Author Archive for Agatha – Page 3

Andrew Michael Hurley: The Loney

One of the things that make England such a haunted place is its sheer antiquity. The great ghost story writers of that country are often possessed by the fear that the spirits of the old, pre-Christian ways will manifest themselves darkly in our bright modern world. Such is the slowly dawning terror of Andrew Michael Hurley’s magnificent new chiller The Loney:

I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn’t leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along. It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way.

“There” in this case is the Loney, a wild and barely habited stretch of coastline in Lancashire where the narrator, his family, his parish priest and a few other members of the congregation would travel at Easter.

It was our week of penitence and prayer in which we would make our confessions, visit Saint Anne’s shrine, and look for God in the emerging springtime, that, when it came, was hardly a spring at all; nothing so vibrant and effusive. It was more the soggy afterbirth of winter.

The novel begins with the narrator (we never learn his real first name) hearing the news of a landslide in the area that caused an old house to slide down the cliff, and more disturbingly, of the baby’s skeleton found in the wreckage. Thus the story begins, revolving around a single still supernatural point, switching from the past history leading up to it and the present moment where it still reverberates.

It’s a hypnotic, richly realized work, with many strong ingredients. The narrator’s hyper-religious mother, obsessed with finding a miraculous cure for his mute older brother, is the propulsive force that pushes them into a return to the Loney, dragging along the new parish priest who has replaced the longstanding old one who died under mysterious circumstances. As in any good Gothic, the bleak and ancient landscape is itself a character, one with a dark tide that pulls toward oblivion as strongly as the stormy waves on the beach. The locals are sullen and threatening, their traditional customs strange and unsettling, and the weather awful as the modern world seems more and more distant.

The book has a slow and powerful sweep powered by the finely fashioned prose, creeping evermore creepily, much more like the classic Victorian and Edwardian writers Sheridan Le Fanu, Wilkie Collins or M. R. James than modern shocksters like Stephen King. The denouement is also very old school, with no exploding heads or rubber monsters, but a much more sinister sense of doom and discomfort, which in the end is far more effective.

It’s hard to categorize “The Loney,” to pigeonhole it as a Gothic, Ghost or Horror story, because it’s all that and more. What’s easy to say is that it’s a remarkable debut, a real dream of a nightmare that will haunt long after the last page. (Jamie)

Ingrid Thoft: Loyalty

I have heard the buzz about Ingrid Thoft for awhile now and finally got around to picking up this first novel in her series, and boy, is the hype justified. The central character, a female P.I. who works for the family law firm, bears some similarity to the kick-ass Kalinda on The Good Wife, one of my all time favorite TV characters. Josefina “Fina” Ludlow also has a passing resemblance to Spenser, and as this series is set in Boston, that seems only right. The family law firm is run with an iron fist by her father Carl and staffed by her high powered brothers. While Fina found the law wasn’t for her, she found investigative work was. It’s very much put to the test in this first outing. She runs a business “separate” from the family law firm, but they bring her most of her clients.

Unfortunately, her skills are needed when her sister-in-law disappears, and while her brother seems not that troubled by her disappearance, Fina increasingly is, and the outcome (this is a mystery novel, after all) is predictably tragic. When her brother becomes the prime suspect in what’s pretty clear is a homicide, Fina is also trying to help out her now-grieving teenaged niece who is resisting all attempts at either help or emotional support.

“The next hour of canvassing was like a greatest hits tour for the worried well. Yoga, Pilates, massage, energy healing, and Rolfing specialists occupied space next to an optometrist, nutritionist, and a variety of MDs. You could have your aura checked, get your spine realigned, and have a colonoscopy, all without moving your car.”
― Loyalty, Ingrid Thoft

There’s a parallel story involving a businesswoman whose business, it becomes clear, is that of a high class madam. The madam is dealing with an incapacitated husband and a son who has moved back home because of a trauma that’s only identified later in the novel.

Thoft’s brisk, entertaining, matter of fact and frequently humorous storytelling style makes this novel a great read. Her skill at weaving together disparate plot threads is indeed reminiscent of the great Robert B. Parker. She also grounds and creates her character and the entire Ludlow family, setting the stage nicely for future installments, of which I hope there are many. This is a fantastic series.

