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Monday, September 26, 2022

Anne Simpson Thought She Knew Her Husband. She Didn’t.

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Anne Simpson is learning her marriage isn’t as good as she thought. An American translator living and working in West Berlin in the weeks before the wall falls in 1989, she believes she and her East German husband “had found the happiness that was possible between a man and a woman of different backgrounds and different languages — an earned love.” But his disappearance, which opens Paul Vidich’s newest spy novel, THE MATCHMAKER: A Spy in Berlin (Pegasus Crime, 262 pp., $25.95), brings both the C.I.A. and West German intelligence to her doorstep, upending everything she thought she knew about her husband of two years.

As Simpson peels away layers of secrets at the heart of her marriage, including her husband’s connection to the shadowy and dangerous titular character, the suspense ratchets up — slowly, slowly, then all at once.

There is a casual elegance to Vidich’s spy fiction (now numbering five books), a seeming effortlessness that belies his superior craftsmanship. Every plot point, character motivation and turn of phrase veers toward the understated, but they are never underwritten. “The Matchmaker” is an ideal entrance into Vidich’s work, one that should compel new readers to plumb his backlist.


What a delight to discover T.A. Willberg’s MARION LANE AND THE DEADLY ROSE (Park Row, 293 pp., $27.99),the second in a new historical mystery series featuring Lane and her fellow sleuths at Miss Brickett’s Investigations and Inquiries, a below-the-radar agency in late 1950s London, working cases that prove too difficult for Scotland Yard.

This time, Lane is enlisted to help capture “the Florist,” a multiple murderer named for the roses he brands into the skin of his victims. At the same time, she’s unnerved by a series of anonymous letters, each growing in uncanny prescience, which implore her not to trust the latest arrivals to the fold at Miss Brickett’s. Things take an insidious turn when some of those colleagues begin to die. Marion, now under suspicion, must prove her innocence and solve both mysteries.

Willberg spins her narrative with a striking sense of verve. I found myself so drawn into this world of peculiar crimes that finishing the last page left me disoriented, requiring an extra beat to flash forward and rejoin the current century.


Also returning for a second go-round is Finlay Donovan, the romantic suspense writer and single mother whose quasi-accidental ventures into murder-for-hire, as dreamed up by Elle Cosimano, led to horror-tinged hilarity in her debut last year. Much more of this ensues in FINLAY DONOVAN KNOCKS ’EM DEAD (Minotaur, 353 pp., $26.99), which finds our heroine in familiar straits: struggling to meet her next book’s deadline, arguing with her ex-husband about shared custody of their two kids, finding satisfaction with a hot young law student (even as everyone around her wishes she’d just get together with the equally hot cop) and hoping the only family tragedy involves the demise of a pet goldfish.

Naturally, any pretense at equilibrium is shattered when Donovan and her bestie/partner-in-kinda-crime/nanny, Vero, discover a website that doubles as a hit list — and that Finlay’s irritating, condescending ex is on it. As satisfying as it would be to see him dispatched, she can’t do that to their children. She can, however, stretch the limits of acceptable behavior. Let’s just say “Weekend at Bernie’s” is paid homage to more than once.

If Finlay Donovan’s second appearance features a more convoluted plot than her first, it in no way decreases the overall entertainment value. Cosimano skillfully combines suspense and laughs in the manner of Janet Evanovich’s early (and best) novels, finished off with a metafictional twist.


Keeping with this column’s occasional highlighting of crime fiction reissues, we turn to the program begun by the Library of Congress a couple of years ago that excavates treasures by the likes of Anna Katharine Green and Seeley Regester. Its newest rerelease is THE METROPOLITAN OPERA MURDERS (Poisoned Pen/Library of Congress Crime Classics, 184 pp., paper, $14.99), first published in 1951 and little seen thereafter.

It’s a confection of insider knowledge and brio wrapped around a solid mystery plot concocted by its named author, Helen Traubel, then a soprano and concert singer of considerable reputation, in tandem with — as the new edition, edited and annotated by Leslie Klinger, reveals — the hard-boiled detective writer Harold Q. Masur. He was brought in by the book’s editor, Lee Wright, to shore up the structure and bring out Traubel’s literary voice more effectively.

The book leans a little too much on cutesy monikers (a detective named Sam Quentin, for starters) and its heroine, Elsa Vaughn, is clearly based on Traubel herself — “a tall woman constructed in the liberal proportions of the most Wagnerian sopranos. … Her manner was assuming and she seemed free from the temperament generally associated with prima donnas.” The window into the Met’s expensive opulence, however, as well as the folly of embarking upon a career that rewards so few, ups the enjoyment ante considerably.

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