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All Mystery Coverage

Who doesn’t love a pretty village? In these two debut mysteries, rolling countryside, cobbled streets and grand medieval manors create perfectly pastoral backdrops for murder most foul. 

The Antique Hunter’s Guide to Murder

Freya Lockwood is at loose ends: Her ex-husband is forcing the sale of their London home; their daughter, Jade, has left for university; and it’s been years since Freya’s been enthused about anything aside from motherhood. 

She once worked as an antiques hunter alongside her mentor, the debonair and wickedly intelligent Arthur Crockleford. They returned stolen antiquities to their rightful owners, a pursuit both exhilarating and fulfilling. But after a trip to Cairo ended terribly, Freya cut contact. She hasn’t spoken to Arthur or returned to her hometown of Little Meddington in the 20 years since.

As C.L. Miller’s The Antique Hunter’s Guide to Murder opens, Freya’s beloved and fabulous Aunt Carole calls with news of Arthur. He’s been found dead in his Little Meddington shop, and Carole’s convinced he’s been murdered. To add to the emotional upheaval, Arthur left Freya a letter imploring her to find the culprit using cryptic clues he’s set out for her.

The quest begins at an antiques enthusiasts’ weekend at nearby Copthorn Manor. The ivy-covered mansion is set on beautiful grounds, but inside the house, things are far from pretty. The shifty cast of characters present is filled with likely suspects, all of whom are ill-mannered at best and dangerous at worst. Can Freya and Carole untangle the deadly connections between past and present before the killer strikes again?

Miller adds authenticity by name-checking real antiques with help from her late mother, the author and “Antiques Roadshow” expert Judith Miller. Readers will enjoy following the trail of clues alongside Freya and Carole, who must also contend with their conflicting feelings about Arthur. This series kickoff capably combines a treasure hunt, a murder mystery and complex relationship dynamics, and is sure to keep readers curious and engaged, while perhaps pining for their own special antique, too.

How to Solve Your Own Murder

Kristen Perrin’s How to Solve Your Own Murder also centers on amateur sleuths who are aunt and niece. Although in this lively, twisty tale, Great-Aunt Frances is the recently deceased victim, found in the library of her stately mansion in the village of Castle Knoll.

Her 25-year-old great-niece and aspiring mystery novelist, Annie, is present for this sad discovery, being one of the family members and advisors Frances summoned to Gravesdown Hall to discuss her will. But while Frances’ demise is a terrible shock to the group, it wouldn’t have surprised Frances herself: In 1965, a fortuneteller told the then-teenager, “All signs point toward your murder,” and she’s been trying to preemptively solve her own murder ever since.

Castle Knoll residents have long scoffed at Frances’ belief in the prophecy, and bristled at her investigations of their foibles and indiscretions—all of which are detailed on a floor-to-ceiling murder board. That board will come in handy, since Frances left Annie and the other guests at Gravesdown an assignment: Whoever solves Frances’ murder within the week will be the sole heir to her money and property. If the police crack the case first, the estate will be turned over to real estate developers, thus destroying the charm of the village filled with those who doubted Frances.

Those drawn into Frances’ game include Saxon, her nephew and the village coroner; handsome and enigmatic Detective Crane; and Walter, her lawyer and friend. There are secrets and conflicts of interest galore, plus multiple ways to access Gravesdown Hall undetected, making for an absolute pile of red herrings. And while Castle Knoll is “like a picture on a biscuit tin,” there’s plenty of ill intent roiling beneath its delightful surface. Can Annie stay safe and find the murderer before week’s end? 

Perrin juggles characters and clues with aplomb, sketching in the past via teen Frances’ journals and immersing readers in the present through Annie’s determined, good-hearted point of view. Readers will root for her as she gains hard-won confidence in this entertaining exploration of family secrets.

