Hitler’s Little Helpers

Hitler’s Aristocrats by Susan Ronald could just as easily have been called Hitler’s Stooges. It’s a survey of wealthy and upper-crust Britons and Americans who for various reasons supported and even idolized Hitler in the 1930. Some of them were grotesque and paranoid anti-Semites, others admired the man or were even hypnotized by him. Still others believed in his mission to create a strong, stable Germany–no matter the human cost.

Whatever their reasons, they were wildly deluded and dangerous because they either ignored the truth about Hitler’s Germany or just didn’t understand it. For readers of WWII history in books like The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson or a novel like Munich by Robert Harris, the material here in general might not seem new, though its scope might as you explore the range of this informal international propaganda machine.

Ronald writes in a surprisingly breezy style given the subject matter and calls these people “influencers.” You can decide whether you think that term makes them more understandable or seems too mild for the profound damage they tried to do to democracy and the aid they gave to the dictator and his criminal regime. 

Perhaps most fascinating of all here is the story of British press baron Lord Rothermere and his quixotic-verging-in-nutty campaign to restore the German and Austrian monarchies, believing that Hitler was on his side.  That story deserves a book of its own.

Ronald takes more time than necessary explaining Hitler’s rise to power before we actually see the “influencers” plying their filthy trade.  She also isn’t quite as evocative a writer as Lynne Olson, who’s written extensively about WWII and the lead-up to that war in books like Citizens of London, but she does keep her dark tale moving briskly in short chapters filled with often quirky details.  Like noting that one German émigré  had “irregular teeth, with one tooth on the upper left side of his mouth protruding to force his upper lip over the gum whenever he laughed or spoke emphatically.  At some point during the Nazi rule, he had the offending tooth capped in gold.”  

Make of that what you will, and welcome to a despicable rogue’s gallery of wealthy businessmen, quisling politicians, real and fake nobility and lots of very odd ducks.  Of course the notorious Duke and Duchess of Windsor make their appearance here though readers might prefer a whole book about the couple, Andrew Lownie’s recent Traitor King.

To her credit, Ronald can turn a phrase more often than not, as when she notes that the mass producer of cars, Henry Ford, also mass produced antisemitism via his newspaper and endless crazy pamphlets.

Whether malign, naive, power-hungry or ambitious in other ways, these reckless and ruthless people functioned as a kind of PR Third Column to aid Hitler’s regime and his war effort.  Hitler’s Aristocrats is a solid introduction to a sordid time.  And for readers who want a deep dive in Hitler and his Germany, I highly recommend the amazingly-detailed biography by Volker Ullrich.

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report and a handful of public radio stations. He is an #SMPInfluencer.

A Death in Denmark

Danish Gabriel Præst is not your typical PI.  He’s intellectual, dandyish, and upscale.  He quotes Kierkegaard and Sartre, wears designer clothes, loves fine wine and good whiskey (though he’s also a beer aficionado).  His high-end coffee maker likely costs several thousand dollars and he’s fastidious in other ways, too: he’s been working for a decade on remodeling a townhouse he inherited.  Latest DIY problem? Locating more hard-to-find 17th-century Spanish tiles to finish the bathroom that already has a wildly expensive antique French claw-foot tub.

Præst’s main clients are corporate law firms in Copenhagen, and his brief is corporate theft, embezzlement, industrial espionage, corporate corruption, insurance fraud and that old PI standby, adultery.  The man’s personal life is intriguing.  He has a woman journalist friend-with-benefits, gets along amicably with the mother of his daughter, really likes her new husband, and even rents space in the husband’s law firm building.

Unlike most crime fiction–whether screen or book–his daughter in this book is not troubled, difficult or any other cliché of the genre.  In fact, she’s “morally sound, smart, self-aware and courageous.”

The story begins when Præst has been asked by an ex-lover to investigate the case of a Muslim Dane convicted of killing a right-wing politician.  He accepts the case because he’s still under the spell of this ex-.  She’s “the one who got away.”

