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STARRED REVIEW

Our top 10 books for March 2024

The best new books of the month include highly anticipated follow-ups from Sloane Crosley, Sasha LaPointe and Juan Gómez-Jurado.
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Book jacket image for 49 Days by Agnes Lee

49 Days is an unusual, profoundly moving graphic novel whose elegance belies its complexity and whose emotional impact only grows upon rereading.

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Book jacket image for All That Grows by Jack Wong

In All That Grows, Jack Wong evokes the soft haze of childhood summers where a small stand of trees might be seen as a huge

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Book jacket image for Black Wolf by Juan Gomez-Jurado

The Antonia Scott series is hands-down the best suspense trilogy to come along since Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.

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A lushly crafted tale of a Maine fishing village cursed by a mermaid, The Moorings of Mackerel Sky is a debut to submerge yourself in.

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Book jacket image for Mrs. Gulliver by Valerie Martin

In Mrs. Gulliver, Valerie Martin offers us an idyll, perhaps even a comedy. All’s well that ends well. We hope.

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Book jacket image for The Phoenix Bride by Natasha Siegel

Natasha Siegel’s beautifully written The Phoenix Bride pushes readers to reconsider what happily ever after looks like.

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Book jacket image for Thunder Song by Sasha LaPointe

Thunder Song is an essay collection full of sensitive meditations and powerful observations from Coast Salish author Sasha LaPointe.

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Book jacket image for The Unclaimed by Pamela Prickett

Gripping and groundbreaking, The Unclaimed investigates the Americans who are abandoned in death and what they tell us about how we treat the living.

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Book jacket image for The Great Divide by Cristina Henriquez

Cristina Henriquez’s polyvocal novel is a moving and powerful epic about the human cost of building the Panama Canal. It’s easy to imagine, in these

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Novelist, essayist, humorist and critic Sloane Crosley shows a remarkable willingness to face the dark questions that follow a suicide.

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Recent Features

Recent Reviews

The best new books of the month include highly anticipated follow-ups from Sloane Crosley, Sasha LaPointe and Juan Gómez-Jurado.
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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.

Careful listening and watchful waiting are essential to every investigator’s toolkit, and the characters in award-winning Dublin Murder Squad author Tana French’s suspenseful, slow-burning thriller The Hunter elevate those skills to an art form—not just former Chicago detective Cal Hooper but also his neighbors in Ardnakelty, a tiny village on Ireland’s west coast.

Since readers met Cal in 2020’s The Searcher, he and 15-year-old villager Trey Reddy have established a close rapport and started a carpentry business. Cal is also dating Lena, who’s conflicted about remaining in her hometown: Ardnakelty is lovely, but the shadow of the mountain often feels foreboding, and its residents revel in gossip and grudges. 

The village can be a bit of a pressure cooker, and is especially so this summer: It’s exceptionally hot and dry, and the locals are edgy about the prospect of crop failure and financial hardship. The farmers are getting bored, and as Cal’s amusingly insouciant yet vaguely menacing neighbor Mart tells him, “Boredom makes a man’s mind restless, and then he tries to cure the restlessness by doing foolish shite.”

That’s when Trey’s father, Johnny, reappears after four years away doing who-knows-what. He’s quite charming, wholly unreliable and has a proposition for the farmers: There’s gold in the mountain, and some has washed down to the land—perhaps their land. Would they like to invest in a plan to extract that gold, as led by Johnny and his business partner, a Londoner named Cillian Rushborough? The farmers are intrigued, while Cal, Lena and Trey are skeptical. Their trepidation intensifies as the planning process stirs up hostility among the townspeople, and rises to a fever pitch when a man is found murdered. Who among them did it? And who might be next? 

The Hunter’s finely crafted internal monologues and nerve-wracking dialogues ably convey the unique tensions of living in a remote small town, especially when one is uncertain which neighbor (or neighbors) might’ve committed a crime. It’s an immersive, thought-provoking tale that revels in the quiet moments—whether that of conversational gaps more revealing than spoken words, or a place of natural beauty that offers respite but never promises peace.

Tana French’s immersive, thought-provoking The Hunter revels in the quiet moments, but knows true peace is elusive.

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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Tracy Sierra’s debut novel is so terrifying that it can easily be considered horror-adjacent. A claustrophobic examination of the “freeze” response to trauma (as opposed to “fight” or “flight”), Nightwatching follows a mother desperate to protect her two young children amid unthinkable circumstances.

