Author Archive for Agatha

Mignon Eberhart: Forgotten Titan

She knew that something was happening in the house.

To me that line, the first one from 1944’s Escape the Night, is probably the ultimate Mignon Eberhart sentence. Eberhart, little remembered today, was once called “America’s Agatha Christie,” and wrote almost sixty novels, the first published in 1929 and the last in 1988 when she herself was 88.

On one of my buying trips to the local library bookshop I came across a nice uniform set of about ten of her titles, bought a couple of titles I knew I hadn’t read (Robin’s voice in my head admonishing we have ENOUGH books) but remained haunted by the others, ending up browbeating a kindly old lady into selling me the rest before the shop opened the next day. And excepting the browbeating stuff, I am very glad I did, because these are the perfect books for the snowy, cold, fluctuating fluey winter we’ve all been suffering through. I’ve been savoring them one by one like that box of Christmas truffles that didn’t last half as long.

The ones I’ve read were written at a brisk clip from the early forties to the early fifties and are all stand-alones, but share common themes and elements, giving both a suspenseful unpredictability and a comforting familiarity.

First of all, there’s the house, usually a big and old, like the gothic ones in Rebecca or Jane Eyre, familiar to the protagonist yet filled with creaks, secrets and strange things hiding in strange places.

In that house are the long time owners, a family, their dependents and their childhood circle of friends, friends familiar enough to seem, for better or for worse, like family. Most importantly there is a man and a woman, who know they love each other, but can’t get comfortably together because of circumstances and various complications, the crucial complication being, of course, murder.

Murder had walked in that house and the house remembered it.

[Another Woman’s House, 1947]

She was murdered about twilight with the shadows of fog and coming night blurring trees and shrubbery together in an amorphous mass that seemed to advance and watch and then retreat, like unwilling witnesses who would not come forward.

[Hunt With the Hounds, 1950]

Because her protagonists aren’t hard boiled private detectives or nosy old ladies who habitually trip over corpses, Eberhart can express the panic of regular people whose lives are upended by crime.

It took a while to get a fact like murder into one’s mind. It took a while to drag one’s self out of that dreadful pit of confusion and darkness and horror.

[Escape the Night, 1944]

Naturally, things are more horrible when the victim is someone close to you, and even more horrible when the killer may well be, too. The worst part of all is that the killer is probably still in the house with you.

But there were not many other people who knew her well enough to hate her. Murder implies a certain intimacy. Hatred implies a dreadful fellowship.

[House of Storm, 1949]

And that’s another thing that strikes me about Eberhart’s work — the intimacy of it, the domesticity. It’s an interior world, one where breaks in the case come not from some tough guy shuttling around to punch a mug in the kisser, but from the small, feminine things that few men even notice: a new bracelet, an old scarf or a strangely familiar “small locket in black enamel and pearls.” The tension comes from people standing in the drawing room trying to carry on with the formalities amid the ultimate uncivilized act, questioning or accusing glances and veiled insinuations striking with as much force as bullets. Her plots remain crackerjack, her observations acute.

It’s impossible to picture now how huge and unquestioned Eberhart’s stature was from her first book until the time she died. Maybe it’s the fact that her usual milieu was the haunts of the upper class makes her seem less authentic to contemporary tastemakers, but few have heard of her and even fewer have read her. She even remains invisible to those dedicated to rediscovering midcentury women authors, who find the bald misanthropy of Patricia Highsmith and the like far more pertinent to our present Gone Girl line-up of damaged, unreliable and violent anti-heroines. But, as Nancy Drew proves, there will always be a place for a plucky, honest female who finds herself in the midst of mayhem.

When Dorothy Hughes was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, Eberhart wrote these words, which certainly apply to herself as well:

I appreciate the fact that Mrs. Hughes introduces characters who spring from the framework of a specific story, ones who act intentionally or even unintentionally to discover and prove the guilt of the murderer (and this is very important: we don’t just assume guilt — we have been presented with enough evidence to sway a jury).

Hughes in her turn, writing of Eberhart, who’d been made the second female Grand Master (Agatha Christie being the first) seven years earlier:

A Mignon Eberhart novel, without need of a mystery plot, would stand on its own, a mirror of the modes and manners of the twentieth century.

A simple, subtle sentence from Another Woman’s House illustrates the point perfectly:

She peeled her stockings with, since the war, habitually careful hands.


Deanna Raybourn: A Treacherous Curse

The third novel in Deanna Raybourn’s delightful Veronica Speedwell series finds Veronica busily at work with her buddy, Stoker, sorting donated artifacts for a proposed new museum sponsored by their patron Lord Rosmorran. They live on his estate and Veronica is also able to pursue her own passion, butterflies. Set in 1888 London, the whole country is in the grip of Egyptology, as fabulous artifacts and tombs were frequently being unearthed by wealthy British who brought them back to England for display and sale.

