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firstCLUE - The Dig by Anne Burt, A Half-Baked Murder by Emily George, The Ex Wives by Jenna Kernan, The Golden Spoon by Jessa Maxwell, Flaw in the Design by Nathan Oates, Swann’s War by Michael Oren

Recently, when a coworker mentioned that the basement floor of his new home had an odd bump, I was the only one to mention that a cadaver dog could be handy. Later I realized that reading all these murder mysteries is having an effect. I think the effect is that I have the right reaction to an uneven floor, but if living above a serial killer’s cache is fine by you, who am I to interfere?
Seriously though, reading fiction has its benefits. Escaping daily life is only one of them, and maybe not even the best one. Looking at the world of children’s literature, librarians often talk about the ability of fiction to create mirrors and windows, and how both are crucial for child readers to become comfortable in the worlds they inhabit. A book creates a mirror by showing us ourselves, in, we hope, new and more insightful ways. And windows allow us to see other people, other cultures, and other experiences within our own culture.
I often hear people, especially politicians, mention that they were against something until they met someone who had that attribute—they were against marriage equality until their child came out, were against immigration until they met an immigrant, etc. It’s a shame that empathy doesn’t come to them naturally, but their eventual openness creates an opportunity to use fiction to bring them around. No need to wait until they meet the person that makes them see humanity: show them a fictional window.
So, this is my challenge to you! Fall and family get togethers are flying toward us. Use the firstCLUE archive, your local library, and your home bookshelves to get your recommendations in shape before you sit across from your relatives this year. You might change some minds, or at least open them a tiny bit. And you won’t even need a cadaver dog.—Henrietta Verma