In a classic genre scene, he’s warned off the investigation by a tough advisor to the Danish prime minister himself.  Of course nothing will stop Præst and every step of his investigation seems to expose right-wing bigotry against Muslims living in Denmark even if they were born there.  As the investigation unfolds, we learn that the victim was secretly working on a book about Denmark’s time under German occupation that might reveal a less-than-heroic role for some important Danes.

The characters are vividly described, the translation from Danish feels smooth and the story is compelling, though readers might feel the author overdoes Præst’s foodie lifestyle since it feels like he’s eating or drinking on almost every page.  And  awareness of his “white privilege” is practically a flag he waves as if he has to prove some kind of point.  A careful editor might have suggested a lighter touch, and did he need to be beaten up so often–and shot too?

However, the author does a good job of leavening this mystery with humor. There’s a constant joke that everyone refers to the mother of Præst’s child as his “ex-wife” when they were never married and it frustrates them.  And some of the best parts of the book are Præst’s sarcastic observations about the difficult weather in Denmark and complaints about people lacking style.  Readers who don’t find the food references overdone may feel like they’ve been given a welcome tour of cool places to eat and drink in Copenhagen.  As well as a style guide for men who want to look like what one character calls “a southern Swedish metrosexual.”

Lev Raphael has reviewed crime fiction for The Detroit Free Press and is the author of the Nick Hoffman mystery series.


What Was Missed in the Frenzy About American Dirt

A recent Persuasion opinion piece titled “Beware of Books” reminded me of the national uproar that was swirling around American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins before the pandemic. It aroused so much fury, it’s surprising that Congress didn’t launch an investigation, or that our 45th president didn’t try moving some Pentagon funds to build a wall around the book.

Its part-Hispanic author was pilloried far and wide for many things:  ignorance, stereotyping, shallowness, whitewashing, appropriation, trauma porn, inaccuracy and saviorism. What seemed to infuriate some of her detractors most was Oprah Book Clubism, making-a-lot-of-moneyism, and movie dealism.

How dare this literary imposter tread on sacred Mexican/Mexican-American ground when apparently only someone of that ethnicity could handle the subject matter? Didn’t she realize that her book must represent the entire rich reality of Mexican culture, not just some sordid aspects of it?

There’s apparently a Geneva Literary Convention stipulating restrictions like these that I must have missed while I was publishing and teaching over the last few decades. Some of the strongest protests attacked her for daring to make money, lots of money, when there are apparently so many more deserving Latinx authors who were being ignored by publishers and readers and should be doing better. What a selfish woman….  A seven-figure advance?  Outrageous! 

Cummins was even vilified for what she said in her Acknowledgments, which must be a first. In a slash-and-burn review loaded with relentless invective, writer Myriam Gurbo scored Cummins’ gratitude:  “In Dirt’s acknowledgements, Cummins announces her ignorance by thanking people for ‘patiently teaching me things about Mexico.’ She lists writers ‘you should read if you want to learn more about Mexico’ and lists a slew of authors.” I suppose the book’s type font was okay.

Memoirist Marcelo Hernandez Castillo even attributed super powers to the American Dirt author. As he put it, “The problem is the gross bastardization of the subject and the erasing of others who have written about this and are writing about it.”  Imagine one author doing all that with one best seller.

I’ve been a published author for a long time and guess what? The world of publishing is wildly unfair and complaints about who does well and who doesn’t reek of jealousy and childishness. Books have their own karma, and grousing about how a certain book hits a cultural sweet spot while others languish is a total waste of time. Likewise besieging an author because she happened to write a popular or noteworthy book at the right time.

Let’s not forget that before the dirt hit the fan, the book won extraordinary pre-publication praise from some major American authors who seemed to agree with the publisher’s claim that “it is one of the most important books for our times.”  Stephen King hailed it as “extraordinary: a perfect balancing act with terror on one side and love on the other. I defy anyone to read the first seven pages of this book and not finish it. The prose is immaculate, and the story never lets up.”

