This month's mystery column features a globe-trotting quartet of thrilling reads.
In 1998, the “Troubles” of Northern Ireland were brought to a close by the signing of the Good Friday agreement—in theory. The present-day reality is somewhat less resolved. As Flynn Berry points out in her new thriller, Northern Spy, “most Catholics still wanted a united Ireland, most Protestants wanted to remain part of the UK. The schools were still segregated. You still knew, in every town, which was the Catholic bakery, which was the Protestant taxi firm. How could anyone not have seen this coming? We were living in a tinderbox.” Two sisters, BBC producer and new mom Tessa and paramedic Marian, occupy center stage in the narrative. They are exceptionally close, so Tessa is shocked to her core when she sees raw news footage of a gas station holdup and recognizes her sister as one of the Irish Republican Army perpetrators. Now Marian is on the run, and the police are convinced that Tessa knows more than she’s saying. When Marian seeks her help, Tessa is faced with a Sophie’s choice: Should she come to her sister’s rescue, putting her baby in peril by getting involved? Berry’s thriller is an excellent and sympathetic look at family bonds, ideological enmity and the difficulty of maintaining some semblance of balance in a situation outside one’s control.
Dance With Death
Nobody born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1958 should be able to channel 19th-century London as splendidly as Will Thomas does in his well-loved series featuring private enquiry agents Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn. The latest installment, Dance With Death, is a tale of duplicity and murder centered on an upcoming royal wedding. The future Nicholas II, who will one day become the last czar of Russia, plays a pivotal role in the narrative, as does the daughter of Russian revolutionary Karl Marx, the future King George V of Britain and legendary prima ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska. These real historical figures mingle freely and seamlessly with fictional characters, some of whom are prepared to die for them, while others seek the opportunity to kill them. Barker and Llewelyn are tasked with safeguarding the future czar from an assassin known only as La Sylphide. Politics and privilege, Russian and English alike, come into play as the suspense mounts at a high-society masked ball, where identities are concealed every bit as cleverly as lethal intentions. A bit of good news for readers: If you like this book, there are a dozen previous Barker & Llewelyn mysteries to keep you entertained for the foreseeable future.
European cities’ ubiquitous surveillance cameras are often criticized as intrusive, but on the occasions that they identify criminals, everyone is happy. Well, everyone but the criminals—such as the two boatmen who, at the outset of Donna Leon’s latest Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery, Transient Desires, unceremoniously unload two badly injured and unconscious American women onto the dock of a Venice hospital emergency room. The boatmen turn out to have been friends from childhood. One is now a fledgling lawyer, the other a manual laborer for his uncle’s canal-based delivery business. There are rumors, however, that said uncle is involved in human trafficking. Brunetti enlists the help of colleague Claudia Griffoni, who in turn brings on board a Neapolitan coast guard captain named Ignazio Alaimo. Italian interagency cooperation, while not unheard of, can be difficult. Vast geographical and cultural chasms separate different regions of the country (in this case Naples and Venice), raising troubling questions about whom Brunetti can trust. Transient Desires is the 30th installment of Leon’s series starring Brunetti, and like the 29 mysteries that preceded it, it’s a splendid read. Through Brunetti’s observations and ruminations, the author weaves Venetian history, architecture, aromas, tastes and snippets of daily life and family interactions into an immersive narrative.
★ In the Company of Killers
It is uncommon for a first novel to earn a starred review in the hallowed halls of this column, but Bryan Christy’s In the Company of Killers ticks all the right boxes. Far-flung locales (Kenya, the Philippines, South Africa)? Check. A protagonist of few words but lots of action? Check again. Properly villainous villains? Yep, got those. Filled to the brim with tension and suspense? Yes and yes. Central character Tom Klay is an investigative journalist for The Sovereign, a magazine that bears a certain resemblance to National Geographic, for whom author Christy once worked (though one hopes he encountered less murder and mayhem than Klay does). The reader quickly discovers that Klay’s occupation is deep cover for a clandestine position as a CIA asset. As the book opens, Klay and his closest friend, Captain Bernard Lolosoli, probe the Kenyan bush country following a lead they received about elephant poachers. But someone has set them up for an ambush; Klay survives, Lolosoli does not. Klay is sure he knows the identity of the killer, and he means to exact justice or perhaps revenge (if indeed there is any difference) for his friend’s murder. Mercenaries, global superpowers, religious leaders, environmental activists and more are players on this chess board where nobody seems to know which directions the pieces are allowed to move, nor perhaps even the object of the game. In the Company of Killers is not a long book, so my suggestion is to block out time to read it in one sitting. You will not want to put it down.