Beastly Things By Donna Leon, Atlantic Monthly Press, 304 pages, $30.50
You have an author and a character you’ve fallen in love with. You grab the new book as soon as it hits the stores and devour it in a night, then count the weeks for the next one. It comes, you grab, you read and … ugh. Something’s wrong. The characters are dull, the plot rinky-dink, the ideas stretched. It’s that point where almost all series begin to fail, usually book 9 or 10.
So when I tell you that Beastly Things, Donna Leon’s 21st novel featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice police, is one of her best, it’s telling you that this writer is one in 10,000, maybe a million. No Brunetti book has ever disappointed, and this one, which takes Brunetti out of his usual zone, is riveting.
The story begins in the morgue. There are three dead. The one that interests Brunetti is a man, severely disfigured by a rare disease, who was found floating in a canal. He has water in his lungs but didn’t drown. He was stabbed twice in the back and tossed in the drink to bleed out. There is no identification, and no clues. His clothing is inexpensive, available anywhere, except for one very pricey Italian loafer. No one fitting the man’s description is missing. Forensics can’t even say where he died or how he got into the water.
Brunetti, though, has seen this man, but where? His memory finally takes him and his sidekick, Vianello, to Mestre, the tough, hardscrabble land side of Venice. And, with her usual attention to the tiniest detail, Leon walks those streets as cleverly as she glides along the canals of Venice. As usual, there are pointed references to Italian politics and fascinating glimpses of life behind the glorious tourist scenes. Brunetti now has his own guide to Venice, a cookbook and 21 adventures, and he shows absolutely no sign of slowing down.
Force of Nature By C.J. Box, Putnam, 385 pages, $27.50
I was hooked on the Joe Pickett series back with Book 2, Savage Run. But Book 11, Cold Wind, left me gasping. Now, we have the sequel, with former Special Forces officer Nate Romanowski as the target of a killer, and Pickett and his family the bait to get Nate into the killer’s crosshairs. Box is brilliant at using the natural world as the backdrop and metaphor for evil that swirls like a blizzard. Nate knows that taking the high road may not beat the devil. The trouble is, Pickett doesn’t know how to travel any other way, even if it kills him. Jack Reacher fans, take note; this series is different but just as good, always.
Trail of the Spellmans By Lisa Lutz, Simon & Schuster, 374 pages, $28.99
Comic mysteries are difficult to write and even more difficult to maintain. Carl Hiaasen can deliver belly laughs book after book, but others seem to turn to cartoon and caricature. That could easily happen to this riotously funny collection featuring the crazy Spellman family of San Francisco, but not yet. This book, Lutz’s fifth, is hilarious.
Izzy Spellman’s wacky family are private investigators. This time out, though, everyone seems devoted to domestic bliss. David, Izzy’s brother and the family’s shyster lawyer, is a stay-at-home dad to his baby daughter. Rae, the youngest, is wrapped up in life at Berkeley. Even Izzy is trying the live-in route, moving in with her boyfriend, police detective Henry Stone. Mom and Dad Spellman are just settling into Izzy’s office, meddling as usual. And there’s the ex-con who runs the office and doubles as a pastry chef
Of course, it all starts to fall apart, and mayhem – and jokes – abound. This is the best of the series; if you haven’t read the others, you’ll want to get them ASAP.
Unwanted By Kristina Ohlsson, translated by Sarah Death, Atria, 367 pages, $28.99
One more excellent crime novel from Sweden. Kristina Ohlsson was a counterterrorism expert with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and has extensive experience with the National Swedish Police Board. She brings that background to this scary story about a madman who punishes women by stealing and killing their children.
A train from Gothenburg to Stockholm is delayed and a young mother gets off to make a call on her cellphone. She misses the call to reboard the train. She calls the authorities, who arrange for the conductor to watch over her sleeping daughter until she catches up. But the conductor is called away as the train pulls into the station, and the child vanishes.
This is not just a who did it but a how and a why. Ohlsson takes us into the daily workings of a dedicated police team with its own problems. This is clearly the first of a series, one readers should watch.
A Green Place for Dying By R.J. Harlick, Dundurn, 418 pages, $17.99
This fifth novel in the Meg Harris series shows that author R.J. Harlick is really building the Harris character. Meg is back in rural Quebec, still fighting her drinking problem, but she has bigger issues at hand. Out on the Migiskan reserve, a friend’s daughter has been missing for two months. Harris knows that, at this stage, there’s little possibility that the girl will be found alive. As she begins to investigate, she discovers that other girls have gone missing. Worse, the police just consider it usual behaviour. Harlick is drawing attention to the plight of native women, but doesn’t let the message get in the way of the story.
The Man From Primrose Lane By James Renner, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 365 pages, $28.95
James Renner’s debut novel starts out as a traditional mystery. David Neff, living in Akron, Ohio, is grieving over the death of his wife, a suicide. He is also on drugs for post-traumatic stress disorder, the result of his bestseller about a man executed for crimes he didn’t commit. Neff was a witness against the actual killer.
Neff’s publisher wants him to take on another book, about an elderly man who may have been murdered, a hermit remembered only for his habit of always wearing mittens. He left an estate worth millions, but his name was phony and his history false. Who was he and who killed him? What did he have to do with Neff’s dead wife?
That’s a clever start, and for about half the book, it’s working. Then Renner takes a turn into science fiction, borrowing heavily from Kurt Vonnegut’s time travel in Slaughterhouse-Five. He even uses the iconic “and so it goes.” It doesn’t work. Renner is no Vonnegut, although he is highly talented. Next time, he may settle for a straight plot and good characters. He’s capable of it.
Margaret Cannon is The Globe and Mail’s crime-fiction reviewer.