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First Clue - Reputation by Sarah Vaughan, Cougar Claw by Cary J. Griffith, Outside by Ragnar Jónasson, Vera Kelly: Lost and Found by Rosalie Knecht, Six Feet Deep Dish by Mindy Quigley, Interview with Rob Osler

First Clue
You can’t judge a book by its cover, the adage goes.
That’s all well and good, but these days, you can barely find the cover, never mind be influenced by it. It’s either in gray tone on my Kindle, completely dismiss-able. Or on Amazon, slightly larger than a postage stamp.
I don’t mean to bash e-books, which I’ve come to love, or e-galleys, which I’m completely dependent on for my job and this newsletter. And I certainly empathize with art editors, who must create covers that will live in wildly different contexts.
But every now and then a cover comes along that works as well online as it does in print, and the covers in the Vera Kelly series are brilliant examples. At least three people this week asked me what I was reading, and when I said the new Vera Kelly, they all responded with: “love those covers!”
What is it about Vera? In part, it’s the strong graphic design. On all three titles, Vera stares straight at us, claiming her space on our bookshelves. She’s a little bit butch, and a little bit femme. There’s the classic red lipstick (Revlon’s Cherries in the Snow?) paired with a conservative top and coat. While the covers are a close match, detailseyewear, a cigarettedifferentiate the books and create interest.
But more than anything, the Vera covers get the job done. Wherever we arebookstore, library, or onlinewe want to pick up the book and start to read.—Brian Kenney

