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All Suspense Coverage

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You Know Her

Meagan Jennett’s You Know Her is a crackerjack debut thriller. A book about a serial killer is not necessarily notable; there are many of those on the racks at bookstores. Books about female serial killers are in somewhat shorter supply, and a book in which said female serial killer is a narrator is fairly unusual. But here’s the kicker: You kinda want her to get away with it. Our soon-to-be-murderer Sophie Braam is a bartender when You Know Her begins. She has seen it all, and most of what she has seen has not been pretty. And then one day, a minor grievance becomes the proverbial backbreaking straw. A stolen glass of wine should not be a death sentence, you might argue, but if you had that argument with Sophie, there’s a good chance she would bring you around to her way of thinking. Sophie’s new best friend (although it is a somewhat guarded friendship) is police officer Nora Martin, one of the investigators of the first of Sophie’s murders. Nora has also seen it all, or so she thinks, but nothing can really prepare her for Sophie. Which brings us to kicker number two: You also kinda want the skillful, hardworking Nora to solve the murders. She deserves a big win to help her rise to the rank of detective, which would be a reward to be savored in her toxic, good-ol’-boy, small-town police department. Only one can win—let the games begin.

The Last Heir to Blackwood Library

Hester Fox’s The Last Heir to Blackwood Library contains romance, fantasy, the occult and religious zealotry gone off the rails; in short, it’s not your standard whodunit. However, fans of supernaturally tinged mysteries from authors such as T. Jefferson Parker and John Connolly will be intrigued by this historical spin on the subgenre, and other readers will be enticed by Fox’s first-rate writing, which is engrossing from page one. In 1927 London, the fortunes of one Ivy Radcliffe have radically changed. One day, she is sharing a drafty bed-sit apartment with her best friend and living hand to mouth. The next day, she is anointed Lady Hayworth, complete with manor house, staff, motorcar, income and a couple of handsome potential suitors. However, the solicitor who informed Ivy of her windfall neglected to tell her about the previous title holders, all of whom met with a premature and mysterious death. The Last Heir to Blackwood Library hews more closely to the mystery and suspense genre than to any other, I would say. And even though it’s more of a “whatdunit” than a whodunit, mystery readers of all types will enjoy it.

So Shall You Reap

There are series that readers return to again and again for nonstop action or a “ripped from the headlines” vibe. And then there are series that readers devour because the protagonist is a person of evident strength of character. Martin Walker’s Chief of Police Benoit “Bruno” Courreges, for example, or Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti would emerge close to the top of any such list as well. As So Shall You Reap opens, Leon’s Venetian sleuth visits a lovely, albeit somewhat neglected, old palazzo to inquire for a friend as to whether the property is for sale. A Sri Lankan man answers the door and informs him that the house is not on the market. It will not be their last interaction: The following evening, Brunetti will identify the man’s body after it is pulled from a canal. The subsequent investigation unearths inflammatory political screeds both from Sri Lanka and Italy in the man’s personal effects, which seem to be at odds with his devout Buddhism and calm demeanor during his interaction with Brunetti. It tosses Brunetti’s thoughts back to his time at university, when he was somewhat more radical in his politics than he is now as a world-weary policeman approaching retirement age. Italy in Brunetti’s younger days was plagued with bombings, kidnappings and murders, some of which are still unsolved. But one of them is about to be solved, in part by the dogged persistence of Brunetti, and in part by the almost humanlike persistence of a dog. This is the 32nd book in the series, and if it is your first Commissario Brunetti mystery, you will most likely turn immediately to the other 31.

Heart of the Nile

Although many readers regard Will Thomas’ Barker & Llewelyn mysteries as an homage to those starring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, I would suggest that they more closely resemble Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin mysteries. In both cases, the main sleuth’s assistant is the narrator, with both Goodwin and Llewelyn taking a decidedly tongue-in-cheek tone, especially in regard to the vicissitudes of their curmudgeonly senior partners. Both teams regularly run circles around the cops, be it NYPD or Scotland Yard, engendering awe (occasionally) and annoyance (much more regularly). Thomas’ latest mystery, Heart of the Nile, is the 14th installment in the series. It deals with the discovery of a mummy in the British Museum’s collection of ancient artifacts, the treasure trove of looted antiquities fondly known as “England’s Attic.” This particular mummy, however, may be the remains of Egypt’s most famous queen, Cleopatra. Supporting that notion is an immense uncut ruby laid in the chest cavity once occupied by her heart. The ruby disappears, people start to meet untimely and violent deaths, and Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn are summoned to unravel the mystery. This is an exceptionally entertaining series, jampacked with Victorian arcana and 19th-century London history, anchored by the quick wit and pithy observations of narrator Llewelyn.

