Things aren't what they appear in some of this month's best mysteries—plus, a tale of murder during Hollywood's golden age.
Many Nigerian-set suspense novels have riffed on the money scams perpetrated on gullible retirees abroad. Not so for Femi Kayode’s thriller Lightseekers, which centers the religious and class violence of Africa’s wealthiest country. Investigative psychologist Dr. Philip Taiwo, who has recently returned to his homeland after a stint in the United States, is hired to find out who murdered the son of a prominent local businessman. The assignment is a bit out of his wheelhouse, as he is much more comfortable theorizing about crime than taking part in a hands-on investigation. Plus, arrests have been made, and there is evidence galore, so Philip frankly doesn’t see what he can add to the investigation. That said, he is under a certain amount of pressure from the victim’s family, and there is a paycheck involved, so he unenthusiastically signs on. He is aided in his efforts by some unlikely sidekicks: a driver who is much savvier than one might expect; a vampishly beautiful attorney who causes Philip to question his marital vows; and a harried police chief, initially recalcitrant until Philip turns up evidence too compelling to ignore. The milieu is drawn especially well, which is unsurprising given that Kayode trained as a clinical psychologist in Nigeria. Steam-bath humidity, sizzling yams, road dust in every breath, danger lurking around every corner—welcome to Kayode’s Nigeria.
The title of Russ Thomas’ latest thriller, Nighthawking, refers to a practice not dissimilar to grave-robbing—clandestine late-night metal detecting and potential plundering at archaeological sites, cemeteries or other locations of historical interest. One particular nighthawker got a bit more than he bargained for this time around: A foray into the Sheffield Botanical Garden in search of buried treasure instead turned up the body of a young woman, a stabbing victim, her eyes covered with a pair of coins from ancient Rome. It falls to Detective Sergeant Adam Tyler and his protégé, Detective Constable Mina Rabbani, to investigate. The case gains international implications when it is discovered that the victim was a botany student from a prominent Chinese family, and that her life in the U.K. was not what it seemed to be. Tyler and Rabbani are an interesting pair: He is gay, she is Muslim, both are relative outsiders with respect to the insular world of Yorkshire policing, and both routinely suffer the slings and arrows of innuendo. Nighthawking is their second adventure together, after last year’s Firewatching (also a terrific read), and I hope there will be many more to come.
Smoke, Joe Ide’s latest mystery featuring quixotic brainiac Isaiah Quintabe, finds our hero far afield from his Long Beach, California, home. He has disappeared into the unfamiliar wilds of the Golden State’s mountainous north, on the lam from more than one person who would like to see him dead. At other points in his career, he probably would have stayed to duke it out with the bad guys, but he has fallen in love and doesn’t want to risk putting his sweetheart in harm’s way. Isaiah’s once-sidekick, Juanell Dodson, assumes a larger role in Smoke than in earlier novels as he tries to leave his dangerous former career behind in a bid to save his marriage. Dodson holds down the SoCal part of the narrative as the street hustler reluctantly morphs into an ad agency account exec, while Isaiah becomes embroiled in the more perilous pursuit of a serial killer, drawn into the case by a none-too-stable escapee from a psychiatric hospital. Isaiah is something of a sucker for a person in need who presents him with a good story, and this story is perhaps the most intriguing he has come across to date.
Windhall by Ava Barry spins the tale of a modern-day copycat murder that echoes the high-profile slaying of a Hollywood movie star in 1948, at the beginning of the end of the golden age of Hollywood. The star in question, Eleanor Hayes, was found badly disfigured and quite dead in the garden of Windhall, the estate of film director Theo Langley, after a party that would have been regarded as legendary even if it hadn’t featured such a macabre coda. Initially, Theo looked pretty good for the murder—Eleanor had stopped showing up to work on his latest movie and seemed terrified of something—but as the investigation wore on, the so-called evidence became less compelling, and finally charges were dropped. Theo disappeared from view for decades. Although from time to time there were reported sightings from far afield, there was never much in the way of corroboration, and his story took its rightful place in Hollywood lore, one of the great unsolved mysteries of the golden age. The present-day murder piques the interest of investigative journalist Max Hailey, who is somewhat obsessed with Windhall and its closely guarded secrets. For years he has suspected that Theo was guilty, and when it turns out that the director has mysteriously returned to Windhall just in time for the new murder, it all seems a bit too preposterous to be simple coincidence. Windhall is Barry’s first novel, and it is one heck of a debut. She nails her protagonist’s first-person voice and vividly channels the Hollywood vernacular and vibe both past and present.