While murders are the raison d'etre for the books, it's the relationships that fascinate. Particularly interesting is how each author continues the tradition of Agatha Christie's beloved Miss Marple.
Demise by the sea
If M.C. Beaton wrote an entire book about Agatha Raisin's romantic misadventures, I would read it. Beaton's British sleuth is so delightful, so wonderfully distracted by her ex-husband, that her detective work is almost beside the point.
In "Love, Lies and Liquor: An Agatha Raisin Mystery" (St. Martin's Minotaur, $22.95), Raisin is whisked away to Snoth-on-Sea for what she hopes is a romantic rekindling with her former husband. Sadly, he has merely a nostalgic trip in mind.
To make things worse, the pretty seaside town of his boyhood has crumbled into a depressing expanse of traffic, inexpensive housing and lackluster shops. The elegant hotel barely resembles its old self, and waves howl against the sea wall, threatening to crash through.
The setting is perfect for murder, and it isn't long before the first one occurs. Since Raisin's scarf is used to strangle a hotel guest, the sleuth is immediately a suspect. This is only the beginning of a series of events that includes stolen jewels, several more murders, a kidnapping attempt and long nights in the dreary hotel.
Raisin calls on her detective agency staff for help and, unexpectedly, a handsome friend shows up to complicate matters. Meanwhile, her ex-husband gets bored and retreats to France, hoping Raisin will follow. She doesn't, because she's hot on the trail of a murderer and trying not to upset the local police.
Between her former husband and handsome friend, Raisin is steeped in men and loving it. She's the kind of woman who relates best to men, although her friend Mrs. Bloxby, the vicar's wife, is an essential sounding board.
Beaton delivers a clever ending, tying the loose ends securely and even dangling a romantic carrot.
Sheryl J. Anderson loves to write, that much is clear. "Killer Deal: A Molly Forrester Novel" (St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95) is littered with witty asides and consistent characters. Her dialogue is seamless, her pace lively.
Most prominent is the female triumvirate. Sleuth Molly and friends Tricia and Cassady comprise a formidable team. Secondary characters are well drawn and useful, but this trio acts and thinks as one, making you wish you had friends this loyal.
Glossy magazine columnist Molly is bored out of her skull and eager for a challenge when her editor assigns her a story about the ex-wife of a murdered advertising executive. Well, almost ex-wife and primary murder suspect.
Molly plunges into the story, to the chagrin of her police officer boyfriend and delight of her friends. She quickly forms theories and interviews suspects, less concerned with the wife's perfume launch than ferreting out the killer.
From the beginning, you're unusually aware of Anderson's characters because even the minor ones are memorable. Molly's she-devil editor is particularly shrill, and the dead man's "harem" of svelte executives is a good example of trading one's soul for designer footwear.
Although Molly has a positive relationship with a boyfriend who's downright wonderful, it's her relationship with her friends that provides strength and encouragement. In this female-oriented story, it's clear who rules the emotional roost.
There's a "Sex and the City" feel to Anderson's book, although the writing is more intelligent and there's more self-effacing humor. Still, there's plenty of time for shopping and cocktailing while the ladies solve their case.
Unfortunately, the ending is weak. It's a surprise, but it's unbelievable as though Anderson tripped in her Kate Spades and forgot to get up.
Dry cleaner's dilemma
"Pressed to Kill: A Mandy Dyer Mystery" (Thomas Dunne Books, $23.95), Dolores Johnson's eighth in the series, offers a direct, no-nonsense style.
Johnson's previous experience as a newspaper journalist and dry cleaning magazine writer is evident in her clean-cut prose and spot-on descriptions of her heroine's dry cleaning business. In fact, Johnson's setting is so real her story sometimes feels more like a newspaper article than fiction.
Meet Mandy Dyer, whose pretty dry cleaning customer has just been killed. Mandy is worried because prior to her customer's death, she'd begun dating a spiffy dresser and updating her wardrobe. Mandy also finds out the woman met her beau at the store's open house.
When the amateur sleuth gets wind of other murders, she wonders if there's a connection. With help from her employees, Mandy follows the clues.
English manor murder
"Gunpowder Plot: A Daisy Dalrymple Mystery" (St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95) is a well-bred and completely delightful journey back to the elegance of 1920s English country life. Carola Dunn meticulously describes manor house, butler, grounds, afternoon tea and servants, plus the irascible baronet and his beleaguered family. When writer and accidental sleuth Daisy arrives at her friend's estate to write a magazine piece about the family's Guy Fawkes celebration, she is thrown into a brewing crisis. Family problems must wait, however, because amid the gorgeous fireworks and grand buffet the baronet and a guest are discovered dead.
Daisy keeps her head and admonishes family and guests not to tamper with the crime scene. Her husband, a Scotland Yard inspector arrives shortly after and together they unravel the mystery.
An excellent twist at the end affirms Dunn's storytelling gift and caps a tale particularly fat with nostalgia and the oh-so-English upper crust. You'll sit up late with this one, promising yourself just one more chapter...
You can e-mail Kathleen Grant Geib at email@example.com or call (925) 416-4812.