Hard Case, Barbara D'Amato, $3.50 (Originally published in 1994).(out of print, check for used copies at our ABE store).
Once in awhile I hear the complaint that no-one writes tight, traditional locked room mysteries anymore, and the answer to that is that they are being written, just not so often by English women. It's sometimes hard to discern Agatha Christie's influence when it takes the form (to name just three examples) of Margaret Maron's smart NYPD detective Sigrid Harald (these unfortunately are also out of print), Ellen Hart's lesbian restaurant owner, Jane Lawless, or Barbara D'Amato's smart Chicago investigative reporter, Cat Marsala. But while the outer trappings are modern, the inner workings remain the same - a confined space (Maron's One Coffee With is literally set in a locked room), a contained pool of suspects, and an eye for social nuance that would do Agatha or any of her golden age sisters in crime proud. In this particular D'Amato outing, which is about mid-series, Cat is writing a piece about doctors not in an emergency room, but in a special combined emergency-trauma unit, where doctors of all specialties are always on call and where the operating room is a few short steps away from triage. Cat had planned to observe and be a fly on the wall, but of course things don't go as planned.
The action heats up (and D'Amato wastes no time, for like Christie herself she's a very concise writer) when one of the doctors is found dead in the lounge, murdered in a particularly gruesome and memorable way, leaving clues behind like a used coffee cup and a lost quarter under the table. The lounge is within the self contained trauma unit, so the suspect pool becomes the group of doctors Cat had been writing about, and of course who she has also come to like and admire. She's placed as a bit of an insider thanks to her friendship with a higher up in the Chicago Police department and her already comfortable position within the trauma unit. Cat is a natural detective and her smarts get her both into trouble and help her to figure out whodunit. If you can figure this out ahead of Cat, good for you, but like every D'Amato book I've read, I didn't guess the ending, and enjoyed the satisfactory surprise of discovery when I finished the book. For an evening's read, there's no better company than Ms. Cat Marsala and her clever creator, Barbara D'Amato. (Robin)
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