In what must be one of the more unusual writing pairings of the past hundred years or so, bestselling Icelandic novelist Ragnar Jonasson has teamed up with the current prime minister of Iceland, Katrin Jakobsdottir, to craft Reykjavik, a mystery about the 1956 disappearance of a teenage girl named Lára from Videy, a small island near the titular city. Thirty years after the baffling disappearance, dogged reporter Valur Robertsson and his sister, Sunna, believe they have the answer almost in hand. But apparently, someone else thinks the pair are getting too close to the solution, and soon their lives are in danger. If you’re a fan of Nordic noir, you’re gonna love Reykjavik. Both writers are in top form, and their tale is deftly plotted and skilfully rendered. And as one might expect given Jakobsdottir’s political bona fides, the mystery makes good use of its 1986 setting and leverages a crucial moment in Icelandic history as a poignant and powerful backdrop: the Reykjavik Summit, a pivotal meeting between Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
Murder by Invitation Only
Imagine a real-life version of the board game Clue, orchestrated in the manner of Agatha Christie and set in the English countryside. And while there may not be a conservatory or a ballroom in the home of “murder party” hosts Mr. and Mrs. Wokesley, nor for that matter a Colonel Mustard or a Professor Plum among the guests, this version one-ups the board game by offering up a real live (dead) body—that of the aforementioned Mr. Wokesley. It falls to Agatha’s loyal housekeeper, Phyllida Bright, to lead the investigation, given her credentials as confidant to the noted author and the fact that she is something of an amateur sleuth in her own right. Murder by Invitation Only is the third book in Colleen Cambridge’s series and the redoubtable Phyllida grows more confident and skilled with each installment. Murder by Invitation Only straddles the line between historical fiction and intricate, Christie-esque suspense quite well, without the cloying cutesiness that can sometimes plague mysteries on the cozier side of things. And Phyllida Bright is simply a gem.
Emma Makepeace, the titular heroine of Ava Glass’ well-received Alias Emma, returns for her next mission in The Traitor. Emma works for the British government intelligence service MI6, in an exceptionally clandestine division known only as “The Agency.” This time out, Emma takes over the caseload of a murdered colleague who met his untimely end while investigating a pair of Russian oligarchs suspected of dealing in chemical weaponry. Emma secures an invite to the uber-yacht of one of the oligarchs, unaware that there is a potential double agent in the Agency fold, and that her cover has likely been well and thoroughly compromised. If by some chance she survives the long odds against her, she will rightly earn her place in the pantheon of superspies alongside James Bond, John Drake and the first avenging Emma, Mrs. Peel. I nominate Charlize Theron for the role of Emma Makepeace if there is ever a film adaptation of this series, which it richly deserves.
★ A Cold Highland Wind
It is hard to imagine a better opening line for a Scotland-set mystery novel than that of Tasha Alexander’s latest Lady Emily book, A Cold Highland Wind: “At first glance, blood doesn’t stand out on tartan.” The spilled blood belongs to the gamekeeper of Cairnfarn Castle, Angus Sinclair, with whom Lady Emily had shared a spirited dance the night before at the village ceilidh. But in the cold light of morning, it is painfully clear that Sinclair will never again spill a drop of blood, nor will he dance another Highland Reel. Although the main thread of the mystery is set in the year 1905, a fair bit is told in flashbacks to 1676 that are narrated by Tasnim, a formerly enslaved Moorish girl nicknamed Tansy, as her given name is too much of a tongue twister for the pursed English lips of the 17th century. Tasnim has been reluctantly apprenticed to a widow suspected of being a practitioner of the dark arts, which is particularly unfortunate, as witchcraft was punishable by death in 1676 Scotland. As is always the case with the Lady Emily series, there is suspense galore, a colorful cast of characters, spot on period research and whimsical humor throughout—such as a pet crocodile named Cedric. For a time, there is little to connect the two storylines, which initially seem to only share the setting of Cairnfarn Castle, albeit some 229 years apart. You might well ask just how two such disparate Scottish plots could possibly resolve, and in response to this I will simply paraphrase the Bard: “Read on, MacDuff.”