David Housewright just might be the best mystery writer you haven’t heard of.
Well, maybe you have. He did, after all, win the 1996 Edgar Award for best first novel from the Mystery Writers of America. And he was president of the Private Eye Writers of America in 2014.
Maybe I was the one arriving late to the party, although I’ve been reading his McKenzie series for several years and just finished the newest novel, “Stealing the Countess” (St. Martin’s, $25.99, 294 pages).
Not much of this one is set in McKenzie’s home base of the Twin Cities, but everything else you’d normally expect is there. The razor-sharp wit, the deft plotting touches, the exceptional character development, and the wry observations of the human condition. It’s every bit as suspenseful as a good mystery should be and every bit as enjoyable.
McKenzie is a former St. Paul police officer who left the job when he became wealthy by collecting a very large reward from an insurance company for capturing an embezzler and returning the money he stole. Now he does “favors” for friends and acquaintances as an unlicensed private investigator.
This time he’s trying to find the $4 million Stradivarius stolen from violin virtuoso Paul Duclos. The “Maestro” was playing a concert in his hometown of Bayfield, Wis., when the valuable instrument went missing – apparently from the quaint bed and breakfast where he was staying.
The foundation that owns the violin and the insurance company that covered it will pay a reward only upon conviction of the thief, but McKenzie is authorized by Duclos to pay a $250,000 no-questions-asked reward upon return of the violin. So McKenzie travels to Bayside, a resort community on Lake Superior, and immediately stirs things up in the small town with a population swollen by the tourist trade.
He’s not particularly welcomed by the locals, including law enforcement. And he’s not particularly embraced by the insurance company or the FBI’s art crime agents either. But McKenzie pokes and prods, and with the assistance of former adversary Heavenly Petryk, finds his way to Duluth, Cleveland and finally a well-crafted and satisfying solution.
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Housewright has such a pleasing writing style that the who-done-it aspect of things can almost be looked upon as a literary bonus. His McKenzie novels — all 13 of them — are a treasure. And I haven’t even read his three Holland Taylor novels, including the Edgar-winning “Penance.” They’re next.