★ When Hell Struck Twelve
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, hand-picked his nephew, Captain Billy Boyle, to serve as his eyes and ears on the ground and to handle investigations and secret missions that are both vital to the Allied effort and exceptionally dangerous. Billy has a fair bit of experience in law enforcement, having served as a police detective in Boston in the years leading up to the war. But as the situation in Europe ramped up, he did what a lot of patriotic young Americans did in those days and enlisted in the Army. When Hell Struck Twelve finds the intrepid spy/investigator in search of a murderer and, at the same time, tasked with planting the seeds of deception regarding Allied plans for the liberation of Paris. The Germans are on the run, but there is every indication that they will leave carnage in their path as they abandon the City of Light, and it is up to Billy and his team to thwart them in that endeavor—and to try to stay alive in the process. I’ve read every book in James R. Benn’s series, reviewed most of them, loved all of them, and this is the best one yet. Watch for some great cameos by Ernest Hemingway, Andy Rooney, George S. Patton and others.
This Poison Will Remain
Fred Vargas’ This Poison Will Remain is the first of her novels that I have read. Yes, I said her: Fred Vargas is a female author who has topped the fiction charts in several European countries, and if there is any justice in the literary world, she will do the same on this side of the pond. Commissaire Adamsberg has been rather peremptorily summoned back to Paris from a fishing holiday in Iceland to investigate a nasty hit-and-run. Police officers are rarely afforded the luxury of pursuing just one case at a time, however. Adamsberg quickly finds himself investigating a series of deaths caused by bites from recluse spiders, small but occasionally lethal creatures that seem to have been working overtime in the vicinity of Nimes, France. Turns out that the victims were all once residents—rather unsavory residents at that—of the same orphanage. Now octogenarians, they are dying off one by one, each succumbing to the venom of the recluse. By turns wry and quirky, and with no shortage of plot twists, This Poison Will Remain will have Vargas’ new readers scurrying to find the six books that precede it.
A Better Man
Once the Superintendent of Sûreté du Québec, Armand Gamache has been demoted to a position leading the homicide department. It was a demotion few believed he would accept, but he surprised the naysayers and took the job. As A Better Man opens, the spring thaw is beginning in the St. Lawrence River, and the elements are conspiring to spawn a 100-year flood, the river overflowing its banks as ice dams the flow at every bend. It’s not a propitious time to be investigating a murder, but a young woman’s body turns up in a small but volatile tributary of the St. Lawrence. Her husband is the prime suspect; no surprises there, as he is a mercurial and abusive man. But there are other possibilities, too: a pair, or perhaps a trio, of spurned lovers, as well as a high-ranking police official bent on tanking the investigation if doing so will shed a bad light on Gamache. All the while, the floodwaters rise inexorably. Louise Penny’s latest offers suspense galore, well-drawn characters we’d like to know (even the crotchety poet Ruth and her “fowl-mouthed” duck), a return to the fictional village of Three Pines—where we would all like to live—and some of the finest prose to grace the suspense genre.
The Bone Fire
S.D. Sykes’ The Bone Fire is the outlier in this column, and I mean that in a good way. Set in England in 1361, the year of the second major bubonic plague outbreak, it’s the story of a varied band of people, including noblemen, servants, a knight, a fool and a crusty Low Countries clockmaker with his sociopathic nephew/assistant in tow. This medieval cast of characters holes up in the remote island-fortress of Eden for the winter, sealing themselves off from the rest of the world until the danger of infection has passed. But mortal peril wears many masks, and one by one, people in the castle start mysteriously disappearing or dying—and not from the plague. It will fall to visiting nobleman Oswald de Lacy to solve the murders and protect his wife and young son. It’s a task for which he has some aptitude, but then the villain is no slouch either. And just about the time the reader has that “aha” moment, when they think they know the identity of the killer, that suspect dies a particularly gruesome death, and the reader gets sent back to square one. The Bone Fire is a classic and confounding locked-room mystery, with several promising suspects to choose from before the big reveal.