All whodunit fans know that little country towns are really dens of sin.
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Meddy Chan and her meddlesome family are back in The Good, the Bad, and the Aunties, Jesse Q. Sutanto’s delightful final entry in her bestselling Dial A for Aunties trilogy.

Meddy and her new husband, Nathan, are ending their extended honeymoon with a stop in Jakarta, Indonesia, where they’ll spend the Lunar New Year with Meddy’s extended family. Of course, Meddy’s mom and the Aunties have traveled from America to celebrate, too. The holiday kicks off with a visit from a special admirer of Second Aunt’s—who may or may not be a mafia lord. He brings gifts to woo Second Aunt and the Chans, but accidentally gives away something very valuable, meant for a rival crime boss. Meddy and the Aunties jump into action to retrieve the gift and wind up facing down criminals, kidnappings and rude teenagers in their wildest outing yet. 

You don’t need to read the first two Dial A for Aunties mysteries to follow all the hijinks in The Good, the Bad, and the Aunties, but fans of the series will recognize how much Meddy has grown, especially when it comes to asserting herself to her loving but domineering Aunties. They may frustrate Meddy with their headstrong opinions, but they will delight readers with their often unintentional funny moments. All of the humor is top notch, despite the threats of warring crime lords and kidnappings. It’s touching to see how each Auntie thrives during their return to Indonesia, and Meddy and Nathan’s relationship is another highlight. Nathan is as steady and supportive as ever, despite all the chaos. When the book ends, Meddy’s no longer looking back on all the troubles she and the Aunties have escaped; instead, she’s looking forward to her future with Nathan. 

The Good, the Bad, and the Aunties is a fun, fast-paced read and a satisfying conclusion to the popular series.

With top notch humor and endearing relationships, The Good, the Bad, and the Aunties is a satisfying conclusion to Jesse Q. Sutanto’s beloved series.
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STARRED REVIEW

March 12, 2024

9 true crime-inspired mysteries and thrillers

With the huge boom in true crime books, podcasts and documentaries has come a parallel wave of mysteries and thrillers that examine the pleasures and pitfalls of the genre. These books form a literary hall of mirrors, turning the voyeuristic gaze of true crime back upon the reader. You may not like what you find.

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Conviction

A true crime podcast leads a woman on a dangerous adventure across Europe in Denise Mina’s crackling new novel, Conviction.
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Devil House

In his shapeshifting, extraordinarily ambitious third novel, musician and writer John Darnielle proves his versatility yet again.
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catchherwhenshefalls

Catch Her When She Falls

Catch Her When She Falls is wildly suspenseful and almost gothic in tone, providing thrills without any gritty or gory aspects.
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lasttovanish

The Last to Vanish

The latest from Megan Miranda is a perfectly balanced cross between a cold-case mystery and a psychological thriller that features a fascinating amateur sleuth.
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wake

WAKE

Author Shelley Burr won the 2019 Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger award for WAKE. After reading it, you’ll totally understand why.
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These books turn the voyeuristic gaze of true crime back upon the reader. You may not like what you find.
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The Boy Who Cried Bear

Building on the success of her Rockton series, Kelley Armstrong’s Haven’s Rock series is about a secret town in Canada’s Yukon wilderness, where people fleeing a dangerous situation can hide safely in the company of other, similarly afflicted residents. Think of it as a private witness protection program, with security provided by remoteness rather than hiding in plain sight. The latest installment, The Boy Who Cried Bear, has an absolute doozy of a setup. As you’d expect from the title, one of the residents, a preteen boy, sees a bear while on a hike. Or perhaps a yeti. Or perhaps it is just a tall tale, because he swears the bear had human eyes. But when the boy disappears into the forest, and bear fur is found near where he went missing, the search becomes a race against time to find him before the cold and the wildlife finish him off. His mother remains unconvinced.. She knows her son would not go off into the forest on his own, and she strongly suspects that one of the other members of the community is a pedophile. The truth of the matter is slightly more complicated. OK, a lot more complicated. And dangerous enough that a couple of folks will die violently before it becomes evident.

