If I had to sum up Lisa Unger’s Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six in 10 words, I would say “Cast of ‘Friends,’ dark and stormy night, soundtrack by Disturbed.” This friend group is much more disturbed than Ross, Chandler, Monica, et al., but there are parallels: a sister/brother pair; a female friend from the past; some canoodling that is, shall we say, detrimental to the group dynamic. Siblings Hannah and Mako are celebrating Christmas at their parents’ house when their father finds an unusual gift under the tree: DNA genealogy kits for the whole family, from an anonymous Santa. A few months later, when Hannah, Mako, their respective spouses and another couple head up to a remote cabin to unplug, the other shoe drops. Some of them did the kit and were unexpectedly proven to be the progeny of the same man, and they are not happy to know who (and what) their biological father was. Secrets abound in this psychological thriller; even the cabin itself harbors a hidden history, giving off unnerving vibes to renters and readers alike. At 400 pages, it’s a long book for a one-sitting read, but you’ll be sorely tempted.
1989 is Val McDermid’s second installment of a trilogy (which this reviewer hopes will become a quadrilogy or even a quintology) featuring Scottish investigative reporter Allie Burns. The series began with 1979, and in the sequel, readers are mired with Allie in the late ’80s, when mobile phones were the size of lunchboxes, when AIDS was ravaging the U.K., when a jetliner was bombed out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, and when the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. All in all, not a time to be nostalgic for, and true to form, McDermid spins the tale without a whiff of sentimentality. Allie works for media mogul Ace Lockhart, who bears more than a passing resemblance to newspaper publisher Robert Maxwell (father of Ghislaine, of Jeffrey Epstein-associate infamy): flamboyant, bullying and destined for disgrace. Lockhart, who has a number of business ventures based in the Eastern bloc, senses the upcoming upheaval and sends his daughter to secure his interests in the changing political landscape. When she is kidnapped in East Berlin, Lockhart sends Allie Burns on a rescue mission, and in short order, things careen out of control. You don’t need to read 1979 to hit the ground running with 1989, but you will want to have Wikipedia open to look up all the fascinating historical and cultural moments McDermid references along the way.
Viviana Valentine Gets Her Man
Emily J. Edwards’ Viviana Valentine Gets Her Man is, hands down, this month’s most entertaining mystery. Set in 1950 New York City, it chronicles the adventures of a plucky Pennsylvania country girl, the titular Viviana Valentine. Upon arriving penniless in the Big Apple, Viviana sweet-talks her way into a girl Friday job for Tommy Fortuna, a Philip Marlowe-esque private investigator who calls her dollface. But after Tommy goes MIA and a dead body is found on his office floor, Viviana is forced to take the helm of the agency, clear Tommy’s name and crack the case he was working on. Whatever she lacks in experience, Viviana more than makes up for with her in-your-face attitude, wicked sense of humor and snappy one-liners. Her friends and acquaintances include high society debutantes, models, mobsters, cops both arrow-straight and morally flexible and a host of other ’50s types that would slot neatly into a black-and-white detective film. Edwards nails the tone, with dialogue and milieu evocative of classic noir, and presents the era warts and all: conversations that are a bit politically incorrect; men behaving toward women in ways that are borderline or flat-out predatory; and a towering amount of smoking and drinking.
★ The Devil’s Blaze
In the same fashion that Sean Connery is the quintessential James Bond for many cinema aficionados, Basil Rathbone is widely regarded as the definitive silver screen Sherlock Holmes, even though the most famous films in which he took on the role are not set in the original Victorian and Edwardian eras but smack in the middle of World War II. Author Robert J. Harris expands upon those midcentury films with his Sherlock Holmes in WWII series, the second volume of which (after 2021’s A Study in Crimson) is The Devil’s Blaze. The Germans have developed a truly insidious weapon to use against their English adversaries, a death machine of some sort that causes people to spontaneously erupt into flames. As usual, there are only two people in England clever enough (or devious enough, depending on your point of view) to approach a mystery of this magnitude: Sherlock Holmes (natch) and his longtime archnemesis, Professor James Moriarty. There is certainly no love lost between the pair, but they are forced to forge an uneasy alliance to try and save England from this terrifying new weapon. Harris never lets readers forget that this is a Sherlock Holmes novel, with the narrative turning on a dime—or a twopence, if you prefer—such that only an experienced fishmonger would be able to sort through all the red herrings. Holmes is as cerebral and arrogant as die-hard fans would expect, and Watson hews closely to actor Nigel Bruce’s portrayal in the Rathbone films: thoughtful, taciturn and usually a step behind his mentor. And Moriarty, well, he should be giving TED Talks on the subject of villainy.
Lisa Unger will make you think twice about dabbling with DNA ancestry kits, plus Val McDermid returns with a new Allie Burns novel in this month’s Whodunit.
It’s 1952 in San Francisco, and homosexuality is illegal and largely frowned upon by society—except at Lavender House. The home of soap manufacturing magnate Irene Lamontaine has become a refuge for her extended queer family. But when Irene falls over a staircase railing to her death, her widow (in all but name) hires recently fired gay police detective Evander “Andy” Mills to discern if there is a killer in their midst.
The tone of this book is similar to the pulpy, hard-boiled style of your sci-fi mystery, Depth. Was there anything different about your approach this time around? Was there a particular author or series you drew upon to re-create that style of writing? It’s funny. With Depth I was trying to bring the flavor of old-school noir to a futuristic world. With Lavender House, the old-school noir is easier because of the setting. But because we’re talking queer history, which is so often erased, there was a lot more research involved and, weirdly, an emphasis on making sure everything felt believable. With sci-fi, people are either going to buy it or they’re not, depending on what they like and read. When talking about a history that keeps being erased, it’s about proving it—proving we existed.
As for the tone itself, the hard-boiled vibe, I always go back to Chandler. I have his complete works, and I’ve read them several times. There’s just something about the way he cuts a sentence. And, of course, the movies: I was raised on noir of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, so I saw most of the movies before I read the books. The vibe of those movies is what lives in my head when I’m writing, even more so than the books, because the movies sometimes had a bit of hope to them (Laura, The Big Sleep). They’re not happy endings exactly, but there’s a chance for a bright future at the end of them, and I knew I wanted that for this book. I wanted to show that not only did us queer folk exist before Stonewall, but that even though our lives were noir—in the sense that we were sort of trapped and stalked all the time—we still thrived in community. We found each other. We found love. And in that, we found a bit of hope.
