Strange Sally Diamond, Liz Nugent
(Simon & Schuster, 310 pages)
This is my first encounter with Irish author Liz Nugent. It won’t be my last. This novel is so compelling that I found myself reading non-stop. She’s got unforgettable characters, the prose is crisp and there’s real wit in the pages. Sally, damaged and alone, intelligent and isolated in her own head, managed to make me laugh, right until I cried.
Sally Diamond is a middle-aged woman living with her adoptive father, an eminent psychiatrist, on the outskirts of the village of Roscommon where children like to taunt her as “strange” and some people regard her as a witch or deaf or mad. All Sally knows is that her memory begins at age seven with her adoptive parents. But when her father dies, Sally does precisely what he’s always said to do. She puts him out with the trash, which means popping him into the house incinerator.
That act opens up Sally’s past and present to a host of evils including one that began long before her birth. Nugent doesn’t give an inch in the saga of Strange Sally. This is one of the best books of the year but be warned: There’s pure evil here and sometimes, it’s difficult to read and more difficult to forget.
The Spider, Lars Kepler
(McClelland & Stewart, 480 pages)
Scandi-noir is grim and Lars Kepler is one of the grimmest but The Spider goes to new level of dark and sinister. In the ninth novel featuring detective Joona Linna, we encounter a serial killer who is a true fiend and his target is Joona himself.
Kepler provides a nice “once upon a time” prologue, which sets the scene and the story. We begin with a graphic and dramatic crime; warning: Kepler is not for the faint of heart. Then we move to three years ago with detective Saga Bauer on a case. When she returns to the office, there’s a package with a figurine and no note. Later, there will a batch of white bullets, nine exactly, and a message that one is meant for Joona and only Saga can save him. Then the bodies start to drop. As the cases build, the police are always a day late, and everyone soon realizes they are the pawns in an increasingly deadly game of riddles and threats.
If you haven’t read any of Kepler’s other works, you can start here but you will want to read more so plan on stocking up. This latest book is on the long side, but the good news is that Kepler shows no signs of wearing down. We know Joona is going to survive because there’s still life in the series.
Everyone Here is Lying, Shari Lapena
(Viking, 336 pages)
Toronto author Shari Lapena is rapidly becoming an international phenomenon with her gripping stories of nice people in pretty neighbourhoods all gone bad. Everyone Here is Lying is the best of her seven works. It begins with a bang and ends with a twist no one will guess. In between, there are clues, lies, intrigue and a lot of well-drawn characters doing nasty things.
The setting is suburbia, a small community called Stanhope for People Like Us. William Wooler is one of the PLUs. Lately, though, William has been slipping the leash. He’s been having a torrid affair, which ends very badly. William, in a dreadful state, arrives to find his difficult nine-year-old daughter, Avery, home early from school. Avery is always a problem and today, William is in no mood to handle her. After lashing out, he leaves, and when he returns, Avery is missing.
This is Lapena’s forte – the nice town covering the horrid secrets. As the search for Avery begins, police are getting clues from everywhere. Some are true, some are lies and most lead back to William but would he really abduct his own child? And is Avery dead? Lapena doesn’t get a paragraph wrong here and she’s unrelenting in her conflicted characters.
The Magistrate, Brian Klingborg
(Minotaur, 310 pages)
I missed the first two books of this superb series and had to rush out to get them. Set in far northern Harbin, China, this book takes us into a place with a different attitude toward crime. Klingborg, a publishing executive who spent many years in Asia, has a gift for making the complex understandable and, with a plot this complicated, that’s essential.
We begin with an abduction: It is Golden Week, which celebrates the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and many are drinking heavily. Director Chen Jianguo of the Nangang Investment Inviting Organization is dragged into a car and assaulted. Days later, another prominent official is assaulted and the word “thief” is branded on his forehead. The only clue are the parting words: “The Magistrate sends his regards.” Then another attack turns into murder and inspector Lu Fei is summoned. There is only one connection: All the victims were members of the Nangang Benevolent Association.
At a time when the West and East are facing off against each other, The Magistrate illuminates political and cultural life in China. It’s also, incidentally, a terrific police procedural.
Have You Seen Her, Catherine McKenzie
(Atria Books, 330 pages)
If you haven’t already discovered Montreal native Catherine McKenzie, start here. Set in California’s Yosemite Park, with a buried-secret plot line and equipped with an engaging and complicated heroine who encounters two other fascinating women, this book’s got everything needed for deep-dive reading.
Cassie Peters is running away. With nothing but a burner phone to connect her to her former life in New York, she begins her new job with Search and Rescue in Mammoth Lake, California. It’s a return for Cassie. Ten years before, she had left Mammoth Lake for the Big Apple. Why she left then and what’s happening to her now are all about to converge when she encounters Petal, a young woman living in a trailer who details life in Yosemite in a diary, and Jada, a recent college grad traversing America with her boyfriend and documenting their trip on Instagram.
Then something terrible occurs and it’s clearly connected to what happened 10 years before. It’s time for Cassie to stop running away. McKenzie, a retired lawyer, knows how to build character and pace a suspense novel. This one will keep you on the edge of your seat.
The Body By The Sea, Jean-Luc Bannalec, translated by Sorcha McDonagh
(Minotaur, 294 pages)
I’m a serious fan of Bannalec’s Brittany mysteries featuring commissaire Georges Dupin and this one, the eighth, is one of the best. This crime has the local doctor tossed from his apartment atop Dupin’s favourite local restaurant and so it becomes personal, unlike the crimes in his previous books.
