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Every Cloak Rolled In Blood

By James Lee Burke, Simon & Schuster, 288 pages

This novel, Burke’s 15th, is being billed as his most autobiographical and as “supernatural” with some mystery attached. He begins with an explanatory preface and says he believes it’s his best novel. He’s probably right, although I’d hate to ignore The Tin Roof Blowdown, still the best crime novel written about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But supernatural and even mystery don’t really describe a work of fiction that takes us into an author’s soul. If you only read one book this year, make it this one.

Burke is one of America’s finest prose stylists, celebrated for his elegance and his finely crafted and unique voice. In his books, always graciously paced with old Southern manners and charm gilding over the original sin of slavery, he continually reminds us of the Four Last Things: Heaven, Hell, Death and Judgement, which form the central focus of this novel.

Aaron Holland Broussard lives in Montana, solitary and ageing. His much loved daughter, Fannie May, has just died leaving him bereft with “a hole as big as a pie plate in the center of my chest.” When a truck pulls into his drive and a teenager hops out and paints a swastika on his barn, he’s not a man to stand down: “you don’t belong here,” the kid shrieks as the truck pulls away.

The encounter leads Broussard to a state police officer Ruby Spotted Horse, who sees an old man (Broussard is 85) in danger from white supremacists or worse. Broussard sees a world where children are blighted at birth by drugs, internet conspiracy theories, racist dogma and general lies. He can’t save everyone but he just might salvage the kid with the paint can. The story of how he goes about that takes him into a twisted world that is the destruction of the natural Eden Montana might have been or could have become.

All James Lee Burke’s immense talents are on display in this book, which I found far too short. I could have dwelled here for another 200 pages of his soft purring prose and wonderful story of redemption and salvation. As for the ghosts, well, I grew up in Burke’s American South where the long-passed were recalled on a daily basis. They gave us comfort and joy. This book is dedicated to Burke’s daughter Pamala, who died 2020, and, like her spirit, will last as long as someone remembers.


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Give Unto Others

By Donna Leon, Atlantic Monthly Press, 304 pages

With more than 30 books under her belt, Donna Leon could be slacking off in quality by now. Most series authors do at some point but that’s not the case here. Far from being a weak version of her beloved Brunetti, this is one of her strongest works.

As always with Leon, Venice itself is a major character and we are in a Venice unlike any other. The pandemic has hollowed out Serenissima: beloved shops are gone; fine restaurants have closed; the tourists, both needed and hated, have not yet returned. As Brunetti walks to work, he stops to relish a Venetian streetscape – “To stop and gaze at beauty had not been possible in the recent past when he and all those who still had to go to their places of work did so with great caution. Now, it’s possible to choose a route for pleasure and not for fear.”

That clash of pleasure and loss is the backdrop for this story of a woman who fears for her daughter and contacts Brunetti for private help. Is her daughter in danger? The woman, Elisabetta Foscarini, once lived above Brunetti and her mother was very kind to his. That simple recollection is enough for Brunetti to enlist his friends and their talents to research possible problems that Foscarini’s daughter, Flora, may have. Not much turns up but then violence intrudes and, as Venice’s winter chill comes, so do revelations that keep Brunetti chasing the answer to the Foscarini puzzle. The pace of this novel is slow and stately but save it for the weekend when you don’t have to put it down even for a meal.


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Bad Actors

By Mick Herron, Soho Press, 360 pages

Jackson Lamb and the Slow Horses are back. If you don’t know what that means, then you’ve missed one of the best spy caper series of this century. Eight novels in, Herron’s Slough House books prove he’s one of the best and wittiest writers to follow in the tradition of Len Deighton and John le Carré.

While you can drop into the Slough House world in this book, I’d advise you to read the entire series in order, beginning with Slow Horses. By Bad Actors, we are well into the characters and setting – Lamb, his icy superior, Diana Taverner, various slimy politicians and the Horses themselves; Lech, Roddy Ho, Catherine, Louisa and the smart but luckless River. The Horses are failed spies who have been banished to Lamb’s dungeon and condemned to do endless irrelevant tasks until they quit or die from boredom. They dream of miracles that will return them to the halls of MI5 and relevance. This time out, it’s finding a missing government researcher who may not be missing at all. Naturally, politics are at play – a nasty unelected apparatchik is involved – and there are, eventually, Russians. The twists and fights are both bloody and funny and done with Herron’s own spy lingo, which gives it all panache. In short, a delight.


