Bruce Tierney

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The Last Murder at the End of the World

In Stuart Turton’s post-apocalyptic thriller, The Last Murder at the End of the World, the world as we know it came to a cataclysmic end some 90 years back, when a malevolent insect-infested fog engulfed the globe, killing everything in its amorphous path. Only a handful of survivors on a remote Greek island are still alive. The leader of the island is an older (17 decades’ worth of older) woman named Niema, who developed the means to keep the fog at bay, albeit too late for everyone in the world save for the island’s 122 villagers and two of her fellow scientists. And there they sit, living out the peaceful existence that somehow eluded humanity in all the millennia leading up to the end times. But there is trouble in paradise, as the narrator (a disembodied female voice eerily reminiscent of HAL the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey) lets the reader know from early on. The unthinkable is about to happen on the island—a murder, the resolution of which is key to saving the island from the fog, which has begun to penetrate the defenses that Niema set up all those years ago. If you like some sci-fi with your murder, or conversely, some murder with your sci-fi, you have come to the right place. It’s a locked-room mystery expanded to island-sized dimensions, with a narrator who may be putting a finger on the scale that will determine the continuing existence of humankind: Y’all ain’t seen nothin’ like this before.

The Last Note of Warning

Call it the Jazz Age, the Prohibition era, the Roaring ’20s; whatever you call it, it’s Vivian Kelly’s golden ticket to the naughtiness and revelry denied by her strict Irish upbringing before she emigrated to America. Her venue of choice is the Nightingale speak-easy, where she works pouring drinks for the high society clientele. The Last Note of Warning marks Vivian’s third appearance in Katharine Schellman’s popular series, in which atmosphere doubles as a character and murder abounds. This time out, the murder hits rather closer to home: The prime suspect is none other than Vivian Kelly herself, the damning evidence being wealthy businessman Buchanan’s dried blood on her hands. Luckily for her, some well-placed friends come to her rescue, but the best deal they can broker puts Vivian in the unenviable position of having to serve up the real killer within seven days’ time. The mystery grows, um, mysteriouser when Vivian starts to suspect that someone intentionally framed her for Buchanan’s death. And heaven knows there is no shortage of shady types hanging around the Nightingale. The characters are colorful, the story is deliciously well-spun and the ambiance will make you wish that you too had been a-struttin’ in the Jazz Age.

When We Were Silent

Auspicious debut alert: Fiona McPhillips’ When We Were Silent is the strongest first novel I have read in ages, right up there with Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising, my go-to example of first-timer excellence. If you attend Dublin’s prestigious Highfield Manor private school, the first thing you learn is “What happens at Highfield stays at Highfield,” even if it involves episodes that border on the unspeakable. Louise Manson is haunted by one such episode, even though it’s been nearly 40 years since her time at the school. By most measures, she didn’t really belong at Highfield. She was working class, inhabiting the same hallowed halls as the elite by virtue of a scholarship, not old money and familial connections. And she was not there for the prestige: She was there to exact revenge for her best friend’s suicide and to take down those she deemed responsible. Not to give away anything here, but this endeavor did not go too well. Spectacularly badly, in fact, and decades later Louise is still dealing with the fallout. But now in the modern day, thanks in part to that unwritten Highfield code of silence, she may have a second chance at retribution—or she may face fallout that far surpasses that first time around. When We Were Silent is not always a comfortable read, but you didn’t come here for comfortable, did you?

Farewell, Amethystine

Easy Rawlins is 50?? How the hell did that happen? When we think of him, we think of a young Denzel Washington from the film Devil in a Blue Dress, adapted from the book that introduced Walter Mosley’s iconic private investigator to the world way back in 1990. But hey, even Denzel is past 50 now. As Farewell, Amethystine opens, the 50-year-old Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins of 1970 is, by comparison to his younger days at least, less the firebrand and more the respectable businessman. That said, when a gorgeous young Black woman with a sad story enters his office, an event that has taken place with some regularity over the years, he can still be coaxed into action, and it is a fair bet that he will acquit himself much as he did in his younger days. Amethystine Stoller is missing one husband, and she appears convinced that Easy Rawlins is the go-to guy to find him. Which, of course, he does in short order, but the husband is sadly quite dead. Normally, Easy would tap his cop buddy, Melvin Suggs, to give him a hand with the parts of an investigation that only the police have access to. But at the moment, Suggs is in the wind with problems of his own. Do those problems include another beautiful woman? Well, yes. And will those disparate story lines have some points of connection? Seems likely. And will Mosley wrap it all up better than pretty much anyone else in the field? A resounding yes on that.

The iconic author’s latest Easy Rawlins mystery is another winner, plus our mystery columnist crowns the best new thriller writer since Attica Locke.
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Missing White Woman

Kellye Garrett’s stark Missing White Woman offers a Black woman’s perspective on the investigation of, and public reaction to, the disappearance and subsequent murder of a white woman. Jersey City, New Jersey, may not sound like a dream destination for a romantic weekend with your sweetheart, but it does serve up some lovely views of the Manhattan skyline after dark. At first, it is idyllic for Breanna Wright and her boyfriend, Tyler Franklin, offering Bree a break from her humdrum daily life in Baltimore. And then on the last day, the idyll is totally ruined: Bree pads downstairs and finds the bloodied, badly battered and quite dead body of a blond white woman, and Tyler is nowhere to be found. Then the investigation begins, recounted to us by Bree, and it becomes painfully clear that a) the attention and dedication put in to solving the disappearance and subsequent murder of a white woman is quite intensive, much more so than if the victim had been Black, and b) when there are Black people central to—or even peripheral to—the investigation, they receive a lot more unwanted attention from the police than white people. Clear-headed and opinionated, Breanna is a compelling guide through the morass. The troubling, eye-opening but still highly entertaining Missing White Woman would be a superb choice for a book club, guaranteed to stimulate lively discussion among the participants.

Death and Glory

One would not necessarily expect a detective novel set in 1894 London to be concerned with unfinished business regarding the U.S. Civil War, a conflict that had been over for the better part of 30 years. But author Will Thomas does not let any of that stand in his way in his latest historical mystery, Death and Glory. Private enquiry agents Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn have been called in by Scotland Yard and the crown. Their assignment? Arrange face time with the prime minister and four former Confederate leaders. Elements of the Confederacy are still alive and well in Central America, itching for a chance to rewrite history, and the four representatives hope to hold the prime minister to a past promise. In the closing months of the war, the Confederacy ordered and paid for an ironclad warship along the lines of the Merrimack and the Monitor; Great Britain was officially neutral, so it presented no diplomatic problems to take the order. However, the war drew to a close before delivery could be made. Now these so-called envoys must be dealt with in some form or fashion—a task riddled with pitfalls, some of which are deadly and not the least of which is determining if they truly are who they say they are. Fans of Thomas’ depiction of Victorian-era London and his delightful use of surprising, off-the-wall cameos by historical figures will have their expectations repeatedly exceeded.

Lost Birds

Anne Hillerman took over the Leaphorn & Chee mystery series after the death of her father, renowned Western author Tony Hillerman. The title of her latest, Lost Birds, refers to hundreds of Native American children who, under the midcentury Indian Adoption Project, were adopted by white families and separated from their tribal communities and heritage. Retired Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, now a private investigator when the mood strikes him, has been retained to find the family and birth identity of a woman who possesses nothing more in the way of clues than an old photo of a Southwestern rock formation and a hand-woven baby blanket. (Note: Have a box of tissues ready. Seriously.) Meanwhile, married Navajo cops Jim Chee and Bernadette “Bernie” Manuelito pursue an investigation of their own: a huge explosion at a school and the concurrent disappearance of its caretaker, a longtime acquaintance of Leaphorn. Subplots abound, weaving the main characters together and displaying their near-supernatural bonds with one another, with their Navajo Nation home and with their history. Hillerman has shown endless respect for the work of her father in her writing, but also brings a female perspective to the stories, featuring Bernie more prominently and offering a look at the issues facing Native American women today. Tony’s legacy is in safe, loving hands.