Veronica and Stoker are not immune to an interest in Egyptology, and when Stoker’s former wife appears to be at the center of a controversy with a missing husband as well as the missing diadem of an Egyptian princess, Veronica is keen to solve the puzzle and save Stoker’s reputation, which has only recently recovered from a beating. Their queries take them first to the leader of the expedition, Sir Leicester Tiverton and his family – his second wife, his difficult adolescent daughter, Figgy, and a family hanger on, Patrick Fairbrother, an assistant to Sir Leicester in their expedition.

The luckiness of Sir Leicester’s find – an Egyptian princess in a sarcophagus – is his crowning achievement; the missing diadem, a sour note. Also a sour note is an apparent curse – the god Anubis “appeared” on the dig, driving out the workers, and “causing” the death of one of the expedition’s members as well as the disappearance of another. only giving grist to the curse. As Veronica and Stoker pursue their enquiries and “Anubis” continues to appear, the curse appears to have followed the Tivertons to London as they prepare for an exhibit of their excavations.

Raybourn is a pro, and she populates her novel with an array of delightful, memorable characters and she’s aces at putting together a good plot. One of the stand out parts of the book is Veronica herself, an intrepid adventuress who lives outside the bounds of Victorian convention.

While presently this seems to be the year of the empowered woman, mystery novels have offered the empowered woman a home from the start – beginning with Christie’s Miss Marple through Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone to Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan. The thread in historical mysteries is especially strong. Characters like Amelia Peabody, Hester Monk, Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily, Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy – these are all intelligent and fearless women. They may often have male companions but they are perfectly well able to get the job done themselves. Veronica Speedwell fits in nicely with this company.

Along with Veronica herself, the book is a total blast. The story is nimble and interesting and full of adventure – a fire! A balloon! a trek through a sewer! – and through it all Veronica and Stoker live to investigate another day. I enjoyed the denouement and was sorry to close the cover, and really, what more can you ask for in a good read? I await more adventures with great anticipation.

Ragnar Jonasson: Nightblind

The follow up to the excellent Snowblind, Nightblind finds Jonasson’s main character, detective Ari Thor, married with a one year old son and in line, after five years, to the top spot at the police department. Set in the Icelandic town of Siglufjorour, a former herring capital, the town is enduring leaner times and is in general quiet. Just like St. Mary Meade (or Cabot Cove)… the comparison is apt, because while these novels are set in Iceland, the structure is that of the classic detective novel, and Jonasson, the translator of 17 Christie books into Icelandic, has obviously been greatly influenced by the Queen of Crime.

Snowblind was almost a locked room mystery as the tiny town was cut off completely from the rest of the world by an endless blizzard; in this novel, it’s the darkness that’s emphasized as, with the winter solstice, Iceland endures weeks with daylight lasting only from around 11 a.m. to 3 or 4 p.m. The darkness preys on the characters in different ways, but ultimately, it’s the darkness of the soul that Jonasson is more concerned with.

As the book opens, Ari Thor’s superior officer, Herjolur, has been shot for no apparent reason outside of a house where drug deals are known to happen. With Herjolur out of the picture, Ari Thor’s old superior officer, Tomas, comes back to town to help with the investigation. The two have a comfortable working relationship and set to work interviewing Herjolur’s family and various other town denizens, one of them a cousin of Tomas’, long drug involved, who helps point them in the right direction.

Ari Thor’s marriage to Kristin is uncomfortable and with a one year old at home, both of them working full time, exhaustion and time never seem to come together to allow the two to discuss their problems. Ari Thor senses something is amiss (and indeed Kristin is pondering an affair with a fellow doctor) but he’s not sure quite what it is. This general sense of unease and malaise (he’s recovering from the flu) pervades the novel. Ari Thor’s complicated family situation is just a part of the picture.

As the investigation tightens, taking the two detectives in surprising directions, the author also laces through the story excerpts from a journal written by an inmate at a mental hospital. It’s unclear who this person is, but Jonasson is a skillful writer who tends neatly to all of his story threads. This book is as delightful as the first, with its tight plotting, memorable setting and characters, and heartbreaking moments. Jonasson is truly a new writer to treasure.

Emily Littlejohn: A Season to Lie

I read many, many, mysteries, in the neighborhood of two a week, enjoying many of them and loving fewer. When I pick up a novel like this one by Emily Littlejohn, I am forcibly and joyfully reminded of the reasons I love this genre so much. This is simply a wonderful mystery, and even better, it reminded me of another series by another favorite writer of mine, Julia Spencer-Fleming.

Littlejohn’s novel is set in a little Colorado town—one that’s on the “B” ski resort list (unlike the “A” list Vail or Aspen), and happy with that status. The setting, as in Spencer-Fleming’s novels set in upstate New York, is practically a character, as Detective Gemma Monroe drives along the treacherous mountain roads, hemmed in by trees and snow.