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The Children On The Hill

By Jennifer McMahon, Scout Press, 352 pages

How do you make a monster? The most famous one, Frankenstein, was built piecemeal from dead bodies and then shocked to life by electricity. He is the creature with no name but is he responsible for his crimes? Or is it his creator? That’s the underlying story of this terrific tale by McMahon, which has so many twists, a pretzel seems straight.

We begin in 1978 in Vermont at a renowned private psychiatric clinic. Dr. Helen Hildreth heads the clinic and, in her free time, looks after her orphaned grandchildren, Violet and Eric. One day, Dr. Hildreth brings home a strange mute child named Iris. It’s clear that terrible things have happened to Iris and Dr. Hildreth tells her grandchildren that they should treat Iris as a sister, accept her into their games, share their secrets. Soon, Iris is responding. Then it all comes tumbling down.

Cut to 2019 and podcaster and monster-hunter Lizzy Shelley is on the trail of a killer she believes to be her sister, cut off from her decades ago. Police don’t believe Shelley’s tale of a series of murdered girls, preferring to think they’re dealing with a batch of runaways but Shelley is convinced that she knows who and, perhaps, why. Told in different times and with several different narrators, this is a finely crafted and haunting novel of the tricks memory can play as well as the impulses that drive us to uncover secrets that lie in the psyche.


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Watch Out for Her

By Samantha M. Bailey, Simon & Schuster, 336 pages

The creepy crawly novel of psychological suspense requires solid characters, a good setting and, above all, a soundly scary premise. Toronto author Samantha Bailey provided all that and more in her debut book, A Woman on the Edge. This follow-up shows that Bailey is no one-book-wonder. It’s as tightly plotted and skillfully written as her first, with a great backstory to carry it off.

Sarah Goldman and her family have just moved into a new neighborhood in a new city a long, long way from her past. What Sarah is fleeing is the memory of last summer when she hired, Holly Monroe, a pretty young childminder to share the care of her son, Jacob. It all seemed perfect. Holly wanted a substitute mother, Sarah wanted a bit of freedom, Jacob adored her. But it all went wrong and now Sarah is far away, building a life in a new place where it seems the neighbours are always watching out for each other. But then Sarah uncovers spyware in her home. Just who is watching her? And why?

Bailey builds the suspense here with excellent pacing and clues that drop at exactly the right time. This is a great book to take on that summer holiday or the cottage weekend when all you have to do is chill, eat and read.


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Outside

By Ragnar Jonasson, translated by Victoria Cribb, Minotaur, 352 pages

Jonasson is emerging as one of the hot writers of icy Nordic Noir. Snowblind, his first novel in translation, introduced Ari Thor, local cop in rural Iceland’s far north. That series has continued but Outside is a standalone novel of suspense where the villain isn’t just human, it’s also a blizzard that plays havoc with the lives of four university friends on a survival weekend.

Armann, Daniel, Helena, and Gunnlaugur are thirty-something friends on a nature hunt for ptarmigan. Each has a different reason for being on the hunt but all are united by Armann, the most experienced outdoorsman of the group. Daniel is an ex-pat actor living in London. Helena is a grieving widow. And Gunnlaugur is the outsider, a disciple of Armann, a hanger-on to the rest.

As the group head for the ptarmigan grounds on Iceland’s remote eastern moors, a surprise blizzard catches them. Cut off, they head for one of the survival huts provided for the purpose but when they arrive, the first of many surprises awaits them. As the blizzard and the weekend progress, we learn more and more about the quartet and what binds them together. Jonasson cleverly takes us into the mind of each, telling us just what we need to know, from the vantage point of that character, until a complete story emerges.

The only problem with this novel, and it’s not really as major as it sounds, is that Helena, Daniel, Armann and Gunnlaugur turn out to be rather unlikable people. On the other hand, if they were really charming, we’d be bored waiting for something to happen. Turns out people with tricky pasts make better books.

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