★ 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.
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.