Gemma is just back from maternity leave when she and her partner (she’s on the graveyard shift) get called out to the local private school on a suspicious prowler call. The Valley Academy, remote and gated, requires the two cops to split up in a raging blizzard and look for anything out of place on the quiet campus. They find something: a dead man, stabbed in the gut, out in a blizzard with no coat. He turns out to be a famous author who has been teaching a few classes at the academy incognito.

Preserving the crime scene as much as possible in a blizzard, the two find a note stuffed in the dead man’s mouth: “This is only the beginning.” They think they may be looking for a serial killer. As they begin to unravel the man’s life, they get drawn into the culture of the school where other things seem to be happening, one of them a form of bullying so cruel and so sneaky that the kids affected are completely traumatized by it.

The underlying theme seems to be fairy tales—the bully at the school is known as “Grimm” and the cottage where the dead man’s best friend lives seems like a witch’s stone house at the edge of the forest. Gemma even encounters a local construction guy, who may have mob ties, quoting Yeats’ poem The Stolen Child to her while she’s at lunch:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand 

While this all sounds creepily fey, Littlejohn has grounded her clever mystery in the details of ordinary life. While Gemma is delighted to be back at work, she still misses and loves her baby, and her boss has set aside a room for her to pump breast milk. I can’t imagine another genre of writing where such a telling detail of a woman’s life would be included, and that’s just another reason I love mystery novels. They tend to illuminate woman’s lives incredibly well.

Along with fairy tales, Gemma is herself struggling with what it means to be a grown up, embracing what’s beautiful in life along with the other parts of life that aren’t so lovely: distrust, fear, aging relatives, murder. It gives the book a real heft.

With the rich array of believable and interesting, fleshed out characters, a memorable setting, a clever mystery, and an underlying theme that adds a creepy intensity to the whole novel, this book and this new series is a real stand out.

C.M. Gleason: Murder in the Lincoln White House

C.M. Gleason is well known as Colleen Gleason, the writer of the Gardella Vampire Chronicles, as well as some romance and some mystery themed novels featuring vampires. As C.M. Gleason she’s veering into straight up mystery territory, but her long experience as an ink-stained wretch (my term for a professional writer who works all the time) has commented her skills in terms of narrative and character development. While she’s new to the mystery genre, she’s not new to writing, and it certainly shows in this assured first mystery.

She’s also not new to writing historicals as some of her other books have been set during the regency and Victorian periods (among others) so her way of setting the stage is also assured. This novel opens at the inaugural ball of Abraham Lincoln, and Gleason is able to get across the feeling of crowded Washington at the time, full of both southerners and Unionists. The uncertain tenor of the time is illustrated by Lincoln’s having to sneak into town for his inaugural to avoid an assignation plot, and the assassination threats from the start meant he had a Pinkerton agent with him at all times.

While Lincoln is a character in the novel, the main character is Adam Quinn, the nephew of Lincoln’s great friend Joshua Speed, and a boy whom Lincoln has known since babyhood. Because of that comfort level, it’s Adam Lincoln turns to when there’s a murder during the inaugural ball. While Gleason may be new to mysteries she’s certainly adept at setting up a classic situation where all of Adam’s deductive reasoning skills come to the fore as he investigates the crime.

This is certainly a set up for a series as Adam is quickly surrounded with an able cohort – a black Doctor who steps up and does an autopsy; a penniless Irish boy Adam takes under his wing, and who comes in useful as a messenger; and a reporter discovered at the crime scene. The reporter later turns out to be a woman in disguise, and to add to her interest, she lives at the Smithsonian with her uncle, the first Smithsonian “secretary.”

Adam himself has lost an arm in an altercation with pro-slavers back home on the plains, so it’s clear where his sympathies lie. (They are somewhat sorely tested by an attractive Southern belle he meets at the inaugural ball.) One of his most interesting characteristics, though, is his skill as a tracker, learned from a Native American back home. He translates these tracking skills to investigating murder, with great result as he employs his observation of footprints, dirt smudges, and information gleaned from the autopsy of the dead man, a well known Abolitionist. I thought that was a great hook and a believable one. I hope Gleason makes even more use of it in future novels.

This is a well told story, engaging in its setting and characters, and a fun read. I also loved this detail, unknown to me: our great president Lincoln was also the one who began calling the president’s mansion “the White House.” I look forward to more of Adam’s adventures in the lively and unsettled world of 1861 Washington, D.C.

Lauren Willig: The English Wife

If you are a fan of great writers of the recent past like Mary Stewart or Daphne du Maurier, Lauren Willig is the writer for you, truly putting the romance part into romantic suspense. A clever mystery, a tragic romance, unforgettable characters—several of whom are dead—Willig has all the elements of romantic, gothic suspense in her story and she runs away with them.

