Skip to main content
book review

The Letter Writer

By Dan Fesperman, Knopf, 366 pages, $35.95

Once again, the brilliant Dan Fesperman takes us into a world of intrigue. This time, instead of Guantanamo prison or Dubai, as in previous novels, the setting is New York in the early days of 1942. The attack on Pearl Harbor has just taken place and the United States is at war. North Carolina cop Woodrow Cain gets his first sight of the Big Apple's harbour as the French luxury liner SS Normandie, which caught fire while being turned into a troop transport, burns in the water. Fear of spies and sabotage is everywhere. Cain is a great character for Fesperman, who loves outsiders. He has both a dead wife and a dead partner – who was also his best friend and whose death was, possibly, his fault. He's come to New York to work as a detective, a job he landed through wealthy family connections, which doesn't endear him to the squad room. Meanwhile, there's a murder that needs to be solved, as well as a strange old man who supports himself writing and translating letters for newcomers to the city, who says he can help, but who has ties to organized crime. Don't miss this one – it's sure to be on my list of the year's best books.

Fall Of Man in Wilmslow

By David Lagercrantz, translated by George Golding, Viking, 354 pages, $34

Swedish crime fiction moves into Britain's heartland in this superbly written espionage and murder novel by David Lagercrantz, who is probably best-known in Canada for inheriting the Millenium series from the late Stieg Larsson. Set in 1954, the plot includes Alan Turing and the Enigma code breakers. The defection of the spies Guy Burgess and Donald Duart Maclean from the British Secret Service to the USSR has set off a hunt for other possible traitors. Alongside the spy hunt is a search for gay men now being targeted as potential troublemakers. In this awful, paranoid atmosphere, more than one man takes his life. Turing is just another loss. But Detective Sergeant Leonard Corell, a copper who knows his math, isn't convinced this is suicide. Against orders, he begins a search for just what led to the death of one of Britain's finest mathematicians and the hero who broke the Enigma Code, allowing the allies to win the Second World War years early. Lagercrantz has the lingo, the mood and the place down pat.

Silver Bullets

By Elmer Mendoza, translated by Mark Fried, MacLehose Press, 222 pages, $24.99

Mexico: A country where nothing is true, nothing is false. This short, gorgeous novel is the English-language debut by Elmer Mendoza, who writes what is known as "narco-lit" – fiction about the ubiquitous drug rings that seem to run Mexico these days. If this unusual police procedural seems a bit cynical, put it down to Mendoza's life experiences. Not all of us live in the heart of corruption. The setting is the picturesque city of Culiacan, a centre of drug production. Murders here tend to get covered up quickly, or declared "impossible to solve" by the oddly named Federal Preventative Police. But the death of a rich and very well-connected lawyer can't be ignored so easily. The city is full of potential suspects, and the case falls to Detective Edgar "Lefty" Mendieta. This novel is a great introduction to Mexican crime fiction, which is some of the best ever (think of Paco Ignacio Taibo II). It's by turns funny and heartbreaking, and the translation by Ottawa writer Mark Fried keeps the rhythm and punch of the stream-of-consciousness narrative. I look forward to more Lefty Mendieta.


By Lars Kepler, translated by Neil Smith, McClelland & Stewart, 523 pages, $24.95

Detective Joona Linna has been missing and presumed dead since he appeared in Lars Kepler's last novel, The Sandman. So, when a particularly grisly crime needs to be solved, the police call in psychiatrist Erik Maria Bark (from The Hypnotist) to see what clues are tucked into a traumatized witness's subconscious. The search for the missing detective may seem to be unrelated to the murder of a housewife, but it's all related. While I think that 500-plus pages is a tad excessive, you can rush past the filler and concentrate on the story, which comes together nicely. Kepler (who is really two writers) is a dab hand at the nasty bits, as well as the intricacies of psychological investigation, so you may prefer to read this one in daylight.

A Cast Of Falcons

By Steve Burrows, Dundurn, 382 pages, $15.99

The third book in a series really lets us know where the author, and his characters, are heading. In the case of bird-loving Dominic Jejeune – formerly of Canada, now of Norfolk, Britain – it's to more birding. There's murder in this book, but it's really about the illicit trade in birds of prey. Burrows introduces Jejeune's brother, who is on the run from a felony charge; Jejeune's attempts to protect his sibling cause chaos back in Saltmarsh, where a murder connected to a climate-change laboratory is being investigated. The novel also provides Jejeune's second, Danny Malik, a major role, building up his character for the next book in the series. There are several other subplots that occasionally clog the narrative, but it's clear where Burrows is taking this series – more birds, and more murder. That's a good thing.

Sayonara Slam

By Naomi Hirahara, Prospect Park Books, 228 pages, $23.50

How is it that I've never heard of Naomi Hirahara? This is her sixth novel featuring Japanese-American detective Mas Arai, plus she has another series starring a woman named Ellie Rush, as well as a long list of non-fiction works, including biographies and books on flowers. She's also won a slew of awards. Baseball provides the novel's background – it's South Korea versus Japan in Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. There are lots of facts about international baseball teams, as well as some good history about the Second World War, and a terrific whodunit plot involving a murdered sportswriter. I'm off to find some more Hirahara.

Interact with The Globe