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The Last Murder at the End of the World

In Stuart Turton’s post-apocalyptic thriller, The Last Murder at the End of the World, the world as we know it came to a cataclysmic end some 90 years back, when a malevolent insect-infested fog engulfed the globe, killing everything in its amorphous path. Only a handful of survivors on a remote Greek island are still alive. The leader of the island is an older (17 decades’ worth of older) woman named Niema, who developed the means to keep the fog at bay, albeit too late for everyone in the world save for the island’s 122 villagers and two of her fellow scientists. And there they sit, living out the peaceful existence that somehow eluded humanity in all the millennia leading up to the end times. But there is trouble in paradise, as the narrator (a disembodied female voice eerily reminiscent of HAL the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey) lets the reader know from early on. The unthinkable is about to happen on the island—a murder, the resolution of which is key to saving the island from the fog, which has begun to penetrate the defenses that Niema set up all those years ago. If you like some sci-fi with your murder, or conversely, some murder with your sci-fi, you have come to the right place. It’s a locked-room mystery expanded to island-sized dimensions, with a narrator who may be putting a finger on the scale that will determine the continuing existence of humankind: Y’all ain’t seen nothin’ like this before.

The Last Note of Warning

Call it the Jazz Age, the Prohibition era, the Roaring ’20s; whatever you call it, it’s Vivian Kelly’s golden ticket to the naughtiness and revelry denied by her strict Irish upbringing before she emigrated to America. Her venue of choice is the Nightingale speak-easy, where she works pouring drinks for the high society clientele. The Last Note of Warning marks Vivian’s third appearance in Katharine Schellman’s popular series, in which atmosphere doubles as a character and murder abounds. This time out, the murder hits rather closer to home: The prime suspect is none other than Vivian Kelly herself, the damning evidence being wealthy businessman Buchanan’s dried blood on her hands. Luckily for her, some well-placed friends come to her rescue, but the best deal they can broker puts Vivian in the unenviable position of having to serve up the real killer within seven days’ time. The mystery grows, um, mysteriouser when Vivian starts to suspect that someone intentionally framed her for Buchanan’s death. And heaven knows there is no shortage of shady types hanging around the Nightingale. The characters are colorful, the story is deliciously well-spun and the ambiance will make you wish that you too had been a-struttin’ in the Jazz Age.

When We Were Silent

Auspicious debut alert: Fiona McPhillips’ When We Were Silent is the strongest first novel I have read in ages, right up there with Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising, my go-to example of first-timer excellence. If you attend Dublin’s prestigious Highfield Manor private school, the first thing you learn is “What happens at Highfield stays at Highfield,” even if it involves episodes that border on the unspeakable. Louise Manson is haunted by one such episode, even though it’s been nearly 40 years since her time at the school. By most measures, she didn’t really belong at Highfield. She was working class, inhabiting the same hallowed halls as the elite by virtue of a scholarship, not old money and familial connections. And she was not there for the prestige: She was there to exact revenge for her best friend’s suicide and to take down those she deemed responsible. Not to give away anything here, but this endeavor did not go too well. Spectacularly badly, in fact, and decades later Louise is still dealing with the fallout. But now in the modern day, thanks in part to that unwritten Highfield code of silence, she may have a second chance at retribution—or she may face fallout that far surpasses that first time around. When We Were Silent is not always a comfortable read, but you didn’t come here for comfortable, did you?

Farewell, Amethystine

Easy Rawlins is 50?? How the hell did that happen? When we think of him, we think of a young Denzel Washington from the film Devil in a Blue Dress, adapted from the book that introduced Walter Mosley’s iconic private investigator to the world way back in 1990. But hey, even Denzel is past 50 now. As Farewell, Amethystine opens, the 50-year-old Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins of 1970 is, by comparison to his younger days at least, less the firebrand and more the respectable businessman. That said, when a gorgeous young Black woman with a sad story enters his office, an event that has taken place with some regularity over the years, he can still be coaxed into action, and it is a fair bet that he will acquit himself much as he did in his younger days. Amethystine Stoller is missing one husband, and she appears convinced that Easy Rawlins is the go-to guy to find him. Which, of course, he does in short order, but the husband is sadly quite dead. Normally, Easy would tap his cop buddy, Melvin Suggs, to give him a hand with the parts of an investigation that only the police have access to. But at the moment, Suggs is in the wind with problems of his own. Do those problems include another beautiful woman? Well, yes. And will those disparate story lines have some points of connection? Seems likely. And will Mosley wrap it all up better than pretty much anyone else in the field? A resounding yes on that.

The iconic author’s latest Easy Rawlins mystery is another winner, plus our mystery columnist crowns the best new thriller writer since Attica Locke.
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The Mystery Writer

I tend to be skeptical of conspiracy theorists—wait, let me rephrase that: I think most conspiracy theorists are bat-guano-crazy, howl-at-the-moon wingnuts. So it was with some trepidation that I embarked on the reading of Sulari Gentill’s The Mystery Writer. One of the main characters is a dyed-in-the-wool conspiracy theorist caught up in an online matrix of resistance, revolution and heaven knows what else, who is led by a character named Primus, who for all we know may be a 42-year-old who still lives in his mom’s basement. Rent free. But let’s put that aside for a moment, and focus on the protagonist, Theodosia “Theo” Benton. Theo has made her way from Tasmania to her brother’s house in Kansas in hopes of becoming a writer. Against all odds, she befriends her literary idol in a local coffee shop, published author Dan Murdoch, whose presence in the corporeal world is, unbeknownst to him, racing toward a violent close. Oh, also, he may have been the aforementioned Primus. Or not. Conspiracy theories are notoriously flexible that way. But when Theo begins to look into the death of her friend/mentor, she will be forced to come to terms with the real-world consequences of internet rants. Gentill’s follow-up to The Woman in the Library is an original and entertaining read with likable characters (even some of the wingnuts), although it may put me off Kansas for a while.