Death of a Master Chef

Police Commissaire Georges Dupin returns in Jean-Luc Bannalec’s latest mystery, Death of a Master Chef. Dupin is visiting the Breton port town of Saint-Malo to attend an meeting about advancing cooperation among various local police forces (yawn). In a local food market where Dupin is judiciously sampling the wares, a murder takes place virtually right under the commissaire’s nez. Although he gives chase, he quickly loses sight of the suspect. But no matter; everyone knows that the murder victim was well-known chef Blanche Trouin, and everyone also knows that the killer was Lucille Trouin, Blanche’s sister and a famed chef in her own right. The pair had long stoked the fire of the longest running sister-feud since Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland. This will not be the last murder: The victim’s husband meets his untimely demise soon after, followed in short order by a close friend. The case(s) will give the various Breton police departments a textbook opportunity to test out their skills at working together—let’s just say that Commissaire Dupin is not best pleased about that element of the investigation. French mysteries are like French cars (I know this from experience via my elderly but well-loved Peugeot convertible), cushy and tres confortable, a bit slow from a standing start, charmingly quirky. With Death of a Master Chef, Bannalec delivers on all counts.

A Black woman discovers the internet’s latest obsession dead in her vacation home in Missing White Woman. Plus, excellent new entries from Will Thomas, Anne Hillerman and Jean-Luc Bannalec in this month’s Whodunit column.
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The Mystery Writer

I tend to be skeptical of conspiracy theorists—wait, let me rephrase that: I think most conspiracy theorists are bat-guano-crazy, howl-at-the-moon wingnuts. So it was with some trepidation that I embarked on the reading of Sulari Gentill’s The Mystery Writer. One of the main characters is a dyed-in-the-wool conspiracy theorist caught up in an online matrix of resistance, revolution and heaven knows what else, who is led by a character named Primus, who for all we know may be a 42-year-old who still lives in his mom’s basement. Rent free. But let’s put that aside for a moment, and focus on the protagonist, Theodosia “Theo” Benton. Theo has made her way from Tasmania to her brother’s house in Kansas in hopes of becoming a writer. Against all odds, she befriends her literary idol in a local coffee shop, published author Dan Murdoch, whose presence in the corporeal world is, unbeknownst to him, racing toward a violent close. Oh, also, he may have been the aforementioned Primus. Or not. Conspiracy theories are notoriously flexible that way. But when Theo begins to look into the death of her friend/mentor, she will be forced to come to terms with the real-world consequences of internet rants. Gentill’s follow-up to The Woman in the Library is an original and entertaining read with likable characters (even some of the wingnuts), although it may put me off Kansas for a while.

The Stars Turned Inside Out

It’s been six years since author Nova Jacobs’ debut, The Last Equation of Isaac Severy, hit the bookstands, garnering an Edgar Award nomination for best American debut. And then we waited, and waited some more. I am quite happy to report that her second novel, The Stars Turned Inside Out, is well worth the intermission. Deep underground, in a secret location somewhere outside Geneva, the Large Hadron Collider goes about its business of smashing subatomic particles, allowing scientists to conduct all manner of experiments regarding the nature of the universe. When the body of physicist Howard Anderby is found in one of the tunnels, having apparently been exposed to lethal levels of radiation, security consultant Sabine Leroux is called in to determine the cause. Her investigation unearths several troubling situations that lend credence to the idea that Anderby’s death was not accidental. Sabine conducts interviews with other physicists and staff on-site, volleying scientific jargon back and forth, but it is all clearly explained, never overwhelming and will engender curiosity in the non-scientist reader. In Jacobs’ first book, the murder mystery was overlaid with mathematics; in this book, the murder mystery is overlaid with physics. I live in hope that the next one will feature chemistry or biology, and that I can further my education while doing what I enjoy—reading murder mysteries. 

Cast a Cold Eye

If violence is your cuppa oolong, look no further than Cast a Cold Eye, installment two of Robbie Morrison’s Depression-era, Scotland-set Jimmy Dreghorn series. His first, Edge of the Grave, won the 2021 Bloody Scotland Debut Prize for Crime Novel of the Year and I wouldn’t be surprised if the sequel carries on in that grand tradition. Violent crime in 1930s Glasgow tends to be domestic abuse or the result of gang-related scuffles, with fists, knives or razors as the weapons of choice. So when a boatman is executed with a single bullet to the back of the head, it is a shock. Inspector Jimmy Dreghorn and his sidekick, “Bonnie” Archie McDaid, get the case. The pair is awash in contrasts: Dreghorn is complex and unlucky in love, a John Rebus-like character out of place in the era; McDaid is a onetime Olympian wrestler who employs his martial arts skills to great advantage, often with humor that will be appreciated by readers, if not by his opponents. Morrison paints the Glasgow milieu in somber shades of gray and brown, often water-streaked and more than occasionally blood-streaked as well. The dialog is spot on, which is to say that there is a good case to be made for having a Scots-English dictionary near at hand. If you’re here for the action, the history, the brothers-in-arms camaraderie and a cracking good story, you’ve come to the right place, laddie.

Pay Dirt

V.I. Warshawski returns for her 22nd adventure in Sara Paretsky’s latest mystery, Pay Dirt. In this installment, the PI is not in her usual digs in Chicago, but rather in Lawrence, Kansas. That will not keep her out of trouble, though; she manages to find that pretty much anywhere. This time it’s in the form of Sabrina Granev, a teenage soccer player barely clinging to life after being found in a drug house, and a second woman who was not so lucky—found dead in the same house a few days later. The mystery explores financial greed; closely held family businesses; the mutual back-scratching of corporate interests, politicians, law enforcement officials and jurists; and a bunch of ripped-from-the-headlines points of contention: critical race theory (and ongoing racism in general), the specter of reparations, conspiracy theories, “wokeness” and more. And of course there are a couple of murders, and if the bad guys have their way, they will add Warshawski to that (growing) list. Warshawski remains in top form as she ages; battered some by life, perhaps a bit more acerbic and wryly cynical, but still a keen observer and first-person chronicler. As was the case with the 21 volumes that preceded it, Pay Dirt is unputdownable, a worthy addition to one of the finest series in modern suspense fiction.

Plus, the latest whodunits from Sulari Gentill, Robbie Morrison and Sara Paretsky round out a great month in suspense fiction.
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The Boy Who Cried Bear

Building on the success of her Rockton series, Kelley Armstrong’s Haven’s Rock series is about a secret town in Canada’s Yukon wilderness, where people fleeing a dangerous situation can hide safely in the company of other, similarly afflicted residents. Think of it as a private witness protection program, with security provided by remoteness rather than hiding in plain sight. The latest installment, The Boy Who Cried Bear, has an absolute doozy of a setup. As you’d expect from the title, one of the residents, a preteen boy, sees a bear while on a hike. Or perhaps a yeti. Or perhaps it is just a tall tale, because he swears the bear had human eyes. But when the boy disappears into the forest, and bear fur is found near where he went missing, the search becomes a race against time to find him before the cold and the wildlife finish him off. His mother remains unconvinced.. She knows her son would not go off into the forest on his own, and she strongly suspects that one of the other members of the community is a pedophile. The truth of the matter is slightly more complicated. OK, a lot more complicated. And dangerous enough that a couple of folks will die violently before it becomes evident.