CEO v. Cougar
Griffith, Cary J. Cougar Claw (A Sam Rivers Mystery, #2). June. 432p. Adventure Publications.
This is one of those thrillers that opens with a full view of the crime—in this case, two men ambushing a Savage, Minnesota CEO and attacking him with real cougar claws and teeth. There was recently a sighting of one of the big cats in the area, so it’s easy for investigators to believe the businessman became a meal. The local sheriff who’s running for re-election has no objection to chalking the death up to wildlife rather than crime stats….but then Sam Rivers shows up to complicate his life. Sam, special agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, doesn’t care for bureaucracy or the sheriff, and persists in finding out what’s behind this event that looks suspicious to his expert eye. Just what looks off to Sam will teach readers about things like the structure of all cats’ paws, which parts of a person a cougar would eat, what one of the creature’s teeth embedded in a person’s spine should look like, and other juicy tidbits. In the human world that Sam deals with somewhat reluctantly, things are more complicated, as his investigation is a tangled web of an about-to-be-very-rich widow, her nosy neighbor, a journalist who’s also Sam’s love interest, and always that blustery sheriff. Sam Rivers is akin to Emily Littlejohn’s character Gemma Monroe—a likable, steadfast investigator whose work takes readers into the outdoors and the crimes it hides. He’s a character worth getting to know.Henrietta Verma
Ice Capades
Jónasson, Ragnar. Outside. June. 352p. Minotaur.
With friends like this, who needs enemies? Four buddies from college, now into early middle age, decide to get together for a mini-reunion and hike. They choose remote east Icelandin the winternot perhaps the most sensible decision. But Ármann, one of the group, owns a tourist company and seems to know his way around. So when they head off on the hike, with little food and no other supplies, then get caught in a blinding storm, it’s Ármann who is able to lead them to an emergency hut. But what greets them when they open up the hut is shocking, unsettling the small group. As they shelter in place and secrets are revealed, one old friend turns against another. This standalone from the best-known author of Icelandic noir makes for a fast read with as many terrifying twists and turns as the luge.—Brian Kenney
Gay Gals in Trouble
⭐Knecht, Rosalie. Vera Kelly: Lost and Found (A Vera Kelly Novel, #3). June. 228p. Tin House.
A wonderful story—if barely a mystery—this third in the Vera Kelly series has Vera and Max, her girlfriend, heading off to sunny southern California. But the trip is no vacation. Max, who comes from serious wealth, learns that her parents are divorcing. And even though her homophobic dad threw her out of the house—think of the Hearst Castle—when she was twenty-one, Max still feels the need to intercede. Turns out dad is about to marry a much younger woman while allowing a kooky occultist to get his hands on his funds. When Max suggests over dinner that she’ll inform her mother of the financial shenanigans, all hell breaks loose. And when Vera wakes up the next morning, it’s to find Max missing. Finally, Vera gets to put her detective skills to use! Knecht excels in creating character and setting. Her depiction of the lesbian and gay world of 1971—oppressed and discrete, yes, but also a strong community undergoing change—is fascinating, as is how Vera and Max navigate straight society. The resolution is both poignant and hopeful.—Brian Kenney
Hold the Anchovies
⭐Quigley, Mindy. Six Feet Deep Dish (Deep Dish Mysteries, #1). August. 320p. St. Martin’s.
If you read deeply in crime fiction—from psychological thrillers to locked room mysteries—you’ll notice that each subgenre shares some similarities, like types of characters, settings, and narrative devices. This is especially true of cozies, whose readers like a good balance between the familiar and the new. But every now and again a cozy comes along in which the author not only checks off all of the boxes but does such an excellent job in the process that the book totally stands out from the crowd. This is the case with Six Feet Deep Dish, which stars chef Delilah O’Leary, whose larger-than-life personality takes hold of the narrative and never lets go. We’re in Geneva Bay, Wisconsin—a resort town a couple of hours north of Chicago—and Delilah is about to fulfill a lifelong ambition and open her own restaurant featuring gourmet, deep-dish pizza. But as opening night rolls around, she hits a few speed bumps: her uber-rich fiancé, who was bankrolling the endeavor, dumps her and disappears. Then a murder takes place during the opening, and her elderly aunt is found over the dead body, clutching the murder weapon. Delilah realizes that to save her aunt—and her restaurant—she needs to step it up and, with the help of the restaurant staff, find the killer. Droll and witty, sophisticated and credible, this is a series to watch out for.—Brian Kenney
A Vicious Visit
⭐Vaughan, Sarah. Reputation. July. 336p. Atria.
Reputation is so valued that one way of damaging it, bearing false witness against your neighbor, is one of the 10 commandments. It certainly commands the life of Emma Webster, a member of Britain’s parliament who puts up with abuse online, and sometimes in person, after she takes a stand for women’s rights. Despite gaining a menacing stalker, she maintains a stiff façade and moves on with work. Then two events threaten to explode not just Emma’s reputation but her life: her teenage daughter commits a crime when seeking revenge on a bully, and a man who knows about that event is found by Emma inside her home, with injuries that see the last part of the book portraying a murder case. Underneath Vaughan’s nuanced look at the performances necessary to create and maintain a reputation, there is much to explore: the pressure that social media adds to our lives, what family members owe each other, and what women in the public eye endure. The murder trial is tense and reader opinion will vacillate numerous times among those who could have set up the crime, but they still likely won’t settle on the answer before the satisfying, surprising ending. The many fans of Vaughan’s Anatomy of a Scandal and Little Disasters won’t be disappointed.Henrietta Verma
First Clue Interview: Rob Osler
We reviewed Devil’s Chew Toy back in our July 22 issue, writing that “This novel is a wonderful mix of lightheartedness…and seriousness, as we learn that Venezuelan-born Camilo is a “Dreamer” whose stay in the U.S. is precarious. Congratulations to Osler for creating a mystery set in the LGBTQ community that is both compelling and heartfelt.” With the book publishing this week, we felt it was time to catch up with the author.
This is one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time, and even just coming across the title makes me smile. Was it anywhere near as much fun to write as it was to read?
Creating characters who get themselves into ridiculously silly crime-solving adventures is immeasurable fun! Do I entertain myself? I do. My motivation to write the book was to give readers like me—LBGTQ+ fans of fast-paced whodunnits—something to crack open after a crappy day at work. A Mohawk-wearing, Porsche-driving best friend who drags you far past your comfort zone? Count me in. A literal giant and acclaimed baker (in more than one way, if you get my drift)? Yes, please! A clever-minded octogenarian with a penchant for Matlock and tea? Do you really need to ask? Of course, the action in Devil’s Chew Toy revolves around the story’s hero, Hayden McCall—part-time middle-school teacher, part-time gay-relationships blogger, and full-time pint-size, big-hearted ginger. Was this story fun to write? As Hayden would say, “One thousand percent!”
I appreciated how this book stayed clear of stereotypes when it could have easily gone that route. Each character was complex, including the beautiful go-go boy. Was this a goal of yours?
Seeing the humanity—the good, the bad, and the in-between—in people is a prerequisite to empathy. To have any hope of engaging a reader and holding their attention (better yet, to entertain them!) for 300 pages, I knew I must create characters who are likable but flawed; despicable but not entirely all bad. Quick example. A beta reader pointed out that the bartender, Hank, was too one-note. I rewrote Hank to be no less cringy, but hopefully his wistfulness about growing older—and heavier—in the midst of attractive young men makes him a scooch more relatable to some readers. Writing walking clichés is easy peasy, but offers nothing new to a reader. Not only are stereotypical characters uninteresting, they are also inaccurate. Although the story is lighthearted—and occasionally madcap—the characters still had to be relatable, which means they had to be complex.
As fun as this book is, it doesn’t shy away from some of the political issues of our day, including the treatment of Dreamers and fear of the police. Was it difficult balancing the fun with the fearful?
To my mind, there are three contexts at play in storytelling. What’s going on in the head of each character, the interaction of characters, and the environment in which all the characters live. None of those three contexts is purely good or bad. Like characters themselves, societies struggle to get it right because societies are nothing but big groups of diverse people with competing values, ideas, and motivations. While I strove to create a fun, big-hearted story with friendship at its center, I strove to also create a world that, as RuPaul might say, “served realness.”
Finally, can you share anything about future books in the Hayden & Friends series?
A draft of book two is complete! (I’m toying with titles to match the structure and spirit of Devil’s Chew Toy). Hayden and Hollister are back, along with Burley and Jerry. The next story revolves around the mysterious murder of the ringmistress of an upscale circus/magic/burlesque show called Mysterium (think a slightly risqué version of Cirque du Soleil that comes with a Michelin-starred dinner). As with Barkingham Palace in the first book, I start with a distinctive setting that I hope readers will find fresh and interesting and then inhabit that setting with quirky and surprising—along with a few sketchy—characters. If Hayden and Hollister are to solve the crime, they’ll have to learn a few new tricks. Just so happens, Mysterium is full of them.
Extra Credit
Women and Impossible Decisions in Crime Fiction | CrimeReads
Gone, But Not Forgotten: 12 Great Mystery Authors Readers Still Love | CrimeReads
Death on the Nile: How to travel like you're living in an Agatha Christie novel | Fortune
Book Interview: Catherine Kirwan on 'Cruel Deeds' and the balance between law and the literary
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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.

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