In this month’s Whodunit column, Meagan Jennett’s crackerjack debut thriller tracks that doomed friendship. Plus, read all about the latest Commissario Brunetti mystery.
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Blood Will Tell by Heather Chavez zeroes in on the complicated relationship between Frankie Barrera and her younger sister, Izzy. Frankie always stands by her sister, even when Izzy makes questionable decisions, but things change when Frankie is wrongfully implicated in a child abduction case—a crime that may involve Izzy. When a dark incident from the past resurfaces, Frankie is forced to face difficult truths and the sisters’ bond is tested to its breaking point. Enriched by themes of family, duty and commitment, this captivating thriller will spark lively dialogue among readers. 

Rita Todacheene, the protagonist of Ramona Emerson’s Shutter, is a crackerjack forensic photographer with the Albuquerque, New Mexico, police. Brought up on the Navajo Nation Reservation by her grandmother, Rita has become disconnected from her past, in part because the ghosts of crime victims torment her. While Rita is photographing a suicide case, the victim’s ghost reveals that she was murdered and urges Rita to find the culprits. Things take a dangerous turn when Rita is targeted by a violent cartel. A multilayered work of crime fiction, Shutter will electrify readers. 

In Dervla McTiernan’s The Murder Rule, Hannah, a law student at the University of Virginia, lives with her troubled mother, Laura. Hannah works for the university’s chapter of the Innocence Project, researching cases in which people were convicted of a crime but maintained their innocence. As the novel unfolds, McTiernan incorporates entries from Laura’s diary that describe the death of her lover years ago, with a connection between that incident and a case Hannah researches adding a chilling twist to the narrative. Book clubs will find plenty to discuss in this complex novel, such as the difficulties of true justice and the nature of memory. 

Chris Pavone turns up the tension in the compelling Two Nights in Lisbon. During a trip to Lisbon, Portugal, Ariel’s younger husband, John, vanishes without a trace, leaving her alone in a strange country. John can’t be reached by phone, and the authorities are unable to find him. Frantic and frightened, Ariel comes to realize that John himself is a mystery, and his disappearance draws her into a web of danger. A consistently suspenseful tale, Two Nights in Lisbon explores the secrets that can separate husband and wife

Bring some suspense to your reading group with these impossible-to-put-down titles.

S.A. Cosby’s All the Sinners Bleed is at once a gripping character study and a darkly compelling example of Southern noir. As in his previous critically acclaimed novels (My Darkest Prayer, Blacktop Wasteland and Razorblade Tears), Cosby delves into the history, heart and hypocrisy of his home state of Virginia with anger and grace.

Titus Crown has an impressive resume: star quarterback of his state championship-winning high-school football team; top of his class at the University of Virginia and Columbia; standout FBI agent for 12 years. In 2016, he was elected the first-ever Black sheriff of Charon County, Virginia, where he grew up. It’s an experience he describes as being similar to living “in a no-man’s-land between people who believed in him, people who hated him because of his skin color, and people who believed he was a traitor to his race.”

Alas, the one-year anniversary of Titus’ election is marked not by celebration but by fear and grief, thanks to a shooting at the local high school. A young Black man named Latrell kills Mr. Spearman, a beloved white teacher. After a tense standoff, Latrell is dead, too, shot by Titus’ deputies.

Soon Titus learns that this shocking and seemingly inexplicable event is the tip of a truly horrifying iceberg. He was already well aware that “the ability of one human to visit depravity upon another was boundless as the sea and as varied as there were grains of sand on a beach,” and that belief holds true: Over the course of his investigation into the shooting at the school, Titus discovers that a serial killer who preys on Black children has been living among the close-knit Charon County community for years.

As he and his deputies race to catch the killer, Titus must also contend with neo-Confederates determined to march through Charon’s annual Fall Fest, persistent political pressure and his own personal struggles. Unresolved trauma and uneasy relationships with his father and brother peck away at Titus’ equanimity as he strives to protect the citizens of Charon County while reckoning with the pain of his past.

All the Sinners Bleed is a nerve-jangling, thought-provoking, often heartbreaking read, but also one that reminds readers “there was beauty in the world . . . if you knew where to look. It was there if you were brave enough or foolish enough to seek it.”

S.A. Cosby’s All the Sinners Bleed is a nerve-jangling, thought-provoking, often heartbreaking read that follows the first Black sheriff of a rural county in Virginia.
STARRED REVIEW

Our top 10 books of June 2023

Our top picks for June include the latest from S.A. Cosby, Dominic Smith and Uzma Jalaluddin, plus the first major biography of Martin Luther King Jr. in decades.

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Book jacket image for Horse Barbie by Geena Rocero
LGBTQ

Geena Rocero was a trans pageant queen in the Philippines who became a successful model in the United States. As you’d expect, her life story is a completely engrossing whirlwind.

