★ The Devil’s Playground
I am a huge fan of noir mystery novels set in the early heyday of Hollywood, back when the iconic hillside sign still read “Hollywoodland.” This love likely started via books by Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West, and it carries through to the latest Tinseltown tome I have happened upon: The Devil’s Playground by Craig Russell. The year is 1927, and our leading lady is studio fixer Mary Rourke, who operates on the shady side of the law when necessary to cover up scandals that could threaten one (or more) of Hollywood’s Golden Age stars. Mary is summoned in the dead of night (a portentous phrase, to be sure) to the home of actress Norma Carlton, star of the supposedly “cursed” production The Devil’s Playground. Mary is stunned to find Norma dead, apparently by her own hand. This could tank the film, so a quick fix must be enacted to ensure that the public never suspects suicide. It all becomes more complicated post-fix, when the studio’s doctor discovers that Norma was strangled. Fast-forward to 1967, and journalist Paul Conway has been hired to find the one remaining copy of The Devil’s Playground, which is supposedly at a remote location in the California desert—if it even exists. If the search succeeds, Paul will be rewarded handsomely for his efforts. However, he will find more than he bargained for, including one of the most creative twist endings I have experienced in ages. The Devil’s Playground is definitely on my shortlist for best mystery of the year.
Dead Man’s Wake
You don’t have to wait long for the action to begin in Paul Doiron’s 14th novel featuring Maine Game Warden Investigator Mike Bowditch, Dead Man’s Wake. It starts with a literal bang in Act I, Scene 1: Mike and his fiancée, Stacey Stevens, are celebrating their engagement, but the festivities are interrupted by a speedboat crash on the adjacent lake. When they arrive at the scene, there is no wrecked boat in sight. But what is in sight is rather more gruesome: a recently severed human arm. The next day, the search team uncovers not one but two dead bodies, those of a local developer and his married girlfriend, and the whole situation begins to seem less like a tragic accident and more like a pair of premeditated murders. Homicide investigations don’t really fall under Mike’s purview, but as one of the local cops ruefully notes, Mike seems to insinuate himself into more such investigations than is usual for a game warden. There is no shortage of suspects: the cuckolded biker husband of the female victim; a pair of frat boys who had been racing around the lake; a female tourist who claimed to have witnessed the whole shebang but whose story seems less credible as the investigation wears on. Doiron packs in lots of twists and turns, and enough suspense to keep you reading well past bedtime.
The Guest Room
Tasha Sylva’s debut novel, The Guest Room, is a creepy psychodrama in which all the major characters have deeply disturbing weird streaks. Let’s start with Tess. Some time back, her sister, Rosie, was killed, and the murder was never solved. Still in a malaise of grief, Tess has taken to renting out Rosie’s room for Airbnb-style stays. Tess has a bad habit, though. When her guests are out, she gleefully rummages through their stuff. Tess’ latest lodger is Arran, who requests a one-month lease while looking for permanent lodgings. And naturally, the first time Arran leaves, Tess surreptitiously paws through his meager belongings and finds a diary. The diary reveals Arran to be a rather obsessive man—by many people’s definition, a stalker. He is affable, though, and quite handsome, which has not gone unnoticed by Tess. This brings us to Nalika, Tess’ beautiful friend. After Nalika and Arran meet, Tess reads the newest entry in his diary and realizes the latest object of his obsession might be Nalika. And maybe Tess is a bit jealous about that. Or more than a bit. The Guest Room is much more character-driven than plot-driven, but there are a couple of excellent plot surprises along the way. I will eagerly await Sylva’s next novel, and I bet you will too.
A Stolen Child
A Stolen Child is Sarah Stewart Taylor’s fourth entry in her excellent series featuring American police detective Maggie D’arcy, who has relocated to Ireland and joined the Garda, the national police force of the island nation. Despite years of experience as a police detective in Long Island, Maggie is relegated to beat cop status upon passing the Garda entrance exam. But when a well-known fashion model is murdered and her toddler daughter is kidnapped, the force is stretched so thin that Maggie’s commanding officer decides to make use of her detecting talents. As Maggie takes charge of the two-pronged investigation into the murder/abduction, she quickly finds out that witnesses are few and far between and often reluctant to the point of intransigence. A Stolen Child is a nicely done, step-by-step police procedural, but it also offers much more than that: well-drawn characters; an insightful look at a rapidly gentrifying urban hub and its denizens; and off-duty relationships that lend notes of warts-and-all humanity to the players.