Headhunters By Jo Nesbo, Translated by Don Bartlett, Random House, 265 pages, $19.95
If you thought Scandinavian crime fiction couldn’t get better than Steig Larson and Henning Mankell, you’re wrong.. Norway’s Jo Nesbo is better than either and this book is far and away his finest. Already a best-selling film in Europe and just sold for a U.S. version, Headhunters is smart, skillful, perfectly cast and full of twists that will keep you spinning.
Nesbo has given his stalwart Oslo cop Harry Hole a rest. The headhunter is Roger Brown, the most successful in Norway. Everyone vies for his skills and pays plenty. But Roger is living way beyond his considerable means. One problem is his gorgeous and expensive wife, Diana. But not to worry, dear. Roger’s profession takes him into the mansions of the richest and most cultivated, so he has a second income. He’s an accomplished art thief.
Then comes his golden opportunity. He learns of the location of a priceless painting by Rubens, stolen by the Germans, and currently on the wall of one of his clients. But when he arrives to steal the painting, he discovers there’s far more happening with his darling wife than he suspected. When his partner in crime is murdered, Roger knows that he’s in someone’s crosshairs. There’s a hunter on the trail of the headhunter and Roger is going to need all his wit and speed to save his own skin.
Smart dialogue, intricate plotting, brilliantly conceived characters, perfect pacing. This novel should put Nesbo at the top of any reader’s must-have list.
The Caller By Karin Fossum, Translated by Ke. E. Semmel, Random House, 296 pages, $21.95
Ruth Rendell reads Karin Fossum. It makes sense. Both are mistresses of psychological suspense with talents for excellent police series. But while Rendell takes us into the darkest minds, Fossum peppers her plots with violence in the everyday. This tightly constructed story begins with a sleeping baby in her back yard in Oslo. Mummy is making dinner. Daddy is at work. Everything is perfect, until the parents discover their baby drenched in blood.
Fortunately, it’s not her blood. It’s a prank, stupid and horrible and life-changing. Inspector Konrad Sejer is on the case, with much press coverage, when he receives a note: “Hell begins now.”
More evil pranks follow, with equally horrible results. A woman reads her obituary in the paper; a cancer patient has a visit from the undertaker. The pranks are perpetrated by a miserably unhappy teenaged boy who lives with his alcoholic mother and survives on visits to his adored grandfather. I won’t give away any more of a clever plot but bad things happen. Fossum is among the best new voices in the genre.
The Blood Royal By Barbara Cleverly, Soho, 320 pages, $28.95
Once again, Barbara Cleverly proves she’s one of the best of the neo-Golden Age authors. Her Joe Sandilands series, now nine books strong, has arrived at 1922, the Irish Rebellion and the years following the Russian Revolution. After a stint on the continent, Joe is back in harness at London’s Metropolitan Police. But the world is in flux and the head of CID is also called to head up the Special Irish Branch as well as maintain an eye on Czarist émigrés running a spy network out of Kensington Palace. When a politician is assassinated, Joe has to investigate. This is the best so far in a superior series, one fans of Charles Todd or Jacqueline Winspear won’t want to miss.
Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains By Catriona McPherson, Minotaur, 293 pages, $23.95 (U.S.)
Readers still adore Agatha Christie and long for a successor. Ruth Rendell and P.D. James are far too free with the blood and realism. Into the vacuum comes Catriona McPherson and Dandelion Dahlia Gilver, known as Dandy, a gentlewoman of middle years, intelligent, rich, aristocratic, married and free to take on little puzzles. Lollie Balfour of Edinburgh is being terrorized by her husband. She is followed, accused of perverse habits, her mail opened, her life threatened. She asks for Dandy’s help and the only way in is for Dandy to work as Lollie’s lady’s maid, a job for which Dandy is spectacularly ill-suited. Dandy arrives, and within hours the body drops and the puzzle begins. This one is full of clever twists.
Death at Christy Burke’s By Anne Emery, ECW, 382 pages, $24.95
Halifax lawyer Anne Emery’s terrific series featuring lawyer Monty Collins and priest Brennan Burke gets better with every book. The seventh outing moves from Halifax to Dublin, where Father Burke is tending his grandfather’s bar. When someone paints a message claiming there’s a killer in the bar, Burke is asked to investigate. The owner, currently in prison, has reasons not to call in the police. Burke finds his old friend Monty Collins and Michael O’Flaherty, another priest, more than adequate to the task. Filled with Irish history and lore, this is a delightful change for Emery’s regulars.
Savage Rage By Brent Pilkey, ECW, 260 pages, $26.95
Toronto police officer Brent Pilkey follows up his first Jack Warren novel with this tough sequel. After the event recorded in Lethal Rage, Warren has been transferred from the tenderloin district of 51 Division. He’s now in North Toronto skimming the ritzy homes and shops along Bayview Avenue, which cops call the Sleepy Hollow of Toronto. But Jack longs to return to 51 and, when a vicious criminal goes on a rampage downtown, Jack is ready. Pilkey has improved here; his language is less clunky and the plot moves better, but it’s his extensive knowledge of police and policing that makes this series a winner.
The Red Floor By Sheila Kindellan-Sheehan, Véhicule, 303 pages, $18.95
This well-crafted puzzler by Sheila Kindellan-Sheehan, of Pointe-Claire, Que., is filled with the kinds of plot twists readers love. There is a dead child, drowned in the family pool under the very nose of his father. The boy’s mother doesn’t just accuse daddy of carelessness; she is convinced that it’s cold, intentional, murder. That gets her rich and powerful father to hire the best detective money can buy to investigate.
Margaret Cannon is The Globe and Mail’s crime-fiction reviewer.