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Book jacket image for How to Stay Married by Harrison Scott Key
Family & Relationships

Humorist Harrison Scott Key’s memoir of the fallout following his wife’s affair offers plentiful food for thought about faith, humor, courage and love.

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Book jacket image for Imogen
Children's & YA

Bestselling author Becky Albertalli’s latest novel offers a gentle, hilarious and authentic look at figuring out who you are on your own timeline.

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Book jacket image for King: A Life by Jonathan Eig
Black History

Jonathan Eig’s monumental biography takes Martin Luther King Jr. down from his pedestal, revealing his flaws, needs, dreams, hopes and weariness.

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Book jacket image for Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See
Fiction

Lisa See’s spellbinding historical novel, inspired by the true story of a female physician, vividly depicts 15th-century China with artfully woven details, rich characters and descriptive language.

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Book jacket image for Leg by Greg Marshall
Humor

Bitingly funny and full of blistering commentary and fierce familial love, Greg Marshall’s memoir is a winning debut.

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Book jacket image for Mole Is Not Alone by Maya Tatsukawa
Children's

Sweet and cozy—much like the cream puffs Mole makes—Mole Is Not Alone lends itself well to both storytime read-alouds and quiet snuggles before bed.

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Book jacket image for Much Ado About Nada by Uzma Jalaluddin
Contemporary Romance

Uzma Jalaluddin’s Much Ado About Nada is a heartwarming, tender and utterly winning adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

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Book jacket image for Return to Valetto by Dominic Smith
Fiction

With Return to Valetto, Dominic Smith doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but he doesn’t need to: He is a master of his trade who has executed a flawless novel that satisfies on all counts.

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Book jacket image for The Half Moon by Mary Beth Keane
Family Drama

Mary Beth Keane’s down-to-earth characters in Gillam are reminiscent of Anne Tyler’s wonderfully authentic Baltimore personalities.

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Our top picks for June include the latest from S.A. Cosby, Dominic Smith and Uzma Jalaluddin, plus the first major biography of Martin Luther King Jr. in decades.
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The Lock-Up

John Banville’s latest Quirke/Strafford mystery, The Lock-Up, stretches the boundaries of the genre. Ostensibly a police procedural set in 1958 Dublin, The Lock-Up is far more interested in its protagonists’ inner lives than it is in their detective work, and rather than celebrate its sleuths as bringers of order and righters of wrongs, it shows how their efforts toward justice can be, ultimately, meaningless. That said, it is well worth the read, because Banville’s characters fairly leap off the page. Pathologist Quirke is irascible as ever, but also lonely and grieving: “The thing about grief was that you could press upon it at its sharpest points and blunt them, only for the bluntness to spread throughout the system and make it ache like one vast bruise.” Detective Inspector St. John Strafford is a Protestant in a Catholic country, and a cop to boot—something for everyone to loathe. Together they investigate the death of Rosa Jacobs, a young Jewish woman with possible links to Wolfgang Kessler, a German refugee who made good in postwar Ireland and now appears to be involved with some shady dealings in the newly established country of Israel. The Lock-Up is beautifully written, the sort of book that makes you pause, reread a line and chew on it for a bit before continuing. Oh, and the ending? Good luck figuring that out before the precise reveal ordained by Banville.

Beware the Woman

Megan Abbott is one of the most skilled architects of suspense alive and has won or been a finalist for just about every major crime fiction award. Her latest thriller, Beware the Woman, finds her in top form once again. As the book opens, Jed and Jacy have just discovered that they are soon to become parents. They plan a holiday in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to visit Jed’s father, Dr. Ash, who lives in a luxurious “cabin” deep in the woods. As experienced readers will know, going to visit reclusive relatives in remote forests is like opening the attic door in a horror movie: guaranteed drama. As a retired physician, Dr. Ash is solicitous to a fault about Jacy’s pregnancy. When minor complications arise, he becomes rather heavy-handed about directing her care, never mind that he has not been a practicing physician for decades. Understandably, Jacy takes some exception to this but finds, to her dismay, that her husband has aligned with his father, and she soon becomes a virtual prisoner, held incommunicado. For sheer escalating tension, Beware the Woman rates right up there with Stephen King’s Misery; it just shouts to be read in one sitting.