How much research did you have to do to re-create the feel and culture of 1950s San Francisco? Are Lavender House and its inhabitants based on any real locations or people? I owe a huge debt of thanks to Nan Alamilla Boyd and her book, Wide-Open Town, for this one. It’s a book entirely about the queer history of San Francisco. Originally, when I was coming up with this story, my instinct was to put it in NYC (or just outside) because that’s where I’m from. But as I did research on the queer histories of various cities, what I found was that in the ’50s, New York’s queer culture was much more stratified. There wasn’t nearly as much mingling of gay communities of different classes or races as there was in San Francisco. And knowing it was going to be a series, I wanted a community that was more fluid. Luckily, for this first book, so much of it takes place outside the city that I could make stuff up—Lavender House itself is pure fiction, as are the characters in it—but I owe a lot not just to Boyd but to several San Francisco historians, photographers and Facebook groups where older people share stories and pictures of their neighborhoods. I’m sure I still got things wrong, but I hope they’re not too distracting.
What was the biggest challenge this book presented? What was the biggest opportunity? The research. So much research. And because queer history is always hidden and rewritten, the research often took me down many paths and led to several answers. There’s one sentence in Lavender House about a woman in a suit that’s changed so many times based on what I’ve learned about cross-dressing laws and ordinances at the time at the national, state and city levels—and I’m still not sure it’s accurate! Information is contradictory. California is so interesting in the early ’50s because of this state Supreme Court ruling in ’51 where a judge said it wasn’t illegal for gay people to congregate at a bar. It was a huge victory for the community, but it was also so small, because while being gay was suddenly legal (only in California), acting gay was not—and that could mean a lot of things. Same-sex dancing was still illegal, and so was touching the wrong way, if a cop decided it was the wrong way. So many cases and laws and the constant harassment of queer bars and people were about what the cop on duty was feeling and if he’d been bribed. So the small legal details were killer to figure out.
The biggest opportunity I’m less sure of! There’s so much I got to do; making a big queer family was such a blessing once I let myself do it. Even those laws being so hard to look up, since they were pretty subjective depending on the police, meant I could have them be as strict or lenient as I wanted (within certain bounds, of course). Sometimes the research being blurry just gives you more room to play. But I think overall the biggest opportunity was to get to the heart of what it means to learn to love yourself in ’52 as a queer man. Because if Andy can do it, I think people today can, too.
Who is your first reader? What is most valuable or useful about that initial feedback for you? It varies, depending on people’s time and schedules. I have a writing group, I have writer friends who will read for me, I have a librarian husband. And I think what feedback is most valuable varies book to book as well. What am I worried about? Should I be, or did I pull it off? With Lavender House, my worry was always that it wouldn’t coast that line between noir and camp noir: the noir that’s a bit bigger and, frankly, a bit more fun. Lauren Bacall asking if you know how to whistle in To Have and Have Not? That’s a little camp at this point, but it’s my favorite thing. Some people see that scene and roll their eyes, but I light up. So did I pull off that tone in a way that feels authentic to a modern reader? Did they get it?
You’ve explored the idea of a sanctuary for members of the LGBTQ+ community before, in your young adult rom-com, Camp (written under the name L.C. Rosen). Why do you think you keep returning to this theme? How did Lavender House allow you to explore this idea further? It’s funny, I hadn’t thought of it that way; the word I’ve always used is community. But sanctuary, yeah, I guess I do write about that a lot. And I write about the push and pull between queer community or sanctuary and the outside world, where we may not always be allowed to be ourselves safely. Part of that is just that I like writing about a bunch of queer people: I think just one or two feels unrealistic, because we tend to find one another. I think it’s interesting the way we can sort of form our own community and deal with our own problems when we don’t have to worry about the outside world. Camp was about figuring out what sort of internal prejudices we bring into that sanctuary, because we all come from a world that tells us to hate ourselves or to only be one kind of gay. But Lavender House is about dealing with the fear of the outside knowing about us at all. That’s partially because of the historical element, of course, but I think it’s something we still see today: How much do we let other people in? How dangerous is it?
Do you see any parts of yourself in Andy? Sure. I see parts of myself in every character I write. I think you have to. Even when you’re writing someone bad, you need to understand where they’re coming from—and I don’t mean they need to be sympathetic or understandable. I think we as a society have actually gone too far, as a whole, in that sense. Sometimes bad people are just bad, and they don’t need a tragic backstory to make you feel sorry for them. We shouldn’t lose sight of that. But as writers, you have to understand their outlook, even if you don’t need to justify it to yourself. So why would someone do this? What are their values? How do they see the world?
With Andy specifically, I think certainly there’s a coming-out element to his story. He’s out, but he doesn’t love his queerness much, and over the course of the novel, he learns to do that. He learns to reconcile with what it means to be queer in 1952, and while that might be very, very hard, there’s a lot of benefit to it, too. I think that’s something every queer person should figure out. You can be out and proud but still not quite know how to love your queerness and the queerness of others. I don’t mean you need to want to clack a fan and wear heels, but you have to love that other guys do in order to really love what queerness is. Once you’ve done that, the world just becomes so much brighter.
What do you hope readers take away from this novel? The main thing I always hope a reader takes away is the feeling of having had a good time. I believe first and foremost my job is to entertain. If I can make people think or see things in a new light, that’s even better. And for Lavender House, I hope they take away a stronger understanding of queer history—not just the idea that we’ve always been here but also the idea that we’re still dealing with a lot of the same problems. Across the country, people are trying to ban books about queer teens—and often succeeding. They’re trying to prevent kids from coming out, and they’re firing queer teachers or making it illegal for them to talk about their queerness, even casually. They’re trying to make it now like it was in the ’50s, and I hope people see those parallels and understand that there’s still so much work to do if we want to say we’ve moved on.
What’s next for you? Will Andy Mills return at some point? It was a two-book deal, so he’s coming back at least one more time, though I’m hoping he’ll be around for a while. The sequel is titled The Bell in the Fog, and it should be out sometime in the fall of 2023. Before that, though, I also have Tennessee Russo coming out in the spring, which is the start to a YA series about a queer teen archeologist digging up ancient queer history to make sure it’s not erased while avoiding traps and pitfalls. More queer history! Just older.
Photo of Lev AC Rosen by Rachael Shane.
In the 1950s-set Lavender House, the titular home is a haven for the queer Lamontaine family—until one of them is murdered.
In 1952 San Francisco, homosexuality is illegal and largely frowned upon by society. But the gates of the titular Lavender House keep an extended LGBTQ+ family safely tucked away from the persecution and discrimination of the outside world, able to live their lives without judgment or reprisal. This shelter and sense of belonging comes thanks to their benefactor and matriarch, soap entrepreneur Irene Lamontaine.