Adopting Antigone
Burt, Anne. The Dig. March 2023. 288p. Counterpoint.
Sophocles’ play Antigone, written in 441 BCE, is here pulled into modernity by Burt, a consultant for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The ancient play sees brothers instigate a civil war, and one of their daughters, Antigone, defies her uncle and puts her brother first. So it is in The Dig, which opens amid a civil war, this time in 1993 Sarajevo, Bosnia. Andela, age three, and her brother Mujo, six, are found by American construction-worker brothers in the rubble of a destroyed building, their dead mother nearby. Their Antigone takes place in Thebes, Minnesota, where the children, now called Antonia and Paul, have a “typical American upbringing, blah, blah, no drama,” after being adopted by Eddie King, one of the brothers. Except it’s not really drama free. The blond and hearty residents of Thebes are not ready for the dark-haired, reticent Antonia and Paul, and Eddie dies of an overdose when he can’t handle the new responsibility. What the King family decides for the town is taken as local law, but Antonia defies her Uncle Christopher, graduating from law school and decidedly not working for her family. Paul rebels even more, protesting the Kings’ development of a new shopping area that displaces his Somali immigrant friends and then disappearing. Finding him and getting to the bottom of their pasts, both in Bosnia and more recently, will draw Antonia into a storm of lies and corruption and a fierce battle for control of her life. Feelings when ambition and family collide are no different today than in 411 BCE, and the resulting spectacle is no less captivating.—Henrietta Verma
Baked by Chloe
⭐George, Emily. A Half-Baked Murder. February 2023. Kensington.
This is one richly drawn mystery that does a great job of introducing us to a wonderful protagonist, a compelling group of characters, and a fascinating community. Poor 28-year-old pastry chef Chloe Barnes. Not only does her engagement end up in smoke, she gets panned in a review, then learns that her beloved grandmother is being treated for cancer. Time to leave Paris and head home to Azalea Bay, California. But what to do with herself? Fortunately, her Aunt Dawn has an idea: take her fancy, pastry-making skills and apply them to cannabis to create edibles so good they can hold their heads high in the best pâtisseries. Together they begin to plan for a store, Baked by Chloe, when there’s a murder—of a creepy guy who’s loathed by most of the female population of Azalea Bay—and Aunt Dawn ends up the number one suspect. Clearing her aunt’s name draws Chloe further into the past and the community as she creates a list of suspects. The book also goes deep into the weeds (see what I did there?) as Chloe learns the complexity of cooking with cannabis. And did I mention Jake? Cute, single, and lives next door. In this debut, author George has laid the foundation for a series that feels fresh, young, and full of surprises.—Brian Kenney
The Ex Wife Survival Guide
⭐Kernan, Jenna. The Ex Wives. Oct. 376p2022. Bookouture.
Elana knows she should have heeded the red flags. When she met her husband, Jackson, it was a whirlwind romance…a little too whirlwind, as they got engaged within weeks. Right before the wedding, he admits that he was married before, twice, and is twice divorced. He also seems to have rigid ideas about what she and her young daughter, Phoebe, can eat, that she should stay home rather than work, and that every penny she spends should come from him and be accounted for. But he also seems head over heels, as is she. Maybe she’s overreacting? Then on their wedding day, one of his ex wives shows up to warn Elana not to go ahead with the ceremony, claiming that Jackson is a controlling, violent monster who took her daughter, who’s still missing, and will take Phoebe, too. That’s the past portion of the story; flash forward to the present and Elana is in a way-too-real version of the life she was warned about, afraid to stay but even more afraid to go, even if she weren’t penniless and surveilled at every moment. While readers drop deeper into the emotional hole dug by Jackson and feel the walls closing ever tighter, they’ll empathize with every uptick in Elana’s fury and despair. And as they begin to wonder whether it’s possible to kill a fictional character themselves, and how slow a death they could make it, the pages fly by, as do the twists, for better and much worse. Don’t start this on a work night, there’s no hope you’ll put it down.—Henrietta Verma
⭐Maxwell, Jessa. The Golden Spoon. March, 2023. 288p. Atria.
Bakers, cozy fans, and those who just love a fun, traditional mystery will want to abandon whatever they’re doing to read this novel to its very bloody end. A mashup of the TV series The Great British Bakeoff and the film Knives Out, the book stars Betsy Martin, “American’s Grandmother,” who’s sweet as pecan pie on the outside but tough as overmixed batter on the inside. Betsy created the show Bake Week, which is filmed at her Grafton, Vermont mansion—no fear of Spotted Dick in New England, TG— which also houses the six well-drawn contestants. For years, Betsy has ruled supreme over the show, but this season she’s being forced by the producers to take on another judge to—shudder—sex things up. What could go wrong? First, someone switches the sugar and salt, then a burner “accidentally” gets set on high. In the end, the whole show comes crashing down like some deflated meringue. But you’ll hear no spoilers from me—getting to the resolution on your own is too much fun.—Brian Kenney
Psychopaths Just Want to Have Fun
Oates, Nathan. A Flaw in the Design. March, 2023. 304p. Random.
Gil and his wife are living their dream. He’s a writing professor at a small Vermont college, she’s an artist, their two daughters are as smart as they are well-behaved. Sure, money is tight, but life is rich. Until his sister and her husband die under distinctly odd circumstances and their only child, 17-year-old Matthew, comes to live with them. To say there’s history here is an understatement. Gil’s sister married way up, well into the realm of the one percenters. While the wealth disparity made for awkwardness, it’s Matthew’s crazy, violent behavior that sets everyone on edge. The last time the two families got together, seven years ago at the sister’s house in Montauk, Matthew tried to drown Gil’s youngest daughter. But Matthew 2.0 is completely different. He charms the daughters, ingratiates himself with Gil’s wife, and even signs up for Gil’s fiction-writing class. But while most of the world is taken in by this brilliant and handsome young man, Gil remains a suspicious outlier. Slowly Matthew begins to undermine Gil, submitting for class stories that fantasize about the death of Gil’s daughters and explain how Matthew’s own parents were killed. Eventually Gil is alone in believing that Matthew is a psychopath, creating a growing estrangement from his own family, who are convinced he’s fallen off the deep end. Yes, this is a thriller, but a deeply thoughtful one that skillfully plays at what is true, what is imagined, and how genius can be used in the evilest of ways.Brian Kenney  
Swann's Way
Oren, Michael. Swann’s War, October. 256p. Dzanc.
We’re deep into the Second World War, and Archie Swann—the police officer on Fourth Cliff, a fishing island off the Massachusetts coast—is fighting in the Pacific theater. But his wife, Mary Beth, herself a cop trained by the Boston Police Department, has stepped into his position. While Archie was beloved, Mary Beth is loathed, largely because of her gender, and the easiest of tasks is a struggle. While the island has traditionally seen little crime—settling fights between drunk fishermen and resolving domestic disputes seemed to be the bulk of the work—things have changed under Mary Beth’s watch. The body of a soldier, who lived in a camp for Italian POWs on the island, is hauled up from the sea by fishermen, a murder that creates unrest among both islanders and prisoners. When that murder is followed by others, Mary Beth, whose supports are a doctor who is untrained as a coroner and a deputy who is intellectually disabled, turns to the only real help she can find: organized crime from the mainland. But the real story here is the internal one: Mary Beth’s loneliness, her longing for Archie, her need to always maintain a tough outer shell, her battle against feeling like a failure. Novels about women in the War have blossomed in the past few years, but few have the grittiness, honesty, and authenticity in emotion, language, and detail of Swann’s War.—Brian Kenney
Extra Credit
A killer on the loose: Crime fiction and the climate crisis | The Irish Times
Gritty Nordic Noir Unravels Past and Present Crimes | BookTrib
Review: Cast a Long Shadow | Welsh Women Writing Crime
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Henrietta Verma & Brian Kenney
Henrietta Verma & Brian Kenney @1stClueReviews

At firstCLUE we read crime novels way in advance of their publication and share our favorite finds with you. We hope that firstCLUE will help librarians and booksellers select titles and make recommendations, and readers find that next great read. If we really love a book we put a star on it.

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