Ann Patchett opined that “American Dirt is both a moral compass and a riveting read. I couldn’t put it down. I’ll never stop thinking about it.”  Tracy Chevalier advised that the novel was “essential reading for our time.” Latina author Sandra Cisneros was adulatory: “This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas. It’s the great world novel! This is the international story of our times…a masterful work of great spiritual power.”  John Grisham got very personal in his praise: “I strive to write page-turners because I love to read them, and it’s been a long time since I turned pages as fast as I did with American Dirt. Its plot is tight, smart, and unpredictable. Its message is important and timely…It is rich in authenticity.”

Well, all the sound and fury from the nay-sayers made me have to sample the book on Amazon, and I confess that I gave up at the end of the first chapter. The writing bugged me in various ways, partly because it seemed too sophisticated in describing what a kid was feeling. But what truly turned me off were the closing lines after a scene of major gunfire:

“Outside the window he hears Mama’s tentative footsteps, the soft scuff of her shoe through the remnants of something broken. A solitary gasp, too windy to be called a sob. Then a quickening of sound as she crosses the patio with purpose, depresses the keys on her phone.”

This is truly a hot mess. How does the kid know that the steps are tentative? What are the remnants of something broken? Is that poetic or a reference to objects of some kind? Bodies? Something else? And why would she be scuffing through them, why wouldn’t she avoid them? How can he possibly know that his mother is crossing “with purpose”? And finally, if he’s inside, how can he see her depressing the keys of her phone?  Is he some kind of superhero?

Sloppy point of view kills a book for me because I lose faith in the author’s ability to tell a story deftly and clearly. In the many years I reviewed books for the Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post and half a dozen other newspapers, magazines, and radio stations, I learned to trust those warning signs. Maybe a novel like that gets better, but I’d rather not continue when a novel raises serious doubts in the very first chapter.  Sorry, Mr. King.

The uproar over Cummins’ so-called lack of authenticity and every other publishing sin she apparently committed drowned out possible complaints about the prose in American Dirt. And for that I blame the author’s use of the present tense which as a reviewer I’ve seen hypnotizes far too many readers and reviewers.  They seem to end up believing that the book they have in their hands is important and deep, perhaps even a cultural milestone.

Of course readers like those never got to hear this leaden prose in person because Cummins’ 40-stop book tour was cancelled. As quoted in the New York Times, the publisher cited the cancellation was due to “specific threats to booksellers and the author [and] we believe there exists real peril to their safety.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from mystery to memoir.

The New Agatha Christie Biography

This engaging biography explores why and how Agatha Christie in effect lived a life of disguise: Despite her international fame and mammoth audience, she sought to be inconspicuous.  Not an easy task given that fans could come from as far away as Finland to try to meet her–and bang on her door!

When Christie was growing up, the ideal British woman and wife was like the one depicted in a revoltingly sentimental poem by Coventry Patmore, “The Angel in the House.”  This ideal figure was meant to be “devoted and submissive to her husband….passive and powerless, meek, charming, graceful, sympathetic, self-sacrificing, pious, and above all–pure.”

Christie was anything but passive, however, in both her marriages or when dealing with agents, publishers, and directors.  As a young woman she was funny and flirtatious despite being shy, a great dancer, loved to surf and seemed nothing like the grande dame we see in later publicity photos.  Through most of her adult life she was a “compulsive writer” despite self-deprecating remarks about her work as an author and she could turn out a fine mystery in six weeks when inspired.

If she were alive today, she might be a fan of makeover shows on HGTV because one of her great loves was buying a house, then remodeling and redecorating it.  At one point she actually owned eight homes.