Hard Girls

J. Robert Lennon’s thriller, Hard Girls, is the story of Jane and Lila Pool, a pair of twins dealt a bad hand in life early on. When they were youngsters, their mother left one day and never came back. There were rumors about her departure, perhaps a clandestine lover or something altogether darker. Their distracted professor father didn’t keep much of a rein on them after that, and in fact paid them as little attention as possible. It wasn’t abuse, exactly, but it was certainly benign neglect. And as is often the case with twins, Jane and Lila were competitors as well as sibs, further egging each other on with each passing year, until one night a series of escalating events culminated in homicide. Justifiable? Arguably, but the actions they took after the fact muddied those waters significantly. They parted company with some recriminations, but with little choice in the matter. And so they remained for quite some time until out of the blue, their missing mother reappears in their lives, leading them on a merry chase across the continent and deep into Central America. I am just scratching the surface here: There are CIA-related complications, deadly expats, car chases, first-rate skulduggery and the weirdly resilient family ties that bind. All in all, Hard Girls is an original, multilayered and quite engrossing thriller.

★ Little Underworld

You could make a case for the prosecution that PI Jim Beely doesn’t mean to murder Vern Meyer in the opening scene of Chris Harding Thornton’s Little Underworld. It would be a hard sell, though, as Meyer molested Beely’s 14-year-old daughter, and Beely does, after all, hold Meyer’s head underwater rather longer than the world record for holding one’s breath. He thinks long and hard about how to dispose of the remains, and finally throws the body into the backseat of his car and heads back to town, with a plan to meet his undertaker friend who, for a fee, will help him dispose of the evidence. There he happens upon crooked cop Frank Tvrdik, who greets him with “Hate to break it to you—You got a dead guy in your backseat.” But Frank doesn’t much care about the body, except perhaps as leverage to get Beely’s help in taking down a corrupt politician. And nobody cares that the politician is corrupt, except that his corruption seems to be getting in the way of their corruption, and that cannot be allowed. Little Underworld is set in 1930s Omaha (of all places), with period-correct dialogue that is often darkly hilarious, reminiscent in tone of black-and-white gumshoe movies from the golden age of Hollywood. 

★ Black Wolf

The big news in mystery circles these days is Juan Gómez-Jurado’s Antonia Scott series, which has sold like panqueques (hotcakes) in its home country of Spain. Volume two of the trilogy, Black Wolf, has just been released. The temptation is strong to compare central character Antonia Scott to Stieg Larsson’s antihero Lisbeth Salander, but a) that has been done already by pretty much every reviewer up to now, and b) I think a much more apt comparison is to Keigo Higashino’s uber-talented police consultant Dr. Manabu Yukawa, aka Detective Galileo. Both Scott and Yukawa visualize connections that others miss, and both are in high demand with the police for their brainiac skills. Scott’s police contact is Jon Gutiérrez, a strong but slightly less than graceful gay man from the Basque Country. While Gutiérrez is trying (and failing) to fish a dead body out of a river in Madrid, a mafia figure is murdered in his home a half-day’s drive away on the south coast. The man’s wife is targeted as well, but she escapes, albeit barely. In hot pursuit is an assassin known as the Black Wolf (in Spanish, la loba negra). It falls to Antonia and Jon to track her down before the killer locates her. There is one area in which a comparison to Larsson is warranted: The Antonia Scott series is hands-down the best suspense trilogy to come along since Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Nothing else even comes close. The third one needs to arrive soon—make it so.

Our mystery columnist hails Juan Gómez-Jurado’s Antonia Scott novels as the best suspense series since Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.
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The Clinic

Celebrities in rehab: Newsworthy, if not especially surprising. Celebrities dying in rehab: front page, above the fold for at least a day, maybe even a week. But what about celebrities murdered in rehab? That’s the “what if” at the center of Cate Quinn’s deft new thriller, The Clinic. Let’s start with The Clinic itself, which is easily the creepiest setting for a suspense novel since the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining. The luxurious rehab center is set atop a remote oceanside cliff somewhere along the Oregon coast, awash in salt mist and mystery. When pop star Haley Banks dies of a heroin overdose at the facility, her sister, Meg, doesn’t believe the official story. Meg is a casino cop of sorts and, after some soul-searching, decides to launch an investigation of her sister’s death by posing as a patient seeking treatment. This will not be much of a stretch for Meg, as she is addicted to both alcohol and Oxycontin. If she is wrong about Haley’s death, she may get clean; if she is right, she may get killed. The story is told in the first-person perspectives of two different narrators: the aforementioned Meg and Cara, the manager of The Clinic. As they alternate chapters, Quinn tightly ratchets up the suspense. And the big reveal? I never saw it coming.

The Wharton Plot

Before starting Mariah Fredericks’ The Wharton Plot, I decided to read up a bit on Edith Wharton. I knew she had been the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence. Still, I had essentially written her off as the poor man’s Dorothy Parker, sharp of tongue but lacking in humor. But The Wharton Plot showed me how very wrong I was. Fredericks’ mystery reads like a story from an earlier time, as it should. It conjures up the ghosts of American aristocracy in much the same manner as an F. Scott Fitzgerald or a Nathanael West novel, and is filled with historical figures such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and his extended family, and muckraking writer David Graham Phillips, whose real-life murder is investigated by Wharton in the novel. It may take a chapter or two to settle into the narrative, which is written a la one of Wharton’s own novels, but once that hurdle is cleared, the book is simply unputdownable. And as with a healthy meal, at the end you feel a sense of accomplishment, as you have done something good for yourself.

The Busy Body

It is, I think, not the easiest thing for a man to write a story from the perspective of a woman. That said, author Kemper Donovan has done that so well in his fun and entertaining mystery The Busy Body that I was totally convinced he was a woman until I read his bio. (I get it that as a male reviewer, I am not the definitive authority on the accuracy of his portrayal, so I will simply say that I never questioned it. Not even once.) The story begins with Dorothy Gibson, a former senator who has arranged for a ghostwriter to pen her autobiography. While they are together at Dorothy’s home in Maine, a neighbor dies under mysterious circumstances, and the politician and her ghostwriter (who is an engaging and offbeat character, even though she is never given a name) launch an amateur investigation into the death. There are overtones of Agatha Christie and Knives Out, both in the unlikeliness of the mystery and the cleverness of its solution. This is, I guess, no surprise as Donovan hosts the podcast “All About Agatha.”

The Ghost Orchid

Psychologist Alex Delaware is back, along with his sidekick, Los Angeles cop Milo Sturgis. Their arrangement is somewhat odd in that it is exactly the opposite of the typical setup in which a cop is the central character and a specialist serves as foil for the heroics. But boy, does it ever work. Author Jonathan Kellerman has created one of the most enduring and acclaimed series in suspense fiction, the latest installment of which is The Ghost Orchid. The tony LA enclave of Bel Air provides the setting for the story, which begins with the murder of Gio Aggiunta, a wealthy Italian high-society ne’er-do-well, and Meagin March, his older—and married—mistress. Both have been shot, and the police cannot determine whether one was the primary target, or if it was just a burglary gone wrong. Nothing seems to be missing, so initially they fixate on March’s husband, a multimillionaire investor, because hey, it’s always the husband, right? But as it turns out, Gio has been the “correspondent” in several affairs with married women, which raises the question: If it is the husband, which husband? Kellerman’s prose is fast-paced without being in any way hurried or abrupt, and Delaware and Sturgis play off one another exceptionally well. The characters are as comfortable as old slippers, fictional friends whose company and adventures readers have enjoyed for decades. The Ghost Orchid is another excellent addition to a series full of excellent editions.

