The Scent of Death, by Andrew Taylor
HarperCollins, 474 pages, $19.99 (paper)
"This is the story of a woman and a city. I saw the city first, shimmering afar like the new Jerusalem in the setting sun…" That opening line takes us to New York City in 1778. The American War of Independence has begun but is not won. The British Imperial forces are in control of their provincial capital and the city is awash in troops, refugees, spies and people who eventually became the Loyalist settlers of Canada. Oh yes, there is a murder, too. The central character is Edward Savill, London clerk of the American Office, sent to investigate the claims of British citizens whose lands and goods have been lost to the rebels. The premise alone makes this a fascinating book but Taylor doesn't stop there. He puts a score of brilliantly conceived characters into a plot that takes Savill on a harrowing journey through a place known as the Debatable Ground. Andrew Taylor is one of the most imaginative historical mystery novelists writing today. His research is impeccable and his ability to change voice to suit period is a marvel. There was a Georgian roll to The American Boy and a tinge of appeasement in Bleeding Heart Square. Both were notable books and The Scent Of Death is every bit as good. Expect it to appear on a lot of "Best Of 2013" lists.
Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger
Atria, 307 pages, $19.95
This novel combines a coming-of-age story with a murder mystery that leads into an examination of the idea and meaning of the grace of God. In the hands of anyone less talented than William Kent Krueger, it could turn into a schmaltzy mess, but Krueger never lets an excess word destroy the structure. The setting is New Bremen, Minn., in the golden summer of 1961. Frank Drum is 13, living with his father, a minister, his less-than-believing mother, his talented sister and younger brother. The story begins with a boy dead on the railway tracks. It ends with two more deaths and Frank's life changed forever. He has come into wisdom "through the terrible grace of God." Everything about this book, from language to ideas to Aeschylus's epigram is beautiful and you'll think about it long after you're finished reading.
A Very Profitable War, by Didier Daeninckx, translated by Sarah Martin
Melville House, 224 pages, $14.95
Melville House continues to uncover hidden gems and this 1984 novel by one of France's most popular writers is a perfectly polished jewel. It's 1920 and the war to end wars is over, leaving a swath of France in ruins and plenty of graft to go round. In Paris, private detective René Griffon makes his living getting evidence for quickie divorces. Plenty of work and time left over for some play. Then he takes the case of a wife of a genuine war hero. A routine investigation of infidelity takes Griffon into a dangerous world where the aftermath of war isn't peace and prosperity but anarchism, graft and exploitation. There's more than one war reflected in this novel and more than one peace. The end is a twist so don't read it first. Let's hope Melville House brings out more of Daeninckx's novels.
The Wolves Of St. Peter's, by Gina Buonaguro and Janice Kirk
HarperCollins, 278 pages, $19.99
This is the third novel by the Canadian team of Buonaguro and Kirk, and it's the best so far. The setting is Rome, 1508, and Michelangelo is hard at work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The master's houseboy and dogsbody is Francesco Angeli and it's Angeli who spots a body floating in the Tiber. It wasn't such an unusual sight in those days, but when the corpse is dragged in, Angeli is astonished to find that he knows the dead woman. The writers are adept at plotting and they make great use of the grand artists who were in Rome at the time, along with the streets, smells and the brothels they attended. There are also floods on the rise to add to the suspense as Angeli hunts for a killer and attends to genius.