The book devotes a great deal of time to Christie’s famous “disappearance” in 1926 when she seemed to be missing (and possibly dead) for almost two weeks.  Worsley does a fine job untangling what really happened amid of welter of possibilities, and is especially clear on how Christie’s image seemed to suffer at first when journalists and others suggested it was a publicity stunt.  That story gripped England and America, and readers might be surprised at how sexist some of the contemporary analysis of her reasons for going off the grid were.

Curiously, the author doesn’t tell us anything about Christie’s sales figures until almost midway through the book.  That’s especially puzzling for her early books.   Surely sales figures are a significant part of her story as a famously best-selling author who’s sold more books than anyone else in the world?  And how can we judge the success of her early books–or even later ones like Death on the Nile–without comparisons to books by her contemporaries?  Worsley also classes a number of Christie’s techniques as “tricks,” which seems a strange label.  There’s nothing unusual about novelists using real settings and real news stories in their books–it’s common practice.

Mystery fans can sometimes be ticked off that the genre they love is considered inferior  to Literature, but what struck me as revelatory was the sexism she face throughout her career. Christie was demeaned, diminished, and derogated not because of her genre but primarily because she was a woman.  Far too many critics couldn’t resist saying something sexist when they reviewed her books or plays. 

In An Elusive Woman, Christie has found a keen-eyed and witty biographer who honestly assesses her strengths and weaknesses, and makes a solid case for considering Christie one of the 20th Century’s most important writers.

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Jerusalem Report and a handful of public radio stations.  He recently reviewed a collection of Christie ghost stories and a volume of new Miss Marple stories.

Into the Woods with Ruth Ware

As a crime fiction reviewer, I’ve often had to say, “Sorry, I haven’t read it” when people ask me about a new book.  The reasons can vary.  I might be swamped with review copies.  I might not have been in the mood for that particular book after sampling it.  Or I might be wary of the publicity blitz around the book since I’ve seen so many crime novels over-hyped by publishers and been disappointed when they turn out clichéd or badly written.

But then it’s a wonderful surprise to pick up a book with thousands of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and discover that it truly lives up to the promotional material.  This past week I finally caught up with Ruth Ware’s gripping debut In a Dark, Dark Wood.

After an enigmatic brief prologue, the book opens in a hospital with Leonora, a heroine who can’t remember how she got there but has hands sticky with blood.  Something horrible has clearly happened.  Is she a murderer?  She’s desperate to regain her memory and for much of the book that struggle is a dark, dark thread.

How did she end up in the hospital?  Well, because she should have said no to a bizarre invitation.  Leonora, a crime writer herself, has led a solitary life for a decade after university for undisclosed reasons but readers know they’ll find out and will surely hope there’s high drama involved.  The invitation breaks into her solitude: it’s for what the English call “a hen party” and Americans call a bachelorette party.  Weirdly, she hasn’t been invited to the wedding itself and it takes some coaxing from a friend of hers and the bride’s to say “yes.”

The party is hours from London, very remote, in a big, isolated, ugly ultra-modern house.  Though it’s not haunted, it has far too many large, un-curtained windows and is surrounded by bleak forest.  Everything about it is oppressive, creepy, and exposed.  Tensions soon rise among the motley group of partiers and what seems at first to be an Agatha Christie homage turns violent and bloody.

In the second half of the novel we learn what drove her and her bride-to-be friend apart and while some of the revelations aren’t as surprising as you might wish, they fall into place with a satisfying way.  Ware is deft at building tension, evocatively describing people and places, and the book is explosive in many ways.  It’s also intriguing to read about a crime novelist caught up in a series of mysteries, a woman who might be a murderer herself.  And a woman who by all rights should have been far more wary and suspicious from the start.  When you read a Christie novel, a great deal is revealed in dialogue and readers of this novel should pay close attention to what characters say if they want to figure out what’s really going on in this taut, enticing novel.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and other newspapers and public radio stations.  He’s the author of ten Nick Hoffman mysteries.