Mariah Fredericks’ new historical mystery turns the magisterial author into a gumshoe and the latest Alex Delaware novel wows our mystery columnist.
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Ilium

As Lea Carpenter’s Ilium opens, the unnamed narrator feels not unlike an actor in a play: “I had no sense of what scene would come next, but as each scene evolved, I could start to see the way I would handle it. . . . It never occurred to me that the life you have is only in part the life you choose, because the moment you start to think you know what’s coming next, that’s when lightning strikes, shatters those windows, and rain starts to pool on the floor.” This is a heavy thought for a 21-year-old who has just wed a man 33 years her senior, and she will come to find out it is deeply portentous. Her new husband is a man of many secrets, not the least of which is that he is grooming her for a major role in a joint CIA-Mossad operation, a task she had been chosen for well before their “chance” meeting and subsequent engagement and marriage. All that said, Ilium is not merely an espionage novel, although there is a certain amount of subterfuge, to be sure. It is rather a story of relationships in which the good guys are neither especially good nor especially bad, and pretty much the same can be said for the bad guys. Ferreting out the truth of who someone truly is must be secondary to achieving the operation’s desired outcomes, and “therein,” noted the Bard, “lies the rub.” Ilium is a masterful literary novel posing as a spy novel, and succeeds brilliantly on both levels.

Northwoods

There’s precious little bucolic woodland ambience to be found in Northwoods, Amy Pease’s debut mystery set in Shaky Lake, a resort town in northern Wisconsin. Sheriff’s Deputy Eli North is plagued by a host of debilitating issues that date back to his military service in Afghanistan. He is about as beaten down as a man can be, yet he still possesses some sparks that make the reader root for him. As the tale begins, Eli is well on his way toward being drunk. He receives a call about a noise disturbance at a lakeside cabin and stumbles (almost literally) upon the lifeless body of a teenage boy. Murder is somewhat outside the purview of a rural sheriff’s department, so when it is discovered that a teenage girl has gone missing as well, the sheriff—who just so happens to be Eli’s mother—calls in the FBI to investigate. The winding road to the crime’s solution involves everyone’s favorite boogeyman, Big Pharma, and touches on the tension between townies and wealthy “summer people.” I strongly hope that Eli will be afforded a sequel or 10, and that he will find his way back to something resembling a normal life.

Two Dead Wives

It is unsurprising, I suppose, that a spate of recent crime novels have been set during the first COVID-19 lockdown. You would think that time would be the perfect milieu for a locked-room mystery, but Adele Parks’ Two Dead Wives is anything but. Once upon a time, there was a woman named Kylie Gillingham. Somewhere along the way, she took on two identities—one named Kai, one named Leigh (Ky-Lie, get it?)—married two different men and lived two separate lives. Now, she has been missing for two weeks. Statistically, that suggests she is dead, and conventional wisdom pegs the husband as the likely perpetrator. But which husband? One is currently in lockdown in his London apartment, and the other has done a runner to his native Netherlands. Meanwhile, a separate narrative unfolds about a woman named Stacie Jones, who is recovering at her dad’s seaside cottage after surgery to remove a brain tumor. She has lost a lot of her memory post-operation and, naturally, that suggests that a key to an important lock or two is buried somewhere in her mind. The investigators—one by the book, the other impetuous—play off one another well, and the two-pronged storyline is bound to engage fans of twisty thrillers and police procedurals alike.

Where You End

Where You End, Abbott Kahler’s debut novel, reads like the work of a seasoned writer. There is a reason for this: She has published a number of works of historical nonfiction as Karen Abbott, and boasts an Edgar Award nomination for Best Fact Crime for The Ghosts of Eden Park. As her first thriller begins, Katherine “Kat” Bird is not at all sitting in the catbird seat. She barely survived a car accident a couple of weeks back, and her memory has virtually been erased. She can form sentences and understand when people talk to her, but the only person she recognizes is her twin sister, Jude. Jude is Kat’s mirror twin—she parts her hair on the other side from Kat; her dimple shows up in the opposite cheek when she smiles. Slowly, Jude brings Kat up to date on the events that helped shape their lives for better and for worse: their father’s disappearance when they were young, their mother’s death, their post-high school backpacking trip to Europe. But there are nagging inconsistencies in Jude’s narrative. As Kat learns more about herself and as bits of memory fall into place, she begins to harbor doubts that Jude is being truthful. Couple this with newfound evidence of her own propensity for (and expertise at) violence, and Kat is shaken to her core. However much Kat thinks she knows, however much she is able to relearn, there is one person who knows her better: Jude, for better or worse. Don’t miss this scary, tense and provocative thrill ride!

Abbott Kahler’s debut thriller delights our mystery columnist, plus Lea Carpenter’s latest literary espionage novel impresses.
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The Final Curtain

For those of you who have followed Keigo Higashino’s Kyoichiro Kaga series since its inception, I bear sad tidings: The fourth installment in the series, The Final Curtain is also its last. If you haven’t read the previous three, don’t fret; the author brings you up to speed on everything you need to know in order to fully appreciate Tokyo Police Detective Kyoichiro Kaga’s final case. The story, partly told in flashbacks, explores the possible connections between a pair of present-day murders and the strange disappearance of Kaga’s mother, Yuriko Tajima, who vanished when he was a teenager. Kaga didn’t hear a peep from or about her until he was summoned to pick up her ashes from a club owner who had once employed her. As a longtime police detective, Kaga dislikes unanswered questions by nature, particularly when the questions are ones that have haunted him since childhood. But the mystery of his mother’s disappearance has persisted. Ten years later, however, another woman dies in an eerily similar manner: alone in an apartment, far from home. The narrative is complex and there are many names to keep track of, requiring the full attention of the reader; that said, Higashino has thoughtfully provided a list of characters at the beginning of the book. Japanese police investigations unfold in a rather different way than their counterparts in the West, which adds a layer of novelty for those who aren’t familiar with the series on top of the satisfaction of watching a clever, methodical detective get the job done.

The Fourth Rule

The fourth entry in Jeff Lindsay’s popular Riley Wolfe series, The Fourth Rule finds the thrill-seeking thief considering a heist of epic proportions: stealing the Rosetta stone from the British Museum. Never mind that it weighs the better part of a ton and is likely the most heavily guarded treasure in the U.K. after the crown jewels. This would be an over-the-top caper for even the most cunning James Bond villain, but for Riley, it actually borders on the believable. As he smugly notes early on in the narrative, “It’s just me, alone on top . . . Riley Wolfe, top of the heap, the best there ever was. End of discussion.” Um, hubris much? And we all know what happens to people in the iron grip of hubris. Comeuppance, that’s what happens. The grander the self-aggrandizement, the grander the comeuppance. Despite all this, Riley is something of a realist, mostly obeying the rules—Riley’s Laws—he has set out for his life of crime. Riley’s Fourth Law states: “Even if you’re the best there is, watch your back. Because somebody better is coming.” This rule should probably doubly apply when an attractive stranger enters the picture, but hey, even Achilles had a heel, right? The Fourth Rule offers up a tasty combination plate of humor, deception, suspense and villainy—and that is just on the part of the protagonist. Wait until you meet the villain(s).

