Mysteries: Maggie Barbieri’s ‘Once Upon a Life’ is a refreshing tale

smacknee@mcclatchy.comDecember 7, 2013 

Once Upon a Lie, by Maggie Barbieri. Minotaur. 290 pages.

What a refreshing character Maeve Conlon is! We get so many slim, single female PIs or hard-hitting steel-jawed male ones. Mothers are rarely the leads in mystery stories, and even more rarely are they frustrated mothers juggling soccer practice, elder care and the pressures of owning a small business. “When people asked how she did it all, even she couldn’t figure it out.”

The book opens with Maeve determined to get her father to a wake in spite of his Alzheimer’s fog and her tight schedule. Soon we learn that the deceased was more than an acquaintance and was in fact a menacing figure in their lives. What’s more, her father was AWOL from his assisted-living facility at the time of the murder and has no idea now where he was during that time.

This is a well-constructed story with characters you feel you already know. It’s a stand-alone and the first one I’ve read by Maggie Barbieri, who writes a series called Murder 101. I’ll be picking one of those up to see what I’ve been missing.

The Gods of Guilt, by Michael Connelly. Little, Brown. 400 pages.

A new Lincoln Lawyer story! Even before Matthew McConaughey became the movie face of the character, I loved Mickey Haller, the shady lawyer whose office is the back seat of his Lincoln.

Michael Connelly has some fun with that – the courthouse where Haller defends his clients now has a whole row of Lincolns lined up outside, belonging to other lawyers trying to capitalize on Haller’s fame after the movie.

This time Haller’s unappetizing client is a cyber-pimp accused of strangling one of his prostitutes, a woman Haller knew years ago and tried to help go straight. Connelly keeps us guessing as Mickey plays fast and loose with the law. The courtroom tricks are made even more exhilarating by the fact that Mickey’s balancing act seems always on the verge of disaster.

Going Dark, by James W. Hall. Minotaur, 304 pages.

For those who enjoy a good steely-jawed mystery man, here’s a new Thorn novel from James W. Hall. If you’ve ever daydreamed of living off the land in a beachfront shack, Thorn’s life might be a nice getaway for you.

Here he takes on ecoterrorists who have targeted a Florida nuclear plant, but in Thorn’s world their larger crime is recruiting and endangering Flynn, the son Thorn only recently learned he had.

If you like your mysteries macho and enjoy some Florida scenery into the bargain, this one’s for you.

Inherit the Dead, by 20 best-selling writers. Touchstone. 276 pages.

If there’s a mystery-lover on your gift list but you’re not sure what type they go for, consider this collaboration of 20 authors including some of my favorites (final chapter by Lawrence Block!), proceeds going partly to Safe Horizon, a charity that helps crime victims. There’s bound to be a familiar name or two in that list of 20.


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