If only they were able to keep their own petty jealousies and rampant ambitions in check. But this is not the case in Lev AC Rosen’s twisty new mystery. Irene soon turns up dead, and one of Lavender House’s denizens may be responsible for her demise.
Enter Evander “Andy” Mills, an ex-police detective who was fired after being caught in a raid at a gay bar. Irene’s widow (in all but name), Pearl, hires him to find the killer in their midst. The mystery is told through Andy’s point of view, and readers will share his fascination with the unique life afforded the inhabitants of Lavender House and deeply empathize with his position as an outsider struggling to find his own place in the world.
Rosen quickly turns the Agatha Christie-esque elements of the mystery on their head with a dynamic cast of characters and an inimitable take on hard-boiled noir that revels in the foggy atmosphere of San Francisco while also highlighting the characters’ angst and inner turmoil. Readers familiar with Rosen’s young adult novel Camp, which follows LGBTQ+ teens at a utopia-like conclave, will enjoy this deeper, darker examination of what it means to be a queer person in a homophobic world.
In Lavender House, Rosen not only thoroughly entertains mystery lovers but also ups the ante by presenting a thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be free to love who you love.
Mystery lovers will be thoroughly entertained by Lavender House, a thoughtful noir that examines midcentury LGBTQ+ life with a cast of dynamic characters.
At the turn of the 20th century, English gentlewomen were meant to be seen and not heard, arm candy for their titled husbands. They were certainly not meant to be amateur sleuths. But Lady Emily Hargreaves becomes embroiled in a murder investigation (again) within hours of arriving in Luxor, Egypt, in Tasha Alexander’s 16th mystery starring the aristocrat, Secrets of the Nile. Lord Bertram Deeley, an antiquities collector of note and the Hargreaves’ host, is found dead on the dining room floor, the aroma of bitter almonds indicating that he was poisoned with cyanide. The Egyptian police identify a suspect in short order, but the suspect bolts, and truth be told, he didn’t fit the profile especially well anyway. As Lady Emily’s private investigation proceeds, it becomes apparent that many of the guests had reason to loathe their host; surprisingly, even her mother-in-law has a motive. In alternating chapters, Alexander tells the story of Meryt, a young female sculptor in ancient Egypt, whose work will play a prominent role in Lady Emily’s case some three millennia hence. Secrets of the Nile has it all: a glamorous locale, plucky heroine and supporting cast worthy of a Kenneth Branagh film.
John Connolly’s latest mystery featuring private investigator Charlie Parker offers an intriguing change of pace for his legions of readers. The Furies is two masterfully crafted novels in one book, with each novel covering a separate but interconnected case. The first novel, The Sisters Strange, tells the story of sisters Dolors and Ambar Strange and their unusual relationship with Svengali-esque ex-convict Raum Buker. Raum is always on the lookout for an easy mark, and it seems as if he may have found it in Edwin Ellercamp, a collector of rare ancient coins. Edwin is soon found murdered, choked to death by a portion of his vast coin collection. Raum has no history as a killer, however, making the mystery of who murdered the collector one that will test Parker’s mettle like very few cases have. The second novel, The Furies, finds Parker in the employ of two women. The first is Sarah Abelli, a mob widow suspected of knowing where her husband hid a fortune in dirty money before he was killed in prison. Extortionists have stolen mementos of her deceased daughter and will not return them until she coughs up the cash, which she maintains to anyone who will listen that she does not have. The other is Marjorie Thombs, whose daughter is trapped in an abusive relationship—a situation exponentially exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Of course, as is the case with all of the Charlie Parker mysteries, there is an element or two of the supernatural to factor in—nothing to the degree of books by Stephen King or Anne Rice, but certainly enough to occasion some vague uneasiness if you are reading late at night.
Archer Mayor’s Fall Guy, the latest in his long-running series featuring Joe Gunther, field force commander of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, opens with a dead body in the trunk of a stolen car. The details of the car’s theft are suspect, however, as its GPS data mark it as being outside a strip club at the time that it was purportedly stolen from the owner’s driveway. Along with the dead body, the car contains a cell phone with evidence of the sexual abuse of a child. An interjurisdictional task force is formed to investigate, which allows Gunther and his subordinates to cross state lines—in this case, into nearby New Hampshire—to follow the clues. Gunther’s team, based in Brattleboro, Vermont, is more like a family than a collection of co-workers. Thirty-plus books into the series, the evolving relationships among the characters never detract from the police procedural structure. In fact, the web of connections enhances the story, showing how the various members of Gunther’s team deploy their strengths and shore up one another’s weaknesses to function as a well-oiled crime-solving machine. If you’re new to Joe Gunther, don’t be surprised if upon finishing Fall Guy you immediately seek out the previous books in the series.
★ Sometimes People Die
Simon Stephenson’s darkly hilarious mystery, Sometimes People Die, harks back to classic English satire a la Kingsley Amis or Evelyn Waugh, perfectly updating their sarcastic yet somehow still endearing tone for modern-day readers. Stephenson’s unnamed narrator is a third-rate Scottish doctor in a third-rate London hospital, on probation for stealing opioids and still dealing with his addiction on the q.t. He has little use for anyone else and typically thinks he is the smartest person in the room—but he usually isn”t. Nonetheless, he is pretty funny and occasionally displays a redeeming quality or two despite himself. Then patients in his ward start inexplicably dying, and he finds himself at the epicenter of the police inquiry into these suspicious deaths. When a suspect is finally arrested, our protagonist has his doubts and launches his own clandestine investigation. His sleuthing skills turn out to be little better than his medical skills, however, and things rapidly go wildly off course. With ten months of 2022 behind us, I am confident this will be a (or perhaps the) best book of the year for me.
When his patients start mysteriously dying, a third-rate doctor has a chance to become a first-rate sleuth in Simon Stephenson's darkly hilarious Sometimes People Die, this month's top pick in mystery.
When you’re a spy, regime change is tricky. Even positive shifts can make for treacherous times. Two novels uncover the messy, uncertain lives of intelligence operatives in times of tectonic political change: Allison Montclair’s The Unkept Woman explores English life after World War II, at the dawn of the Cold War, while Dan Fesperman’s Winter Work illuminates the turmoil surrounding German reunification as the Cold War was coming to a shaky close.
The Unkept Woman
A lighter riff on the espionage novel, Montclair’s The Unkept Woman is the fourth in a series about two women—Gwendolyn Bainbridge, an upper-class widow, and Iris Sparks, a former British spy—who run the Right Sort Marriage Bureau, a matchmaking service launched in the wake of WWII.
