The Echo Man
The only thing in this line of work that gives me more pleasure than reading a killer debut novel is reading a serial killer debut novel. The serial killer in Sam Holland’s The Echo Man tallies up an impressive body count, handily surpassing the known body count of any real-life serial killer in the U.K. Detective Chief Inspector Cara Elliott and Detective Sergeant Noah Deakin are investigating a series of murders, deaths they eventually realize are all evocative of different serial killers from history. Meanwhile, suspended cop Nate Griffin spends his downtime ferreting out his wife’s murderer, the same unauthorized inquiry that got him suspended in the first place. After joining forces with fugitive murder suspect Jessica Ambrose, Nate essentially throws the rulebook out the window. They’re a rather formidable pair, unfettered by the constraints of on-duty police officers. As the tension mounts, Holland poses a creative and frightening question: When and how will the killer stop being a copycat and deliver his coup de mort, the deathblow that will cement his legacy in the annals of murder?
In Victorian London, one fictional detective stands out from the others: Sherlock Holmes. But author Will Thomas gives a convincing account of why attention should be paid to two others, Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn, whose 13th adventure plays out in Fierce Poison. It starts off dramatically, when a rather unwell-looking man named Roland Fitzhugh enters their office, promptly slumps to the floor, implores, “Help me,” and then dies before their eyes. Senior partner Barker feels honor bound to investigate, especially after it is revealed that his new (-ly deceased) client was a member of Parliament. This is but the beginning of a rash of poisonings that terrorize the citizenry of England’s capital city: first, a young boy selling sweets outdoors, followed by his entire family, save for an infant girl. Then the poisonings get closer to home, targeting the two detectives themselves. On the suspect list are a gardener who maintains a plot of lethal plants, an herbalist well versed in the preparation of illicit potions and any number of people who disliked Fitzhugh, both in his political career and in his former life as a barrister. Narrated in the first person by Llewelyn, who serves as smart-alecky Archie Goodwin to Barker’s Nero Wolfe, Fierce Poison is cleverly told with humorous asides, period particulars and all the requisite red herrings.
Give Unto Others
The COVID-19 pandemic hovers in the background of Donna Leon’s latest installment of the Commissario Guido Brunetti series, Give Unto Others. Tourism is down, crime is down and a kind of malaise seems to have settled over the city of Venice. So when an old acquaintance approaches Brunetti to look into a worrisome family matter, Brunetti accepts, albeit not without reservations. The concern is centered around Enrico Fenzo, an accountant who has been acting strangely of late. When confronted by his wife, he alludes to a “dangerous” situation and declines to say more. As Brunetti launches his clandestine inquiry into the situation, it appears that perhaps he is ruffling some feathers: A break-in takes place at the veterinary clinic run by the accountant’s wife, and one of the dogs lodging there is badly mauled, perhaps as a warning against further investigation into the accountant’s potentially illegal affairs. As is the case with most of the other 30 Brunetti novels that precede it, Give Unto Others is a largely character- and milieu-driven novel. There is a central mystery, to be sure, but the characters and their evolving relationships are the driving force of the series as it explores Venice, its history, its culture and, of course, its crime.
★ The Sacred Bridge
I was a big fan of Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn/Chee series, so I approached Spider Woman’s Daughter, Anne Hillerman’s first book in the continuation of the series, with a bit of trepidation. Turns out, I needn’t have worried; Anne Hillerman so adeptly channeled her father’s narrative voice that 20 pages in, I had completely forgotten it was not a Tony Hillerman book. She also brought positive changes to the series, giving Jim Chee’s wife, police officer Bernie Manuelito, and Joe Leaphorn’s inamorata, anthropologist Louisa Bourebonette, larger roles in the story. In Hillerman’s latest installment, The Sacred Bridge, Leaphorn’s role is tangential but critical: He sends Chee in search of a lost cave chock-full of artifacts, but before Chee can locate it, he spots a dead body floating facedown in a lake. When the autopsy suggests foul play, Chee is called in to assist. Meanwhile, Bernie pursues a separate line of inquiry into a hemp processing plant on Navajo Nation land after witnessing a deliberate hit-and-run that killed a plant employee. Once again, Hillerman nails her father’s style, fleshes out the female characters and brings the Southwest to life on the printed page.