international mysteries
STARRED REVIEW

July 2022

6 thrilling international mysteries

Have your passports and alibis ready—your ultimate summer getaway awaits.

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When something seems too good to be true, it probably is. In her U.S. debut, Miss Aldridge Regrets, British author Louise Hare illustrates that idea with deliciously suspenseful, Agatha Christie-esque results. 

The year is 1936, the place is Soho, London, and the star of the show is 26-year-old Lena Aldridge. She has a regular gig at the Canary Club, owned by sleazy criminal Tommy Scarsdale. When she's not singing, she goes on dates with her married lover and tries not to think about how much she misses her late father, Alfie.

Every day, Lena wonders: Will her big break ever come? The future's looking bleak, but then a stranger named Charles Bacon appears with an astonishing proposal. His employer, an old friend of Alfie's, is offering Lena a role in his Broadway play, and he'll pay for first-class passage to New York City aboard RMS Queen Mary. Lena is thrilled and trepidatious, but then her boyfriend dumps her. And then Tommy's murdered. After deciding that fate is urging her to exit stage right, Lena sets sail. 

Readers will be enchanted by the period charm of Hare's ocean liner setting and will swoon as Lena gets to know Will, a Black musician. Will notices right away that Lena is also Black, even though she's been successfully passing as white for years. Lena knows that being Black will be even more of an issue in America than it was in England, a big change she's not sure she's ready for.

She's also not ready for what happens on the Queen Mary: Someone murders one of the Abernathys, a wealthy family that Charles insisted Lena spend time schmoozing. As the ship glides across the Atlantic, its posh sheen gradually dulls in the wake of destructive secrets and even more murders. Everyone's a suspect, and the red herrings pile up as an alarmed Lena thinks, “I felt as though I were trapped inside my own detective novel.” Readers will enjoy playing sleuth, racing to figure out who did it, how and why, even as they ponder the ultimate question: Will Lena survive the trip to New York unscathed?

Miss Aldridge Regrets' 1930s ocean liner setting will enchant mystery readers even as author Louise Hare seeds disquiet and red herrings amid all the glam.

Daniel Nieh’s Take No Names is a blast from start to finish, a classic crime thriller that shifts into an over-the-top action romp.

Chinese American Victor Li is keeping a low profile in Seattle after being wrongfully accused of killing his father, who secretly worked for a Chinese criminal syndicate (the plot of Nieh’s 2019 debut, Beijing Payback). Drinking buddy Mark Knox recruits Victor to his security tech business for Victor’s computer skills and ability to speak Chinese and Spanish. But it’s not long before Mark enlists Victor in a lucrative side job: breaking into a government storage yard to steal and then sell unclaimed items seized from deported immigrants. It’s on one of these ventures they discover a painite, a rare gem worth a cool $250,000. The pair smuggle the gem to a buyer south of the border, where they are soon embroiled in a scheme by a U.S. military contractor to derail construction of a new Chinese-built airport in Mexico City.

Along the way, the two men form uneasy alliances with Victor’s estranged sister, Jules, and Sun Jianshui, who once worked for the same criminal syndicate as Victor’s father—and was the person who actually killed him. The interactions among all four main characters lead to both humorous and emotionally charged moments as they try to worm their way out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into. Victor and Mark are particularly likable, a pair of outcasts who have forged a unique and unexpected friendship.

Nieh, who has lived in the United States, China and Mexico, maintains a steady balance of humor, action and thrills, while also making some barbed commentary on American capitalism and Chinese globalization. The twists and turns come often, keeping the intrepid Victor and Mark on their toes as they run for their lives from one chapter to the next. What starts as a Joe R. Lansdale-esque crime thriller morphs halfway into an espionage caper à la Mission Impossible. If it sounds a bit over the top, it is—but that’s what makes Take No Names such an irrepressibly fun read.

Daniel Nieh's Take No Names is a blast from start to finish, a classic crime thriller that shifts into an over-the-top action romp.

What better to read on a hot summer day than a chilling thriller set in, well, Iceland? In Outside, Reykjavik native and internationally bestselling author Ragnar Jónasson turns the snowy “fjord-indented coastline [and] reindeer-haunted wilderness” of the Nordic island's eastern highlands into an antagonist just as dangerous to the book's central characters as the murderer (or perhaps murderers?) in their midst.

