Gardening, Nancy Drew for Adults and a Contract Killer

Hello, readers.

It’s the best time of the year: seed time! Has anyone else been gardening? I’ve got containers proliferating on the window and beneath grow lights. I purchased the grow lights last year in an attempt to bring a few stragglers through the winter after the remnants of Hurricane Ida wiped out my roof garden (R.I.P., roof garden of 2021). The grow lights, which fluoresce next to my desk, wound up functioning like those therapy lamps used to treat seasonal affective disorder: Not only did my plants abide, but my mood was one of Wordsworthian glee throughout the dark months. I love a multipurpose appliance!

The scent of fertile soil also seems to have mood-elevating properties. A friend who is a perfume enthusiast alerted me that one can buy synthetic versions of the smell online, which of course I did, and on days when I don’t leave the house because I have 1,000 books to read for work, I treat myself to a little sniff from the ol’ dirt vial. Whatever it takes…


The original Kirkus review for this whodunit from 1941 compares it to both satin and velvet. I gather from the review that “satin” refers to the smoothness of the prose and “velvet” to the novel’s romantic subplot. If I were to contribute additional fabric comparisons, I’d go with cotton (flammable), denim (ages well) and lace (intricately patterned).

This is Nancy Drew for adults. A rich family has gathered at a pine-enclosed estate on the shores of Lake Superior, only to find their idyll ruptured by a series of malicious pranks that escalate to murder. Only one woman, the indomitable Ann Gay, is plucky enough to finger the culprit — by setting herself up as human bait!

“The Chuckling Fingers,” which has been somewhat forgotten, possesses puzzle twists and crisp dialogue. After gulping it, I read all of Mabel Seeley’s books and found only one of equal quality (“The Listening House”). The rest are subpar. But no matter; we can all agree that two excellent mysteries are a major contribution to society.

Read if you like: The 1944 movie “Gaslight,” Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” eavesdropping, taking liberties, Minnesota
Available from: Newly reissued by Berkley or available in other forms at your used bookstore of choice

At the age of 65, a woman known as Hornclaw styles herself to be unnoticeable. She wears muted garb and invites nary a glance as she pages through the Bible on her subway commute. Concealed beneath the subdued visage, however, is an assassin with a heart of ice. That’s right! Hornclaw works at an exclusive agency of contract killers in South Korea.

As she nears retirement age, Hornclaw contemplates hanging up her knives and opening a chicken stand, or perhaps pivoting to the world of dry cleaning. But when an assignment from the past returns to haunt her, any plans for a peaceful denouement go pfft.

It seems that the book’s original title was “Bruised Fruit” or “Damaged Fruit,” either of which make more sense than the American version — because this is really a novel about aging that has been lightly adorned with crime-thriller accessories. As a person who loves novels about aging AND crime thrillers, I was thrilled to encounter the mash-up. Dry humor is a staple of both, and it abounds here; one of Hornclaw’s colleagues is a disrespectful youngster whom she openly refers to as “the fetus.” You’ll probably get in hot water with H.R. if you do the same at your workplace, but you’ll never know unless you try!

Read if you like: Natsuo Kirino, alone time, cultivating an air of mystery, vengeance, lurking and skulking
Available from: HarperCollins

  • Shovel Jennifer Egan’s “The Candy House” into your mouth and CRUNCH AWAY like there’s no tomorrow, which there might not be?

  • SHARPEN YOUR EYEBALLS on Manny Farber’s writing, knowing that William Gibson called “Negative Space” his favorite book about films?

  • Tear through the bildungsroman of a CALMLY VICIOUS narrator living in (what was then) colonial Rhodesia?

    Postscript: A kind reader named Sandy emailed to suggest a solution to the Google Doc problem outlined in the previous issue. Sandy suggested starting a new spreadsheet where recommendations can be entered through this Google form. In theory, this will allow the free and open exchange of recommendations while preventing anyone from (accidentally, I hope, or drunkenly, but surely not malevolently) deleting entries.

    We all know that increasing any process from one to two steps is a notorious barrier to entry, but I am hopeful that the doc will become populated. I’ll check often. Meantime, props to Sandy for ingenuity and assistance.

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