Thomas Perry makes his long-awaited return to the acclaimed Butcher's Boy series in this month's Whodunit column.
Nightmares about the abduction of her childhood best friend, Lollo, have bedeviled police officer Embla Nyström for half of her 28 years. One of those jarring nightmares opens Helene Tursten’s latest thriller, Snowdrift. The dreams always follow the same script: Three shadowy figures huddle over a curled-up Lollo, then one turns and spots Embla, bolts across the room and hisses menacingly, “Say a word to anyone, you’re dead.” Fourteen years pass with no word about Lollo, until Embla gets a phone call from her missing friend. The connection is quickly broken, however, with no further contact. After a fitful night’s sleep, Embla is summoned to the scene of a homicide. The victim turns out to be well known to her: It’s one of the three brothers she believes were responsible for Lollo’s abduction. Embla eagerly embarks on the investigation, though her goal is perhaps not so much to find the killer as to uncover some further trace of Lollo. It soon becomes a case of “be careful what you wish for. . . .” As always in Tursten’s books, the well-drawn characters and first-rate suspense provide fine examples of the dark delights of Scandinavian noir.
The Art of Violence
Cold open: A man walks up to a private investigator, accosts him with a gun and demands that the investigator prove the man’s guilt in a series of murders—not his innocence, note, but his guilt. Unusual request, but it makes some sense. Years back, after being slipped a strong hallucinogen, Sam Tabor killed a woman, stabbing her, by his count, “seven billion times.” Faced with the choice of a temporary insanity plea and an unspecified sentence to psychiatric lockdown, or a defined length of time in the slammer, Sam pleaded guilty and went to jail. Now he’s out, and he’s convinced that he’s killed again. The Art of Violence is the latest in S.J. Rozan’s excellent series featuring PI Bill Smith and his partner, Lydia Chin. I almost don’t want to say more; there are too many nuances and red herrings, and I don’t want to inadvertently give anything away. But here are a couple of freebies: The client is a well-known artist who is often described as “tormented,” the flavor of the month in the fickle Manhattan art milieu. A blackout alcoholic, he doesn’t remember killing anyone, but the crime scene “signature” is eerily evocative of his first crime.
Thomas Perry’s debut, The Butcher’s Boy, earned him the coveted Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel back in 1983. At the time, the book virtually defined a new subgenre of thriller: the “Hired Killer Summoned Out of Retirement by Someone Trying to Kill Him.” Eddie’s Boy, Perry’s latest novel, opens with not one but four would-be assassins trying—and failing miserably—to take out the Butcher’s Boy. Retired, and known these days as Michael Shaeffer, he is still savvy enough to know that if someone sent four trained killers, there will be more in the wings waiting for their turn. So he scoots from England to Australia, but it will not be far enough. Michael has one ace in the hole, though, in the form of a tenuous relationship with a Justice Department official who tips him off to the impending parole of a career criminal who once hired the Butcher’s Boy, then reneged on the payment. Soon afterward, our hero neatly framed him for a murder, watching as the innocent man (well, innocent of this killing at least) was carted off to jail. There’s a lot more backstory and a lot more innovative executions along the way as Michael tries to stop the attempts on his life. A new Butcher’s Boy book arrives only once every decade, if that, and this one is well worth the wait.
★ How to Raise an Elephant
Over the course of its 21-volume run, Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series has become one of the best-loved series in its genre. In some ways it is defined by what is absent: murders or essentially violence of any sort. But the tiny African country of Botswana holds its own in the suspense department, its small mysteries strangely compelling and never descending into treacly sweetness. In this latest outing, How to Raise an Elephant, our intrepid sleuth, Precious Ramotswe, must rescue—no surprise here—a newborn elephant left orphaned by poachers. Said little elephant has a mind of its own, with results both comedic (imagine a 300-pound baby pachyderm rolling around delightedly in the back of a minivan) and tragic, with a look into the cruelty of the ivory poaching trade. There’s also a noisy neighbor who angrily calls her philandering husband an “anteater”; a sketchy relative who will impart a life lesson we can all benefit from; and the ongoing adversarial relationship between Grace and Charlie, the two opinionated employees at Mma Ramotswe’s agency. I have read all of this wonderful series, reviewed most and wholeheartedly look forward to each and every one.