Foreword Reviews

No Mystery: These are Top Indie Whodunnits


A good mystery has riddles, clues, and suspense to keep a reader guessing. Being on the edge of your seat, chewing your nails in anticipation, and shouting, “I knew she was the murderer!” before getting shushed by the librarian are all signs of a good mystery. If you were a detective in a past life, or perhaps an aspiring one now, we’ve got some cases for you to crack. By the time you’re finished, you’ll be a regular Sherlock Holmes. Recommend your favorites to Watson!

A Winsome Murder

Book Cover
James DeVita
University of Wisconsin Press
Hardcover $26.95 (196pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

The desires of these characters are deeply ingrained, propelling this murder mystery into psychological terrain.

A tale of a small-town girl murdered introduces this sordid novel of a serial killer and the big-city policeman dedicated to stopping him. Strong characters and pictorial writing drive A Winsome Murder, with a seizing plot elevating and accelerating the story.

Deborah Ellison, who is caught up in drugs and disappointing her father, has been murdered and mutilated, her body left in an unused part of town. Jillian is an author writing her reflections on the murder for a literary magazine in Chicago, where Deborah had lived on and off for a few years. When the magazine editor receives a bloody hand and a note to stop printing Jillian’s articles, Detective Mangan, from Chicago PD’s violent-crime task force, is put on the case. Identifying the owner of the appendage sparks an investigation for a serial killer and draws Mangan into Deborah’s story.

James DeVita, a New York native now living in Wisconsin, weaves the small-town/big-city differences seamlessly into his tale of terror. He creates deep and substantial characters with histories that drive their motives. Detective Mangan’s internal voice often quotes Shakespeare, both questioning and clarifying the murderers, giving him characteristics of a deeply intelligent, well-read man working an unjust and bloody job.

The author’s illustrative writing draws a picture in the mind, displayed wondrously when he describes the differences of someone before and after drug addiction: “She began to change, a metamorphosing before his eyes, unstoppable, until, like some malformed butterfly, she emerged from her bedroom one day a still-breathing abortion of herself, a skeletonized shadow gorging on her own flesh.” Embracing the macabre of the genre, DeVita does not shy away from the gore but displays it in a wonderful, cringe-worthy fashion.

The plot is propelled perfectly by the motivation of the characters: Jillian’s desire to write, the killer’s need to kill, and the need of Detective Mangan to stop the murders. At times, the story is written from the point of view of a character only once, displaying the story through the eyes of an outsider or a true insider (even from the victim’s view), which adds a well-roundedness to the book.

BETH VANHOUTEN (August 27, 2015)

Death and a Cup of Tea

Book Cover
Jess Faraday, editor
Elm Books
Softcover $14.95 (194pp)
Buy: Amazon

These cozy mysteries will pair perfectly with a cup of tea—just don’t spill it when a laugh at irony or a gasp at the big reveal strikes.

In this collection of eight stories, tea and murder connect each tale, with both used to varying degrees within each story. As with the subgenre of cozy mysteries, these stories downplay graphic violence and sex, resulting in entertaining stories with a touch of irony and lighthearted endings.

In “Edith Jones Got Game,” tea and murder serve as a vehicle for a character study of protagonist Edith Jones—a tough, dedicated medical examiner who was a star basketball player in college. Author Lee Mullins reveals how Jones’s hardened personality is tested when she develops a bond with the children of a murder victim. The narrative moves between Jones’s personal and professional life, effectively contrasting her personae and making for a fast-moving story.

In “Miss Winser Will Pour,” author Albert Tucher effectively captures perfectionist librarian Beatrice Winser’s eye for detail: “Whoever had shelved the book had not done it carelessly.” And it is during the fifteen-minute tea break that Winser observes the staff interaction that helps her crack the mystery behind some seemingly malicious behavior.

“Fear on Eight Legs,” by Lynn Finger, is a mystery that is out of this world. Sassy protagonist Sofia is investigating the murder of her scientist friend Enzo, who was developing green tea. As one of the longer pieces, the story allows more time to develop the character of blind genetic mutant Sofia in a futuristic world where sci-fi concepts are conveyed in terms clear enough for non sci-fi readers. Besides creating and maintaining suspense with a unique plot, the narrative offers some nice social commentary about superficiality and ego.