At first, there's no thought of life-threatening peril when four college friends reunite for a woodsy weekend hike to hunt ptarmigan and catch up on one another's lives. There's Daniel, an aspiring actor who lives in London; Gunnlaugur, an argumentative lawyer; Helena, an inscrutable engineer; and Ormann, a wealthy tour company owner and leader of their trip.

An unexpected blizzard catches the quartet off guard, its fierce winds and zero visibility sending them into survival mode. Ormann knows of a hut they can hole up in until the worst of the weather passes—but just getting there is onerous as the snow piles higher, the air gets colder and the mostly amateur hikers' nerves become frayed.

Once they get to the cabin, things get even scarier as frustration transforms into fear and life-or-death decisions are made more difficult by years-old resentments boiling up to the surface. Their paranoia grows in the cabin's suffocatingly small space as Helena thinks to herself, “Guns, isolation, fear, and uncertainty—they were such an explosive cocktail.”

Jónasson inspires fast page turns via quick cuts among the four characters as they reflect on the past (so many secrets!) and frantically strategize about the present. Mini cliffhangers keep the story humming along; the author doesn't shy away from ending chapters with lines like, “He had never been so afraid in his life.”

Spare prose and brisk pacing make for an immersive read that's less about the individual characters and more about what they become when they're forced together, no longer able to dissemble or hide. Will they work together to save themselves before it's too late? Can they? Outside is an intriguing study of isolation, claustrophobia and the particular menace to be found in beautiful yet unforgiving terrain.

Outside is an intriguing study of isolation, claustrophobia and the particular menace to be found in beautiful yet unforgiving terrain.

The Drowning Sea is an atmospheric procedural starring a detective at a crossroads in her life.

Retired Long Island homicide detective Maggie D'arcy is spending the summer in West Cork, Ireland, with her Irish boyfriend, his son and her teenage daughter. They vacation in the picturesque village of Ross Head, but the idyllic trip is cut short when human remains wash up on the shore near their cottage. The body is that of Polish immigrant Lukas Adamik, whose disappearance months earlier led many in Ross Head to assume that he had returned to Poland. But when the police determine that the body was only recently deceased and rule out an accident or suicide, the mystery of where Lukas has been—and what happened to him—consumes the small community.

In addition to that, Maggie's hostess, Lissa Crawford, asks her to look into the disappearance of her childhood governess, Dorothea. The Crawfords were once the owners of the local manor, Rosscliffe House, which Lissa sold after her family was beset by unfortunate circumstances. Chief among them was her father's tragic suicide on the cliffs, after which Dorothea vanished. As Maggie investigates what happened to Dorothea, she realizes her case may be linked to the murder of Lukas.

The previous two Maggie d'Arcy mysteries have been set in both Ireland and Long Island, but The Drowning Sea completely immerses readers in Ross Head. Author Sarah Stewart Taylor creates a rich and slightly gothic atmosphere, with the ocean beating against the treacherous, wind-swept cliffs as Rosscliffe House looms over it all. Despite this subtle shift in tone, The Drowning Sea continues the series' exploration of the inner life of its main character: Maggie becomes increasingly obsessed with the case, her dogged detective work serving as a distraction from the reasons for her retirement and the question of whether to uproot her and her daughter's lives by permanently moving to Ireland.

The Drowning Sea‘s gorgeous backdrop and stalwart sleuth will satisfy and impress mystery readers, particularly fans of traditional whodunits.

The Drowning Sea's gorgeous setting and stalwart sleuth will satisfy and impress mystery readers, particularly fans of traditional whodunits.

In Julie Mayhew's Greek island-set thriller, Little Nothings, little cuts do lasting damage and friendships are as intense and heartbreaking as romantic relationships.

Thanks to her friendless childhood and dysfunctional family, Liv Travers never felt like she belonged. Even getting married to her husband, Pete, and giving birth to a daughter, Ivy, didn't fundamentally change how she felt. But bonding with Beth and Binnie at a singalong music class for mothers and babies radically shifted her perspective.