Theresa Schwegel: The Lies We Tell

Theresa Schwegel is a brilliant and underappreciated writer (despite an Edgar win for her first novel, Officer Down). She is a difficult writer, though, and refuses to sugarcoat anything. She also writes her novels in first person, present tense, which some people find off-putting. That said, she’s one of the more original and vivid writers in mystery fiction. Everything she writes is memorable and worth a look, and this novel, her sixth, is no exception.

Most of her novels concern female police officers, and so does this one, though with the twist that the officer in question, Gina Simonetti, is dealing with the beginnings of MS and hiding it from her employer. Schwegel tackles health care as a central theme and it’s deftly woven through her plot, touching on Gina’s health, the case Gina becomes invested in, and the thread of easy access to and misuse of prescription drugs.

As an opening salvo, Gina chases down one Johnny Marble, who has apparently beaten his elderly mother when he shows up to visit her in the hospital. During the course of the chase, Gina’s MS prevents her from doing anything but falling on top of Marble, who takes her gun and escapes. For this reason, Gina becomes desperate to find him and find a way to neutralize his testimony, so that the “Job” will not discover her debilitating illness.

Gina, along with being a strong, kick-ass woman, is also a stubborn one, who is resisting her new health reality while trying to work full time as well as take care of her brother’s 2-year-old, who has now lived with Gina long enough to call her “mama.” The complex plot weaves together a heartbreaking story of the elderly woman in the hospital, Gina’s struggles managing her single mom status along with her hopes of retaining custody, and her attempt to lead an investigation under the radar as her search for Johnny Marble intensifies.

She has some under the radar helpers, and stubbornly resists that help, but in the end, she’s forced to take it. As the novel is told from Gina’s point of view, the picture of Gina that an outsider might glean is only absorbed slowly. When a story is being related in the first person, the reader sometimes second guesses behaviors and actions the character takes, and has to form their own opinion of that character. That’s the difficult part of Schwegel’s writing, and it’s also the brilliant part as the reader is forced to assume an almost active role in the story she’s telling.

The references and social concerns are up to the minute, and health care, while not a sexy topic, is certainly an important one. The casual use of pills and applications of prescription drugs is troubling, but realistic. Fortunately for the lucky reader, these concerns are wrapped in the package of a hard to put down thriller. I can’t recommend checking out this author more highly.

Rhys Bowen: On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service

Note: if you aren’t completely up to date on the Lady Georgie series, this review does contain some spoilers. If you skip it, rest assured this installment is just as much fun as all the others.

Rhys Bowen’s Lady Georgie series is about the most fun you can have “between the covers.” Ever since the publication of Her Royal Spyness (2007), Bowen has trod the delicate line between humor, character development and great plotting to provide one of the more completely enjoyable series in the mysterious universe. Lady Georgie, for the uninitiated, lives in 1930’s London and is 34th in line to the throne. She’s impoverished but does get assignments from the Queen to do a little “family” spying – at the time, Queen Mary’s greatest worry was the Prince of Wales’ relationship with Wallis Simpson.

By this installment, Georgie is engaged to the dashing Darcy and happily spending time with him at the family castle in Ireland when he’s called away on a mission (he is a spy). At loose ends, her troubles are apparently over when she gets a pleading message from her dear friend Belinda who is waiting out an unwanted pregnancy in Italy. She stops by the Palace on her way to Italy to have tea with Queen Mary and request a release from the line of succession so she can marry Darcy (he’s a Catholic and he’s Irish). When the Queen finds out where she’s going, she quickly asks Georgie to join a house party at a villa near her friend. The Prince and Wallis will be attending, and the Queen wants to know if Wallis has obtained a divorce.

A good bit of the humor in the books comes from Georgie’s troubles with her maid, Queenie, who is hopeless at ironing, hair, make-up – all the things a ladies’ maid at the time was supposed to be an expert at. But there’s something endearing about Queenie. She’s found a berth with a cousin of Darcy’s in the kitchen and it seems to be suiting her, so Georgie takes off, maid-less and unchaperoned (to the Queen’s horror) to the continent.

