By Joseph Kanon, Atria, 404 pages, $29.99
Every good summer begins with a great spy novel, and Istanbul Passage is as good as espionage writing gets. Joseph Kanon ( The Good German, Stardust) is a master of historical fiction, but this dip into the choppy waters of the Bosporus, circa 1946, is certainly his best work. We get the sights, the sounds and even the smells of a place where history has been layering for millennia.
The Second World War is over. Turkey, officially neutral, was front and central from 1939 to 1946, but now the OSS and OWI are disbanding and the spies are heading home to man desks and build houses and new lives. Leon Bauer, however, isn’t going home, isn’t even sure where “home” is.
Officially, Leon is a tobacco buyer for R.J. Reynolds. He spent the 1930s in Berlin, where he met his Jewish wife. They escaped to Istanbul in 1939, and she joined the Palestinian Jewish rescue movement, and Leon did his “bit,” as a courier for a U.S. espionage team. His wife ended up catatonic in a private Istanbul hospital. Now his American boss pulls him in for one last job, nothing spectacular. He’s to guide a defector from the Balkans to the Turkish side. The defector has valuable information on the Russians, and everyone knows they will be the next big enemy. All Leon has to do is get him safely to a hotel and turn him over to his American handlers. Nice and tidy.
The first major twist comes about 60 pages in, and it’s a lulu. From that point on, Istanbul Passage takes the reader on a complex, fascinating journey through history, with sneaky bits of current action slipped in. Kanon loves his history, but he also knows that the terrible currents that roiled the old states of the Middle East are still roiling. If you like your espionage with depth, style, great settings and fine characterizations – and who wouldn’t? – you’ll love Istanbul Passage.
Cop to Corpse
By Peter Lovesey, Soho, 304 pages, $28.95
I’ve been a fan of Peter Lovesey’s ever since Sergeant Cribb investigated a Victorian murder in Wobble to Death. Lovesey’s Peter Diamond series is one of the best of the current crop of British cop-shop books. His books always have a tight plot and very professional sets of clues and investigators, and this one, the 12th, is one of his best.
The location is Bath, where three local constables have been killed in what is obviously a very well-organized and targeted kill. Nothing seems to tie the victims together, and that leaves the police with one of their worst fears: A serial killer selecting policemen at random for murder. No one is safe.
Peter Diamond of Bath CID is in charge of the detective work, but it’s Chief Superintendent Jack Gull – known privately as “Supergull” – of the Serial Crimes Unit who’ll take the lead and get the glory. Diamond doesn’t really care for the kudos, but he does hate Gull’s tendency to rush roughshod over evidence and push his own idea of investigation regardless of where the clues lead.
There is one plotline in this book that irritated me and I was tempted to skip it, but Lovesey doesn’t waste a reader’s time. It is very relevant to the outcome, which has a nice twist. If you’re not already a fan of Lovesey and Diamond, start here.
By Quentin Bates, Soho, 388 pages, $28.95
Iceland’s Officer Gunnhildur sprang to life in last year’s Frozen Assets. Now she returns, having moved from her comfortable small town to the Serious Crime Unit in Reykjavik. Once again, we have a very decent mystery that takes us to the heart of modern Iceland.
Gunna’s new job comes with more responsibility, and a promotion with a raise that hasn’t arrived yet. Iceland’s police, even at the highest levels, are feeling the pinch of the austerity programs brought on by the banking disasters of 2008. Stretched to the limit, the Serious Crime Unit is dealing with the murder of a popular TV fitness instructor in her own home. There’s also an escaped convict named Long Ommi, who may be hiding out in Gunna’s home town. It doesn’t always pay to know the kinfolk of criminals.
As Gunna chases down clues, she sees a pattern developing and it’s one that leads to a very, very wealthy enclave of men powerful enough to stop a murder investigation in its tracks. But nothing stops Officer Gunnhildur except uncovering the killer.
By Deryn Collier, Simon & Schuster, 391 pages, $19.99
This excellent debut novel by B.C. author Collier was short-listed for the 2010 Arthur Ellis Award for best unpublished first crime novel. I don’t know what happened to the winner, but S&S was smart to pick up this one. It introduces ex-Canadian Forces commander Bern Fortin in what is sure to become a popular series. After a tour of Afghanistan, Fortin has taken a job as coroner for a rural British Columbia town. That means investigating as well as exploring the evidence.
A body turns up in the bottle-washing tank of a local brewery. It looks like accidental death until the victim’s girlfriend turns up dead in a nearby field. That makes for a double murder, but the question isn’t just who but why? Brewery safety investigator Evie Chapelle joins Bern to uncover the answers. This is a nice mystery with good characters in a very well-developed setting, and the series has promise.
By J. Robert Janes, Mysterious, 320 pages, $24.95
Three years is too long to wait for a new instalment of one of my favourite series. The Kohler/St-Cyr collection is now 13 books long. This is usually when a writer starts to fade, but J. Robert Janes, of Niagara-on-the Lake, Ont., manages to keep his characters fresh and his plots lively as he explores the underworld of France during the Occupation.
Fans know of the odd couple of police: Gestapo officer Hermann Kohler and Sûreté Inspector Jean-Louis St-Cyr. This time out the pair are called to the spa town of Vittel, once a playground of the rich, now home to several thousand foreign nationals imprisoned by Vichy. It is 1943, a long time since the fall of France. The prisoners have been subsisting on Red Cross packages, but now, with France starving, they are beginning to die.
In the face of mass murder, we have an individual murder: An American woman has been stabbed in the heart with a pitchfork. Crime passionelle? Or is there much more to uncover in hidden hell of Vittel? This is one of Janes’s best books and, in case you missed the other 12, they are all now available as eBooks.
The Wild Beasts of Wuhan
By Ian Hamilton, Anansi, 340 pages, $19.95
Smart and savvy Ava Lee, Toronto forensic accountant, returns in this slick mystery set in the rarefied world of high art. Ava and Uncle are summoned to China by Wong Changxing, “the Emperor of Hubei,” on a job. It appears that the Emperor has been ripp ed off. Some rare Fauvist paintings, for which he paid top dollar, have turned out to be forgeries. Ava and Uncle are to uncover the thieves and recover the cash.
The trail leads to Denmark and then to backwaters of Britain, but that’s not the best of this great caper tale. Hamilton has great fun chasing villains and tossing clues about. The Wild Beasts of Wuhan is the best Ava Lee novel yet, and promises more and better to come.
Margaret Cannon is The Globe and Mail's crime-fiction reviewer.