The Stars Turned Inside Out

It’s been six years since author Nova Jacobs’ debut, The Last Equation of Isaac Severy, hit the bookstands, garnering an Edgar Award nomination for best American debut. And then we waited, and waited some more. I am quite happy to report that her second novel, The Stars Turned Inside Out, is well worth the intermission. Deep underground, in a secret location somewhere outside Geneva, the Large Hadron Collider goes about its business of smashing subatomic particles, allowing scientists to conduct all manner of experiments regarding the nature of the universe. When the body of physicist Howard Anderby is found in one of the tunnels, having apparently been exposed to lethal levels of radiation, security consultant Sabine Leroux is called in to determine the cause. Her investigation unearths several troubling situations that lend credence to the idea that Anderby’s death was not accidental. Sabine conducts interviews with other physicists and staff on-site, volleying scientific jargon back and forth, but it is all clearly explained, never overwhelming and will engender curiosity in the non-scientist reader. In Jacobs’ first book, the murder mystery was overlaid with mathematics; in this book, the murder mystery is overlaid with physics. I live in hope that the next one will feature chemistry or biology, and that I can further my education while doing what I enjoy—reading murder mysteries. 

Cast a Cold Eye

If violence is your cuppa oolong, look no further than Cast a Cold Eye, installment two of Robbie Morrison’s Depression-era, Scotland-set Jimmy Dreghorn series. His first, Edge of the Grave, won the 2021 Bloody Scotland Debut Prize for Crime Novel of the Year and I wouldn’t be surprised if the sequel carries on in that grand tradition. Violent crime in 1930s Glasgow tends to be domestic abuse or the result of gang-related scuffles, with fists, knives or razors as the weapons of choice. So when a boatman is executed with a single bullet to the back of the head, it is a shock. Inspector Jimmy Dreghorn and his sidekick, “Bonnie” Archie McDaid, get the case. The pair is awash in contrasts: Dreghorn is complex and unlucky in love, a John Rebus-like character out of place in the era; McDaid is a onetime Olympian wrestler who employs his martial arts skills to great advantage, often with humor that will be appreciated by readers, if not by his opponents. Morrison paints the Glasgow milieu in somber shades of gray and brown, often water-streaked and more than occasionally blood-streaked as well. The dialog is spot on, which is to say that there is a good case to be made for having a Scots-English dictionary near at hand. If you’re here for the action, the history, the brothers-in-arms camaraderie and a cracking good story, you’ve come to the right place, laddie.

Pay Dirt

V.I. Warshawski returns for her 22nd adventure in Sara Paretsky’s latest mystery, Pay Dirt. In this installment, the PI is not in her usual digs in Chicago, but rather in Lawrence, Kansas. That will not keep her out of trouble, though; she manages to find that pretty much anywhere. This time it’s in the form of Sabrina Granev, a teenage soccer player barely clinging to life after being found in a drug house, and a second woman who was not so lucky—found dead in the same house a few days later. The mystery explores financial greed; closely held family businesses; the mutual back-scratching of corporate interests, politicians, law enforcement officials and jurists; and a bunch of ripped-from-the-headlines points of contention: critical race theory (and ongoing racism in general), the specter of reparations, conspiracy theories, “wokeness” and more. And of course there are a couple of murders, and if the bad guys have their way, they will add Warshawski to that (growing) list. Warshawski remains in top form as she ages; battered some by life, perhaps a bit more acerbic and wryly cynical, but still a keen observer and first-person chronicler. As was the case with the 21 volumes that preceded it, Pay Dirt is unputdownable, a worthy addition to one of the finest series in modern suspense fiction.

Plus, the latest whodunits from Sulari Gentill, Robbie Morrison and Sara Paretsky round out a great month in suspense fiction.
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Veronica Speedwell, Deanna Raybourn’s lepidopterist turned sleuth, returns for the ninth time with all of her signature wit, wry observations and keen detective work.

A Grave Robbery finds Veronica and her lover, Stoker, faced with a strange and unsettling case on their home shores of England. When their patron, a collector of natural wonders and (occasionally) unnatural curiosities, acquires a lifelike wax model, he assigns Stoker the task of inserting a clockwork mechanism into his “Sleeping Beauty” so that she will appear to breathe. Much to their horror, Stoker and Veronica discover that the model is not a waxwork at all, but a meticulously preserved cadaver: a young woman who was pregnant at the time of her death. The pair embark on a quest to discover Beauty’s true identity, ascertain the means of her demise and determine if foul play could have been involved.