We open with an unnamed single mother half-asleep during a blizzard, listening for signs that her sleepwalking daughter may be wandering their old farmhouse. What she hears instead is an intruder ascending their creaky staircase, and the next several scenes unfold with horrifying slowness. Our main character can barely see the intruder in the dark, but feels an eerie sense of familiarity with him. With exquisite care, she manages to smuggle her two young children downstairs and into a secret compartment built into the old house, where they wait like cornered animals.

We never learn the name of our narrator, but she pulls the reader into the story with a point of view so close it nearly lapses into stream of consciousness. As she waits silently, comforting her petrified children and trying to keep them quiet, we see flashes of her life. In the past, she has always responded to shock and crisis with silence, making herself smaller, invisible. When she’s startled by a college boyfriend playfully tackling her from behind, she collapses, unable to make a sound. When her abusive father-in-law slaps her while in a rage, she’s unable to sever their relationship, instead trying to find fault in herself.

Sierra argues that there is value and bravery in the freeze response, showing how her protagonist’s ability to stay small and quiet protects her children with as much valor as a confrontation. But when she’s pushed beyond her limits, our heroine goes to extraordinary lengths to protect her family and advocate for herself, even when the police later question her story. Gaslighting and misogyny, evidenced not only by law enforcement but by the broader society around her, threaten the narrator’s family almost as much as the intruder, who vanishes as mysteriously as he came. Convinced he will return, she tries to make the police see and believe the threat against her and her children, despite her wavering voice.

Nightwatching is best suited for the thriller reader with nerves of steel—while rarely violent, it is a truly scary book. The intense plunge into the main character’s traumatic experience feels incredibly real and immediate, and the suspense doesn’t let up until the last moments of the novel.

Nightwatching is best suited for the thriller reader with nerves of steel—while rarely violent, it is a truly scary book.
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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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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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Recent Features

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

Tom Straw—the writer behind the bestselling real-life versions of TV character Richard Castle’s mystery novels—is kicking off a thrilling new espionage series with The Accidental Joe. Rockstar chef Sebastian Pike’s cooking travel show is the perfect cover for a covert CIA mission, even if Sebastian himself is less than thrilled with the idea. At least he can flirt with his handler, Cammie Nova, as a bonus. As the show travels through France, the danger and romance heat up to dangerous levels.

The Accidental Joe will hit shelves on May 14, 2024 and is available for preorders now. The thriller will be published by Regalo Press, an imprint distributed by Simon & Schuster that donates proceeds from every title to a charity of the author’s choice. Fittingly, Tom Straw has selected José Ramón Andrés’ World Central Kitchen.

Read on for the official summary of the book and its striking cover!


A maverick celebrity chef reluctantly agrees to let the CIA use his hugely popular international food, culture, and travel TV series as cover for a dangerous espionage mission.

When the CIA approaches celebrity chef Sebastian Pike about using his award-winning food and culture travel show as cover for espionage, the outspoken bad-boy host says no. When they point out how roaming the globe interviewing foodies, heads of state, rock stars, journalists-in-exile, poets, subversives, supermodels—even the pope—gives him perfect cover, Pike smiles and says, “F@#! no.”

They push. Promising it’s only one mission. Vowing he won’t be in danger. Calling him the MVB: Most Valuable Bystander. They’d embed their top agent in his crew to do the spy work.

It’s still no. But when they hit him with the patriotism card, he weakens. And when romantic sparks crackle between him and the female agent, Pike’s all in, kicking off a romantic spy thriller in which the globetrotting celebrity chef uses his TV series to help sneak Putin’s accountant out of Russia before he’s exposed as a mole for US intelligence.

The high-stakes mission quickly puts Pike in harm’s way. So much for MVB. There’s danger, there’s double dealing, there’s torture, there’s shooting with real bullets. Plus, a minefield of complications from the hot romance that grows between Pike and his gutsy CIA handler-producer, Cammie Nova.

From Paris to Provence, this chef is no bystander. Beyond their attraction, Pike and Nova become an operational team, not only to survive the perils they face but to pull off an operation fraught with one twist after another, capped by a shocking, emotional climax.


The Accidental Joe by Tom Straw cover
We're honored to reveal the cover of Tom Straw's new thriller starring a bad-boy chef turned CIA asset.
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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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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.

Juicy and dark, Rosemary Hennigan’s The Favorites is a standout dark academia thriller, with shades of Donna Tartt’s modern classic The Secret History and Emerald Fennell’s revenge fantasy film Promising Young Woman. Set at a Philadelphia law school in the days before and after the 2016 presidential election, The Favorites follows a bright young student dead set on avenging her older sister’s demise.