Set at the turn of the 19th century, from about 1894 to 1900, Willig sets her story slightly in the past as well as in the present, so she’s sticking to the twin narrative pattern that is her trademark. She takes the story of the meeting of humble Georgie, an actress in London at a time when stage folk were not so revered, and the fabulously wealthy American, Bayard VanDuyvil, or simply Bay.

It’s obvious to the reader though not so much to Georgie that Bay is enamored—Georgie can barely bring herself to hope that she can elevate herself out of her hardscrabble life simply by falling in love. Even as she cautions herself against fairytales, she finds herself a married woman enjoying a Paris honeymoon before she can believe it.

In the present, the book opens at a ball at a lavish home in New England, with the head of the household found dead—a dagger through his heart—during his housewarming costume ball. His wife is nowhere to be seen, and the work of the novel is to match up these two stories as of course the dead couple are Bay and Georgie.

Doing the detective work is Bay’s bereaved and somewhat mousey sister Janie, who enlists the unlikely help of a common—gasp—journalist. Janie’s mother could not be a bigger snob (she looks down on the Vanderbilts) so Janie is on her own, somewhat hindered in her investigation by her cousin Anne, who long ago stole Janie’s fiancée. Anne is now separated and living with the VanDuyvils.

The story of Janie and the journalist, Burke assumes center stage, interspersed with the story of Bay and Georgie and how they ended up dead. To tell much more would be to give away too many details of this clever, sinuous, elegant story that has a gasper of an ending. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

Author Interview: Emily Littlejohn

Emily LittlejohnI had meaning to get to Emily Littlejohn’s books for awhile – mainly thanks to a blurb from Deborah Crombie – and with a rare “free reading moment,” I picked up the second book and was immediately smitten. The blend of the Colorado setting, indelible characters, twisty plots and a haunting overlay of folk tales in her now two novels, got me completely hooked. She was nice enough to answer a few questions.

Q: I just finished your first book, and had a hard time believing it really was a first book, as you write with such a mature and nuanced voice.  What led to this first book?

A: I have always been a huge reader, especially of mysteries and horror fiction. After working in public libraries for over a decade, I felt I’d been exposed to enough good (and not so good) literature to have an understanding of what might make a good story! I’d always wanted to try my hand at writing fiction and I tinkered around on a few drafts of some books that will never see the light of day (they are that bad). When I decided to get serious about writing, it came very naturally.

Q: I loved that the main character, Gemma, was heavily pregnant in the first book and realistically dealing with an infant in the second.  I’ve enjoyed many police novels by women through the years (Anne Wingate and Barbara D’Amato to name two) that really dealt with the balance of work and child care in a realistic way.  Was this something that was important for you to write about? 

A: Ironically, I was six months pregnant with my first child when Inherit the Bones was published. At the time I wrote the book, I loved the idea of a strong, pregnant detective. As I’ve gotten further into motherhood myself, it has become even more important to tell Gemma’s story. Like so many women in every industry, Gemma really does struggle to find that balance between career and family.

Q: While these are certainly technically procedurals, they fall heavily into the traditional detective category (to my delight) but I’m assuming you still needed to ground your story realistically,  What kind of research did you do to get the police details right?

A: Does watching Law and Order count as research? I have a couple of reference books that I use when I need to get a particular detail correct, such as the name of a weapon or a point of procedure. I try to include enough detail to be realistic yet not so much that the reader gets bogged down in the minutiae. I joke that if I don’t include too many police details, I’ll have less that I can get wrong!

Q: Another thing I enjoyed immensely, brought out differently in each novel, were the references to folk or fairy tales.  A Season to Lie was especially haunting with the use of the Yeats poem.  What drew you to these references?

A: After including an element of folklore in Inherit the Bones, I knew I wanted to do the same in A Season to Lie. I stumbled upon the Yeats poem while flipping through an old book of poetry that my father gave me years ago. I’d never read that particular poem before and I found it incredibly visual and striking. I love the idea of my fictional characters alluding to other works of literature, so it was fun to place a particularly nasty character into A Season to Lie who happened to have a fondness for quoting great poets.

Q: I thought both books confounded expectations in a good way.  In the first one, you use the circus as a background, with a dead clown, which sounded cheesy but definitely wasn’t.  The circus setting was very effective and I wonder how you came up with the idea for using it as a background?  You really brought “The Greatest Show on Earth” down to reality.

A: As I started to write Inherit the Bones, three things came to me sort of all at once, and those three things laid the groundwork for the story. They were: pregnant cop; small town still living with unsolved trauma; and dead clown in full make-up. To be perfectly honest, I have absolutely no idea where those three ideas came from. A muse? My subconscious? No idea. But the image of the dead clown, especially, was very striking and I found myself wondering who the person was, behind all that make-up. I knew I wanted to write his story.

Q: In the new book, a dead writer is found in the snow, again, almost cheesy.  He even has a note stuffed in his mouth.  But then you ran with it.  I guess what I’m asking is what steps to you take to make the unbelievable not only real, but resonant? 

