Law and...Murder
Morris, Wanda M. All Her Little Secrets. November 2021. 384 pages. HarperCollins.
Ellice Littlejohn’s Atlanta corporate-lawyer wardrobe of Louboutins and luxury dresses hides a background in down-and-out Chillicothe, GA, with her addict mother and the mother’s sleazy boyfriend. Also a secret is Ellice’s affair with married lawyer Michael at Houghton, the fancy firm where she’s almost the only Black employee. As this fast-moving novel opens, Ellice shows up to work early for a meeting with Michael, only to find him dead, a discovery that becomes her newest secret. Houghton’s boss likes to refer to the company as a family, but after Ellice is promoted to Michael’s job, racism, always an undercurrent among the pompous colleagues, becomes overt, and it grows obvious that the board is up to no good. As Ellice investigates both her lover’s death and goings on at Houghton, yet more secrets are revealed to readers, both about Ellice’s past and about the cutthroat world she endures. Debut author Morris, herself a corporate lawyer, masterfully layers family struggles, racism, and corporate greed to create an exciting legal thriller that’s tempered by a hint of romance.—Henrietta Verma
Will the Real Ms. del Giocondo Please Stand Up?
Santlofer, Jonathan. The Last Mona Lisa. August 2021. 400 pages. Sourcebooks Landmark.
In 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia pulled off one of the greatest art heists of all time: the theft of the Mona Lisa. The painting was missing for two years before it was recovered, and the crime spawned innumerable conspiracy theories, with some suggesting that forgeries were made during its hiatus, including the painting now hanging in the Louvre. Flip to the present, when we meet Luke Perrone, an artist obsessed with Peruggia for good reason: Peruggia is his great-grandfather. When Perrone gets word that great-grandad’s diary has surfaced, he hightails it to Florence with the hope of learning more about his ancestor and the theft. Except Perrone isn’t alone in his quest, and he is soon being trailed by an INTERPOL agent, an updated femme fatale, and worse. It’s a pleasure to explore Florence and its art through Perrone’s eyes, and the shifts between 1911 and the present make for a compelling read. Santlofer, also a painter, creates a real sense of authenticity. Fans of Iain Pears and Barbara Shapiro are sure to love this novel.—Brian Kenney
Heartbreak in Harlem
⭐ Whitehead, Colson. The Harlem Shuffle. September 2021. 336 pages. Doubleday. 
With two Pulitzer prizes for fiction under his belt, it’s not surprising when Colson Whitehead writes a character for the ages, but beleaguered everyman Ray Carney is a standout even for Whitehead. “Living taught you that you didn’t have to live the way you’d been taught to live,” says Carney, a young Black man who’s barely making ends meet in his Harlem furniture store while dreaming of more. The pressure’s on, too: his parents-in-law think their daughter could have done better, and Carney longs to be admitted to his father in law’s “paper-bag club,” but with skin darker than said brown bag, he’s not allowed. Loyalty to his own family leads Ray to help his cousin Freddy; always sketchy, Freddy convinces Carney to help him in a can’t-go-wrong robbery scheme that, yes, goes wrong, starting Carney on a heartbreaking trajectory. This character’s relentless efforts to make good in a world that expects and revels in his failure will remind readers of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. Shadowing Colson’s terrific crime tale are the final throes of Jim Crow and the claw-your-way-up culture of early 1960s Harlem, but most of all, Carney will grab readers’ hearts and stay with them.—Henrietta Verma
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Brian Kenney & Henrietta Verma
Brian Kenney & Henrietta Verma @1stClueReviews

The mission of First Clue is simple: to provide succinct reviews of crime fiction we love—or at least like a lot—far in advance of publication. Our intent is for First Clue to help librarians and booksellers in selecting titles and making recommendations, and readers in finding that next great read. Who are we? Two New York City-based librarians and former editors at leading review magazines—Library Journal and School Library Journal. To find out more about First Clue, see our profile page for past issues. We hope you'll subscribe—it’s free!—and after that, watch your email box every Thursday for our recommendations.

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