The Last Drop of Hemlock

Katharine Schellman’s second Vivian Kelly mystery, The Last Drop of Hemlock, is set in Prohibition-era New York City. Vivian is a seamstress and delivery girl by day but a waitress at a speak-easy by night, doing the Charleston with lonely men in return for drinks. Said speak-easy, the Nightingale, is decidedly illegal and only exists as a result of liberally greased palms. Thus, an element of criminal activity is never far from the forefront. This time out, Vivian uses her connections to take a second look at a death that was initially ruled a suicide. The victim was Uncle Pearlie, a bouncer at the Nightingale who had purportedly just made a fortune via mysterious means. But when Vivian and her band of ne’er-do-wells go to his home, they find that his secret cache of cash has been emptied. Any lingering doubts that he was murdered are erased when his pregnant girlfriend comes forward and reveals that Pearlie’s windfall involved some particularly unpleasant gangsters. In the first book in the series, Last Call at the Nightingale, Schellman introduced a large and interesting cast of characters while also spinning a consistently suspenseful yarn. That is certainly still the case in book two, as Schellman tops herself in nearly every category.

The Pigeon

Joe Brody, aka Joe the Bouncer, returns in David Gordon’s The Pigeon, the latest entertaining entry in the popular series. It should be noted that bouncer does not begin to encompass Joe’s duties. He serves as a sheriff of sorts for the criminal underworld of New York City, a mediator for organizations not exactly noted for solving disputes within the confines of the legal system. His longtime pal Gio sets him up with what should be an easy gig, and one that pays well too: recover a gangster’s stolen racing pigeon. The bird’s worth is in the neighborhood of $1 million, and Joe will collect a 5% reward upon recovery. Under normal circumstances, it would be a simple B & E—stuff the bird into a paper bag and exit stage left. But it turns out that the pricey Central Park-adjacent apartment building the bird is being kept in features one of the most sophisticated security systems this side of Fort Knox. Before Joe can snatch the pigeon, a squad of hit men is hot on his trail. He makes good his escape through a long-unused dumbwaiter, but his troubles are far from over. His FBI agent girlfriend is questioning her judgment in being associated with the criminal element, the gangster is still clamoring for his missing pigeon and the hit men know where Joe lives, works and plays. There is plenty of humor in the mix, as in an Ed McBain or Elmore Leonard novel, and plenty of action, too, realistically delivered without being egregiously graphic.

Quirke and Strafford team up again, plus Megan Abbott returns with a terrifying pregnancy thriller in this month’s Whodunit column.
STARRED REVIEW
May 23, 2023

Readers’ Choice: Best Books of 2023 (so far)

The best books of 2023 (so far) as determined by BookPage.com readers include the latest from Abraham Verghese, Kate Morton, Jenny Odell and Ann Napolitano, as well as a remarkable debut from Margot Douaihy.
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The best books of 2023 (so far) as determined by BookPage.com readers include the latest from Abraham Verghese, Kate Morton, Jenny Odell and Ann Napolitano, as well as a remarkable debut from Margot Douaihy.

Is there truly honor among thieves? When one half of a con woman duo ghosts her partner, their loyalty to each other is put to the ultimate test. Promising Young Woman meets Heartbreakers in Wendy Heard’s sharp and sexy You Can Trust Me

Summer (not her real name) has been thieving since childhood and learned from the best: her itinerant mother, who abandoned Summer when she was 17 years old. Now almost 30 and based in Los Angeles, Summer has taken in a younger stray named Leo who ran away as a teenager after an unspeakable family tragedy. The women live together in a tricked-out van and relish in their specialties: Summer pickpockets rich, drunk clubgoers, and Leo cozies up to older men before financially sucking them dry. But when Leo unexpectedly falls for tech entrepreneur and environmentalist Michael Forrester and accepts an invitation to his private island, Summer finds herself alone . . . and worried. Where is Leo? Why hasn’t she reached out since her first night with Michael? And how can Summer get her friend back?

Heard, author of The Kill Club, She’s Too Pretty to Burn and other stylish thrillers, deftly alternates between Summer’s and Leo’s perspectives. Leo’s timeline lags a few days behind Summer’s but gradually catches up as the two keep narrowly missing each other and encounter the same deceptive, deadly characters set on eradicating them both. Heard keeps the stakes high—Summer doesn’t want to get the authorities involved, as she doesn’t even have a birth certificate—and the secrets plentiful, as Leo recalls the painful personal history she’s never even told Summer. Both protagonists are equal parts savvy and vulnerable, as well as all too aware of materialistic LA culture (Heard lives in LA herself) and the ways they can take advantage of it. You Can Trust Me blends realistic character development and nail-biting heists, resulting in a tale of a most unique, potentially murderous alliance.