As with the other novels in her series, Raybourn revels in the minutiae of the Victorian era, this time providing readers with an ever-fascinating study of the period’s rituals—and technological advances—regarding mourning and the preservation of the dead. Nods to Mary Shelley as well as Burke and Hare compliment the macabre subject matter, which lends a darker spin to the proceedings this time around.

Longtime readers of the series will be pleased, and perhaps relieved, to find Veronica and Stoker in lockstep in this installment, with any romantic conflict set aside for the time being. As in prior books, their relationship offers a delightful counterpoint to the tension of the central mystery. An abundance of secondary characters, including fan favorites like J.J. Butterworth and Lady Rose, make frequent appearances (which may overwhelm readers who haven’t started from book one). Raybourn also introduces a young mortician named Plumbtree, who may become a series regular from hereon.

Fans of the Veronica Speedwell series certainly won’t be disappointed with this latest, more gothic mystery—and they’ll be thrilled to see Veronica and Stoker happily in love.

Fans of the Veronica Speedwell mysteries certainly won’t be disappointed with this latest, more gothic installment—and they’ll be thrilled to see Veronica and Stoker happily in love.

Top 10 books for February 2024

Beloved and buzzy authors such as Tia Williams, Francis Spufford and Katherine Arden took new and exciting directions in February!
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The author of the marvelous Winterlight trilogy makes her grand return to historical fantasy with this haunting tale set during World War I. Former nurse

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Book jacket image for A Love Song for Ricki Wilde by Tia Williams

Tia Williams broke out in a big way in 2021 with her emotional second-chance romance, Seven Days in June, and her follow-up novel sounds like

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Book jacket image for The Last Stand by Antwan Eady

Antwan Eady, author of the lovely Nigel and the Moon, unites with Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey! The acclaimed sibling duo wrote and illustrated This Old

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Book jacket image for Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar

It’s a special gift when a favorite poet writes a novel. Martyr! is Kaveh Akbar’s fiction debut, after poetry collections Calling a Wolf a Wolf

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In 1911, 12 Black men were delivered to the forest in rural Maryland and began building their new residence, the State Hospital for the Negro

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Award-winning author Amber McBride teams up with acclaimed poets Taylor Byas and Erica Martin to curate an electric, extraordinary lineup of contemporary and classic Black

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Book jacket image for City of Laughter by Temim Fruchter

Temim Fruchter’s remarkable debut novel is a book full of belly laughs, intergenerational wonder, queer beauty, Jewish history and storytelling that reshapes worlds.

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Book jacket image for Cahokia Jazz by Francis Spufford

Visit an alternate America where European colonization never took place in this intricately plotted police procedural from Francis Spufford.

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Book jacket image for The Gardener of Lashkar Gah by Larisa Brown

Larisa Brown’s The Gardener of Lashkar Gah tells the harrowing story of the Afghan aid workers that NATO left to their fates when the Taliban

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Book jacket image for The Cancer Factory by Jim Morris

Jim Morris’ urgent, heartbreaking The Cancer Factory traces how a known toxic chemical destroyed the health, happiness and lives of Goodyear factory workers.

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Beloved and buzzy authors such as Tia Williams, Francis Spufford and Katherine Arden took new and exciting directions in February!
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The Clinic

Celebrities in rehab: Newsworthy, if not especially surprising. Celebrities dying in rehab: front page, above the fold for at least a day, maybe even a week. But what about celebrities murdered in rehab? That’s the “what if” at the center of Cate Quinn’s deft new thriller, The Clinic. Let’s start with The Clinic itself, which is easily the creepiest setting for a suspense novel since the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining. The luxurious rehab center is set atop a remote oceanside cliff somewhere along the Oregon coast, awash in salt mist and mystery. When pop star Haley Banks dies of a heroin overdose at the facility, her sister, Meg, doesn’t believe the official story. Meg is a casino cop of sorts and, after some soul-searching, decides to launch an investigation of her sister’s death by posing as a patient seeking treatment. This will not be much of a stretch for Meg, as she is addicted to both alcohol and Oxycontin. If she is wrong about Haley’s death, she may get clean; if she is right, she may get killed. The story is told in the first-person perspectives of two different narrators: the aforementioned Meg and Cara, the manager of The Clinic. As they alternate chapters, Quinn tightly ratchets up the suspense. And the big reveal? I never saw it coming.

The Wharton Plot

Before starting Mariah Fredericks’ The Wharton Plot, I decided to read up a bit on Edith Wharton. I knew she had been the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence. Still, I had essentially written her off as the poor man’s Dorothy Parker, sharp of tongue but lacking in humor. But The Wharton Plot showed me how very wrong I was. Fredericks’ mystery reads like a story from an earlier time, as it should. It conjures up the ghosts of American aristocracy in much the same manner as an F. Scott Fitzgerald or a Nathanael West novel, and is filled with historical figures such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and his extended family, and muckraking writer David Graham Phillips, whose real-life murder is investigated by Wharton in the novel. It may take a chapter or two to settle into the narrative, which is written a la one of Wharton’s own novels, but once that hurdle is cleared, the book is simply unputdownable. And as with a healthy meal, at the end you feel a sense of accomplishment, as you have done something good for yourself.