Murder Crossed Her Mind

Ace private investigator Lillian Pentecost and her sidekick Willowjean “Will” Parker are back in Stephen Spotswood’s fourth mystery starring the duo, Murder Crossed Her Mind. The year is 1947; the location is New York City. The pair has been hired to look into the disappearance of retiree Vera Bodine, who has embarked on a late-in-life mission to expose Nazis hiding in postwar America, an uncommon and dangerous avocation for an 80-year-old. Bodine is reputed to have a photographic memory, and there are some villainous characters who would like to pick her brain or silence her forever. Perhaps both. Lillian, the senior member of the duo, has been somewhat sidelined by advancing multiple sclerosis, but she is as intuitive (and as crusty) as ever. She may do most of her detecting from an armchair these days, but she’s still very invested in securing the well-being of the heroic yet vulnerable Bodine. Will is the action figure, the Archie Goodwin to Lillian’s Nero Wolfe; like Goodwin, she is the narrator (and also like Goodwin, she’s a smartass). The feel is very much of the period in terms of lexicon, fashion and all the other minutiae that make for authentic storytelling. However, as Will and Lillian are both women and Will is gay, they have different perspectives on life as hard-boiled detectives in the 1940s than their forebears in the genre.  

The Other Half

I have long been a fan of English bad-boy writers of the mid-20th century: Kingsley Amis, et al. There is something about the boredom and superficiality of the posh and their hangers-on that appeals to my decidedly middle-class upbringing, and their humo(u)r is of the understated but wickedly delicious variety that I could feast on for hours. Fast forward to 2023, and their spiritual heir—or I should say heiress—is Charlotte Vassell, author of The Other Half, an equal parts modern and traditional English murder mystery chock-full of the rudderless overprivileged, trendy social media influencers and those drawn inexorably to their flame. As the book opens, socialite Rupert Beauchamp is hosting a somewhat ironic 30th birthday party for himself: replete with coke (not of the capital-C variety) and champagne—at McDonald’s. He is about to finish things with his girlfriend, Clemmie, and throw her over in the hopes of winning his longtime inamorata, Nell, who, it must be said, is less than thrilled with that prospect. When Clemmie turns up murdered the following morning, the partygoers comprise the primary suspect pool. Unsurprisingly for regular readers of mystery novels, everyone has an alibi, but trust detective Caius Beauchamp (no relation to Rupert, which becomes something of a running joke) to get to the bottom of things. Blisteringly funny, full of twists and turns, and featuring a cast of characters you will love to loathe, The Other Half deserves to be on your “read now” list.

Plus, the Kyoichiro Kaga series comes to a close and master thief Riley Wolfe tries to steal the Rosetta stone in this month’s Whodunit column.
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Viviana Valentine and the Ticking Clock

New Year’s Eve: a fresh start, a clean slate. 1951, arriving in just a couple of hours, holds a lot of promise for New York City private investigators Tommy Fortuna and Viviana Valentine. Business is going well, and they are on the cusp of getting married. But as the clock ticks toward midnight, they stumble upon a murder in progress in a dark Manhattan alley. Viviana stays with the victim and attempts first aid while Tommy pursues the assailant. Both of their efforts are for naught, other than serving as the jumping-off point for Viviana Valentine and the Ticking Clock, book three in Emily J. Edwards’ critically acclaimed series. This investigation will be both on Tommy and Viviana’s own time and their own dime, as they have no client to bill for their work on the murder of the still-unidentified man. That said, they have a couple of other cases, each baffling in its own right, which will pay the electric bills and the secretary for the time being. The book is set in New York at a time when the electric shaver was new to the market, and the Polaroid camera was just beginning to be recognized as a powerful tool for investigators. Both devices actually play a small role in the story, evidencing the painstaking research that complements Edwards’ period-perfect dialogue and snappy humor.

Murder in Williamstown

Murder in Williamstown is Kerry Greenwood’s 22nd(!) installment in her long-running series featuring freethinking Australian aristocrat Phryne Fisher. (I have done the legwork of looking up the pronunciation of Phryne; it is “Fry-nee,” rhymes with shiny. You’re welcome.) Her latest case has an atmospheric milieu, a well-realized cast of characters and a rollicking plot, to boot. Phryne is something of a libertine, both in terms of her daytime investigative adventures and her amorous nighttime adventures. This time out, she is innocently swept up into the burgeoning opium trade taking place in her home of Melbourne, Australia. While visiting her sweetheart du jour, Phryne discovers the body of a Chinese man who was possibly aligned with a criminal element, and, a short time later, another murder occurs right in front of her eyes. The Chinese community in Melbourne is reluctant to involve the police, fearing anti-Asian prejudice, and the police, for their part, are pretty much okay with that. So it falls to Phryne to sort through the players and to dispense justice as she sees fit, which I must say she does in a more fair and balanced manner than any court of law I could imagine.

★ Edge of the Grave

Robbie Morrison’s debut novel, Edge of the Grave, unfolds in 1932 Glasgow, Scotland. The 1930s were a time of unrest in the industrial port city. The privations of the Great War gave way to boomtown prosperity, but the gap between the aristocrats and the working poor is as great as ever and the nights are ruled by cutthroat street gangs. Detective Inspector Jimmy Dreghorn, onetime bantamweight boxer and World War I soldier, has since advanced through the ranks of the Glasgow police. Despite being Catholic in a largely Protestant organization and despite having to practically stand on tiptoe to meet the minimum height requirement, Jimmy is a scrappy sort of guy, and not disposed toward taking any guff from anyone, regardless of their size. He is pulled off a particularly sickening murder of a young boy to investigate the death of Charles Geddes, a ne’er-do-well high society hanger-on with whose family Dreghorn shares some not entirely pleasant history. For readers who are fans of thrilling, well-choreographed violence, there is plenty to be found here. Nothing egregious by any means, but consider yourselves warned. It’s no surprise that Edge of the Grave won the 2021 Bloody Scotland Debut Prize for Crime Novel of the Year: The writing is first-rate and it is perhaps the best debut novel I have read this year. The catchall term for mystery novels set in Scotland is “Tartan Noir,” by the way. (I imagine it was first used in conjunction with the novels of Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, and then just kind of stuck.) And one thing you can be positively sure about in Tartan Noir is that somebody’s gonna get kilt. Sorry. (Not sorry.)

★ When I’m Dead

Black Harbor, Wisconsin, gets pretty chilly by late October, but the chill brought on by the nighttime murder of a popular teen overshadows almost anything the weather can deliver. Medical examiner Rowan Winthorp knows the girl who was killed; Madison Caldwell was a friend of Rowan’s daughter, Chloe, since primary school. One shudder-inducing detail? Madison’s teeth have been broken out of her jaw and scattered around her body. Rowan was at her daughter’s high school play when she got the call, and had to leave halfway through. Chloe, angry over the abandonment, lashed out with “You’ll love me more when I’m dead,” a statement echoed in the title of Hannah Morrissey’s third Black Harbor mystery, When I’m Dead. The investigation turns up several surprises early on: First off, it appears that Madison was not as well liked as some of the parents believed, but instead was one of the school’s mean girls. Also, there was no love lost between her and Chloe, come to find out. And now in the wake of the murder, Chloe has gone missing. Is she another victim? Or is it something altogether more insidious? Of all the books this month, this one, plot-driven to the max, is the supreme page turner; When I’m Dead is nigh-on impossible to put down.

Phryne Fisher and Viviana Valentine return, plus Hannah Morrissey’s third Black Harbor mystery proves absolutely impossible to put down.
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The Bullet Garden

After writing a trio of books about ex-Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger, author Stephen Hunter launched a second series featuring Bob Lee’s father, Earl Swagger, who is also a Marine and a Medal of Honor recipient to boot. It’s been 20 years since Hunter’s last installment in the senior Swagger series, but it comes roaring back this month with The Bullet Garden. The book serves as a prequel to the three Earl Swagger books that preceded it (Hot Springs, Pale Horse Coming and Havana), chronicling his adventures in France during the days immediately following D-Day. Swagger spearheads a secret mission to track down and kill German snipers who are systematically picking off Allied soldiers crossing the Normandy meadowlands (which the troops have nicknamed “bullet gardens”). A sniper himself, Swagger is a natural fit for the job at hand, but even his legendary skills will be sorely tested in this milieu. Fans of firearms history will find lots to like in The Bullet Garden, as will military strategy buffs, but there is truly something for everyone: a budding romance; layers of duplicity and intrigue; and an omnipresent sense of the importance of working together for a greater cause. 