Arriving in Italy, it takes some time for her to track down Belinda, who has taken up residence in a Swiss clinic. Georgie eventually makes her reluctant way to the house party, which is hosted by an old boarding school friend who has married really well. The house party appears to be made up of wildly disparate people, including several German officers (it’s 1935 and Hitler is in power), as well as Georgie’s mother. Never very maternal, her mother is nevertheless strangely delighted to see Georgie and asks her to help her out of a spot of blackmail.

Of course, there’s a murder as well as a frighteningly efficient ladies’ maid named Gerda who is on loan from the mistress of the villa. The light tone is kept throughout and as is usual with a Lady Georgie book, I was often laughing aloud as I read. All is resolved at the end and it seems we happy fans have a wedding to look forward to in the next installment, and possibly three of them. If you want to know who the other two weddings belong to, you’ll have to read the book!

Author Interview: Karen Dionne

Karen DionneKaren Dionne has been on the mystery scene for years – writing mass market thrillers and most recently, an adaptation of the TV show, “The Killing.” She also is the driving force behind the Backspace Writer’s Conference, for which she’s been honored by the Library of Michigan as Author of the Year. But with The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen joins the big time as she draws on her experiences homesteading in the UP in the 70’s.

 

Q: Can you talk a bit about your own experience homesteading in the UP?

A: During the 1970s, my husband and I moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as part of the back-to-the-land movement. We were city kids, and didn’t know a thing about living off the land, but the idea of living close to nature really appealed to us. We bought 10 acres of hardwoods, and moved onto our property when our oldest daughter was 6 weeks old, living in a tent while we build a small cabin, carrying water from a stream, and sampling wild foods. I’ve made wild apple-chokecherry jelly over an open campfire (and had to defend it against marauding raccoons) and washed my daughter’s diapers in a bucket (which I promise is every bit as disgusting as it sounds). We lived in the Upper Peninsula for thirty years, so I know the area well, and drew heavily on my experiences when I wrote The Marsh King’s Daughter. The U.P. is such a wild and beautiful place, I’ve always wanted to set a novel there. The Marsh King’s Daughter is truly the book of my heart, my love letter to the Upper Peninsula.

Q: I was really intrigued by the way you aren’t exactly sure, as a reader, of the time period, and time is relative, certainly according to Helena herself.   How did you work out the details of the time line?

A: The Marsh King’s Daughter is actually set in the present day, though it’s never clearly stated, so the timeline counts backwards from 2017. I think the reason the timeline seems so fluid is because the chapters that take place in the past offer no clear indication of the current date since Helena, who is narrating the story, doesn’t know what year it is (and doesn’t care). She and her family get up when it gets light, and go to bed when it gets dark. Because she lives so in tune with the natural world and the seasons, this is the only “time” that matters to her.

Q: I loved the Anderson fairytale being told as the book goes forward – he was a pretty harsh storyteller!  Is this a story that’s always intrigued you?  Did you read a lot of Hans Christian Andersen as a kid?

A: I’ve loved fairy tales since I was a child, the darker the better, and adore lines such as the one that ends the opening excerpt in the novel: “Great black bubbles rose out of the slime, and with these, every trace of the princess vanished.” I also love novels such as Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child that offer a modern take on a fairy tale. So after the character of Helena as the offspring of a kidnapped girl and her captor came to me and I was looking for a story for her, I pulled my childhood fairy tale books off the shelf to see if I could find a tale that would structure the novel. I was very excited when I came upon “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” because the fit was so perfect. In the fairy tale, the main character is the daughter of a beautiful Egyptian princess and the evil Marsh King. By day, the girl is beautiful like her mother, but has her father’s wicked, wild temperament, while at night, she takes on her mother’s gentle nature in the guise of a hideous frog. In my novel, Helena is also the product of an innocent and a monster, half good, half bad, and like the Marsh King’s daughter in the fairy tale, she struggles with her dual nature.

Q: One of the things I feel as a reader that’s very difficult to do is to have a character change in a believable way.  It can so easily seem false or manipulated, but you really pulled this off, as Helena’s story is truly a journey.  Can you talk about that a bit?