Witty and suspenseful, the novel brims with Noël Coward-esque banter. The primary mystery is how Helen Joblanska, an aspiring Right Sort client, ended up dead in Iris’ apartment. And why was a woman tailing Iris in the days before the murder? The events may or may not have something to do with the sudden reappearance and subsequent disappearance of Andrew Sutton, Iris’ married former lover and fellow spy, who had recently turned up on her doorstep looking for a place to hide out.
As the prime suspect in Helen’s murder, Iris is determined to find the truth, but she’s facing strong tail winds. The local authorities are openly hostile due to their resentment of her involvement in previous cases, and Gwen is unable to help Iris as her own freedom and future are hanging in the balance. She has been trying to recover custody of her son and her inheritance, but having once been labeled a “lunatic” and committed to an asylum by her family, it’s an uphill battle.
Montclair paints a compelling portrait of two intelligent, formidable women working against systems and circumstances that put them at a distinct disadvantage. They’ve grown used to having careers and being in charge of their own fates, often in the absence of men. But both Iris and Gwen are considered disreputable, and the social change they represent is seen by some to be a monstrous encroachment on the normal social order. As unruly women in an uncertain time, Iris and Gwen are as intriguing as the mystery they’re investigating.
★ Winter Work
Like The Unkept Woman, Dan Fesperman’s Winter Work savvily leverages the inherent messiness of the life of a spy. When Lothar Fischer, a colonel in the now-defunct East German foreign intelligence service (more commonly known as the Stasi), is found dead in the woods near his dacha, his right-hand man, Emil Grimm, is determined to find out what really happened. Some suspect suicide, as many other senior Stasi officials have made that choice in the face of potential prosecution now that the Berlin Wall has fallen, but Emil thinks that’s nonsense. To complicate matters, the surrounding neighborhood is thick with former spies, and there’s soon a scuffle over jurisdiction.
As a sympathetic Stasi officer, Emil provides a fascinating perspective for Western readers. In addition to the troubles of being an aging Cold Warrior, Emil also worries about his wife, who is seriously ill with Lou Gehrig’s disease. With the Stasi dismantled amid the general upheaval, Emil’s income and health care are uncertain, which makes his situation particularly precarious.
As Emil scrambles to make sense of what happened to Lothar while trying to secure his future, Fesperman effectively balances building the mystery with illustrating the broader historical context and personal stakes. The social dynamics in the story are handled brilliantly, with the lines between personal and political motivations appropriately nuanced throughout. There are a multitude of competing interests in Berlin, chiefly Russians trying to shut down the flow of information and Americans offering top dollar to informants. For Emil, who has long since lost his belief in the East German system and grown wary of surveillance in his own life, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is a shaky figure who can’t be relied upon to help displaced men like him in this new world order. With the Russian leader “too preoccupied with making the Americans fall in love with his new Perestroika,” some of Emil’s fellow officials are looking for hope in other figures. In a chillingly prophetic note, one of them is Vladimir Putin: “The KGB station chief in Dresden, that Putin fellow, is as outraged as we are,” they remark. The heavy toll of authoritarianism looms over the entire proceeding, making for a complex tale that will have readers rooting for a Stasi agent.
Regime change, murder—and matchmaking? In two thrilling novels, spies both former and current contend with a host of challenges.
Author William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor is an unusual sort of protagonist, a fast-food restaurateur who doubles as a private investigator. One might not necessarily think that a man with those qualifications would find a lot of sleuthing work in rural Tamarack County, Minnesota, but one would be mistaken. In Fox Creek, the 19th entry in Krueger’s long-running series, Cork is approached by one Louis Morriseau, whose wife, Dolores, has gone missing. Louis is concerned that she has run off with another man, Henry Meloux, an Ojibwe healer who also happens to be the uncle of Cork’s wife, Rainy. This scenario seems . . . unlikely, as Henry is somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 years old. As it turns out, Dolores actually is with Henry, but he’s guiding her through a sweat lodge ceremony. However, Louis is not actually who he claims to be but rather a member of a team of mercenaries bent on kidnapping Dolores for reasons unknown. Henry senses trouble and narrowly escapes upcountry with Rainy and Dolores in tow, but an expert tracker and two gunmen are in hot pursuit. Not far behind them, Cork and a tribal cop with a vested interest in the case join the fray. Tension mounts as Krueger pits modern tech against Ojibwe traditions, with unexpected twists abounding until the very end.
Bad Day Breaking
A bit to the east of Krueger’s Tamarack County lies Bad Axe County, Wisconsin, the setting of John Galligan’s riveting Bad Day Breaking. Beleaguered Sheriff Heidi Kick is facing uphill battles on at least two fronts: first, a personnel issue involving an overly aggressive deputy, and then a strange, Jonestown-esque cult that has taken up residence in a self-storage facility (to the chagrin of many locals, who are starting to resemble the torch-bearing, pitchfork-wielding villagers in dystopian horror movies). Sheriff Kick attempts to placate both the cult and the locals, with limited success at best. The pressure ratchets up dramatically after one of the cult members is murdered. And if there wasn’t enough on her plate already, Sheriff Kick must deal with the reappearance of a very difficult ex-boyfriend, a man whose imprisonment she caused who now, unsurprisingly, seeks to exact revenge upon her for his incarceration. Bad Day Breaking is a page turner of the first order, with a killer cliffhanger that will have readers anxiously awaiting Sheriff Kick’s return.
In rural New South Wales, Australia—part of the legendary Outback where spiders, snakes, crocodiles, etc., are all eagerly waiting to kill you—it bodes well to remember that sometimes the human inhabitants can be lethal as well. Such is the case in Shelley Burr’s debut, WAKE, which centers on the 20-year-old cold case of missing (and now presumed dead) Evelyn McCreery. Evelyn’s twin sister, Mina, soldiers on, now something of a recluse in her remote farmhouse. All these years later, she remains a suspect in the disappearance of her sister, particularly in online forums where the acronym WAKE is used to mean “Wednesday Addams Killed Evie,” a nod to Mina’s resemblance to actor Christina Ricci in the 1990s films about the creepy, unorthodox Addams family. Mina is forced to revisit Evelyn’s disappearance when Lane Holland arrives in town. A freelance private investigator, Lane makes his living via the rewards he collects after solving missing persons cases. Mina’s late mother established a reward of $2 million, but Lane isn’t just motivated by the money; something altogether deeper, darker and more personal has led him to Mina’s door. Burr won the 2019 Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger award for WAKE, and after reading it, you’ll be applauding their choice right along with me.
