Characters, history and quirks in abundance

Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves. Minotaur, 376 pages.

While Vera Stanhope and her team of detectives solve the mystery of an elegant elderly woman stabbed on the Metro amid holiday crowds, we readers get clues to the puzzle of the foulmouthed, prickly, lonely Vera. The investigation takes the team to one of their boss’s childhood haunts, where her shady dad would drag her along on poaching expeditions “because who could be suspicious of a middle-aged man and an overweight girl.”

The rundown Harbour Street neighborhood offers plenty of suspects, with a guest house where the victim lived, a neglected church, pub and fish and chips place, and a refuge for abused women. Ann Cleeves focuses on characters and relationships and sketches in the details of police procedure, which suits me fine.

Isolation by Mary Anna Evans. Poisoned Pen Press, 288 pages.

This is my first dip into the Faye Longchamp series, and I found a lot to enjoy. The style is leisurely, in keeping with the Gulf Coast island setting where nature dictates the pace. Faye, an archaeologist, and her husband Joe Wolf Mantooth are people you’d like to know, even though their struggle to cope with a miscarriage makes them miserable for most of the book, not to mention the tension that arises when murders start happening as they inevitably must in this genre.

There’s also a deep sense of history, reflecting the Southern setting. You get the feeling these characters could easily define a second cousin once removed, especially Faye, whose great-grandmother Cally Stanton is very much alive to her, and the visitor Oscar Croft, who is on the trail of Cally in hopes of finding out the truth about his own ancestor who may have known Cally after the Civil War.

The casual mentions of previous kidnappings and violent deaths make it clear you have dropped into the middle of a series, but as a first-time visitor I still felt I got a story that stood on its own legs.

The Man on the Washing Machine by Susan Cox, Minotaur, 304 pages.

There was no way I could pass this one by without at least reading a couple of pages to see if it lived up to the quirky title. And it did. Theo Bogart (not her real name) and her oddball neighbors live and work in a San Francisco street with a hidden garden and a rising death toll.

Theo has escaped notoriety in her native England by moving to San Francisco, changing her name and opening an aromatherapy shop on a funky little street. The neighborhood handyman takes a fatal fall from an upstairs window and brings the police into the mix; it’s not the last death and before long there are bodies in unlikely places and – as promised – a man on Theo’s washing machine who strikes her as out of place and then just strikes her.

It’s pure escape. The neighbors are fun, the shop is fun, the stuffy English grandfather is fun.