A cup of tea is usually served up with a touch of murder in this collection of entertaining and diversely different short stories.

MAYA FLEISCHMANN (August 27, 2015)

Little Pretty Things

Book Cover
Lori Rader-Day
Seventh Street Books
Softcover $15.95 (303pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

A dank roadside motel plays a central role in this murder mystery involving teenage girls, competition, and festering secrets.

In this well-written atmospheric mystery, Juliet Townsend has never left town after high school. As a runner in high school, Juliet always played second best to her close friend, Madeleine Bell. When Maddy reappears back in town for just enough time to get murdered, Juliet begins to dig into questions surrounding Maddy’s success and discovers that far more was going on than she could have ever imagined her senior year in high school over a decade ago.

The real star in Rader-Day’s book is the setting, particularly Townsend’s work place, the Mid-Night Motel. It’s dank and depressing, and it’s where Juliet spends much of her time. The absolute depressive feeling of the place is summed up this way: “Now the Mid-Night was a step above a roadside dive. Technically, it ‘was’ a roadside dive. The motel was a big U of rooms with exterior doors on a wraparound walkway overlooking a couple of struggling crab apple trees that dropped messy fruit all over the sidewalks and drew noisy birds.”

Through Juliet’s hard-life lens, the small town that she never escaped is drastically magnified, as are the denizens of the town. The most colorful character is Teeny, the local pitiful creature who wanders the streets. We also get to know Lu; the Hispanic woman who also works at the Mid-Night; Coach and Fitz, track coaches on the verge of retirement; and patrol officer Courtney Howard.

Rader-Day elevates this book from a very serviceable murder mystery to a close examination of teenage girls, friendship, competition, and the damage that festering secrets can do. Rader-Day does an excellent job capturing the pain and dysfunction of high-school friendships. As Juliet spends more and more time looking into the situation that she overlooked as a senior, she learns more and more about the odd events that occurred right under her nose.

Fans of straight mysteries and young-adult readers of any age will appreciate Rader-Day’s adept handling of teen issues even as she looks at them from ten years down the road.

LYNN EVARTS (August 27, 2015)

The Big Drugstore

Book Cover
Patrick Irelan
Ice Cube Press
Softcover $19.95 (276pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Brisk pacing, sarcasm, and the threat of brawls and bullets all contribute to a satisfying whodunit with a slight film-noir feel.

Mike Scofield, private detective and security for hire, feels personally insulted when a murder takes place at the same time he’s dealing with the petty theft of toothpaste from the drugstore he’s paid to protect. With the begrudging approval of his boss, he takes on the case in The Big Drugstore, a thoroughly enjoyable whodunit by Patrick Irelan.

With the help of Carlos Lorca, a troubled youth cleaning up his act, Mike sets off on the trail of Kathy Dove, petty thief and only lead. She proves to be difficult to follow, even with Carlos’s infatuation with her. Unfortunately, she has her own security, and Mike gets the full brunt of his fists. Kathy insists she was as unaware of the murder as anyone else and puts Mike on the lead of another. Filled with intrigue into the dealings of the Morco drugstore, real estate fraud, and the threat of brawls and bullets, Mike’s adventure is as engrossing as it is dangerous.

Set in the first person, the descriptions of the city and the people in it are all put through the filter of the protagonist. This proves quite amusing due to the sarcasm and dry wit so perfectly expressed by Irelan: “He had on a blue pinstripe suit, which authorized him to conduct business anywhere between Boston and Reno. Special rules applied in California.” In addition to the humorous narrative, the story moves along at a nice clip; there are minimal lags as the story lines gain in information and perspective. Further details of the history of the places Mike visits and of his own past are aptly revealed within this framework and provide necessary facts without bogging down the flow.

The Big Drugstore is an easy read with a slight feel of film noir—short sentences and one-liner witticisms. Patrick Irelan delivers an entertaining hit that will leave you guessing until the very end.

