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Review: New crime fiction from Owen Laukkanen, R.M. Greenaway and Mark Lisac

The Watcher in the Wall

By Owen Laukkanen, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 368 pages, $35

The essence of a good thriller is the writer's ability to foresee scary real-world events; B.C.-born Owen Laukkanen's The Watcher in the Wall is as current as last week's news. Kids in a Minnesota high school are committing suicide. It seems random but the numbers tell a different story, and when the friend of Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent Kirk Stevens's daughter dies, she begs her father to find out the truth. That story becomes Laukkanen's best novel to date. This isn't a whydunit or whodunit. We know early on that the watcher in the wall is 15-year-old Nathan Gruber and that his first victim was his stepsister Sarah. But Stevens and his FBI partner Carla Windermere just have the clues in front of them: names, grades, computers and a ghostly online presence that leads troubled teens to death. I found this novel irresistible. If you haven't already discovered Laukkanen's Windermere-Stevens series, this is the book to start.

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Cold Girl

By R.M. Greenaway, Dundurn, 432 pages, $17.99

R.M. Greenaway's debut bills itself as the first in a series: "A B.C. Blues crime novel." There are some first-novel missteps but Cold Girl was good enough to win the Unhanged Arthur Award for the best unpublished novel of 2014. The story, about Mounties and local cops in search of a missing rockabilly singer, starts slowly, with the disappearance of a woman in the Hazelton Mountains of northern British Columbia. RCMP investigator David Leith is in charge of the case, but there's also a problematic young constable named Dion, who seems to be off on his own, as well as the local police, who have their own ideas about how to investigate. Then there are the mountains themselves. Greenaway is at her finest when she takes us up into the cold, forbidding wilderness, where few comforts serve to ease the mind or body. Halfway through, Greenaway starts introducing new characters, backstories and bits of what should be other novels. This is a rookie mistake – to think you'll never get a chance to use those characters or that clue – but it's forgivable. The characters and setting here are good and, by the end, I wanted Leith to return. The Unhanged Arthur wins again.

Where the Bodies Lie

By Mark Lisac, NeWest Press, 272 pages, $20.95

Novels by political insiders are irresistible to journalistssuch as me. Even the small-minded, petty racism of the current GOP race can be ratcheted from cheap melodrama to true suspense in the hands of the right scribe. Then we have Where the Bodies Lie by Mark Lisac, an insiders' insider to Alberta politics for more than 20 years, eight of them as the writer and publisher of the influential Insight Into Government newsletter. What's remarkable about this novel is how brilliantly Lisac moves from political writing to fiction. His smooth prose and fine pacing make it a pleasure to read. The setting is a small city just east of the Rockies, where an aging cabinet minister has run down, in broad daylight, a member of his local constituency. His defence? "He [the constituent] had the brains of a gopher. That's what you do with gophers – run 'em over with your truck." The defence goes for a more acceptable plea of accidental death and the provincial premier sends his old friend Harry Ashby, a lawyer and former hockey star, to find out just what happened to that gopher. As Ashby begins to dig, he discovers corruption that could lead to the premier himself. This one is a lot of fun, especially in a political season. There's plenty of room for Ashby to make a return.

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