Encore in Death

J.D. Robb’s Encore in Death is the (are you ready for this?) 56th entry in the wildly popular series featuring Eve Dallas, a police detective in 2060s New York City who, by my calculations, should be celebrating her first birthday just about now. Despite being set in a Blade Runner-esque future of androids, airboards (think hoverboards) and the much-appreciated automated chefs, Robb’s mysteries don’t need to rely on sci-fi trappings to engage the reader. They are straight-up classically constructed whodunits. And this case features a time-honored murder weapon: cyanide. Just as A-list actor Eliza Lane takes the stage for an impromptu song at her latest high society Manhattan party, there is a crash of glass, and Eliza’s husband, equally famous actor Brant Fitzhugh, collapses to the floor—dead, with the smell of bitter almonds emanating from his lips. The initial thinking is that Eliza was the intended victim, as Brant sipped from a poisoned cocktail he was holding for her, but as the investigation wears on, alternative possibilities present themselves. As all of the suspects have connections to the stage, there is no shortage of drama as the case unfolds. Robb is the pen name of legendary romance author Nora Roberts, and while that’s certainly evident in her descriptions of her male leads (“Those sea-green eyes still made her heart sigh, even after a decade . . .”), the suspense is also there in spades.

The Sanctuary

Of all the awful ways to die, being vertically bisected by an industrial saw like the murder victim in Katrine Engberg’s final Kørner and Werner mystery, The Sanctuary, must rank right up there at the top. The unidentified man’s left half turns up in a partially buried leather suitcase in a public park, and Copenhagen police detective Annette Werner is on the hunt for the killer. Clues lead to the remote island of Bornholm, an insular enclave where everyone knows everyone else’s secrets, but nobody seems disposed toward sharing any of that knowledge with the police. Subplots abound: a missing young man, possibly on the lam from the law, possibly the victim in the suitcase; a zealous preacher who roundly rejects the biblical teaching of turning the other cheek; a biographer whose scholarly visit to Bornholm to examine a deceased anthropologist’s letters is stirring up some old, long-quiet ghosts; a garbage bag full of money that nobody seems to be able (or willing) to account for. The identity of the culprit is an enormous surprise, but more surprising still is the emotional closure Engberg brings to long-running storylines, resulting in a very poignant moment for fans of the series in addition to a satisfying solution to the central mystery. 

The Twyford Code

Narrative conventions are cast to the four winds in Janice Hallett’s impressive second novel, The Twyford Code. The story consists of 200 fragmented voice transcriptions made by Steven “Smithy” Smith, a none-too-savvy mobile phone user who has only recently been released from prison in England. At loose ends, he decides to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his secondary school English teacher some 40 years back. Miss Iles (who often humorously appears in the transcriptions as “missiles”) had something of an obsession with the children’s books of one Edith Twyford, a character loosely based on real-life bestselling children’s author Enid Blyton. On a class field trip to Bournemouth to visit Twyford’s wartime home, “missiles” dropped off the map, never to be heard from again. As Smith’s belated investigation proceeds, he becomes increasingly obsessed with Twyford’s books as well, uncovering what may be hidden messages therein. State secrets, buried treasure, buried bodies? The clues are all there, but it will take a cannier puzzle-solving mind than mine to decipher them before Hallett is ready for the big reveal. The Twyford Code is easily one of the cleverest and most original mystery novels in recent memory, with an engaging main character, dialogue that grabs (and requires) your attention and more head-scratching suspense than any other three books combined.

A mystery told through voice transcriptions shouldn’t work, but The Twyford Code isn’t just this month’s best mystery—it’s one of the cleverest whodunits in recent memory.
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The Maltese Iguana 

Buckle up for another wild ride with Florida ne’er-do-well Serge A. Storms and his stoner sidekick, Coleman, in their 26th adventure, The Maltese Iguana by Tim Dorsey. The title, a nod to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, refers not to a precious statue but instead to its modern-day Florida counterpart—an iguana-shaped bong. The basic premise of the book is that Serge Storms, now fully vaccinated after a long COVID-19 lockdown, decides a celebration is in order, upon which mayhem ensues, both figuratively and literally. Meanwhile, a CIA operation goes off the rails in Honduras, and after barely escaping with his life, the agency’s local contact makes his way to Florida, putting both him and the agents the CIA sends after him directly in Hurricane Serge’s path. There are murders, explosions, drugs, mercenaries, Florida history and folklore, wild parties, an exotic dancer, an appearance by Captain Kangaroo, a boxing rabbit and enough pingpong balls to fill the trunk of an old Ford LTD. Imagine one of those newspaper articles in which the headline begins with “Florida man” and then imagine the article extending to 336 pages. That will give you a pretty good idea of what to expect in The Maltese Iguana.

Storm Watch

C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett mysteries have been excellent since the Wyoming game warden’s very first case, 2001’s Open Season. But Box’s latest novel, Storm Watch, is perhaps the most intricately plotted and fully realized of the bunch so far. Joe is on the trail of a wounded elk as an immense winter storm closes in, but he soon stumbles across something totally unexpected: a semi-decapitated body in a mysterious shed far off the beaten track. Joe only has time to take some photos before beating a hasty retreat in hopes of outrunning the snow. When he returns after the storm, the body has disappeared. What initially seems to be a lack of interest on the part of the sheriff soon morphs into a full-blown, high-level warning that Joe keep his nose out of matters that don’t concern him. (As if that could ever happen.) Conspiracies abound, reaching up to the highest levels of state government and involving uber-wealthy absentee ranchers, bitcoin miners and underground militias. There is a lot going on, but Box keeps all the balls in the air, culminating in an ending sequence that’s pure gold and extremely satisfying on multiple levels.

Murder at Haven’s Rock

Canadian author Kelley Armstrong is perhaps best known for her Rockton mysteries, a series of seven books set in the titular village, which is hidden in Canada’s Yukon wilderness and serves as a refuge for those who cannot be effectively protected by the authorities. The Rockton series’ protagonist, detective Casey Duncan, is breaking ground on a similar endeavor with her husband, Sheriff Eric Dalton. Their new village, Haven’s Rock, will differ from Rockton in only one major way: Casey and Eric plan to handpick the residents in hopes of eliminating some of the shortcomings of the Rockton project. But things do not get off to a good start. Murder at Haven’s Rock, the title of the new book, says it all. It starts when a couple of construction crew members break the cardinal rule—Do Not Venture Out Into The Forest—and never return. Casey and Eric launch a search for the missing workers but instead find the body of an unknown woman who has been stabbed to death. Just like Armstrong’s Rockton series, Murder at Haven’s Rock is an immediately intriguing mystery populated by well-drawn characters. It’s certainly accessible as a standalone read, but I wouldn’t be surprised if readers new to Armstrong immediately seek out her previous books after finishing this superb series starter.