A: While The Marsh King’s Daughter can be read and enjoyed as a straight-up thriller, Helena’s emotional journey and her relationship with her father are the heart of the story. For her first 12 years, she loves living in the marsh, hunting and fishing and foraging, and she loves her father to the exclusion of all else. Then when she leaves the marsh, she hates her father – not only for what he did to her mother, but for all the things about the outside world he didn’t teach her that she needed to know. Then at age 18, when she’s had all she can stand of the notoriety of being known only as “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” she changes her name and her appearance and moves away, in effect denying her father. And finally, at the end of the story, she has to come to terms with who and what she is. Thus the core of her journey is her love-hate relationship with her father. David Morrell once called The Marsh King’s Daughter “a tragic love story,” and I think the description fits!

As I was channeling Helena, I drew most heavily on my relationship with my own father. Like Helena, I adored my father when I was small. As I grew older, naturally, I began to see his flaws, but that didn’t diminish my love for him, and this was how I wanted to depict Helena. Yes, she grows up in terrible circumstances; yes, her father is without question a monster. And yet, for a time, “before everything fell apart,” as she puts it, her childhood was truly happy.

Q: Some of Helena’s assessments of “civilization” after she returns to it ring pretty true.  Are those your own views?  Could you go back to no phone, TV, news, as long as you had running water and electricity?  

A: Helena and I share a love of wild places and an ease with nature, so many of her opinions of so-called “civilization” are also mine. I could happily say goodbye to technology and live a more natural way of life, and I wouldn’t even mind doing it without electricity and running water. From a practical standpoint, I doubt that’s likely to happen, since my 90-year-old mother lives with me now, and because my current lifestyle necessitates access to bookstores and airports. But would I chuck everything and go live in the wilderness again if circumstances allowed? Absolutely!

Q: I was also very impressed with the actual prose, which is deceptively simple and not distracting but also evocative.  How did you arrive at the voice you are using here – other than a lifetime of practice?

A: The voice and the tone of the novel come straight from Helena since the novel is written in first person, and everything is told through her filter. She in turn relates everything back to the marsh, because during her formative years, this is all she knows. Helena’s circumstances are so unique, it was a lot of fun to put myself in her position and think not how I would describe something, but how she would. Particularly in the chapters when Helena is a child, I tried to choose words and language that not only would a five-year-old use, but a five-year-old who had never watched television or seen or spoken to anyone other than her parents.

Q: I really, really take my hat off to a writer who effectively uses the setting as an integrated part of the plot.  Setting is essential here and the story could be told nowhere else.  Where did you start – setting?  Plot?  Character?

A: Unlike my previous novels which began with plot, this novel started with the character. I actually woke up in the middle of the night with the first sentences of The Marsh King’s Daughter fully formed in my head. I wasn’t dreaming about the character, she was just there, talking to me, and telling me who she was. Middle-of-the-night ideas don’t always look quite so appealing in the morning, but to my surprise, this one did. So I wrote up a few paragraphs in the character’s voice – which are now the first pages of the novel.

Interestingly, as I was writing those paragraphs, I almost gave the story an urban setting, thinking of the women in Cleveland who were hidden in plain sight. But at the last moment, I decided to set the book in a place I knew well: the Tahquamenon River valley in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Now the setting and the story are so intimately connected, it’s impossible to imagine this novel being set anywhere else.

Q: Do you have a secret stash of National Geographics?

A: I loved paging through National Geographic magazines when I was a child. Every family I knew had a big stack because they were too beautiful to throw away! I put a pile of old National Geographics in the cabin where Helena’s family is squatting because I wanted her to learn to read, and I also wanted her to know something of the outside world, even if that knowledge was very dated. Plus, anyone who’s ever spent time up north knows that every cottage and cabin has a stack of musty old National Geographic magazines to read on rainy days!

Q: What book or writers are influential in your own writing?

A: I adore terrifically written novels that take me deep into a world I know nothing about: Paulette Jile’s News of the World, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, as well as older titles such as Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth and E.M. Forrester’s A Passage to India (one of my own favorites: ed.).