You Can Trust Me blends realistic character development and nail-biting heists as it follows two con women who are in over their heads.
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The Devil’s Playground

I am a huge fan of noir mystery novels set in the early heyday of Hollywood, back when the iconic hillside sign still read “Hollywoodland.” This love likely started via books by Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West, and it carries through to the latest Tinseltown tome I have happened upon: The Devil’s Playground by Craig Russell. The year is 1927, and our leading lady is studio fixer Mary Rourke, who operates on the shady side of the law when necessary to cover up scandals that could threaten one (or more) of Hollywood’s Golden Age stars. Mary is summoned in the dead of night (a portentous phrase, to be sure) to the home of actress Norma Carlton, star of the supposedly “cursed” production The Devil’s Playground. Mary is stunned to find Norma dead, apparently by her own hand. This could tank the film, so a quick fix must be enacted to ensure that the public never suspects suicide. It all becomes more complicated post-fix, when the studio’s doctor discovers that Norma was strangled. Fast-forward to 1967, and journalist Paul Conway has been hired to find the one remaining copy of The Devil’s Playground, which is supposedly at a remote location in the California desert—if it even exists. If the search succeeds, Paul will be rewarded handsomely for his efforts. However, he will find more than he bargained for, including one of the most creative twist endings I have experienced in ages. The Devil’s Playground is definitely on my shortlist for best mystery of the year.

Dead Man’s Wake

You don’t have to wait long for the action to begin in Paul Doiron’s 14th novel featuring Maine Game Warden Investigator Mike Bowditch, Dead Man’s Wake. It starts with a literal bang in Act I, Scene 1: Mike and his fiancée, Stacey Stevens, are celebrating their engagement, but the festivities are interrupted by a speedboat crash on the adjacent lake. When they arrive at the scene, there is no wrecked boat in sight. But what is in sight is rather more gruesome: a recently severed human arm. The next day, the search team uncovers not one but two dead bodies, those of a local developer and his married girlfriend, and the whole situation begins to seem less like a tragic accident and more like a pair of premeditated murders. Homicide investigations don’t really fall under Mike’s purview, but as one of the local cops ruefully notes, Mike seems to insinuate himself into more such investigations than is usual for a game warden. There is no shortage of suspects: the cuckolded biker husband of the female victim; a pair of frat boys who had been racing around the lake; a female tourist who claimed to have witnessed the whole shebang but whose story seems less credible as the investigation wears on. Doiron packs in lots of twists and turns, and enough suspense to keep you reading well past bedtime.

The Guest Room

Tasha Sylva’s debut novel, The Guest Room, is a creepy psychodrama in which all the major characters have deeply disturbing weird streaks. Let’s start with Tess. Some time back, her sister, Rosie, was killed, and the murder was never solved. Still in a malaise of grief, Tess has taken to renting out Rosie’s room for Airbnb-style stays. Tess has a bad habit, though. When her guests are out, she gleefully rummages through their stuff. Tess’ latest lodger is Arran, who requests a one-month lease while looking for permanent lodgings. And naturally, the first time Arran leaves, Tess surreptitiously paws through his meager belongings and finds a diary. The diary reveals Arran to be a rather obsessive man—by many people’s definition, a stalker. He is affable, though, and quite handsome, which has not gone unnoticed by Tess. This brings us to Nalika, Tess’ beautiful friend. After Nalika and Arran meet, Tess reads the newest entry in his diary and realizes the latest object of his obsession might be Nalika. And maybe Tess is a bit jealous about that. Or more than a bit. The Guest Room is much more character-driven than plot-driven, but there are a couple of excellent plot surprises along the way. I will eagerly await Sylva’s next novel, and I bet you will too. 

A Stolen Child

A Stolen Child is Sarah Stewart Taylor’s fourth entry in her excellent series featuring American police detective Maggie D’arcy, who has relocated to Ireland and joined the Garda, the national police force of the island nation. Despite years of experience as a police detective in Long Island, Maggie is relegated to beat cop status upon passing the Garda entrance exam. But when a well-known fashion model is murdered and her toddler daughter is kidnapped, the force is stretched so thin that Maggie’s commanding officer decides to make use of her detecting talents. As Maggie takes charge of the two-pronged investigation into the murder/abduction, she quickly finds out that witnesses are few and far between and often reluctant to the point of intransigence. A Stolen Child is a nicely done, step-by-step police procedural, but it also offers much more than that: well-drawn characters; an insightful look at a rapidly gentrifying urban hub and its denizens; and off-duty relationships that lend notes of warts-and-all humanity to the players.

 

Craig Russell’s suspenseful look at the dark side of Old Hollywood blows our mystery columnist away, plus two perfect police procedurals and a deeply creepy debut thriller.

Sometimes you can’t help but root for the bad guys. 

Such is the case with housekeeper-turned-criminal mastermind Mrs. Dinah King and her eclectic gang of co-conspirators in Alex Hay’s debut novel, The Housekeepers. The novel is set in London’s wealthy Park Lane in 1905 during the height of the Edwardian era, which Hay describes in his introduction as a time of “opulence, scrappy characters, remarkable flashes of modernity, and layers of corruption that exist just underneath all that glamour.” 