The Cliff’s Edge

The mother-and-son writing team known in the publishing world as Charles Todd (the mother of which, Caroline Todd, died in 2021) boasts two hit series, each set in the years immediately following World War I. The first features Inspector Ian Rutledge, a cop haunted by the ghost of a wartime casualty, and Todd began the second in 2009, a spinoff series centered on Bess Crawford, a former combat nurse marked by her own war experience. As the 13th installment, The Cliff’s Edge, opens, Bess accepts a temporary nursing position to care for a wealthy woman after a surgery. While she is on duty, a tragic accident takes place nearby: Two men, Gordon Neville and Frederick Caldwell, fall from a rocky outcropping, with Frederick dying from his injuries. But things take an ominous turn when it is revealed that the two men shared a contentious past and that Frederick’s injuries seem inconsistent with his fall. It falls to Bess to care for Gordon, who has a dislocated shoulder and a badly broken arm, and she finds herself drawn into the mystery of what actually transpired at the cliff’s edge. Both men’s grieving and angry family members complicate the situation, as does a local cop bent on pinning a murder on Gordon. As is always the case with the Bess Crawford books, the writing is perfectly evocative of the period; the conversational style, relationships and manners are all very “Downton Abbey”-esque, making for an exceptionally pleasurable ride to the ultimate reveal.

Batten down the hatches—Serge Storms is back. Read our review of Tim Dorsey’s absolutely wild Florida-set caper in this month’s Whodunit column.
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You Know Her

Meagan Jennett’s You Know Her is a crackerjack debut thriller. A book about a serial killer is not necessarily notable; there are many of those on the racks at bookstores. Books about female serial killers are in somewhat shorter supply, and a book in which said female serial killer is a narrator is fairly unusual. But here’s the kicker: You kinda want her to get away with it. Our soon-to-be-murderer Sophie Braam is a bartender when You Know Her begins. She has seen it all, and most of what she has seen has not been pretty. And then one day, a minor grievance becomes the proverbial backbreaking straw. A stolen glass of wine should not be a death sentence, you might argue, but if you had that argument with Sophie, there’s a good chance she would bring you around to her way of thinking. Sophie’s new best friend (although it is a somewhat guarded friendship) is police officer Nora Martin, one of the investigators of the first of Sophie’s murders. Nora has also seen it all, or so she thinks, but nothing can really prepare her for Sophie. Which brings us to kicker number two: You also kinda want the skillful, hardworking Nora to solve the murders. She deserves a big win to help her rise to the rank of detective, which would be a reward to be savored in her toxic, good-ol’-boy, small-town police department. Only one can win—let the games begin.

The Last Heir to Blackwood Library

Hester Fox’s The Last Heir to Blackwood Library contains romance, fantasy, the occult and religious zealotry gone off the rails; in short, it’s not your standard whodunit. However, fans of supernaturally tinged mysteries from authors such as T. Jefferson Parker and John Connolly will be intrigued by this historical spin on the subgenre, and other readers will be enticed by Fox’s first-rate writing, which is engrossing from page one. In 1927 London, the fortunes of one Ivy Radcliffe have radically changed. One day, she is sharing a drafty bed-sit apartment with her best friend and living hand to mouth. The next day, she is anointed Lady Hayworth, complete with manor house, staff, motorcar, income and a couple of handsome potential suitors. However, the solicitor who informed Ivy of her windfall neglected to tell her about the previous title holders, all of whom met with a premature and mysterious death. The Last Heir to Blackwood Library hews more closely to the mystery and suspense genre than to any other, I would say. And even though it’s more of a “whatdunit” than a whodunit, mystery readers of all types will enjoy it.

So Shall You Reap

There are series that readers return to again and again for nonstop action or a “ripped from the headlines” vibe. And then there are series that readers devour because the protagonist is a person of evident strength of character. Martin Walker’s Chief of Police Benoit “Bruno” Courreges, for example, or Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti would emerge close to the top of any such list as well. As So Shall You Reap opens, Leon’s Venetian sleuth visits a lovely, albeit somewhat neglected, old palazzo to inquire for a friend as to whether the property is for sale. A Sri Lankan man answers the door and informs him that the house is not on the market. It will not be their last interaction: The following evening, Brunetti will identify the man’s body after it is pulled from a canal. The subsequent investigation unearths inflammatory political screeds both from Sri Lanka and Italy in the man’s personal effects, which seem to be at odds with his devout Buddhism and calm demeanor during his interaction with Brunetti. It tosses Brunetti’s thoughts back to his time at university, when he was somewhat more radical in his politics than he is now as a world-weary policeman approaching retirement age. Italy in Brunetti’s younger days was plagued with bombings, kidnappings and murders, some of which are still unsolved. But one of them is about to be solved, in part by the dogged persistence of Brunetti, and in part by the almost humanlike persistence of a dog. This is the 32nd book in the series, and if it is your first Commissario Brunetti mystery, you will most likely turn immediately to the other 31.

Heart of the Nile

Although many readers regard Will Thomas’ Barker & Llewelyn mysteries as an homage to those starring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, I would suggest that they more closely resemble Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin mysteries. In both cases, the main sleuth’s assistant is the narrator, with both Goodwin and Llewelyn taking a decidedly tongue-in-cheek tone, especially in regard to the vicissitudes of their curmudgeonly senior partners. Both teams regularly run circles around the cops, be it NYPD or Scotland Yard, engendering awe (occasionally) and annoyance (much more regularly). Thomas’ latest mystery, Heart of the Nile, is the 14th installment in the series. It deals with the discovery of a mummy in the British Museum’s collection of ancient artifacts, the treasure trove of looted antiquities fondly known as “England’s Attic.” This particular mummy, however, may be the remains of Egypt’s most famous queen, Cleopatra. Supporting that notion is an immense uncut ruby laid in the chest cavity once occupied by her heart. The ruby disappears, people start to meet untimely and violent deaths, and Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn are summoned to unravel the mystery. This is an exceptionally entertaining series, jampacked with Victorian arcana and 19th-century London history, anchored by the quick wit and pithy observations of narrator Llewelyn.

In this month’s Whodunit column, Meagan Jennett’s crackerjack debut thriller tracks that doomed friendship. Plus, read all about the latest Commissario Brunetti mystery.
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The Magistrate

Police procedural novels set in China often have a decidedly different feel from their European and American counterparts. As public servants are paid so poorly in the Middle Kingdom, there is a thriving shadow economy of grift and clandestine deal-making. The rule book is scarcely more than a fairy tale, broadly ignored by law enforcement and the criminal element alike. Case in point: Brian Klingborg’s The Magistrate. His protagonist, Deputy Chief Inspector Lu Fei, is one of only a handful of honest cops, and thus he is roundly despised by most of the higher-ups. However, on the rare occasion when a fact-driven investigation is required, Lu is the go-to guy. As The Magistrate begins, someone is targeting corrupt officials and subjecting them to excruciating torture and/or death. It soon becomes evident that a series of medieval interrogation methods are being utilized, all on the orders of someone calling themself the Magistrate. When his longtime nemesis, Mr. Xu, a corrupt fellow cop, succeeds in sidelining Lu with a trumped-up murder charge, it will take some clever planning and more than a little assistance from some supposed bad guys for the canny policeman to prevail. With its nonstop action, suspense galore, fascinating locale and compelling characters (even/especially the nefarious ones), The Magistrate ticks all the boxes.  

Viviana Valentine Goes Up the River

Since last we checked in on plucky Viviana Valentine, she’s been promoted from girl Friday to full-time sleuthing partner in the private investigation agency of Tommy Fortuna, allegedly the Big Apple’s number one gumshoe. Oh, Tommy is still the boss, but Viviana proved her mettle in her first outing (Viviana Valentine Gets Her Man), and Tommy is practically a sensitive, New Age guy as 1950s male bosses go. Emily J. Edwards’ follow-up, Viviana Valentine Goes Up the River, is clever and witty, and it features some of the snappiest narration and dialogue in modern whodunits. This time out, Viviana and Tommy investigate some mysterious happenings in and around the home laboratory of Buster Beacon, a wealthy socialite/inventor. Their stay at Buster’s estate in upstate New York is punctuated by an evening gathering of neighbors and investors, all blissfully unaware of the impending snowstorm that will keep them imprisoned for some time in their gilded cage. This would not be so bad, were it not for the inconvenience of a locked-room murder in their midst, which will bring their jolly gathering to a screeching halt. The mystery has a pleasingly convoluted Knives Out vibe, Agatha Christie-esque but with a modern overlay of dry humor, much of it provided by Viviana’s narration. It’s good fun from beginning to end, with a surprise or two for even the most jaded suspense-o-phile.