SHANNAN SPITZ (August 27, 2015)

The Last September

Book Cover
Nina de Gramont
Algonquin Books
Hardcover $25.95 (320pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (IndieBound), Amazon

As a literary novel of both suspense and emotion, this flashback-filled murder mystery has broad appeal.

The Last September, by Nina de Gramont, portrays an immediately gripping world of secrets, trauma, and conflicting loyalties. Spanning mental illness, the meaning of family, and the lengths we go to for love, this novel begs to be read in a single sitting.

Brett first met Charlie in college and has been mad for him ever since. Following separate adventures along the way, they are married and have a beautiful baby girl, when Charlie is violently murdered. There is a clear suspect: Charlie’s brother Eli, a frequent psychiatric patient and Brett’s former best friend. But Brett knows that it might not be that simple, considering the recent challenges to their marriage. The novel’s opening stars the murder but then rewinds as Brett considers how she’s gotten to this point. Along the way, she’s encountered broken hearts, betrayals, the breaking and forming of families, psychological drama, financial strain, and the arresting beauty of Cape Cod.

A literary thread unites the plot, as Brett is the daughter of two English professors (she’s named for a character in The Sun Also Rises), and is herself a PhD candidate and an Emily Dickinson specialist. Each section of this story opens with an appropriate stanza from the poet’s work. Eli’s mental illness is riveting, heartbreaking, and brilliantly evoked, but Brett has her own troubled background as well. Charlie, the absent focus of the novel, remains an enigma; handsome and charming, he’s left a number of broken lives in his wake. Several less central but equally compelling characters, including Brett’s ex-fiancé and his sensitive uncle, round out de Gramont’s stellar cast, in various upper-class and academic settings.

The time line of The Last September is slightly unusual, consisting almost entirely of one big flashback, but its pacing is lightning-quick, and the plot twists are continually engaging. De Gramont’s writing style disappears into the background as the story itself comes alive; the dialogue is realistic, so the characters feel imminently present.

The Last September is a murder mystery as well as a drama of family and mental illness.

JULIA JENKINS (August 27, 2015)

The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband

Book Cover
E. J. Copperman
Jeff Cohen
Midnight Ink
Softcover $14.99 (312pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (IndieBound), Amazon

If Sheldon Cooper were a detective, he’d be Samuel Hoenig, whose Asperger’s symptoms and mystery-solving skills combine to offer humor and suspense.

Samuel Hoenig is not your usual detective. While he lives with Asperger’s syndrome, he doesn’t let it hinder his recently opened business, Questions Answered, in Piscataway, New Jersey, where he puts his intellect to work answering clients’ questions. When a young woman hires him to get information on her husband, he’s at peak form trying to solve a mystery in this unusual but highly entertaining story.

This is the second in the Asperger’s Mystery series by E. J. Copperman, pen name of Jeff Cohen. In the first book, the former newspaper photographer and very married Janet Washburn assists him—he wants to employ her again because she understands how he “works” and helps him with his difficulty reading facial expressions. Samuel takes everything literally, so she also “translates” for him. Since he does not drive, she fills in as chauffeur, as well.

The story is told in first person by Samuel as he relates the unfolding events in an orderly manner, detailed with exact times and his particular read on what’s occurring, even when the duo catches several red herrings.

The plot is an interesting one: the deceased had several ex-wives, all of whom Samuel is determined to get information from. The clues take him and Janet to various locales, such as courthouses and the victim’s and suspects’ homes, all while Samuel delivers a running internal monologue, including this when an unexpected person enters Questions Answered: “My first reaction was to ask the man to leave, but that has been my initial reaction to virtually everyone I have ever met.”

The use of a cliffhanger at the conclusion of nearly each chapter is a fun device that is very much enjoyed.

The author creates a sympathetic character who aims a spotlight on what it’s like to have this often misunderstood syndrome. Cohen has also written two nonfiction books on the topic of Asperger’s.


Hannah Hohman
Hannah Hohman is an editorial assistant at Foreword Reviews. You can contact her at

Hannah Hohman

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