Click photo to enlarge
Cover of "The Walnut Tree" by Charles. Todd. HarperCollins.

Sometimes I am happy to share my discovery of a new author, and sometimes (like this month) I've been looking at the recent works by authors I've followed for years. When this works well, it's like a visit from an old friend. But, of course, the risk of disappointment lurks alongside.

"The Walnut Tree" by Charles Todd (HarperCollins, $18.99, 248 pages). Lady Elspeth Douglas is in Paris the day the French Army mobilizes in 1914. She has been staying with her pregnant friend.

As the countryside erupts into the brutal realities of what would come to be called World War I, Elspeth struggles to return to England.

Charles Todd has written two series focusing on WWI and its aftermath. The Rutledge series, about a stressed policeman, is to my mind considerably more satisfying than the Crawford one about a young nurse.

This book belongs to neither series. Here, Todd has created a stand-alone story about a young woman brought up to wealth and duty, and her struggle to make a difference when the world turns upside down.

I'm not sure this is a mystery in any traditional sense. There's killing and maiming and blood galore, but that is the nature of war.

Instead, there's the pleasure of watching Elspeth stop using her title and become a dedicated nurse under dreadful conditions. There is also her conflict over her feelings for two men, both decent and brave.


Advertisement

The book is billed as "a holiday tale." So maybe it's a gift to oneself on a chilly winter's night.

"The Wrong Hill to Die On" by Donis Casey (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95, 328 pages). Alafair Tucker and her family continue to entertain in down-home mysteries rooted in our rural past and leavened with a big dose of humor.

In her sixth outing, Alafair and husband, Shaw, leave their Oklahoma farm to take their ailing daughter Blanche to the dry air of Arizona, where they stay with Elizabeth, Alafair's younger sister.

This story is contemporaneous with "The Walnut Tree," but truly a world apart. The devastation in Europe does not reverberate in the American West.

Travel in the winter of 1916 was not easy, and the Tuckers' journey was interrupted by Pancho Villa's raids across the border. After arriving, their visit is soon complicated when Alafair discovers the body of a local Mexican man in a ditch. But tension between the Anglo and Latino communities is only one problem.

Elizabeth's marriage appears to be troubled, and her son's behavior reflects the problems in the home. Then there is the question of just who among the Anglos is part of an illegal operation to smuggle refugees north.

Part of the charm of this series is the Tuckers' 10 children; in this story nine of them are back on the farm, and they are missed. And the killer, when revealed, seems a bit like an afterthought.

But it would take more than these quibbles to keep me away from this charming and entertaining series.

"One Coffee With" by Margaret Maron (Oconee Spirit Press, $12.95, 182 pages). Here Margaret Maron, author of the delightful Judge Deborah Knott series, goes backward with a prequel of the Lt. Sigrid Harald series, featuring one of the first female detectives in the New York City Police Department.

The Harald series has never been as engaging as the Knott Southern stories, and this intro volume doesn't change that.

The plot focuses on the art department of a local college, where the deputy chairman has been poisoned. None of the characters is particularly interesting, and that goes for Harald as well. She is intelligent, dowdy and has the social skills of a cave dweller. The fact that a famous artist (and one of the suspects) tries to take her in hand, a la Pygmalion, does has no impact on her.

I am a longtime Maron fan, but could hardly stop rolling my eyes long enough to finish this book.

"The Body in the Boudoir" by Katherine Hall Page (William Morrow, $23.99, 256 pages). The 20th installment of this series featuring Faith Fairchild also turns out to be a prequel, in which Faith, a New York caterer, meets the Rev. Tom Fairchild and falls in love.

But the months leading up to their wedding are filled with more than bridal showers and the like.

In addition to shutting down her business, Faith is determined to ferret out the reason for her new assistant's baffling behavior. She is also worried that someone is stealing her sister's clients at the financial firm where Hope has been a star player.

The wedding venue, her uncle's Long Island estate, is the site of an accident or two. Plus there's something strange about his longtime housekeeper, Mrs. Danforth.

I've read a few of the books in this series and always have the same response: The discussions of food are great, as are the recipes appended at the end. But the plot is not always believable: Why would a stressed-out bride choose to involve herself in her assistant's bizarre life is just one example.

And naming the housekeeper Mrs. Danforth ... no, it's not Danvers, but it certainly evokes that image.

In summary: Eat more, read less.

Roberta Alexander is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her column is published monthly at www.mercurynews.com/books. She can be reached at ralex711@yahoo.com.