The sprawling de Vries mansion, where Mrs. King works, is “seven floors high from cellars to attics. Newly built, all diamond money, glinting white” with treasures in every room: “stupendous Van Dycks, giant crystal bowls stuffed with carnations. Objets d’art in gold and silver and jade, cherubs with rubies for eyes and emeralds for toenails.” When we first meet Mrs. King, she is already on her way out the door, fired for certain indiscretions and making a mental list of everything of value as she goes. Unlike many disgruntled employees dismayed by the sudden loss of a steady paycheck, she is already plotting to turn her misfortune into opportunity. After recruiting a ragtag team of women, Mrs. King reveals her plot to take her former employers for everything they have.

From the outset, Hay makes it clear that Mrs. King is calling the shots. She tells her team in no uncertain terms that “we will have one object, one single plan. There will be no grumbling, no discord. If you’re given an order, you follow it.” And they do it with panache and style, right under the noses of the de Vries and their guests during a lavish costume ball.

Hay is equally in control, weaving a quick-fire, almost whimsical story of class and privilege, of low and high society. Half the fun is watching as the team stealthily smuggles in various burglary tools and smuggles out their pilfered treasures. But, as with most criminal endeavors, the slightest miscue or misstatement threatens to upend everything midheist. 

Already an award-winning book in its native U.K., The Housekeepers is mischievous, suspenseful and just plain fun from start to finish.

Alex Hay’s The Housekeepers is mischievous, suspenseful and just plain fun as it follows a gang of female thieves in Edwardian England.
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Sun Damage

If you reveled in the shenanigans of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, you’re the target audience for Sabine Durrant’s Sun Damage. A caper novel set in the sun-drenched south of France, Sun Damage follows a con man named Sean who plays Svengali to his acolyte, Ali, as they set up an elaborate scheme to relieve a young socialite of her fortune. It all goes sour when said socialite is killed in a boating accident that is perhaps not as much an “accident” as it appears. Ali realizes that she is at risk of taking the fall for the death, so she does what any good con artist would do: exits stage left. With any luck, that would have left Sean holding the bag, but of course, Ali’s plan soon goes remarkably awry. Durrant ratchets up the suspense as Ali does her level best to stay at least one step ahead of Sean, who is in hot pursuit, while also trying to elude the authorities. Or perhaps that is not what is really going on after all, because if there is one thing that Durrant is exceptional at, it is misdirection. This book needs to be read on a float in a swimming pool, or better yet, on a Mediterranean beach somewhere. But keep an eye on your valuables.

Fatal Legacy

Flavia Albia is a private informer, an ancient Roman precursor to the contemporary private investigator that conveniently utilizes the same abbreviation: PI. Flavia returns for her 11th case in Lindsey Davis’ intricate and entertaining historical mystery Fatal Legacy. The book starts out simply enough, with Flavia in pursuit of a pair of deadbeats who skipped out on their bill at her family’s restaurant. But after she deals with this infraction, the family of said deadbeats hires her for a much more complicated task involving a legacy that may not be entirely legal (would that be an “illegacy”?) and a surprising number of folks eager to obscure the truth for their own advantage. The debtors belong to the Tranquilla family, who were once enslaved but then freed by their former master’s will. But there isn’t any documentation asserting the freedom of one of them, Postuminus, and if Flavia can’t prove his status, his daughter’s impending marriage will be in jeopardy. Flavia is a witty observer of Roman family life and the low-grade skulduggery that was seemingly omnipresent in the ancient metropolis; it will be the rare reader indeed who does not get at least one unexpected chuckle per chapter. For my part, I will be seeking out Davis’ back catalog and paying regular visits to antiquity with Flavia. 

An Honest Man

Crime fiction icon Michael Connelly referred to Michael Koryta as “one of the best of the best, plain and simple,” and Koryta’s most recent offering, An Honest Man, supports that statement and then some. The titular honest man also happens to be a killer, and the book explores that dichotomy via two plots that dovetail nicely over the course of the narrative. The first follows Israel Pike, a convicted murderer and now prime suspect in a mass killing on an expensive yacht off the coast of Salvation Point Island, Maine. Israel’s accuser and nemesis is his uncle, the island’s police deputy Sterling Pike. The second storyline is about 12-year-old Lyman Rankin, who stumbles upon an injured, hatchet-wielding young woman who threatens his life if he should tell anyone she is hiding in an abandoned house on the island. Before Israel’s and Lyman’s stories resolve, there will be violence galore and the reveal of a seamy criminal underbelly, whose powers-that-be will stop at nothing to avoid prosecution. Koryta is a force to be reckoned with in modern suspense, and An Honest Man is one of his finest achievements to date.