“Stillhouse Lake” is a Perfect Thriller

I’ve been reviewing mysteries and thrillers since the 90s and it’s been a very long time since I got goosebumps reading a crime novel. And even longer since I felt torn between rushing ahead to find out what was going to happen next and slowing down to savor and marvel at what an amazing book I was reading.

Rachel Caine’s Stillhouse Lake is that book. It’s beautifully crafted, scary and terrific in every single way: plot, characterization, style, and pacing. Hell, even the cover is creepily perfect.

Caine’s hypnotic narrator is Gwen Proctor, a woman on the run ever since her husband’s horrific secret life was exposed and led him to prison. She’s trying to protect herself and her kids from the sociopaths on the Internet who blame her for her husband’s crimes and make obscene, horrific threats. As happens way too often now, hatred’s gone viral and she’s the target of a vicious, disgusting cyber mob.

Despite the despair she sometimes feels, she’s strong, resourceful, and a very good shot. She’s turned herself into a fierce and indefatigable woman who might remind you of Sarah Connor in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Gwen needs to be quick-thinking and strong because she’s pursued by psycho cyber terrorists. She and her kids keep having to abandon one town after another, one identity after another, until perhaps, just perhaps they’ve found a new home with people they can trust and maybe even admire.

Well, you know how long that’s going to last….

Caine avoids a trap many thriller writers fall into: her action scenes are as clear as possible without an excess word, and you always know exactly what’s happening. Equally important, she’s also a deft psychologist, capturing every single nuance of Gwen’s struggle in lean, evocative prose. Gwen’s love for her children is so intense the book practically blazes with that love. Her torment is just as intense. How could she have been so naive as to marry a man who was a heinous criminal–and not figured him out? The shame, the guilt, it’s all there, dramatized and heightened as one great plot twist follows another.

I actually read the prologue and first chapter twice because I was so blown away by the power and intensity of what Caine was doing, and by the plight of a deeply sympathetic narrator whose life may never be restored to any semblance of normality.

I’ll say it again: this is a perfect thriller. So prepare for plenty of OMG moments, and for losing lots of sleep.

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and author of ten Nick Hoffman mysteries and seventeen other books in many genres.  His work has appeared in fifteen languages.


Colm Tóibín’s “The Magician” is Anything but Magical


As a reviewer for many years in print, on-air, and online, I’ve gotten used to books being hyped to help the author gain a foothold in a crowded market.  But the fulsome book jacket copy for Colm Tóibín The Magician, a novel about German author Thomas Mann, is the kind of effusive panegyric that can often make me decide to skip a book because it’s just so over-the-top.

Jacket copy for The Magician raves that “Reading him is among the deepest pleasures our literature can offer.” That’s the kind of hyperbole Tóibín’s work has received from critics in the past, and it’s always turned me off.

But I did my best trying to read this novel because a good friend wanted to share it with me and compare notes.

It wasn’t really a difficult decision for me to make, even though I’m not a fan of the author’s previous work.  Thomas Mann, however, is an author I’ve enjoyed in the past.  I’ve read some of his fiction, a biography as well as a biography of two of his children in which he understandably looms large.  Mann was also a favorite author of my late mother, who read him in German, so I have a kind of sentimental connection to him too. 

Mann was a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and is probably best known for his novella Death in Venice (made into a stunning film by Luchino Visconti) and his sprawling novel The Magic Mountain.

The Magician does have have some good period detail of northern Germany in the late 1800s, but I found it very uneven and at times flat and listless. Several things stood out for me as problems an editor should have helped the author fix: Mann writes stories and has them published but we don’t always know what they’re about–why not? This is a book about a writer, yet it doesn’t tell us enough about his writing.

Then Mann writes the novel that made him celebrated, Buddenbrooks, but how long does that take? We don’t know. Again, why not? It almost feels as if the author is doing a Best Hits of Thomas Mann, name checking them as the story drags on and on. And why are some characters described in detail but many others aren’t, even important ones?