★From the Shadows
In James R. Benn’s From the Shadows, Captain Billy Boyle, a onetime Boston cop now assigned to the European theater of World War II, is snatched from some much needed R & R in Cairo and tasked with a dangerous new mission: Billy must locate an English operative in the wilds of Crete, after which they will head to newly liberated France via Algiers, liaise with the French Resistance and weed out enemies from allies. That’s the plan, anyway; but in wartime, things do not often go according to plan, and this mission is no exception. As is the case with the 16 previous books in the Billy Boyle series, the action takes place against a backdrop of real-life operations and personnel. The reader is introduced to Jack Hemingway, son of iconic writer Ernest; to Wells Lewis, son of author Sinclair; to the heroic 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit in U.S. military history, which was composed primarily of Nisei, second-generation Japanese Americans; to the stubborn and tragically inept General John E. Dahlquist, commander of “The Lost Battalion”; and to Daniel Inouye, who lost his right arm to a grenade in France and went on to serve as a U.S. senator for Hawaii. Without a doubt, I have learned more about WWII history from Benn’s novels than I ever learned from a textbook. Where he excels, though, apart from superb suspense plotting, is in documenting vignettes of humanity and its black-sheep cousin, brutality. Benn makes combat feel real and immediate to his readers, even those who have never experienced it firsthand. It would be impossible to depict war accurately without killing off some of the good guys, and there are a couple of losses here that will truly hurt, as they should.
These beautiful rural landscapes are anything but peaceful, plus James R. Benn's latest gets a starred review in this month's Whodunit column.
In The Half Life of Valery K, the titular Soviet scientist is released from a Siberian prison and transported to a town called City 40, which seems to be absolutely suffused with unhealthy levels of radiation. The most frightening thing? As Natasha Pulley reveals, towns like City 40 really did exist.
In the 1960s, across the Soviet Union, there were cities without real names. Instead, they had numbers that corresponded to P.O. boxes in towns miles away: Semipalatinsk 21, Chelyabinsk 40. Sometimes, even more ominously, they had code names like the Installation, the Terminal and the Lake. These cities did not appear on maps, the people who lived there couldn’t leave—many couldn’t even contact relatives on the outside—and they absolutely could not discuss what went on there.
These places were atomgrads: secret cities that hid the Soviet nuclear program.
It sounds like the plot of a Bond novel, but this system was actually an answer to the biggest problem the Soviet Union ever faced: how to keep the Americans from doing to Moscow what had been done to Hiroshima. The Soviet Union had a formidable nuclear arsenal, but the atomgrads made it so that very few people knew where all the parts were, how they fit together—or what the consequences would be if someone tried a hot war instead of a cold one.
I didn’t know about any of this until recently; I just stumbled over it. When the TV show “Chernobyl” came out a couple of years ago, I loved it so much I read Serhii Plokhy’s brilliant Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe for background. In it, he mentioned something that nearly knocked me off my chair. One of the reasons the scientists at Chernobyl had some idea about what to do when the plant’s nuclear reactor melted down was that this had happened before, at a place called Ozersk. Plokhy didn’t say anything else about it in his book, so I started looking into it.
Ozersk is a code name, derived from the Russian word ozero, which just means “lake.” Its other name is Chelyabinsk 40, meaning City 40. It was—and still is—part of that network of secret atomgrads. In the ’60s, City 40’s speciality was producing weapons-grade plutonium.
Late in 1957, something happened in City 40. We still don’t know exactly what. But we do know that thousands of kilometers of land around City 40 were irradiated. We also know that hundreds of people in a city 90 kilometers away were admitted to the hospital with radiation sickness. If people that far away were that sick, the amount of radiation released must have been enormous.
But unlike Chernobyl, hardly anyone in the West has heard of City 40, even today. In fact, when Soviet scientist Zhores Medvedev broke the news of it to the Western press in the 1970s, nobody believed him. A lot of Western scientists outright rubbished what he said. Nobody could accept that there had been a major nuclear disaster that stayed secret. But it did.
After I read Medvedev’s book about the disaster, and saw the declassified CIA documents he attached to it, I started writing. I started learning Russian and looking at archive footage and poking through the website for Rosatom, Russia’s current nuclear agency, which has plenty of information about City 40. I did a course on nuclear physics so I could actually understand the documents I was finding. The picture that emerged was so strange it could have been from a comic book, and I think that’s partly how it stayed secret. The truth is so bizarre that it doesn’t sound like it can be right: hundreds of thousands of people exposed to radiation and radioactive land that remains dangerous today; widespread health problems even now because of it; and at the heart of it, a facility called Mayak—the Lighthouse—that actually produced the polonium that killed Alexander Litvinenko, a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in 2006.
All this led to The Half Life of Valery K, which is about a scientist sent to work at City 40 in 1963, and what happens when he starts staring too hard at its secrets.
When something seems too good to be true, it probably is. In her U.S. debut, Miss Aldridge Regrets, British author Louise Hare illustrates that idea with deliciously suspenseful, Agatha Christie-esque results.
The year is 1936, the place is Soho, London, and the star of the show is 26-year-old Lena Aldridge. She has a regular gig at the Canary Club, owned by sleazy criminal Tommy Scarsdale. When she’s not singing, she goes on dates with her married lover and tries not to think about how much she misses her late father, Alfie.
Every day, Lena wonders: Will her big break ever come? The future’s looking bleak, but then a stranger named Charles Bacon appears with an astonishing proposal. His employer, an old friend of Alfie’s, is offering Lena a role in his Broadway play, and he’ll pay for first-class passage to New York City aboard RMS Queen Mary. Lena is thrilled and trepidatious, but then her boyfriend dumps her. And then Tommy’s murdered. After deciding that fate is urging her to exit stage right, Lena sets sail.
Readers will be enchanted by the period charm of Hare’s ocean liner setting and will swoon as Lena gets to know Will, a Black musician. Will notices right away that Lena is also Black, even though she’s been successfully passing as white for years. Lena knows that being Black will be even more of an issue in America than it was in England, a big change she’s not sure she’s ready for.
She’s also not ready for what happens on the Queen Mary: Someone murders one of the Abernathys, a wealthy family that Charles insisted Lena spend time schmoozing. As the ship glides across the Atlantic, its posh sheen gradually dulls in the wake of destructive secrets and even more murders. Everyone’s a suspect, and the red herrings pile up as an alarmed Lena thinks, “I felt as though I were trapped inside my own detective novel.” Readers will enjoy playing sleuth, racing to figure out who did it, how and why, even as they ponder the ultimate question: Will Lena survive the trip to New York unscathed?
