There’s a classic French novel called Le Grand Meaulnes, which is basically in two parts. The first is about a runaway schoolboy who stumbles into a marvelous, fairy tale experience in an isolated, ancient mansion in the countryside. The second half is the prosaic, logical explanation of this seemingly magic occurrence and the resulting quotidian grind of real life. In a way it’s satisfying to know what really happened, but in another way you want to rip the book in two and throw the ending out of the window. Or in the words of the marvelously named Sacheverell Sitwell, “In the end, it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation.”
It’s been a long wait for the new Jackson Brodie novel. Kate Atkinson was writing Life After Life and other literary hits. But her unlucky-in-love, tough-but-soft-hearted P.I. is back. This time Jackson’s 13-year-old son Nathan is staying with him on Yorkshire’s east coast while his mother Julia, Jackson’s former flame, acts in a TV crime series. Jackson’s daughter Marlee is now a law graduate and about to be a bride. Jackson does “dog work for solicitors—debt tracing, surveillance, and so on.” He also documents adulterous couples.
What makes a thriller good? What makes one stand out from the pack of – let’s be honest – the many, many books at the moment about women in jeopardy who have lost their memories or are unreliable narrators or have terrible husbands? Let’s start with the main character. Lawyer in training Rachel North has none of those problems. Her memory is intact and her husband seems like a doll in a Red Sox cap. She seems reliable and balanced. She’s just – in a situation.
Thrillers need to be plotted like clockwork, without the gears showing to the reader. So someone as gifted as Hank Phillippi Ryan can introduce many characters onto her canvas, turn the wheel of the plot, and a previously introduced character will unexpectedly show up where you least expect it. Gears at work here, but not on display. Masterful.
This book was a non stop read of the creepy psychological variety. The book opens with Lauren and her husband Patrick in the hospital as Lauren gives birth to twin boys, Riley and Morgan. While initially Lauren is afraid she won’t love them, that fear is quickly dispelled, but it’s replaced by a more disturbing fear: someone is trying to take the babies.
There’s an epigraph at the beginning of each chapter that grounds the book in the idea of the changeling, an ancient folkloric concept that the real baby is taken and replaced by an elf baby or an ice baby or in Lauren’s case, a river baby. And if this was the straight up thrust of the novel, it would have been almost a cliché.
This is a banner week for us as we add two new reviewers! The second is our daughter Margaret. who unsurprisingly is a big mystery fan, and one of her favorites is Elly Griffiths. Welcome, Margaret!
Elly Griffiths, author of two mystery series, takes a stab at stand alone fiction with The Stranger Diaries. This novel brings us a modern-day gothic horror story while keeping solidly grounded in tradition. Instead of a castle or drafty mansion, there is an old school with secrets. Instead of a threatening lord of the manor, characters are menaced by fellow teachers and students. There is a ghost story in the background of the novel, and a mystery concerning the true identity of someone long dead. Delightfully, the novel’s three heroines are not quite so traditional.
Sophie Hannah’s books are police procedurals, and technically a series, but she seems always more interested in plot than in the coppers making the deductions. That’s not a bad thing, but there’s no Inspector Dalgleish or Rebus or Banks to love. Instead, the reader gets the messier – and no doubt far more realistic – interchange of police at all different levels and abilities. In the case in this novel, the group have a very puzzling crime to solve.
Hannah diffuses her narrative with different narrators, newspaper columns, emails, and a host of other devices that keep the reader guessing along with the detectives. There’s the straight up procedural story where the police are trying to solve a string of four murders that look to be paired murders of best friends, though carried out at different times and in different locations, and then there’s the story of the various characters in the novel.
There are some mystery novels that are as much novels as they are mysteries. Admirers of authors like Elizabeth George, Ruth Rendell and P.D. James who favor complex plots, multiple characters and a subtle, slow accumulation of suspense found another skilled writer to savor when Susan Hill published her first Simon Serrailler mystery, The Various Haunts of Men, in 2004.
Branding the book as a “Simon Serrailler mystery” is a bit disingenuous, as Chief Inspector Serrailler is not the central focus, but a rather distant presence, reflecting the elusive nature of his character, particularly to DS Freya Graffam, a newcomer to the small English town of Lafferton, and the central agent of law enforcement in the narrative. Like the traditional English novel there are many other fully realized characters including the killer, his multiple victims, tangentially involved townsfolk and the town itself.
While this series started to come out in Jonasson’s native Iceland in 2015, the books have only now started to make their way stateside, via the UK. Rupture, which Jonasson wrote in 2016, will be published here in January. It’s the third in his “Dark Iceland” series which began with the sensational Snowblind. Let me tell you, whatever publishing path this author took to get here is definitely worth the wait, as he is a phenomenal writer.
While I would classify this series as a “traditional detective” series, mostly because of the plot structure, it also has the feel of a contemporary noir. Jonasson embraces both of these strong threads in mysteries equally, and with equal aplomb. His main character is Ari Thor, who began the series as a new detective in tiny Siglufjorour.
Bell Elkins is one of the greater creations in recent mystery fiction. A feisty, smart, no-holds-barred prosecuting attorney in tiny Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, each book is infused with both the love of the land and the tragedy of it, a shadow that’s deepened and grown darker through the course of the series. From the very first novel, A Killing in the Hills, Keller has had her finger on the pulse of contemporary culture. In that novel, the central event was a mass shooting at a fast food restaurant. In the most recent novel, Fast Falls the Night (2017), Keller focused on an alarmingly high series of overdoses related to opiods in one 24 hour period.
Laura Lippman’s ode to James M. Cain is masterful. As I began reading it, I thought it was going to be based on The Postman Always Rings Twice, and it is, but it’s also based on Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. Cain’s ingenious, scathing stories were pure story, punctuated with the inappropriate yet raging desires on the part of the female characters, whether it was Cora, Mildred or Phyllis, and the somewhat clueless collusion on the part of the males in their orbit. All of Cain’s females have a burning idea of how to proceed. So does Lippman’s Polly – an understatement. She’s also expert at waiting for results.