The Eden Test

An upstate New York setting also figures prominently in Adam Sternbergh’s cinematic psychological thriller The Eden Test, even though it’s set seven-odd decades later. Daisy and Craig’s marriage seems, if not on the rocks, at least headed firmly in that direction. One of them has taken a lover, and there are more secrets bubbling not far beneath the surface. So Daisy takes matters into her own hands and books a week at a couples therapy retreat built on the concept of seeking seven answers to seven relationship questions in seven days. Phones are forbidden, and sometimes it appears that honesty has been proscribed as well. It doesn’t take long for things to go slightly off the rails, and then more than slightly. The counselors are a bit weird, as are the staff and the townspeople, and the whole scenario is filled with the sort of unease that you might find in “Twin Peaks” or at the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining, minus the supernatural component. And just when you think you have anticipated the big reveal, author Sternbergh delivers “the big nope,” forcing you to reconsider your so-called aha! moment.


Read our review of The Eden Test audiobook, narrated by Carlotta Brentan.


The Body by the Sea

When I reviewed Jean-Luc Bannalec’s The Granite Coast Murders a couple of years back, I opined that the author’s portrayal of Brittany, France, was mesmerizing, noting that “it has been elevated into my top 10 places I need to visit, all thanks to Bannalec.” I would hope, however, that when I do finally visit Brittany, I can sidestep the murders that seem to bedevil Commissaire Georges Dupin. Bannalec’s latest Brittany novel, The Body by the Sea, opens in the seaside town of Concarneau, where Dr. Chaboseau, a noted cardiologist, has just taken a header from a balcony above Dupin’s favorite restaurant, the Amiral. Chaboseau had reportedly been involved in some contentious business relationships in the town, although perhaps nothing that should have risen to the level of homicide. Still, somebody was responsible; moreover, it will not be the last murder in this chain of events. Short-staffed thanks to a holiday weekend, Commissaire Dupin is the only on-duty cop save for a couple of very green recruits, so the case is rife with obstacles from the get-go. There is, however, a novel twist, so to speak: Some facets of Dupin’s current case echo plot points from a pre-World War II novel, which was in turn based on a real crime. Curiouser and curiouser, and it all leads to just the sort of surprise ending that readers long for. And as before, they are treated to fun facts about the food, landscape and denizens of Brittany along the way.

Start your summer early with two tales of vacations gone murderously wrong—plus a snappy 1950s mystery and an eerie marriage-centric thriller.
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The Lock-Up

John Banville’s latest Quirke/Strafford mystery, The Lock-Up, stretches the boundaries of the genre. Ostensibly a police procedural set in 1958 Dublin, The Lock-Up is far more interested in its protagonists’ inner lives than it is in their detective work, and rather than celebrate its sleuths as bringers of order and righters of wrongs, it shows how their efforts toward justice can be, ultimately, meaningless. That said, it is well worth the read, because Banville’s characters fairly leap off the page. Pathologist Quirke is irascible as ever, but also lonely and grieving: “The thing about grief was that you could press upon it at its sharpest points and blunt them, only for the bluntness to spread throughout the system and make it ache like one vast bruise.” Detective Inspector St. John Strafford is a Protestant in a Catholic country, and a cop to boot—something for everyone to loathe. Together they investigate the death of Rosa Jacobs, a young Jewish woman with possible links to Wolfgang Kessler, a German refugee who made good in postwar Ireland and now appears to be involved with some shady dealings in the newly established country of Israel. The Lock-Up is beautifully written, the sort of book that makes you pause, reread a line and chew on it for a bit before continuing. Oh, and the ending? Good luck figuring that out before the precise reveal ordained by Banville.

Beware the Woman

Megan Abbott is one of the most skilled architects of suspense alive and has won or been a finalist for just about every major crime fiction award. Her latest thriller, Beware the Woman, finds her in top form once again. As the book opens, Jed and Jacy have just discovered that they are soon to become parents. They plan a holiday in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to visit Jed’s father, Dr. Ash, who lives in a luxurious “cabin” deep in the woods. As experienced readers will know, going to visit reclusive relatives in remote forests is like opening the attic door in a horror movie: guaranteed drama. As a retired physician, Dr. Ash is solicitous to a fault about Jacy’s pregnancy. When minor complications arise, he becomes rather heavy-handed about directing her care, never mind that he has not been a practicing physician for decades. Understandably, Jacy takes some exception to this but finds, to her dismay, that her husband has aligned with his father, and she soon becomes a virtual prisoner, held incommunicado. For sheer escalating tension, Beware the Woman rates right up there with Stephen King’s Misery; it just shouts to be read in one sitting.

The Last Drop of Hemlock

Katharine Schellman’s second Vivian Kelly mystery, The Last Drop of Hemlock, is set in Prohibition-era New York City. Vivian is a seamstress and delivery girl by day but a waitress at a speak-easy by night, doing the Charleston with lonely men in return for drinks. Said speak-easy, the Nightingale, is decidedly illegal and only exists as a result of liberally greased palms. Thus, an element of criminal activity is never far from the forefront. This time out, Vivian uses her connections to take a second look at a death that was initially ruled a suicide. The victim was Uncle Pearlie, a bouncer at the Nightingale who had purportedly just made a fortune via mysterious means. But when Vivian and her band of ne’er-do-wells go to his home, they find that his secret cache of cash has been emptied. Any lingering doubts that he was murdered are erased when his pregnant girlfriend comes forward and reveals that Pearlie’s windfall involved some particularly unpleasant gangsters. In the first book in the series, Last Call at the Nightingale, Schellman introduced a large and interesting cast of characters while also spinning a consistently suspenseful yarn. That is certainly still the case in book two, as Schellman tops herself in nearly every category.

The Pigeon

Joe Brody, aka Joe the Bouncer, returns in David Gordon’s The Pigeon, the latest entertaining entry in the popular series. It should be noted that bouncer does not begin to encompass Joe’s duties. He serves as a sheriff of sorts for the criminal underworld of New York City, a mediator for organizations not exactly noted for solving disputes within the confines of the legal system. His longtime pal Gio sets him up with what should be an easy gig, and one that pays well too: recover a gangster’s stolen racing pigeon. The bird’s worth is in the neighborhood of $1 million, and Joe will collect a 5% reward upon recovery. Under normal circumstances, it would be a simple B & E—stuff the bird into a paper bag and exit stage left. But it turns out that the pricey Central Park-adjacent apartment building the bird is being kept in features one of the most sophisticated security systems this side of Fort Knox. Before Joe can snatch the pigeon, a squad of hit men is hot on his trail. He makes good his escape through a long-unused dumbwaiter, but his troubles are far from over. His FBI agent girlfriend is questioning her judgment in being associated with the criminal element, the gangster is still clamoring for his missing pigeon and the hit men know where Joe lives, works and plays. There is plenty of humor in the mix, as in an Ed McBain or Elmore Leonard novel, and plenty of action, too, realistically delivered without being egregiously graphic.

Quirke and Strafford team up again, plus Megan Abbott returns with a terrifying pregnancy thriller in this month’s Whodunit column.

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