A: That’s an interesting question and one that I’m not sure I can answer. I only know that as I write, it’s as though a movie is playing in my mind. I can see the setting, the characters, their next moves, all of it. The farther I get into a story, the more detailed and rich it becomes, and the more real it feels. It truly does start to seem as though this really happened. And I’m simply recounting it for the audience.

Q: What do you start with when you begin a story?  Plot, setting, character?  All seemed essential in both books (my definition of a really good book).  What is it that kicks off a story for you?

A: For me, character drives everything.  If I can’t feel something for the characters—positive or negative—I could care less how spectacular or inventive the plot is. What really kicks off a story for me is typically one or two thoughts…or questions. For Inherit the Bones, it was “who is this dead clown and what if anything does he have to do with an unsolved crime from thirty years ago?” For A Season to Lie, it was “why has a famous author been murdered on the grounds of a private school in the middle of a blizzard?”

Q: One of the other things I truly enjoyed was that while Gemma is grappling with the darkness of her past as well as the darkness of the cases she deals with, she’s also trying to see what’s good in life.  What do you see for Gemma, going forward, as she grows as a character?

A: Gemma will continue to try to find that elusive balance between career and family. She and Brody, her romantic partner, will either settle into domestic life… or they won’t (I know what happens, but no spoilers allowed!). Her grandmother’s dementia is of course progressing and I see Gemma representing that sandwich generation, where she’s caring for an ailing parent (figure) and at the same time caring for her child. And of course crime never sleeps in Cedar Valley, so there will continue to be murders and mayhem.

Q: Can you name a book that was transformational for you?  One that truly set you on the life path of reading/writing?

A: I don’t know about transformational, but I read a lot of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton and Robin Cook in my younger years. Real page-turners. I grew up in a house where there were a lot of books, and nothing was off-limits to me. So, from a very early age, I was a voracious reader. But I didn’t have the confidence to take a stab at writing until I was much older. That’s probably my biggest regret… I wish I’d started writing ten years before I did!

Q: And can you give us a sneak peek of your next book, out in 2018?

A: I’d be happy to! Lost Lake takes place over the course of a few weeks in spring. Gemma is called out to the beautiful but isolated Lost Lake after a young woman disappears on a camping trip. Shortly after, a priceless artifact is stolen from the local history museum and the missing woman’s boss—the museum director—is viciously killed. Are these three crimes connected? As Gemma investigates, she learns of the tragic and gruesome history of the lake… a lake that seems to hold secrets worth dying for.

Best of 2017

As always I read so many great books, it was hard to choose just 10 (so I chose 11!). In their own category are William Kent Krueger and Louise Penny, both of whom write such consistently wonderful novels I started to feel they were beyond the top 10 list! Never the less both writers turned in beautiful books this year – Krueger’s Sulfur Springs takes Cork to Arizona on the hunt for his new wife’s son in a great novel that also takes a look at immigration issues and the border wall; Penny’s Glass Houses, also typically excellent, finds Gamache back as head of the Surete and investigating matters of conscience as well as a look at the drug problems rife in Western society at the moment (adding to a number of novels I read this year addressing the drug crisis). Both of these writers, with their beloved characters, gorgeous prose, and timely themes only continue to get better. But on to the list, which includes new writers as well as old friends. Happy reading!

The Murder Book, Jane A. Adams

He was an outsider here in an even deeper sense that in the market town. He had come to realize that Elijah Hanson had called him in only for the look of things… had there been a way of taking care of this business themselves, the community would have done so. He found it unsettling – not their suspicion, which was really commonplace enough – but the sense that he was not really needed, that his version of the law was a mere veneer. Civilization applied as a thin whitewash to the village walls.

I loved this look at the countryside of 1928 Britain, where the “murder detectives” from Scotland Yard are called in to investigate a case that seems to tread on too many tricky toes for the locals to handle. Adams gives a nuanced look at both her main character – who is portrayed in the beginning as a capable officer, as observed by his coworker, as well as an arrogant presence by the townspeople he’s investigating. This is truly a slice of British life not often examined, and well worth a look.

Death in St. Petersburg, Tasha Alexander

From a distance, the crimson spray coloring the snow looked more like scattered rose petals than evidence of a grisly murder… Perhaps St. Petersburg required elegance even in death.

I love Tasha Alexander, but this may be my favorite of all her books. Lady Emily is in Russia merely as a companion to Colin as he works on a case, but after a night at the ballet and the discovery of a dead ballerina in the snow, Emily is inevitably asked to investigate. Filled with detail about ballet culture as well as depicting Tsarist Russia, this book, which even includes a “ghost ballerina” is so much fun it’s swoon-worthy.