Perhaps in choosing Mann, the author was trying to recreate his success writing about Henry James in The Master.   If so, it was a misguided attempt because the book never quite takes wing and is anything but masterful.  Picking up the book wasn’t difficult for me, as I noted above, and neither was putting it down.  Maybe he’d have better luck with a lesser writer like Edgar Bulwer-Lytton who in his day outsold Dickens but is almost unreadable now.  Reading about a faded idol like that might be engaging in ways this book is not.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery and has taught creative writing at Michigan State University.  He’s done 100s of talks and readings about his work in 9 different countries.

“On Royalty” in England and Beyond

Fans of The Crown or anyone who watched Queen Elizabeth’s recent funeral will love On Royalty, an exploration of the very strange institution of monarchy across Europe.  The focus by English journalist Jeremy Paxman is mainly on the world’s most prestigious and most talked about throne, the English one, but the author also explores monarchies across the continent and through the centuries.

The book is amusing, thoughtful, wide-ranging. A case in point: his account of  Albania and its kings.  There were advertisements in 1913 in British newspapers for a country gentlemen to become the Albanian king after various princelings in Europe were offered the position.  They decline ruling the wild, mountainous little land where clans engaged in ancient vendetta. A local chieftain ended up as King Zog but abandoned the throne after a year, and a highlight of the book is the author’s interview with the current pretender to the thrown, his son King Leka, who seems utterly clueless and delusional.

What does it take to be a king or queen? Birth is the prime requisite but after that, expectations are low: being able to decently deliver a speech that’s been written for you is high on the list. Royalty across Europe seems rarely to have been particularly well-educated, with past multilingual exceptions like Queen Elizabeth I and the more recent Queen Margarethe of Denmark.

The right religion counts too, not just in terms of whom you marry.  There’s a good deal of fascinating detail about Queen Elizabeth’s deep religious feeling, some of which came across deftly in The Crown.

The author has a gift for well-crafted, dramatic anecdotes; his storytelling never lags and he always offers insight and entertainment. Paxman’s analysis helps explain both the global fascination with royalty and how monarchy survives today “not by any will of its own, but by the collective delirium of its citizens.” 

As Paxman says early in the book, many kinds of monarchs are accepted: “good or bad, saintly, lecherous, wise, stupid, athletic or indolent.  All will be tolerated because those who believe in the hereditary principles necessarily accept that their heard of state will not be there by election, talent, or ambition.  No other area of human activity is so easily reduced to three essential transactions of birth, marriage and death.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery and has seen his work studied in university classrooms, written about by academics, discussed at academic conferences, and translated into 15 languages. 

My First Love Was a Library

I fell in love in second grade visiting our local library. On 145th Street in Manhattan, it was a gorgeous, imposing Gilded Age building by McKim, Mead and White, but I didn’t know its history until recently.

What I did know was that I felt excited, privileged and awed every time I passed through its portals, and believe me, it did not have doors, it had portals. The library was designed to look like an Italian palazzo. Nobody told me that, but I felt as far away as Venice every time I wandered along its endless shelves as the light streamed in through massive windows. I felt a similar sense of awe seeing Venice itself for the first time, decades later.

The library was a place of peace and complete freedom. No librarian ever told me a book was too adult for me, and neither did my parents. Which meant I could browse the shelves with no restrictions.

Each week I brought home a small pile of books I subsequently devoured, and I was especially fond of biographies and history, two genres that fascinate me even more now that I’m middle aged and have my own biography and see myself in history.

All those books nourished and inspired me. I wanted to write, too, and I wanted to have a book on those shelves some day. Here again, I was very lucky. Starting in grade school, my teachers and my parents encouraged my writing.

Yet with all that reading of library books, I still watched plenty of television. It was actually reading that interfered with my school work, not TV. Whatever I brought back from that amazing library was almost always more interesting than what we were reading in school, where I was often bored and too talkative. Nowadays, of course, they would probably give me Ritalin.