The Busy Body

It is, I think, not the easiest thing for a man to write a story from the perspective of a woman. That said, author Kemper Donovan has done that so well in his fun and entertaining mystery The Busy Body that I was totally convinced he was a woman until I read his bio. (I get it that as a male reviewer, I am not the definitive authority on the accuracy of his portrayal, so I will simply say that I never questioned it. Not even once.) The story begins with Dorothy Gibson, a former senator who has arranged for a ghostwriter to pen her autobiography. While they are together at Dorothy’s home in Maine, a neighbor dies under mysterious circumstances, and the politician and her ghostwriter (who is an engaging and offbeat character, even though she is never given a name) launch an amateur investigation into the death. There are overtones of Agatha Christie and Knives Out, both in the unlikeliness of the mystery and the cleverness of its solution. This is, I guess, no surprise as Donovan hosts the podcast “All About Agatha.”

The Ghost Orchid

Psychologist Alex Delaware is back, along with his sidekick, Los Angeles cop Milo Sturgis. Their arrangement is somewhat odd in that it is exactly the opposite of the typical setup in which a cop is the central character and a specialist serves as foil for the heroics. But boy, does it ever work. Author Jonathan Kellerman has created one of the most enduring and acclaimed series in suspense fiction, the latest installment of which is The Ghost Orchid. The tony LA enclave of Bel Air provides the setting for the story, which begins with the murder of Gio Aggiunta, a wealthy Italian high-society ne’er-do-well, and Meagin March, his older—and married—mistress. Both have been shot, and the police cannot determine whether one was the primary target, or if it was just a burglary gone wrong. Nothing seems to be missing, so initially they fixate on March’s husband, a multimillionaire investor, because hey, it’s always the husband, right? But as it turns out, Gio has been the “correspondent” in several affairs with married women, which raises the question: If it is the husband, which husband? Kellerman’s prose is fast-paced without being in any way hurried or abrupt, and Delaware and Sturgis play off one another exceptionally well. The characters are as comfortable as old slippers, fictional friends whose company and adventures readers have enjoyed for decades. The Ghost Orchid is another excellent addition to a series full of excellent editions.

Mariah Fredericks’ new historical mystery turns the magisterial author into a gumshoe and the latest Alex Delaware novel wows our mystery columnist.
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Suppose, just for a moment, that the European colonizers of America hadn’t brought a whole host of diseases that wiped out a majority of the Indigenous population, and that Natives had thrived, rather than been decimated. What would Prohibition-era America have looked like, politically, economically and culturally?

In the alt-universe police procedural mystery Cahokia Jazz, Francis Spufford takes this premise and runs with it. It’s as if Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle met up with Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers in a 1922 speakeasy. 

Apart from the setting—the state of Cahokia, carved out of eastern Missouri and surrounding states—the story starts off in familiar, if somewhat gruesome, territory. Two detectives, Joe Barrow and Phineas Drummond, are investigating a murder in which the victim has had his heart cut out. On his face, the word bashli (from Anopa, the city’s Native lingua franca, meaning hit or cut) has been scrawled in blood. 

At first, the murder seems to have possibly been some sort of Aztec ritual sacrifice, but as the investigation progresses, it’s discovered that the deceased had links to the Ku Klux Klan, who very much want to replace Cahokia’s Native power structure with one of their own. 

The book’s debt to the likes of Raymond Chandler is evident throughout, as Detective Barrow steps into the hallowed role of the untarnished, unvarnished romantic who makes his way doggedly down these mean streets. And on occasion, Spufford’s language equals that of noir masters of yore: “He had opened the box at the city’s heart, and found it contained a secret, and a dark one, a grim sacrifice, but not a snake or a scorpion, not anything beyond the reach of the hope that every morning upholds hearts and cities. And now he was free to go. The city was done with him.”

There’s a bit of a learning curve for the reader, as unfamiliar language and culture weave through the intricately plotted narrative, but Spufford propels the Jazz Age action to a climax that is at once unanticipated and seemingly inevitable.

Visit an alternate America where European colonization never took place in this intricately plotted police procedural from Francis Spufford.
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February 6, 2024

Two thrilling new takes on noir

Grab your trenchcoat and a stiff drink—you’ll need it.

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By the time she was 12, Ámbar Mondragón knew how to treat bullet wounds. When she turned 13, her father, Victor, gave her a sawed-off shotgun plus shooting and hot-wiring lessons. And as Nicolás Ferraro’s My Favorite Scar opens, 15-year-old Ámbar is tending to her father’s latest injury: He’s returned from a night out with a bullet hole in his upper chest and his murdered friend Giovanni’s body in the passenger seat of his car.

To Ámbar, this horrifying turn of events isn’t all that shocking. Rather, it’s just another terrible moment in the life she’s lived since the age of 9, when Grandma Nuria, who cared for Ámbar after her mother abandoned her, had a fatal heart attack. Dad came to get her, and Ámbar since adjusted to an existence rife with violence and loneliness, one where she wonders if she’ll ever feel happy or secure. After all, while the titular “favorite scar” refers to Dad’s tattoo bearing her name, “He might carry my name on his skin, but he never held me in his arms. He chose my name, but he was never around until he didn’t have any other choice.”

Now, Ámbar has to tag along as Dad embarks on a singularly vicious road trip, determined to exact bloody revenge on those who betrayed him and Giovanni. My Favorite Scar is a nihilistic road novel of unrelenting bleakness that takes readers on a hair-raising tour of Argentina’s criminal underworld. The duo stop at bars, burial sites and hideout shacks where Dad delivers interrogations, warnings and beatings as Ámbar plays lookout or getaway driver, often with sawed-off shotgun in hand.