Jessica Mooney-Flynn enters Franklin University with one goal: ruin professor Jay Crane. As “Jessie Mooney,” the liberal Dublin native is accepted to Crane’s extremely select Law and Literature course and immediately begins her quest to become one of his infamous “favorites”: a status that is traditionally a gateway to prestigious clerkships, job opportunities and, if Jessica’s beloved older sister Audrey is any indication, a passionate affair. Back in Dublin, Audrey was the visiting professor’s favorite right before she dropped out of law school, self-isolated from her family and set out traveling, only to perish in a bus accident. Armed with text and email exchanges between the two—the last of which was Audrey’s missive “You know what you did”—Jessica seeks to entrap Crane. But what will happen when she too falls under his spell?

Hennigan knows the cloistered, clannish law school world firsthand: She studied the subject at both Trinity College, Dublin and the University of Pennsylvania. Jessica is a firecracker of a protagonist, intent on vigilante justice while still mourning the loss of her sister and fighting her growing attraction to an undeniably charismatic predator. Thanks to Hennigan’s strong voice and full embrace of the bumpy, twisty nature of retribution and revenge, The Favorites positively sings.

With its strong authorial voice and full embrace of the bumpy, twisty nature of retribution and revenge, The Favorites is a standout dark academia thriller.

Is the book always better than the movie or TV show? Better read these soon-to-be adaptations ASAP so you can decide.


The Sympathizer

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

April 14, 2024

Nguyen’s 2015 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel will be adapted as a miniseries by A24 (Everything Everywhere All at Once) and Team Downey (Sweet Tooth), set to air April 14, 2024 on HBO. Hoa Xuande will play the Captain, a North Vietnamese spy whose allegiance grows blurry after he joins a community of South Vietnamese refugees, with other by Sandra Oh and Robert Downey Jr. Read our review of Nguyen’s A Man of Two Faces.


Dark Matter

By Blake Crouch

May 8, 2024

Apple TV+ is adapting Crouch’s thriller sci-fi novel about a physicist who is sent into a parallel universe. Crouch is the creator and serves as an executive producer. Joel Edgerton (The Gift, Loving) will star. The television series will air on Apple TV+ on May 8, 2024. Read our review of Dark Matter.


Romancing Mr. Bridgerton (Bridgertons #4)

By Julia Quinn

May 16, 2024

After two incredibly successful seasons and one enchanting spinoff (Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story), Netflix’s hit TV series Bridgerton, which follows the romantic adventures of the seven Bridgerton siblings in Regency-era London, is back for a third season. Created by Chris Van Dusen and produced by Shondaland (Grey’s Anatomy), season 3 features Colin Bridgerton as he helps his friend Penelope Featherington find a husband, only to fall in love with her himself. Luke Newton and Nicola Coughlin (Derry Girls) will star. The first four episodes premiere May 16, 2024 on Netflix.


Fire and Blood

By George R.R. Martin

June 16, 2024

Fire and Blood began its journey to screens in 2022 with season one of the HBO series House of the Dragon. Set 200 years before the events of TV phenomenon Game of Thrones, this prequel traces the reign of the Targaryen family, focusing on the succession war between the children of King Viserys I. Season two of House of the Dragon will premiere June 16, 2024 on HBO. Read our interview with Martin about The World of Ice and Fire, his encyclopedic history of Westeros and beyond.


It Ends with Us (It Ends with Us #1)

By Colleen Hoover

June 21, 2024

Hoover is one of the biggest names in the romance genre. In 2022, her novel It Ends With Us topped the New York Times bestseller list and the Publishers Weekly adult list for months. Now, the fan-favorite book will be hitting theaters as a movie starring Blake Lively and Justin Baldoni. Despite some push backs in the shooting schedule due to the SAG-AFTRA strike, the film is confirmed for release on June 21, 2024. Read our interview with Colleen Hoover for her novel It Starts with Us.


The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce #1)

By Alan Bradley

TBD, but soon!

Bradley’s charming Flavia de Luce mystery series has sold over 4 million copies worldwide. Susan Coyne (Daisy Jones and the Six) is adapting the first novel into a feature film, which will debut at the upcoming Cannes Film Festival. Isla Gie (The Sandman) will play the titular character, an 11-year-old amateur detective and master poisoner who gets caught up in a murder investigation, alongside Martin Freeman (Sherlock, The Hobbit). Read our review of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.

Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer is the latest addition to a slate of upcoming book-to-screen adaptations you won’t want to miss.
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The Bullet Garden

After writing a trio of books about ex-Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger, author Stephen Hunter launched a second series featuring Bob Lee’s father, Earl Swagger, who is also a Marine and a Medal of Honor recipient to boot. It’s been 20 years since Hunter’s last installment in the senior Swagger series, but it comes roaring back this month with The Bullet Garden. The book serves as a prequel to the three Earl Swagger books that preceded it (Hot Springs, Pale Horse Coming and Havana), chronicling his adventures in France during the days immediately following D-Day. Swagger spearheads a secret mission to track down and kill German snipers who are systematically picking off Allied soldiers crossing the Normandy meadowlands (which the troops have nicknamed “bullet gardens”). A sniper himself, Swagger is a natural fit for the job at hand, but even his legendary skills will be sorely tested in this milieu. Fans of firearms history will find lots to like in The Bullet Garden, as will military strategy buffs, but there is truly something for everyone: a budding romance; layers of duplicity and intrigue; and an omnipresent sense of the importance of working together for a greater cause. 

Encore in Death

J.D. Robb’s Encore in Death is the (are you ready for this?) 56th entry in the wildly popular series featuring Eve Dallas, a police detective in 2060s New York City who, by my calculations, should be celebrating her first birthday just about now. Despite being set in a Blade Runner-esque future of androids, airboards (think hoverboards) and the much-appreciated automated chefs, Robb’s mysteries don’t need to rely on sci-fi trappings to engage the reader. They are straight-up classically constructed whodunits. And this case features a time-honored murder weapon: cyanide. Just as A-list actor Eliza Lane takes the stage for an impromptu song at her latest high society Manhattan party, there is a crash of glass, and Eliza’s husband, equally famous actor Brant Fitzhugh, collapses to the floor—dead, with the smell of bitter almonds emanating from his lips. The initial thinking is that Eliza was the intended victim, as Brant sipped from a poisoned cocktail he was holding for her, but as the investigation wears on, alternative possibilities present themselves. As all of the suspects have connections to the stage, there is no shortage of drama as the case unfolds. Robb is the pen name of legendary romance author Nora Roberts, and while that’s certainly evident in her descriptions of her male leads (“Those sea-green eyes still made her heart sigh, even after a decade . . .”), the suspense is also there in spades.

The Sanctuary

Of all the awful ways to die, being vertically bisected by an industrial saw like the murder victim in Katrine Engberg’s final Kørner and Werner mystery, The Sanctuary, must rank right up there at the top. The unidentified man’s left half turns up in a partially buried leather suitcase in a public park, and Copenhagen police detective Annette Werner is on the hunt for the killer. Clues lead to the remote island of Bornholm, an insular enclave where everyone knows everyone else’s secrets, but nobody seems disposed toward sharing any of that knowledge with the police. Subplots abound: a missing young man, possibly on the lam from the law, possibly the victim in the suitcase; a zealous preacher who roundly rejects the biblical teaching of turning the other cheek; a biographer whose scholarly visit to Bornholm to examine a deceased anthropologist’s letters is stirring up some old, long-quiet ghosts; a garbage bag full of money that nobody seems to be able (or willing) to account for. The identity of the culprit is an enormous surprise, but more surprising still is the emotional closure Engberg brings to long-running storylines, resulting in a very poignant moment for fans of the series in addition to a satisfying solution to the central mystery. 

The Twyford Code

Narrative conventions are cast to the four winds in Janice Hallett’s impressive second novel, The Twyford Code. The story consists of 200 fragmented voice transcriptions made by Steven “Smithy” Smith, a none-too-savvy mobile phone user who has only recently been released from prison in England. At loose ends, he decides to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his secondary school English teacher some 40 years back. Miss Iles (who often humorously appears in the transcriptions as “missiles”) had something of an obsession with the children’s books of one Edith Twyford, a character loosely based on real-life bestselling children’s author Enid Blyton. On a class field trip to Bournemouth to visit Twyford’s wartime home, “missiles” dropped off the map, never to be heard from again. As Smith’s belated investigation proceeds, he becomes increasingly obsessed with Twyford’s books as well, uncovering what may be hidden messages therein. State secrets, buried treasure, buried bodies? The clues are all there, but it will take a cannier puzzle-solving mind than mine to decipher them before Hallett is ready for the big reveal. The Twyford Code is easily one of the cleverest and most original mystery novels in recent memory, with an engaging main character, dialogue that grabs (and requires) your attention and more head-scratching suspense than any other three books combined.

A mystery told through voice transcriptions shouldn’t work, but The Twyford Code isn’t just this month’s best mystery—it’s one of the cleverest whodunits in recent memory.
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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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