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book review

Detail from the cover of “Vengeance” by Benjamin Black

A Door in the River
By Inger Ash Wolfe, McClelland & Stewart, 391 pages, $22

Until recently, the biggest mystery about this series was the real name of the author. The Globe and Mail solved that one recently when Michael Redhill unmasked himsel in these pages. Does it make a difference to fans? Not a whit. Irascible Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef of the Port Dover police is a joy at her job. It helps that the author really knows how to set a story, skillfully using the lovely colours and lively history of rural Ontario. This could be a kind of idyll, albeit one that begins with death by bee-sting.

The story opens with that death, a man gagging on his own vomit and a woman kicking him over, watching him die. The dead man is Henry Wiest, much loved local handyman, owner of the local hardware store. He died in the parking lot of a tobacco store on the local native reserve of a heart attack resulting from what appears to be anaphylactic shock caused by two stings on his head.

Hazel has known Henry all his life. She's shocked by his death and puzzled by two things: What was Henry doing at a tobacco store at 11 p.m. when he didn't smoke? And bees don't usually fly at night, let alone sting. Doggedly, she checks with the local native police, who were first on the scene and who oversaw the autopsy. What happened is clear to everyone but Hazel. Then, on a visit to Henry's widow, she finds another strange thing, and becomes convinced that there's far more to Henry's death than a taste for honey.

While Hazel's investigation into the death continues, she must also deal with her cranky, 87-year-old mother, the town's former mayor who now seems to have lost her will to live, and also cope with the fact that a man she can't stand has been promoted in the police department – and that she must now report to him.

There are some big jumps in this plot as it morphs from a country killing into international slavery, and readers have to take a few coincidences with grains of salt. Still, the story holds up, the characters have depth and resonance, and the end is chilling.

By Benjamin Black, Henry Holt, 320 pages, $28

When John Banville wants to shed a bit of his literary lustre, he pens these brilliant mysteries featuring Detective Inspector Hackett and his sidekick, a pathologist named, appropriately, Quirke. The previous four Black books have all been outstanding. This one is even better.

It begins with a perfect day on the water. A very rich man is on the sea in his prized boat. Then, in front of a frightened witness, he pulls out a gun and shoots himself in the chest. It's clearly a suicide, but the dead man was powerful, part of Dublin's monied elite. What appears to be simple suicide turns to something far more sinister as Hackett and Quirke search for reasons why a man who had everything would kill himself. That answer is the clue to a deadly secret that threatens more lives. You won't put this one down once you start it.

By Jennifer Hillier, Gallery, 384 pages, $28.99

Jennifer Hillier, who hails from Toronto, made a splash with her gritty debut novel, Creep. She returns with an even tougher work in Freak. Welcome to the world of a working girl named Brianna, who snorts coke in the toilet on her way to her next guy, who will be the last trick she ever turns. Brianna isn't the first victim and she won't be the last. Someone is carving up Seattle prostitutes and leaving cryptic clues. They all lead to a retired police officer named Abby Maddox, who is in prison. Seems Maddox is about to be indicted for murder, but someone believes Abby deserves to be freed and is willing to kill for her.

Hillier adopts the style of the great fifties noir authors, which those who prefer their crime clean may find a bit too dark. But if your tastes run to Cornell Woolrich or Jim Thompson, Hillier is what you've been waiting for.

Never Tell
By Alafair Burke, HarperCollins, 368 pages, $27.99

Alafair Burke has always had talent to burn, but she doesn't rely on that alone. Her works, like those of her father, James Lee Burke, grow and evolve. She also incorporates her experience as a lawyer, legal theorist and ex-deputy district attorney. Her New York-based Ellie Hatcher series is my favourite of her continuing works, and this fourth novel is the best in the series, incorporating insights into the peculiar lives of the Big Apple's most privileged residents.

The dead person here is Julia Whitmire, daughter of a megaproducer of rock music. The scene screams suicide, but her parents refuse to believe that their daughter could kill herself. Ellie and her partner, J.J. Rogan, are sold on suicide, but Whitmire money and power mean an investigation. So the partners head into the netherworld of elite prep schools, where kids with everything that money can buy face the pressures of parental expectations, drugs, abuse and old-fashioned bullying in a whole new digital age. This is Gossip Girl with plenty of edge, and Burke really knows how to keep the action moving.

A Dark Anatomy
By Robin Blake, Minotaur, 360 pages, $28.99

This auspicious debut from a British writer takes us to the dawn of forensic science. It's England in 1740. In rural Lancashire, a young woman is brutally murdered. The local coroner, Titus Cragg, is expected to find out who and why she died. He enlists the aid of Dr. Luke Fidelis to unravel the clues. The test of a good historical mystery is how well the author reconstructs the period. Blake, author of books on the artists Van Dyke and Stubbs, brings an eye for the telling detail and an original use of language to take us to another time and place.

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