The Child Garden
By Catriona McPherson, Midnight Ink, 312 pages, $28.95
If you haven't already discovered Catriona McPherson's work, this is the time. Her Dandy Gilver series is a delight but her stand-alone psychological novels are even better. The Child Garden is the best work so far and coming so soon after her brilliant Come to Harm, that's saying a lot. The setting is a rural idyll. Gloria Harkness lives on an old estate converted into a care home for the disabled. In exchange for modest maintenance, including rocking a stone 12 times a day to keep the devil away, she enables her severely disabled son to live in the home. She can visit him, enjoy his progress, be assured of his safety. Then an old friend appears at her door. "Stig" has a tale to tell of life at an alternative school that once stood on the estate. Eden was dedicated to "happy children" but it collapsed after the suicide of a student. The headmistress's career was ruined, the students scattered. Now Stig says he's being stalked by a former student. When she turns up dead, he's the obvious suspect. While he hides out in Gloria's house, she hunts for clues to the mystery, which includes digging into the history of Eden. This is a terrific spin on the great British cozy. McPherson is redoing a classic.
By Jo Nesbo, Random House Canada, 214 pages, $27.95
A good writer doesn't need a 500-page doorstop to tell a story and this stand-alone from the author of the Harry Hole series proves it. Midnight Sun is a perfectly polished gem that can be read in a lazy afternoon. The first item of note is that this is not a Harry Hole novel and fans should understand that Nesbo also writes excellent psychological-suspense books. Jon is a man on the run. Guilt-ridden over his daughter's death, he steals money from one of Oslo's most feared crime lords, the Fisherman. Fear and cunning take him to Norway's frozen north where winter daylight is hardly a glimmer and where people go mad in the cold and darkness. Jon's only help comes from a curious boy who brings him supplies and who asks questions that Jon doesn't want to answer. As Jon's grip on reality begins to slacken, the Fisherman's henchmen discover his hiding place. This is a great little tale of survival under fierce conditions and Knut, the boy, is a marvellous character. I found myself wanting this one to go on for a few more chapters.
After the Horses
By Jeffrey Round, Dundurn, 312 pages, $11.95
After all the Christmas sweets, it's nice to relax with some good old-fashioned sleaze. Jeffrey Round's fourth Dan Sharp novel, set in Toronto, takes readers on a tour of the city's gay underbelly while also keeping a very tight plot moving. Yuri Malevski is the deeply unlikeable owner of the Saddle and Bridle, a notorious gay western bar. When he's found dead in his glitzy mansion, no one is surprised and even fewer mourn. So private investigator Dan Sharp is a bit surprised when a private citizen hires him to investigate the crime. After all, the police are on the case for free. Sharp takes the job, as much to uncover what his client wants found or hidden, as to ferret out a killer. The trail of Malevski's killer leads through the less attractive side of Toronto's gay village . The best of the series so far.
The Night Bell
By Inger Ash Wolfe, McClelland & Stewart, 391 pages, $24.95
It's too early in the year to predict the best novels of 2016, but The Night Bell, Inger Ash Wolfe's latest in the wonderful Hazel Micallef series, sets the bar as high as it goes. This fourth novel under Toronto author Michael Redhill's pen name is the best in what's been an unbroken string of winners. It has character, setting, plot and suspense that keeps you reading to the last page. We are, of course, in the town of Port Dundas where Sheriff Micallef has old unsolved deaths on her hands. Bones of children have been discovered on the site of an abandoned foster home. The case of murdered children raises all kinds of spectres. The land is part of a new subdivision of homes whose residents are already raising questions about corruption and cover-up. Hazel has hardly begun the investigation into the dead children when three very new and very obviously related murders occur. In the midst of all the furore, Hazel finds herself recalling a very different crime, one that happened in 1959 when her adopted brother was accused of abducting a local girl. Could there be a connection to that disappearance? It seems that if Hazel can find the answer to these crimes, she may be able to finally clear his name. Save this one for a weekend when you don't have to put it down. It's irresistible .
Bryant & May and the Burning Man
By Christopher Fowler, Bantam, 416 pages, $34
I love this smart and witty series set in London with "the Peculiar Crimes Unit," and this one is certainly one of the best of the bunch, with a simply terrific twisting plot. It's the week before Guy Fawkes Night, with images of gunpowder plots and fireworks. There's a demonstration outside Findersbury Private Bank, with chanting and signs. Suddenly, the crowd turns nasty, chanting becomes shoving and quickly escalates. From nowhere comes a Molotov cocktail tossed into the bank, and as fast as it began the riot disperses in the face of flames and, as the police soon discover, a dead man. He was homeless, nameless, and he becomes a case for May and Bryant and the Peculiar Crimes Unit. Findersbury is a bank in distress and as Bryant and May assemble their clues, another man dies a fiery death. It seems he, also, had a tie to the bank. What starts out as a dreadful accidental death morphs into a planned murder with possibly more victims at large. Christopher Fowler is a master of British wit and you'll laugh your way through a very cleverly constructed whydunit.
An Evil Mind
By Chris Carter, Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 368 pages, $32.99
Readers who love a really good whodunit have been waiting for this book. This sixth novel featuring behavioural psychologist Robert Hunter is Carter's best work yet, with a villain so skillfully hidden even I couldn't guess who. Hunter is a specialist in criminal behaviour, attached to the Los Angeles Police Department, but he's also a consultant to the FBI's Ultra-Violent Crime Unit, a group assigned to the worst of the worst kinds of criminals. This time, Hunter is called in on a double homicide case. Police in rural Wyoming have a suspect, picked up almost accidentally, and held in a particularly gruesome pair of murders. But the suspect claims he's just a pawn in a giant conspiracy. Is he lying? Then evidence leads to a serial killer who abducts, tortures, murders and has been doing it for years. Hunter's job is to evaluate the suspect in hand and, if the man is really a pawn, to create the profile of the real killer who is still out there, still planning his next kill. Fans of Criminal Minds shouldn't miss this book, and they'll want the other five as well.