The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne

…while I did learn to read thanks to a stack of National Geographic magazines from the 1950s and a yellowed edition of the collected poems of Robert Frost, I never went to school, never rode a bicycle, never knew electricity or running water. The only people I spoke to during those twelve years were my mother and father. That I didn’t know we were captives until we were not.

The standout, breakout novel of 2017 is certainly Dionne’s heartfelt masterpiece about a young girl, Helena, who lives in a remote spot of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where her father, it turns out, has been keeping her mother captive for years. Living without electricity of running water, the little family survives on what they make and hunt; and as the book is structured, the young girl who worships her father grows into a young woman who begins to question his cruelty and ultimately escapes his clutches. This novel is beautifully structured and beautifully written, and with the character of Helena, Dionne has created an indelible classic.

The Trickster’s Lullaby, Barbara Fradkin

The woman, and her son, needed help, and Amanda hated to turn her back. Had always hated to turn her back on need.

This novel, set during the brutal Canadian winter, is the second novel featuring former international aid worker Amanda Doucette. She’s organized a winter camping trip aiming to help acclimate marginalized high school students, many of them Muslim, to their new Canadian cultural home. When one of them disappears, the book becomes a bravura chase novel, but it’s also speaking to Fradkin’s central question of how a young person growing up in comfortable Canada becomes an extremist. Both a pure detective novel and a bravura slice of nature writing, this is also a thoughtful social novel populated with memorable characters.

The Dry, Jane Harper

The late afternoon heat draped itself around him like a blanket. He snatched open the backseat door to grab his jacket, searing his hand in the process. After the briefest hesitation, he grabbed his hat from the seat. Wide-brimmed in stiff brown canvas, it didn’t go with his funeral suit. But with skin the blue hue of skim milk and a cancerous-looking cluster of freckles the rest, Falk was prepared to risk the fashion faux-pas.

Set during a recent Australian draught, The Dry features Melbourne financial detective Aaron Falk, who has returned to his tiny hometown to attend the funeral of his best friend, who has apparently slaughtered both his family and himself. The setting, hot and relentless, informs every paragraph of this stunning and unforgettable story. Falk works lone wolf style to try and figure out if his former friend was really capable of the ultimate horror, digging up his painful backstory as he goes. You won’t be able to stop reading this incredible debut.

Give the Devil His Due, Steve Hockensmith

I believe it was the noted paranormal researcher Ray Parker Jr. who best summed up my feelings about hauntings: “I ain’t afraid of no ghost,” as he so sagely put it… I am, like him, not afraid of any ghosts. Because I don’t believe in them. Which is why, when I found myself talking to a dead man recently, I didn’t scream, didn’t faint, didn’t reach for the phone… I just tried to do a little mental recalibration.

I’ve enjoyed all Hockensmith’s novels set in a tarot reader’s store front in tiny Berdache, Arizona, as central character Alanis tries to right the wrongs of her con artist mother along with her half sister, the teenaged, blue-haired Clarice. This one is my favorite, though, as Alanis sees someone she thought was long dead and winds up in a Westlake-style caper involving a painting of Elvis on velvet, an elderly hit woman, and an assortment of suitors. In tone, style, humor, character and plot, this novel is simply perfection. 

Let Darkness Bury the Dead, Maureen Jennings

The grey November day had seemed endless, filled with trivial pieces of police officialdom: a variety of fines, numerous licenses, several detectives’ schedules. Murdoch had to sign off on all of them. On days like this he wondered if his position as senior detective was really worth it.

Maureen Jennings returns to Detective Murdoch after a 10 year hiatus, finding Murdoch older (mid-50s) and dealing with an estranged son back from the war. It’s 1917, and Jack has been gassed at the front; it’s obvious to Murdoch he is not himself. As Murdoch tries to re-adjust to his son, he’s also investigating an apparently unrelated string of murders of young men. As always, Jennings casts a wide net, and her picture of wartime Toronto is incredibly vivid; the portrait of Murdoch and his son is unforgettable. Another bravura turn from a great writer.

August Snow, Stephen Mack Jones

Of course, in our house, these poets had to share shelf space with classic noir gumshoes, who stood shoulder-to-hardbound-shoulder with the interminably boring and occasionally grotesque: weighty tomes on police procedure and criminal law… there were mysteries by Dashiell Hammett, Arthur Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler and first-edition signed copies of Rudolph Fisher and Chester Himes. And there were programs from the five August Wilson plays we had seen as a family at the Fisher Theater in downtown Detroit.

I love a great debut novel, and when it’s a P.I. novel set in Detroit, it can hardly be improved upon. August Snow is the central character in Jones’ deft private eye novel, a welcome addition to the dearth of characters of color in the mystery universe. Happily it’s also simply a great read, with former cop August re-acclimating to life in Mexican town and solving a case that reaches into the upper echelons of society. What could be more classic? August is a worthy companion to Estleman’s Amos Walker in every way, including a lovely prose style that indicates Jones’ other identity as a poet.