Hard Girls

J. Robert Lennon’s thriller, Hard Girls, is the story of Jane and Lila Pool, a pair of twins dealt a bad hand in life early on. When they were youngsters, their mother left one day and never came back. There were rumors about her departure, perhaps a clandestine lover or something altogether darker. Their distracted professor father didn’t keep much of a rein on them after that, and in fact paid them as little attention as possible. It wasn’t abuse, exactly, but it was certainly benign neglect. And as is often the case with twins, Jane and Lila were competitors as well as sibs, further egging each other on with each passing year, until one night a series of escalating events culminated in homicide. Justifiable? Arguably, but the actions they took after the fact muddied those waters significantly. They parted company with some recriminations, but with little choice in the matter. And so they remained for quite some time until out of the blue, their missing mother reappears in their lives, leading them on a merry chase across the continent and deep into Central America. I am just scratching the surface here: There are CIA-related complications, deadly expats, car chases, first-rate skulduggery and the weirdly resilient family ties that bind. All in all, Hard Girls is an original, multilayered and quite engrossing thriller.

★ Little Underworld

You could make a case for the prosecution that PI Jim Beely doesn’t mean to murder Vern Meyer in the opening scene of Chris Harding Thornton’s Little Underworld. It would be a hard sell, though, as Meyer molested Beely’s 14-year-old daughter, and Beely does, after all, hold Meyer’s head underwater rather longer than the world record for holding one’s breath. He thinks long and hard about how to dispose of the remains, and finally throws the body into the backseat of his car and heads back to town, with a plan to meet his undertaker friend who, for a fee, will help him dispose of the evidence. There he happens upon crooked cop Frank Tvrdik, who greets him with “Hate to break it to you—You got a dead guy in your backseat.” But Frank doesn’t much care about the body, except perhaps as leverage to get Beely’s help in taking down a corrupt politician. And nobody cares that the politician is corrupt, except that his corruption seems to be getting in the way of their corruption, and that cannot be allowed. Little Underworld is set in 1930s Omaha (of all places), with period-correct dialogue that is often darkly hilarious, reminiscent in tone of black-and-white gumshoe movies from the golden age of Hollywood. 

★ Black Wolf

The big news in mystery circles these days is Juan Gómez-Jurado’s Antonia Scott series, which has sold like panqueques (hotcakes) in its home country of Spain. Volume two of the trilogy, Black Wolf, has just been released. The temptation is strong to compare central character Antonia Scott to Stieg Larsson’s antihero Lisbeth Salander, but a) that has been done already by pretty much every reviewer up to now, and b) I think a much more apt comparison is to Keigo Higashino’s uber-talented police consultant Dr. Manabu Yukawa, aka Detective Galileo. Both Scott and Yukawa visualize connections that others miss, and both are in high demand with the police for their brainiac skills. Scott’s police contact is Jon Gutiérrez, a strong but slightly less than graceful gay man from the Basque Country. While Gutiérrez is trying (and failing) to fish a dead body out of a river in Madrid, a mafia figure is murdered in his home a half-day’s drive away on the south coast. The man’s wife is targeted as well, but she escapes, albeit barely. In hot pursuit is an assassin known as the Black Wolf (in Spanish, la loba negra). It falls to Antonia and Jon to track her down before the killer locates her. There is one area in which a comparison to Larsson is warranted: The Antonia Scott series is hands-down the best suspense trilogy to come along since Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Nothing else even comes close. The third one needs to arrive soon—make it so.

Our mystery columnist hails Juan Gómez-Jurado’s Antonia Scott novels as the best suspense series since Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.

Podcasts, subreddits and social media: There are countless ways to feed constantly hungry true crime fanatics. But where does lore end and truth begin?

