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American/Cozy Mysteries

Stalking Susan, Julie Kramer, Anchor, $7.99.

Stalking Susan by Julie Kramer

I'm actually embarrassed not to have read this terrific first novel before now, and I've only been prompted by an upcoming visit from Ms. Kramer. I guess the Anthony Nomination for Best First novel wasn't a big enough clue. However, now that I've read this one, I'm really looking forward to the next two. The Minneapolis based Kramer (where her books are also set) is a real life television news producer; her main character, Riley Spartz, is the on-air talent at a Minneapolis station, restricted to local news because of a fear of flying. Every detail is as well thought out as that one, making this novel quirky, original, engaging and in the end, impossible to put down.

Riley is recovering from the traumatic loss of her spouse, a police officer on duty guarding the governor of Minnesota when things went horribly wrong. She's been out of the loop for awhile as a result, when an old friend and contact, Nick Garnett, about to retire from the Minneapolis police department to work security at the Mall of America, drops an interesting cold case in her lap, a case that's been niggling at him for over a decade. The murders of two women named Susan back in the 90s, on the same date, seem to him to be connected and Riley gets to work on it, using the police files he's passed along as her starting point. It seems just the ticket to get her back in the game, and just as she's getting seriously hooked, her producer drops a doggie cremation story in her lap.

This is a terrific first novel for several reasons. One is Riley's nod to detective fiction—her favorite book is E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case, a now somewhat obscure reference, but one certainly well known to hard core mystery fans. One is the light handed humor; many readers will find similarities to both Janet Evanovich and Lisa Lutz (more to Lutz as she's not as over the top as Evanovich). Another is her pacing, which is excellent. I notice she thanks fellow Minneapolis writer Steve Thayer, who wrote one of the best thrillers ever, in my opinion: The Weatherman. I think this kind of talent is a gift, but even so, she's apparently learning from the best. And even more fun, she and her pal Garnett tend to sprinkle their conversation with movie lines, leaving the other to name the film and the year of release. My only caveat was that the lines were really obvious—maybe they get more obscure as the series progresses. And a final comparison, to Minneapolis mother-daughter P.J. Tracy, who also write intelligent thrillers in a very specific setting.

Riley's very specific setting is the newsroom, and the detail here, thanks to the author's own background, is wonderful and best of all advances rather than overwhelming the plot. I loved how Riley had to balance the work on her two stories; I loved her deepening interest in the doggie cremation story, which captured my interest completely, and I loved that she was able to take on one of the most overused conceits of our genre, the serial killer novel, and make it fresh and original.

This novel is full of all kinds of oddly specific, interesting details which never derail the plot; it moves at rocket speed throughout. The "Susan" story gets more complicated and more deadly as the book moves along, but that's done in a bravura manner as well. I also appreciated the liberal—but not too liberal—use of red herrings. This is a book by a real afficionado of the genre, someone who also happens to be a natural writer. Riley should find her own spot in the mystery cannon that Kramer herself obviously holds so dear.

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