Lies That Bind, Penelope Williams (Dundurn)
Penelope Williams’s superb debut mystery is one of those books you don’t want to put down. From the opening, as the small town of Parnell, Ont., awaits a storm they call the Fist of God, we are caught in an atmosphere of suspense that keeps the story moving. The storm ends with a death, surely an act of God. The corpse – Bobby (Dominique) Connolly – is universally despised even by his own family. But other deaths come that aren’t so convenient or so easily solved. What is happening in this small town? Williams deftly builds the place (she hails from Westport, Ont.) and fills it with remarkably engaging characters, such as Tulla Murphy, who returns from years away at medical school yet doesn’t seem to be a doctor. Then there’s Kat – the local girl who stayed in town and made good running its diner. Another major character, Mikhail, went off to a great career but has now returned to town to do genetic research on Alzheimer’s patients. These and several other minor characters provide fascinating back stories as the clues begin to appear.
Murdered Midas, Charlotte Gray (HarperCollins)
Some real-life murders are as good as fictional ones: The 1943 killing of Sir Harry Oakes, at his home in the Bahamas, was one of those. It not only has the fascinating story of Oakes, “the richest man in the Empire," but also a suspect list that could have been created by Agatha Christie (assorted servants and hangers-on, along with his son-in-law Count Alfred de Marigny). In the background were the strange machinations of the governor of the Bahamas, ex-king Edward VIII, now known as the Duke of Windsor, who ordered in the Miami police to investigate. It was followed by a sensational trial and the discovery that Oakes’s millions had disappeared and it’s a crime that, to this day, remains unsolved.
Charlotte Gray, one of Canada’s finest social historians, resurrects Oakes before his death, giving us a grand picture of the Ontario gold mining rush in all its shabby glory. She also attempts, fairly successfully, to solve the mystery of who killed Oakes. But the bigger mystery of what happened to his millions appears to have died with him. This is superior true-crime writing and if you’ve got a Canadian history buff on your list, this is the perfect gift.
Many Rivers To Cross, Peter Robinson (McClelland & Stewart)
Detective-inspector Alan Banks is back in his 26th book and, once again, Peter Robinson turns in a terrific police procedural as the team follows up the stabbing death of an immigrant boy and the overdose death of a homeless person. The two seem unrelated but Banks has a hunch and it will take good old-fashioned investigative techniques to prove it. It’s this attention to clues and questions that makes Robinson a favourite with British mystery fans. He never cheats by leaving bits out and each turn in a case is rigorously investigated, even if it’s a seemingly useless trail. After two dozen books, Robinson has lost none of his originality and timeliness, either. Many Rivers to Cross isn’t his best book but it’s certainly one of the top five.
Woman On The Edge, Samantha M. Bailey (Simon & Schuster)
This debut novel by Toronto-based author/journalist Samantha Bailey has a stunning opener. Morgan Kincaid, widow of a disgraced hedge-fund manager, is standing listlessly on the subway platform when an obviously disturbed woman with a small baby accosts her. “Please take my baby, “ she pleads and attempts to hand the infant over. Morgan does what anyone would – she tries to talk the woman around but there’s no stopping her, then, in one horrible moment, the train approaches, and “Morgan,” the woman says and tosses the baby. In the seconds it takes Morgan to grab the child, the woman goes off the platform onto the tracks and under the train. Morgan is left with the infant, the sure knowledge that she has never seen the woman before and one single clue; a post-it with the name “Amanda.”
If all of Woman On The Edge was as good as this opening, we’d have a sure winner but this is a first novel with some first-novel flaws. Told in alternating voices, Bailey falls into some clichés to define character and the plot-line runs out too soon. But these are minor blips. Bailey has talent and I, dear reader, am looking forward to her next novel.
The Lying House, Rick Mofina (Mira)
Rick Mofina’s métier is the novel for airports, motel stays and dreary winter nights. He delivers drama, some scares, a good plotline and characters good enough to deserve the action. This novel is no different: The story begins in Cleveland where Lisa Taylor lives a good life with great job, plenty of friends and a romantic marriage to Jeff, the man of her dreams. Then Jeff gets the opportunity that’s too good to turn down. It means leaving Cleveland and all their ties but Jeff really wants it and Lisa wants to support him, so the couple heads for the new opportunity and the bright lights of Miami Beach. The golden opportunity has a dark side, of course. Jeff and Lisa are hardly moved in to their luxurious new digs when there’s a house invasion. The criminal gets away but not after holding a knife to a terrified Lisa. The event casts a pall on her life and she can’t get rid of the feeling that she’s being watched and, increasingly isolated, she begins to question everyone and everything, including Jeff. Is she suffering from PTSD or is there something really scary going on? This is a compulsively readable tale.
Highway OF Tears, Jessica McDiarmid (Doubleday Canada)
I don’t often write about true crime because it’s ugly. In fiction, writers can clean up the mess, uncover the clues, solve the mystery and leave the world a better place. True crime doesn’t work that way and this book is a classic example of why it doesn’t. The victims are dead or missing. Their murders are not solved and, in some cases, their bodies aren’t even found. They died on a lonely highway in British Columbia known as Highway 16 or, as it’s now famously called, the Highway of Tears, because of the many women who have disappeared on it. Jessica McDiarmid, a journalist specializing in human rights stories, spent years digging into the lives and deaths of the women and, while she solved no crimes, she does bring the dead back to life long enough for us to see them as people instead of victims.
McDiarmid has reconstructed lives impacted by poverty and addiction, discovered hopes and families torn apart and joined in healing events to restore the dead to their communities in this skillfully written and carefully researched book. There is more than a touch of the polemic in her prose but it doesn’t tarnish the essential tale of these women who died alone on the road while being “overpoliced and underprotected,” as she puts it. This isn’t a nice book with a tidy end but it is a bracing look at a national problem that is well-written and includes touching photographs of the now-remembered.
A Devious Dame, Chris Laing (Amazon eBook)
I couldn’t find a print edition of this terrific little historical mystery but fans shouldn’t sniff at the e-book. The year is 1948 and the place is Hamilton, Ont. The world is buzzing with postwar prosperity and private detective Max Dexter and his partner, Isabel O’Brien, are busy with divorces and searches when an abandoned boy turns up. Can the couple find the kid’s mother? Laing has a deft ear for forties lingo and a great eye for the small details that make a historical novel truly great. Anyone from Hamilton will get a kick out of the old places and names along with the really solid historical feel. If you like this one, there are three more earlier Max Dexters also available from Amazon.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.