Miss Aldridge Regrets' 1930s ocean liner setting will enchant mystery readers even as author Louise Hare seeds disquiet and red herrings amid all the glam.
Daniel Nieh’s Take No Names is a blast from start to finish, a classic crime thriller that shifts into an over-the-top action romp.
Chinese American Victor Li is keeping a low profile in Seattle after being wrongfully accused of killing his father, who secretly worked for a Chinese criminal syndicate (the plot of Nieh’s 2019 debut, Beijing Payback). Drinking buddy Mark Knox recruits Victor to his security tech business for Victor’s computer skills and ability to speak Chinese and Spanish. But it’s not long before Mark enlists Victor in a lucrative side job: breaking into a government storage yard to steal and then sell unclaimed items seized from deported immigrants. It’s on one of these ventures they discover a painite, a rare gem worth a cool $250,000. The pair smuggle the gem to a buyer south of the border, where they are soon embroiled in a scheme by a U.S. military contractor to derail construction of a new Chinese-built airport in Mexico City.
Along the way, the two men form uneasy alliances with Victor’s estranged sister, Jules, and Sun Jianshui, who once worked for the same criminal syndicate as Victor’s father—and was the person who actually killed him. The interactions among all four main characters lead to both humorous and emotionally charged moments as they try to worm their way out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into. Victor and Mark are particularly likable, a pair of outcasts who have forged a unique and unexpected friendship.
Nieh, who has lived in the United States, China and Mexico, maintains a steady balance of humor, action and thrills, while also making some barbed commentary on American capitalism and Chinese globalization. The twists and turns come often, keeping the intrepid Victor and Mark on their toes as they run for their lives from one chapter to the next. What starts as a Joe R. Lansdale-esque crime thriller morphs halfway into an espionage caper à la Mission Impossible. If it sounds a bit over the top, it is—but that’s what makes Take No Names such an irrepressibly fun read.
Daniel Nieh's Take No Names is a blast from start to finish, a classic crime thriller that shifts into an over-the-top action romp.
What better to read on a hot summer day than a chilling thriller set in, well, Iceland? In Outside, Reykjavik native and internationally bestselling author Ragnar Jónasson turns the snowy “fjord-indented coastline [and] reindeer-haunted wilderness” of the Nordic island’s eastern highlands into an antagonist just as dangerous to the book’s central characters as the murderer (or perhaps murderers?) in their midst.
At first, there’s no thought of life-threatening peril when four college friends reunite for a woodsy weekend hike to hunt ptarmigan and catch up on one another’s lives. There’s Daniel, an aspiring actor who lives in London; Gunnlaugur, an argumentative lawyer; Helena, an inscrutable engineer; and Ormann, a wealthy tour company owner and leader of their trip.
An unexpected blizzard catches the quartet off guard, its fierce winds and zero visibility sending them into survival mode. Ormann knows of a hut they can hole up in until the worst of the weather passes—but just getting there is onerous as the snow piles higher, the air gets colder and the mostly amateur hikers’ nerves become frayed.
Once they get to the cabin, things get even scarier as frustration transforms into fear and life-or-death decisions are made more difficult by years-old resentments boiling up to the surface. Their paranoia grows in the cabin’s suffocatingly small space as Helena thinks to herself, “Guns, isolation, fear, and uncertainty—they were such an explosive cocktail.”
Jónasson inspires fast page turns via quick cuts among the four characters as they reflect on the past (so many secrets!) and frantically strategize about the present. Mini cliffhangers keep the story humming along; the author doesn’t shy away from ending chapters with lines like, “He had never been so afraid in his life.”
Spare prose and brisk pacing make for an immersive read that’s less about the individual characters and more about what they become when they’re forced together, no longer able to dissemble or hide. Will they work together to save themselves before it’s too late? Can they? Outside is an intriguing study of isolation, claustrophobia and the particular menace to be found in beautiful yet unforgiving terrain.
Outside is an intriguing study of isolation, claustrophobia and the particular menace to be found in beautiful yet unforgiving terrain.
The Drowning Sea is an atmospheric procedural starring a detective at a crossroads in her life.
Retired Long Island homicide detective Maggie D’arcy is spending the summer in West Cork, Ireland, with her Irish boyfriend, his son and her teenage daughter. They vacation in the picturesque village of Ross Head, but the idyllic trip is cut short when human remains wash up on the shore near their cottage. The body is that of Polish immigrant Lukas Adamik, whose disappearance months earlier led many in Ross Head to assume that he had returned to Poland. But when the police determine that the body was only recently deceased and rule out an accident or suicide, the mystery of where Lukas has been—and what happened to him—consumes the small community.
In addition to that, Maggie’s hostess, Lissa Crawford, asks her to look into the disappearance of her childhood governess, Dorothea. The Crawfords were once the owners of the local manor, Rosscliffe House, which Lissa sold after her family was beset by unfortunate circumstances. Chief among them was her father’s tragic suicide on the cliffs, after which Dorothea vanished. As Maggie investigates what happened to Dorothea, she realizes her case may be linked to the murder of Lukas.
The previous two Maggie d’Arcy mysteries have been set in both Ireland and Long Island, but The Drowning Sea completely immerses readers in Ross Head. Author Sarah Stewart Taylor creates a rich and slightly gothic atmosphere, with the ocean beating against the treacherous, wind-swept cliffs as Rosscliffe House looms over it all. Despite this subtle shift in tone, The Drowning Sea continues the series’ exploration of the inner life of its main character: Maggie becomes increasingly obsessed with the case, her dogged detective work serving as a distraction from the reasons for her retirement and the question of whether to uproot her and her daughter’s lives by permanently moving to Ireland.
The Drowning Sea‘s gorgeous backdrop and stalwart sleuth will satisfy and impress mystery readers, particularly fans of traditional whodunits.
The Drowning Sea's gorgeous setting and stalwart sleuth will satisfy and impress mystery readers, particularly fans of traditional whodunits.
In Julie Mayhew’s Greek island-set thriller, Little Nothings, little cuts do lasting damage and friendships are as intense and heartbreaking as romantic relationships.
Thanks to her friendless childhood and dysfunctional family, Liv Travers never felt like she belonged. Even getting married to her husband, Pete, and giving birth to a daughter, Ivy, didn’t fundamentally change how she felt. But bonding with Beth and Binnie at a singalong music class for mothers and babies radically shifted her perspective.
