Stealing the Countess is the 13th book in the Rushmore McKenzie series by the Edgar Award-winner David Housewright (Available today!).
The Countess Borromeo has disappeared from a charming B&B. No one knows who took her, when they took her, or what they plan to do with her.
The Maestro, Paul Duclos, was the last to see her. He insists it isn't his fault.
“What was I supposed to do?” he asked. “Handcuff her to my wrist? Hire armed guards to escort us to rehearsals, to concert halls? You can't live like that. It's untenable. …I never let her out of my sight. But if you worried about someone running off with her, if you gave in to paranoia, you'd never leave the house.”
“The fact remains,” I said. “Someone stole your four-million-dollar Stradivarius violin.”
That's right—the Countess Borromeo isn't a woman at all. She's a priceless instrument, made by the world's best-known craftsman. In the wake of her theft, the insurance company announces they have no intention of paying the thieves for her safe return. The fact that she's irreplaceable doesn't seem to perturb them much.
But it definitely perturbs Paul Duclos, because the Maestro is willing to pay $250,000 out of his own pocket to get her back.
Which is why our hero McKenzie—a middle-aged ex-cop who now moonlights as an unlicensed P.I. for deserving clients, all because he won an obscene amount of money years ago and has ample time on his hands—ends up in Bayfield, Wisconsin.
Wisconsin may not seem all that exotic, given his usual stomping grounds are St. Paul and Minneapolis, but the tiny tourist trap of Bayfield is harboring a surprising number of dark, dangerous secrets.
Within hours of arriving, McKenzie finds himself tailed by a suspicious man in a jacket, openly threatened by a hostile police officer, alternately schmoozed and warned off the case by locals, and running smack dab into someone he least expects: Heavenly Petryk.
Not only is Heavenly a distractingly gorgeous young lady, she's also a thief. Well, she prefers to think of herself as a “mediator” who retrieves “lost” items and returns them to—alright, not the owners, usually, more like the highest bidder.
But while Heavenly may have the scruples of a cat, and though she may be a Classic Model Femme Fatale, she and McKenzie have (almost) always seen eye-to-eye in the past. When she swears that she doesn't have the Countess, he believes her.
Plus, two heads working on a case are always better than one, and they have a helluva fun dynamic together.
The drinking age in Wisconsin is twenty-one, which made me wonder how the young man who was asking Heavenly to dance had gotten into the place. I demanded to see his ID.
“Who are you?” the kid asked.
“Oh, Daddy,” Heavenly said. “We were only going to dance. Can't I have any fun?”
“Daddy?” the kid said.
I wagged my finger at Heavenly much the same way Altavilla had.
“You know what the doctors said, honey,” I told her. “No touching until we know that you're cured.”
“But it's been so long!” she said.
The kid left without another word.
So our experienced detective and the not-entirely-trustworthy lady thief set to work untangling the knotted threads connecting the Maestro, the suspects, and the Countess. It's not long before they're being threatened at gunpoint, shot at, spending long nights in the hospital, and rubbing shoulders with underworld heavies.
Lust, jealousy, wounded pride, and that good ol' standby greed all play their part. By the story's end, there's more than one body bag filled as a result of the investigation.
Funny how a stolen violin can get folks into so much hot water.
With over a dozen McKenzie novels—not to mention his Holland Taylor series—and an Edgar Award under his belt, Housewright has obviously proved his mettle. Though Stealing the Countess is the 13th McKenzie outing, nothing about this story feels sloppy or paint-by-numbers.
Seemingly throwaway details casually mentioned early in the story come back later in big, fundamental ways; you never know what's simply set and character dressing and what's a vital clue. The supporting cast is varied and adds plenty of spice to the mix, and as the mystery twists and turns, you find yourself suspecting everyone.
In fact, there were so many twists and turns that even I was surprised by the ultimate reveal—not because the culprit was so cunningly hidden or because there were so many MacGuffins, but because the action was so fast-paced that I was running to keep up and only stopped short when the ending smacked me full in the face.
The whole book is akin to a speeding train, but the last fifty pages especially were devoured at a breakneck speed. I was so excited to see what happened next that I didn't even pause to anticipate or hypothesize.
McKenzie himself is a fine hero: a jazz aficionado, baseball fan, and pretty straightforward guy who just happens to be a millionaire. There are no airs nor graces about him, but he's also not a stereotypical gumshoe of the Sam Spade vein, for all that his world borders on noir.
Loyal to longtime girlfriend Nina, he can appreciate Heavenly's charms without ever overstepping the line, and he's definitely someone you want in your corner when the shooting starts.
For my bottom dollar, though, Heavenly Petryk is the real scene-stealer in this story. From the moment she appears in all of her improbably-named glory, every eye is on her.
She faces down a dangerous trio in a bikini, parries flirtations with a grizzled, colorful sailor, arranges clandestine meetings with trigger-happy criminals—she's a femme fatale, Girl Friday, and high-class thief all rolled into one.
But despite her allure and moxy, there's also something vulnerable and tragic about her. She may be bad news, but she's also human. You find yourself feeling for the girl when it seems she may finally be in over her head. Following a particularly dangerous interlude, our hero's girlfriend Nina orders, “Bring her home, McKenzie. I'll lock up the good silverware.”
Stealing the Countess proves that crime—and mystery—can happen anywhere. Your mind probably doesn't jump to Wisconsin or Minnesota when it comes to neo-noir, but Housewright will make you rethink that assumption. This is a thoroughly satisfying jaunt with an ending that's tied up as pretty as a bow; in short, it's the perfect read for a summer weekend.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.