Q: Can you name a book that’s been “transformational” for you?  A book that set you on the path to reading or writing?  You can go back to Peter Rabbit, if that’s the one!

A: The Boxcar Children series fascinated me when I was a child, as did the Little House on the Prairie books. I guess this explains where my love of wild places began!

Q: Finally, what’s next for you?

A: I’m working on another standalone tentatively called The White Bear’s Keeper, which is also a psychological suspense featuring a character with a dark past that’s set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and that has a fairy tale element. Readers who enjoy The Marsh King’s Daughter will find enough in the new novel that’s familiar, while at the same time enjoying an entirely different story.

E.J. Copperman: Written Off

E.J. Copperman, Jeffrey Cohen’s alter ego, has written, as either Copperman or Cohen (or both) now five series (with a sixth to debut in August of this year), all of them well crafted and enjoyable, and two of them, his Asperger’s detective series and this one, ranking among the very best cozy series ever, in this humble reviewer’s opinion. For me the apex of cozy begins with Charlotte MacLeod, spreads quickly to Sharyn McCrumb’s peerless Elizabeth McPherson series, and trickles down to include writers like Dorothy Cannell and Donna Andrews and continues onward from there. There are many contemporary cozy series I both admire and enjoy, but Cohen/Copperman is top of the pile.

Like Cohen’s Asperger’s detective series, this one – he’s calling it the “Mysterious Detective” series – has an insanely great set-up. The main character, Rachel Goldman, writes cozy mysteries featuring a detective named Duffy Madison, who works as a consultant to a prosecutor’s office. One night, as Rachel is at a book signing, a man turns up who says he is Duffy Madison. Not only does this Duffy Madison hold the job Rachel created for him in her books, but he appears to have sprung into existence four years ago – the same time Rachel’s first book was published. Rachel (and her bookstore friends) thinks he’s nuts, but he insists he has an important case he needs to discuss with her, and reluctantly, she agrees.

The case involves two dead mystery writers and one missing one, and ever so reluctantly Rachel is drawn into the story, especially as it seems she might be next on the killer’s list. Cohen/Copperman, after so many books and series, is really top of his game as a pure mystery writer – plot, setup, clues, suspects – all expertly and enjoyably handled. Oh, yeah, he’s also very funny, which in a cozy series, is seriously important. Sure, it’s a bit meta to have the main character be a mystery writer and the detective a character she’s actually created, but this book has a lovely energy, focus and narrative drive that just can’t be beat. And like the very best mystery stories, this one ends with a little cliffhanger for the next book. Seriously, if you love cozies or just funny, well written mystery novels, don’t pass this one up.

James R. Benn: Billy Boyle

We sell a TON of James R. Benn titles, often this first one, Billy Boyle. Billy is an Irish cop circa 1942, when he’s drafted. His uncles, who lived through WWI, don’t like the idea of Billy going overseas so they pull some strings, getting him assigned to a “cushy” desk job with cousin Ike (a.k.a. Eisenhower). While I usually dislike historical novels featuring real people, cousin Ike (other than getting Billy over to England) only plays a small part in the story, so I was OK with it.

Billy, fresh from the states, is unsure what to expect. He’s put up at the Dorchester hotel (in an attic room, obviously previously used for servants) and is quickly introduced to the people he’ll be working with. Among them are the glamorous Daphne, a WREN far more capable than her assignments, and a courtly and melancholy Polish Baron named Kaz who has lost his family to the Nazis.

As Billy arrives, the Allies are set to launch Operation Jupiter – basically a plan to get the Nazis out of Norway – when there’s an unexpected suicide, which of course turns out to be murder.

Benn capably sets up a locked room mystery situation – the murder could only have been committed by someone at the Dorchester, which is filled with Norwegian officers. Daphne comes up with a plan to get Billy (and herself) where she needs to go, and she, Kaz and Billy set off to far flung parts of Britain in their quest to uncover a killer. On the way they stop at Daphne’s home, a lovely country estate, where Billy is more than smitten with Daphne’s sister, Diana.