So when an interloper comes along and rocks their happy triad, it’s intolerable. The new girl, Ange, is shinier and bossier than Liv’s other friends. Soon she has them all in her thrall, and the vibe shifts from supportive and homey to acquisitive and competitive, like a suburban London version of “Keeping Up with the Kardishians.” Regular group outings now take place at fashionable restaurants with bills totalling hundreds of pounds a pop. Every part of the group’s lifestyle gets an upgrade, and everyone is expected to conform. It’s hard to keep up financially, and even worse, Ange seems to want to run Liv off. Liv is excluded from group events with flimsy excuses, and no one else notices the manipulation. All the “little nothings,” the cuts and insults delivered so casually, add up, and the hostilities increase during an expensive group vacation to the Greek island Corfu. How far will Liv go to protect her found family, and what will she risk?
Rather than follow a chronological timeline, Mayhew uses flashbacks to reveal what pushed Liv and her friends to the brink. It’s an effective, psychologically driven structure, with each flashback being triggered thematically by an event in the present. As the full picture emerges, it’s easy to wonder if any friendship is worth all that drama, especially as neither Beth nor Binnie really seems to have Liv’s back. But to Liv, these women aren’t just friends, they’re soulmates; Mayhew even likens the intimacy of these female friendships to marriage. In a way that’s reminiscent of both Nikki May’s thriller Wahala and the novels of Patricia Highsmith, the intense relationships are vital to the women’s sense of their own identities. Vowing to not be that lonely girl again, Liv in particular hangs on with the fervor of a person in a rocky marriage warding off divorce.
Anchored by a deliciously layered and desperately unreliable narrator, Little Nothings enriches the familiar setup of an intruder shaking up a happy idyll with a compelling, creative structure and distinctive voice. It’s obvious that what Liv needs are better friends and a truckload of therapy, but singular obsessions make for seductive and fun reading, even if the depth of Liv’s interiority makes the other characters look thin and shabby by comparison. A good choice for fans of relationship-driven stories with a sinister edge, Little Nothings hits the same sweet spot as the works of Lucy Foley and Liane Moriarty.
With her Greek-island set thriller, Little Nothings, Julie Mayhew hits the same seductive sweet spot as writers like Lucy Foley and Liane Moriarty.
Nothing ever happens in Ebbing—until one horrific weekend. Local Gone Missing follows a variety of residents in the tiny English seaside town, from an inquisitive cleaning lady with a dark past to vacationers with a secret agenda. It all comes to a head during a chaotic musical festival, one that ends with dual overdoses, a possible murder and a host of spilled secrets. Hopping back and forth before and after the incidents, New York Times bestselling author Fiona Barton spins a tangled web of dirty money, bloodshed and deceit.
For Dee Eastwood, a cleaning woman and wife of a recovering addict, it’s business as usual until one of her clients, the demanding Pauline, asks if Dee has seen Pauline’s husband, Charlie. The retired, formerly wealthy couple are living in a trailer until they have the money to fix up their crumbling estate, and Charlie has been struggling to pay the residential facility fees for his adult daughter, Birdie, who incurred a brain injury after a home invasion decades ago. Meanwhile, Detective Elise King, newly in remission from breast cancer, recalls seeing Charlie pre-disappearance at Ebbing’s first music festival—right before two young people overdosed on drugs of unknown origin. Are the two events related? When Elise finds Charlie’s decomposing body, even more questions arise.
Though Local Gone Missing‘s plot is wonderfully twisty with a surprising and satisfying conclusion, it’s the characters who stand out. Ebbing’s weekenders have their own complex motivations—especially a mild-mannered gay caterer and a middle-age father who are mysteriously connected to each other, and maybe to Charlie as well—but it’s the locals who will really draw readers in. Foremost among them is the compelling and well-drawn Elise, who’s struggling to adjust to life back on the force after returning from medical leave. Her retired librarian neighbor Ronnie, who’s eager to play amateur sleuth and surprisingly adept at sussing out clues, provides much-needed comic relief in this intense story of greed gone terribly wrong. Thanks to Barton’s airtight plotting and impeccable characterization, a minibreak by the sea will never seem relaxing again.
Using airtight plotting and impeccable characterization, Fiona Barton spins a tangled web of dirty money, bloodshed and deceit in Local Gone Missing.
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When you’re dealing with a murder mystery set in a possibly haunted high school, you need a practical, analytical lead investigator whose sense of humor is solidly intact. Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur is my methodical queen, her assessments of characters both living and dead as sharp as a jagged piece of glass, her self- deprecation just the right amount of wicked. She’s been underestimated enough in her life—and experienced enough prejudice—to gain a significant chip on her shoulder, which is more pronounced now that she’s been called back to her alma mater to investigate a murder in Elly Griffiths’ The Stranger Diaries. A line from fictional gothic author R.M. Holland’s most famous story is found with the body, so Kaur pays special attention to English teacher Claire Cassidy. Scenes from Kaur’s family life (she lives with her Sikh parents) provide a soft place to land after her most biting appraisals, such as when she’s considering the inanity of celebrity dancing shows. Why do people like dance competition shows? DS Kaur knows many things, but she hasn’t got a clue there.
She may not wear a trenchcoat or carry a magnifying glass, but novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro can investigate a mystery with the best of them. In her 2019 blockbuster memoir, Shapiro does an at-home genealogy test on a whim and accidentally uncovers a 52-year-old family secret: Her late father was not her biological father. This revelation kicks off a search for the truth that winds its way through all manner of thorny questions. What role did the emerging field of fertility science play in Shapiro’s conception? Were her parents aware that she was conceived using donor sperm? Did they intentionally keep this a secret? Were they duped by their doctor? Is her biological father still alive? Shapiro’s chops as a novelist shine in Inheritance, which is plotted as well as any mystery, with enough twists to keep you guessing about what detail she might uncover next. Determined to get to the root of her family tree, she is as indefatigable, dogged and determined as any fictional gumshoe.
The ursine protagonist of Jon Klassen’s debut picture book, I Want My Hat Back, is an exemplary detective. Faced with the mystery of his hat’s location, he immediately begins questioning potential witnesses. He’s polite and thanks everyone he meets for taking the time to speak with him, even though they offer no useful leads. He stays focused on the task at hand and isn’t waylaid by existential meanderings, such as when an armadillo asks, “What is a hat?” He’s helpful to his community, as we see when he offers assistance to a turtle who’s been trying to climb a rock all day. He believes the best of everyone, even rabbits wearing familiar red hats who claim they would never steal a hat. When he hits an investigative wall, he does exactly what I would do: He lies down and despairs until the solution comes to him. And he would never, ever, ever eat a rabbit. Not even a rabbit who stole his hat.
