December isn’t typically the strongest of months for new book releases, but this year, what is lacking in quantity is more than made up for in quality, with books from four of the finest contemporary suspense writers from North America, Europe and Japan.
A BOGGLING MYSTERY
It’s 1944, the closing days of World War II. Two men dig feverishly in a peat bog in Scotland to create a hole large enough to accommodate a pair of American motorcycles. Fast-forward to current day, when the granddaughter of one of the men decides to unearth the motorcycles. The first motorcycle has survived its lengthy incarceration beautifully, but there’s a dead body where the second should be. Enter Karen Pirie, cold case detective (because, hey, cases don’t get much colder than this), in the fifth installment of Val McDermid’s popular Karen Pirie series, Broken Ground. Things take a turn for the weird(er) when the body, supposedly buried for some 70 years, is discovered to be wearing a pair of Nikes. McDermid’s books are relentlessly excellent, with sympathetically flawed characters, well-crafted storylines, a clever twist or two and crisp dialogue. It’s no wonder she is considered the queen of Scottish crime fiction.
A NEW CRIME DUO
Cold cases are a running theme this month, as Michael Connelly pairs series stalwart Harry Bosch with Renée Ballard in their first (but hopefully not their last) adventure together, Dark Sacred Night. Ballard first showed up in 2017’s The Late Show as a solo act, but she and Bosch work exceptionally well as a duo, investigating the unsolved 2009 murder of a young runaway. The case holds a personal component for Bosch, as the mother of the murdered girl is staying at his house. There aren’t many clues available after the passage of so much time, but Bosch is dogged in his pursuit, and his personal creed—everybody counts or nobody counts—gets a run for its money this time out. Connelly does an exceptional job of giving voice to both his protagonists. They share a bit of an outsider’s perspective—respected for their work but not always liked by their peers—and this is what makes them such a formidable team. My favorite Connelly books pair Bosch with protagonists from his other books, like Mickey Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer, and this latest pairing is truly inspired.
Keigo Higashino is one of Japan’s best-known suspense authors, and he has begun to carve a niche for himself in the rest of the world thanks to The Devotion of Suspect X, Malice and his latest Detective Kaga novel, Newcomer. Since we last saw Kaga, he has suffered a demotion from the Tokyo Police Department’s Homicide Division to a more local role in the quiet neighborhood of Nihonbashi. But his homicide experience soon gets him assigned to the team investigating the death of a woman found strangled in her apartment. Kaga’s Zen approach to crime solving is at odds with conventional police procedures, but it would be hard to find fault with his results. One by one, he interviews shopkeepers, neighbors and denizens of the streets, and he begins to create a picture of a homicide that has an entire neighborhood of potential suspects. Kaga, a modern-day Hercule Poirot, thinks even further outside the box than his Belgian predecessor, to the great delight of mystery aficionados.
TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
Louise Penny’s novels are unique for how seamlessly they straddle the line between charming small-town mysteries and big-city police procedurals. As Kingdom of the Blind opens, protagonist Armand Gamache, former head of the Sûreté du Québec, receives a strange invitation to an abandoned farmhouse, and an even stranger request to act as executor of a will crafted by someone he never met. It is something of a wacky will, with bequests that suggest that the writer was not playing with a full deck of cards. And then a body turns up, and the document takes on a decidedly darker aspect. Meanwhile in Montreal, a huge drug shipment is about to hit the streets, in part because Gamache allowed it to slip through the cracks as part of his plan to bring down the cartels. Most of the drugs were rounded up—except for one large shipment that threatens to destroy many lives, perhaps including Gamache’s. Each Gamache adventure (we are now at the 14th) displaces the previous one as the best in the series. I have read each one twice—first as a one-sitting page turner, and then shortly afterward as a leisurely reread in which I revel in the artistry of the prose, the characterizations, the locales. It’s not to be missed!