The month’s best new mystery & suspense titles.
The Missing American
Lonely-hearts internet scams out of West Africa are legendary and legion, the twin epicenters being Nigeria and Ghana. Kwei Quartey’s The Missing American focuses on Ghana, where the local word for this sort of scam is sakawa. Retired American bookseller Gordon Tilson has been in contact online with a beautiful Ghanaian widow, and when she tearfully tells him that her younger sister has been in an accident, he unhesitatingly offers to send money for the girl’s medical care. If you guessed that he has just become a victim of sakawa, please pat yourself on the back and advance to the head of the queue. It takes a personal visit to Accra, Ghana’s capital, for Gordon to fully realize that he has been duped, not by a doe-eyed Ghanaian widow but more likely by a team of clever and newly wealthy young men. In a parallel narrative, police officer Emma Djan, summarily dismissed from the Accra police force after refusing sexual advances from a superior, lands a job as a private detective. When Gordon goes missing from his hotel in Accra, Emma and Gordon’s son, Derek, launch a joint search, fearing the worst but hoping and praying for the best. Sakawa scams abound, overlaid with a witch doctor (or two) and a trio of likable, if occasionally gullible, protagonists. My prediction: We will be seeing Emma Djan again.
The Body Outside the Kremlin
In 1923, the Russian government established a prison camp on the remote island of Solovetsky in which to sequester opponents of the new Bolshevik regime. By some accounts, it worked all too well, serving as the prototype for the legendary Gulag system. At the outset of James L. May’s debut novel, The Body Outside the Kremlin, Tolya Bogomolov is serving time at Solovetsky for possession of forbidden books. Quick of mind and well-versed in novels of detection, Tolya is something of a natural when it comes to assisting in the investigation of a fellow prisoner’s murder. Two bonuses: 1) Whatever time Tolya spends sleuthing is time he doesn’t have to engage in hard labor, and 2) he is a potential suspect, so assisting the investigator will deflect some of the suspicion. In the days before Solovetsky housed a prison, the island was home to a monastery that held some very rare and valuable Russian Orthodox icons, which the murder victim was in the process of restoring. Some of those icons were rumored to have fallen into the hands of the secret police, which is not a group anyone would choose to cultivate as an adversary. That choice may have been made for Tolya without his consent. Historical, atmospheric (in a frigid sort of way) and exceptionally well-written, The Body Outside the Kremlin is a first-rate debut.
The Decent Inn of Death
World War II has just ended, and a pair of retired Scotland Yard policemen with decades of experience under their belts and plenty of time on their hands investigates a mysterious death in Rennie Airth’s The Decent Inn of Death. It all starts out innocently enough, when former chief inspector Angus Sinclair receives a last-minute invitation to the home of a friend. While there, he learns of the death of the church organist, Greta Hartmann, a German woman who apparently slipped on a rock while crossing a stream, hit her head and drowned. This explanation does not sit well with her housemate, however, and Sinclair is drawn into investigating the death. It seems that a recent encounter with a stranded motorist had left Greta shaken. It’s possible that she had recognized an escaped German war criminal and, worse yet, that he recognized her as well. Later in the narrative, series linchpin John Madden shows up, as does a blinding snowstorm, at which point an English manor house becomes the scene of a locked-room murder mystery that rivals the best of Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell or P.D. James.
★ Facets of Death
Botswana police Detective David Bengu is more commonly known by his nickname, Kubu, which is Setswana for “hippopotamus,” in a nod to his plus-size dimensions. In the latest adventure from the writing team known as Michael Stanley, the portly policeman finds himself in hot pursuit of a gang of diamond thieves who engineered a devilishly clever, broad-daylight heist. Three trucks left the diamond mine at Jwaneng, each carrying a locked box. One of the boxes contained diamonds and the other two only pebbles in an attempt to confuse any potential hijackers. To say that it didn’t work would be a monumental understatement. The diamond truck was quickly identified and hijacked, while the other two made it to their destination unimpeded. Kubu quickly arrives at the conclusion that the robbery could not have been pulled off without the assistance of an insider, but that line of reasoning leads to dead end after dead end (literally more than figuratively), as one by one the likeliest perpetrators die off violently. But where are the diamonds? A fabulous test of Kubu’s legendary deductive talents, Facets of Death is easily one of the best heist novels I’ve read since Gerald Browne’s classic 11 Harrowhouse.