As in Cruz, his first novel translated into English, Ferraro explores the effects of criminals’ choices on children who become unwitting and/or unwilling accomplices. His deftly created suspense builds with every mile driven, every fake ID used, every drop of blood spilled. Will the cycle of violence ever end? Will Ámbar ever be anything but “what other people have left behind”? My Favorite Scar is a pitch-black coming-of-age tale that reverberates with oft-poetically expressed pain and sadness—and maybe, just maybe, a hint of hope.

Nicolas Ferraro’s My Favorite Scar is a nihilistic, hair-raising road trip through Argentina’s criminal underworld.

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The Final Curtain

For those of you who have followed Keigo Higashino’s Kyoichiro Kaga series since its inception, I bear sad tidings: The fourth installment in the series, The Final Curtain is also its last. If you haven’t read the previous three, don’t fret; the author brings you up to speed on everything you need to know in order to fully appreciate Tokyo Police Detective Kyoichiro Kaga’s final case. The story, partly told in flashbacks, explores the possible connections between a pair of present-day murders and the strange disappearance of Kaga’s mother, Yuriko Tajima, who vanished when he was a teenager. Kaga didn’t hear a peep from or about her until he was summoned to pick up her ashes from a club owner who had once employed her. As a longtime police detective, Kaga dislikes unanswered questions by nature, particularly when the questions are ones that have haunted him since childhood. But the mystery of his mother’s disappearance has persisted. Ten years later, however, another woman dies in an eerily similar manner: alone in an apartment, far from home. The narrative is complex and there are many names to keep track of, requiring the full attention of the reader; that said, Higashino has thoughtfully provided a list of characters at the beginning of the book. Japanese police investigations unfold in a rather different way than their counterparts in the West, which adds a layer of novelty for those who aren’t familiar with the series on top of the satisfaction of watching a clever, methodical detective get the job done.

The Fourth Rule

The fourth entry in Jeff Lindsay’s popular Riley Wolfe series, The Fourth Rule finds the thrill-seeking thief considering a heist of epic proportions: stealing the Rosetta stone from the British Museum. Never mind that it weighs the better part of a ton and is likely the most heavily guarded treasure in the U.K. after the crown jewels. This would be an over-the-top caper for even the most cunning James Bond villain, but for Riley, it actually borders on the believable. As he smugly notes early on in the narrative, “It’s just me, alone on top . . . Riley Wolfe, top of the heap, the best there ever was. End of discussion.” Um, hubris much? And we all know what happens to people in the iron grip of hubris. Comeuppance, that’s what happens. The grander the self-aggrandizement, the grander the comeuppance. Despite all this, Riley is something of a realist, mostly obeying the rules—Riley’s Laws—he has set out for his life of crime. Riley’s Fourth Law states: “Even if you’re the best there is, watch your back. Because somebody better is coming.” This rule should probably doubly apply when an attractive stranger enters the picture, but hey, even Achilles had a heel, right? The Fourth Rule offers up a tasty combination plate of humor, deception, suspense and villainy—and that is just on the part of the protagonist. Wait until you meet the villain(s).

Murder Crossed Her Mind

Ace private investigator Lillian Pentecost and her sidekick Willowjean “Will” Parker are back in Stephen Spotswood’s fourth mystery starring the duo, Murder Crossed Her Mind. The year is 1947; the location is New York City. The pair has been hired to look into the disappearance of retiree Vera Bodine, who has embarked on a late-in-life mission to expose Nazis hiding in postwar America, an uncommon and dangerous avocation for an 80-year-old. Bodine is reputed to have a photographic memory, and there are some villainous characters who would like to pick her brain or silence her forever. Perhaps both. Lillian, the senior member of the duo, has been somewhat sidelined by advancing multiple sclerosis, but she is as intuitive (and as crusty) as ever. She may do most of her detecting from an armchair these days, but she’s still very invested in securing the well-being of the heroic yet vulnerable Bodine. Will is the action figure, the Archie Goodwin to Lillian’s Nero Wolfe; like Goodwin, she is the narrator (and also like Goodwin, she’s a smartass). The feel is very much of the period in terms of lexicon, fashion and all the other minutiae that make for authentic storytelling. However, as Will and Lillian are both women and Will is gay, they have different perspectives on life as hard-boiled detectives in the 1940s than their forebears in the genre.  

The Other Half

I have long been a fan of English bad-boy writers of the mid-20th century: Kingsley Amis, et al. There is something about the boredom and superficiality of the posh and their hangers-on that appeals to my decidedly middle-class upbringing, and their humo(u)r is of the understated but wickedly delicious variety that I could feast on for hours. Fast forward to 2023, and their spiritual heir—or I should say heiress—is Charlotte Vassell, author of The Other Half, an equal parts modern and traditional English murder mystery chock-full of the rudderless overprivileged, trendy social media influencers and those drawn inexorably to their flame. As the book opens, socialite Rupert Beauchamp is hosting a somewhat ironic 30th birthday party for himself: replete with coke (not of the capital-C variety) and champagne—at McDonald’s. He is about to finish things with his girlfriend, Clemmie, and throw her over in the hopes of winning his longtime inamorata, Nell, who, it must be said, is less than thrilled with that prospect. When Clemmie turns up murdered the following morning, the partygoers comprise the primary suspect pool. Unsurprisingly for regular readers of mystery novels, everyone has an alibi, but trust detective Caius Beauchamp (no relation to Rupert, which becomes something of a running joke) to get to the bottom of things. Blisteringly funny, full of twists and turns, and featuring a cast of characters you will love to loathe, The Other Half deserves to be on your “read now” list.

