★ How the Dead Speak
Val McDermid’s latest installment in the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, How the Dead Speak, is a bridge novel. Although not specifically required, it helps to have read the past few books in the series, particularly 2017’s Insidious Intent. As that book ends and this one begins, Hill and Jordan are nursing their disparate wounds in remarkably different ways. Hill, in prison for manslaughter, is putting his energy toward writing a book on forensics, and Jordan, no longer with the Bradfield Police department, is trying to eke out a living as a private investigator of sorts. They don’t have much interaction any more, as Hill feels that his presence in Jordan’s life exacerbates her PTSD. But a large cache of skeletons has been found in a closed Catholic home for children, and Hill and Jordan’s old unit has been put in charge of the investigation, a political hot potato due to recent years’ media coverage of pedophile priests and sadistic nuns. There is the distinct possibility that a serial killer is at work, or the even more disturbing possibility that the serial killer, if indeed one exists, might be a member of the clergy. As always, the narrative is tight and marvelously paced, the characters are flawed but enormously sympathetic, and the suspense factor is simply off the charts.
Murder at the Opera
There’s no shortage of conflict to test amateur sleuth Atlas Catesby in D.M. Quincy’s Murder at the Opera. Catesby finds himself at the murder scene of a well-known London chanteuse/courtesan. The likeliest suspect is the victim’s lover, the same titled gentleman suspected of having killed Catesby’s sister years before. Couple that with the fact that the second-likeliest suspect is a former lover of Catesby’s, a competitive lass whose lucrative singing job was on the verge of being usurped by the murder victim. Further down the suspect list is Catesby’s estranged nephew, Nicholas, son of the primary suspect and heir presumptive to a title and fortune if his father is found guilty. The novel is set in 1815 London, where class distinctions mean everything and aristocrats can literally get away with murder. Catesby, however, is ably assisted in his investigation by Lady Lilliana Sterling Warwick, a thoroughly modern (in 1815 terms) young widow with the nose of a private investigator and the social connections to open some regal doors. It’s easy to picture the pair as a Regency Nick and Nora Charles—urbane, yet with a strong undercurrent of “get ’er done.”
The Second Sleep
We go 350-odd years further back in time for Robert Harris’ thriller The Second Sleep—to 1468, to be precise. Consider other terrific medieval mysteries as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Ross King’s Ex-Libris, and get ready for an exceptionally intricate tale that will take you in unexpected directions and then pummel you when you get there. Cleric Christopher Fairfax is called upon to officiate at the interment of a parish priest. It’s a simple enough task: Write a few words of banal praise and read the appropriate scriptures to usher the man to his final resting place. But Fairfax doesn’t sleep well the night before and instead visits the dead man’s library, where he happens upon all manner of heretical books that have been banned by church and state alike. Contrary to his upbringing, training and better judgment, Fairfax begins to read. At this point in the review, I am torn between revealing any more or just letting the reader unearth surprise after surprise until they begin to get a glimmering of what is really transpiring here. So, after some consideration, I will just leave you with this quote: “the ultimate symbol of the ancients’ hubris and blasphemy, an apple with a bite taken out of it.” Chew on that for a while . . .
With her latest work, British young adult author Julie Mayhew turns her hand for the first time to adult suspense fiction. The resulting Impossible Causes is atmospheric and downright creepy, with boarding school intrigue, paganism and unexplained death. The action takes place on remote Lark Island—remote thanks to the fog that rolls in and sticks around for seven months without a break. It’s just the sort of eerie atmosphere to send high school girls running for the hills to fantasize about forbidden sexual liaisons and to play at summoning evil spirits. But let’s not forget about the aforementioned unexplained death, around which the suspense spins. The person who claims to have found the body is Viola, a teenage expat out walking her dog (because isn’t it always the dog walker who happens upon the dead body?). When the explanation finally does arrive, it is quite different from what you might expect. Impossible Causes channels The Wicker Man (the original one with Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee) quite successfully without being in any way derivative: lonely island, check; upstanding protagonist, check; strange animistic local goings-on, check; sexual deviancy, check; mounting sense of dread, check. And even though a number of the main characters fall into the young adult age range, the book is in every respect geared toward a fully adult audience.