The Lady From Burma

Allison Montclair’s author biography mentions that she devoured hand-me-down Agatha Christie paperbacks while growing up. Just as in Christie’s novels, murders abound in Montclair’s work, often in the most innocent of locales. Her sleuths, Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn “Gwen” Bainbridge, run a matchmaking service in post-World War II London. Their fifth adventure, The Lady From Burma, opens with a visit from the aforementioned lady from Burma, Mrs. Adela Remagen, who has a strange request for the duo: find a suitable wife for her husband. For she is dying and wants to ensure that her husband, Potiphar, has someone to care for him after she is gone. An eccentric entomologist with an affection for tropical insects, Potiphar is perhaps not the easiest client for Iris and Gwen’s small agency to match. And then Mrs. Remagen gets herself murdered. If you are in the mood for a modern-day rendering of Dame Christie, look no further. The Lady From Burma will be right up your alley.

Lindsey Davis’ latest Flavia Albia mystery reveals the criminal side of antiquity, plus two well-crafted novels of suspense and a delightful historical mystery in this month’s Whodunit column.
STARRED REVIEW
July 17, 2023

The 15 most thrilling books of summer 2023

Private Eye July, our annual celebration of all things mystery, suspense and true crime, is here! Here are the books that will have us frantically flipping through pages all season long.
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Book jacket image for The Housekeepers by Alex Hay

The Housekeepers

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Private Eye July, our annual celebration of all things mystery, suspense and true crime, is here! Here are the books that will have us frantically flipping through pages all season long.
Review by

The Secret Hours is a slow burning, artfully told and explosive excavation of the messy era of post-Cold War espionage. 

In the modern-day British countryside, a spry sexagenarian with combat skills goes on the run after thwarting an attempted abduction from his home in sleepy north Devon. The attack feels unreal and disorienting after years of quiet living undercover as a retired academic, a life of “long walks, cooking slow meals, losing himself in Dickens”—not taking down potential assassins.

About one day earlier in London, two MI5 civil servants are wrestling with a career-killing task: investigating whether the U.K.’s elite intelligence service has overreached and abused its authority in covert operations. But much like being exiled to Slough House, the purgatory for spies at the center of Herron’s award-winning series (and its acclaimed Apple TV+ adaptation, “Slow Horses”), to which The Secret Hours is a prequel, the so-called Monochrome inquiry is a dead end. A “screw-up start to finish is one of the kinder assessments.” Leading the halfhearted charge is Griselda Fleet, a middle-aged Black woman worn down by decades of marginalization. Her second-in-command is the frustrated, formerly high-flying Malcolm Kyle, who blames Griselda for what the commission has become. 

To Mick Herron, failure is more interesting than success.

It’s been two years of wading through pointless and irrelevant testimonies from low-level employees, and they’re nearing the end of their remit with nothing to show for it. A bombshell of a case file has mysteriously landed in their laps but, confoundingly, they’re told to shut it down. Instead, Griselda and Malcolm call the central party to testify. 

That witness, code named Alison North, starts slow but then blows the doors off the sleepy inquiry, adding a crucial third track to an already complex plot. Like Dan Fesperman’s excellent Winter Work, North’s story within a story takes place in volatile, quasi-unified Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the treacherous “Spook Zoo” that is early 1990s Berlin. As the past reshapes our perspective on the present, Herron plays with narrative form. Rather than separating timelines by chapter, the conversation and comments of 21st-century inquisitors Malcolm and Griselda intermingle with and interrupt the witness’ riveting retelling. North slowly unearths the truth behind a classified op gone tragically wrong, recasting three decades of U.K. intelligence history and its present-day players in a radical new light. Equally pithy and dark, Herron is as masterful in depicting the day-to-day drudgery of the spy-versus-spy game as he is its most incendiary events, all leading up to a spectacular climax. With shifting covers and code names in play, it’s fascinating to decipher how the operatives Slough House fans already know figure into this post-Cold War spy history, and it’s delightful to watch the pieces slowly click into place. 

Sly and suspenseful, The Secret Hours is both a marvelous standalone novel and a stunning companion to Herron’s Slough House series.

Sly and suspenseful, The Secret Hours is both a marvelous standalone novel and a stunning companion to Mick Herron’s Slough House series.
Interview by

Mick Herron, author of the phenomenally successful Slough House espionage novels, has been hailed as the best spy novelist of his generation. His bestselling, award-winning series following MI5 agents who have fallen from grace expanded its fan base recently with “Slow Horses,” the 2022 Apple TV+ adaptation starring Academy and BAFTA award-winners Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas. Now, Herron will delight fans both old and new with his prequel to the series, The Secret Hours. Set in the post-Cold War era, Herron’s pithy and tense latest slowly reveals the cover-up of a classified op gone wrong, casting three decades of U.K. intelligence history in a radical new light. 