Fast Falls the Night, Julia Keller

It had been a strange summer. The heat never really settled in. Throughout June and July and the first two weeks of August the weather seemed to be in a sort of trance, a holding pattern, as if it was waiting for a secret signal to let loose and intensify… this year, though, things were different, temperatures remained moderate. And yet people could not quite trust this moderation.

Julia Keller goes from strength to strength, and her books are almost always informed by contemporary social issues. This novel looks at a 24-hour period in tiny Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, when the overwhelmed police department, health services, and over all community are dealing with a record number of heroin overdoses, some of them fatal. Keller crafts a tight story as well as a heartbreaking and unforgettable one, and it could not be more timely. Recommended: Kleenex at the ready.

Dying to Live, Michael Stanley

Detective Sergeant Segodi looked down at the dead Bushman and frowned. He didn’t have much time for the diminutive people of the Kalahari. Somehow they always caused trouble, whether they meant to or not, and this was a case in point.

One of the strongest entries in the enjoyable Detective Kubu series set in Botswana, this one finds Kubu investigating the death of an elderly bushman who, on examination, appears to have the organs of a young man. The trail takes him on the hunt for witch doctors selling a plant that’s supposed to grant a very long life. As always this is a nice balance of Kubu’s mostly happy home life (he’s dealing with a sick child in this outing) and a really hard edged story, while at the same time delving deeply into African culture. A bravura effort.

Never Let You Go, Chevy Stevens

I stared into the mirror. Tried to remember how to arrange my lips so I didn’t look so scared, softened the muscles around my eyes, rubbed at the smeared mascara. It didn’t matter how many times I told him I hadn’t been flirting with the man. I might as well have been shouting into the ocean.

Chevy Stevens is always good, frequently disturbing, and never forgettable. This novel focuses on Lindsey and her daughter, with a thread illustrating Lindsay’s life as an abused wife, and one illustrating her present life as she and her daughter live free of the abusive husband. As the novel opens he’s just gotten out of prison and wants to know his daughter better. Lindsey is terrified; her daughter, more naïve, not so much. Stevens in an incredible empath who really gets inside the heads of her characters, and this suspenseful novel is also a penetrating look at the way women are all too often treated. It’s also a twisty mystery novel with a plot turn you won’t see coming. Good luck trying to stop reading.

Also recommended: Lee Child’s knockout Reacher novel, The Midnight Line; Elly Griffiths’ excellent The Chalk Pit; the long anticipated and spectacular return of Deborah Crombie, with The Garden of Lamentations; Rhys Bowen’s too much fun On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service; Sharon Bolton’s tightly knit thriller, Dead Woman Walking, that will surely put you off hot air balloon rides; and yet another great cozy from E.J. Copperman, The Dog Dish of Death.

Authors recommend: I always like to ask authors what they enjoyed in the past year. This year we heard from Lori Rader-Day. She recommends House, Tree, Person, by Catriona McPherson and A Negro and an Ofay by Danny Gardner.

Readers recommend: Roxie Weaver, Ann Arbor: The Woman in Cabin 10, Ruth Ware; The Wrong Side of Goodbye, Michael Connelly; Redemption Road, John Hart; Camino Island, John Grisham; The Fix, David Baldacci; Sulfur Springs, William Kent Krueger; Night School, Lee Child; You Will Know Me, Megan Abbott; The Day I Died, Lori Rader-Day; and The Expats, Chris Pavone.

Joyce Simowski, Canton: Hunting Hour, Margaret Mizushima.

Linda Kimmel, Ann Arbor: Death in St. Petersburg, Tasha Alexander; A Conspiracy in Belgravia, Sherry Thomas; The Essence of Malice, Ashley Weaver; The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, Leonard Goldberg; The Case of the Counterfeit Criminals, Jordan Stafford (Young Adult); A Perilous Undertaking, Deanna Raybourn; No Living Soul, Julie Moffett and This Side of Murder, Anna Lee Huber.

Rob Weaver, Ann Arbor: The Kind Worth Killing, Peter Swanson; The Redbreast, Jo Nesbo; The Obsidian Chamber, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child; The Drifter, Nicholas Petrie; Mississippi Blood, Greg Iles; Iron Horse, John Hart; The Wrong Side of Goodbye, Michael Connelly; The Lost City of the Monkey God, Douglas Preston; The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne and A Legacy of Spies, John LeCarre.

Emily Milner, Ann Arbor: The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne,

Tori Booker, Ann Arbor: Missing, Presumed, Susie Steiner; The Drifter, Nicholas Petrie; The Girl Before, JP Delaney; Behind Her Eyes, Sarah Pinborough and Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie.

Mimi Cunningham, East Lansing: Rhys Bowen, “just fun to read”; Patricia Wentworth, Harlan Coben.

Lizzie Solway, Cincinnati: “Always Kent (Krueger)’s are at the top of my list. And his newest (Sulfur Springs) is no exception.”

