★ Galway Girl
Ken Bruen peppers his tales of world-weary ex-Garda (Irish cop) Jack Taylor with shamrock bromides that are often thought provoking or darkly humorous as Taylor muddles his violent way through the damp and peaty Irish landscape. “In Galway / They were forecasting a shortage of CO2 (no, me neither). / Which is what puts the kick, fizz, varoom in beer, soft drinks. / Ireland, without beer, in a heat wave.” You can almost hear the “tsk tsk” as Bruen imagines the mayhem that will ensue. Galway Girl finds Taylor beleaguered by a trio of spree killers targeting the Garda, a priest whose moral compass has been severely compromised and a surly falconer with an injured but nonetheless lethal bird of prey. Taylor’s ongoing battle with the demon rum (actually Jameson Irish Whiskey, in his case) hovers in the background of every scene, like some ominous uncle, familiar yet anything but benign. Bruen’s command of language and metaphor is on full display in his trademark staccato verse, and his sense of place is superb. And to top it all off, the final scene is so artfully and powerfully rendered that I had to go back and read it again. And again. And I likely will again.
If you wanted to learn about Victorian England, you can read scholarly texts that dissect every nuance of societal caste and political intrigue. Or you can do what I do and pick up a Will Thomas novel featuring private enquiry agents Caleb Barker and Thomas Llewellyn, the latest being Lethal Pursuit. This time out, the duo is charged with the delivery of a satchel to Calais, the French seaport closest to England. It should be a pretty straightforward task, but the previous bearer of the satchel thought that as well—moments before his murder, just steps from his planned destination. Suffice it to say that more murders will follow, as the contents of the satchel are rumored to be holy religious documents dating back to the time of St. Paul, and a host of agents (on both sides of the spectrum of holiness) will go to any lengths to get their hands on them. Think a Victorian-era Archie Goodwin narrating the exploits of a sleuth with an Indiana Jones-esque penchant for derring-do, and you will begin to get an idea of the vibe of this series. There is really nothing out there quite like it.
A Cruel Deception
The armistice that ended World War I silenced the mortar fire but did little to relieve chronic shortages of food and medical supplies, nor the debilitating malaise that gripped postwar Europe. For nurse Bess Crawford, peace means an imminent change of scenery. Just shortly after the opening of Charles Todd’s latest thriller, A Cruel Deception, Bess is summoned to her matron’s office and receives an assignment to travel to war-ravaged Paris. Her mission is to determine the whereabouts and condition of a young army lieutenant, who happens to be the son of the aforementioned matron. Early on, Bess turns up the missing soldier and finds him in pretty rough shape. Badly wounded, he has become addicted to laudanum while trying to deal with the pain. He suffers from sporadic amnesia, and Bess harbors some suspicions about both his backstory and his intentions going forward. A couple of military types offer Bess their assistance in her efforts to determine the truth, but she cannot shake the nagging doubt that one or both are rather too conveniently available in her life and may have goals that are at cross purposes to hers. As always, the mother-son writing team of Charles Todd does a magnificent job with atmosphere and dialogue, all while keeping their good-hearted heroine one step (but only one) ahead of the bad guys.
The Old Success
Martha Grimes’ series featuring Scotland Yard detective Richard Jury is unusual in several respects, not least of which is that the reader would never suspect that Grimes is an American writer. In terms of verbiage, slang and speech pattern, she channels the British vernacular flawlessly. This time out, in The Old Success, Jury is summoned to a small island off Land’s End, Cornwall, to investigate a murder in which much of the trace evidence has been washed away by the relentless waves that pound England’s most westerly point. It is but the first in a trio of murders that share a common factor or two, not to mention a handful of common suspects. Figuring into all of this somehow is another dead man, perhaps the only deceased person mentioned in the book who died of natural causes, whose passing left complicated opinions in its wake. Some people revere him as being just shy of a saint, while others hint at a much darker side, suggesting that had he lived a bit longer, he could have been the poster villain of the #MeToo movement in the U.K. Some interesting subplots (one with a race horse, one with a race car and one with an updated take on the Baker Street Irregulars) help to tie up some loose ends and keep the reader guessing as they wait for the surprising big reveal.