Rural noir, historical horrors and a tense courtroom drama are featured in this month's best new mysteries.
The “unsinkable” Titanic has engendered story upon story. What is less known is that the Titanic had a sister ship, the Britannic, that outlived its sibling by only four years. Alma Katsu’s latest thriller, The Deep, weaves together narratives of the two doomed luxury liners through the experiences of Annie Hebbley, who sailed on them both. Annie served as a maid/stewardess on the Titanic in 1912, then as a nurse on the Britannic in 1916 after it was converted into a wartime hospital ship. In between postings, she spent several years in an asylum and at first, Annie remembers almost nothing of the iceberg crash she experienced on the Titanic, or its aftermath. But then her memories of seemingly paranormal experiences on the doomed ship start to return. She is not unlike Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining, a none-too-together person who’s drawn toward the occult somewhat against her will. The reader will wonder whether the evidence of the supernatural are just figments of Annie’s imagination or something more sinister. And even though you know what will happen—these ships are gonna go down—it does not diminish the eerie suspense one iota.
Los Angeles, 2009: A jury remains deadlocked in the trial of African American teacher Bobby Nock, accused of murdering 15-year-old student Jessica Silver. The evidence is pretty overwhelming, and 11 jurors agree on a guilty verdict, but Maya Seale, juror number 12, disagrees. One by one, the other jurors come around to her way of thinking, and Bobby is acquitted. In the second story arc of Graham Moore’s gripping legal thriller The Holdout, we fast forward to 2019, by which time several jurors have expressed their reservations about Nock’s acquittal. The 10-year anniversary of the crime occasions a TV documentary on the alleged murderer, the trial and the jurors. One juror in particular, Rick Leonard, strongly regrets his acquittal vote and embarks on a mission to find the evidence that will prove Bobby guilty. He doesn’t get far into his quest before he is murdered—in Maya’s hotel room. While the earlier crime drama is revisited on network TV, a rather more pressing contemporary crime drama unfolds as Maya attempts to prove her innocence. Have your page-turning fingers limbered up, because The Holdout will give them a workout.
The Last Passenger
After establishing PI Charles Lenox in about a dozen mystery novels, author Charles Finch penned a prequel series chronicling the early adventures of the detective. The third and final installment, The Last Passenger, takes place in 1855 London, where a dead body has been found in a train car in Paddington Station. The victim has the look of a member of the gentry, but every piece of evidence that could lead to his identification has been painstakingly removed. As often happens in mysteries, an overworked and plodding policeman enlists the help of the urbane PI in solving the crime, and the PI develops an entirely different take on the situation. Finch’s plotting is excellent, his characters well developed, but it is his prose that truly shines. He evokes the writing style of 19th-century English authors—Wilkie Collins jumps to mind—lending a degree of authenticity to the narrative found in comparatively few historical novels. Finch also incorporates then-contemporary international politics, especially the burgeoning abolitionist movement in the U.S., in this exceptional and atmospheric mystery.
★ The Bramble and the Rose
Rural noir has roots dating back at least to James M. Cain, and writers such as James Lee Burke, C.J. Box and Attica Locke carry on the tradition today, exposing readers to the dark side of country life (and death). Tom Bouman, a relative newcomer to the scene, scored big with his 2014 debut, Dry Bones in the Valley, which won the prestigious Edgar Award for best first novel that year. His latest, The Bramble and the Rose, is third in the series featuring small-town cop Henry Farrell. Henry’s town, Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania, has indeed provided a wild time for retired PI Carl Dentry, and not in a good way. His decapitated body has been discovered in some nearby woods, the severed head secreted in the hollow of a tree. When Henry’s ex is murdered before she can tell him something she knows about Dentry’s murder, Henry finds himself the main suspect in the case. And as he delves further into the growing number of mysteries that plague his small town, he becomes not only the chief suspect but also the target of person or persons unknown. There is a free-form stream-of-consciousness element to Henry’s first-person narration that is very appealing—world-weary yet cautiously optimistic.