The trio splits up to do their investigating, Billy heading out to speak with one of the Norwegians getting ready to go overseas to take part in the secret operation to liberate Norway from the Nazis. When Billy returns to meet up with Daphne and Kaz there’s a death so jaw dropping that finishing the novel gains even more urgency. Billy, a rookie cop back home, has been elevated to playing a real detective and he’s finding it challenging but, with his Dad’s voice in his head advising him on what to do, he perseveres and discovers the culprit.

A secret operation of Billy’s own puts paid to the murderer, but he’s plagued with the idea that his actions have cost lives. Benn is really expert in highlighting these wartime dilemmas, of which that last is the largest: how to balance the greater good with the cost of some (or many) lives figuring into the equation (I was reminded of the excellent movie about Alan Turing, The Imitation Game, which takes the same thing into account. Benn’s book predates the film by several years).

Benn is a lively storyteller, nicely balancing character, a dash of romance, a well drawn wartime setting and a terrific plot. This is thankfully already a lengthy series, and I can’t recommend starting with this novel more highly.

Cara Black: Murder in Saint-Germain

“You’re a pest… A real nuisance in heels.”

Nancy Drew has grown up, and she wears Louboutin pumps and rides an unreliable pink scooter around town. Cara Black’s Aimée LeDuc is living her most feminist adventure ever, as she juggles maman duties with a full time (and fully dangerous) job, one that finds her jumping over rooftops, scrambling through sewers, and generally the object of the attention of many bad guys. While at home Aimée is happy with baby Chloe, she’s alienated from her baby’s father, as well as from the critically injured Morbier, her protector and stand in father who lies in the hospital, dying, asking for her.

In the world of work, she’s juggling a case at the École des Beaux-Arts and a request from her old friend, Suzanne, who is sure she’s seen one of the most terrible humans alive on the streets of Paris. Thing is, she’s sure this man, who tortured, raped and killed little girls in Bosnia, was killed in a bombing. Aimée isn’t sure whether to believe Suzanne or not but she agrees to look for him while running computer checks at the Ecole in her slightly less alarming job.

As everyone from Rene to Chloe’s father, Melac, warns her to stay away from Suzanne’s case, Aimée just can’t, especially when some of Suzanne’s other contacts start dropping like flies in ways that could almost be accidents. Aimée is sure they are not (even a mysterious death by bee stings) and plunges on.

As always one of the great pleasures of a Cara Black book is the true sensation of being in Paris, as Aimée scoots here, there, and everywhere. The plot is suitably complex and the reason this ghost must be caught more than chilling, lending an urgency to Aimée’s investigation. The bits of Aimée’s personal life that sneak in – her relationships with Melac and Morbier and less troublesomely, with Chloe, lend the book and the proceedings an emotional grounding. I found Aimée’s believable juggling of her baby and her job one of the more resonant aspects of the novel. This is another wonderful installment in a deservedly long lived series.

Karen Dionne: The Marsh King’s Daughter

Every once in a while you read a book that’s so good, you can’t look up until you finish, and it’s so clear and specific and moving that you know it’s the book the author was meant to write. This novel, set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is indelible in every way: setting, story and character. Dionne frames her novel with Hans Christian Anderson’s tale The Marsh King’s Daughter, and opens with a woman named Helena relating, in first person, that she’s a kidnapping survivor.

The scenario seems all too tragically familiar – Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, even the movie, Room – but as Dionne fleshes it out it becomes very much her own story. Helena is the product of an abduction. She grew up in a remote area of the UP in a tiny cabin with only her mother and father. As it’s the only life she knows, it takes her a long time to puzzle out quite what’s wrong about it.

But flash forward to when Helena is a grown, married woman with two daughters of her own, and she learns that her father, the “Marsh King” of the title, has escaped from prison. When the cops show up on her doorstep at the same time as her husband, who has no idea of Helena’s backstory, his first impulse is to get the girls in the car and get out of dodge. Helena refuses to go with him – this is her quest, but she fears she’s lost her husband forever. Trust is not a concept she’s familiar with, and as the story evolves, it’s clear why that’s the case.