Lucy Chase is an Angeleno with a deadly secret . . . that she can’t even remember. The snarky antihero of Amy Tintera’s Listen for the Lie has spent years away from her small, less-than-charming hometown of Plumpton, Texas, where one night after a wedding, her best friend, Savannah “Savvy” Harper, was found dead in the woods. Lucy was found on the side of the road covered in blood and bruises, Savvy’s skin under her fingernails. Everyone thinks Lucy did it—even her parents—but so far no one’s been able to prove it, though Ben Owens hopes to find answers with his popular true crime podcast, “Listen for the Lie.” After Lucy reluctantly returns to Plumpton to attend her beloved grandmother’s 80th birthday party, she’s determined to avoid Ben and his probing questions, her nice-guy ex-husband, Matt, and the voices in her head urging her to kill. There’s just one problem: Ben is incredibly persuasive and exceedingly attractive. Will Ben’s interviews with Lucy and the citizens of Plumpton lead her to finally remember what happened to Savvy—and to herself? 

Tintera is both a New York Times bestselling young adult author and a Texas native, and her adult debut features a protagonist who’s as laugh-out-loud funny as she is complex. Little does her family know, Lucy is a successful pseudonymous author of romantic comedies who’s worried that her burgeoning career will be damaged if she’s unmasked as a potential murderer. Skillfully alternating between Ben’s podcast transcripts and Lucy’s compelling narration, Listen for the Lie grabs ahold of the reader from its first line—“A podcaster has decided to ruin my life, so I’m buying a chicken.”—and doesn’t let go until the jaw-dropper of a resolution.

Unlike Lucy, Theodora “Teddy” Angstrom of Kate Brody’s Rabbit Hole still lives in her hometown; she even teaches at her old high school. A decade after Teddy’s wild child of an older sister, Angie, left for a party when she was 18, never to be seen again, Teddy’s father intentionally drives off a bridge, leaving Teddy and her now thrice-widowed Irish immigrant mother to reckon with their complicated and tragic family history. What begins as a casual glance at Reddit threads about Angie’s disappearance leads Teddy down the titular rabbit hole—and to speculation that Angie is, in fact, still alive. Does Teddy’s estranged half brother hold the key? What about Angie’s teenage crush, Bill, now a local handyman and conspiracy theorist whom Teddy becomes romantically involved with? And why is Reddit user and local college student Mickey almost too eager to help Teddy find answers? 

Brody’s debut novel is both a suspenseful mystery and a provocative portrait of a broken family. Teddy is a sharply intelligent and rather cinematically flawed heroine—with her weaknesses for alcohol, junk food and, eventually, firearms—who readers will nonetheless find themselves rooting for. Cases involving young, pretty missing women are veritable catnip for the online true crime community, who can and do project endless speculations, theories and questions that often damage more than they resolve. Teddy’s story urges readers to consider the real people behind the clickbait, who often hunger for closure to no avail.

Two female-driven mysteries explore our cultural fascination with tragedy.
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Ian Moore’s culinary cozy mystery Death and Fromage brings readers back to the picturesque Vallée de Follet in France, where murder is on the menu.

British expat Richard Ainsworth enjoys a quiet life running a bed-and-breakfast in Vallée de Follet, Moore’s peaceful stand-in for the Loire Valley. A middle-aged film scholar, Richard prefers the slow pace of the French countryside and the company of his beloved hens. But his tranquil life is challenged when a culinary scandal explodes involving feuding Michelin-starred chefs, cheese sabotage, nasty reviews and a possible murder. Valérie d’Orçay, a beautiful and mysterious return guest at the B&B, decides to investigate and asks for Richard’s help, bringing perhaps too much excitement to the expat’s life. As the bodies pile up, Valérie and Richard uncover a decades-old betrayal that’s about much more than cheese.

In the second installment of his Follet Valley series, Moore captures the beauty and drama of life in a small town. Richard is an unconventional hero: He’s unassuming and quick to deploy self-deprecating humor. Valérie, his lodger and investigation partner, fits the sleuth bill much better. She’s beautiful, brave and an exceedingly competent bounty hunter. They’re an unlikely pair, but they work well together while unraveling the many mysteries that surround them. 