How will the experience of reading The Secret Hours differ for new readers versus established fans of the series?
It’s impossible to quantify the experience of new readers, but I hope they’ll find The Secret Hours a story that’s complete in itself, and not feel excluded from any larger framework. Regular readers will notice familiar elements, though; for example, the Regent’s Park setup, which—as in the Slough House novels—is the center of the U.K. intelligence service. And there are a few Easter eggs along the way . . .

Does The Secret Hours have its own distinctive tone?
I hope so. Though set much in the same world as the Slough House novels, it features different characters and required a different narrative voice at times. It opens, for example, with a lengthy chase sequence, which is a bit more frantic than my usual openings. I wanted to drag the reader along—make them feel they’d been hijacked, almost.

“Genre writing is often dismissed as sub-literary, but only by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.”

What’s your typical practice in regard to research and verisimilitude for the series, and did you have to do anything different when taking on the Cold War era?
I’m not a great fan of research, for the most part, and only resort to it when absolutely necessary. When writing the Slough House books, I’m usually writing about London in the present day, so I can achieve a certain amount of verisimilitude simply through observation. But part of The Secret Hours is set in post-reunification Berlin—the years immediately after the Cold War ended—and this required a little more work. I focused on finding out what the city would have looked and smelled like. Who would have been most visible on its streets. What people did for entertainment. That sort of thing.

You’ve been hailed as the John le Carré of your generation. How did you feel when you first heard that comparison, and did it affect how you wrote?
Any comparison to le Carré is both hugely flattering and somewhat misapplied. Le Carré was unique—there’ll never be another. His work defined the Cold War era. My work will never match up to that. If the comparison has brought new readers to my books, it’s done me a favor, but I’ve never tried to live up to it in the sense of trying to write more like him. That would be doomed to failure.

Book jacket image for The Secret Hours by Mick Herron

What first piqued your interest in the world of espionage? Were you an avid spy novel fan as a young reader?
I read le Carré, of course, and also Deighton, and also—in many ways, more importantly—about a million other thrillers I no longer remember, of hugely varying quality. Quantity matters more at that stage. Reading everything you can get your hands on helps you develop your own intuition about storytelling: what works, what doesn’t, what’s new, what’s been done a hundred times. The spy novel, though, wasn’t a particular interest; just one among many. I liked most stories—I was a total addict. Still am.

Unlike the high-flying protagonists of many other espionage series, the inhabitants of Slough House are all outcasts in some way. What made you want to center spooks in professional purgatory?
It’s largely because I wanted to write about failure, which I find intrinsically more interesting than success. More relatable, too. Few of us know what it’s like to be a hero, or, say, freefall from a helicopter. But we’ve all had squabbles in the workplace.

Having studied English literature at Oxford, you have a deep and varied literary background. Who do you think of as important authorial influences? Do they cross genre boundaries?
There are dozens, hundreds, of writers I admire, but it’s not easy to say who I’m influenced by. They’re not necessarily overlapping categories anyway: There’s no living thriller writer I admire more than Martin Cruz Smith, but I don’t try to write like him and have never noticed myself doing so. A writer’s voice generally develops piecemeal, and by the time it’s formed, there’s no telling where its origins lie. 

Thinking about it, I’ve probably been consciously influenced more by poets than by thriller writers. Not so much individual writers (though a keen-eyed reader might spot borrowed images, or even whole lines, from various poets on pages I’ve written) as the control that poetry requires: the weighing of individual words, the balancing of sentences with each other. All the things that go towards making writing seem natural. Genre writing is often dismissed as sub-literary, but only by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Read our starred review of ‘The Secret Hours’ by Mick Herron.

The Slough House series was recently translated to the screen via the spectacular “Slow Horses” TV show. What was your role in that development process and how did the team for “Slow Horses” come together?
Thank you for that “spectacular”! I have a consultant’s role on the show and spend time in the writers room, taking part in the discussions around adapting the plots and storylines so that they meet the demands of the new medium. The team itself was put together by the people, now my friends, who first approached me about the show: Jamie Laurenson, Hakan Kousetta and Gail Mutrux. I’m in their debt.

Were there ground rules or nonnegotiable elements that you had in mind or stipulated in the deal for “Slow Horses”?
I’m pretty sure they’re not allowed to kill or maim any of the characters without my express permission.

What are you reading now?
Like many people, I did a lot of re-reading—comfort reading—during the pandemic, and for me, the habit has endured. One of my go-to writers is Robert Goddard, many of whose works I’ve re-devoured these last few years. He’s a fabulous storyteller, consistently surprising without ever resorting to cheap trickery. His latest is out soon, and I’m looking forward to it, but I’m currently re-reading Out of the Sun.

Photo of Mick Herron by Jo Howard.

In The Secret Hours, the author reveals the secret backstory of Slough House, his series following MI5 agents who have fallen from grace.

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