The story weaves together the past and the present, so we learn of Helena’s childhood where her mild mother was very much a background figure to the devotion and kinship of Helena and her father as he teaches her to hunt and survive in a remote area with no running water, electricity, or any means of communication. Everything the tiny family has is a product of their hard work, from the leather Helena’s mother softens and makes into gloves and hats to the snowshoes made by Helena’s father. Helena’s only frame of reference for the world are an old stack of National Geographics.

In the present she’s hunting her father in the wilderness they both know so well, and it’s clear that while he’s an expert woodsman, so is she, thanks to his training. They are lethal equals, and Helena’s task is made more urgent when she starts finding bodies.

In the past, while the young Helena clearly loves her father and loves the things he teaches her, she’s also subjected to beatings and punishments (being locked in a well, for example) and her mother is basically being raped every night, with Helena being a product of a rape. These things are only clear to Helena as she gets older, however – when she is a young girl she holds her mother in contempt.

This story could be set nowhere else but the UP, and Dionne is an amazingly evocative and vivid writer describing her setting. While I grew up in Michigan and spent my summers “up north,” entering the UP always felt like I was going to a different country, and Dionne is expert in portraying that feeling.

As Helena grows older and becomes ready, naturally, for the next phase of her life, her growing rebellion and strength makes her father angry and leads to a showdown. As the two of them in the present race toward one another for another show down, it puts this intimate story on an almost epic scale. Everything about this novel is perfect: the writing, which is not too flowery but is memorable and clear; the characters – Helena and her parents will stay in my mind for a very long time; the vivid setting, and finally, the story that doesn’t let up. If there’s a better novel written this year I would be very surprised. Don’t miss it.

Elly Griffiths: The Chalk Pit

This is a wonderful outing from Elly Griffiths. I enjoyed the last one, The Woman in Blue, very much, but my daughter pointed out after she read it that it was “transitional.” I asked her exactly what did that mean, and she explained the characters were all in transition, neither here nor there for that particular installment. Thinking about it, I agreed with her completely, and this one – where the characters seem to have found landing spots for the moment – feels like a stronger book.

In it, Ruth and Nelson have gone to their romantic corners – Nelson is back with his wife and Ruth is alone. Cathbad is settled (and regrettably, not much in evidence), Tim is gone, Cassandra and Clough are happy parents, and Nelson has a new boss. He thinks to himself “Yes, not content with giving him a tangled love life and a stressful working life, God has now delivered the greatest blow of all. Nelson has a woman boss.”

Nelson is no sexist, far from it, but Jo, his boss, is portrayed by Griffiths as a kind of eager combo hipster/new age hippie who tries to meet each employee on their own terms and fails miserably. Not since the great Ngaio Marsh has a writer been so deft at swiftly explicating a character to such great comic effect, though it’s more of a gentle drubbing than a sharply cruel one. This is the kind of thing, among others, that sets Griffiths’ novels apart – the sharp clear humor of her writing and world view shines through on every page.

Ruth, meanwhile, has been asked to consult on an underground site for a possible future restaurant where bones have been found. Archeologist Ruth is to determine whether they are old or new, which, if they were new, would halt any possible construction. These novels, set in Norwich in the UK, always include a swath of history as well as the local landscape. In this novel, with constant references to “going underground” and underground societies – there’s even a character named Bilbo – the local landscape, it becomes clear, is composed of chalk, and there are countless underground tunnels connecting much of the city.

Like another author I very much admire, Deborah Crombie, the whole situation created by Griffiths is so enjoyable that when crime eventually intrudes it’s almost jarring, but intrude it does, as homeless men are found stabbed, a homeless woman disappears, but it’s not until a housewife and mother of four goes missing that the investigation really heats up.

Griffiths is enough of a traditional mystery writer that she includes a red herring or two, but she’s newfangled enough that her characters are so indelible they seem absolutely real. Ruth Galloway is certainly one of the greater creations in mystery fiction in the last decade or so. Her human foibles coupled with her strength and intelligence, not to mention her status as a single mother, make her seem so “real” it would not be at all surprising to meet her in the flesh. What an achievement!

And so is this book, which ends with a breathtaking chase and capture that’s made more memorable by a few reveals about the characters as well as some tying up of personal loose ends for some of them. This is absolutely one of the best mystery series being written at the moment.