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Review: Joanna Schaffhausen’s The Vanishing Season, Michael Stanley’s Dying to Live and Peter Lovesey’s Beau Death

The Vanishing Season

By Joanna Schaffhausen

Minotaur Books, 274 pages, $32.50

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The late Julian Symons, dean of mystery critics, advised never reviewing first novels since they could be the first and only good novel an author produced or, contrarily, the worst. Let writers work things out and then see what happens in books three or four was his thinking.

That's certainly good advice and one that I tend to think about when I read First Mystery Novel that's won a major prize, such as the Mystery Writers of America, which brings us The Vanishing Season by Joanna Schaffhausen, whose day job is as a scientific editor submerged in research into cancer, among other diseases. The MWA is usually a good judge of even first novels but it's the plotline that led me to the book. Ellery Hathaway is the only surviving victim of a serial killer named Francis Coben. She was number 17 but she lived. Now, years later, she's a police officer in a small New England town where no one knows her past.

When first one, and then two, more young women disappear and the only link is Ellery's birthday, she knows someone remembers Coben and her. She contacts the only person she trusts, the FBI agent who saved her life years before. But there's more to this story than the return of evil. Schaffhausen builds a fine story of a character who escaped but may not have been saved. This is a most auspicious debut.

Dying to Live

By Michael Stanley

Minotaur, 324 pages, $39.99

This is the sixth novel from the African writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Once again it features Assistant Superintendant David "Kubu" Bengu of the Botswana police and once again, it's a terrific plot along with the well-developed characters and marvelous setting. In the dead of winter, this one opens in the Kalahari Desert with a dead bushman.

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At first, the police aren't concerned. The bushman is obviously very old and probably died of age-related natural causes, but a young policeman, himself part bushman, sees more in the dead man. There were people with him and his neck isn't straight. So, off to Gaborone, where a pathologist agrees that the old man was killed but what's strange is that, despite his obvious great age, his internal organs are those of a far younger man. So he was murdered but he's also some sort of medical miracle.

Detective Kubu soon realizes there's far more to this case than a dead bushman and, using his very rational Western deduction, along with his knowledge of magic, tribal lore and African medicine, he soon finds himself confronting an evil far greater than the death of one old man.

Beau Death

By Peter Lovesey

Soho Crime, 406 pages, $35.95

Peter Lovesey is one author who can grab me on the title page. Witness his first book Wobble To Death, introducing Sergeant Cribb. Beau Death is his 17th Peter Diamond novel set in the exquisite city of Bath, where murder can be as recent as a druid's spell. I was caught immediately when a small boy watched the demolition of a row of 18th-century townhouses and as the walls collapsed a skeleton appeared, sitting in a chair.

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Peter Diamond and his team are on the scene and it's clear the skeleton is old, dressed in the same century as the houses and wearing the remains of a black wig. Beside him is a smashed white hat. Only one man in Bath history wore that combination, the late Beau Nash, bon vivant and unofficial city mayor, whose life ended in scandal and poverty. But Beau Nash was given a fancy funeral and burial. Or was he? If you like real history turned into crime clues, this is your book. Lovesey isn't Josephine Tey in The Daughter of Time but he's very, very good and knows his Bath history inside out. This is a great puzzle plot that will keep you guessing. Just what Lovesey does best.

Scientists read ancient sealed documents without opening them (Reuters)
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