Plus, the Kyoichiro Kaga series comes to a close and master thief Riley Wolfe tries to steal the Rosetta stone in this month’s Whodunit column.
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Agatha Christie fans, rejoice: Sophie Hannah brings back famed detective Hercule Poirot in the riveting Hercule Poirot’s Silent Night, the latest entry in her authorized reboot of the iconic series. 

Hercule Poirot and Inspector Edward Catchpool (Hannah’s own invention) are taking on a new case, this time brought to them by Cynthia Catchpool, Edward’s mother. Even as she invites  them to celebrate Christmas with her, Cynthia enlists their help in solving a murder—and preventing another. Catchpool thinks his mother is only scheming to spend time with him, but Poirot senses something amiss and agrees to take on the case.

They travel to Norfolk, where a well-liked and amiable man was recently murdered in a busy hospital ward. Local officials have yet to figure out how the killer was able to escape unseen, and Cynthia’s friend Arnold is due to be admitted to that very ward. Arnold’s wife believes her husband will become the next victim, so Poirot and Catchpool are asked to unmask the killer before Arnold is admitted—and possibly murdered. When Poirot and Catchpool begin their investigation, they have high hopes for a neat solution and a quick return to London. But as they unravel the mystery, the sleuths realize there’s more than meets the eye with this case, and they may be closer than they realize to the killer.

Hannah’s biggest departure is in creating Inspector Catchpool to narrate the series while Poiroit’s traditional companion, Arthur Hastings, is presumably in Argentina. The addition of a new viewpoint character allows readers to see the Belgian detective from a fresh perspective while also allowing Hannah to establish her own voice, which she does with aplomb even as she effortlessly captures Poirot’s essence. And Catchpool is a likable narrator: intelligent; bitingly funny, especially when ruminating on his complicated relationship with his mother; and devoted to Poirot.

The mystery itself is reminiscent of Christie, too—meticulously plotted and engaging, with multiple likely suspects. Readers looking for another puzzling outing with the famed Hercule Poirot will be richly rewarded with this new installment.

Sophie Hannah’s latest bitingly funny and meticulously plotted Hercule Poirot mystery effortlessly captures the Belgian sleuth’s essence.
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Ariel Lawhon’s expertly researched and immediately gripping The Frozen River transports readers to 1789 Maine, where a midwife must solve a murder to get justice for both a rape survivor and the deceased.

Martha Ballard is the midwife of the town of Hallowell, a position that also makes her the town’s unofficial keeper of secrets and women’s advocate. When pastor’s wife Rebecca Foster is violently raped by two men, Martha acts as her witness, hoping to help get justice for a crime that is notoriously difficult to prove.

The Frozen River begins four months after Rebecca’s assault, when one of the accused, Joshua Burgess, is found dead in the titular body of water. Martha acts in the capacity of a medical examiner, determining that Burgess was beaten and hanged, and she testifies to such in court. This places Martha in a perilous position, as the man she is testifying to is Colonel North, the second rapist and someone who certainly had motive to see his accomplice dead.

This historical mystery explores the inner lives and societal pressures of women in colonial America with nuance and complexity. Martha is a precise and knowledgeable healer, who chronicles her forensic insights in her precious journal. Her occupation affords her protection and status in her community; however, Hallowell is still a place where the word of a female victim has little weight and where mothers who give birth out of wedlock are fined for the crime of fornication—while the fathers are not.

Even as Martha bristles at the inequity women in her town face, she still seeks justice for Burgess, even if he was a violent criminal himself. All of this puts her at odds with men in seats of power—primarily Colonel North as well as a doctor who doesn’t respect her practice—and puts her livelihood and family at risk.

Atmospheric, unique and elegantly written, The Frozen River will satisfy mystery lovers and historical fiction enthusiasts alike.

Atmospheric, unique and elegantly written, The Frozen River will satisfy mystery lovers and historical fiction enthusiasts alike.
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Viviana Valentine and the Ticking Clock

New Year’s Eve: a fresh start, a clean slate. 1951, arriving in just a couple of hours, holds a lot of promise for New York City private investigators Tommy Fortuna and Viviana Valentine. Business is going well, and they are on the cusp of getting married. But as the clock ticks toward midnight, they stumble upon a murder in progress in a dark Manhattan alley. Viviana stays with the victim and attempts first aid while Tommy pursues the assailant. Both of their efforts are for naught, other than serving as the jumping-off point for Viviana Valentine and the Ticking Clock, book three in Emily J. Edwards’ critically acclaimed series. This investigation will be both on Tommy and Viviana’s own time and their own dime, as they have no client to bill for their work on the murder of the still-unidentified man. That said, they have a couple of other cases, each baffling in its own right, which will pay the electric bills and the secretary for the time being. The book is set in New York at a time when the electric shaver was new to the market, and the Polaroid camera was just beginning to be recognized as a powerful tool for investigators. Both devices actually play a small role in the story, evidencing the painstaking research that complements Edwards’ period-perfect dialogue and snappy humor.

