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A Three Mystery Review

I have reviews for three of the several books I read during the month of December.  All are by American novelists and all have a strong ethnic presence.  All are part of mystery series of varying degrees of maturity.  While the protagonist of the first is a private investigator, the other two books feature amateur sleuths.  They are:  “Caught dead” by Andrew Lanh, which is a pen name for the experienced mystery writer, Ed Ifkovic (A Rick Van Lam Mystery); “The Puffin of death” by Betty Webb (A Gunn Zoo Mystery); and “Brooklyn secrets” by Triss Stein (An Erica Donato Mystery).  All were published within the last couple months.

Rick Van Lam, as far as I can tell, is the only Vietnamese sleuth in American mystery literature.  He’s definitely not your stereotypical “Charlie Chan” type detective.  Rick is bui doi, an Amerasian product of the Vietnam Conflict who was brought to America at the age of thirteen to be raised by an American family in New Jersey. After attending John Jay College in criminal justice in New York he moved to Hartford, CT to become part of that city’s police force, but wiped out after a close encounter with death and joined a private investigator’s office instead.  He developed close ties to the Vietnamese community in Little Saigon in Hartford and it is with that community that he interacts in trying to solve the deaths of “the beautiful” Le sisters, Mary and Molly.  One sister is married to a small-time Asian market in the heart of Little Saigon while the other is married to a rich and successful Anglo entrepreneur. The separate crimes both appear to be staged in order to blame drug traffickers in a crime-infested neighborhood.  It takes being able to bridge both the Vietnamese community and the community at large in order to solve the crimes and Rick goes about it with a great deal of sensitivity and skill.  “Caught dead” maintains the suspense of “who done it” right up to the last couple chapters.

Betty Webb’s “The Puffin of death” is the fourth in the “Gunn Zoo Mystery” series featuring the professional zookeeper and amateur sleuth, Theodora Bentley.  The setting for this installment of this series is Iceland where Teddy is sent to collect several animals for its new Northern Climes exhibit, including a couple puffins and a polar bear cub.  Because Teddy is invited to stay with an Icelandic zookeeper while she is in Iceland, she has a very up close and personal experience with modern day Icelandic culture.  Her hostess and her boyfriend are both members of an Icelandic heavy metal band.  She also spends a lot of time with a birdwatching tour group from Arizona, and it is the leader of that group who comes up dead shortly after Teddy arrives on the scene.  The body has been badly chewed by a puffin by the time Teddy discovers the body.  Like Webb’s previous books in this series, the author sprinkles a heavy dose of humor in the plot and the memorable cast of characters.  While the book drags a little in the middle chapters, overall I enjoyed “The Puffin of death.”

The third book I would like to feature is Triss Stein’s “Brooklyn secrets.”  Like the author, the protagonist, Erica Donato, is a researcher who is well-versed in the history of Brooklyn, New York.  Stein is not a native of Brooklyn, but she has spent many years in New York City and once worked at the Brooklyn branch library used as one of the settings for the book.  She is also very familiar with the history of the Brownsville projects and the different ethnic groups that have populated this ghetto area since the 1930s.  Donato spends time in that area in order to do research for her graduate program disseration on the members of Murder, Inc. who dominated the Brownsville housing project in the 1930s.  She finds in the 2000s the deadly gang influence has changed little except in ethnicity and language.  Now the residents are largely Black and those in gangs control drug and human trafficking.  The book is very well written to show a lot of parallels between the Brownsville of then and now.  The author admits that the book is not reflective of the very most current trends and language among Black teens in Brownsville today but Stein does what she can to paint a realistic picture of life in the projects today.  “Brooklyn secrets” is a chillingly convincing page-turner of a mystery.

Reviewed with supplied copies.

Liz Nichols

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