Two 1940s-set mysteries, a striking new series and a real doozy of a final twist await you in this month’s Whodunit column.
A Gambling Man
To be known by only one name lends a certain je ne sais quoi to the stature of a hard-boiled PI. It has worked well for Andrew Vachss’ dark avenger Burke and Robert B. Parker’s sybaritic strongman Spenser, and it works just fine for David Baldacci’s mononymous sleuth Archer. It doesn’t hurt that Archer’s second outing, the 1949-set A Gambling Man, takes place during the gumshoe golden age, when men smoked “Luckies,” drove luxurious European roadsters and were pursued by women of rapier wit. Archer is an ex-con, so some shenanigans are required to obtain a license to ply his trade in his new home of California. The ink isn’t even dry on said license before he’s assigned his first case, an extortion attempt on a mayoral candidate in the seaside community of Bay Town. Then an alluring chanteuse who was connected to the case is brutally murdered. It will not be the last death to rock Bay Town, and the newly minted PI’s mettle will truly be tested. Baldacci establishes bona fides for this historical mystery with great delicacy, deftly navigating the cliche minefield and giving his readers a sense of the milieu without drowning them in minutiae. He delivers a cracking good suspense novel in the process.
Thief of Souls
Brian Klingborg’s Thief of Souls features one of the best opening sentences I have ever read in a mystery: “On the night the young woman’s corpse is discovered, hollowed out like a birchbark canoe, Inspector Lu Fei sits alone in the Red Lotus bar, determined to get gloriously drunk.” Lu Fei is a deputy police chief in Raven Valley, a backwater township in northeast China, close to the North Korean border. Not much happens in Raven Valley as a rule, but that somnolence is about to be upended. Almost immediately after the victim is discovered, a suspect is identified: a wannabe boyfriend whose phone yields surreptitious photos of the young woman and whose job in a meatpacking plant would afford him access to the sort of surgical knife that was used to eviscerate her. The city police officer called in to take over the investigation wants a quick solution to the case and is perfectly willing to let the “boyfriend” fill that bill. But Lu has doubts, and he conducts a quiet side investigation that turns up additional unsolved killings with the same modus operandi. Politics and turf wars ensue as Klingborg, who has lived and worked in Asia, peppers the story with narrative detours into Chinese history and pertinent commentary from the likes of Confucius, Mao Tse-tung and other Chinese philosophical luminaries. This auspicious mystery begs for a sequel. Please let it be soon.
A Peculiar Combination
The title of Ashley Weaver’s series starter, A Peculiar Combination, is a sly reference to the main character’s occupation as an opener of locked boxes—and more specifically, locked boxes that do not belong to her. Set in London during World War II, the novel opens as Electra McDonnell, safecracker extraordinaire, and her mentor, Uncle Mick, get nabbed in a sting operation set up by a British spy agency. They’ll be given a Get Out of Jail Free card if they participate in a government-sanctioned safe heist in which some phony sensitive papers will be substituted for the real documents, thus misleading the Nazis. It all goes hopelessly awry when they arrive at the scene of the would-be crime and discover the safe is wide open, its owner dead on the floor. In the wake of this failure, Electra finds herself in the unusual (for her) position of wanting to see the operation through to its conclusion, even though she’s been freed from her contract with the government. In for a penny, in for a pound and all that. It’s a lighter read than many a mystery with the same setting, but A Peculiar Combination delivers the requisite suspense and misdirection that will keep the hard-boiled crowd on board as well.
★ The Final Twist
Jeffery Deaver’s The Final Twist lives up to its name admirably, even delivering said twist on the very last page of the book. (Don’t cheat by looking at the ending.) Main character Colter Shaw could scarcely be more different from Deaver’s famous sleuth, the brilliant forensic consultant Lincoln Rhyme. Colter is a mountaineer and a survivalist; he’s action-oriented where Rhyme is cerebral. And unlike Rhyme, who works closely with law enforcement, if Colter has to bend the law to serve his ends, he will do it without remorse. He supports himself by finding missing people and collecting the reward money. His life’s mission, however, is finishing his father’s work and destroying BlackBridge, a mercenary corporation that has been distributing drugs in a San Francisco neighborhood to drive down property values so they can swoop in and purchase tracts for pennies on the dollar. Shaw strongly suspects that BlackBridge had a hand in his father’s “accidental” death, and he means to dispense some Old West justice once he finds out the truth. A couple of subplots, one involving Colter’s long-lost brother and another centered on a legal document from a century ago that may have a breathtaking impact on modern-day California politics, flesh out the narrative, distracting the reader until Deaver wallops them with the shocking final page.