In Stuart Turton’s The Devil and the Dark Water, Samuel “Sammy” Pipps is basically a globe-trotting, 17th-century Sherlock Holmes. When a mysterious, seemingly demonic force begins to haunt Saardam, the ship he’s sailing on from the Dutch East Indies back to the Netherlands, you’d think that Sammy would immediately be on the case. There’s just one problem: Sammy’s locked in the Saardam‘s brig, where he is to remain for the entire voyage. Enter his bodyguard, Arent Hayes, an enormous former mercenary and all-around nice guy who’s deeply grateful to Sammy for giving him a purpose beyond body-slamming anybody dumb enough to face him in battle. As Turton gleefully tilts things into Grand Guignol horror, Arent is the down-to-earth port in the storm: humble to a fault, instinctively feminist when faced with a few female passengers who might be better at this whole sleuthing thing than he is and possessed of an unshakable (but still somewhat flexible) sense of justice. Turton maintains that he never conceived of Arent as being, well, sexy—but rather tellingly, many readers insist that he very much is.
—Savanna, Associate Editor
None Shall Sleep
To catch a teenage serial killer, the FBI recruits Emma Lewis and Travis Bell, who are teenagers themselves, for their capabilities as well as their atypical circumstances: Travis lost his father to a serial killer, and Emma is the sole survivor of one. The heroes of Ellie Marney’s thriller None Shall Sleep are remarkably refreshing as their personal and professional involvement in the investigation builds genuine tension and inner conflict. However, despite the novel’s many plotlines, Emma is at the heart of it all. I felt attached to her early on, especially when witnessing her navigate her sense of duty toward solving the case while grappling with the crime’s triggering nature. Her unique perspective and talents provide forward momentum, as she comes to conclusions that people who lack her insight would never think of. At the novel’s end, I wanted to keep following her as she drove away.
—Jessie, Editorial Intern
It takes a certain spirit to leap into action and pursue the slightest of clues. Our favorite sleuths, both real and fictional, get right down to business exposing the evidence and solving seemingly unsolvable quandaries, and we love them for it.
Lapsed Amish police chief Kate Burkholder returns in The Hidden One, the 14th entry in Linda Castillo’s popular series. This time, church elders call on Kate after the police unexpectedly make an arrest in a high-profile murder case that dates back more than a decade. It’s a little outside Kate’s bailiwick, but special circumstances apply: The suspect is Jonas Bowman, her first-ever boyfriend. He’s accused of killing Amish bishop Ananias Stoltzfus, whose remains have been unearthed in a recently cleared field. The murder weapon, an antique rifle found buried alongside the deceased, belonged to Jonas, a fact he freely admits while maintaining he had nothing to do with the crime. Kate’s nosing around brings to light some disturbing information about Ananias, suggesting that he had not been the upright individual one might have expected a bishop to be. And thus the suspect list lengthens, and then lengthens some more, as stories surface about Ananias’ malicious actions toward some of his parishioners. With great suspense, well-drawn characters and a totally unexpected ending, The Hidden One is a standout installment in a rightfully beloved series.
Vera Kelly: Lost and Found
The titular character in Rosalie Knecht’s Vera Kelly: Lost and Found is a PI (and ex-CIA operative) who lives with her girlfriend, Max, in Brooklyn in the early 1970s. When Max’s wealthy parents summon her to their home in Los Angeles, Vera joins her for moral support, although Max’s homophobic family would more likely refer to it as immoral support. Max disappears the next morning, and her parents’ cluelessness about what could have happened to her seems highly suspect to Vera. Seeing as she’s already persona non grata, Vera liberates Max’s Avanti sports car from the garage and sets off in search of her missing lover. And then, as they say, hijinks ensue. In addition to providing a fascinating and spot-on look at the LA of the 1970s and the lifestyles of the wealthy, entitled and dysfunctional, Vera Kelly: Lost and Found also contains my favorite line of the month: “To my surprise, I saw she was trying not to cry. It was like watching watercolor wick through paper.”
Paul Doiron returns with Hatchet Island, a new adventure featuring Maine game warden investigator Mike Bowditch. As the tale opens, Mike and his girlfriend, Stacey Stevens, are en route by kayak to Baker Island, home of the Maine Seabird Initiative, a project to restore puffin habitats and protect endangered avian species. It seems that the project manager, an irascible woman named Maeve McLeary, has gone missing, perhaps because of her anti-lobster fishing activism and the threats that followed. Three other researchers share the island with Maeve. In the following days, two of them are murdered and the third, Garrett Meadows, disappears. It is unclear whether Garett is another victim or the perpetrator, and the fact that he is the lone Black man in the lily-white community does not improve his prospects for vindication. Doiron paints a complex portrait of coastal Maine, where residents are caught up in uneasy alliances and squabbles among the townsfolk, the fishing community, eco-activists and the wealthy summer residents. It is a comparatively rare thing for tensions to rise to murderous levels, but when they do, it is a mighty fine thing to have a Mike Bowditch on hand to sort things out. Fans of C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett mysteries will particularly enjoy this gripping tale.
★ Little Sister
Detective Chief Inspector Jonah Sheens has just settled in for a pint of lager in the garden of the Spreading Oak pub when a teenage girl covered in blood emerges from the trellised gateway adjacent to the road. Concerned, he asks if she needs some help. She replies, “I don’t. But maybe Nina does.” When queried as to Nina’s current whereabouts, the girl replies enigmatically, “Oh, I’m not going to tell you yet, detective. That would be too easy.” And thus begins Gytha Lodge’s Little Sister, a cat-and-mouse game between the seasoned DCI and the girl, Keely, while the life of Nina, her younger sister, may hang in the balance. The story unfolds at a tantalizing and deliberate pace, especially in the first-person chapters from Keely’s perspective that detail years of abuse in the English foster care system. Jonah and his team begin to notice small discrepancies in Keely’s narrative that they take for clues, despite worrying that these breadcrumbs might just be clever manipulations on her part. And the clock ticks on. . . . Despite its borderline improbable premise, Little Sister is suspenseful to the nth degree as Lodge raises the bar for twists and turns to lofty nosebleed heights and saves a deliciously diabolical surprise for the very end.
A PI searches for her missing girlfriend in 1970s California and an Amish bishop has some dark secrets in this month's Whodunit column.
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Juliet Grames’ entrancing multigenerational family saga is based on the life of her grandmother, Stella, who was born in 1920 in the small Italian village of Ievoli and, 16 years later, immigrated with her family to Connecticut as World War II loomed over their homeland.