Murder in Williamstown

Murder in Williamstown is Kerry Greenwood’s 22nd(!) installment in her long-running series featuring freethinking Australian aristocrat Phryne Fisher. (I have done the legwork of looking up the pronunciation of Phryne; it is “Fry-nee,” rhymes with shiny. You’re welcome.) Her latest case has an atmospheric milieu, a well-realized cast of characters and a rollicking plot, to boot. Phryne is something of a libertine, both in terms of her daytime investigative adventures and her amorous nighttime adventures. This time out, she is innocently swept up into the burgeoning opium trade taking place in her home of Melbourne, Australia. While visiting her sweetheart du jour, Phryne discovers the body of a Chinese man who was possibly aligned with a criminal element, and, a short time later, another murder occurs right in front of her eyes. The Chinese community in Melbourne is reluctant to involve the police, fearing anti-Asian prejudice, and the police, for their part, are pretty much okay with that. So it falls to Phryne to sort through the players and to dispense justice as she sees fit, which I must say she does in a more fair and balanced manner than any court of law I could imagine.

★ Edge of the Grave

Robbie Morrison’s debut novel, Edge of the Grave, unfolds in 1932 Glasgow, Scotland. The 1930s were a time of unrest in the industrial port city. The privations of the Great War gave way to boomtown prosperity, but the gap between the aristocrats and the working poor is as great as ever and the nights are ruled by cutthroat street gangs. Detective Inspector Jimmy Dreghorn, onetime bantamweight boxer and World War I soldier, has since advanced through the ranks of the Glasgow police. Despite being Catholic in a largely Protestant organization and despite having to practically stand on tiptoe to meet the minimum height requirement, Jimmy is a scrappy sort of guy, and not disposed toward taking any guff from anyone, regardless of their size. He is pulled off a particularly sickening murder of a young boy to investigate the death of Charles Geddes, a ne’er-do-well high society hanger-on with whose family Dreghorn shares some not entirely pleasant history. For readers who are fans of thrilling, well-choreographed violence, there is plenty to be found here. Nothing egregious by any means, but consider yourselves warned. It’s no surprise that Edge of the Grave won the 2021 Bloody Scotland Debut Prize for Crime Novel of the Year: The writing is first-rate and it is perhaps the best debut novel I have read this year. The catchall term for mystery novels set in Scotland is “Tartan Noir,” by the way. (I imagine it was first used in conjunction with the novels of Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, and then just kind of stuck.) And one thing you can be positively sure about in Tartan Noir is that somebody’s gonna get kilt. Sorry. (Not sorry.)

★ When I’m Dead

Black Harbor, Wisconsin, gets pretty chilly by late October, but the chill brought on by the nighttime murder of a popular teen overshadows almost anything the weather can deliver. Medical examiner Rowan Winthorp knows the girl who was killed; Madison Caldwell was a friend of Rowan’s daughter, Chloe, since primary school. One shudder-inducing detail? Madison’s teeth have been broken out of her jaw and scattered around her body. Rowan was at her daughter’s high school play when she got the call, and had to leave halfway through. Chloe, angry over the abandonment, lashed out with “You’ll love me more when I’m dead,” a statement echoed in the title of Hannah Morrissey’s third Black Harbor mystery, When I’m Dead. The investigation turns up several surprises early on: First off, it appears that Madison was not as well liked as some of the parents believed, but instead was one of the school’s mean girls. Also, there was no love lost between her and Chloe, come to find out. And now in the wake of the murder, Chloe has gone missing. Is she another victim? Or is it something altogether more insidious? Of all the books this month, this one, plot-driven to the max, is the supreme page turner; When I’m Dead is nigh-on impossible to put down.

Phryne Fisher and Viviana Valentine return, plus Hannah Morrissey’s third Black Harbor mystery proves absolutely impossible to put down.
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Veronica Speedwell returns in A Sinister Revenge, the eighth mystery in a series best described as Agatha Christie in the world of Victorian science and natural history.

Natural historian and butterfly hunter Veronica has been separated from Stoker, a fellow scientist who had become her sleuthing partner and lover. But Stoker’s brother Tiberius, Lord Templeton-Vane, reunites the couple by giving them a dangerous new case to solve. 

In his youth, Tiberius ran with a group of students who called themselves the Seven Sinners, but then tragedy struck at his family’s Devon estate when one member of their party died in an accidental fall while trying to claim a fossil from a cliffside. During the following years, two other members also met an early demise, and now a threatening letter has Tiberius believing that they may all have been murdered by one of their own—and that he might be the next victim. In a Christie-esque conceit, Tiberius invites the remaining members of the Seven Sinners to an elaborate house party, where he plans to confront them and, hopefully, where Veronica and Stoker will uncover the murderer. 

