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crime fiction

Sam Thomas’s book The Midwife’s Tale is set in the English Civil War.

The Midwife's Tale
By Sam Thomas, Minotaur, 320 pages, $28.99

"On the night I delivered Mercy Harris of a bastard child, the King's soldiers burned the the city's suburbs and fell back within its walls to await the rebel assault." That's the spellbinding opening of this brilliant debut novel.

The city is York and the rebels are Parliament's forces. It is 1644 and the English Civil War is engaged. Against this backdrop, we have midwife Bridget Hodgson minding her trade. When her friend Esther Cooper is convicted of murder and condemned to death by fire, Bridget finds herself on the trail of a killer among killers. Fans of C.J. Sansom will love the historical details and careful plotting of this book.

The Good Father
By Noah Hawley, Anchor Books, 307 pages, $18

This book came to me the week of the Newtown massacre and, even without that awful backdrop, it has kept me thinking. The good father is Dr. Paul Allen, father, citizen, professor of medicine, highly respected rheumatologist. He lives with his second wife and twin sons in an ideal Connecticut suburb. One night, relaxing with a drink, he tunes into the news and learns that the leading Democratic presidential candidate has been shot dead. The accused killer is his own 20-year-old son Daniel, from his failed first marriage.

Allen, true to his storied talent for discovering causes of strange diseases, goes to work on Daniel's case. First, there's denial; it must be a mistake. Daniel couldn't kill anyone. He's just a troubled kid adrift. When Daniel pleads guilty, Allen follows his son's trail, convinced there's a conspiracy.

Hawley has a great tale here and Allen is a terrific character. As he totes up the clues, he presents a real scientific idea. Once all the answers are in, we're left with an awful reality. One man's monster is another man's beloved son.

The Cold Cold Ground
By Adrian McKinty, Seventh Street Books, 320 pages, $17

This dazzling novel is the first of The Troubles Trilogy. It begins in 1981 in Belfast and anyone who reads this will join me in waiting eagerly for the next two instalments. McKinty, author of seven other crime novels, has a genius for setting and character. His detective, Sean Duffy, the only Catholic on the Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary, is a marvel.

The plot – a body is found on a bare piece of ground; the dead man is assumed to be an informer – has Duffy in search of a serial killer of gay men in a seriously homophobic city. Duffy's Belfast is as good as Rebus's Edinburgh.

When Johnny Came Marching Home
By William Heffernan, Akashic, 300 pages, $18.95

Three boys leave the small town of Jerusalem's Landing in Vermont to fight for the Union in 1860. When the war ends in 1865, one is dead, one is maimed and one is now a sadistic psychopath.

Jubal Foster is fortunate. His father, the town constable, makes his one-armed son his deputy. His first case is the murder of his old comrade-in-arms, Johnny Harris, whose personality was warped in the war.

There are plenty of reasons to kill Harris, some of them recent, but others lean back to the savage days of the Wilderness battles. Jubal knows better than most how a man could turn killer. Heffernan, three times nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and an Edgar Award winner, knows his history and his mysteries. There is a predictable love story that drags the plot, but it can be ignored. This is really a story of war and redemption and what happens to idealistic kids who have to turn into killers.