The Survivor By Sean Slater, Simon & Schuster, 512 pages, $19.99
"Dying is easy; living is the hard part."
That line opens The Survivor, a novel by Vancouver Police officer Sean Sommerville (Slater is his nom de plume) that is sure to be one of the summer's best novels.
Slater's protagonist is Vancouver police detective Jacob Striker, who has just returned to the job after a leave of absence. Striker's wife has died and his daughter, Courtney, is in emotional free fall. When he is summoned to her school, St. Patrick's High, he knows the news isn't going to be good. He and his partner, Felicia Santos, stop by the principal's office. Five minutes into a parent-principal chat, shots ring out. Instantly, Striker and Santos head into the hallway. There are three shooters, all in masks. The police drop two, but the third escapes. There are dead and wounded kids all over. Images of the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres are raised, but this is much deadlier.
The hair-raising opening is guaranteed to keep readers involved, but Slater has more than a sensational plot up his sleeve. From Striker's opening, the narrative slides to the escaped gunman, and then to Striker's daughter. We have three different views of the action, which result in a deeper and more nuanced story and show off Slater's strengths as a writer. He brings terrific realism to the task, and he not only knows police work, he knows how to write about it. He also has a gift for developing the scene; this is gritty Vancouver as tourists never see it.
There are some first-novel bobbles. While Striker's character is well developed, Felicia Santos is thinly written. Striker's boss is the clichéd jerk who prefers action to solid police work. This novel deserves better, and Slater obviously has the talent to deliver. The Survivor is the first of a projected series so there is ample time to develop Santos and cut the clichés.
The Witch of Babylon By D.J. McIntosh, Penguin Canada, 320 pages, $26
Anyone who watched with horror as looters sacked the National Museum of Iraq during the opening days of the Iraqi war will find this terrific novel irresistible. Toronto author D.J. McIntosh, a member of the Society for Mesopotamian Studies, takes us on a journey that includes art, artifice, alchemy, history and a tiny touch of witchcraft.
Our guide is art dealer John Madison, a Turkish American fluent in the languages and customs of the Middle East. His brother, Samuel, a powerful figure on the New York art scene, is obsessed with finding a priceless relic stolen during the sack of the museum.
Madison's hunt is aided by an archeologist and an Iraqi photographer, and the three head into the maelstrom of Baghdad. Madison quickly learns that his friends have their own reasons for coming along on the search, and they are not always clear and noble ones. As the trio digs into the chaos of Iraq, they are quickly taken back to a far more ancient place, where queens ruled and necromancers turned lead into gold, where reality became myth.
McIntosh combines stellar research with superb writing skills. This book is the first of a planned three featuring Madison and Mesopotamia. I can't wait for the next two.
Stagestruck By Peter Lovesey, Soho Press, 336 pages, $34.99
Detective Peter Diamond is back in Peter Lovesey's latest perfect plot. A pop princess dies before a celebrity-packed house in Bath. She was supposed to appear in I am a Camera, the Broadway play inspired by Christopher Isherwood's racy novel about Berlin that, with songs added, became Cabaret. Instead of reviving her fading career, Clarion Calhoun appears clawing at her face. It appears someone put a caustic substance in her stage makeup. The makeup artist whose job it was to plaster the diva is found dead, which brings Diamond to the case.
Lovesey, as always, uses his wit like a whip and whirls through the theatre scene like a scourge. Bodies drop, clues appear, and it's all done with the master's perfect touches, including witty dialogue, smart plotting and superior characters. Definitely one of Lovesey's best.
Before I Go to Sleep By S.J. Watson, HarperCollins, 360 pages, $21.99
Christine Lukas wakes up every morning in a strange bed with an unknown man, and can barely recognize herself in the mirror. The bed is her own, and the man is her husband of more than 20 years. Over the next few hours, Christine will learn that she is suffering from a rare form of amnesia, that she is not 25 but 47, and that for the past 20 years she has learned these facts daily, only to lose them overnight as she sleeps.
That's the spellbinding opening for this excellent debut by Londoner S.J. Watson, who manages to make this appalling brain injury both understandable and believable. As Christine moves from hour to hour, she uncovers bits of her old life, captured in a journal, and as the bits build up, we see danger around her. This is a great psychological thriller with a clever twist. You may think you know what's happening, but then Watson throws you a curve.
Misery Bay By Steve Hamilton, St. Martin's, 304 pages, $28.99
The latest and best in the superb Alex McKnight series, set in Michigan's rugged Upper Peninsula, has Alex facing the worst case of his career. A serial killer has centred his work in the isolated hamlet of Misery Bay. McKnight is at his laid-back and intelligent best as he confronts a man who is less an understandable criminal than outright evil.
Murder at the Villa Byzantine By R.T. Raichev, Soho Press, 224 pages, $28.95
What is summer without an old-fashioned, superbly plotted mystery set in a English mansion? R.T. Raichev, a Bulgarian-born Brit, delivers this classic with the perfect panache one expects from an author who wrote his doctoral dissertation on English crime fiction.
The location is the leafy London enclave of Hampstead, where Antonia Darcy and Major Hugh Payne are celebrating a birthday party. When one of the guests is murdered, Darcy and Payne go into their investigative mode to unravel the clues and reveal the killer. Of course, there are other bodies and plenty of suspects, and it all comes together perfectly at the end. Fans of the classic mystery who haven't already discovered this excellent series should start here and then read the rest.
Daggers and Men's Smiles By Jill Downie, Dundurn, 344 pages, $11.99
Novelist and playwright Jill Downie delivers a fine debut mystery set on the English Channel Island of Guernsey. Detective Inspector Ed Moretti and his partner, Liz Falla, are called in to investigate a series of vicious attacks on a local film crew. The film is set at the end of the Second World War and based on a novel about an aristocratic Italian family. The locations are a mansion and the old fortifications left from the invasion and occupation of Guernsey. Just why anyone would object to the film is only part of the mystery facing Moretti and Falla.
Downie's experience with historical novels (good research), her first-hand knowledge of the location (she lived there as a girl) and her theatre skills (slick dialogue, good characters) stand her in good stead in what appears to be the beginning of a new series.
Margaret Cannon reviews crime fiction for Globe Books.
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