As the house party unfolds, it becomes apparent that the history of the Seven Sinners is more complex than Tiberius let on, with secret affairs and bitter jealousies complicating the past. Even as Veronica untangles the web of complex relationships, she struggles to reconcile Stoker’s distance from their own romantic partnership. As usual, Veronica’s keen observations and sharp wit contrast with her own occasional lack of self-awareness (especially when it comes to romance), making for a delightful read. Longtime readers of the series will be pleased to see regulars such as intrepid reporter J.J. Butterworth and ingenious chef Julien d’Orlande return. But ultimately, Raybourn’s masterful entanglement of Veronica and Stoker’s love story with the mystery at hand makes A Sinister Revenge a standout entry in an already excellent series.

Deanna Raybourn’s masterful balance between romance and mystery makes A Sinister Revenge a standout entry in an already excellent series.
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The Maltese Iguana 

Buckle up for another wild ride with Florida ne’er-do-well Serge A. Storms and his stoner sidekick, Coleman, in their 26th adventure, The Maltese Iguana by Tim Dorsey. The title, a nod to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, refers not to a precious statue but instead to its modern-day Florida counterpart—an iguana-shaped bong. The basic premise of the book is that Serge Storms, now fully vaccinated after a long COVID-19 lockdown, decides a celebration is in order, upon which mayhem ensues, both figuratively and literally. Meanwhile, a CIA operation goes off the rails in Honduras, and after barely escaping with his life, the agency’s local contact makes his way to Florida, putting both him and the agents the CIA sends after him directly in Hurricane Serge’s path. There are murders, explosions, drugs, mercenaries, Florida history and folklore, wild parties, an exotic dancer, an appearance by Captain Kangaroo, a boxing rabbit and enough pingpong balls to fill the trunk of an old Ford LTD. Imagine one of those newspaper articles in which the headline begins with “Florida man” and then imagine the article extending to 336 pages. That will give you a pretty good idea of what to expect in The Maltese Iguana.

Storm Watch

C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett mysteries have been excellent since the Wyoming game warden’s very first case, 2001’s Open Season. But Box’s latest novel, Storm Watch, is perhaps the most intricately plotted and fully realized of the bunch so far. Joe is on the trail of a wounded elk as an immense winter storm closes in, but he soon stumbles across something totally unexpected: a semi-decapitated body in a mysterious shed far off the beaten track. Joe only has time to take some photos before beating a hasty retreat in hopes of outrunning the snow. When he returns after the storm, the body has disappeared. What initially seems to be a lack of interest on the part of the sheriff soon morphs into a full-blown, high-level warning that Joe keep his nose out of matters that don’t concern him. (As if that could ever happen.) Conspiracies abound, reaching up to the highest levels of state government and involving uber-wealthy absentee ranchers, bitcoin miners and underground militias. There is a lot going on, but Box keeps all the balls in the air, culminating in an ending sequence that’s pure gold and extremely satisfying on multiple levels.

Murder at Haven’s Rock

Canadian author Kelley Armstrong is perhaps best known for her Rockton mysteries, a series of seven books set in the titular village, which is hidden in Canada’s Yukon wilderness and serves as a refuge for those who cannot be effectively protected by the authorities. The Rockton series’ protagonist, detective Casey Duncan, is breaking ground on a similar endeavor with her husband, Sheriff Eric Dalton. Their new village, Haven’s Rock, will differ from Rockton in only one major way: Casey and Eric plan to handpick the residents in hopes of eliminating some of the shortcomings of the Rockton project. But things do not get off to a good start. Murder at Haven’s Rock, the title of the new book, says it all. It starts when a couple of construction crew members break the cardinal rule—Do Not Venture Out Into The Forest—and never return. Casey and Eric launch a search for the missing workers but instead find the body of an unknown woman who has been stabbed to death. Just like Armstrong’s Rockton series, Murder at Haven’s Rock is an immediately intriguing mystery populated by well-drawn characters. It’s certainly accessible as a standalone read, but I wouldn’t be surprised if readers new to Armstrong immediately seek out her previous books after finishing this superb series starter.

The Cliff’s Edge

The mother-and-son writing team known in the publishing world as Charles Todd (the mother of which, Caroline Todd, died in 2021) boasts two hit series, each set in the years immediately following World War I. The first features Inspector Ian Rutledge, a cop haunted by the ghost of a wartime casualty, and Todd began the second in 2009, a spinoff series centered on Bess Crawford, a former combat nurse marked by her own war experience. As the 13th installment, The Cliff’s Edge, opens, Bess accepts a temporary nursing position to care for a wealthy woman after a surgery. While she is on duty, a tragic accident takes place nearby: Two men, Gordon Neville and Frederick Caldwell, fall from a rocky outcropping, with Frederick dying from his injuries. But things take an ominous turn when it is revealed that the two men shared a contentious past and that Frederick’s injuries seem inconsistent with his fall. It falls to Bess to care for Gordon, who has a dislocated shoulder and a badly broken arm, and she finds herself drawn into the mystery of what actually transpired at the cliff’s edge. Both men’s grieving and angry family members complicate the situation, as does a local cop bent on pinning a murder on Gordon. As is always the case with the Bess Crawford books, the writing is perfectly evocative of the period; the conversational style, relationships and manners are all very “Downton Abbey”-esque, making for an exceptionally pleasurable ride to the ultimate reveal.

Batten down the hatches—Serge Storms is back. Read our review of Tim Dorsey’s absolutely wild Florida-set caper in this month’s Whodunit column.

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