I got another gift from that library: being read to at story hour. It was the pleasures I derived from that and from having my mother read to me at home that partly fuel my own joy when I do a reading today, one of the best parts of being an author on the road.

Samuel Johnson wrote that “No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a public library.” I can’t agree, at least on a day when I’m feeling good about my career, because my own public library filled me with hope, knowledge, and dreams.

Lev Raphael is the author twenty-seven books and has spoken about his work in nine different countries at universities, libraries, churches and synagogues, and museums.  He’s published 100’s of essays, stories, book reviews and blogs, and the Michigan State University Library collects his literary papers for its Special Archives.

(this blog first appeared on The Huffington Post)

The Marvelous Miss Marple


I discovered Agatha Christie in junior high school at my local library and was usually more interested in reading about Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple than anything my English teachers assigned me for homework. Christie’s characters were unfailingly intrepid as detectives and their cases deliciously mysterious. While I could never remotely match their sleuthing skills, I didn’t mind because the journey was enjoyable and the solutions so satisfying.

Given that Poirot was Belgian and my parents had lived in Belgium, it was Miss Marple who actually seemed more exotic, living in an alien-to-me world of gossipy small towns, vicars, cottages, servants, gardens, servants, endless cups of tea and glasses of sherry.  And she was such a delightfully unlikely  amateur sleuth, given her age and retired life, yet as keen-eyed and sharp-witted as Sherlock Holmes, though far less arrogant. 

I especially loved it when she discoursed on the nature of the human heart and evil in the drawing room, and I relished the way people underestimated her ability to pierce what might seem like an impenetrable fog around a murder.  My students at Michigan State University enjoyed her too when I taught The Murder at the Vicarage, Christie’s first Miss Marple mystery.

Val McDermid pays homage to that fiendishly clever novel with her standout story in Marple, a book that collects twelve new Miss Marple stories by an international array of bestselling women crime writers like Kate Mosse and Ruth Ware.  McDermid’s story, wittily titled “The Second Murder at the Vicarage,” is filled with dry dialogue and lovely clues.  And its vicar isn’t remotely as stupid and unbelievable as the one played by David Tennant in Netflix’s appalling new series Inside Man.

The Marple anthology isn’t rooted in England, but also takes Miss Marple abroad to New York, Cape Cod, Hong Kong and Italy.  That last locale is the setting for Elly Griffith’s luscious “Murder at the Villa Rosa” which opens with the elegant, mouthwatering line “It’s not necessary to travel to a beautiful place to commit murder, but sometimes it does help.”  The gorgeously written story about a crime writer haunted by success is a pleasant surprise.  Though Miss Marple’s role is a minor one, something she says proves to be pivotal.  Of course.  Perhaps most surprising in this glittering volume is Miss Marple’s response after she unmasks a murderer in Leigh Bardugo’s complex “The Disappearance.”

Throughout the volume, Jane Marple twinkles, knits, drinks tea, calmly spies on neighbors, assures her friends that murder is much more ubiquitous than they imagine, softly jokes about mystery novels vs. real life, and glows with quiet fire.  One character in Ruth Ware’s “Miss Marple’s Christmas” amusingly praises her ability to solve crimes by saying she has a mind “like a bacon slicer.”  Ware’s plot turns in part on a story by another mystery legend, Dorothy L. Sayers–what a treat for fans of both authors.

These highly entertaining stories make for a wonderful vacation and are a fine tribute to the genius of Agatha Christie.  All the authors deftly play with the sharp contrast between Miss Marple’s appearance and her dark knowledge, as expressed in “The Murdering Sort” by Karen McManus where Miss Marple notes that “no one is ever the murdering sort until they are.  The least likely people can shock you.  Young mothers, elderly clergy, esteemed businessmen. You can’t rule out anyone, I’m afraid.”

Lev Raphael was a long-time crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and is the author of ten Nick Hoffman mysteries which have been praised by reviewers across the U.S.