Moore’s wry humor is a highpoint of Death and Fromage, as Richard’s self-deprecating British wit is often at odds with his French neighbors to great comedic effect. Secondary characters like the dogged commissaire Henri LaPierre and Richard’s estranged wife, Clare, provide both tension and laughs as they circle Richard and the investigation. Clare is a hilarious force of nature, often steamrolling Richard to get what she wants. 

The series would benefit, however, from deepening the characters of Valérie and Richard. It would be nice to see Richard come into his own, rather than following the lead of others, and while Valérie is an entertaining femme fatale, she has potential to be so much more. Hopefully, both characters will grow in future installments of this charming series.

In his second Follet Valley cozy mystery, author Ian Moore captures the beauty and drama of life in the French countryside.
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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.
STARRED REVIEW

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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Recent Reviews

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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Benjamin Stevenson’s fast-paced and funny mystery Everyone on This Train Is a Suspect takes readers on a deadly ride aboard a luxury train. 

After the success of his memoir about escaping a murderer in his own family, Ernest Cunningham is excited to appear as a panelist during the Australian Mystery Writers’ Society crime-writing festival aboard The Ghan, a famous luxury train. Ernest is looking forward to meeting the other panelists, all established authors, and is hoping that the trip will help end his current bout of writer’s block.

As the trip gets underway, Ernest finds that some of the writers are unhappy that he’s been invited and that the other panelists may know more about each other than they let on. When another writer suddenly dies, Ernest sets out to prove that it was murder and to unmask the killer. If not for justice, then for inspiration for his next book. Complicating his investigation, though, is the fact that all the other writers have spent years researching and writing about murder—and how to get away with it.

Everyone on This Train Is a Suspect is a delightful locked-room mystery that is rife with references to classic detective fiction. What sets this novel apart, though, is Ernest’s unique voice and humor as he walks readers through the story. The text is Ernest’s completed manuscript that chronicles the deadly events aboard The Ghan, and he’s clear from the beginning: Someone was murdered on this trip and he’s laying out the facts as faithfully as possible. Can readers solve the case before he did? Mystery fans will find lots to love, including Ernest’s early clues (the killer’s name appears exactly 106 times in the story) and references to Ronald Knox’s 10 Commandments of Detection Fiction. You don’t have to be a genre fan to enjoy this novel, though. A consistently enjoyable narrator, Ernest is funny, self-deprecating and relatable.

This is the second installment in the Ernest Cunningham series, following Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone. (Yes, the memoir that earned Ernest a spot on the writing festival is a real book.) But it’s not necessary to have read that book before diving into this one; Ernest reveals no spoilers, writing that his publisher wouldn’t be pleased with him if he did. Everyone on This Train Is a Suspect is a meticulously plotted and enjoyable mystery that lives up to the high standards set by Stevenson’s first mystery.

Everyone on This Train Is a Suspect is a delightful locked-room mystery that is rife with references to classic detective fiction.
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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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STARRED REVIEW

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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Ilium

As Lea Carpenter’s Ilium opens, the unnamed narrator feels not unlike an actor in a play: “I had no sense of what scene would come next, but as each scene evolved, I could start to see the way I would handle it. . . . It never occurred to me that the life you have is only in part the life you choose, because the moment you start to think you know what’s coming next, that’s when lightning strikes, shatters those windows, and rain starts to pool on the floor.” This is a heavy thought for a 21-year-old who has just wed a man 33 years her senior, and she will come to find out it is deeply portentous. Her new husband is a man of many secrets, not the least of which is that he is grooming her for a major role in a joint CIA-Mossad operation, a task she had been chosen for well before their “chance” meeting and subsequent engagement and marriage. All that said, Ilium is not merely an espionage novel, although there is a certain amount of subterfuge, to be sure. It is rather a story of relationships in which the good guys are neither especially good nor especially bad, and pretty much the same can be said for the bad guys. Ferreting out the truth of who someone truly is must be secondary to achieving the operation’s desired outcomes, and “therein,” noted the Bard, “lies the rub.” Ilium is a masterful literary novel posing as a spy novel, and succeeds brilliantly on both levels.