So when an interloper comes along and rocks their happy triad, it's intolerable. The new girl, Ange, is shinier and bossier than Liv's other friends. Soon she has them all in her thrall, and the vibe shifts from supportive and homey to acquisitive and competitive, like a suburban London version of “Keeping Up with the Kardishians.” Regular group outings now take place at fashionable restaurants with bills totalling hundreds of pounds a pop. Every part of the group's lifestyle gets an upgrade, and everyone is expected to conform. It's hard to keep up financially, and even worse, Ange seems to want to run Liv off. Liv is excluded from group events with flimsy excuses, and no one else notices the manipulation. All the “little nothings,” the cuts and insults delivered so casually, add up, and the hostilities increase during an expensive group vacation to the Greek island Corfu. How far will Liv go to protect her found family, and what will she risk?

Rather than follow a chronological timeline, Mayhew uses flashbacks to reveal what pushed Liv and her friends to the brink. It's an effective, psychologically driven structure, with each flashback being triggered thematically by an event in the present. As the full picture emerges, it's easy to wonder if any friendship is worth all that drama, especially as neither Beth nor Binnie really seems to have Liv's back. But to Liv, these women aren't just friends, they're soulmates; Mayhew even likens the intimacy of these female friendships to marriage. In a way that's reminiscent of both Nikki May's thriller Wahala and the novels of Patricia Highsmith, the intense relationships are vital to the women's sense of their own identities. Vowing to not be that lonely girl again, Liv in particular hangs on with the fervor of a person in a rocky marriage warding off divorce.

Anchored by a deliciously layered and desperately unreliable narrator, Little Nothings enriches the familiar setup of an intruder shaking up a happy idyll with a compelling, creative structure and distinctive voice. It's obvious that what Liv needs are better friends and a truckload of therapy, but singular obsessions make for seductive and fun reading, even if the depth of Liv's interiority makes the other characters look thin and shabby by comparison. A good choice for fans of relationship-driven stories with a sinister edge, Little Nothings hits the same sweet spot as the works of Lucy Foley and Liane Moriarty.

With her Greek-island set thriller, Little Nothings, Julie Mayhew hits the same seductive sweet spot as writers like Lucy Foley and Liane Moriarty.

Nothing ever happens in Ebbing—until one horrific weekend. Local Gone Missing follows a variety of residents in the tiny English seaside town, from an inquisitive cleaning lady with a dark past to vacationers with a secret agenda. It all comes to a head during a chaotic musical festival, one that ends with dual overdoses, a possible murder and a host of spilled secrets. Hopping back and forth before and after the incidents, New York Times bestselling author Fiona Barton spins a tangled web of dirty money, bloodshed and deceit.

For Dee Eastwood, a cleaning woman and wife of a recovering addict, it's business as usual until one of her clients, the demanding Pauline, asks if Dee has seen Pauline's husband, Charlie. The retired, formerly wealthy couple are living in a trailer until they have the money to fix up their crumbling estate, and Charlie has been struggling to pay the residential facility fees for his adult daughter, Birdie, who incurred a brain injury after a home invasion decades ago. Meanwhile, Detective Elise King, newly in remission from breast cancer, recalls seeing Charlie pre-disappearance at Ebbing's first music festival—right before two young people overdosed on drugs of unknown origin. Are the two events related? When Elise finds Charlie's decomposing body, even more questions arise.

Though Local Gone Missing‘s plot is wonderfully twisty with a surprising and satisfying conclusion, it's the characters who stand out. Ebbing's weekenders have their own complex motivations—especially a mild-mannered gay caterer and a middle-age father who are mysteriously connected to each other, and maybe to Charlie as well—but it's the locals who will really draw readers in. Foremost among them is the compelling and well-drawn Elise, who's struggling to adjust to life back on the force after returning from medical leave. Her retired librarian neighbor Ronnie, who's eager to play amateur sleuth and surprisingly adept at sussing out clues, provides much-needed comic relief in this intense story of greed gone terribly wrong. Thanks to Barton's airtight plotting and impeccable characterization, a minibreak by the sea will never seem relaxing again.

Using airtight plotting and impeccable characterization, Fiona Barton spins a tangled web of dirty money, bloodshed and deceit in Local Gone Missing.

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