Bannalec makes the most of Brittany’s gorgeous scenery and superb cuisine. Four pages in and I could almost smell the sea air, despite the dead body. As always, Dupin’s family is involved. This time, his in-laws are on a visit, his second-in-command is on paternity leave and because the crime is in his home village, there are many secrets he’d rather not uncover. While you can read this puzzle plot as a cozy or enjoy it as a solid police procedural, I like it as a travelogue.
Fatal Legacy, Lindsey Davis
(Minotaur, 398 pages)
What to read on a bus trip to the Stratford Festival? I picked up the latest in this long-running series set in ancient Rome. Many of the previous books featured detective Marcus Didius Falco, which kept me going for decades but after Falco drifted away, so did I. When I opened this book, which is the twelfth and features Falco’s daughter, Flavia Albia, now running the family business, I wondered if Davis still had it. I’m pleased to report she does. No one quite does the hustle and bustle of working class Rome like her.
We open with an unpleasant incident. The family inn is serving up weak wine and bad food. Business is good but when a couple cheats the owner, it’s time for Flavia. Auntie Junia wants her money, meagre as it is, and while Flavia has a hard-and-fast rule to avoid family or political cases, this is one she can’t refuse. It would appear to be straightforward. The couple, obviously an illicit romance, left a trail of bad feelings in the neighbourhood. There are some clues for Flavia to follow but the hunt leads to a problem much closer to home and that leads to murder. This book is as light as air and as witty and amusing as Davis’s finest Falco books of yore. I’m saving another Flavia Albia for an airplane read.
Mrs. Plansky’s Revenge, Spencer Quinn
(Forge, 304 pages)
Spencer Quinn is the nom de plume of Peter Abrahams, the prolific author of the Chet and Bernie mystery dog series, among others. Not a fan of bow wow mysteries (or cat ones) I’ve avoided him. But the premise of Mrs. Plansky’s Revenge intrigued me. Loretta Plansky, an elderly widow, living in Florida with her 98-year-old father, is victimized by a vicious scam specializing in grandmas. I read, related and, ultimately, was charmed.
Life should be a walk on the beach with Mahjong after dinner for Loretta, but, like many of us, she has children and grandchildren. There is drama and, occasionally, requests for money. So when a desperate plea comes from a grandson who needs $10,000, she doesn’t think or recall those endless radio stories warning about scams. She sends the money and when she wakes up in the morning, Loretta is wiped out financially. What is she to do?
What Loretta does is strike back, and that’s when this lighthearted caper novel picks up steam. It’s off to Romania and points east in search of criminals hiding in cyberspace. There’s a lot of derring-do and old-fashioned hugger-mugger, which is what Abrahams does best. I skipped the dogs but I love Mrs. Plansky.
The Bitter Past, Bruce Borgos
(Minotaur, 320 pages)
The Bitter Past, set in the high desert country of rural Nevada, is a wonderful marriage of western and mystery, reminiscent of C. J. Box and Craig Johnson. It’s a debut from Borgos, a high-school guidance counsellor, drawing on modern crime and historical lore from Nevada.
A series is planned, obviously, and our sheriff is Porter Beck, known simply as Beck. Beck was born and raised in the high desert north of Las Vegas and spent some years in the military as an intelligence officer before returning to take up local law enforcement. We open as he’s called to a particularly vicious murder. A retired FBI agent has been savagely tortured and killed. No clues and, on the surface, no reason. But Beck finds one strange item at the scene, thallium, an odourless, tasteless poison unavailable to ordinary people.
Within hours, the FBI shows up to take over Beck’s case but there’s far more to this murder than an old man and his past. From here, the story slips back to 1955 when Las Vegas was just a couple of casinos on the highway and America was deep into the Cold War and testing for the new atomic age. Just how all this figures is where Borgos excels. He deftly weaves the past into a modern murder with a confident hand. There are a few missteps that any first-time novelist could make but that’s forgivable in a book this good. Beck will be returning and I’ll be waiting.
Middlemen, Scott Thornley
(House of Anansi, 488 pages)
Let’s just say it: Scott Thornley’s fifth mystery featuring detective superintendent MacNeice is terrific. Each scene takes place in identifiable southern Ontario sketched by an author who loves this place.
We begin with a terrible scene: MacNeice’s friend Jack found injured by the roadside, covered in blood and bone fragments. Something awful has happened but what and where? Following the trail of blood, MacNeice and his team find the scene of a crime and evidence of two deaths but no bodies. Just what happened?
While the obvious signs of crime are present, that’s not really what this book is about. The title is a clue. What is a middleman? When there’s more than one, who is the top man? Thornley moves us through a series of related crimes and makes it all completely clear. Definitely not to be missed.
The Wayward Prince, Leonard Goldberg
(Minotaur, 338 pages)
What would summer be without another Sherlock Holmes pastiche? The indomitable Holmes has spawned hundreds, if not thousands, of imitations, children, and so on, 150 years later. Leonard Goldberg isn’t Laurie R. King and Joanna Holmes definitely isn’t Mary Russell, but she’s better than television’s Enola Holmes (which I do like) and definitely has her father’s talents. This time out, she’s in search of a missing prince.
It’s the middle of the Great War. Europe is mired on two fronts but Joanna Holmes and husband John Watson Jr. are securely at home in London. Then Prince Harry goes missing. Not our ginger Duke of Sussex but the handsome womanizer, the fourth son of King George V. He was out riding and then he wasn’t. It was assumed he was meeting one of his many women. Then MI5 and Scotland Yard discover that German intelligence has captured a very important personage. Total war means no one is really safe. The government calls on Holmes and Watson.
There’s enough historical backdrop to keep the plot going but this is, after all, a puzzle plot, so we have to follow the clues to find the prince. This is a must for Sherlockians. All others may dip in and out as they like.
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