Northwoods

There’s precious little bucolic woodland ambience to be found in Northwoods, Amy Pease’s debut mystery set in Shaky Lake, a resort town in northern Wisconsin. Sheriff’s Deputy Eli North is plagued by a host of debilitating issues that date back to his military service in Afghanistan. He is about as beaten down as a man can be, yet he still possesses some sparks that make the reader root for him. As the tale begins, Eli is well on his way toward being drunk. He receives a call about a noise disturbance at a lakeside cabin and stumbles (almost literally) upon the lifeless body of a teenage boy. Murder is somewhat outside the purview of a rural sheriff’s department, so when it is discovered that a teenage girl has gone missing as well, the sheriff—who just so happens to be Eli’s mother—calls in the FBI to investigate. The winding road to the crime’s solution involves everyone’s favorite boogeyman, Big Pharma, and touches on the tension between townies and wealthy “summer people.” I strongly hope that Eli will be afforded a sequel or 10, and that he will find his way back to something resembling a normal life.

Two Dead Wives

It is unsurprising, I suppose, that a spate of recent crime novels have been set during the first COVID-19 lockdown. You would think that time would be the perfect milieu for a locked-room mystery, but Adele Parks’ Two Dead Wives is anything but. Once upon a time, there was a woman named Kylie Gillingham. Somewhere along the way, she took on two identities—one named Kai, one named Leigh (Ky-Lie, get it?)—married two different men and lived two separate lives. Now, she has been missing for two weeks. Statistically, that suggests she is dead, and conventional wisdom pegs the husband as the likely perpetrator. But which husband? One is currently in lockdown in his London apartment, and the other has done a runner to his native Netherlands. Meanwhile, a separate narrative unfolds about a woman named Stacie Jones, who is recovering at her dad’s seaside cottage after surgery to remove a brain tumor. She has lost a lot of her memory post-operation and, naturally, that suggests that a key to an important lock or two is buried somewhere in her mind. The investigators—one by the book, the other impetuous—play off one another well, and the two-pronged storyline is bound to engage fans of twisty thrillers and police procedurals alike.

Where You End

Where You End, Abbott Kahler’s debut novel, reads like the work of a seasoned writer. There is a reason for this: She has published a number of works of historical nonfiction as Karen Abbott, and boasts an Edgar Award nomination for Best Fact Crime for The Ghosts of Eden Park. As her first thriller begins, Katherine “Kat” Bird is not at all sitting in the catbird seat. She barely survived a car accident a couple of weeks back, and her memory has virtually been erased. She can form sentences and understand when people talk to her, but the only person she recognizes is her twin sister, Jude. Jude is Kat’s mirror twin—she parts her hair on the other side from Kat; her dimple shows up in the opposite cheek when she smiles. Slowly, Jude brings Kat up to date on the events that helped shape their lives for better and for worse: their father’s disappearance when they were young, their mother’s death, their post-high school backpacking trip to Europe. But there are nagging inconsistencies in Jude’s narrative. As Kat learns more about herself and as bits of memory fall into place, she begins to harbor doubts that Jude is being truthful. Couple this with newfound evidence of her own propensity for (and expertise at) violence, and Kat is shaken to her core. However much Kat thinks she knows, however much she is able to relearn, there is one person who knows her better: Jude, for better or worse. Don’t miss this scary, tense and provocative thrill ride!

Abbott Kahler’s debut thriller delights our mystery columnist, plus Lea Carpenter’s latest literary espionage novel impresses.

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