Hanging Hill By Mo Hayder, HarperCollins, 429 pages, $22.99
Mo Hayder is emerging as one of the best crime writers in Britain. She consistently delivers original plots, with solid characters and fascinating, eccentric premises. Hanging Hill is another great Hayder book, this time using the simple idea of something being too good to be true.
Sally Benedict had the great life: the handsome husband and the great daughter, the nice house, the fine friends and the leisure to enjoy it all. Then her husband left her for another wife and a new child, and Sally is the poor mum at the rich kids' school, living on loans and trying to pay the bills by working for a cleaning service. When a rich client offers her extra work at four times her pay, she jumps at the chance, and that jump takes her into a world she never thought existed in her comfortable suburban life.
While Sally founders, her sister Zoe, a highly placed police detective in Bath, is called out on the most grisly of crimes. One call takes her to the corpse of a girl who was a classmate of Sally's daughter. The sisters haven't spoken for years, but the murder forces them into confronting their pasts.
The plot with the exotic setting with a terrible history (Hanging Hill is the location of a huge country estate) is classic Hayder. That history forms a kind of ghost in the background of this tale of very modern evils, as Sally and Zoe are confronted with horrible dilemmas and terrible choices.
The Technologists By Matthew Pearl, Random House, 480 pages, $31
Who knew that a mystery formed around the founding of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could be so good? I confess to a complete ignorance of the subject matter – mechanical engineering, chemistry, physics, natural science – but Matthew Pearl's extensive research and lively characters kept me engrossed.
It is 1868, and MIT's first class of 15 is about to graduate. In the background, angry unions insist that machines will destroy workers' livelihoods, creationists see technology as the handmaid of Satan, and the bluebloods of Harvard don't want upstart "collegies" as competition. In the midst of all this comes a cataclysmic event: The ships in Boston Harbor find their instruments going awry, and death and destruction ensue. The city has hardly a moment to recover when another attack comes in the financial district. Someone wants to destroy Boston. The baffled police turn to the scientific genius of the age, Louis Agassiz of Harvard. But it's the technologists of Tech who will uncover the plot.
This is a terrific historical mystery in the fine old Arthur Conan Doyle style. The young men (and one woman) of MIT deduce facts and conduct arcane experiments. There are cliffhanger endings and fortuitous escapes; strange machines are invented, à la The Wild Wild West. There are even a couple of very sweet romances.
Defending Jacob By William Landay, Delacorte, 422 pages, $30
The premise of this sizzling courtroom thriller, reminiscent of Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent, could be snatched from this week's headlines. A teenager is murdered on his way to school. The accused is a classmate. Both boys are 14, nice kids from good families. Andy Barber is the assistant district attorney for the privileged town of Newton, Mass. He has a solid marriage and a career he is devoted to. When his son Jacob is accused of murder on flimsy and circumstantial evidence, he mounts an aggressive defence. But old secrets come back to poison their case and they discover that there are many things that not even the most loving people can really know about themselves, each other and their children. The writing is a bit contrived, but the characters more than make up for it.
Those Who Love Night By Wessel Ebersohn, Minotaur, 327 pages, $28.99
This superb sequel to last year's The October Killings takes the reader into the heart of the failed state of Zimbabwe in ways that no documentary could. Once again, Ebersohn combines fine writing, great characters and intimate knowledge of the recent history of southern Africa.
Abigail Bukula, the brilliant young lawyer in the South African Justice Department, returns with another personal tragedy. This time it's the lost son of her dead aunt, killed in a massacre. He is accused of crimes against the state and is being held in Zimbabwe's most brutal prison. If the state doesn't kill him, incarceration will.
Abigail enlists her old ally, psychologist Yudel Gordon, in a trip to save her cousin and to expose the real truth of her aunt's death.
A Room Full of Bones By Elly Griffiths, McClelland & Stewart, 346 pages, $22.99
Those who haven't discovered the excellent series featuring forensic archeologist Ruth Galloway can start here, but they'll want the earlier three novels to uncover the interesting history of Prof. Galloway and Detective Inspector Harry Nelson.
Neil Topham, curator for a private museum of oddities owned by a local aristocrat, has been murdered. The only clue seems to point to the museum's failure to hand back a large collection of bones belonging to Australian aboriginal people who believe their ancestors will not rest until they are restored to their original burial places. Lord Smith, the museum's owner, is adamant that he won't return them. But Galloway thinks there's much more to the tale than the violation of graves. This is a skillful and engaging mystery, with great characters and a solid backstory.