The Book Nook: Lightening up dark mysteries with offbeat humor

Two new mysteries are set during the recent past — both books feature amusing protagonists. Other than that, these novels have virtually nothing in common.

“Trouble for Rent” by Kathi Reed (Kathi Reed, 372 pages, $14.99)

Do you recall renting VHS tapes at mom-and-pop video stores that once sprouted like mushrooms across America? Blockbuster eventually wiped out the independents. Then Netflix DVDs by mail and on-line streaming finished the job.

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Kathi Reed remembers. She owned one of those little stores and her experiences inform her darkly funny new novel “Trouble for Rent.” Reed, who resides in Maineville has set her story during the year 1990. The proprietor of Annie’s Video and Music Hall is our fictional sleuth.

Annie Fillmore originally appeared in Reed’s first novel “Banking on Trouble.”

Annie is a merchant but she has a nose for a challenging murder investigation. As the story opens a customer returns a rental of “Cinderella” with a complaint; there is some footage on the tape that wasn’t supposed to be there. Her children were upset after they saw it.

Annie placates her customer with a pair of free movie coupons. Then she watches the film. She is appalled to find that someone recorded over part of “Cinderella” with what looks like a home-made sex tape which depicts what appears to have been a homicide.

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Annie calls the cops. The local police in Briartown would prefer that Annie mind her own business and refrain from sticking her nose into their affairs. They are skeptical about the authenticity of the video. Which creates an open invitation for the wisecracking Annie to solve the mystery of the taped-over video murder.

Annie hires a fellow to help out in the shop. He punctuates Annie’s adventures with the occasional frisson as a counterpoint to the underlying tension of the tale.

“The Rat Catcher’s Olympics” by Colin Cotterill (Soho Crime, 278 pages, $26.95)

Colin Cotterill is a Brit who resides in Thailand and writes novels that feature Dr. Siri Paiboun, the former national coroner of the nation of Laos. This one takes place in 1980. Do you remember that was the year the summer Olympics were held in Moscow and the USA boycotted them?

Laos is a poor country — in 1980 it was a pawn in a power struggle between the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam. As the book opens a group of athletes from Laos have been invited to fly to Moscow to participate in the Olympics. Dr. Siri hears about it — he pulls some strings to secure invitations for himself and his wife, Madame Daeng, to travel with the team.

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As they are departing Siri spots an athlete he knows. When they arrive in Moscow that athlete is gone. Siri wonders what happened to him. His instincts make him suspect something like espionage under the guise of sports is taking place. He starts what become dual investigations in Russia and Laos to determine what sinister deceptions are unfolding.

One of the athletes has a job back in Laos as a professional rat catcher.

The book ends with a rat-catching competition that is as bizarre as Dr. Siri’s wacky sense of humor. This is a unique series.

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