Sue Trowbridge, California: The Long Firm, Jake Arnott; The Widow, Fiona Barton; Rubbernecker, Belinda Bauer; The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne; The Night Bird, Brian Freeman; The Dry, Jane Harper; Before the Fall, Noah Hawley; Celine, Peter Heller; Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz; The Secrets She Keeps, Michael Robotham.

Vicki Kondelik, Ann Arbor: Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, Alan Bradley; Buried in the Country, Carola Dunn; The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, Leonard Goldberg; The Flood, David Hewson; This Side of Murder, Anna Lee Huber; The Paris Spy, Susan Elia MacNeal; Devil’s Breath, G.M. Malliet; Glass Houses, Louise Penny; Forgotten City, Carrie Smith and Murder on Morningside Heights, Victoria Thompson.

Andrew Gross: The Saboteur

While not as emotionally engrossing a novel as last year’s The One Man, and not even really a crime novel, this story really can’t be beat. As most of it is true, unbelievably enough, what Gross has done is to tell the story of some incredible WWII heroes while giving it an emotional center in his main character, Kurt Nordstrum, apparently based on the actual historical figure of Kurt Haukelid. Gross adds some romantic and personal elements to give depth to the character, and the story turns on his actions, but this story is so rocket powered it’s hard to stop reading, and just as hard to believe it’s true.

Set in 1943 Norway, a country occupied by the Nazis and helped by Norwegians known as Quislings (still a term for a traitor), all Kurt has to do to prove his bona fides to the like minded is to say he’s fighting for the King. When he’s asked to get a certain microfilm to the proper channels in the UK, he figures the only way to do it is to actually go to the UK (a near impossibility in wartime), so he and his friends hijack a Swedish freighter and force it across the ocean. That is unbelievable yet true incident #1 (look up the Galtesund). This spawns the central portion of the book, as the evidence smuggled across proves the Germans have an almost impregnable facility in Norway producing enough heavy water to make an atomic bomb.

Kurt and a team train for months to be airdropped into the Norwegian countryside, tasked with destroying the heavy water tanks. This mission, and their training, described in detail, form the central portion of the book. Gross has fictionalized it but again, this is an incredible slice of history, and if you aren’t rooting for this little band of brothers and maybe wiping a tear from your eye, there’s something the matter. Read the afterword as there are even certain small details that are true.

The last section concerns the bombing of a ferry carrying the store of heavy water to Germany. If you aren’t familiar with the history – I wasn’t – I won’t ruin it for you. Settle in and be amazed. Gross is also excellent in portraying the heartbreaking costs of war as well as the sheer heroism of the far from ordinary patriots fighting it. Seems like a lesson to savor for us all.

Carrie Smith: Unholy City

With her clear prose and careful gaze, Carrie Smith has quickly become one of my favorite authors. British or American, I love a police procedural, and some of my favorite authors of all time include Lillian O’Donnell, Leslie Glass, Barbara D’Amato, Lynn Hightower and Lee Martin, all authors of the American police procedural. These writers feature a female cop as the central protagonist and from O’Donnell on forward, all have encountered, in their different ways, varieties of sexism and discrimination. Unfortunately, the history line beginning with O’Donnell’s The Phone Calls in 1972 to Carrie Smith’s 2017 Unholy City hasn’t changed all that radically.

Claire Codella, Smith’s main character, is a cancer survivor who is given crap assignments by her boss through a combination of jealousy (she made a name for herself with her first big case) and a tendency to think she’s too “weak” to do her job, thanks to her illness. While the details of Codella’s work environment and relationships give the books a welcome heft, they are not the main attraction. As with all the other writers mentioned, the story is the thing, and Smith is a top-notch storyteller.

With each novel she’s taken a look inside different pockets of Manhattan – schools, the theater, ritzy old age homes – in this novel she tackles the church, in the form of a venerable old Episcopalian outpost, St. Paul’s, complete with its own crematorium, graveyard and back garden. Into every garden, unfortunately, a little rain must fall and in this novel it takes the form of the corpse of one of the parishioners. The body of one of the more outspoken vestry members is found by another parishioner after a vestry meeting, and all hell breaks loose, in the most Episcopalian sense of the word.

Good Episcopalians all, the members of the vestry and even the rector herself are hiding or holding things inside, which unfortunately, results in a spate of deaths. Because of the set-up Smith has created more or less a locked room murder, as the only people who could have done it were all at the vestry meeting or connected to the church in some way. A group of homeless men sleeping at the church for the night are quickly ruled out, and it’s up to Codella and her boyfriend Heggerty (the lead on the case) to sort things out. Smith is a brisk and clear storyteller but she also has a good grasp of character and a deft hand at portraying it. This is a very enjoyable read, both as a police novel and as a detective novel. I continue to look forward to whatever Smith comes up with next.